I'm not a gullible man. Even as a boy, I wasn't one to believe everything I was told. I always asked questions... "Why? Where? When? How?" I read lots of books, including my entire encyclopedia set and my Atlas. I loved science and the arts. I used both sides of my brain. But as a 12-year-old watching the old Jack Parr show in 1963, I tended to to go by the old adage, "Seeing is believing"--especially if you see it on TV!
What I saw was a very legitimate sounding short documentary film with a very scholarly, British voice talking about the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, and mentioning the "tremendous scale of the Italian's... (harvest)" and the "vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley". From that point on, until I was in my early twenties, I actually believed there was some sort of special tree or bush in Italy that produced some sort of spaghetti... fruit, pod or otherwise. It wasn't until I saw Jack Parr himself talking about the hoax on the Tonight Show in the early 1970s that I learned the embarrassing truth--a "truth" that I would argue about with my non-Italian friends growing up... "Real Italian spaghetti grows on trees!", I would insist.
Parr claimed they didn't get a single call about the segment and most people bought it hook, line and sinker. OK, so maybe I was a bit gullible. But it was a very convincing documentary film, produced originally as a serious film for, of all things, a British news show... and besides, I was only 12!
On April 1, 1957, on April Fool's Day (Pesce d'Aprile in Italian), the BBC television show Panorama aired the short "documentary" about the "spaghetti harvest" in Ticino, Switzerland, on the border of the Italian Alps. The film shows spaghetti trees ripe with long strands of spaghetti and a farming family harvesting by hand, putting the spaghetti into baskets and then carefully laying them out to dry in the "warm Alpine sun."
Some viewers bought it entirely and called BBC to find out where they could buy some of the "real spaghetti". Many British gardeners wanted to know how to buy a spaghetti bush for their own garden. Others were very angry that a joke was portrayed as a serious subject on a real news program.
Still others--like me--just tucked this into their knowledge banks, unquestioningly and carried it as a "truth" through at least part of their lives, being even more convinced every time they heard the expression "fresh pasta"... of course, that must be referring to the real stuff fresh picked from the trees! What did I know. After all, neither my Mother or Grandmother made fresh spaghetti, because spaghetti trees probably didn't grow in our climate. All I ever saw growing up was dried, boxed spaghetti--you know, the fake stuff.
The following video is the original broadcast in 1957 in England...
The following video gives a behind the scenes take on
the Spaghetti Hoax story from a member of the Panorama
production team who came up with the idea...
The next video shows a further chapter of this hoax broadcast
in 1967 in Britain explaining how the spaghetti crop was being ruined by a terrible pest--the spag-worm, or "troglodyte pasta".
("Troglodyte" refers to a person so stupid because he lives in a cave).
In 1978, San Giorgio Pasta produced a remake of the
Spaghetti Hoax for one of their TV ads.
Finally, cooking know-it-all, Martha Stewart (I'm not a fan) got into the act
in 2009 with her own little spoof about her Spaghetti Bush,
"spago officinalis" ("official string") trees.
Well, I've had a lot more culinary education since being misled by that little April Fool's prank when I was young and impressionable: my Mom and Dad taught with every loving dish they put in front of me; Grandma taught me her authenticity; having home and studio in Manhattan for so many years where varied cuisines are around every corner also taught me; In my 30s, I finally learned how to cook from Julia Child, Craig Clairborne, Marcella Hazan, Mary Ann Esposito and Pierre Franey. I now make fresh pasta with my son, Lucas from time to time. And during our Voyage throughout Italy, I never saw a single strand of spaghetti on a bush, tree or vine. Ever. (OK, so I did look, just to be sure.)
However, I have since learned that there are actually spaghetti alternatives that grow from Madre Terra. I even grew 2 foot long "snake" beans a few years ago that came pretty close. Here are a few veggie spaghetti alternatives...
If you want to make your own, fresh "veggie spaghetti" at home, pick up a Premium Vegetable Spiralizer from Amazon or the attachment we use for our stand mixer, the Kitchenaid Spiralizer Attachment. It's a lot easier than picking the spaghetti from the trees, collecting in baskets and spreading them out in the sun to dry...
(Damn you, Jack Parr and your dry sense of humor!)
Pungitopo (also known as Butcher's Broom) might be a popular plant for use in natural healing remedies, but it is often found while hiking in the mountains of Italy for use in local, traditional Italian recipes. Pungitopo tends to grow wild as an evergreen bush (looking like a short, bushy holly) with asparagus-like sprouts in fall. It is gathered in bunches about 12" tall and used in la cucina in the same was as asparagus. Tied with string and steamed until tender, it's often eaten as a side dish or wrapped in prosciutto, The sprouts, called ruscli (rusculins in English) are the tenderest part.
Pungitopo is actually a member of the lily family closely related to asparagus botanically speaking. It and was once used in Europe make small brooms to clean butchers' chopping blocks. It's scent had the ability deter rodents from taking an interest in meats hanging to cure. The plant is well known throughout Italy, Europe and to the British Isles. Other common names are jew’s myrtle, sweet broom, kneeholy, pettigree, knee holly, kneeholm. In Italy, they will also be known as asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus) or portafortuna natalizio (Christmas Luck), referring to the time of year it is usually enjoyed in the Italian kitchen.
It is mostly harvested nowadays for its thick, brown rhizome, which is harvested in the fall when the plant stores most of its energy for winter. It's herbal use is to make healing teas.
There use can be as simple as boiling or steaming and served with butter or olive oil, the was asparagus are served. The softer buds are used in fritatta, frittella (fritters), risotto or in pasta dishes. Their taste is bitter but the buds alone are a bit sweeter. Here are a few ideas...
Acquasala (or Acquasale, Acqua Sala) is one of the cucina povera--poor dishes--of southern Italy, especially in the Lucane Dolomites of Basilicata and olive oil rich Puglia. this simple fare was enjoyed by farmers and shepherds. Its close cousin is panzanella, a sort of salad that uses torn up pieces of stale bread reconstituted with water as its base. Acquasala is a dish made from the simplest ingredients that any peasant contadina had around: eggs, onion, water, peppers or tomatoes and especially, the stale bread. Think of it as a mashup between eggs Benedict and an Italian broth, where the broth replaces the Hollandaise sauce. Perfect for breakfast, brunch or even a light dinner.
In it's simplest form, an acquasala is stale, crusty bread topped with a poached egg and a flavored broth poured over. The bread soaks up the resulting broth and its flavors. I'm certain that others in southern Italy might replace the stale bread with Friselli, a bagel-shaped, bone-dry toasted bread sold in bags in southern Italy. One easy to find bread nowadays is the ciabatta, left to go a bt stale or with the thick slices toasted before use.
Don't think of this recipe as being ironclad in terms of the ingredients. Be creative. This is cucina povera, after all, which means that cooks used what they had on hand depending on the season: eggs from their chickens, stale bread, tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, white or red onions, a bit of garlic, mushrooms and greens. Southerners loved their greens, whether a bit of dandilion, arugla or chives. To be absolutely authentic, warm water (not boiled) is traditionally used to make the "broth", with the peppers and onions added to it for a light fusion of flavors. In Puglia it's often made without eggs and many more more ingredients, a cross between a soup and a salad.
Ingredients (serves 2, with one egg each)
Copyright 2019, Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageitaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be published without expressed authorization
One of our favorite soups during the Christmas season or anytime during winter is Roasted Butternut Squash Soup. Although you can make this simply by cutting up the squash into cubes, additional depth of flavor is gained by roasting halved Butternut squash in the oven before adding to the soup. This can also be made using smaller Acorn squash which has a similar level of sweetness.
2 butternut squash, halved with seeds scooped out and discarded.
3-4 large carrots, diced (they add texture and sweetness).
1 large sweet onion, diced (Vidalia is best)
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
40 cracks of freshly ground pepper (or 1 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
32 ounces chicken broth
Plus, additional water or cream as needed to adjust creaminess
For the Garnish
2 cups fresh cranberries (You can also use canned, whole cranberries as your garnish)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 pint of heavy cream (for whipping)
Serve with some crusty, heated bread and a glass of Prosecco.
Copyright Grand Voyage Italy, 2018 - All Rights Reserved
My all-time favorite tomato is Eva Purple Ball--a pink-purplish, 2-3" round globe heirloom tomato that I've been growing for almost 20 years. ("Sweet like sugar", as my Dad always said about his home grown tomatoes). Eva is impeccably disease resistant, with a smooth, flawless skin and produces well. Next in line is Giant Belgium--a large, pink beefsteak tomato. Like Eva, it has a rich, sweet flavor, but large enough for one slice to cover a small dessert plate (great for caprese).
