Why Italians Love to Talk about Foodby Elena Kostioukovitch
Italians love to talk about food. The aroma of a simmering ragú, the bouquet of a local wine, the remembrance of a past meal: Italians discuss these details as naturally as we talk about politics or sports, and often with the same flared tempers. In Why Italians Love to Talk About Food, Elena Kostioukovitch explores the phenomenon/i>/i>/i>
Italians love to talk about food. The aroma of a simmering ragú, the bouquet of a local wine, the remembrance of a past meal: Italians discuss these details as naturally as we talk about politics or sports, and often with the same flared tempers. In Why Italians Love to Talk About Food, Elena Kostioukovitch explores the phenomenon that first struck her as a newcomer to Italy: the Italian "culinary code," or way of talking about food. Along the way, she captures the fierce local pride that gives Italian cuisine its remarkable diversity. To come to know Italian food is to discover the differences of taste, language, and attitude that separate a Sicilian from a Piedmontese or a Venetian from a Sardinian. Try tasting Piedmontese bagna cauda, then a Lombard cassoela, then lamb ala Romana: each is part of a unique culinary tradition.
In this learned, charming, and entertaining narrative, Kostioukovitch takes us on a journey through one of the world's richest and most adored food cultures. Organized according to region and colorfully designed with illustrations, maps, menus, and glossaries, Why Italians Love to Talk About Food will allow any reader to become as versed in the ways of Italian cooking as the most seasoned of chefs. Food lovers, history buffs, and gourmands alike will savor this exceptional celebration of Italy's culinary gifts.
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Why Italians Love to Talk About Food
By Elena Kostioukovitch, Anne Milano Appel
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2006 Elena Kostioukovitch
All rights reserved.
Friuli Venezia Giulia
The mark of the ancient Roman Julian clan is concealed twice in the name of this region. The word "Friuli" is derived from forum Julii. Proud of its distant conquest, ancient Rome aspired to affirm its supremacy in this province for eternity, through its constructions and laws, and through the imperial name. Nevertheless, the allure of this outlying area lies in its non-Roman character, its spotty Slavic nature resulting from its proximity to the Balkans. Notices written in Latin letters here often have a Slavic resonance. Bread (the principal food of all Slavic peoples) sometimes makes a fine showing in the center of the table and sometimes disappears entirely from daily use. At country fairs, sometimes wheat is sold, sometimes corn. In one village they eat pagnotte, round loaves; in a neighboring village, polenta.
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In the Roman era and in the Middle Ages, Friuli Venezia Giulia was dominated by the opulent city of Aquileia, which abounded in mosaics and was rich with gold. Founded in A.D. 181, Aquileia was the center of all maritime trade between Italy, the East, and northern Europe. Consular roads leading to the Balkans passed through here, and via its port amber was imported into the Roman world. It was amber that allowed the already vast range of the local artisans' products to be expanded. In some towns in Friuli (for example, in Spilimbergo, which is known as "the City of the Mosaic" and which still houses the Scuola Mosaicisti of Friuli, an instructional center of worldwide repute), the art of inlay and mosaics flourished, and has been handed down to our day. This art is even applied to small pieces of jewelry, but above all to the creation of street mosaic painting. The basic material for the mosaics was right under the ancients' feet: the yellow gravel of the Meduna River; the black, green, and red gravel of the Tagliamento; and the white gravel of the Cosa. Wonderful piazzas and terraces were made in Friuli Venezia Giulia with these stones, and with imported materials as well: blue cobblestones from Ireland, black ones from Belgium, and red ones from the Pyrenees. Friulian mosaicists acquired their reputation in the Roman era, but little has changed in the sixteen hundred years since the fourth-century pavements of Braida Murada, recently restored, were created. While stonecutters and laborers from the Spilimbergo area were summoned to work in many Italian and European cities toward the end of the seventeenth century, in the twentieth century they created famous mosaics throughout Europe (for example, in the Paris Opera House) and even overseas (St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City).
