27 November 2011

LIFE: Now Hair This

SARONNO, Italy – Up until the end of the 19th century, there was a tradition here in Lombardia that called for giving a girl child a gift of a silver sperada when she was born. 
 A Silver Sperada
A sperada, also known as a raggiare, is a long, thin needle like hairpin, about eight inches in length, with a decorated top and bottom (olivelle), that was used as a hair ornament. Over the course of her life, her parents, relatives, and then her husband, would add to her sperada collection. For special occasions she would wear the sperada in her hair. They were held in a halo-like semi-circle, by a wooden frame and tied with a black ribbon called a ‘fettucine nero’, or spighetta de cutun negher in local dialect.

Sperade are one of the oldest ‘hair accessories’ in Italy. Those dating back to the Bronze Age are called ‘spilloni’, pins, but those found in the graves of the ancient Romans are known as ‘hasta caelibaris’, or ‘aghi crinali’. 
A Complete Sperada
The more expensive sperada were made by silversmiths. Using all the techniques necessary to make fine jewelry, the silversmith would work the olivelle into miniature pieces of art. These highly decorated sperada were worn by the women of Lombardia with the same pride as they wear diamonds and furs today. Sperada have long been a source of pride in Lombardia, witnessed by this description of Lucia Mondella, the protagonist of  ‘I Promessi Sposi’ (The Betrothed), the 19th century masterpiece by Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni. 


Lucia had just come forth adorned from head to food by the hands of her mother. Her friends were stealing glances at the bride, and forcing her to show herself, while she, with the somewhat warlike modesty of a rustic, was endeavoring to escape, using her arms as a shield for her face, and holding her head downwards, her black penciled eyebrows seeming to frown, while her lips were smiling. Her dark and luxuriant hair, divided on her forehead with a white and narrow parting, was united behind in many – circled plaitings (braids), pierced with long silver pins, disposed around so as to look like a halo or saintly glory, a fashion still in use among Milanese peasant girls.”
Lucia Wearing Her Sperada
From the moment a girl became engaged, it was expected that, as a sign of his love, her husband-to-be would give her a gift of sperada equal to her age. During her lifetime, a woman would be gifted with up to 45 to 47 sperada. 

For those families who could not afford to buy sperada of high grade silver, they were also made in less noble metals, but valued nonetheless.
A Complicated Affair
You won’t find hand-worked silver sperada for sale these days. The much coveted surviving pieces are treasured and held by families or museums. 
  
THURSDAY PREVIEW: Auntie Pasta's Semola Battuta, a Pugliese recipe that will surprise you. 

24 November 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Giving Thanks

SARONNO, Italy –  One thing I know is it’s difficult to change the habits of a lifetime. I’m talking about Thanksgiving. For me, it’s hard to get into the spirit of Christmas until I’ve had Thanksgiving. But here in Italy, where they love holidays that fall on Thursday and extend into Friday and even Monday if they can get away with it,  they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  It’s not that they aren’t fascinated by the idea of giving thanks for what you have, but what do they have to be thankful for they ask. For those of us looking in from the outside, you have to think they are kidding, right? They’re not.
 Thanksgiving Greeting from Saronno
It’s not as callous an idea as you may think. Not being too happy about something is part and parcel of the Italian DNA.  If you are too happy about something, no, I take that back, if you show that you are too happy about something, you risk putting a jinx – the Malocchio or Evil Eye - on the very thing you are happy about. 

The Evil Eye is best described as a curse that can be triggered by something as simple as a compliment.  For example, if someone tells you your baby is beautiful, beware! The fates have been tempted. You must immediately make the sign of the  horn sign to protect your child from the Evil Eye.  
"Two Versions of The Horn"
When I first moved to Italy, I was told by an Genovese lawyer that if I wanted to succeed in Italy, I would have to stop smiling so much.  And not only that, but if someone asked me how I was, the answer should never be –‘great.’ A better, safer answer, he counseled, would be “in somma.” Which loosely translated means, “I’m doing the best I can but it’s a struggle.” Truth is, at that time “in somma” was closer to my reality than “great,” so I had no problem adopting the more “evil eye” proof response.
 
Superstition has been part of Italian life since the dawn of time.  Using your fingers to make what is called in Italy “the horns” is in reality a version of a crescent moon shape  which is representative of various Moon goddesses worshiped in days of old. Interestingly, the finger horn can also be a sign that your wife is cheating on you - obviously the worse curse of all - a cheating wife.

