Everything tastes better in Italy. And it’s not just me. I think most of us can concur that there's just something about the food in Italy. I'll try to get at that elusive something in the coming posts, as best as I can in pixels and bytes.
Take, for example, the apricot -- damasco in Spanish and Portuguese, albicocca in Italian. I thought that I'd never eat a better one than the fruit from my friend Mayra's tree in Chile, ripened in the sun of the Atacama desert. But here, in Umbria, the dry heat of Central Italy has produced quite a fruit, the very blossom of summer.
We bought a basket of albicocca at the local market this morning, where we were attended by a balding shopkeeper with a sense of Italian propriety who showed much patience with my patois of Spanportuitaliano. He opened a jar of black truffles that had just been picked this morning and invited us to smell them, apologizing for their poor aroma -- apparently, it's not really truffle season yet (late fall is the better time for them), and we didn't dare ask him where they came from, for fear of offending him with such a prying question.
Instead, we smelled them and fingered the fruit and thought about lunch to come.
Lunch was veal with jarred truffle sauce and fresh mozzarella di bufala, and slow-cooked zucchini on the side. It could deserve its own commentary, but I didn't make it, and the apricot clafoutis was mine, plucked out of The Silver Spoon (oh how glad I am that I brought that with me here!).
I can only describe the flavor of the cooked apricot, drizzled in its own syrup, as a sort of super-albicocca, what you might imagine the first, divine apricot tasted like many years ago, on the plains of Central Asia. It is tart and sweet at the same time, a rare combination, and the creamy base of the egg custard is a perfect complement to such forthright flavor:
Because at least one reader of mine wanted to see recipes with my postings, I reproduce the following recipe for clafoutis alle albicocche (apricot clafoutis) from p. 1056 of the Phaidon Press version of The Silver Spoon:
Clafoutis alle albicocche
1 1/2 T. sweet butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
1 2/3 c. superfine sugar
2 T. vanilla sugar (didn't use, it was fine anyway)
rind of 1 lemon, grated
1 lb. 2 oz. apricots, halved and pitted
3 eggs, separated
1/2 c. all-purpose flour (I substituted rice flour to make it gluten-free)
2/3 c. warm milk
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a cake pan with butter. Pour 1 cup water into a pan, add 1 1/4 cups of the superfine sugar, the vanilla sugar and the lemon rind and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Boil for 5 minutes, then add the apricots and simmer for a few minutes more. Drain and set aside. Beat the eggs yolks with the remaining sugar in a bowl until pale and fluffy, then stir in the melted butter, flour, and milk. Stiffly whisk the egg whites in a grease-free bowl and fold into the mixture. Pour into the prepared cake pan, arrange the apricot halves on top and then push them down into the mixture. Bake for 40 minutes and serve warm or cold.
I love the soft evening light cutting through the patio in this photo, lighting up the yellow of the lettuce and the yellow of the aperitivo that I've mixed with mineral water. Aperitivo, like so many things that I am finding here in Italy, is a throwback to the herbal tonics that I drank occasionally in Buenos Aires.
As I anticipated, I am seeing Italy through what I know of Latin America. It is a bit like when you meet someone who bears a striking resemblance to a close friend (or enemy) of yours, and you are inclined to treat that new person with the same affection (or disdain) that you would treat your long-time acquaintance, until enough time goes by that you are able to differentiate the two, and the new person is no clouded with the specter of that other. I think this is what I am experiencing with Italy: in it I see bits and pieces of pastoral Chile, Argentina's grand metropoli, and Brazil's Baroque cities. I have to restrain myself from pointing out such coincidences to my companions, for they are my own associations, and are likely to bore them. In the meanwhile I have my eyes open as wide as they will go, trying to stamp these new sights onto my lens so that this month is lived in the fruitful, breathing present.
It has been two years since I have lived abroad, and though the coming six weeks hardly measures up to my longer soujourns, I cannot think of a better way to spend my summer than among the fields and orchards of Umbria.
Italy came upon us suddenly; an offer in March finalized shortly thereafter, and at once we had our summer taken care of, long and leisurely, a throwback to childhood. Here we are, my husband and I, in the scant months before graduate school, poised between the working world and a return to being students -- and Italy has come between. Italy!
I imagine that Italy will remind me of Argentina, where so many Argentines carry around their grandparents' memories of pre-war Italy like proud badges of their europeidad, enacting their roots in Italian cultural organizations, soccer clubs, elementary schools, widows' funds, and opera performances. More than one and a half million Italians came to Argentina between 1880 and 1950, out-pacing all other immigrant groups in Argentina and leaving traces of Sicily and Sardinia in the Argentine accent, with its lilting quality uncharacteristic of the rest of Latin America, and in Argentine food, abundant in pastas and cured meats, tomato sauces and basil relish. As neo-Europeans, Argentines impose a European imaginarium on the vast stretches of the Pampa, in the same way that the architects of Buenos Aires remade the city into a European capital after Haussmann's Paris, installing broad avenues and Mansard-peaked town houses. Buenos Aires is the "balcony onto Europe," but most of all, a balcony onto Italy.
I spent one year in Argentina, in 2003, when the country was still reeling from the effects of its fantastic economic crisis in December 2001. I lived in Buenos Aires with a 70-year-old woman named after Dante's love; the child of an Italian father and a Romanian mother, Beatriz had studied opera and voice at the Teatro de Colon, Buenos Aires' most eminent theatre, and spent her dotage as a contralto in a professional choir. We spent the evenings talking of music, and listened to her old tapes of Jessye Norman and Martha Argerich while she served me polenta with tomato sofrito and regiannito cheese, the Argentine version of Parmigiano (sans the A.O.C.).
So, the clearest version of Italy that I have is the memory that an old woman in Argentina has of her father; it's an Italy that hasn't seen the television, or witnessed the return of its emigrants' children and grandchildren after the most recent crisis. It's an Italy that melds together with my impressions of Little Italy here in New York; of Verdi and Puccini and Vivaldi; of The Splendid Table; of Umberto Eco and The Name of the Rose; of Marinetti's futurismo and other manifestos of modernity.
This Italy of my imagination is kitsch crossed with nostalgia for a past that was never mine. On Friday I will see how much of the present it can contain, and whether or not it will be satisfied with its liminal and transitory role in our lives, crossroads between the post-college work years and the doctoral programs that are before us. Is this the last chance for pleasure-walks and cooking extravaganzas? The last hurrah before the candle burns low? Or merely more of what has been, and signs of goodness still to come?
I wait anxiously for my departure, to know something more of this country that already holds such a place in my narrative.
Several weeks ago I searched for a copy of Lawrence's work on LibriVox, after admitting to myself that I was unlikely to crack open the 500-page, dusty paperback version of the novel that had been lying on my bottom shelf ever since I encountered it in a second-hand bookstore in Maine last summer.
On LibriVox, I happened to stumble upon a quite wonderful reader whose comfortable voice suggested that she may have been an elementary-school librarian in another life. (Listening to her, it amused me to think of my elementary school librarian reading some of the more salacious scenes from the novel.) Alas, such quality is not always the case with LibriVox, I have since learned -- I'm afraid that I may never read Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground because I was so put-off by the exaggerated tone of that particular reader!
In any case, tonight I was delighted to read an article in Reason Magazine about the origins of LibriVox which mentioned that the site was inspired, in part, by a very good rendering of Lady Chatterly's Lover that a New York sound artist was podcasting back in 2005. So, it was Lawrence's work that lay at the back of the movement! And with good reason, too -- I'm planning to make short work of the rest of the D.H. Lawrence currently available on LibriVox, if I'm not distracted first by this version of Ulysses (which I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read in its entirety) or a similar site that offers bedtime stories by a mysterious woman named Miette.
What do you think I should listen to next?
However, given that many young people of my generation have never thrown or attended a dinner party held by one of their peers, I have a few suggestions on how to be a good guest. It's not hard, really, to be a good guest; a few small gestures go a long way towards securing a second invitation for yourself at any board.
My new rules for dinner party guests (or, what I'd like to see at my table the next time around):
1. APPRECIATION. There's nothing like being told that your food is delicious, especially after you've spent the last few hours preparing it, and may have been planning the menu for days. Any small acknowledgment of the effort that we've put into feeding you will be much appreciated, in turn, and do wonders for the chefs' mood.
2. CONVERSATION. In my book, a conversation is reciprocal by definition. That means, sometimes I ask you questions, sometimes you ask me questions; I let you talk, you let me talk. We look around to see who has not spoken in a while, and devise some way to bring that person into the chatter. Dinner at our house is not a therapy session or lecture hall; please don't hog your time.
3. GRACIOUSNESS. This is similar to appreciation. Arrive on time or oh-so-slightly tardy (we plan our cooking around when we think you'll be here); there's no need to bring a gift, but they are always welcome as a token of goodwill; we plan on doing our own dishes ourselves, but if you're a good dishwasher, we don't mind the extra help. Be polite; be interested; be yourself.
To my frequent dinner companions: rest assured, if we have invited you back for another round, you're already doing all of the above, and we hope to see more of you. You are the best of guests; you are the reason we rush around town after work buying groceries and tracking down recipes; your conversation is what feeds our minds; you make tonight the best of times.
A few "sketches" in the bee hive lace pattern, from the Honeybee Stole pattern from KnitSpot. I think it rather does look like beehives!
It's in the process of being blocked, that is, I've soaked the knit piece in water overnight to let the fiber soften, and now it's being stretched (with blocking pins) and laid flat to dry in the sun.
I was offered so many plastic-wrapped chicken and tuna salad sandwiches as a child that I developed an aversion to mayonnaise that has lasted until this year, when I learned to make my own and discovered how tasty the real thing is (sorry, Hellman's). Other foods that I had considered inedible have become much more palatable to me now that I have a better grasp of what they're supposed to taste like, having made them myself with some success: mutton doesn't need to be gamby, beans shouldn't give you gas, and omelettes needn't be rubbery and tasteless, for example.
All of this lead-up about home-made food, and I must admit that I'm a bit disappointed with my efforts tonight to make pão de queijo, Brazilian cheese-bread.
I ate pão de queijo every day when I lived in Brazil, for several reasons:
1) Pão de queijo contains no wheat, which my body doesn't like (tapioca flour takes its place)
2) Pão de queijo is sold on every street corner in the city where I lived in Brazil
3) Pão de queijo is delicious!
So it was my hankering to recreate my time in Brazil that lead me to a pão de queijo recipe of dubious origin (wikipedia), and got me to turn on my large, inefficient oven despite the New York heat. (Coincidentally, two men from ConEdison stopped by in the midst, to offer me a fixed-rate plan to offset the summer spikes in our electricity bill, which was surely suffering from that oven and the air conditioning unit on at the same time!)
In its most basic form, pão de queijo contains polvilho (fine manioc or tapioca flour), fresh cheese, milk, eggs, water, and salt. Obviously, the polvilho would be the hardest ingredient to find, but up here in the Heights, my Dominican neighbors are almost as fond of manioc as the Brazilians are, and I easily found manioc flour at the local supermarket.
The rest was quite easy: a little mixing, boiling, stirring, waiting -- and a quick bite with jam, once the little balls had come out of the oven.
The texture wasn't bad -- it had the characteristic chewiness of anything made with manioc -- but my version seemed to lack a bit of flavor. Perhaps I didn't use enough cheese, as I was just guessing as to how much grated Piave equals 6 ounces. The batter also seemed a bit lumpy, and my pães are hardly the round spheres that I was accustomed to seeing in Brazil. Still, I couldn't stop eating it, piping hot from the oven, with a touch of jam, and decided to make a dinner of it:
But now, as I pass my days examining scientific articles, and spend my words on edits, and charts, and summaries, I wish for something less impartial or objective: I want interpretation. I want the subjective, the voice of one.
I am listening to a Librivox recording of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow; it accompanied me in my travels during the last few days, as I traversed New England by bus and automobile and, this afternoon, returned home to New York.
There must be so many examples, in literature, of the structure of human relationships: the words that make us whole, or the bonds that press too tightly, or forthright passion and regard for the other. Before psychotherapy, humans found ways to heal one another; they saw what was "good" in their communion and labeled it as such. In the early years of the last century a few writers, like Lawrence (and Proust and H. James and Joyce as well), sketched out these intimate moments, before psychological notions like Winnicott's "good enough mother" or Bowlby's "attachment theory" laid them bare, operationalized and stiff.
There is a passage in The Rainbow, in the early chapters of the book, that is so beautiful and true to life in its portrayal of a stepfather gaining the trust of his stepdaughter, that I must include it here. How much Lawrence understood of what goes on between two people! --and of childhood, and absurd jealousies, and the smallest of gestures that prove love! The social sciences are not nearly so eloquent in their depictions of family relationships; I wish that passages like the following might stand alongside flow-charts and diagrams, as earlier, but no less valid, efforts to explain human anguish and redemption.
The protagonist of the segment in question is Tom Brangwen, a yeoman farmer in 19th-century Nottinghamshire. In this passage his wife, of Polish origin, is in labor with their first child, attended by a midwife in the upstairs of their home. Her daughter from her previous marriage, Anna Lensky, is a skittish, fretful child who is beside herself with grief over her temporary separation from her mother.
He set the child on his knee, and sat again in his chair beside the fire, the wet, sobbing, inarticulate noise going on near his ear, the child sitting stiff, not yielding to him or anything, not aware. A new degree of anger came over him. What did it all matter? What did it matter if the mother talked Polish and cried in labour, if this child were stiff with resistance, and crying? Why take it to heart? Let the mother cry in labour, let the child cry in resistance, since they would do so. Why should he fight against it, why resist? Let it be, if it were so. Let them be as they were, if they insisted.
And in a daze he sat, offering no fight. The child cried on, the minutes ticked away, a sort of torpor was on him.
It was some little time before he came to, and turned to attend to the child. He was shocked by her little wet, blinded face. A bit dazed, he pushed back the wet hair. Like a living statue of grief, her blind face cried on.
"Nay," he said, "not as bad as that. It's not as bad as that, Anna, my child. Come, what are you crying for so much? Come, stop now, it'll make you sick. I wipe you dry, don't wet your face any more. Don't cry any more wet tears, don't. It's better not to. Don't cry--it's not so bad as all that. Hush now, hush--let it be enough."
His voice was queer and distant and calm. He looked at the child. She was beside herself now. He wanted her to stop, he wanted it all to stop, to become natural.
"Come," he said, rising to turn away, "we'll go an' supper-up the beast."
He took a big shawl, folded her round, and went out into the kitchen for a lantern.
"You're never taking the child out, of a night like this," said Tilly [the servant].
"Ay, it'll quieten her," he answered.
It was raining. the child was suddenly still, shocked, finding the rain on its face, the darkness.
"We'll just give the cows their something-to-eat, afore they go to bed," Brangwen was saying to her, holding her close and sure.
There was a trickling of water into the butt, a burst of rain-drops sputtering on to her shawl, and the light of the lantern swinging, flashing on a wet pavement and the base of a wet wall. Otherwise it was black darkness: one breathed darkness.
He opened the door, upper and lower, and they entered into the high, dry barn, that smelled warm even if it were not warm. He hung the lantern on the nail and shut the door. They were in another world now. The light shed softly on the timbered barn, on the whitewashed walls, and the great heap of hay; instruments cast their shadows largely, a ladder rose to the dark arch of a loft. Outside there was the driving rain, inside, the softly-illuminated stillness and calmness of the barn.
Holding the child on one arm, he set about preparing the food for the cows, filling a pan with chopped hay and brewer's grains and a little meal. The child, all wonder, watched what he did. A new being was created in her for the new conditions. Sometimes, a little spasm, eddying from the bygone storm of sobbing, shook her small body. Her eyes were wide and wondering, pathetic. She was silent, quite still.
In a sort of dream, his heart sunk to the bottom, leaving the surface of him still, quite still, he rose with the panful of food, carefully balancing the child on one arm, the pan in the other hand. The silky fringe of the shawl swayed softly, grains and hay trickled to the floor; he went along a dimly-lit passage behind the mangers, where the horns of the cows pricked out of the obscurity. The child shrank, he balanced stiffly, rested the pan on the manger wall, and tipped out the food, half to this cow, half to the next. There was a noise of chains running, as the cows lifted or dropped their heads sharply, then a contented, soothing sound, a long snuffing as the beasts ate in silence.
The journey had to be performed several times. There was the rhythmic sound of the shovel in the barn, then the man returned walking stiffly between the two weights, the face of the child peering out from the shawl. Then the next time, as he stooped, she freed her arm and put it round his neck, clinging soft and warm, making all easier.
The beasts fed, he dropped the pan and sat down on a box, to arrange the child.
"Will the cows go to sleep now?" she said, catching her breath as she spoke.
"Will they eat all their stuff up first?"
"Yes. Hark at them."
And the two sat still listening to the snuffing and breathing of cows feeding in the sheds communicating with this small barn. The lantern shed a soft, steady light from one wall. All outside was still in the rain. He looked down at the silky folds of the paisley shawl. It reminded him of his mother. She used to go to church in it. He was back again in the old irresponsibility and security, a boy at home.
The two sat very quiet. His mind, in a sort of trance, seemed to become more and more vague. He held the child close to him. A quivering little shudder, re-echoing from her sobbing, went down her limbs. He held her closer. Gradually she relaxed, the eyelids began to sink over her dark, watchful eyes. As she sank to sleep, his mind became blank.
When he came to, as if from sleep, he seemed to be sitting in a timeless stillness. What was he listening for? He seemed to be listening for some sound a long way off, from beyond life. He remembered his wife. He must go back to her. The child was asleep, the eyelids not quite shut, showing a slight film of black pupil between. Why did she not shut her eyes? Her mouth was also a little open.
He rose quickly and went back to the house.
"Is she asleep?" whispered Tilly.
He nodded. The servant-woman came to look at the child who slept in the shawl, with cheeks flushed hot and red, and a whiteness, a wanness round the eyes.
"God-a-mercy!" whispered Tilly, shaking her head.
He pushed off his boots and went upstairs with the child. He became aware of the anxiety grasped tight at his heart, because of his wife. But he remained still. The house was silent save for the wind outside, and the noisy trickling and splattering of water in the water-butts. The was a slit of light under his wife's door.
He put the child into bed wrapped as she was in the shawl, for the sheets would be cold. Then he was afraid that she might not be able to move her arms, so he loosened her. The black eyes opened, rested on him vacantly, sank shut again. He covered her up. The last little quiver from the sobbing shook her breathing.