Sunday, June 26, 2016

Not Everything is a Pancake (PART II)

        I have had the grace, luck, and luxury of being born to an almost centenarian southern Italian couple (my parents) who, during their childhood, endured World War II. It was inevitable that they taught me the beauty of food, beyond the acts of merely eating and cooking. The austere lives that my parents experienced – their poverty lived with dignity, from their childhood to ours – forced them to maintain their traditions intact. From pagan rituals to Sunday religious celebrations, from enchanted tales of ancient supernaturals to the reality of Fascism and war, and from speaking an ancient non-Italian language to adapting to conventional Italian: I was born during most of these transitions, to witness and learn. I probably won’t be able to pass on these kinds of profound southern Italian experiences to my children, except for one: learning and understanding the Language of Food, through the roots of time. And above all foods, one in particular (along with its simple ingredients which are synonymous with survival) with the profound understanding of its versatility which can transform it into any sort of dough for flatbread, breads, pastries, desserts, and the many shapes of hand-made pasta, and which invokes an almost primordial human memory from our deep history. Its baked, fragrant smell – the moment it is identified by our nostrils – reminds us of our attachment to the Earth and to life, and it is a symbol of this attachment in many cultures. This specific food, made with the simple combination of water and flour together, has been in our history for at least 10,000 years. And this Food is our bread, and its many varieties, present all around the world.

        The domestication of plants, grains and their processing, and the consequential development of the cooking/baking process lead ancient civilizations to develop ingenious forms of ovens that, as far back as 4,000 years ago (tandoori ovens have been found in archaeological remains in the Indus Valley from 2,600-1,900 BC), are surprisingly still in use in modern day: in many restaurants that still
bake their own bread (and roast their own meat) in this ancient and efficient fashion. And as a testament to these ovens, people 4,000 years later still love the foods they produce.
                                            Tandoori oven with naan bread, courtesy of (and special thanks to) Darbar Indian Restaurant, Palo Alto, CA.
 
          In the same way that the Indian naan flatbread (and many other ancient breads) has been passed down to present day, so did my parents’ bread, through the need to survive (with a large family to feed) and with the acrobatic culinary traditional knowledge of a mother who, to feed us, had to pull out all she knew about cooking to keep us alive. This has left a deep, indelible culinary mark on my memory and life. When supermarkets did not yet exist (this was not a “we-can-go-buy-what- we-don’t-have” lifestyle), our Ancestors had to improvise meals with the few worldly possessions they had, in combinations with wild vegetables picked from the fields surrounding their villages or cities. Many things were for want, but flour was never, ever missing from the pantry.

         In my childhood, my primary nutrition (as well as the nutrition of my sisters and most others our age) was based on bread and flour, and my mother never failed to tell me about her childhood and how important it was to know how to make bread and flour products. Not for the mere education of female children to become a good housewife in the future, but, as she used to say to me, “If you know how to make bread – to transform flour – you can survive anytime and everywhere!” Not accidentally, I did survive. And I became a chef.

          Going back to the history of my parents: every family during that time living in the old part of the ancient city of Matera (where my mother was born and still lives) would have kneaded a generous amount of semolina flour (not the same as white flour) to make bread (a mass of bread dough weighing at least 4 lbs) that would have fed an entire family and would have lasted for days. Each family had its own dough, kneaded at home. In the morning around 8AM, the employees who worked for the Baker passed from house to house, asking if there was any dough that day for bread, focaccia, and sweet focaccia to be baked. If there were any, the dough was deposited on a wooden board. Each family would have covered its dough with a cloth, and the dough would be carried to the stone oven of the neighborhood where a Baker was in charge, and paid by those families for the service of baking. And by the distinctive covering cloths, the Baker would recognize the dough-owner’s family. The Baker then, according to each cloth, applied to the top of each dough (before baking it) the symbol of the family with a wooden stamp – they had different symbols, as many as there were families. Each family had its own sign or symbol that represented the family’s name, because one’s bread was a precious belonging, and families would have seriously argued or fought if their bread was confused with the bread of another family (each family had its own recipe); even worse was what would happen if a family’s bread became lost.

