I awoke in the dark in Rome to feel the bed rocking lightly from top to bottom. It lasted longer than seemed natural. An open door swung gently. I knew it was an earthquake, but it seemed mild and eventually I rolled over and went back to sleep. In the morning, while groping about in the dark for my running shoes, I decided to quickly google it on my phone to see if I had dreamt it entirely. I looked up the word for earthquake in Italian as I assumed that I would be reading a local newspaper. Terremoto. No need. As we all sadly know now, the earthquake was very real and it was anything but gentle.
Less than 6 months ago, my boyfriend and I visited the Amatrice and Norcia area and basked in its mountainous beauty. It is a magical place. I took almost 400 pictures that weekend that have mysteriously disappeared from my photo library. I’m devastated, but my dark visual hole is of course nothing compared to the real devastation this powerful earthquake wrought on these ancient, mountain towns.
Overwhelmed by heat and life and sun and all that is Rome in August, my boyfriend and I hopped a plane last weekend and fled to Germany where a mini Bavarian road trip seemed in tall order. Stepping off the plane into the fresh and heavily forested air that surrounds Munich, I immediately reached for a long sleeve shirt and questioned my decision to wear sandals, but not my decision to jump ship for a refreshing weekend up north.
Our quest? Beer. And sausages. And pretzels. My boyfriend has become quite the beer connoisseur and I’m learning a lot by tagging along. In Franconia in Bavaria, I fell for the smoked beer he introduced me to, known as rauchbier in German where rauch means smoky. Rauchbier is an old-style beer which gets its smokiness from drying malt over burning beech wood. Beer was often originally made this way, but as technology evolved, the smoking was done away with, as was the distinctive smoky flavor. Fortunately, they kept burning beech to make beer in the Franconian city of Bamberg in Bavaria, perfecting a modern version and creating a local classic still produced by several breweries.
I’m always trying to learn more about Italian food and how to prepare it and have found myself turning to a few key cookbooks in recent years, often beginning research in one of my favorite Italian cookbooks, Le Ricotta Regionali Italiane by Anna Gosetti della Salda. Published in the 1960s and available only in Italian, this comprehensive cookbook conveniently divides recipes by region and is very well indexed, something I don’t think can be said about a great deal of cookbooks.
Of course, whether talking about ingredients, preparations or culinary history, there is never one right answer in Italian cooking. I therefore always rely on several sources and have found myself often relying on a favorite Italian pasta cookbook adapted for a non-Italian audience, Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way which was written by an Italian food historian, Oretta Zanini de Vita and a food writer who moved to Rome from the States several decades ago, Maureen B. Fant. As a cookbook, it is well-written and practical for any level cook, providing just about everything one needs to know to begin to make and serve traditional Italian pasta, from where to source ingredients to the culinary history behind a dish to proper pasta etiquette. The crafty and amusing writing also holds its own outside of the kitchen too.
What happens when a burgeoning craft beer movement finds itself situated smack-dab in the middle of wine land? Yep, grapes are going to inevitably end up in the beer. The Italian Grape Ale or IGA pictured below is produced by one of my favorite brewers, LoverBeer in Piedmont in northern Italy and is made with crushed and de-stemmed Barbera grapes and aged in wood. Like Lambic beers, the process relies on spontaneous fermentation and no yeast is added. While it is quite strong at 8% alcohol, it is also fresh and fruity, and it does taste a bit like wine.
This Sicilian eggplant pasta sauce hails from the city of Catania which sits on the east coast of Sicily at the foot of the active volcano Mount Etna. Although the pasta’s name is often attributed to the opera Norma written by the famous Catanese composer, Vincenzo Bellini, the name is alleged by many to have actually been based on a famous playwright’s proclamation upon first tasting the pasta dish that it was a marvel, using the Catanese word norma for marvel.
Eggplant season comes but once a year and conveniently arrives along with tomatoes. Parmigiana di melanzane or eggplant parmesan in English is a classic summertime dish that takes full advantage of this well-timed culinary tryst and which is a staple in several Italian locales, including Naples and Sicily. In some versions it is made with slices of hard boiled eggs and in one Sicilian version, an indulgent layer of chocolate. The rumor is that it’s name comes not from the Parmigiano cheese sprinkled amongst the royal purple rounds of eggplant, but rather from the act of layering itself. Palmigiana is apparently a Sicilian word for shutter and the name is believed by many to have come from the way the many layers of this dish resemble the shutters on a window.
If just four short years ago you had asked what I thought about the prospect of living in Italy, I would have considered it a wonderful idea, while also conceding that I had never considered it. Well almost never. I do hold one distinct memory of my very first trip to Europe as a young 20 year-old bound for Oxford University. Italy itself overwhelmed me and as my brother and I parted ways with Venice and headed north by train, I caught a glimpse of a young dark haired couple embracing over a green suitcase outside a station. For an instant, I saw love and Italy and fairy tales all wound up in this one symbolic gesture, but reality quickly and chaotically intruded—I was actually quite physically ill at the time—and we raced away across the border to Switzerland. I wouldn’t return for 15 years.
The tomato is of course not indigenous to Italy. Native to the Peruvian Andes, cultivated in Mexico and ever so slowly introduced into European culinary traditions before succeeding to its rightful Italian throne, the tomato was by no means an overnight success. Nevertheless, once the Italian culinary tradition got a hold of the “golden apple” or pomodoro as the tomato is known in Italian, they owned it.
Like the tomato, beer has also made a gradual entrance into Italian food and drink culture. The Roman Empire was not without it and considering how well it goes with pizza, its been around and appreciated for quite some time. However, the strong experimental beer movement Italy is becoming famous for had a late start in the mid-1990s. In a landscape laden with grape vines, its not difficult to speculate as to why.
After reveling in the quiet of a Vermont spring for almost three months now, wining and dining with family and friends and unearthing stories and flavors for the Craft di Gusto cookbook project, its time for me to head back to Europe. Next weekend, I am Rome bound to begin a new food adventure as a web editor for the Forestry Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations based in Rome–and to see my boyfriend for the first time in months. Yay.
While listening to a gentle spring breeze patiently rustle the leaves outside my childhood bedroom window in Vermont, I’ve been fantasizing about what I’m going to eat first when I’m back under that hot Roman sun. Here is a list of a few restaurants I’ve been contemplating for that fast approaching first supper, or as my list seems to convey, here is where I plan to get my pasta on.
Once upon a time as a high school student in Vermont, I won a local scholarship to take a summer trip with Earthwatch, an international nonprofit that sends travelers into the field with scientists to promote sustainable environmental practices. The anonymous donor chose to send me to the wilds of Ontario, Canada to research ancient red and white pine trees. I boarded a plane for the first time in my life to get there and spent several magical weeks being lulled to sleep by the gentle rustle of quaking aspens, replacing morning showers with chilly lake plunges, scampering through ancient pine forests and navigating the shores of pristine lakes by canoe. Our primary task was to identify plants in both ancient forests and forests that had been replanted by lumber companies in order to quantify the loss of biodiversity.