Monthly Archives: February 2013

Mangia! Mangia! – Prosciutto & Melon Go Together

One of the most famous Italian food pairing is prosciutto and melon. Prosciutto, pink sapid and dry, is the perfect wrap for the orange, sweet juicy cantaloupe.

Serve the melon peeled and sliced in long crescents with one slice of prosciutto wrapped around each piece to be eaten with a knife and fork. Or wrap a small cube or ball of melon in a tiny sack of prosciutto for perfect finger food.

Melon & Prosciutto - a perfect food pairing
Melon & Prosciutto – a perfect food pairing

The melon must be in season and as sweet as can be.  Prosciutto is always available and it is a matter of taste whether the famous Prosciutto di Parma is selected or the saltier Tuscan variety from the Cinta Sinese pork is desired.

As with all Italian ingredient pairings, no substitutes will do. Don’t wrap a slice of baked Virginia ham or of roasted prosciutto di Praga around a spear of watermelon or a piece of green honeydew melon. The taste will be wrong. The texture will be wrong and the color combination will not delight the Italian eye.

Eating melons without the prosciutto is considered somewhat dangerous to Italians. It comes down to an issue of digestion, as many things do in regard to the Italian Food Rules. If a “cold” food, like melon, is eaten without a “hot” balancing food, like a salty meat or spicy chili peppers, the body is “chilled”, which leads to the dreaded congestione, or at least, indigestion.

There is historical proof for this claim. In July 1471, Pope Paul II died after a dinner consisting of three cantaloupes. The melons were to blame. In 1602, Giacomo della Porta, the architect for another pope, died after reportedly eating too much cantaloupe and watermelon, causing fatal indigestion when his organs became chilled.

The lesson learned from centuries of Italian trial and error: Eat melon with prosciutto for a happy and healthy day.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Mangia! Mangia! – Horsemeat on the Menu and in the Market

The headlines are full of the “horsemeat scandal” raging throughout a number of countries in Europe. But not in Italy. Or, at least, not yet. It is important to keep in mind the scandal is about mislabeling, not about eating horsemeat, per se. Someone is making money from selling a less expensive meat as something it is not. People who eat the mystery meat found in frozen lasagna, rather than making their own with ground meat from a trusted butcher, are waking up to the fact that there is fraud in the food production pipeline that stretches from Eastern Europe to France, Britain, Switzerland, Ireland and Sweden – so far. But that doesn’t mean that people in those countries don’t choose to eat horsemeat.

Frozen lasagna sold by Coop of Switzerland contained horsemeat
Frozen lasagna sold by Coop of Switzerland contained horsemeat

In Europe and Japan, it is a staple and in Sweden horsemeat out-sells mutton and lamb combined. Residents of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malta, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, and Switzerland all consume horsemeat. But Italy surpasses all other countries in the European Union in horsemeat consumption.

The meat itself is similar to beef, although many say it is slightly sweeter in taste (somewhere between beef and venison) and has a less complex flavor. That said, many Italians argue that it is a more healthy option than beef, being both lower in fat and  having a higher content of  protein, iron, Omega-3, Vitamin B-12 and glycogen.

It is an inexpensive meat and used to be the red meat for the poor, but now is consumed by all economic classes. One reason for the increased consumption came about 10 years ago with the fears of BSE (mad cow disease) in beef – the disease is not found in horses.

Various kinds of salmi made with horsemeat.
Various kinds of salmi made with horsemeat.

Don’t worry if you are afraid that you might not recognize the difference between horse and beef in the market. In 1928, Italian legislation was passed to prohibit the sale of horsemeat together with other meats in the same stores. In the big food markets, horse meat is sold at a specialty stand by specialist horse butchers. The Roman Catholic Church prohibited eating horsemeat in the 8th century, and the taboo still remains, but is not followed by many catholic Italians. On a menu, keep an eye out for the words cavallo or equino, and in Sardinia the dialect word for horse is cuaddu.