Turns out there are other things, like covering your mouth when you yawn – which I always thought we did just to be polite, are superstitions.  The real reason we cover our mouths is so evil spirits don’t enter our bodies. After all, God gave Adam life by breathing into his mouth – so what’s to stop the Devil from trying the same trick? Then there is that old habit of saying Bless You, when someone sneezes. 
Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele
That simple saying is a carry-over from the days of the Roman Empire when sneezing was a sign that you had a dreaded disease. When someone sneezed the Romans thought it best to offer up a short prayer to the Gods – “long may you live,” or “may you enjoy good health,” or a simple “Jupiter, help me,”  they would say. Whichever one you chose brought the hope that Jupiter would protect those unlucky enough to be around someone who was sneezing,  and hopefully expel the disease from the unfortunate person who sneezed.
Even Locals Take a Twirl
Here in Milan, they take the Evil Eye and other superstitions very seriously. Even those who claim to be non-believers  can’t resist the Milanese tradition of twirling around three times on the bull’s nether parts, which is supposed to bring luck and ward off evil spirits. So the next time you are in Milan, make sure you visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and give it a twirl. You won’t have any problem finding the mosaic with the bull in it, there is always a crowd of people waiting to take their turn. No point in tempting fate. 

So while we Americans have no problem roasting up a turkey and giving thanks for all we have, the wary Italians prefer to go about their business of living large and enjoying life and pretending they are suffering through it all. So, now that you know the rules, cross your fingers , touch wood, and make the sign of the horn because I am going to wish you all a Very Happy Thanksgiving Day.

And a note for Muzik Girl – I'm sorry I don’t know the name of the soup,  but I do know quite a few people from Puglia and I’ll  ask them. As soon as I have an answer for you I’ll post it on the blog.

20 November 2011

LIFE: Choo Choo on This

SARONNO, Italy - Well it looks like the Ferrovia dello Stato (the Italian train company) and the Ferrovie Francesi (the French train company) have kissed and made up. After a two year separation, they have decided that they really can’t live without each other. 
 Milan's Central Train Station
The breakup was the fault of the Italian Ferrovia dello Stato. It seems they were not watching over the French TGV trains that were parked overnight at Milan’s Central Station and the French trains were being vandalized.  So the Ferrovie Franscesi left in a huff, saying they were going home to mother France and would not return until the nasty old Ferrovia dello Stato changed it ways.

Well, the gruff old Ferrovia dello Stato huffed and puffed for a couple of years, but in the end it realized it just could not live without it’s petite cheri francaise.  So, as of Dec. 11, the TGV will once again leave the Milan Centrale train station, with stops at Turin, Oulx and Bardonecchia in Italy and  Modane, Chambéry and Lyon in France, before it proudly arrives in Paris.
 Inside the Milan Train Station
The French railway is counting on the existence of a market for travel between Italy and France and will try to regain the business it lost when the Italian Ferrovie offered up the long distance Artesia as a substitute for the TVG. Maybe the French don’t know that the Italians lost more than half of the market share with that move, and even now they, in an attempt to regain some ground, they are offering low cost prices starting at 25 euros one way in an effort to save face.

But never underestimate the power of an accent and when Mlle France, wearing the latest in French railway fashion designed by Christian Lacroix opens for business, Italy’s Trenitalia will be left in the dust. 
Information Board, Milan Train Station
Now, how do I know this you ask?  Simple. As a confessed train addict, I have taken Trenitalia’s best and worst trains and I can tell you that even the best Italian trains do not compare to even the most simple commuter trains in France. I have suffered in stuffy, dirty, non-air conditioned compartments for many an hour, crossing my legs and hoping I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom before I got home. and that was in first class. I shudder to think what the conditions were in second class. 

