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Archive for March, 2010

We’re in Florence.  Today’s my birthday.  Yesterday we went to the famous gelateria Vivoli.  I know I should have tried the cinnamon-orange, but I can’t give up an opportunity to savor one of the nutty flavors I love so much.  Yesterday I went for the classic nocciolo—hazelnut.  Jack had a puckering cup of limone mixed with fragola (strawberry, but the word always reminds me of “Fraggle Rock”).  Jack also got a big kick out of the address of the gelateria, in Isola delle Stinche.  Stinky—ha ha ha! (He’s just about five, so that’s the height of humor.)

Last night we took a chance on a restaurant, and it turned out to be an enjoyable meal.  The highlights were the antipasto dish of fagioli con bottarga, and the Florentine steak, which my mom, Peter, and I all ordered.  It was rubbed with rosemary, grilled rare, sliced thin, and served on a bed of arugula. Perfect.

Pictures will come….

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It was actually pretty chilly, and the sky was gray, but the fruit trees are blooming, the kids are antsy, and everyone just wanted to hang around in the big back garden yesterday.  The grill was going from 11 to 7.

There were pork sausages of all kinds, veal chops, pork chops, lamb shoulder, lamb leg…. Most of us ate bites right off the grill, with our fingers. Yes, it was greasy and brutish and washed down with plenty of beer and 3-Euro wine.  I brought a salad of romaine, treviso, pears, fennel, and walnuts.  No one ate it. Some of the foods were local and artisanal. Others were, well, hot dogs and cream-in-a-can.

We played ping pong, bocce, kickball, and frisbee.

For more pictures, go to my Flickr page.

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After one of the more fantastic of Saturday lunches at the Academy—which included my new favorite twist on panzanella (big olive-oil—or was it chicken fat—soaked bread chunks, radicchio, fennel, pinenuts, and raisins, with it’s delicious balance of bitter and sweet), and chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and violets—Jack felt like sticking around with the kitchen crew.  First, he just wandered from here to there, munching an apple.  Then, Mona asked him if he wanted to help Josh in the garden.  Oh yes!

What are we planting? Cilantro.  Oooohh! That bodes well for spring meals from the RSFP!

I love the little garden house out back here by the olive trees.  The phone actually works.  Now, there is a sense memory from my early childhood—rotary dialing.

New leaves are popping out on the olive trees, and the apple and plum trees are blooming.

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Walking through Rome the other day, I had two missions: get a pizza lunch at Roscioli, and try on some shoes from the list of brands my doctor gave me. It became an emotional journey, with it’s own motifs and atmosphere of ironic pathos that is captured so well in that Dylan song, (which I love in The Band’s rendition) “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” that came to mind when I walked past this scene.

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble;
ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seeing double
on a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs.

This road repair was on the way to Campo di Fiori, where I stopped at the market stall that is the humanized, de-DIY-ified version of what we call “the bulk section.”  The man who runs this stall is a virtuoso of Eur-Anglo languages and regional Italian sauces.  Every time someone stepped up with a bag of herb-pepperoncini mix, he would ask “Inglese, Francais, Espanol, Deutsch?”  I heard him explain in three languages what kind of sauce should be made, and when to add the herbs to the tomato base.

herb blends for sauces

other "bulk" items

From here, I took my prematurely ancient footprints the few blocks to Roscioli, where I saw its sign rising like a beacon on the horizon (and creating a great color juxtaposition with those shutters):

Most days, I eat at the Academy, because it’s right at home and the food is regularly extraordinary.  But sometimes I just get the craving to carry out a sandwiched slice of Roscioli pizza.

My favorite kind is the sauteed, garlicky, salty spinach and mozzarella.  It’s simple, and exquisite, folded in a piece of brown paper.  Often, people stand around these cask & board tables to eat their quick bite.  12:30 was too early for the average Roman, though.

table outside Antico Forno Roscioli

I limped with my lunch toward the Corso, passing on my way the scaffolding-covered Pantheon. (Glad I saw it before those went up.)

And finally, I began my hunt for a better shoe, based on my doctor’s list of brands.  Some of these are quite chi chi, with snooty salespeople to match.  As soon as I was done in the Geox store, for example, having decided that they were all either too stiff for my feet or too flashy for my taste, I became a despicable object of scorn to the saleswoman.  And her store is nothing special next to Hogans, where the staff is even more disdainful, the sequin-studded leather even more attitudinal. I tried on probably 12 pairs.  Someday, I’ll make a decision.

Someday everything’s gonna be different,
when I paint that masterpiece…

When I finish that dissertation? No, I’m not that delusional.  Speaking of that behemoth document, though, here’s my favorite recent piece of Byroniana (which might just be the unintentional irony of the shopkeeper’s name… but I don’t think so).  Right next to the Keats-Shelley museum, in Piazza di Spagna, whose name looms larger than life?  Lord B’s, of course.

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Sunday lunch

Sicilian style, on a sunny Sunday, with Susan Stewart. It was as sumptuous and soothing as all this sibilance might suggest.