       But my grandmother didn’t trust the Baker. At times, he commandeered small, unnoticed amounts of raw dough from his clients to make bread for himself, or to sell in his own stolen bread side business. In doing so, the Baker absconded with so many portions of bread which were needed by many hungry mouths. His clients were all poor and bread (along with other countless farina-based foods) has been our primary source of nutrition for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The oven where each family used to bake their bread was usually located in each neighborhood; the families of each neighborhood would recognize the oven as a common and important area (along with a fountain: their source for water) and it was the axis upon which their lives revolved. A baking oven was the hearth of a community and essential to their survival.

         The bread I am speaking of (that we still make in my city, but bake in modern bakeries and not anymore made at home) is a solid cornerstone of our tradition as much as our focaccia. After the baking process was completed, the huge loaf of bread was picked up, wrapped in a cotton towel to protect it, and used in many ways. When it became old and dry, they wouldn’t have dared to throw the bread away! And so this has been taught to me. As much as they used to, we (my sisters and I) would eat (dry old) bread for breakfast, diced and covered with honey or sugar and hot milk to moisten it and make it soft and edible. In Winter, we would have it in the form of a hot, hearty meal called “ciallédd” (pronounced approximately like "cha-LED"). It was a broth with vegetables, spices, and poached eggs poured on top of the hard bread. The bread would soften with the hot broth, but the flavorful trick was in the egg yolks (still running) which, when poked, would spread all over the bread. Another version of ciallédd was made with wild asparagus (which my family and I used to pick in the woods in the countryside) boiled in water, and poached eggs. Another ciallédd we used to eat was with hot, boiling water poured on top of a layer of old bread, orange wedges and sliced garlic, finished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of ground pepper.

           In the Summer, the refreshing version of our ciallédd was diced bread mixed with olives, olive oil, onions, basil, ground pepper, fresh oregano, capers, cucumbers, (and later came the addition of tomatoes) covered with fresh water from the well. Another common recipe was to remove the crust, soak it shortly in water and bake it with other ingredients on top: using it like a “foundation” resembling focaccia bread, for ingredients to be placed on top. The sweet version was with slices of bread lightly drizzled with olive oil, shortly baked with sugar on top (which would caramelize). When my mother kneaded huge amounts of focaccia dough, she would have saved one part of the dough for a type of focaccia called “rcchj d’uggje” (meaning “rich in oil” in the language of Matera; rcchj d'uggie is pronounced approximately like "RI-kuh DOI-gyiah") that was cooked last. This focaccia was plain and baked in olive oil; when the bottom was crunchy and golden brown, she would flip the focaccia, and gather the oil left on the bottom. Then, she would sprinkle sugar on the flipped/exposed side, then drizzle the saved oil on top of the sugar, then put it back in the oven, and leave it to bake for a little while longer. The sugar, in contact with the wetness of the oil, would crystallize, and that was our sweet dessert at the end of the meal. These cooking methods may remind some of the ancient Roman recipes of Apicius. This is not a coincidence.

                                                 Bread of Matera called "Cornetto," Acrylic on Paper. Artist A. Andrisani
         
        The white part of the bread (after the removing the crust) was crumbled and used in many dishes. When the bread crumbs were fried, they were used as a crisp topping for traditional hand-made pasta dishes. Another use of bread crumbs was to mix them with eggs and milk and cook this into a savory cake called “frittata.” Or mix with honey, ricotta, and eggs and then bake, as a dessert.

         Later, when ancient Apicius and his Roman cookbook came into my life, I discovered how much of Apicius’ recipes (and cooking procedures) I had accidentally grown up with. Deciding to begin the journey of writing about food, and starting with pancakes, I realized how much cultural and traditional origins play a fundamental role in the comprehension of these recipes. They are more than just mere ancient “recipes,” they are also guides of how to behave in a kitchen and how to deal with ingredients (especially in the absence of refrigeration or preservatives). And much of them are still in use in traditional Italian cuisines, and often have been confused with “modern interpretations” of some ancient foods. Such is the case with pancakes, and why I have felt compelled to write about them.  

           Apicius’ “Aliter Dulcia” recipes (which means “Other Sweets/Desserts” and which have been mentioned on the Internet countless times as the ancestors of our modern pancakes) are variations of desserts listed under “Dulcia Domestica” (“Home Sweets/Desserts,” as my mother still makes). Some of these “Aliter Dulcia” are made with bread previously soaked in milk and then baked, and topped with honey (like I mentioned above, a dessert of my childhood). Some variations of Apicius’ Aliter Dulcia had fruit, honey, and nuts mixed with cooked flour.  Among these recipes, Apicius mentions “Ova Sfongia Ex Lacte” (“Spongy Eggs with Milk”); this recipe calls for eggs, milk, and oil all mixed together, then fried and served with honey and pepper. Yet, this recipe contains no flour and it is closer to our Italian frittata or an omelette, than a pancake. Under the “Dulcia Domestica” category, there is another recipe called “Tiropatinam” that calls for milk mixed with honey, with the addition of eggs that are incorporated into the milk, and then strained and cooked gently until the mixture solidifies. It was served flavored with ground pepper. Again, this recipe has no flour in it and it is closer to a crème caramel or a crème brûlée (cooked custards), than a pancake. Another Aliter Dulcia recipe mentioned by Apicius has appeared to some modern authors as a version of ancient pancake: it was a dish of flour cooked in hot water, until very thick. It was then poured on a flat surface and allowed to cool. When the paste was cold, it was then diced, fried, covered with honey, drizzled with pepper and served. Apicius also suggests a variant of this recipe: to cook the flour in milk to have a more flavorful taste. This recipe is more of a polenta (once made with chestnut paste, before corn/maize was introduced to our culture) or our Southern Italian “Farinata di Ceci” (a chickpea dish mentioned in Part I of this article) than anything like a modern pancake.

          Apicius’ ancient documentation of Aliter Dulcia is a list of desserts. The fact that we nowadays pour maple syrup onto pancakes does not de facto place pancakes into the category of a “dessert.” We eat pancakes for breakfast. And never after a dinner meal as we would with a “cake.” Like Italian focaccie, Indian naan bread, and Central American tortillas, pancakes could still be defined as a type of “flatbread” which much later transformed into what we eat for breakfast on a Sunday morning, as a relatively modern dish.

          Claiming that ancient cultures had eaten “pancakes” may be a little misleading. What they ate instead were “flatbreads,” and only the general concept of the modern breakfast “pancake” is related to the ancient past; the production and recipe of the modern pancake has its roots in a more recent time range.

           A recipe closer to the modern pancake may have come about during the evolution of cooking in the Middle Ages, and was nothing more than a French batter (more precisely a “crêpe”); the term comes from the Latin “crispus” and it indeed means “crisp” from the notable “crispiness” of the batter that would curl and become crispy on its edges after the process of being fried. The same results happen while we cook the Italian frittata (a thicker version of the thin crêpe“frittata” from the Latin “frigere,” which in fact means “to fry”). The difference between a frittata and a crêpe (or “crespella,” the Italian word for crêpe) is that a crêpe contains flour, it is very thin, and once cooked, it is folded or rolled around other ingredients; a frittata is instead an egg batter without the use of flour, mixed with other ingredients (like bread crumbs, vegetables, cheese or meat) and then lightly fried. The sweet version of a frittata is egg batter baked with ricotta cheese, dried fruits, sugar and/or bread crumbs.

           Only later in history, the word crêpe came to mean (and to be somehow confused with) the fluffy and spongy pancake. I suspect that this happened in the early 1800s, by a little known character who left his mark on the world of Culinary History. His name was Etienne Lemaire (French). He was hired in 1801 to serve at the White House by Thomas Jefferson, as his Maître d’ Hotel, (“Master of the House” – what we would modernly consider a “General Manager” or “Owner” or even a “Head Servant”).

        Besides being known in American history as the final author of the Declaration of Independence, for his passion for gardening, and for his written rules of Etiquette (intending to ban rigid formality at the White House); Thomas Jefferson’s epicurean tendency brought him to develop a deep love for wines and a culinary interest which delineated not only his private life, but his presidency as well. For breakfast, Thomas Jefferson often enjoyed to have Etienne Lemaire’s “pancakes” which became one of the favorites of Monticello. Etienne Lemaire’s recipe consisted of a batter of egg yolks, flour, and cream with whipped egg whites (which replaced a leavening agent, like yeast or baking soda). Maître d’Hotel Lemaire called his batter “panne-quoique” (recorded as: "pannequaiques"; that is, panne [or modernly pain] “bread” and quoique, meaning “whatever” or “ad hoc” or "improvised").

           If his original recipe did indeed contain whipped egg whites, we can’t really consider it a crêpe any longer. And his recipe was also not the mother of our modern crêpe. Crêpe batter contains more or less the same ingredients as Lamaire’s “pannequaiques, but his incorporation of whipped egg whites did not produce a crêpe (as some have claimed), but likely gave rise to the true origin of what we today consider, know, and call our modern American “pancake.”

