Last September I happened to pass through York on my way to Cornwall. Most of you will surely sense, without even a glance at a map of the United Kingdom, a hint of folly in such a statement. Cornwall via York? From Italy? Well, yes, and I had my reasons. Namely, the chance to participate in a wonderful event hosted by the Folklore Society, where I presented on the topic of Italian midsummer food and drink rituals. The presentation and text are available online for consultation.
Tonight in various quarters of the city, countless people of Rome will enjoy the culinary specialty le lumache di San Giovanni, or St John’s snail stew. A tradition with origins in the ancient Roman festivities held this time of year—in honor of the goddesses Fortuna and Concordia, for example—fare la lumacata on the night of June 24 is a fascinating midsummer ritual millennia in the making. Why snails? Some will point immediately to the obvious reasons: snails are cheap, in abundance this time of year, fairly nutritious and, when prepared well, rather tasty. True enough, yet nothing this curious is ever without an intriguing backstory!
The eating of snails has long been equated with apotropaic powers, of invoking protection against evil as well as harmony between the sexes. The physiology of the snail accounts for much of the lore and beliefs attached to it. The ancient Romans saw in the snail’s horns, or le corna, a representation of negativity, discord and even evil forces, possibly given the easy analogy between the ‘eyes’ of the snail and il malocchio. During summer solstice festivities, the so-called concordia or pax banquets, Romans who ate snails believed they were thwarting misfortune, that in the ingesting of the embodiment of discord, the horns, they were in fact courting Concordia, or harmony.
(Those familiar with the gesto delle corna will note a connection here. But that’s another post entirely.)
There’s also a strong relationship between snail consumption and matters nuptial and erotic, much of which is, again, related to the snail’s appearance and behaviors. One can easily grasp the imaginative link between the phallic horns of the snail and male sexuality. Here the eating of snails still equates with protection: a man who eats the snail horns may avert infidelity, colloquially known in Italy as mettere le corna (cuckold = il cornuto). Not so obvious is the female side: the snail as a lunar symbol, associated with rebirth and regeneration, whose cyclical waxing and waning (of the corna) represents female rather than male qualities. Consuming the snail becomes an auspicious act for both sexes then, and in some rural areas is still believed to promote marital (or perhaps merely sexual?) harmony. (By the way, in the Roman dialect, the words for snail, ciumaca or ciumachella, are also affectionate slang terms for una bella ragazza, or a pretty girl.)
Centuries later, in a different cultural context, the ritualistic Roman snail-eating on June 24 evolved into a Catholic legend. According to the tale, some medieval Romans witnessed the ghost of Herodias, mother of Salome, calling together a coven of witches in the Lateran fields on St John’s Eve (also known as the Night of the Witches). Seeking the saint’s intervention, they took to eating snails in the piazza, clearly having inherited their ancestors’ belief in the snail’s protective powers. Over time, the location (St John Lateran Basilica) became indelibly connected to le lumache di San Giovanni, with Romans coming to the church square every June 24 to enjoy a pot of snails cooked in tomato, garlic, and herbs at local osterie. This is also where snail vendors in the 19th century set up their stands:
Francesco Duscio tells us in his book La Romanesca that part of the magic of San Giovanni was the power of reconciliation a pot of snail stew offered, that friends, lovers, or relatives who had fought in the previous year achieved, in the literal devouring of their accumulated resentments—the snail horns—harmony and mutual forgiveness.
Buon San Giovanni and Buona Lumacata!
Tucked away in the northernmost part of Italy in the Valle Aurina (Ahrntal in German), the Alpenpalace Deluxe Hotel and Spa Resort is a dreamy, elegant locale that manages an at-once über-luxurious and family-like ambiance. Here in this paradise for lovers of all things Alpine—outdoor activities galore, fascinating architecture, customs, and history, and pristine everything—I had an opportunity to chat with Andreas Schwienbacher, the talented head chef of the resort’s restaurant.
