Tasting The Boot

Searching for a memory and memento of the boot shaped Italy that's entirely exclusive and private, Anita Nair sets out on a delightful culinary journey through Italy.

Easter Monday. Rome was filled with what seemed like all of Italy. It was as if towns and villages all over Italy had emptied out; fires stamped out, doors locked, hens fed, dogs put on their leashes and everyone - man, woman, child, dog; grey old plodders, gay young friskers; mothers, fathers, uncles, brothers... had all trundled and truckled into Rome. Add to it the Japanese, the Americans, the devout pilgrims, nuns and frocked fathers of various orders and us; and everyone seemed to be everywhere. Describing Rome way back in 1819 P. B. Shelley had written to Thomas Love Peacock: "Rome is yet the capital of the world. It is a city of palaces and temples, more glorious than those which any other city contains, and of ruins more glorious than they..." Little has changed but at the best of times I hate crowds and Easter time in Rome was beginning to seem like a mistake, and an expensive one at that.

I decided to seek within this country shaped like a boot Italy one memory that was going to be mine alone. Except I wasn't sure what this memory was going to be made of. Then as I sat on a wall alongside the Pantheon nibbling at an egg sandwich and feeding the
crust to the forever foraging pigeons, I knew. Food. To give you an indication of how popular Italian food, all you need to do is a random search on the Net and you'll discover a minimum of 14.1 lakh links! Just a little more that Britney Spears and almost on par with the Pope.Nevertheless on that much-walked road, I hoped I would find a not-so-trodden path, a detour that the rest of the mob had missed, and there I would find the answer to quo vadis.

Tourist menus and gorgeous men with snowy white shirts and slicked back hair wreathed the entrances of almost every ristorante, osteria, bar or café. All very good to look at but I might as well as have stayed at home with a take-away pizza and a few back issues of GQ. In sheer desperation, my husband and I sat in bars and followed, who we assumed, were locals. They would, we hoped, take us to places everyone else disdained.

Romans eat out a lot. There could be historical reasons: owing to the dense population and catastrophe a fire could cause, it was forbidden in olden Rome to light a fire in rented apartments! To eat hot food, a Roman sought the hot-food stalls and after 2,000 years of doing so, perhaps it isn't a practice so easily shrugged off. Once or twice, our ploy worked. Mostly we discovered that they were out-of-towners as we were.

One night, a photographer friend Mino La Franca decided to take us for a walk through Trastevere. The idea was to see a section of the city through the eyes of someone who had grown up in Rome; and perhaps find a dish that would epitomize Italy for me. The problem though was Mino didn't live in Rome anymore and the restaurant he was looking for had closed down. "That's the trouble with these places. One moment they are very busy and the next moment they are out of business. Some time ago there was this restaurant where the waiters hurled abuse at you. It was considered very trendy and everyone was rushing there to get insulted. I don't think they are open anymore, either…," he grumbled as we walked out of restaurants one after the other. This one was too full of cigarette smoke; that one was much too chic; another one had a priest eating in it which meant the quality of food must be very good but the menu was insipid and the last one was full up… finally we found a ristorante bustling with people and music. Spaghetti All'Amatriciana was our first course. The egg pasta was handmade and fresh and cooked a perfect al dente. The bacon, tomatoes and chili peppers a harmonious trio that serenaded the tastebuds. And in honour of and because the pizza can be traced back to the ancient Romans who baked a focaccia like bread called picea, we settled for a pizza al proscuitto. Yet, this wasn't it.

Nor did I find it at the seafood restaurant near the university where I was taken to by a journalist with La Repubblica. Where you could either choose from a menu or leave yourself to the chef's mercy -a handsome Roman with a noble head - and sit at your table while the dishes came one after the other, all served by his taciturn German wife. Rory whose English can be best described as atypical sipped at her wine, grinned and said, "The German, they are like that, no?…Alora….he cooks very well… so I bring you here."
And, he did cook well. Fritto misto di mare, a platter of fried, baby calamari and shrimps, baked scallops in their shells, and small skewers of shrimps, scallops and calamari lightly grilled. Then the Impedata di cozze - mussels in their juices - served with toasted white bread, the spaghetti con vogole and finally a lemon icecream and espresso. It was 'splendidi' and I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to Italian seafood. But I realized that the search was going to be more difficult than ever because I could eat all of these in any good seafood place anywhere in Italy. Which meant so could the rest of the world…..