Horsemeat is used in a variety of Italian recipes: as a stew called pastissada (typical of Verona), served as steaks, as carpaccio (raw), or made into bresaola (cured). Even classic Italian mortadella sausage can be had in a horsemeat variety. Minute shredded strips of salted, dried and smoked horsemeat called sfilacci are popular in the Veneto region. A long-cooked stew called pezzetti di cavallo combines cubed horse meat with tomato sauce, onions, carrots and celery. Horsemeat sausages (salsiccia di equino) and salamis are traditional in northern Italy. In Sardinia, sa petza ‘e cuaddu is one of the most popular meats and sometimes is sold in typical kiosks with bread. Donkey is also cooked, for example as a stew called stracotto d’asino and as meat for sausages e.g. mortadella d’asino. The cuisine of Parma features a horsemeat tartare, called pesto di cavallo, marinated in lemon juice with fresh garlic and chopped parsley.

Horsemeat prepared by a specialty butcher is often served raw.
Horsemeat prepared by a specialty butcher is often served raw.

Today, in Tuscany, consumption of horsemeat is rare, although there is one stand in the Mercato Centrale of Florence where specialty horse butcher, Nicola Ricci, has sold a wide variety of products for decades; as did his father before him. In the 1960s there was a total of five horsemeat stands in the huge Florence market.

Florence has one restaurant, Piazza del Vino, that offers a horse steak. In Lucca, the trattoria Da Giulio, regularly has marinated raw cavallo alla tartara on the menu. Visitors to the north and south of Italy have many more chances to try horsemeat, if they are so inclined. It’s a regional Italian food with a tradition that stretches back through the centuries.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Mangia! Mangia! – Baccalà Binds and Divides Italy

In the U.S. you can count on finding a burger at every truck stop, small town or major city. In the U.K. the same could be said about fish and chips. In Italy, it’s baccalà (salt cod). In the case of hamburgers or fish and chips, the recipe never varies much, but the recipe for salt cod changes drastically from region to region in Italy. Don’t ask for baccalà alla Livornese in Venice or baccalà mantecato in Puglia.

Salt cod can be fried for the Italian version of fish and chips
Salt cod can be fried (served with patate fritte) for the Italian version of fish and chips

It’s not hard to imagine why salt cod became the go-to food around the Italian boot. In times before trucks and refrigeration, the transport of fresh fish was impossible. Despite this fact, the Roman Catholic Church mandated days of abstinence when meat could not be eaten. Salted or dried fish became a Friday and Lenten favorite. It had the added benefit of being very inexpensive and was a protein staple for the poor. Cod boasts remarkable nutritional properties: it contains over 18% protein, which once dried rises to almost 80%.

Salt cod came to the ports of Livorno, Genoa and Naples in the 11th century, brought by Basque sailors, who ventured into the waters of the northern Atlantic, hunting the whales that passed through the Bay of Biscay. They came into contact with the Viking sailors, who dried the fresh-caught cod in the cold dry North Sea winds and then broke it into pieces and chewed it like a biscuit. In the 13th century, the Portuguese, realizing the commercial value of the easily-stored dried fish, cornered the market, sending their ships as far as Greenland. They added salt to dry the fish faster, giving rise to bacalhau (derived from the Latin, meaning “baculus” or stick). They traded salt cod along the western coast of the Italian peninsula.

Fried salt cod simmering in a spicy tomato sauce
Fried salt cod simmering in a spicy tomato sauce

The history of baccalà in Venice only dates back to 1431 when a Venetian ship, laden with spices and 800 barrels of Malvasia wine, departed from the island of Crete under the command of the sea captain Piero Querini, and headed for the North Sea and Flanders. When the ship reached the English Channel, the route was disrupted by a violent storm that, after breaking the rudder, blew the ship north for many days. Boarding lifeboats, the crew (only 14 of 68 survived) landed on the uninhabited rock of Sandoy, in Norway’s northern Lofoten Islands.

For four months, the Venetians lived with the Norwegian fishermen, and learnt the art of preserving cod. Norway’s unique climatic conditions of low temperatures, dry air and a low amount of precipitation were (and still are) perfect for air-drying cod in open tents. Cod preserved in this way can last for years. Captain Querini returned home with sixty dried stockfish. He told the ruling Doges how the Norwegians dried the fish in the wind until it became as hard and then they beat it and spiced it turning it into a soft and tasty mix. The recipe was known by the Spanish words baccalà mantecato (creamed codfish). Querini went back to Norway many times, becoming a major trader in dried and salted codfish.

