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Month: October, 2016

TROFIE

Milan, 25 October 2016

In 1960, during a televised speech, General de Gaulle, then the first President of France’s newly-minted Fifth Republic, posed the rhetorical question, “How do you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”, implying that a country with such individualism takes badly to being centrally governed. Well, Italy has more types of pasta than France has cheeses – 350 according to one website – which might explain Italy’s chronic ingovernability. We watch with anxiety as the country lurches towards a referendum, which should be about changing the Constitution to make the country more governable but is rapidly turning into a vote of no-confidence in the current government. A collapse in the government with early elections lurk around the corner, perhaps leading to a collapse of the banking sector, and – who knows? – an ignominious exit from the Euro. The continuing incoming flood-tide of refugees/economic migrants isn’t helping.

But it is not of these political anxieties that I wish to write, it is about one of these 350 pastas, which goes by the name of trofie. Like many pastas, trofie are very regional in character, coming from Liguria and even more narrowly really only being found in any quantity in the communes giving onto the Golfo Paradiso, which runs from the Monte di Portofino to the west to the outskirts of Genova to the east.
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That is where I have spent these last few days, and that’s where I found myself a few evenings ago in front of a plate of trofie in a sauce of tomatoes and zucchini, with a couple of shrimp thrown in for good measure.
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As readers will notice, trofie look rather like worms – an unappetizing simile but really the one that describes them best. The shape comes from how they are made: small lumps of dough are rubbed between the hands (which action is also probably the source of their name: strofinare in Italian means to rub). They are very often eaten with pesto, that other, incomparable, gift from Liguria to global cuisine.
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I still remember with great clarity the first time I ever ate pesto. My wife and I had gone walking in the hills which in the picture above run down into the Golfo Paradiso. We found ourselves in a cheery restaurant serving only locals, all of whom spoke the local incomprehensible – to my ears – dialect. We were served lasagne in pesto with brisk efficiency. So good they were … We came back to this restaurant often in the years we lived in Italy. Although pesto is considered typically Ligurian, its ingredients suggest a broader reach. The basil, the oil, the pine nuts do indeed come from Liguria – the basil grown in Liguria is the most perfumed I have ever known – but the Parmesan comes from across the Apennine chain which hugs the coast here, while the Pecorino comes from Sardinia across the Golfo Paradiso and beyond. In any event, my wife bought a small cupful of pesto to bring back to Milan, where we will eat it with pansotti, another incredibly good pasta from Liguria – but that is a story for another day.

In the same shop, my wife pointed to a different type of trofie, made with chestnut flour. Chestnut trees grow on those Ligurian hills we go walking in, above the olive groves; they probably grew all the way to the valley bottoms before olive trees were brought to Liguria. On the spur of the moment I told her to buy them, along with the sauce with which they are normally eaten, walnut sauce, another gift of Liguria to the world; walnut trees grow well up on the Ligurian hills. As readers can see in the next photo, these trofie are browner than the normal trofie made with hard wheat. They are also a little sweeter, as befits a pasta made with chestnuts, and a walnut sauce goes wonderfully well with them, softening that sweet note.
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Many decades ago, we brought a cupful of walnut sauce with us to Paris and served it on a pasta to a friend of ours, an amateur cook from Sicily. He muttered over and over again, “Mmm, that’s good” (a pretty amazing statement for a Sicilian to make about northern Italian cuisine). To thank us, the next evening he whipped up a pasta served with a broccoli-based sauce – soooo good!

Those chestnut trofie make me reflect once more on Italy. My first Italian boss came from the province of Varese, to the north of Milan, a part of the country which before the economic miracle of the 1950s and ’60s was very poor. I don’t know how we got onto the topic, but one day he started reminiscing about his childhood, and he told me that when his parents were young and food ran short they were sent off into the woods to collect chestnuts, which would be ground to a flour to make bread from. Liguria was also a very poor region until quite recently. No doubt chestnut trofie are from those times. Italy has come a long way in the last sixty years, I just hope it can stay the course.