Trieste, an open city and free port from time immemorial, is the capital of Friuli Venezia Giulia, but it has some difficulty fitting in with the rest of the region. Trieste has its own psychology and traditions, associated mainly with the memory of its role as an important center of Mitteleuropean culture in the period in which it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The symbolic center of the actual place is represented, one might say, not by Trieste, but rather by the ghost of Aquileia. Though it no longer exists today, in the days of ancient Rome this city that arose on the muddy banks of the Grado Lagoon was the chief town of the province Venetiae et Histriae. Later on, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Aquileia was transformed into a bastion for the young Christian communities and the main transit point for pilgrims heading to Rome on foot. The lagoon offered protection from bandits and from religious persecutions. During the first raids of the Huns, the inhabitants of Aquileia hid on the islands in the surrounding marshes, where they were able to live on eels, crayfish, frogs, marsh birds, and monk-fish. The marshes could offer shelter for months and years. The fugitives ate fish, used fish fat for lighting and heating, and covered their boats with fish skin, symbolically uniting in daily life the fish as the ideal symbol of Christianity and as a mainstay for survival in years of scarcity.
As a center of early European Christianity, Aquileia was comparable in importance to Ravenna or Milan. In 381 it was the site of the famous council in which St. Ambrose, having come from Milan, denounced the Arian heresy. Thenceforth the diocese of Aquileia took the name "Veneziana," and in the fifth century escaped from Rome's dominion at almost the same time as the exarchate of Ravenna. The city was thus transformed into a territory of Byzantium. But in 590 Gregory the Great, now pope, decided to take remedial measures and sent a regular army against the separatist city. The region later became filled with schismatics, who played hide-and-seek among the small islands scattered throughout the lagoon. Later, when the period of pilgrimages and jubilees arrived (that is, from the eleventh to the fifteenth century) all of eastern Europe landed in Aquileia, continuing on to Rome on foot. The city was the first point of entry for the pilgrims, who organized themselves and coordinated the logistics of their journey. There were periods when the patriarch of Aquileia, head of the diocese of Venice, was no less influential than the pontiff of Rome.
In the eighteenth century Friuli Venezia Giulia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it is natural to look for the bygone Mitteleuropean greatness of the Hapsburgs there. But much more discernible in the character of this area is the mark of that lengthy period from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century when the region was under the dominion of neighboring Venice.
Controlling the seas, constantly seizing new islands and founding new colonies, Venice was not too concerned about the well-being of those who had been easily and quickly subjugated in its own backyard. On the continent, in fact, it limited itself to constructing new military strongholds in areas with few prospects, such as Palmanova, a unique architectural complex built in 1593 by the best Venetian strategists, engineers, architects, and historians of fortification. Designed according to plans developed by city planners of the Renaissance, the city still preserves the form of a perfect nine-point star, surrounded by three orders of bastions: two rows of walls erected by the Venetians, and a third added in the Napoleonic era.
The Friulians were of interest to the Venetians mainly as manpower, to be employed in the construction of the capital and as potential recruits in Venice's war against the Ottomans. The consequences were devastating. Without a government and without organization, the Friulians soon experienced desolation and neglect, hunger and poverty, with uncultivated fields and a declining population that would perhaps have been extinguished entirely had it not been saved by corn in that period (see "The Early Gifts from the Americas"). Imported from the New World, easily cultivated and nutritious, corn spread throughout Friuli Venezia Giulia during the last quarter of the sixteenth century.