There are two forms of dried codfish – stockfish and salt cod. Stockfish or stoccafisso is made using the smaller cod, dried on sticks in the cold dry air of Scandinavia, creating a very light, easily transported stick fish, thus the name. Salt cod or baccalà is created from cod, three to six feet long, split, and salted on wood planks for about ten days, thus only partially drying them. Today, all of the stoccafisso and baccalà eaten in Italy comes from Norway.

Salt cod has many of the characteristics of fresh cod, large, soft flakes of succulent, opaque flesh with slightly chewy firm texture from the salting, and not at all fishy in flavor. To prepare it, the cook rinses the salt off it and soaks it in cold water for 12 or more hours, depending upon its thickness, changing the water 2-3 times daily. (Stockfish takes a couple of extra days to rehydrate.) Once it has soaked it is skinned, deboned, and ready to be made into the local recipe.

Bacala alla Livornese ready to serve in Tuscany
Baccalà alla Livornese ready to serve in Tuscany

In Veneto, baccalà is considered a real delicacy: Baccalà alla Vicentina (slowly braised with onions, anchovies and milk) and Baccalà Mantecato (an mashed preparation with extra virgin olive oil, lemon and parsley) are always served with polenta. Some other popular recipes are Baccalà alla Livornese (with tomatoes, garlic, parsley and basil), cooked throughout Tuscany. When in Rome you will find Baccalà Fritto (salt cod chunks fried in a simple egg and flour batter)and Baccalà all’Agro Dolce (with tomatoes, cooked in wine, flavored with red pepper, pine nuts and sultana raisins).

Baccalà alla Pizzaiola (salt cod covered with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, capers, plenty of oregano and baked in the oven) and Baccalà alla Napoletana (the baccalà is fried and then placed in a simmering tomato sauce, with olives, capers and pine nuts), are recipes from Naples. The Neapolitans, even today, boasts the highest consumption of both stockfish and dried salted cod. They claim there are 365 different ways to eat baccalà – one for every day of the year.

As you travel around Italy, ask for baccalà at least once at each stop to taste the true regionalism of  the country.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Italian Food Rules – Italians Only Drink Tea When They Are Sick

Tea drinkers of the U.K. and the U.S. might as well give up the idea of a good “cuppa” in Italy. Italians only drink tea when they are sick – at home.

You can ask for, and receive, hot tea in a coffee bar. First, the barista will give you a searching glance from a distance to see if you are obviously infectious. Then, he will run some hot water out of the coffee machine into a cappuccino-cup. The water will be unfiltered tap water, which may taste great, but in Florence, for example, is highly mineralized, a taste hidden easily by coffee, but not by tea. And, having passed through the coffee machine, the water will have the odor, if not the taste, of stale coffee.

The water may or may not be of sufficient temperature to brew tea from the generic tea bag (or, perhaps, Liptons in an upscale bar), still wrapped in its paper cover, resting in the saucer of the rapidly cooling cup of water.

Bring your favorite tea cup and tea with you to Italy
Bring your favorite tea cup and tea with you to Italy

If you go out to dinner at the home of an Italian friend, carry your own tea bags. Their cupboards will only contain chamomile tea bags or tisane della salute. Also, be prepared for the sympathetic look and an inquiry about how long you have been feeling “under the weather.” Finally, they may not have cups for tea, only tiny cups for espresso. A water glass can substitute for a teacup, but don’t fill it too full; only the top edge will stay cool enough to touch.

As for your own vacation rental in Italy: plan to bring an electric kettle, a Brita pitcher with filters, and your favorite tea. In cities, specialty grocery stores will carry good tea, but at high prices.

You can buy a beautiful Tuscan ceramic tea cup to take home
You can buy a beautiful Tuscan ceramic tea cup to take home

To avoid those sympathetic looks and the defensive self-doubt that will grow each time an Italian asks “Prendiamo un caffè?”, think up a snappy reply.  As a foreigner, you will be given a pass. Imagine a tea-loving, coffee-hating Italian – his life would be like being a vegetarian at a Texas barbecue … every single day of the year.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook