Category Archives: Food Thoughts

La Notte di San Giovanni: Midsummer Food & Drink Rituals in Italy

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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.

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Saint Martin’s Feast Day

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‘The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day’

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.

Mugello Marvels: Vino in Tavola

Andrea Guidotti in front of his fabulous bottega, Vino in Tavola

Andrea Guidotti in front of his fabulous bottega, Vino in Tavola

Mugello Marvels explores the flavors and traditions of the Mugello region of northeast Tuscany, with an emphasis on local chefs, restaurants, food fairs, and events.

I’m happy to launch this new category, Mugello Marvels, with a post dedicated to what is arguably my favorite spot in all the Mugello. Vino in Tavola is a convivial Italian bottega-style shop and deli located in the heart of Borgo San Lorenzo, a place locals frequent come the lunch hour to enjoy a panino and a glass of wine at the cozy counter. It’s also popular at the aperitivo hour.

crostini e vino, a perfect snack

crostini e vino, a perfect snack

Others come here to fill up hefty vessels with choice vino sfuso (think wine on tap), carefully selected by shop owner and connoisseur of tasty stuff, Andrea Guidotti, or to browse the selection of gourmet products, many of which are rarely if ever found in Italian markets. Which leads me to a digression…

I’ve written elsewhere about the lack of culinary diversity in Italy. Now, before you Italophiles start hollering about regional differences, note that I’m not talking about the various distinct traditions from region to region within Italy. I mean, rather, international cuisine and the foodways of others, about which Italians can be mighty suspicious and even disdainful. You folks reading this from America or the UK might not realize just how much you take for granted when shopping for, say, a specific type of cheese, since your favorite market no doubt offers not only a good selection of French and Italian cheeses but also those made in your own and other countries. Finding a good French chevrè or English cheddar in Italy is akin to a treasure hunt. Seriously, to judge by the paltry selection at large Italian supermarket chains, you’d think Brie was the only cheese France had to offer—a generic, underwhelming Brie at that.

I come from a country where even the most unexceptional of food stores will have an entire aisle dedicated to products from around the world.  Where I now live, those items, few and second-rate, are found tucked away in a sad, meter-wide section labeled ‘ethnic’ foods: a jar of Pace brand salsa, some rice noodles, perhaps Worcestershire sauce, a can of Uncle Ben’s beans. In some larger Italian cities, so-called ethnic foods stores do offer more in the way of variety, but at exorbitant prices and erratic availability. Sure, I can get cilantro or lemongrass, if I’m willing to travel two hours to visit one of these negozi etnici. Maybe I’ll pick up a rock-hard avocado that’s travelled from South Africa or Israel, if I don’t mind spending about 3 euros (the avocado is completely misunderstood in Italy). Closer to home, I could get lucky at our local grocery store, if I’m able to persuade the gal stocking shelves that a powder made from dried garlic is not a figment of my foreign imagination. An anecdote: once a French woman on holiday  stopped me at the supermarket: ‘Where is the salted butter?’ she asked. When I answered that it was very hard to come by—both of us eyeing the thirty-some brands of unremarkable Italian-made unsalted butter—she thought surely we’d not understood each other. C’est bizarre! A nearby Italian woman chimed in, suggesting a shop that might have salted butter—in another town.

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Plaisir au Chablis from Burgundy and Le Brebiou from the French Pyrenees

Living in this land of culinary insularity has meant mastering, or at least getting comfortable with, the art of the work-around—growing cilantro and other ‘exotic’ herbs and making buttermilk and drying and grinding garlic for powder—which might seem resourceful but is really a time-sucking drag. Sometimes you need an ingredient that doesn’t require weeks of advance planning, you know? This brings me back to Vino in Tavola.

I wouldn’t call Vino in Tavola an ethnic store. Yet the selection of rare and international items Andrea stocks makes it truly unique among shops. He cultivates relationships with trusted wine-makers and producers well beyond Tuscany, and the results of his research and efforts can be seen in every square inch of his meticulously-kept, quaint, friendly place of business. Browsing the shelves and chatting with Andrea about newly arrived items is always a pleasure.  Especially the cheeses.