         Once we start to whip egg whites, a sort of “stress” is applied to the proteins of the whites, incorporating air bubbles to the protein-water solution. In simple terms: because the egg whites contain water-loving (hydrophilic) and water-hating (hydrophobic) amino acids; when beaten, the proteins are uncurled, and the water-loving proteins stay with water, while the water-hating proteins are drawn to the air (away from the water). Once the proteins are uncurled, they bond to each other creating a layer that can hold bubbles; the gas is captured inside these bubbles and they expand with the heat, giving an “airy thickness” to a preparation while it solidifies (for example, a soufflé or a meringue). Maître d’Hotel Etienne Lemaire, with the incorporation of whipped egg whites into a crêpe base, was exactly producing what we would obtain today by adding a leavening agent like baking powder to a batter, to create a fluffy and spongy cake.

           There is an interesting linguistic note is about the word itself, “pannequaiques,” which Maître d’Hotel Lemaire, with his minimal English, used to refer to his recipe. The French term "panne" (pronounced “PAHN”) has a few different meanings. Among them, panne is still used as an archaic French term for “bread” (etymologically related to the modern French term pain). The term “quaiques” does not exist in French; it is likely an English-speaking the attempt to spell what Lemaire called "quoique" (pronounced “KOIK”), which means “whatever” and can mean “improvised” or "ad hoc," or even "mistake."
            
              To understand Lemaire’s “whatever bread,” we must understand the mind of a chef: Lemaire improvised the recipe. To produce a thicker crêpe batter with more consistency, he added whipped egg whites (if the batter was too runny and adding more flour would have changed the consistency and texture of the mixture and the weight of it) to create a simultaneously thicker and lighter batter instead. By improvising with egg whites to salvage an imperfect crêpe batter, he turned a failure into a delicacy. And from that, a recipe that President Thomas Jefferson loved so much; one of his favorite breakfasts, to the point of sending that specific recipe to his friends. An improvised recipe whose improvised French name “pannequaiques” sounds to English-speaking ears as “pan cake”; this misunderstanding and corruption of “pannequoique” would have been a natural one: at this time, several flatbreads existed in the English-speaking world which bore the label “cake,” such as “Johnny cake." And the improvised “pannequaiques” had the closest consistency to our modern concept of pancakes than anything before. Decades after Maître d’Hotel Lemaire’s “whatever bread” and Thomas Jefferson’s love of it, (in 1889 precisely) Aunt Jemima debuted with the first commercial “pancake” mix. And this mix had a leavening agent, that would give their pancakes the same volume and texture as having whipped egg whites in them.

           Though there are countless publications which identify historical and modern flatbreads as “pancakes,” few actually fit into this category. South Asian dosa, chapati, rosi, and East Asian mu shu and bó bing have all been incorrectly called “pancakes;” these instead are forms of crêpes (or flatbreads, or galettes). Pancakes are made from a runnier batter (impossible to shape by hands), while flatbreads are made from a dough which is shaped by hand, though it does not change the fact that both pancakes and crêpes are likely the offspring of a more distant relative: flat breads. We often flavor and eat pancakes with a something sweet, like maple syrup – this is simple and understandable for a few reasons. The ingredients of a pancake batter produce a “plain” base that can be eaten either with sweet or savory ingredients, as it was done with the relatives of pancakes and crêpes in ancient times. Thinner, more flexible crêpes or flatbreads lend themselves to be wrapped around food, but this is a far less common practice with pancakes (one of the few being “Pigs-in-a-Blanket” – pancakes wrapped around breakfast sausage), because pancakes (unless extremely moist and soft) tend to break or rip, due their thickness. Also, because of their thickness, pancakes can cover the flavor of other ingredients due the absorption of our saliva from their drier cake-like quality. For this same reason, we pour butter and delicious maple syrup on top of pancakes; these flavors are absorbed by the pancakes, and make the spongy cake wet and flavorful, and also thus travel more easily down our throats.
                       "Pigs in a Blanket" (with "Red-Flavored" syrup), from the (now closed) Country Kitchen Diner, Prunedale, CA.

            Whatever is the tale behind the provenance of a food, or the heritage we carry in our culinary history, certainly we all could more or less agree that “mistakes” along the path forward often create intersections from which new discoveries move forward, evolving into new and better results. From my ancestors to myself, after days of researching and reading, hours of writing, what my mind still pictures when I hear the word “pancake” is inevitably this:


                                                                           Above "Pancakes," Acrylic on Paper. Artist A. Andrisani


Photography Prints

Art Prints



Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Painted Recipes & Anecdotes

Vin Cotto Spiced and Sugared Wine



  I am a professional chef and an Italian, so it was natural to think about writing a cookbook. For years I’ve thought about writing one. When I finally began, I discovered that within me cuisine was not just a matter of preparing my family’s recipes or reporting regional, traditional, and nutritional habits. Cuisine has been a way of discovering and experiencing and is connected to the changing events of my life. So many times, food has been inseparable from family, unity, and simplicity… like a painting where all of the colors and lines have a deep and perfect relationship with the ancestral unknown. Meaning was there, visible and tangible, in front of me and in the form of a steaming delicacy: tickling my nose. I could see and I could smell that this was something more than just “a dish.” This was human history. This was also my personal history. 

            With this book, I mean to write and to show the art of cooking, and the relationship food has with memory for every one of us. Along with written recipes, I have created a view of beautiful painted ingredients – because in the time of my life I write about, photographs were something far from my reality. I must paint and draw the photographs from my memory; I offer my own reflections and anecdotes and artworks related to each recipe. This recipe, Vin Cotto, represents a trip that started from the station of my childhood in South Italy (within the “Arch of the Italian Boot”) where I come from: a trip through my memory, my countryside, the ways of my mother and grandparents. Please, join me on this journey, which I am still traveling…


Every Recipe is the Story of My Life

Although I never met her, my grandmother is often in my thoughts. Because of my name. In Italy, it is still a tradition to name children after their grandparents – though not so restrictive as it was a long time ago, when grandparents would have been offended if the tradition were not followed. When my older sisters were born, my family followed the rule: each daughter received a grandparent’s name. After two daughters, one is obliged to change ancestral male names to accommodate further female grandchildren: my sisters Vitalba (from Vito) and Antonella (from Antonio) are recipients of this tradition. Luckily, after the fourth sister (the last one to be born before me), there were no more grandparents to honor. I was the fifth. So my family was forced to improvise and imagine. And to begin fighting; trying to decide which name I should get. The final consensus options were: Annabel, Barbara, or Monica. And most of the family agreed on Monica. So that was it. I might have been “Monica.”

            However, one afternoon not long before I was born – when my mother knew she was getting ready to deliver me – she felt quite tired and decided to nap. She lay down on the nearest bed: not in her own bedroom where the bed was nicely made, but just one of the beds among the many they had in our home. And she had a dream: she dreamed of her mother – Immacolata – who had passed away two years before. My second-eldest sister – Immacolata – is named after her. And in the dream, my grandmother spoke a name to my mother:

              "Alessandra."
              "Who is Alessandra?" my mother asked.
              "Your daughter!"
              "No, you’re wrong! Her name is going to be Monica!"
              "No, YOU are wrong! She is going to be named Alessandra! And that bed you
                are sleeping on is going to be HER bed!"

My mother woke up sweating and terrified. She stood up and announced to the whole family that there was going to be a “variation on the theme” of their decision. She couldn’t dare to ignore her mother speaking from the dead. She had never read “Hamlet,” but she is Italian and we tend to take encounters with the deceased quite seriously. And so, three days later, on the last day of the same month in which Grandma Immacolata had died, I was born with a name changed. And a different destiny planned, and a bed in our home already assigned.  

Alessandra has Greek origins. The name means “protector of humans. Although originally a man’s name, I’d like to think that the men of history were simply getting it ready for women like me. In the dream, my grandmother didn’t tell my mother how I was to be protected or how I will protect. If my family had ignored my grandmother and had called me Monica,” I would probably have been a quiet shop assistant. And probably much happier. If Annabel: I would have been a princess. About Barbara: I don’t know – I can’t even imagine for myself or my life as Barbara.

The year after I was born, my parents wanted to buy a piece of land to cultivate and where we could spend our summer vacations. When Grandma Immacolata died, my mother inherited her small grocery store: so my mom had a little money to survive on, as a female. By then, both her brothers had regular, well-paid jobs in an office. My father grew up in a different town – a small village called Miglionico, 20 kilometers from my home of Matera. He had saved some money from his job as a truck driver and was going to be hired soon for a new job in a pasta factory located in Matera; so, they could afford some land. My Region – Basilicata – represents almost 50% of the land adapted to cultivate wheat; we make pasta for all of Italy. Prior to that, a long time ago, my region was covered with forest – it is the most mountainous region of Southern Italy. In fact, the ancient name for Basilicata was Lucania, which we suspect comes from the Greek word lykoswolf or the Latin lucus “sacred wood.Over centuries, deforestation changed the face of Basilicata; with an increasing population, there were more mouths to feed, so more fields needed to be cultivated. And now my family needed land too.

As what always happens in large families, the decision of that purchase involved not only my father and my mother, but my four older sisters also. My father wanted to buy land around Matera, where we lived, and where most of the citizens had moved to (during the displacement from the ancient parts of the city, around the sixties). This new area was swampy (before the municipal rehabilitation that was to come) and, of course, my mother and sisters did not like it. The relocation from the more the ancient neighborhoods of Matera had just ended. I think that my mother, after spending her teenage years in the old part of town, wanted to live away from everything that reminded her of her difficult upbringing. She wanted to change the habits of a peasant. I remember her telling tales of her youth: they had no running water and no bathrooms in the Stone Age houses carved into the mountainside, where she had lived nearly all of her life. People lived alongside each other in common areas and every day my mother, like all others, traveled down hundreds of stairs through the city to reach the sources of water. To then fill buckets with water and climb back up those hundreds of stairs carrying this weight. And several times each day! My mother wanted something different from spending summers alongside all those people, forced to share everything. She was also worried (especially paranoid I'd say) about mosquitoes for us, her daughters, if we had bought some swampy wetland like the ancient center of the city in which she had lived (despite appearances, Matera is, in fact, a very humid city.) She wanted to stay cool. She wanted something to dry her bones. So my father kept searching until he found a place on the slopes of a mountain. It was very close to my father’s hometown, Miglionico, and 20 kilometers away from Matera. This was far enough for my mother.



         The land was isolated, high, and particularly beautiful. This countryside is located at the foot of a mountain that faces both my father’s town and, farther to the east, my mother’s town. In the middle lies an artificial lake: the Dyke of San Giuliano. It looks almost like Tuscany there. Behind us – between us and the mountain – grew a vineyard and hundreds of olive trees, an old well, chestnut and walnut trees, almond and cherry trees, the woods of the mountain – some of which were included in the purchase of our land. In front of us – the countryside, for miles and miles – were hills, fig trees, persimmon trees, wild berry bushes seven feet tall, the view of the valley below, the castle of Miglionico dominating the valley, the Dyke of San Giuliano, and the City of Matera, Nationally known as "The City of the Stones" "Citta' dei Sassi" (ironically called by some of us “The City with No Trees”). On some days when the sky was clear, we could see the distant horizon. I spent hours of my childhood exploring lands far away through my father’s binoculars.

          Despite the breathtaking beauty, our actual property was not in the best condition. It was a place of shepherds, with an abandoned barn and dovecote, a tiny four-walled house (twelve feet by twelve feet) with a fireplace. The bathroom was outside, on the back of our tiny house, and in between there was a huge stone oven for roasting and baking focaccie and breads. This was a wild place. But my father and my grandfather –and with the help of my father’s cousins who were fortunately all masons – decided that they would work together to make the place livable. Or, at least, an acceptable place to spend the summer. So the work began. And, summer after summer, it continued. They leveled the ground, plowed the land around it, smoothed the gravel road to access the site, built walls around part of the property to hold the slopes of the land, and built fences to surround the rest. The barn was demolished and, in its place, and around the entrance, were planted plum trees, loquat trees, and rosebushes.

Together the men built another small, twelve foot by twelve foot kitchen, separated from the original house – which we now only used for sleeping and for hearing stories in front the fireplace. The most amazing thing my father and grandfather built was a table. Yes: a table. A STONE table. Set on a corner most exposed to the beautiful view, placed under a pergola of vines. For me, the pergola was like a circus set I could climb and jump on, hanging upside down from it. Of course, my father didn’t know this. By then, I was almost six years old and my last, and younger, sister was born. We spent our entire childhood there, summer upon summer, going anytime we could; making wine every September and then olive oil every October. Going for Easter when the weather let us, going on Sundays in the Spring. I loved it so much that going back to the city of Matera was painful to me. In the countryside, I was free! Naked, barefoot, dirty, and happy. I am Alessandra: your happy little savage. 
   
           On the other side of the mountain is another small village called Pomarico. To reach that village, you can take the road cutting down through the valley and all the way around the mountain, or you can choose an extremely steep dirt road through the mountains which is a continuation of the same road that we took to reach our summer home. The road climbs straight up. And to reach Pomarico, you must travel right over the top of the mountain. One day (it was the beginning of September), we had started to pack to go back to the Matera. School was about to begin and I was sad already. I remember that day in particular, because of the rain and its consequences. The sky was the color of metal: both dark and bright. The rain looked like an immense river pouring from Heaven. And it did not want to stop. We had several neighbors: a pleasant elderly couple (Maria and Vincenzo) with a tiny house a hundred yards from our house, and a bit farther down toward the valley was a family of shepherds, and like my family, they had six children too – all more or less our own age. That day, one of the sons of The Shepherd was very sick. The Shepherd’s Wife, Signora Angelina, left the little sick child in the custody of the older daughter, took the wheel of her little blue Fiat 500, and ventured out into the weather to race to the nearest pharmacy, which was in Pomarico. This was on the other side of the mountain. 

            Obviously, she took the shortest and fastest route: the one that cut over the mountain. And that road was unpaved. From that height and with that slope – and on that day in particular slippery streams of mud ran down the mountain as if they were seized with their own will of destruction: dragging debris, digging trenches and holes invisible to the eye, and covered as they were with liquid sludge. My mother, of course, was praying: lighting candles blessed by the priest of our neighborhood because she firmly believed and wanted to convince me and my younger sister that lighting blessed candles during a terrible storm, in front of a window, and praying intensely would help to remove the Wrath of God. And I know that it was also just an excuse to make us pray.

           While I was in front of the window, hands clasped and bent in prayer to a candle, I heard a voice amongst the thunderclaps. For a moment, I had a strange creepy feeling. Our dogs began to bark. I thought it must just be the echo of thunder in the woods… but then it happened, again. Again. Barking dogs and a voice. Was my mother right about the Wrath of God? Was God a She?!? It was a female voice in the air. Maybe it was the Virgin Mary calling… for help?!?


                  HELP!

                  “Mom! I hear a voice!”

                  “Oh Alessandra! Please, don’t be silly! Just pray, please!?”
                   Then I hear it. Again.

                   HELP!


                  “Mom, I really hear a voice!"

                  “Could you please stop?!? You are scaring your little sister!”


         The voice didn’t come from our neighbor, Maria. She was sitting inside with us, as usual…



                   HELP!

                   “Mom, the dogs are barking! Really, there is a voice calling for help outside!”

                   “Are you sure? You’re not making fun of us, are you?!?”
                   “Mom, I swear I’m not! Someone is crying for help! That’s why the dogs are barking!”

My mom and Maria quickly stepped outside, pointing their ears like hunting dogs would do. And then came the voice: “Please, someone help me! Comara Cornelia! Corneliaaaa!” Cornelia is my mother. She turned to me, ordered me: “Stay with your little sister! Don’t move! Stay away from the fire! Chico: (our personal body guard dog) good dog! Stay still! To the door Chico! To the door!” Chico understood; he was the smartest dog I’ve ever known. He sat on his hind legs, in front of the door, to wait with me and my sister who was terrified and clutching my hand; all of us completely focused on the sight of my mother and Maria disappearing while running towards that voice calling for help. I had goosebumps. We waited for a time that seemed eternal. The sky was pouring. And I was worried that something might happen to my mother.  



          We were alone. How could I possibly take care of my little sister? I thought hard. I knew how to cook a little; we could have milk and bread and I could sing a song to her when bedtime came. And then my thoughts got worse: our father is not coming until tomorrow! And a sense of deep solitude grabbed my chest and gripped it tightly. This was life! The revelation was suffocating. I had to step outside. My sister was looking at me, wondering (I could tell) if I was leaving her, too. So I said, “Just looking for mom coming, okay? Don’t worry! I won’t leave you!” I went outside into the pouring rain. My little sister followed me. We took a few steps and spied, from the corner of the wall, the road ahead. Yes! I see someone! One, two, three ladies coming! Two of them were carrying the third, holding her behind the shoulders. Signora Angelina! Hers must have been the voice I had heard. Her petite blue Fiat 500 had not been able to tackle the slippery slope and had been dragged down: one of the wheels stuck in a ditch and the car had overturned. She was stuck when she screamed for help. My mother and Maria found her, pulled her out of the car, and carried her back down to our house, which was closer than hers.

