You know, I always thought I'd have a problem eating weird things if I ever traveled in the Orient. I'm a person with a fairly narrow palate... I admit it. Even my 14 year old, Lucas has a much broader palate than I do. I like what I like and won't try what I know I don't like. I'm old enough to say that I have tried lots of stuff--for instance, I hate caviar and cooked spinach makes me gag. I know what I can't stomach. In my research and travels about Italy, I've come across things that I wouldn't eat if you paid me. Some things I'll try--once--while others... well, you just sort of know to stay clear.
Still, we have to respect the culinary traditions of our Italian heritage and try not to be so grossed out by it. Food is fuel--fuel is food. In Italy, nothing goes to waste--not beast or flora. So, I hope you pardon me as I poke a little fun at some of Italy's oddest culinary creations--even though I may tease a bit, I still want to honor the complexities if la Cucina Italiana...
In ancient Rome peacock eggs, boiled ostrich
and stewed parrots were common on menus.
There is a protected, fluffy tailed species of dormice (Glis glis or Ghiro) that have been eaten since the days the Caesars ran things. Down in Calabria the rodents are still stuffed and chomped on. They are stuffed with meat, nuts, raisins, onions and spices. You can imagine little squeaks as you take a bite. I have no idea what they do with all those cute fluffy tails.
Ghiri alla pizzaiola :
Ingredients : . 2 Ghires, 50 g of lard, 50g of pancetta, gr 600 gr peeled tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon of oregano, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt
Engage the dormice lengthwise, peel them, quickly remove the bladder without
breaking it and leave it in running water for a few hours.
Rinse them and blanch in boiling water for a couple of minutes.
Chop the lard and the bacon and put the mince in the belly of the dormice.
Place them in a large pan, pour the oil and cover with chopped tomatoes,
parsley and minced garlic, oregano and salt.
Cook over moderate heat, keeping the pan tightly closed with the lid.
Riccota Forte (or Scanta)
The Pugliese are a resourceful bunch. I know--mu Dad was from Puglia. Many of you may know that ricotta means twice cooked or re-cooked... basically, ricotta is a by-product of normal, everyday cheese making. You take the little bit of whey left over, add an acid, boil it and presto, you have ricotta cheese. It's a fresh cheese and should be eaten within a couple of days. When it dries out, the frugal Pugliese add salt, and let it dry even more into Ricotta Salada (one of my favorite cheeses).
But some go even further. Some just let it go bad... and stinky... and acrid, turning it into a Apulian delicacy called Ricotta Forte, or Scanta. Many think this acrid, foul smelling cheese is worse than any other stinky cheese they've even eaten--but in a good way. We tried it during our stay in trullo B&B outside of Alberobello. Yes, it stinks, and our host told us how it's just kept in a dark, un-refrigerated place (under his sink) to grow more bacteria and even sometimes microscopic worms--but we actually liked it! (But it did burn my eyes a tad).
It's the kind of taste that shocks your eyes open, assaults your nose but somehow in the end pleases your palate. It's also a surprise when you are first introduced to it in a plain jar that looks like it's your Aunt's 1950s era home brew face cream.
Enjoy. (Oh, just don't get it on anything sweet... I got it on some Nutella and bread by mistake and nearly got whiplash when I popped it in my mouth.)
Casu Marzu or Formaggio Marcio
(Rotten Cheese), with Maggots
Casu Marzu is a sheeps' milk cheese from Sardinia and Corsica (they call it Casgio Merzu) that actually contains maggots--live ones. Most cheeses rely on fermentation and bacteria to develop their flavor, but this cheese relies on actual decomposition caused by the Cheese Fly larvae. The texture is an oozing, seeping liquid, essentially caused by... well... maggot poop. Some people eat this stuff with the larvae, some will tickle the cheese, causing the larvae to be disturbed enough to actually jump out... as much as 6 inches! The daring who have tasted it say this muck is so acidic that it leaves an after taste in your mouth for hours afterward. I recall a cheese like this in France years ago--I wouldn't go near that either!