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gruyère, raw goat’s milk robiola, and English cheddar – heaven!

Vino in Tavola is also great for gifts. You can put together a lovely holiday basket here, choosing from among the excellent Italian and French wines, artisanal beers, and liquors.

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Italian and French wines and champagnes

And here’s a sampling of other items you’ll find at Vino in Tavola:

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Escargots in Borgo San Lorenzo? Wonder of wonders!

colatura di Cetara

colatura di Cetara, the dreamy, anchovy-based sauce recalling garum of ancient Roman cuisine

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a few 'ethnic' items

‘ethnic’ rice varieties

uncommon snack foods

uncommon snack foods

'nduja from Spilinga - aka the real deal

‘nduja from Spilinga – aka the real deal

I always feel a bit of a thrill when I walk through the doors at Vino in Tavola, wondering what new, tasty item will have arrived on Andrea’s shelves since my last visit. Sometimes I leave the shop with ideas for the blog, such as this post on the ‘purgatory beans’ of Gradoli, which I learned about thanks to a little bag of these storied white beans I spotted at Vino in Tavola. And I always leave with a bottle of wine or two, some butter—French and salted—and a smile.

Vino in Tavola
Piazza Dante, 22
Borgo San Lorenzo (FI)
tel: 055 845 5212
info@vinointavola.com

St John’s Eve: Herbal Remedies & Ancient Rituals to Mark Midsummer

John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse, John William. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. 1909.

The days surrounding the summer solstice abound with legends, divinations and rituals involving water, plants, and fire. Throughout mostly rural areas of Europe, the night between June 23 and June 24, the feast day of St John the Baptist (his nativity) is marked by festivals and bonfires, flaming wheels rolling down mountainsides, ritualistic smoke purification of livestock, the burning of aromatic herbs to ward off evil and promote physical health, and more. Perhaps no day on the calendar juxtaposes ancient pagan rites with Catholic tradition as beguilingly as June 24, as both a Church feast day and the day on which Midsummer is observed. Here in Italy, at the center of this heady concoction of symbolism and ritual, witches and fairies, nature spirits and Christian saints, herbal remedies, purifying ablutions, potions and even the malocchio, is the curious secular tradition of gathering still-green walnuts to make the liquor known as nocino.

On the eve of St John, herbs are believed to possess especially strong healing powers (many aromatics are, in fact, harvested this time of year, having just flowered, with aromas at their most intense—surely no coincidence). Herbs and aromatics to gather on St John’s eve include St John’s wort (obviously), wormwood, verbena/vervain, elderberry, lavender, mint, rosemary, garlic and onion. Even fruits such as red currant and hawthorn berries are believed to protect against evil, if gathered on this day.

Some of these plants, when used in the preparation of a special brew known as l’acqua di San Giovanni, or St John’s water or dew, are thought to bring not only physical benefits but also spiritual salvation and protection bestowed from the saint himself—but only if you follow a peculiar and precise ritual: the water is made by placing lavender leaves and flowers, St John’s wort, calamint/nepeta, rue/ruta, rosemary and more (too many variations to list, in truth) in a basin full of water, which is then left overnight, outside the house, to absorb the curative and protective powers transmitted via the saint, or the dew, or the moonlight, or the heightened cosmic forces, generally. The following morning, women who wash with this water will improve their looks and ward off disease (who knew!?). Variations result in different apotropaic qualities; the addition of wormwood, for instance, will protect against the evil eye.

One similar custom involves gathering dew directly from trees and plants on this night, with the resulting distillation purported to foster hair growth, improve fertility, cure skin afflictions, and keep illness at bay; while another version, perhaps devised for the lazier among us, calls for leaving a cloth out overnight, the moisture from which is then wrung out in the morning. Even more practical (this is the method I’d use) is simply placing a glass in a hole in the ground and letting the precious St John’s dew drizzle in, which, again, seems designed for the less industrious types, yet in its simplicity suggests something rather fascinating: that even without the addition of herbs and flowers, any dew gathered on this morning contains magical properties.