Most of the long distance trips were from the south of France to Genoa, or the south of France to Milan. but when I was writing for Conde Nast, my train trips were usually within Italy, to Florence or Bologna or wherever fashion was happening. 
 Don't Forget to Validate Your Ticket
When the Ferrovie dello Stato first offered its super duper high speed train, the Eurostar, I had great hopes for the Italian railway system. There were cute, smiling hostesses who greeted you and offered newspapers to read as you traveled, the railway cars were clean and shiny and the bathrooms worked. If I’m not mistaken I think they even used to offer bottled water or juice, compliments of the Italian Railway Company. It didn’t last long. As soon they gained enough of a market share to do away with some of the older trains, whose tickets were considerably less expensive than the Eurostar - service and cleanliness went down the track.
 Gare du Nord, Paris
On the other hand, when I took the TVG from Milan to Paris (and back to Milan), it was a train lovers dream. The car was clean, my seat was comfortable, I could actually see through the window and the bathrooms sparkled. But the surprises didn't end there. First came my complimentary breakfast. Was I dreaming? Then, at lunchtime, a waiter appeared by my seat to take my lunch order. When he served me lunch at my seat, I wanted to run home, pack up my bed and bring it back to that train and live there forever. 
The Complimentary Breakfast on the TVG
Now those of you who read this blog with any regularity know that I am very pro-Italian, I love Italy, I love everything about it, except what has happened to the trains over the past few years. It used to be a wonderful way to travel – used to be.   
Of course now the Ferrovie dello Stato has the Frecciarossa, the Frecciabianca and the Frecciargento – the Red Arrow, the White Arrow and the Silver Arrow – all high speed trains with high speed prices that given the Trenitalia record will too be reduced to a third world level like the Eurostar, as soon as they do away with the few remaining low(er) cost trains they still run. You can bet your pasta on it.

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16 November 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Hello My Lovely - Lentils

SARONNO, Italy - It was crisp and cool in Saronno yesterday and it seemed like a good day to cook lentils. I won’t tell you the part about burning them and ruining the pot because I was in my little office on the computer, and not paying attention to what was going on in the kitchen. I did manage to save at least enough for lunch and I put them together with some rice and spinach that was left over from Sunday.  
Castelluccio di Norcia
Lentils, also known as (Lens culinaris) or simply lens, are the seeds of an herb native to southwestern Asia (modern Syria). From there it spread very quickly throughout the Mediterranean basin. The plant is characterized by branched stems and vines that can reach 50 cm high with rectangular pods that contain 2-3 seeds ranging in color from yellow-green, red, brown and black. The flavor of lentils varies and depends on the size and color. Generally the small ones,  called lenticchie mignon in Italy, are the most delicious. After they are harvested they are dried and packaged. They can also be found pre-cooked in a can.  

 Lovely Lentils
Lentils are the oldest cultivated legume, dating back to 7000 BC, and was once the staple food of the poor in Greece and Italy. In old Rome there was a very important family, the Lentuli, who – I think – got their name because of some involvement in the cultivation or distribution of lentils. By the mid-sixteenth century, Italians were calling eye disks "lentils", and for more than two hundred years eyeglasses were known as “glass lentils”. 


Here in Italy lentils are grown primarily in the hills of Umbria and Lazio. The most common varieties take their names from their place or origin. Cultivation is divided into two groups – large lentils and the small, mignon lentils. Farmers are probably planting lentil seeds as in some regions, like Castelluccio di Norcia and Colfiorito in Umbria and Leonessa in Lazio,  this is lentil planting time. 
Lentil Plant
The most common varieties are the green lentils of Altamura, which are a little bigger in size than brown lentils, and served primarily as a side dish. The lentils of Ustica grow in volcanic soil and are dark brown in color. They are small and tender and very tasty, and unfortunately difficult to find on the open market.
 
The lentils from Castelluccio are also small and very tasty and considered the best lentils on the Italian market. In 1997 they were awarded the prestigious Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP) by the European Union, which protects and preserves their uniqueness.  Red lentils, also known as Egyptian lentils or Indian dal, are also very popular in Italy.  

Uncooked Lentils
A word to the wise: If you buy lentils in bulk, even if they are in sealed bags, check to see that they are not contaminated with parasites or larvae and that there are no holes on the surface of the lentils. It’s also a good idea to check the source and when they were harvested. If they are too old they will need a long cooking time and that detracts from their flavor.

If you buy canned lentils, make sure the can is not dented or damaged in any way as this can affect the product.

Lentils should be stored in a dry place, and preferably in a closed glass container. If properly stores, they should keep for up to a year.

Such a Pretty Picture
You can use lentils in soups or as side dishes, in salads or even as a sauce for pasta. In Italy lentils are the traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day, the idea being that the more lentils you eat the richer you will be in the New Year. Sounds good to me. I like lentils, they are rich in protein and vitamin A, B1, B2, C, and calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus and work wonders for people who suffer from anemia or exhaustion. Just don’t overdo it. 


It is recommended that you stainless steel cookware, cast iron, clay or enameled iron cookware but not aluminum, as the aluminum will turn your lentils black.