Polenta is still consumed daily in Gorizia, Udine, and Cortina d'Ampezzo, although there was a time when it had a very bad reputation. In the eighteenth century the population of northern Italy, which consumed polenta almost exclusively, fell ill with pellagra. Goethe, traveling in Italy between 1786 and 1788, diagnosed the cause of the peasants' poor health with a clinical eye:
I believe that their unhealthy condition is due to their constant diet of maize and buckwheat, or, as they call them, yellow polenta and black polenta. These are ground fine, the flour is boiled in water to a thick mush and then eaten. In the German Tirol they separate the dough into small pieces and fry them in butter, but in the Italian Tirol the polenta is eaten just as it is or sometimes with a sprinkling of grated cheese. Meat they never see from one year's end to the other. Such a diet makes the bowels costive, especially in children and women, and their cachectic complexion is evidence of the damage they do themselves.
Nowadays polenta is consumed more wisely, as if people were heeding Goethe's warnings: once cooked, it is toasted and served with salami, cheese, fish, and meat, thereby preventing the risk of vitamin deficiency and consequently of pellagra.
Frico (fresh Montasio cheese fried in butter, with potatoes or onions) is a regional specialty known throughout Italy. In the morning, before leading the cattle out to pasture, farm wives would leave potatoes and cheese rinds from the day before on a heated shelf above the stove: thus the leftovers of yesterday's supper were transformed into an excellent meal for today. Stoves in Friulian peasant homes are distinct: round, located in the center of the room, their perimeter surrounded by two copper shelves, one higher than the other. The shelves are heated by the central fire, but not intensely, just enough so that food on the lower shelf does not get cold and food on the upper shelf cooks very gradually, for many hours or sometimes for entire days.
Climatic peculiarities naturally influenced the local temperament. Friuli Venezia Giulia has the longest, snowiest winters in Italy, so the inhabitants distracted themselves by taking advantage of the most accessible raw materials and specializing in woodworking, primarily the production of chairs. Nearly all the chairs exported from Italy are manufactured in the areas of Mariano and Manzano, in Friuli. Artisans busy making a chair are portrayed on the sarcophagus of the eighth-century Lombard king Ratchis in the cathedral of Cividale del Friuli, while several documents preserved in the archives of the Doge's Palace in Venice attest to the fact that Friulian woodworkers were invited to the lagoon city from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries to produce chairs and seats for chambers in which audiences were held. Today there are approximately two hundred chair factories in the area and a monument ten meters tall, dedicated to the chair, stands at the entry to Manzano, near Udine, bearing the inscription: welcome to the chair capital! Less important economically, but characteristic nevertheless, is another product of Friulian woodworking: the nutcracker.
In order to ensure the necessary supplement to their rather monotonous diet, Friulian peasant families in the poorest wooded areas (especially those in the hills, where oaks, chestnuts, and hazelnut trees grow) always raised a pig. The animal roamed freely, feeding on acorns and chestnuts. Friulian pigs, rightly considered quality specimens, are fed today with whey (a by-product of local dairy farming), marc (a byproduct of the local wine industry), and also, of course, corncobs.
The butchering of the pig is still of fundamental importance in the daily life of the countryside. This is the most important event for both the family and the entire region: children stay home from school to attend it, and the adults take a day off. Family and neighbors await the great moment: the arrival of the purcitar, the itinerant swine butcher. First the pig's throat is surgically slit; then the animal is placed on a workbench to allow the blood to drain. Meanwhile the excitement grows all around. It is necessary to proceed quickly, since the intestines and blood must be processed within a day. The farmers roast tasty blood sausages and make a sweet bread with blood and cracklings (pan de frizze dolce).
In San Daniele del Friuli they age one of the two most famous prosciutti crudi (uncooked, cured prosciutto) in Italy, the San Daniele to be precise, which is eaten with figs or melon and is the subject of much romantic admiration. In Carnia, in the extreme north of Friuli, speck (smoked ham) and Montasio cheese are produced. This cow's milk cheese, aged from two to several years, was developed by Benedictine monks in the twelfth century for pilgrims who, traveling to Rome along the Aquileia road, needed provisions that were not perishable (see "Pilgrims").