Originally from Lana near Bolzano, 24-four-year-old Schwienbacher is the youngest head chef in a 5-star hotel in the Alto-Adige region—no small accomplishment and one he is justifiably proud of. Having dreamed of becoming a chef since age 14, Andreas worked in various restaurants and hotels around the world, including nearby Austria and far-flung Australia, before taking on his role at the resort. Like many chefs, Andreas gives much credit to his experience working in the kitchens of a Michelin-starred restaurant, perhaps even more so than his training.
Talking with a professional chef is always enlightening, and tends to challenge if not upset altogether many of one’s homespun cooking preconceptions. A few minutes chatting with this focused, attentive, serious-minded young man was no exception. Some topics covered included molecular gastronomy spheres; the use of kaolin to create, among other things, edible ‘stones’ (small boiled potatoes coated in the clay-like, neutral-tasting substance); plates adorned with non-comestible items like pebbles and pine cones, to evoke the forest and natural splendor of the area; and beef (the very best must be imported from outside Italy, an inconvenient truth to we of the buy local mindset, but one I’ve heard attested to more than once by pro chefs).
The young chef’s dreams and future plans? To create an intimate, 5-table gourmet dining experience (a restaurant within a restaurant, if you will, opening soon). And to earn 15 Gault & Millau points one day. Ambitious? Have a look at a sampling of creations by this extraordinary culinary talent, and then decide.
A prosciutto ‘rose’ wrapped around a black-olive sphere, with summer herbs and flowers, a crunchy prosciutto crumble, and decorative touches from the forest:
Beef tenderloin with baby carrots, a crumble of hazelnuts, butter and flour, a kaolin-coated new potato ‘stone’, and exquisite jus:
Detail showing the (sometimes forest-themed) creativity and whimsy the chef puts into his dishes:
Close-up of the truffle butter. Because truffle butter deserves a close-up!:
Head Chef Andreas Schwienbacher (right) with Chef Garde Manger Michael Sartor
Another look at that stunning prosciutto ‘rose’:
And I’ll leave you with a pretty view, in case you still need convincing:
Schüttelbrot is a traditional bread of South Tyrol flavored with caraway seeds, coriander, fennel or aniseed, typically served with speck and cheese as an afternoon snack. This savory, crisp flatbread takes its name from the shaping method: after the dough rounds are rolled out and transferred to a baking sheet, the Bäckermeister literally shakes them into shape (schütteln = to shake). The unique flatness of this bread, called pane scosso in Italian, allows for easy storage in a slotted wooden shelf (pictured below), which together with the crisp, fast-drying texture ensures a long shelf-life—the perfect bread for farmers and peasants in the Alpine winter. Though usually around ten inches in diameter, Schüttelbrot can also be made in small, cracker-like rounds (pictured above).
The ‘Hugo’ (or Ugo, as our h-sound-challenged Italian friends pronounce it), sometimes called Hugo Spritz or Alpine Spritz, originated in the northern Italian region Alto-Adige, an area intimately familiar with herbal use in both culinary and medicinal matters, and one where the elderberry plant thrives in summer. From the genus Sambucus, elderberry is a hardy, fast-growing flowering bush widespread throughout Italy and Europe. Sambucus nigra—European elderberry or simply Sambuco in Italian, among other names—bears edible-once-cooked berries used in making jams and sauces; while from their small white flowers a delicious, delicate cordial is obtained—this syrup being the star ingredient in the Hugo Spritz, which I had the fortune to learn about and taste last night at fabulous Borgo San Lorenzo wine bar and restaurant Passaguai, thanks to the knowledge and generosity of a lovely new acquaintance. As she explained, elderflower cordial is not to be confused with (that bottled nastiness known as) Sambuca, similar only in name to sciroppo di Sambuco. To demonstrate her point, she ordered up a Hugo for us to taste (yay!):
As with so many Italian specialties, a touch of rivalry characterizes Hugo’s birth-story, particularly intriguing given that the two barmen in contention for inventor credit both hail from South Tyrol, and neither seems ready to renounce his claim on Hugo. Was it Roland Gruber who, while working in a wine bar in Naturns near Bolzano created the Hugo some 10 years ago? Very possibly, yet apparently Gruber named the Hugo without any particular reason, a fluky bit of inadvertence I find a little dubious, frankly. There’s also some debate as to whether Gruber originally used elderflower or another type of herb cordial. Could it have been Filippo Debertol of the Val di Fassa area, who has said he started mixing elderflower cordial with wine, seltzer, and mint around the same time? Debertol’s story would seem to hold up better under scrutiny: young Debertol named the drink after an elderly gentleman who would visit the family’s Alpine cabin, always bringing with him a gift of his own homemade elderflower syrup. The old man’s name? Hugo, of course.