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13 November 2011

LIFE: Let Me Ask You This

 Hanging Out in Genova
SARONNO, Italy – It’s no surprise that Italians are fond of surveys. Every newspaper website in the country has a daily survey asking their readers’ opinions on a variety of issues. Here are the results of some surveys conducted by Il Secolo XIX, the leading newspaper of Liguria. They will give you an idea of what the Italians think about things, starting with what’s going on outside of Italy.  

STEVE JOBS WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR…. 

Macintosh                 53%
iPod                            13%
iPhone                       27%
iPad                            7%
Total Votes: 5674

SHOULD “LITTLE MISS” BEAUTY CONTESTS BE OUTLAWED?

Yes                              87%
No                               13%
Total Votes: 3220

THE WORST SONG OF THE 90’S WAS?

Barbie Girl by Acqua                                      25%
Macarena by Los Del Rio                               28%
Achy Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus     13%
Ice, Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice                            15%
Tubthumping by Chumbawamba                   20%
Total Vote: 3435

WAS PRESIDENT OBAMA’S DECISION TO REPEAL DON’T ASK DON’T TELL A GOOD IDEA?

Yes                              64%
No                               36%
Total Votes: 2913

SHOULD RAPISTS BE CHEMICALLY CASTRATED?

Yes                              78%
No                               12%
Only if voluntary         10%
Total Votes: 2995

THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD WOULD ALLOW YOU TO STAY BY YOURSELF ON A DESERTED ISLAND FOR SIX MONTHS.

Yes                                                      59%
Yes, even without pay                                    16%    
No, too lonely                                      25%
Total Votes: 1259

MEXICO HAS INITIATED A TIME LIMIT ON MARRIAGES, WITH THE OPPORTUNITY TO RENEW YOUR MARRIAGE CONTRACT. IF YOU HAD HAD THIS OPTION WHEN YOU GOT MARRIED WOULD YOU HAVE TAKEN IT?

Yes                  46%
No                   54%
Total Votes: 3472

IS IT A GOOD IDEA FOR “OLDER” WOMEN TO HAVE CHILDREN?

Yes                              10%
No                               60%
Total Votes: 4240

To issues that are of interest to all Italians… such as….

AMANDA KNOX AND RAFFAELE SOLLICITO AQUITTED. WAS IT THE RIGHT DECISION?

Yes                  31%
No                   69%
Total Votes: 8838

AMANDA AND RAFFAELE- GUILTY OR INNOCENT?

Guilty               71%
Innocent          29%
Total Votes: 3782

SHOULD PRIME MINISTER BERLUSCONI RESIGN?

Yes                  82%
No                   18%
Total Votes: 9794

OBESE CHILDREN SHOULD BE TAKEN FROM THEIR PARENTS – DO YOU AGREE?

Yes                              25%
No                               75%
Total Votes: 3262

SHOULD THE CHILDREN OF FOREIGNERS LIVING IN ITALY LEGALLY BE GRANTED ITALIAN CITIZENSHIP?

Yes                                                      62%
No                                                       48%
Total Votes: 3146

SHOULD PUBLIC SCHOOLS OFFER ONE HOUR OF ISLAMIC RELIGIOUS EDUCATION AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO CATHOLIC RELIGIOUS EDUCATION?

Yes                              26%
No                               74%
Total Votes: 3087

SHOULD BODY SCANNERS BE USED IN ITALIAN AIRPORTS?

Yes, security is important                   63%
No, it’s a violation of privacy               13%
Not sure, worried about health risks   24%
Total Votes: 2551                                                                               

To questions that are primarily of interest to those living in Liguria, such as…..

STARTING IN 2013, STUDENT REPORT CARDS WILL BE SENT HOME VIA THE WEB. GOOD IDEA?

Yes                             38%
No                               62%
Total Votes: 3216

EXTEND MIDDLE SCHOOL HOURS FROM 8AM TO 2PM AND NOT HAVE SCHOOL ON SATURDAYS?

No, those who are protesting the proposed change are right.                        41%
Yes, it’s better to have Saturday and Sunday off                                           59%
Total Votes: 2110

To issues that are of primary interest to those living in Genova, such as….

WAS THE RECENT TRAGEDY IN GENOVA, CAUSED JUST BY THE HEAVY RAIN?

Yes, as shown by the record amount of precipitation                        14%
No, the warnings of heavy rain was not handled
properly by the City of Genova                                                          43%
No, preventative steps were not sufficient                                         30%
No, it was mainly caused by  carelessness on the
part of the citizens                                                                               12%
Total votes: 12094

UNDER AN 1980 LAW, AMT (THE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM OF GENOVA) PROHIBITS HIRING FOREIGNERS AS BUS DRIVERS.  DO YOU AGREE?