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Golfo Paradiso: http://www.golfoparadisoportofinovetta.it
Trofie con pomodori e zucchini: my photo
Trofie al pesto: http://foodloversodyssey.com/2010/08/the-dish-from-italy-trofie-al-pesto/
Trofie alla salsa di noci: my photo

SCARFING DOWN ITALIAN NIBBLES

Milan, 20 October 2016

I was with an old colleague in Turin at the beginning of last week, and he was telling me that he had visited the city several times over the last few years to attend the annual Slow Food festival. I made a mental note to attend the next one with my wife. It must have been that thought which made me accept with alacrity when my wife proposed that we go to an exhibition of Italian small-scale food producers, which was taking place in Milan over the weekend. Its title was “Milano Golosa”, which can be translated either as Greedy Milan or as Gourmand Milan. I prefer to think that we were gourmands, although I can understand it if, after reading this post, readers conclude that we were greedy.

The exhibition was being held in the Palazzo del Ghiaccio, the Ice Palace, a rather grand name for what used to be the city’s premier ice rink. Just visiting the building was a trip down memory lane for my wife. She told me with a reminiscent smile that she had been taken there many a time by her grandfather; while she skated around the rink, he sat on the bleachers reading his newspaper – no doubt the universal pastime of grandfathers supervising grandchildren in parks and other public spaces. At some point in the last forty years, its use as an ice rink was abandoned. The bleachers were removed along with the rink proper, and the building was turned into an exhibition space. It is actually quite a nice building, of the 19th Century train station type, and the empty space looks gorgeous in that typically Italian good design style.
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When we entered the space, though, it was bisected by four or five rows of little booths, each taken by an Italian food or wine producer (there was one food producer from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, off the west coast of Africa, but that was a definite outlier). They came from all over Italy, from Sicily in the south all the way up into the high alpine valleys in the north, and from Sardinia in the west to the Marches in the east.
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For the vulgar weekend visitors like us, who were not there for professional reasons, the deal was this. You paid 10 euros to get in (5 more if you wanted to drink wine, which we didn’t), and then you tried to eat as many nibbles as possible at all of the booths to cover your initial investment. You could do your eating quite shamelessly, just grabbing the nibbles being made available and heading off to the next booth, or you could pretend to be knowledgeable and stand there trying to make intelligent comments about the nibbles you were scarfing down with enthusiasm. I started with the latter strategy, pretending to write notes on my phone (of the type “good cake!”, “good cheese!”), but eventually abandoned all pretense of knowledge and just wolfed down the nibbles. I was rather reminded of the trailer which my wife and I have been seeing of an upcoming French film, “Saint Amour”, which as far as I can make out is the story of a large pub crawl from one French wine festival to another.
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For all of this rank amateurism on my part, I could still appreciate that the nibbles were delicious. Many of the classical Italian products were present: raw ham, cooked ham, salamis of various types, bologna, cooked meats in aspic; hard cheeses like parmesan, soft cheeses like stracchino or crescenza, middling soft and middling hard cheeses whose names now escape me; olive oils of all descriptions, as well as the olives themselves, balsamic vinegars; tomatoes, of course, of all shapes and sizes, beans of all shapes and sizes; pastas of varying lengths and geometries, breads made from a variety of grains, but also bread sticks, fat and short and long and thin; numerous spreads to put on the bread (one in particular, from Sicily and based on sea urchin and a fish whose name meant nothing to me, remains in my taste memory bank); sweet dishes in profusion: panettone, panforte, amaretti dolci, chocolates containing varying levels of coca. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. A veritable smorgasbord! Or perhaps the Italian equivalent to a Chinese banquet, where one picks at a little bit of this and at a little bit of that as the Lazy Mary turns slowly. I think we got our ten euros’ worth, staggering out after a couple of hours of busy nibbling. We shelled out some more cash to buy a small bottle of olive oil from the province of Bari and a mozzarella from the province of Naples, both of which we picked up as we wended our way from booth to booth. I can report that at dinner that night the oil went very nicely with the mozzarella, as well as with the salad of green beans I had on the side.