(An aside: While researching today, I came across a discussion (in Italian) on Wikipedia from late 2013, in which Debertol’s attempts to modify the Italian entry for Hugo (cocktail) were repeatedly removed, with the explanation ‘your changes reflect something completely different from what the sources indicate, and for this reason I have restored the prior text.’ See below)
Italians love their food (and drink) debates, and this one is not going away any time soon, I imagine. No matter. The important thing is someone invented this delightful concoction, which I highly recommend adding to your summer cocktail repertoire.
6 cl Prosecco
6 cl seltzer
3 cl elderflower cordial
fresh mint leaves
Put ice in the glass. Pour in the Prosecco and cordial, followed by the seltzer. Stir gently. Garnish with fresh mint and a lemon slice (optional).
Boznersauce is a springtime specialty from Bolzano in Alto-Adige, the Italian province that together with Trentino forms one of Italy’s five autonomous regions, Trentino-Alto-Adige. Annexed from Austria by the Kingdom of Italy at the end of World War I, Alto-Adige—Südtirol in German or South Tyrol to English speakers—has retained its culturally Austrian identity in the decades since, despite an aggressive Fascist-era ‘Italianization’ program and a significant influx of Italians in the post-WWII period. Officially part of Italy for nearly a century, today Alto-Adige is still comprised predominantly of native German speakers, though Italian and German are both official languages.
The intersection of Italian and Germanic influences in South Tyrol characterizes many aspects of local culture, including cuisine. Further shaped by Viennese and Hungarian traditions, Alto-Adige’s culinary scene has earned a reputation in recent years as a gastronomic mecca, with 23 Michelin stars as of 2016. Interestingly, many non-Italian dishes, items like speck, würstel, strudel, and knödel, have entered the Italian national food canon via Alto-Adige.
The people of the Bolzano area enjoy this hollandaise-like sauce, whose name means ‘of Bozen’ (German for Bolzano), alongside fresh asparagus during Easter Sunday lunch.
2 bunches green or white asparagus
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups water
For the sauce:
4 eggs, hard-boiled
100 ml ‘light’ olive oil or seed oil of choice
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp mustard
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1-2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
3 Tbsp beef broth
¼ tsp white pepper
½ tsp salt
To make the Boznersauce, start by boiling the eggs for 8 minutes and remove from the water immediately. Heat the broth and keep warm.
When cool enough to handle, peel the eggs. Slice them in half and remove the yolks, placing the yolks in a bowl and setting the whites aside. Add the vinegar, mustard, broth, salt and pepper to the yolks. Whisk until creamy (a few lumps are fine). Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking continuously until you have a thick, smooth cream. Add the minced parsley and combine. Chop the egg white to a medium-fine mixture. Add to the egg cream and combine. Set aside at room temp while you make the asparagus.
Bring the water and wine to a simmer. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus and cook in the simmering water for 5 minutes and remove promptly. Arrange the asparagus on serving dishes and place generous scoops of the Boznersauce over them. Dust with the chopped chive.
Agatha of Sicily is an early Christian martyr and one of the most highly venerated virgin saints in Catholicism, especially so in Catania (and Palermo), where a festival in her honor takes place in the days leading up to and culminating on February 5, her feast day. Agatha celebrations include elaborate rites and processions, lights, costumes and chants. And feasting, of course. Today, one of the common treats made in honor of Saint Agatha are minne di sant’agata—pretty, oddly anatomically correct cakes shaped and decorated to looked like breasts, Agatha’s attribute, as her various tortures included having her breasts cut off.