From what I hear, battarga is definitely an acquired taste that's at least a thousand years old and perhaps more ancient than that. It's made from the roe (fish egg) pouch of either grey mullet or Atlantic blue-fin tuna. The roe pouch is manipulated by hand to get rid of any air bubbles and then cured in sea salt for several weeks. After curing, the result is a hard, dried salty slab which is usually (but not always) coated in beeswax.
To use it, you grate some on top of pasta or on top of crostini (toasted bread) and drizzled with olive oil. It also can be used as a main ingredient along with garlic for tomato sauce. It has a tremendously long shelf life and is often smuggled out of Italy due to its high price--up to $140 a pound! You can actually order some on AMAZON.
Colatura di Alici, Fish Sauce
In ancient Roman times there was a fishy concoction called garum, a clear sauce made from salting and compression of various types of fish. The clear garum on top was used by the upper classes, while the sludge left over, called allec, was used by the lower classes to add flavor to polenta, porridge or on bread.
Today there is a modern version called Colatura di Alici made in one of my favorite villages on the Amalfi Coast, Cetera (click the photo to see it on Amazon). The first time I took a tour of Cetera at ground level on Google Earth I started seeing barrels and wondered why this village had so many. It's a fairly simple recipe...
The golden liquid is prized in Italy and is used to flavor all sorts of dishes. Watch the video of Colatura being made...
(Polenta with Songbirds, or Polenta e Osei)
Yes, the same song birds that will awaken you on a misty Tuscan morning are being shot or captured in hanging nets by hunters to supply their illegal bounty to select restaurants throughout Italy. Yes, it is illegal, but those doing it consider the practice as being furbo (crafty). They make a living while carrying on a tradition. In Tuscany the birds are flambéed, in Sardinia they are boiled and preserved, in the Veneto rolled in pork belly and fried. Perhaps the best known version is in Lombardy where they are grilled or fried.
It seems this is an elite recipe item in Italy. Ladies and gents get dressed up in all their finery and make an event out of eating these little skylarks, goldfinches and other types of song birds. Our hot air balloon pilot, Stefano told us they shoot anything in Italy, especially song birds, so much so that some species are becoming endangered. Oddly, we flew directly over some "hunters" in their treetop blind, releasing pigeons only to shoot them a moment or two later.
The little tweetys are usually stuffed with pork, beef, rabbit or even other birds. They are served with their heads and beaks on top of polenta, an attempt to mimic a bird's nest.
To illustrate how much Italians love this special dish, certain pasticcerie have created a legal version: a dessert called Polenta e Osei, made to look just like the real dish. It's made of a soft light sponge cake filled with hazelnut cream that is rolled in a yellow fondant. On top are little chocolate birds made from chocolate marzipan. You can find this in the town of Bergamo.
As for the real song bird dish, the macho thing is to pick up the birdie by the beak and leave nothing... devouring bones, beak and all. At least they are not as ruthless as a similar dish I saw in France years ago--where they drown the birds in the local brandy, then when eating drape a napkin over their heads and the dish to inhale the fragrances and crunch down on the bird, apparently head hidden in shame.
(Cheese from Cow's Intestines)
This is either a Roman dish or what the Devil himself would order up. A young, milk fed (no grass feed) calf is slaughtered, and besides getting veal, brains and other delicacies from it, the intestines are used to make this delicacy--pajata. The intestines are washed, but not emptied. When cooked, the partially-digested milk inside turns into a thick, funky cheesy substance which is used as a pasta sauce, and often served on its own with crostata. No grazie!
Cieche are baby eels that migrate upriver after being born in the sea. The name, Cieche (cieco) literally means blind – these babies have no eyes. In coastal areas of Tuscany, cieche are usually fried or boiled alive. Just be careful they don't jump out when you're trying to dump them into the boiling water or saute pan.
Tuscan Blood Torte
Enough said. A torte or cake made from the blood of pigs? I've tried Argentinian blood sausage and British blood sausage, and if the flavor is anything close to what I experienced, I would never go near this stuff. But this recipe contains cocoa and has a chocolate taste, albeit a bit more... er... pungent because of the pig's blood it contains. The pudding used is similar to Sanguinaccio Dolce, a traditional recipe in the South made when a pig is slaughtered using the pig's blood, chocolate, raisins pignoli and sugar. This is an example of the Italian philosophy that nothing goes to waste, not even the last drops of blood.