Ah, Italian food!
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Palazzo del Ghiaccio: http://www.meetingecongressi.com/it/struttura/milano/451/palazzo_del_ghiaccio.htm
Milano Golosa: http://www.ansa.it/canale_terraegusto/notizie/fiere_eventi/2015/09/23/torna-milano-golosa-dal-3-al-5-ottobre-al-palaghiaccio_0867b0e5-db5c-4477-b80a-3e372b3979c1.html
Saint Amour poster: http://www.allocine.fr/film/fichefilm_gen_cfilm=235769.html
Italian food: https://www.magicmurals.com/italian-food-collage.html

HORSERADISH

Turin, 12 October 2016

I’ve just had a yummy lunch at the airport, which is a bit surprising since airport eateries are not known for quality. It was nothing special; actually, it was very ordinary for this part of the world (this part of the world being Austria). It was two sausages of the frankfurter variety (although longer and thinner than the classic frankfurter), a bread roll, a dollop of mustard, and some grated horseradish. Voilà!

What really made the dish for me was the horseradish. It was the first time I ate horseradish like this, and I found that its slightly sweet tartness calmed the excesses of the mustard.

I have to confess to being a great fan of horseradish, although I joined this particular fan club latish in life: I only discovered the culinary delights of the root once I moved to Austria, when I was already over 40. For those of my readers who (like me) have never seen a horseradish in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a picture.
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It’s rather surprising that I came to horseradish so late, because it’s actually quite popular in the UK. A common way of eating it is to mix it with vinegar and use it as a condiment with meat or fish. This commercial offering looks very fancy.
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Fancy or plain, I never partook; the closest I ever got was lamb with a vinegar-based mint sauce, the glories of which I have extolled in an earlier post. I’m guessing that the British picked up the habit from the Germans: Wikipedia informs us that a certain John Gerrard, in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes of 1597, writes that “the Horse Radish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eat fish with and such like meats as we do mustard.” I wonder if, rather than classic mustard, John Gerrard meant Tewksebury mustard (another British condiment which I have never tried). It seems that the British, since at least the Middle Ages, have been fond of this blend of mustard and grated horseradish. No less than Shakespeare mentions it in Henry IV Part II, where he has Falstaff say of Poins: “his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury Mustard”. Here’s a modern version, sold by the ASDA supermarket chain, so it can’t be too fancy a condiment.
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Just to close the circle, a very similar horseradish-mustard blend, called Krensenf, is popular in Austria. I suppose the cook in my airport eatery was expecting me to make my own blend before slathering it onto the frankfurter; ignorant at that moment of Krensenf, I just blended it in my mouth.

I haven’t mentioned in what dish I first discovered horseradish. It was that great, that glorious, Austrian dish, Tafelspitz. It’s actually a very simple dish: boiled beef, served with boiled root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celeriac) and re-fried boiled potatoes.
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To my mind, what elevates it above similar dishes, like pot au feu in France or bollito misto in Italy, is the sauce into which you dip your morsels of meat: it must be a blend of thickish apple sauce and grated horseradish. The horseradish wakes up what is otherwise a rather bland apple sauce, and this jazzed-up sauce wakes up the otherwise slightly bland meat, to the delight of one’s taste buds. I see that this mixing of sweet with horseradish seems quite popular. Several parts of Eastern Europe (which seems to be the original home of the horseradish, by the way) mix it with beet roots, as do the Ashkhenazi Jews, who often use it as a condiment for gefillte fish. Another recipe from Franconia in southern Germany blends horseradish with lingonberries.

No discussion of horseradish is complete without a mention of wasabi, that wonderful green paste which, together with ginger, accompanies sushi and sashimi.
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I’m not particularly keen on the ginger, but wasabi is a must for me – whenever my wife eat sushi or sashimi, she gives me her wasabi and I give her my ginger, which she loves; it’s a deal made in heaven. As anyone who has eaten both horseradish and wasabi will know, there is a definite relationship; the tastes are too similar for it to be coincidental. In fact, the two plants are close botanical cousins; the picture above shows the greenish root which is the source of wasabi. But here I have to reveal a mournful truth. In this era of globalized cuisine, where sushi bars seem to be sprouting up everywhere, when we eat wasabi we are nearly always eating horseradish paste mixed with green colourant. The wasabi plant is difficult to grow, so production cannot keep up with demand, hence the substitution. Sad in a way. An Italian friend of mine was recently telling me of a similar case, for a foodstuff I am particularly fond of, bresaola, which has also become a global food-star. In principle, bresaola should be made from cattle reared in the Valtellina, in the Italian Alps. But cattle production in this really quite small Alpine valley cannot possibly keep up with demand, so cattle is shipped in from Brazil to be processed in the Valtellina and stamped “bresaola”.