Many St John-related rituals center on mating, nuptials, and marital harmony, given this night’s age-old association with male-female balance and harmony. In one version, a young, yet-to-wed woman places three fava beans—one intact, one peeled, and one broken—under her pillow before going to sleep on June 23. During the night she selects one without looking and learns her fate: the intact bean signifies riches, a good match; the half bean portends a mediocre destiny; and the peeled bean, a bad omen altogether. In another, the eating of snails, specifically their tentacles, on St John’s day grants men protection from misfortune and in particular from being made a cuckold: the snail tentacle, which resembles a horn, le corna, represents a kind of edible amulet against what’s known in Italian as mettere le corna, a not-so-nice idiom for infidelity.

Of all today’s quirky traditions, the gathering of walnuts to make nocino, also considered therapeutic, is likely the most familiar (and observed) in Italy. But it’s not without its own offbeat backstory. A centuries-old legend maintains that witches would gather on this night around an ancient walnut tree in Benevento; in fact, one interpretation of these many rituals meant to protect and ward off evil forces relates to this tale—that on this night so rife with other-worldly influence, one was particularly susceptible to acts of witchery and must take protective measures against those journeying to the coven in Benevento.  (St John’s Eve is also commonly referred to as La Notte delle Streghe, or Night of the Witches). Moreover, walnuts have long been linked to both medicinal and magical practices, going back to the Druids. To make a proper nocino, the unripe fruits, thus imbued with healing powers, must be picked—you guessed it—on this and only this night, by a virgin maiden, barefoot and dressed in white, using only her hands or wooden tools. She must climb the walnut tree after the moon rises to gather an uneven number of fruits.

Interested? Check out Judy Witts Francini’s recipe for nocino.

Alla Gricia: A Sauce With Many Stories

alla gricia with strozzapreti (don’t tell the purists!)

Alla gricia, considered by many the antecedent to all’amatriciana and alla carbonara, is a pasta sauce from Lazio made with three ingredients: guanciale, pecorino romano, and black pepper. Get your hands on quality versions of these items, and you can’t go wrong. The recipe follows below. In the meantime, some history.

Here are but a few theories about the origins of alla gricia: Is this the sauce that folks from Amatrice who immigrated to Rome modified with the addition of tomato, resulting in the now-famous all’amatriciana? For some, yes. Or could it be that the sauce comes from Grisciano, a small town in the Accumoli district not far from Amatrice? The locals would have us believe so.

The predominant theory, however, points to the word gricio, a Roman term for bread-makers used in the 15th century. I Grici came to Rome from the Swiss Canton of Grisons, or Cantone de’ Grigioni in Italian. (The canton, in turn, takes its name from the Lega Grigia, or Grey League, one of three 14th-century leagues that formed the canton whose members were known for wearing simple clothing, grey in color). In Rome, the word griscium also referred to the uniform worn by members of the arte bianca, the bakers’ guild—specifically to the coat, also grey, they wore over their clothes to shield against flour. In time, the term gricio acquired a negative meaning, something akin to oaf, hick, or rube—a shabby man, in short. Bakers apparently had a reputation in Rome for being poor dressers, with or without their trademark griscium. They wore pants that hit above the ankle, an unforgivable fashion faux pas that gave rise to the Roman ‘er carzone a la gricia’ (I’m guessing ‘gricia pants’?) and the Neapolitan ‘zompafuossi’ pants, which must be what we’d call ‘highwaters’ in English.

Though short on style, the Grici were unquestionably skilled bread-makers, and they maintained a stronghold on the Roman arte bianca for some time. By the 19th century, the term gricio acquired a broader meaning, used to refer to immigrants from German and Swiss regions generally, and even those from northern Lombardy. Having by this time expanded into other fields, such as the minor guild of the oliandoli—oil vendors who also dealt in all manner of kitchenware, food sundries, and provisions—the Grici saw their reputation in Rome degenerate further. Already considered crude mountain people, and resented for their independent, frugal ways, the Grici also gave credit in the form of small though very precise loans, and as meticulous creditors had the habit of nailing up credit slips in their shops. They kept later hours than members of other guilds, to collect the petty debts owed them; and a charcoal stove present in the bottega allowed them to cook and eat their meals without closing up shop. Perhaps this saying in Roman dialect best sums up the common view of the Grici: ‘Er Griciosi nun fosse rafacano sarebbe puro bbono.’ Roughly,This Gricio, he’d be all right if he weren’t such a miser.’

Back to the pasta sauce. Though I’ve not been able to substantiate this, I think alla gricia must be at least partly a result of the reputed Gricio parsimony.  Requiring as it does only small quantities of select ingredients to create a superb flavor, alla gricia certainly yields maximum returns.

Pasta alla Gricia

Use 80-100 grams of short rod pasta or 80 grams of long pasta per serving (purists will say either rigatoni or spaghetti, strictly).  For the sauce, I estimate a small handful, about 1/2 cup, of sliced guanciale per serving and about 1/4 cup grated pecorino romano. Start the pasta water, and salt it lightly as the sauce ingredients are very salty already.  Slice the rind away from the guanciale and then slice it into 1-centimeter thick slices lengthwise, then into smaller strips. Cook on very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat has melted and turned transparent. Grind in a good amount black pepper and add a ladle-full of the pasta cooking water. When the pasta is ready, scoop it out and combine well with the sauce and add in the grated cheese.

This video from Giallo Zafferano, in Italian but easy to follow, is a good visual aid, especially on how to slice the guanciale. Interestingly, here Sonia Peronaci recounts yet another theory about the origin of this sauce. According to Peronaci, alla gricia predates the arrival of tomatoes in Europe (which is most certainly true), but in her version it was invented by shepherds in the Lazio region.

Another Gastro Gaffe? Chef Carlo Cracco’s Scandalous Sugo all’Amatriciana

spaghetti all'amatriciana

all’amatriciana, sans garlic

Here we go again. Just weeks after a Star brand television commercial stirred a heated debate with its portrayal of a Sicilian housewife adding a bouillon cube to the classic dish caponata, Italians are once more up in arms over another publicized violation of a beloved dish—this time, the pasta sauce known as sugo all’amatriciana. At the heart of the heresy is Carlo Cracco, an accomplished Italian chef and restaurateur whose steely-eyed manner wreaks fear and trembling on MasterChef Italia contestants. This week, during a guest appearance on the popular (really horrible, actually) television show C’è Posta Per Te, Cracco stated that he adds aglio in camicia, or unpeeled garlic, to his amatriciana sauce.

The reaction? Well, for starters, a Google News search for ‘Carlo Cracco’ yielded over 120 articles in the Italian media today. And as one Italian journalist cheekily put it, Cracco is sure to be roasted for this ‘MasterChoc’ (choc being the Italianized form of the English loan word shock). Particularly piqued are the people of Amatrice, the town in northern Lazio from which the dish gets its name. The mayor of Amatrice—that’s right, the mayor—has, in addition to inviting Cracco to Amatrice to ‘learn’ how to make the true sugo all’amatriciana, responded by publishing the only ingredients sanctioned in his town’s namesake sauce on the main page of the city’s official website: guanciale, pecorino cheese, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, black pepper and chilli pepper. Sans garlic, fool.

What’s more, don’t go thinking you can toss just any old pasta in an amatriciana sauce (I mean, do you have a death wish or something?) Spaghetti. Only spaghetti. It says so right on the sign for Amatrice, for Pete’s sake!—

Spaghetti City

Spaghetti City

A Caponata Controversy, or How to Piss Off a Sicilian

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

You gotta love Italians. For a population at times so indifferent to its societal troubles (political corruption, tax evasion, pension reform, pollution, to name a few), they are oddly disposed to rather vocal, even organized indignation when it comes to their food.

A commercial for Star brand dadi, or what we’d call bouillon cubes, is being lambasted these days as an ‘insult to Sicilian cuisine.’ The spot features a Sicilian woman at her stove alongside Tiziana Stefanelli, winner of the second MasterChef Italia, and as the two cheerily proceed with making a Sicilian classic, caponata, one of them adds a (gasp!) Star dado—the source of all the recent uproar. With the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi visible through a background window, the setting is unmistakably Palermo, although many have been quick to point out the housewife speaks nothing like a palermitano (wanting to disassociate, no doubt). Like salt on a wound, she then recites the slogan, Se non c’è il dado non c’è caponata, e se non c’è caponata non c’è famiglia (roughly: ‘Without a bouillon cube there’s no caponata, and without caponata there’s no family’). People are totally freaking out.

The outcry on the web includes a Facebook page called La caponata Siciliana non va profanata (‘Sicilian caponata must not be desecrated’), an outlet for indignant Italians to voice their stance that using a dado in a caponata is both insulting and unnecessary. Some are calling for the commercial to be cancelled. As well, the Star brand’s Facebook page has been filled with critical comments regarding the commercial, while on Twitter the hashtag #savecaponata is getting a fair amount of play.

Protests have come as well in the form of letters to Star’s customer service department, and in several posts on sites and blogs dedicated to Sicilian cooking, with apt doses of wit and brio. I counted at least five bloggers using the adopted slogan alla faccia del dado Star (‘In your face, Star bouillon’). Too many media outlets to count are covering the controversy.

In a post titled Giù le mani dalla mia caponata (‘Hands off my caponata’), journalist and Palermo native Giusi Battaglia, in addition to criticizing Stefanelli for having ‘colluded’ with Star, had this to say (my translation): ‘If there is one thing we Sicilians can be proud of, it is our centuries-long gastronomic culture. A bouillon cube in caponata is like Lucifer in heaven. Period.’ Battaglia says she contacted Stefanelli, citing the latter’s duty to decline such a request from a multinational, calling the whole business ‘dirty’ and detrimental to her credibility. Stefanelli’s response? ‘My husband is Sicilian. I know how to make caponata. The bouillon cube helps to bring all the flavors together, especially for amateur cooks.’

Meanwhile, the Star group’s response has been simple: ‘In this spot we are showing one interpretation of the recipe, one which can be personalized, as with the addition of other ingredients.’ Actually, caponata does vary throughout southern Italy. Some versions include artichokes, others fish, or peeled whole tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, and so on. Yours truly recently made a version of caponota with prawns. So, in theory, Star’s defense is sensible. Recipes change. Variations abound.

But no one’s having it. The frenzy over this spirited dado debate—which at its core seems to me not about adding or varying an ingredient but rather the lowly bouillon cube itself, widely considered a culinary shortcut of poseurs and dilettantes—continues to gain steam and yield evermore imaginative responses. The folks at StrEat Palermo recently posted a video in which they explain how the bouillon cube can be used in another Palermo specialty, pani câ meusa, a sandwich made from veal organs. It’s pretty funny. Still others are advocating for reason and good sense, summed up by a comment I saw recurring across various media: Hasn’t Sicily got other things to worry about?

An Island Wonder: Tradition & Innovation at Ventotene’s ‘Il Giardino’ Restaurant

a tour de force

a tour de force

There are so many reasons to visit the tiny Italian island Ventotene. To convince you, I could talk about the island’s fascinating history—of the tufa-carved port that served the structure known today as Villa Giulia, Emperor Augustus’s luxurious vacation villa that would become his daughter, Julia’s, place of exile. I could post pictures of the endlessly stunning seascapes, or recount my experiences with some of the island’s uber-friendly locals (fewer than 900 in off-season).  If you’re anything like me, however, the one aspect of a place sure to hook your interest will be its food. And on this count, Ventotene will not disappoint.

Recently I met the two skilled and charming cooks at Il Giardino, Candida and Christian.

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Christian is from Ecuador and has lived in Italy for 13 years. He moved to Ventotene after living six years in Rome, during which time he was chef assistant to Giovanni Passerini at Uno e Bino, an acclaimed establishment in Rome’s San Lorenzo quarter that closed about five years ago (Passerini went on to start Rino in Paris). Today Christian works alongside the restaurant founders, Candida and Giovanni, who opened Il Giardino over thirty years ago, and their children.