Yesterday, we were invited to have lunch with Susan, whom we’ve known mainly through her writing, both poems and literary criticism.  I’ve been spending a lot of time with her book Crimes of Writing in particular, which addresses the literary authenticity scandals of eighteenth-century Britain, a topic close to my dissertation.  At Sunday lunch, however, we talked mostly about Italy and food.  Susan had set a table on the little, plant-festooned balcony of the apartment she rents, the walls of which are lined invitingly with old books and older pictures.

view from the bedroom

While we chatted in the tiny kitchen, Jack explored the apartment.  See him in the window?

He’d found a little library ladder.  What a great piece of furniture!

Meanwhile, Susan was boiling spaghetti and shredding the bottarga, a specialty she’s been serving to her two sons for their birthdays since they came to Rome when they were not much older than Jack.  Bottarga is the salty, pressed, preserved-in-beeswax roe of tuna that Italians serve with lemon as an antipasto or tossed with pasta.  The dish had three ingredients—butter, bottarga, and spaghetti—and was sensational.

Susan then fried up a platter of anchovies, and served them on a bed of arugula with lemon slices.  This dish was followed by a Sicilian salad of blood oranges and marinated black olives. And then we ate Cassata, a Sicilian ricotta cake that’s dotted inside with chocolate chips, iced with dense icing, and decorated with candied fruits.  Needless to say, Jack was a big fan of this part of the meal.

Susan lives right in Piazza San Cosimato, where there’s a playground.  After the meal, we went outside, and eventually walked back up the steps from Trastevere to the Gianicolo, and home.  The sun is so welcome.

Jack took pictures all the way.  He managed to capture a good shot of an acanthus leaf, the variety that tops Corinthian columns, and—gosh!—a good one of his parents.

The rest of this post has nothing to do with food, and is really an unrelated addendum about everyday life in Rome.  The thing about everyday life is that it often throws you into unexpected and odd experiences.  I’ve been having problems with my feet—joint pain (no more 10Ks for me)—so I went to an orthopedist today on the Aventine hill.  I got lost, of course, in the spiderweb-like network of streets, but finally found my destination. I was buzzed in, and walked up the dark stairway of an apartment building that also houses a group of English-speaking doctors.  The whole appointment went as it might have any place in the U.S. (she went into enthusiastic detail, with a skeletal model, of what was wrong with my feet, complimented me on my slow pulse, seemed perversely excited that someone so young should have such problems, and made chit-chat with me about having husbands in the same fields) until the end, which seemed to me to be particularly Italian: the doctor suggested I go shoe shopping, and wrote down a list of brands I should look for!

This appointment was followed by a visit to a clinic run by nuns where I stood like a flamingo on a platform and had my feet x-rayed.  When I got home and told Peter all about it, and that I’d gotten a cortisone shot, he said, “so you’re on steroids?”

But I figure all of this is better—and more interesting—than taking, as some Italians do, a spot of grappa in my coffee every day.

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Last night, Chris and the kitchen crew cooked a delicious meal which included Tuscan beans slowly braised in terra cotta pots in the fireplace.  The beans had an extra depth of flavor that was set off by the sprinkling of fried sage leaves the cooks put on top before serving them.  A perfect, woodsy combination.

Chris, tending the coals

low-tech crock pot

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This one, led again by Pina Pasquantonio, the administrator here at the Academy and a sommelier, took us up several levels from the last one.  We got to taste what I’ve only ever read about, and never expected to taste: “Super Tuscans.”

We began, again, with a spumante: Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Anna Maria Clementi, 2002, named by the current owner for his mother, who founded Ca’ del Bosco, and containing a blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir.  Having spent about six years in the bottle, it was zingy with minerals, fresh and chewy at once, and mouth-cleansing with its vibrant little bubbles.

After a bit of bread with Pina’s homemade olive oil, we moved onto a dense white: Gravner Ribolla Anfora 2004.  Pina led into this wine with its story—which is also the story of its winemaker Francesco Gravner.  He had a successful high-production winery, and was making a nice income, but was dissatisfied.  He went on a research trip to Georgia, where he tasted the local wine made in clay amphorae, the way the Greeks and Romans used to do it.  He came back to his winery in the northeastern Italian Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and began making wine in small batches, with only the best grapes, with the amphora method.  The grapes are gently pressed with an ancient press, and the juice drips through a screen into the amphorae which are lined with beeswax and buried up to their necks in earth.  The juice ferments for seven months underground, and is then decanted into large oak casks and aged for 36 months.  Gravner only decants the wine into bottles during a waning moon, when the planets are properly aligned.  This biodynamism comes through in the bouquet and flavor of this wine, which are vegetal, leathery, and earthy in the most interesting way.  The color of the wine was a gold verging on amber, like a dessert wine, but it was bone dry.

five stunning wines

The next wine, which Leonard exclaimed was “a legendary, rare wine!” was my favorite, but I’ll never be able to buy a bottle because of what is referred to as a prohibitive pricetag: €120.  This was the “Super Tuscan” L’Apparita 2004 by Castello di Ama, made from 100% merlot.  This is a wine that has me bowing down in worship before this much-used, much-maligned grape.  Its color was like a ruby, its bouquet full of leather, dark chocolate, earth, bread baking, sweat, spice, and wood—“sandalwood,” said Pina.  The taste created different sensations all over the mouth, but what made me close my eyes was the anise that lingered in a long, delicate line.