The history of Italian cooking begins when the culture of the Greek colonies popularized the art. The daily fare was simple and sober. Pork, salted fish, chickpeas, lentils, olive pickles and dried figs were eaten but at banquets the food was more varied and plentiful -soups, game in vinegar and honey sauces, sweets with almonds and walnuts and these foods also took on ritual and symbolic meanings.

Romans of the Republican Era were a sober lot with frugal dietary habits: they usually had two meals a day, prandium and supper. The custom of a breakfast of cereal, honey, dried fruit and cheese was gradually introduced. However in the imperial age, these courses were accompanied by sweet, scented wines, as well as often interludes for entertainment. Cuisine had thus become a refined pleasure and, for some, a show of wealth and originality.

From the 5th century A.D , Barbarians invaded Italy and brought with them a cuisine based on plentiful roast meats, stuffed pastries and oven-baked pies. However, for the Italian population reduced to poverty and servitude, food was rather poor. Gradually, the culinary art began a revival (especially after 1000 A.D.)in the agricultural centers around the monasteries where the famished and terrorized population had taken refuge. The general tendency was to make food healthier, more appetizing and digestible, eliminating elaborate preparation and introducing more fresh fruit and vegetables.

Around 1200 A.D. life in the courts became less difficult, commerce and social life resumed and the feudal lords frequently organized celebrations, feasts and tournaments. The spices of the East were beginning to arrive in greater quantity and their exotic aromas starting to scent the food - a prelude to coming refinements. Among the many goods brought to Europe and Italy by the explorers there were some foods whose importance was understood only in time. First, there was maize, widespread in North Italy, which, at the time of the great famines of the 17th century, became the base for the most common dish: polenta (a sort of meal mush). Then there were potatoes, tomatoes, and beans. Rice from Asia was an instant success and joined pasta as the nation`s first course. Venetian merchants imported sugar from the Orient and this, initially very expensive, was used in medicine and only later in cooking. Last there was coffee, of Turkish origin, and also first used as a medicine.

Italian cuisine reigned supreme from the end of the Middle Ages to the 17th century and had a notable influence abroad. In particular, Catherine de` Medici popularized Italian recipes (especially sweets and ice cream) in France on her marriage to the future King Henry II. It was also in this period that the first menus and rules for courses were printed and table manners were improving, albeit very slowly. Within this latter context, the Italians were the educators of Europe and the famous 'Galateo` by Monsignor Della Casa was quickly translated and distributed abroad. The principal innovation was the use of individual cutlery. The upper classes of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries enjoyed a refined cuisine. Every official event became the pretext for sumptuous feasts where the courses were abundant and the servings enormous: charcuterie, hors d`oeuvres and delicate French-style soups were followed by numerous meat and fish dishes, vegetables purees, intricate sweets and fruit, all presented with the utmost care, particularly in the rapidly spreading restaurants. However, the food of the common people remained frugal and monotonous.

Italian cuisine as it is today has its admirers. To give you an indication of how popular Italian food, all you need to do is a random search on the net and you'll discover a minimum of 1,410,000 links, just a little more that Britney Spears and almost on par with the Pope. And so I thought I would find a dish that would justify the immense expectations I had of this cuisine…but how? Where? I didn't know.

When Dante was banished from Florence in 1302, he sought refuge in Ravenna, where he remarked on 'the saltiness of other people's bread.' Apart from the hidden metaphor, the truth is in the Middle Ages Tuscan bread was baked without the expensive salt. And continues to be so even today. The Tuscans think there is no need for salt in bread. After all its function is to accompany inherently salty sausages and meat dishes. In Firenze I thought destiny would be waiting for me….After all Tuscany was where most of the western world was flocking to or aspiring to flock to; in pursuit of old fashioned living and good eating if one are to believe books like Under the Tuscan Sun and Ciao Tuscany….

The breads were many and the plain pane became my favourite antipasti. As part of the search,. I let food punctuate art. On a wet day when Florence seemed to be drowning in its own tears, I walked miles and miles through the Uffizi. After a day with the masters, I needed plain comfort food. Something with neither gilt nor ostentation. Something so consistent that the vagaries of art forms would seem inconsequential. The Ribolitta is so thick a soup that one can eat it with a fork.