My wife and I are going to Japan in November. Let’s see if we can find a place which serves real wasabi.

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Horseradish: http://www.herbalextractsplus.com/horseradish-root.html
Horseradish and vinegar: http://www.handmade-treats.co.uk/shop/horseradish-vinegar/
Tewksebury mustard: https://groceries.asda.com/product/mustard/asda-extra-special-tewkesbury-mustard/80755029
Tafelspitz: http://www.lecker.de/tafelspitz-19222.html
Wasabi: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/03/pantry-essentials-all-about-wasabi.html

POINTILLISM

Vienna, 1 October 2016

The Albertina Museum in Vienna is currently holding an exhibition on pointillism and its reverberations in later art. My wife and I decided to visit it, as a treat for successfully becoming residents of Austria and for finding our apartment in good shape after our tenants had handed it over. We were glad we went. Never had we been exposed to this many Pointillists in one go; the larger collections of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists we have seen generally have just a few pointillist paintings sprinkled into the mix. Not only were there paintings by Seurat, the originator of the technique, Signac, his best-known follower, and other French Pointillists, there were also a roomful or two of Belgian and Dutch Pointillists whom we had never heard of. There was also a whole section devoted to pointillist portraits; pointillism was never a style I had connected with portraiture. There were some examples of late pointillism, by then renamed divisionism, where the earlier dots were replaced by longer and broader paint strokes. And then the final room had a brace of Van Goghs, some Matisses, a couple of Picassos and Mondrians, and a few other odds and ends, to show how divisionism had affected later artists.

All exceedingly interesting. And yet … my wife and I both had the same reaction to the show. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, doubts set in. The effect of seeing so many pointillist paintings together was to have a chocolate-box sensation. The paintings were all preternaturally bright, the skies of the many landscapes were a uniformly blank cerulean blue, and the other colours seemed to all veer towards the pastel. Here’s a couple of pointillist paintings that exemplify what we found before us. The first is by Seurat, the second by Signac.
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All this in large doses eventually becomes rather sickly. There was also an eerie stillness in many of the paintings, perhaps because by their nature pointillist works were carefully and patiently crafted in the studio. This stillness, emptiness almost, is obvious in what is probably the most famous pointillist painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which shows what should be a scene full of life and movement but gives the impression of being peopled by mannequins put there for the occasion.
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It seems that after an initial burst of enthusiasm contemporary painters also turned away from pointillism, but more because creating these paintings took so much time. Certainly Van Gogh was never convinced by pointillism, although he experimented with it a bit, because it eliminated any spontaneity in painting.

A footnote to the exhibition: many of the paintings were on loan from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. I had never heard of this museum (as for my wife, after an initial bout of amnesia, on seeing pictures of the museum she suddenly remembered visiting it more than forty years ago). Yet this museum has, among other things, the second largest collection of Van Goghs in the world. The collection was put together by Helene Kröller-Müller in the first decades of the last century. She was born into a wealthy German industrialist family and married a Dutch mining and shipping tycoon, a combination which made her the richest woman in the Netherlands.
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She used her money wisely to put together a great collection of what was then modern art. Towards the end of her life she donated it to the Dutch state.

When I read such stories, I sigh and wish my father had been a tycoon. I would have loved to spend inherited millions putting together an art collection. Maybe in my next life.
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Seurat: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Seurat
Signac: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Signac
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Île_de_la_Jatte
Helene Kröller-Müller: http://www.betergeven.nl/over-filantropie/filantropen-in-beeld/helene-kroller-muller/