In the kitchen, Candida’s extensive cooking experience and knowledge of the island—its abundance, its limitations—pair perfectly with Christian’s flair, innovation, and hard-won expertise, resulting in dishes that are at once harmonious, delectable, and beautiful to behold. Per Giovanni’s vision, Il Giardino strives to use only products available on Ventotene. This means no or very little meat. As Candida explains, birds are protected on Ventotene, a migratory stopover; so birds are ‘off the menu’. There are no livestock farms here, and while the cooks could pick up some pre-packaged meats delivered from the mainland to the island grocer, doing so would not be in line with the restaurant’s philosophy. There is no game to hunt on Ventotene, save the occasional rabbit, which local hunters might sell to Candida from time to time. Yet outside sporadic windfalls of this kind, the menu at Il Giardino is based exclusively on fish and seafood—selected each morning at the port by Giovanni himself—and vegetables grown on the island, fairly bountiful: onion, tomato, zucchini, eggplant, peas, artichokes, lentils, potatoes, and more.

Working within the limitations of this island life must surely be a challenge, and no doubt lesser cooks would falter. These two have absolutely flourished. Have a look at the two astonishing dishes Christian kindly prepared for me, using local, fresh ingredients favored by the restaurant.

Carpaccio of Marinated Ricciola Fish

The ricciola, marinated in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, is served with an orange emulsion, fresh fennel, bean sprouts, and capers. You will be forever dubious of cooked fish after tasting this melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.

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Fried Zucchini Flowers with Tomato Confit & Capers

The flower is stuffed with ricotta and pecorino and fried to perfection. But what renders this dish a tour de force is Christian’s trademark confit, made by oven-cooking Pachino tomatoes low and slow (100 °C for 3 hours) with clove, lemon zest, and powdered sugar.

Ventotene is reachable by ferry from the town Formia, located on the Gulf of Gaeta and roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. In summer the island bursts with visitors, and the season peaks with ten days of festivities leading up to September 20, feast day of the island’s patron saint, Candida. When I arrived on Ventotene, the celebrations had concluded by just a few days, and the atmosphere was thrilling and blustery yet calm, with few tourists in sight. Just the odd sea view or two to whet your appetite (I couldn’t resist!):

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

Fava Beans & Favism

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

If you’ve never heard of it, favism, or favismo in Italian, sounds suspiciously like a food legend or superstition. In fact, favism is a real hereditary disease resulting from a defect of the gene that regulates glucose-6-phosphate, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a condition especially of males of Mediterranean descent that is marked by the development of hemolytic anemia upon consumption of broad beans or inhalation of broad bean pollen and is caused by a usually inherited deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate.’

Most people live with favism symptom-free, yet when it does manifest, the disease can lead to, among other things, serious kidney problems. The term favism is a bit of a misnomer, since not all people affected with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency—the technical name, commonly abbreviated as G6PD deficiency—will manifest symptoms after consuming fava beans or being exposed to pollens. Women can carry this genetic defect and pass it to male offspring.

About 400 million people worldwide have G6PD deficiency, predominantly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean. Rates of favism are high in Sardinia, also known for its high rate of centenarians. Interestingly, a recent study by the University of Sassari suggests a connection between G6PD deficiency and longevity: scientists observed that the lack of the G6PD enzyme was twice as common in Sardinian centenarians, leading them to theorize a relationship between a so-called ‘longevity gene’ and the genetic defect that causes this particular deficiency. (Sardinia is one of the world’s five blue zones—areas with the highest documented rates of longevity—along with Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; the Greek island Ikaría; and Loma Linda, California.) So perhaps there’s a silver lining to favism.