In contrast, after many hours of viewing the magnificent solidity of form of Michelangelo's David, what I felt like was a reminder that all human genius is not without flaw. And so I nibbled at a few slivers of Sbricciolana, a rather soft sausage that crumbles when it's cut.
On the day I walked up and down the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge spanning the Arno River, with store after store of dainty coral jewellery, I sought the machismo meal of the bistecca alla florentina, or the Florentine t'bone steak. While the bruschetta and ossibucchi alla Toscana will always be favourite dishes, I have eaten just as flavourful ones outside Italy and as much as for culinary reasons as my desire to see what an American friend called the pin striped duomo, we took a train to Siena. Suffice to say, we went, we saw, we came back. Intacta.

It was time to move on and so we crossed the mountains to Umbria whose olive oil is only a few shades less green than the landscape it has been pressed from. For a week we were to retreat to where neither art nor tourist was present. In the outskirts of the medieval town of Assisi, we would stand and stare, not at masterpieces but at sheep that dotted the mountains or at a curl of smoke that spewed from the chimney of a well worn stone farm house…... I had a book. Nikos Kazantakis's God's Own Pauper and down the road was the little village store Giovanni's that was also both trattoria and bar. Giovanni, the old man sliced the piquante salami which we feasted on, sliced the pane, measured the butter and the olive oil, poured the grappa in the bar and lit the huge wood fire on which his wife and daughters in law cooked the various dishes on their menu. They spoke no English and we had a dozen words of Italian between us. But that didn't prevent us from discovering the ciaramicola, a ring cake or making a feast of every mealtime. I know that I hadn't eaten as well as I did in the week we spent in Umbria. It is perhaps the nearest I came to pure bliss….But the mind was unwilling to accept that this was it!

And so finally we got to Padova. Apart from housing the second oldest university in all of Europe and its Giotto frescoes and the historic Café Pedrocchi, Padova has as its patron saint Sant' Antonio. He is responsible for the shipwrecked and prisoners, and he also helps find things. So if Sant' Antonio couldn't, no one else can….and he did come up trumps. Or perhaps it was Francesca Diano who did.
Francesca Diano lives and works in Padova and has translated my fiction as well as Pico Iyer, Khuswant Singh and Sudhir Kakar's work, read my cards one night and said, "My dear, your search is over."

The next evening we drove up a winding hill to Al Sasso, The Rock. If Moses had his mount and Francis his Subasino, Francesca's father had this hill that was to bring about a new way of life. One day he went up the hill to buy wine from a friend of his and on his way back, he stopped at Al Sasso for their salami. That was all they dealt in those days. Soon it became a weekly visit and Al Sasso became an osteria that anyone who had once eaten there went back to again and again.

Interestingly Al Sasso is now part of the Slow Food movement. In reaction to the desecration caused by the opening of a McDonald's in the Piazza Spagna in Rome in 1986, Carlo Petrini and gastronomically like minded friends set about creating a protest. And so the Slow Food movement came into being in Paris in 1989.

To rediscover the savours and flavours of regional cooking and to banish the degrading effects of fast food is their motto and the moment you enter Al Sasso, you know that you have come to a temple of slow food. The aromas float and waft; the wait is long but worthwhile….Chef Mirella whom Francesca knew as a girl beams when we walk into the kitchen where on a wood fire cauldrons simmered and meat hissed and spat. "Everything we eat here is produced in their farm," Francesca said. Later she explains to Mirella, a sweet faced woman in her fifties, why I am there….

"You must eat some of Mirella's sausages and then the fried chicken. And a grilled chicken breast. Don't be put off because it's chicken. They are unlike anything you've eaten," Francesca who has eaten here for the last forty three years advised. And it was while we waited for the chicken to arrive that Mirella sent to the table a white plate heaped with what looked like fried leaves…..
Pause for a moment there. Imagine the freshest of sage leaves, picked at twilight, dipped in a thin batter of corn flour [and some secret ingredients], shallow fried in olive oil and then sprinkled with salt. A multitude of tastes. An aroma that coats your senses. Everything that came after was simply second best, you knew even as you tasted that first bite. I had my memory and memento. For once I had actually carpe diem-ed…

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