While we sipped and swirled in awed silence, Gianni, Pina’s partner in life and wine, poured out little sips of the two final wines: Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2005 and 2006, Bordeaux-blend Super Tuscans.  They were both completely their own wines.  The 2005 was nuttier, both were complex, but Pina seemed most inspired by the 2006, in which she smelled pine and salty sea spray.

Wow, what a night.

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At a junction of thoughts that represents some substance of my life right now: a chapter in Moby Dick; a talk about food in high art given by Leonard Barkan; the local-food-movement mantra know your food, know your farmer; swimming, during which activity my thoughts form folds with each lap and the thought that my son loves swimming connects to the porpoises on Planet Earth and in Moby Dick, which leads to another branch of my family, those Nantucket whalemen ancestors, who probably dined on whale at some point, and one of whom carved an incredibly intricate scrimshaw fan during those endless hours of calm water.

http://www.artunframed.com/images/boucher3/Are_They_Thinking_About_the_Grape.jpg

Leonard’s talk, “Thinking of the Grapes” (which refers to this painting by François Boucher) was about how food has an ambiguous status in high art, in particular (in this lecture) Renaissance and Baroque painting.  Food is both vividly, sensuously present in all of its particularity of detail, and is officially secondary to the main subject.  Gastronomy falls far below philosophy, theology, astronomy, or love, and yet it obtrudes itself into the artist’s imagination and into the picture and takes on significance as the too-muchness of what we desire and fear of appetite.  It is suppressed, Leonard suggests, because it is just too consuming.

Food enters art more or less smoothly or subversively depending on the culture, the age, the medium, the genre.  Novels—omnivorous gluttons of the details of everyday life that they are—might be expected to contain more food.  Moby Dick has none of the delicacy of Boucher’s lovers feeding each other grapes, and contains a smorgasbord of greasy, glistening, animal food and its bestial eaters.  But the discussion of eating in the chapter “The Whale as a Dish” is not simply a display of macho engorgement.  It has as much ethical, psychological, cultural, socioeconomical, and philosophical penetration as the best thinking about food today, and combines all of these elements in prose more musical, serio-satirical, and strange than anything I’ve read recently.

Here is the chapter.

“The Whale as a Dish”

That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light, as you may say; this seems so outlandish a thing that one must needs go a little into the history and philosophy of it.

It is upon record, that three centuries ago the tongue of the Right Whale was esteemed a great delicacy in France, and commanded large prices there.  Also, that in Henry VIIIth’s time, a certain cook of the court obtained a handsome reward for inventing an admirable sauce to be eaten with barbecued porpoises, which, you remember, are a species of whale.  Porpoises, indeed, are to this day considered fine eating.  The meat is made into balls about the size of billiard balls, and being well seasoned and spiced might be taken for turtle-balls or veal balls.  The old monks of Dunfermline were very fond of them.  They had a great porpoise grant from the crown.

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite.  Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious.  We all know how they live upon whales, and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil.  Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants, as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing.  And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the mould scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber.  Among the Dutch whalemen these scraps are called “fritters”; which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ doughnuts or oly-cooks, when fresh.  They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

But what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish, is his exceeding richness.  He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good.  Look at his hump which would be as fine eating as the buffalo’s (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat.  But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is; like the transparent, half-jellied white meat of a cocoa-nut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter.  Nevertheless, many whalemen have a method of absorbing it into some other substance, and then partaking of it.  In the long try watches of the night it is a common thing for a seaman to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile.  Many a good supper have I thus made.

In the case of a small sperm whale the brains are accounted a fine dish.  The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess, in flavour somewhat resembling calves’ head, which is quite a dish among some epicures; and every one knows that some young bucks among the epicures, by continually dining upon calves’ brains, by and by get to have a little brains of their own, so as to be able to tell a calf’s head from their own heads; which, indeed, requires uncommon discrimination.  And that is the reason why a young buck with an intelligent looking calf’s head before him, is somehow one of the saddest sights you can see.  The head looks a sort of reproachfully at him, with an “Et tu Brute!” expression.

It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned, i.e., that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.  But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does.   Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds.  Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw?  Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?  I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.

But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury, is it?  Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating? And what do you pick your teeth with, after devouring that fat goose?  With a feather of the same fowl.  And with what quill did the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders formally indite his circulars? It is only within the last month or two that that society passed a resolution to patronize nothing but steel pens.

Moby Dick (1851)
Herman Melville

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