Local wines considered particularly suited to accompany pork sausage — Collio, Grave del Friuli, and Colli Orientali — are among Italy's best white wines. In order to maintain their prestige, the state limits the area of the vineyards. Wine in Venezia Giulia and in Friuli is an indispensable accompaniment to human relationships, a cardinal element of the ritual of the tajut (little drink). The Friulian who has concluded his workday and wants to enjoy some well-earned relaxation sits in front of the entrance of a bar and invites acquaintances passing by to drink a little glass with him. This is a unique aspect of the richness and quality of social life: "The glasses are tiny, friendship is big." The wine is usually accompanied by pinze (focaccias) and presnitz (cakes of walnuts, raisins, and candied fruit).
It is common knowledge throughout the world that the Friulians distill exclusive grappas (in this area Friuli vies with Piedmont). The production of grappas in these parts is viewed as an aesthetic process. Elegant flasks and goblets in thin blown glass, intended for the bottling and sampling of grappas, are manufactured both in the region itself and in the workshops of Murano. A dazzling container with grappa, enclosed in a wooden case and displayed in the window of a fashionable bar in Rome or Milan, can cost as much as five hundred or a thousand euros — or as much as the vendor has the nerve to ask.CHAPTER 2
The word sagra (plural sagre) derives from the Latin sacrum: its early meaning refers to a popular festival dedicated to the patron saint of the village or town. But the sagra can also be a celebration of a certain dish or product, of a vegetable or fruit, of a wine, of a type of preparation, even of a specific part of the beef or lamb. In this way tribute is paid to the specialties (roast chestnuts, strawberries, frog's legs fried in batter) for which a particular village or city is renowned.
To mention a few at random: in the little Sicilian town of Ribera (Agrigento) in April, a lively orange sagra takes place (similar to the battle of the oranges at the Carnival of Ivrea): the participants cheerfully throw oranges at one another, race on oranges, slip and fall, and even get hurt. A sagra in honor of gnocchi is held in June at Castel del Rio, near Bologna. In July, in Tropea, there's the sagra of "blue fish" (oily fish) and red onion. In July, in Castelfiumanese, the sagra of the apricots. In August, in Norcia, the famous lentils of Castelluccio are honored, and in Eboli, the local mozzarellas. In the village of Albanella in the province of Salerno, the sagra of the pizza is organized in August. In August, Sardinia celebrates the sagra of the tomato (in Zeddiani, in the province of Oristano) and the sagra of Vernaccia wine (in Nurachi, also in the province of Oristano). Many arrive dressed in traditional costumes. These are rowdy festivals, with music and dancing. In San Damiano d'Asti, in September, there's the sagra of boiled meats. In the fall, in Marradi, near Florence, the chestnut sagra. Torrone (almond nougat) is the star of the November sagra in Cremona and the December one in Faenza. The radicchio sagra is the main event of the month of December in Treviso. A national exhibit of "meditation wines" takes place in Mantua, in the Palazzo Ducale, on the last weekend of April, and on the second weekend of the same month the "Festival of Lost Flavors" is held in Zerbolò, near Pavia.
Excerpted from Why Italians Love to Talk About Food by Elena Kostioukovitch, Anne Milano Appel. Copyright © 2006 Elena Kostioukovitch. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Elena Kostioukovitch was born in Kiev in 1958, studied in Russia, and moved to Italy in 1988. She is an essayist, translator, and literary agent. Her 1988 translation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose was a literary sensation in Russia and led to a longtime collaboration with Eco. Since 1988, she has been the editor of the Russian series for Bompiani/RCS Publishers, and, since 1996, of a series from Edizioni Frassinelli. She isthe recipient of numerous prizes, including the Welcome Prize (2006), given by the Russian National Association of Restaurateurs. In 2006 Kostioukovitch published Perche agli Italiani piaci parlare del cibo (Why Italians Love to Talk About Food). A bestseller in Italy and Russia, the book received the Bancarella della Cucina award and the Chiavari Literary Award in 2007. Kostioukovitch lives with her husband and two children in Milan.
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