Watch the video below from the Two Greedy Italians series where Gennaro shows how they make the pudding (at 9:45).
Vending Machine Pizza
As all of the above proves, Italians will eat anything... even pizza made totally inside a robotic vending machine. Not THAT's a real crime!
Let's Pizza machines were initially designed and manufactured in Northern Italy. It offers a choice of four kinds of pies, and makes the pizza while you watch the whole process through windows--adding water to flour, kneading the dough, placing the sauce and toppings, and baking the pizza via infrared oven in just 2.5 minutes. It can produce 90 to 100 pizzas before it needs to be refilled. Ugh. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should!
Ok, so vending machine pizza isn't such a big deal, but how about (suspenseful music...) Gatto in Umido? This translates as "Stewed Cat"!
Calmati, Betty White... "Gatto in Umido" is simply Stewed Cat-Fish.
As I said, we all have to keep an open mind. I hope you enjoyed this look into the traditions of culinary Italy.
Via la Cucina Italiana!
We all have days when we don't know the answer to the question, "What's for dinner?" Busy papa, busy Mama, busy Nonna... stuff happens and we forget to plan ahead. But even if you are a newcomer to the Cucina Italiana, there are always simple, quick meals that you can throw together without any pre-planning, as long as your Italian Pantry is stocked with essentials.
Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil) is one of the simplest, yet fulfilling meals any Italian can make. The cooking time is little more than the time it takes to boil your dried spaghetti and can be a base recipe for adding ingredients from leftovers. Even the most basic Italian pantries should have a box of spaghetti, extra virgin olive oil and garlic...
Serve with slices of crusty bread and some Chianti for a simple and tasteful meal.
This recipe is certainly a classic from Naples, but you can think of it as a base recipe for adding other ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, diced prosciutto, capers, olives, etc. Don't ever hesitate to be creative with Italian recipes!
As an option to marinara as a dipping sauce, try some
Whisk together the following:
1/3 cup mayonnaise
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
Did you ever wonder about the everyday life of Renaissance Masters, like Michelangelo? Did you wonder if they took long walks or picnics? Did they go to the local taverns to kick back a few brews and relax with the guys? Did they attend sporting events or shop for bargains at the local flea market? How about their food? What did they eat and how did they do their shopping?
Well, we can actually tell from this grocery shopping list written by Michelangelo himself in the 16th century. He ate anchovies, bread, two fennel soups, a herring (un aringa), four anchovies, tortelli, and wine (“un bocal di vino”), among other things. He drew the list as pictograms because his servant was illiterate. He would tell him what he wanted, "get the big loaf of bread, not the small one", but also sketch it so the servant could look at the images to refresh his memory while at the market.
Experts say the list is for three separate meals. He drew bread rolls as simple circles--an easy shape for his servant to remember meant - bread. For another meal, he wanted two rolls but for another, six. The herring is sketched by itself, and bowls are filled with salad and anchovies. Two dishes of stewed fennel are shown side by side (perhaps he wasn't dining alone?). For the wine, he drew a small wine carafe next to a larger one--perhaps two types, one being an after dinner, sweet wine? The tortelli (tortellini) pasta were not drawn at all. Perhaps his servant's wife made them, something he obviously would never forget if the Master asked for some.
Since the letter on the other side of the list was dated March 18, 1518, the meatless menu would make sense falling during the Lent period of fasting. Michelangelo couldn't eat meat, so it was bread, fish and veggies. Still, for its day, this was a nobleman's menu... Michelangelo was anything from a starving artist.
During this same year, Michelangelo had ordered many of his notes and sketches to be burned--the Renaissance method of shredding documents. It's amazing that this little take-out order managed to survive at all.
This grocery list is archived at the Florence museum Casa Buonarroti, where one can find many of the artist’s handwritten notes, doodles and sketches.