Yes                  55%
No                   41%
Not Sure          4%
Total Votes: 4027


THE BIGGEST PROBLEM FACING THOSE WHO LIVE IN GENOVA IS…

Crime                                                  19%
Parking and Traffic                             28%
Not enough public transportation        11%
Not enough for kids to do                   5%
Not enough services for the elderly    2%
Not clean enough                                21%
There are many but I like it anyway   14%
Total Votes: 1347


GENOVA HAS AGREED TO TAKE SOME OF THE IMMIGRANTS COMING IN FROM NORTH AFRICA. GOOD IDEA?

Yes                                                      52%
No                                                       48%
Total Votes: 3889

I found the contractions in the survey interesting. Fifty-two percent of Genovese think it was a good idea to accept some of the immigrants coming from North Africa, but 55% of them don’t think it’s a good idea to hire non-Italians to drive public buses. In my humble opinion this is more an issue of high unemployment in Italy rather than racism as 62% think it is a good idea to grant citizenship to children born in Italy to foreign parents. Supporting my opinion was what the Genovese thought were the most pressing problems to life in Genova… parking and traffic followed by not clean enough. The city has one of the largest populations of North Africans in Italy and yet that particular fact wasn’t even a consideration.

It was hardly a surprise that the majority of Italians thought the Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollicito acquittal was a mistake. The rumor mill has it that considerable pressure from the U.S. Embassy was applied to the judges in the case. No big surprise there.

No big surprise at the rejection of one hour of Islamic religious education as an alternative to Catholic religious education either. Especially since it was the Catholic church that established the public education system we know today back in 1548 when ten members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) opened the first Jesuit school in Messina, Sicily.

Whenever I write a piece like this, it brings to mind this quote from E.M. Forster’s ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’:  

“Let her go to Italy!” he cried. “Let her meddle with what she doesn’t understand.”  'Nuf said.

10 November 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: The Pilot's Rice



SARONNO, Italy – Today’s recipe, Riso alla Pilota, is a traditional dish from Manuta, a lovely town not too far from Verona. Mantua is a rice growing area and this dish was named after the workers who husked the rice – the pilots - who turned the “pile”,  a large stone mortar that was used to separate  the rice from the husk.  
 Center of Mantua
Unlike traditional risotto dishes, riso alla pilota is first cooked in a covered pot and then allowed to rest off the heat. The result is a creamy risotto with nice firm grains, but not in the least bit dry. The cooking method is a little unusual, but interesting and worth a try.

Ingredients
80 grams of butter
100 grams of freshly grated Grana Padano (or Parmegiano)
350 grams of rice Semifino Vialone Nano (or Aborio)
Salt
300 grams of Italian sausage (not hot and spicy)


Place 600 ml of water in a heavy bottom pot and bring it to a boil.

As soon as the water starts to boil, salt it lightly and pour the rice in the center of the pot, (1) so that it falls in the form of a pyramid with about an inch of rice sticking out of the water  t (2) (if the tip does not emerge, remove some of the water with a spoon, or if more than 2 cm are sticking out, add additional water).

When the water returns to a boil, cook the rice for 10-12 minutes without a lid over a medium high flame, shaking the pot occasionally to stir the rice and flatten it. After 10 -12 minutes the rice should have absorbed all the water, remove the pot from the stove and cover the rice with a clean tea towel (the tea towel should touch the rice) (3)
 
Cover the pot  (4) and let it rest for 10 minutes more, during which time the rice should be completely cooked. 

In the meantime, melt the butter in a pan (5), break up the sausage meat with a fork and add it in the pan (6) and let it cook over a medium flame until it is browned. Stir it occasionally with a wooden spoon, so it doesn’t stick to the pan.

 
After the rice has rested for 10 minutes, break it up with a fork (7) and add the browned sausage (8), add half of the freshly grated Grana (9) and mix. Sprinkle with the remaining Grana and serve immediately.

Tip: The best rice to use for this recipe is semifino Vialone Nano, which grows in the Mantua area. The medium size grains hold their shape during the long cooking process.  The pork sausage should be made from the pork shoulder and seasoned with garlic and pepper. If you can’t find garlic seasoned sausage you can add a finely chopped garlic clove to the sausage meat with it is cooking.You could also add a little onion to the sausage, unless you are like my Aunt Florence who positively does not like onions in any way, shape or form but I love her anyway. 
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