For the rest of us, fava beans are a tasty and versatile legume, rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals*. Some of the many ways to eat fava beans are raw with pecorino cheese, cooked lightly and tossed with pasta and pecorino (pictured above), or processed into a pesto-like paste to spread on crostini with other vegetables, cheese, or grilled prawns, as pictured here:

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*Fava beans contain isoflavones, which are considered both good (as antioxidants) and potentially bad (as phytoestrogens). Whether isoflavones should be moderated in the diet is debatable, as some clinical studies have shown these substances to have beneficial therapeutic and disease prevention qualities, while others suggest they should be avoided for the same reasons one would avoid consuming any synthetic hormone. Fava beans are included, for instance, in The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook as a ‘healthy’ food, while the Mayo Clinic website also notes: ‘Studies on phytoestrogens—whether from food or supplements—haven’t shown a convincing and consistent effect on hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms. Some experts speculate that phytoestrogens could increase the risk of breast cancer or interfere with the effectiveness of tamoxifen in women with breast cancer.’ Most current discussions of the potential risks associated with phytoestrogens center on soybeans and derivative products, such as milk and oils.

 

La Fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno: The Umbrian Resurrection of an Ancient Legume

la fagiolina

la bella fagiolina, whose multiple colors are a result of biodiversity

The fagiolina del lago Trasimeno is a tiny, multi-colored legume cultivated in the lands around Lake Trasimeno in Umbria since as far back as the third century B.C., an era in which it formed part of the Etruscan diet. In the mid-19th century, however,  the fagiolina faced near-extinction; at a time of increased production of profitable crops such as corn and sunflower, the fagiolina fields, which require manual labor from sowing to reaping, were all but abandoned. But today, thanks to the efforts of farmers such as Flavio Orsini of the Azienda Agraria Orsini, the fagiolina is making a comeback.

About 25 years ago, when many farmers were starting to incorporate new technologies and machinery in cultivation, the Orsini family farmers were looking to the past, to the ancient farming methods of their region. In doing so, they contributed to the resurrection, if you will, of not only the species but its traditional cultivation as well. The beans are planted by hand in the spring and harvested by hand in late summer. The harvest is complex, requiring a knowing eye and firm grasp of the plant’s natural progression: the pods are ready when crisp and pale yellow in color, yet only some pods will be ready at the time of the first picking, in July or August. Daily hand picking continues in this very selective manner until perhaps a week or even two after the first picking, when the final straggler pods are ready. Harvesting ends not according to a day on the calendar, but when the plant begins to weaken and transform. The picked plants are then rolled up like hay bales and used as feed for the farm animals, and the ground is left to rest until early spring. Meanwhile, the pods are sheathed—a manual procedure involving three persons and a machine once used to separate grape skins from pulp, today adapted to separate the legumes from their pods. Then the process of drying the legumes begins.

Cultivating la fagiolina is an arduous business. Little profit or glory can be gleaned from an enterprise of this kind, which makes the Orsini family’s work all the more admirable. While visiting the Orsini Farm during the This is your time Travel Blog Tour, we learned that a full hour of picking yields about a kilogram of beans. After a few hours at the farm, I needed no further convincing of the fagiolina’s special status, and yet it was not until we sat down to a lovely lunch prepared by our hosts that I truly understood what all this hard labor and dedication to old methods was all about: the fagiolina is exquisitely tender, savory, and so pretty to behold (biodiversity accounts for the range of colors). It is rich in fiber, iron, and protein, and when served with quality extra virgin olive oil, makes for a wholesome and tasty dish.

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So those Etruscans were on to something, it would seem. And the Orsini have taken that something to new (lofty and tasty) heights. Bravissimi!

This is the simple, traditional method of making a pot of la fagiolina. Serve with an excellent evoo and grilled crostini. You can liven up the recipe by adding a bit of hot chili pepper (dried or oil) or truffle shavings. I decided to add the cooked fagiolina to a pot of zuppa di vongole, pictured below.

Ingredients for 5 servings

250 grams of fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno
olive oil
salt
water

Instructions

Place the beans in a large pot of abundant cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for about 20 minutes. In the meantime bring another pot of salted water to a boil. After 20 minutes drain the beans and boil them in the next pot for another 30 minutes. Drain, saving some of the water if you want a zuppa-type plate of beans. Drizzle with a top quality oil.

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole

zuppa della fagiolina & vongole