(Has anyone else noticed a grim pattern of recreating a tortured saint’s attributes in foodstuffs? Consider as well the fluffy, saffrony lussekatter, whose raisin decorations represent Saint Lucy’s gouged-out eyes…)
Thankfully, the narrative of this particular recipe is less harrowing. One of the many stories about the saint recounts an episode involving olives: fleeing the soldiers of Quinctianus—the Roman proconsul who, failing to win the young virgin’s affections, had her tortured, sent to a brothel, and burnt at the stake—Agatha stopped to tie her shoe (yes, tie her shoe!). While she knelt, a wild olive tree sprouted up before her. The tree concealed Agatha from her pursuers and is said to have provided her with some needed nourishment. Southern Italians remember this miraculous, temporary reprieve bestowed on Agatha with these olivette di sant’agata.
200 grams blanched almonds
200 grams sugar
1 tablespoon rum
2-3 drops green food coloring
extra sugar for coating
Grind the almonds with 100 grams of the sugar in a food processor until you have a fine flour. Set aside.
In a saucepan, heat the remaining 100 grams of sugar with a couple tablespoons of water, stirring frequently, until you have a smooth syrup. Test by dropping a tiny bit onto a plate and then tilting the plate. The syrup is ready if it runs slightly down the plate and then sticks.
Remove the syrup from the heat. Add the green food coloring to the syrup and combine. Next add the ground almond mixture to the syrup along with the rum and combine well (this could take a few minutes). Transfer the mixture to a glass bowl. When cool enough to touch (but still warm), knead until you have a uniform, slightly sticky paste. Form olive shapes and roll in sugar. I used sugar that I’d colored slightly (optional), by adding a drop of coloring to the sugar and grinding briefly in a spice grinder. Leave the olives out to dry for a couple hours before serving.
The recipe can be halved or doubled.
Mugello Marvels explores the flavors and traditions of the Mugello region of northeast Tuscany, with an emphasis on local chefs, restaurants and shops, food fairs, and events.
This latest installment of Mugello Marvels once again focuses on a local establishment near and dear to me—very near in fact, located just down the road in Luco di Mugello—the Macelleria Landi Fulvio. This family-run butcher shop is an area treasure, offering top quality, locally-sourced meats and much more. But it’s the people behind the counter at Macelleria Landi who keep me coming back. Upon entering, I’m always greeted with a friendly smile and quick, professional service from the Landis, who bring decades of knowledge and skill in the butchery arts to their enterprise. Fulvio, having worked at his uncle’s butcher shop as a younger man, started his own butcher business in 1967, in a small space just behind the former post office of Luco di Mugello. Fulvio (pictured below, right) runs the shop with wife Giuliana and their son, Alessio (left) .
A lot has changed in the years since Fulvio first opened, including an expansion in 1995 after the adjacent post office closed and the Landis acquired the space. This change meant a larger counter and proper shop, plus the added advantage of a main street storefront. A small rosticceria also forms part of the business. Roasted meats to go are available, along with other prepared items like lasagne and bolognese sauce, always fresh and homemade.
The Landi family are just the sort of neighborhood butchers one hopes for. Their meats, sourced locally here in the Mugello from places like the Cooperativa Agricola Firenzuola (or occasionally even closer, the farm here in Grezzano), are always uber-fresh and excellent quality. They make their own (additive-free) sausages, too, in keeping with the business motto tutto come fatto a casa.
With their skilled hands, the Landis will clean and prep any cut of meat you like, and they always take the time to give you a few cooking tips on whatever you’ve purchased. You can also choose from the selection of pre-seasoned, never-disappointing items ready and on display in the cold case, such as pork loin, lamb chops, marinated chicken pieces, and so on.