My mother and Maria carried Signora Angelina to the kitchen. They were all completely wet and covered with mud, as if they had bathed in wet clay. I followed every move with my eyes. Signora Angelina was fortunately not injured, but extremely scared and shaking and plaintive. In passing, my mom called to me to take a couple of towels, the umbrella, and my sister, and follow them into the kitchen. And Chico still didn’t move from the front door! My sister was cold and I was too. So first I took a few minutes to dry her and myself, following to the letter my mother’s instructions – the situation was far too serious to not do so. Then I took my little sister into the kitchen. When I stepped into the kitchen, a strong scent filled my nose; my nostrils were almost pinched by the spicy smell, like a message coming from another world: both ancient and Eastern. And a Christmas smell. To help Signora Angelina to fight the fear, to remove the terror from her heart, my mother had followed an old tradition and made her Vin Cotto: The Cooked Red Wine. Spiced and sugared, it was simmering, filling the kitchen with its enchanting smell. Meanwhile, my mother was scolding Signora Angelina, asking for which absurd reason she had ventured into that heavy storm – tempi da lupi “weather for wolves,” as we say in Italian. After Angelina had explained everything, my mother looked up to Heaven and said, “Comara Angelina, you could have come over and asked for medicine from me! Now drink up! It’s hot! And it will help to warm your body and give you some relief!”

They all drank the cooked wine sipping it silently, reverently almost, and soon their cheeks regained a human color. I asked my mom if I could try it too and she said, “Yes. You have been a very perfect, good girl” (while I was usually a "plague"). Overjoyed, I had my very first tiny sip of fuming Vin Cotto, and the taste was almost unbelievable: a new and amazing discovery. A bridge from the ancient origin of that recipe, to my future of Culinary Love. My tongue, my taste buds, my body were that bridge. I have never forgotten the taste of that sip. I will never forget the peaceful feeling in my belly after it, the thought of a child's mind I had because of it, which I never had the courage to speak of and tell my mother;

"Mom, were not the blessed candles to ward off the thunderstorm, it was the Vin Cotto!"
At least I felt so because meanwhile all five of us were smiling, and the storm at last was fading away.

Copyright: Alessandra Andrisani 2012
 Ancient Romans used to cook wine to prevent the spoiling process. In doing so, they could carry wine for a long time, while busy doing things like. . . conquering the Known World. We use this recipe to dip our fried sweets in during winter time – mostly from Christmas time until Carnival (which is usually in late February). I believe that this tradition grew up during that particular time of the year because we make the new wine by the end of October. And before sulfite preservatives were discovered, many home-made wines wouldn’t last more than a few months; it would have turned to vinegar in most cases. So back then, boiling it with honey would have helped it to survive longer. In Apicius’s ancient cookbook, he often speaks of honey to revive and fix bad food.

Vin Cotto - Spiced and Sugared Wine

2 cups full-bodied red wine
4 TBS sugar and 2 TBS honey
1 TSP fennel seeds
2 cinnamon sticks
2 cloves
1/2 TSP cracked coriander seeds
peel of 2 oranges (zest only; no white pith)
1 pinch nutmeg



PREPARATION:

Into a small pot, pour the wine. Then add all of the other ingredients: the sugar and honey, the spices, and the orange zest. Bring to a boil over medium heat. When it starts to boil, lower the heat to medium and simmer until it reduces to 1/5 of the original amount. This will take a couple of hours. Stir often. After this time, the sauce will be thick and creamy. It will also be foaming. Strain the sugared wine through a sieve, pushing on the spices with a spoon to release their flavor. Then discard all spicesand the orange zest. Let chill and store in the refrigerator for up to a week. When it is time to serve: if you find it too thick, you might want to reheat the wine sauce (also called a reduction”): either in a double-boiler or for a few seconds in the microwave. This sauce can be used in many ways (alongside cheeses, for example) and it is delicious with roasted meat. I personally love it on top of pancakes and it will surprise you when served on your cheesecake.  

NOTE: In this recipe,  the cooking time will reduce the amount of the original liquid weight to 1/5. This is excellent for coating sweets, but if you want to try our hot kind of Sangria, you should cook it less time, until it reduces only by (more or less) one-half.

Copyright: Alessandra Andrisani 2016








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