One particularly special aspect of the shop is the impressive assortment of gourmet items, selected by Alessio, who sources providers and contacts around Italy. A visit to this macelleria is never without the welcome diversion of browsing the fresh pasta, gourmet sauces, jams and honeys, cookies, cheeses, truffle products, and more. An impressive selection of wine, beer, and liquors is also on hand, and knowledgeable Alessio is always ready to suggest something.
During the holidays, Alessio brings in a variety of additional artisanal products, such as these beautifully-wrapped panettone cakes:
On weekends Macelleria Landi prepares and cooks roasts and more to order. In fact, on the day I visited them to learn more about their shop and the work they do, Giuliana and Alessio were preparing a traditional family recipe (passed down from Alessio’s grandmother) for roasted stuffed rabbit, which had been pre-ordered by a customer. True to the pleasant and obliging spirit of this place, the Landis offered to share the recipe with me (and you!).
Roasted Stuffed Rabbit, a Landi family recipe
Clean and debone a entire rabbit and lay the meat out flat. Adjust the meat as needed to make sure all is sealed, then salt and pepper well.
Next a thin layer of pork loin is laid on top of the rabbit meat, then a generous sprinkling of chopped rosemary, sage, and garlic, followed by a layer of prosciutto cotto.
Then a layer of frittata is added, followed by another dose of the chopped herbs and more prosciutto. Now the tricky part: carefully roll the entire rabbit closed, lengthwise. You’ll probably need an extra pair of hands to assist with this step, though Giuliana managed it impressively well!
Finally, secure the rabbit tightly with kitchen twine. Insert a few sprigs of rosemary under the twine, and roast for 90 minutes at 180ºC / 355ºF. Let rest and slice into 10 to 12 servings.
I’ll close with some photos of these lovely locals, la famiglia Landi, and my strong recommendation to pay them a visit the next time you’re in Luco di Mugello.
Here’s the mother and son team with their ready-for-the-oven masterpiece:
And father and son in front of their shop:
Macelleria Landi Fulvio
Via Garibaldi, 1
Luco di Mugello
tel: 055 840 1255
for the cream
250 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
2 Tbls sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange
3 parts Prosecco
2 parts fresh orange juice
1 part Schweppes tonic or similar
Whip the cream with the orange zest, vanilla and sugar until thick and fluffy. You’ll have enough for at least 4 to 6 drinks. Keep cool while you mix the (cold) liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Fill the glass(es) and spoon in dollops of the orange cream. Garnish with orange zest (optional).
Today, the feast day of Saint Martin, coincides (more or less) with the arrival of vino novello in Italy, the less fussy cousin of Beaujolais nouveau. Throughout Catholic Europe, Martin is associated with the harvest’s first wine and attendant revelries (à la Bruegel, pictured above). In Italy, the Martin-vino link is cemented in the popular saying A San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino; while in France he is credited with introducing and cultivating Chenin blanc in the area around Tours.
Traditional foods linked to this feast day include roast goose, beef from freshly-slaughtered, fattened cattle (‘Martinmas beef’), and various types of pastries and cookies, often shaped in the form of Martin on horseback and featuring his attributes, a cloak and a sword. This feast day is not as widely celebrated in Italy as in France and other European countries, with the exception of Venice, where San Martino is an important cultural event, a day on which children romp about banging pots and pans, singing for treats from strangers, praising the generous in honor of Martin’s charity, and cursing the miserly.
Generosity and giving, abundance and feasting, helping the poor, exchanging treats and gifts, bonfires and lanterns are all connected to Saint Martin’s feast day. For Catholics, Martinmas marks the beginning of Advent and is traditionally followed by fasting; as such, it’s a counterpart to Carnival and Fat Tuesday, another day of feasting and celebration immediately followed by Lent. In agrarian societies, it was the day agricultural work concluded—hence the celebrations— and farmhands and sharecroppers would move on for the winter season, or perhaps attend market fairs to look for work in the interim. In both religious and secular manifestations, Saint Martin’s day represents a liminal period of seasonal, physical, and liturgical transitions, marked by the kind of feasting and merry-making that so often accompanies rituals of change or passage.