But last year I found a fat, orange striped tomato in a local farmers' market that I fell in love with. I saved seeds from one of the biggest ones and planted two plants this season. Well, I'm in love again!
This tomato is a large, plum style that grows about 3-5-1/5" long, with a pointy end (often with a very pointy nipple). Some grew so fat that I could not wrap my hand around them. It's very fleshy with low acidity--perfect for making sauce. But it's very sweet! I've gotten into slicing ovals on the bias for my panini and American style hoagie sandwiches. I've made sauces twice for pasta, and even used them sliced as a pizza topping (like I'm doing again tonight).
The only problem is, the chipmunks in my garden love them almost as much as I do.But even with those few losses, I'd estimate that the two plants produced about 20 pounds of these so far, and there's still a few on the plants coming ripe.
I did several Google image searches until I verified the type--Striped Roma. I've already saved seeds for next season... You can find some seeds HERE.
God, I love tomatoes. Home-grown, that is.
San Marzano tomatoes are the holy grail when it comes to sauce tomatoes. They often cost twice the price of other canned tomatoes, which is the reason why there are many counterfeit, bogus tomatoes in cans labeled San Marzano, or "San Marzano style". Experts say that up to 95% of the tomatoes labeled "San Marzano" are tomatoes grown in other regions of Italy or other countries. The Italian Mafia and other unscrupulous organizations will place lesser quality tomatoes into cans and label them as San Marzano, when in reality they are a mixture of less sweet, less meaty tomatoes.
In was in 2011 that the president of Consorzio San Marzano (Consortium for the Protection of the San Marzano Tomato Dell'agro Sarnese Nocerino) said that only five percent of tomatoes marked as such are certified, D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are elongated plum tomatoes that by decree, must be grown in Agro Sarnese-Nocerino, an area surrounding Mount Vesuvious near Naples. When they are canned, they come with a D.O.P.-Denominazione d' Origine Protetta (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”) emblem on the label, marking their authenticity. This is the same type of certification that ensures the authenticity of other Italian products, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma or Balsamic di Molena.
To ensure you are getting San Marzano tomatoes, make sure that the can has one of the following on it: "Certified San Marzano", the DOP emblem, or the words "San Marzano dell'Agro Sarnese-Nocerino". The ingredients should list "whole (or peeled) San Marzano tomatoes". Some producers also include a statement something like, "San Marzano tomatoes (DOP-protected designation of Origin) are only cultivated in 41 approved municipalities, from San Marzano seeds, within the Sarno River valley surrounding Naples (or 'near the slopes of Mount Vesuvious'), in the Campania region." If the label says, "Grown in the USA", steer clear.
Certified Authentic San Marzano Tomatoes
The Phony Stuff
Compared to the Roma tomato, San Marzano tomatoes are thinner, a bit longer and pointed at their ends. The thicker, meatier flesh has fewer seeds and is fantastic for making sauce. The taste is also stronger, sweeter and less acidic. (I've had pizza from one local chic, wood oven pizzeria who claimed the tomatoes in their sauce were San Marzano, but the amazingly high acidic level burned my lips. I called BS.)
As many know, the tomato itself was imported to Europe after being discovered in the New World. Its first culinary appearance was in a 1692 cookbook as a base for a sauce. The San Marzano itself doesn't show up until much later, in a tomato manual published in 1940, the San Marzano is listed as a "recent cross" between the Re Umberto and Fiaschetto varieties.
The San Marzano vines are indeterminate type, and have a somewhat longer season than other paste tomato varieties, making them well suitable for warmer climates. Indeterminate tomato plants will keep producing fruit as long as the warm, sunny weather lasts, whereas determinate varieties produce only a set number of fruit on shorter plants, and then die.
Many heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate type (like the varieties I grow, producing 8' plants). San Marzano is an "open-pollinated", heirloom variety that breeds true from generation to generation, making seed saving practical for the home gardener or farmer. You can't save seeds from hybrid tomatoes because they cross-pollinate, which results in pot-luck tomatoes appearing on the vine. If you can get some authentic, D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes while in Campania, save some seeds to plant in your home garden, although they won't have the D.O.P. designation, they will be fairly close the what is grown in Campania. (Of course, you can't exactly match the weather or soil qualities).
You can also grow San Marzano seeds purchased from heirloom seed companies, but these wouldn't be from tomatoes harvested in the Sarno Valley area. You will find that even the highly respected Seedsavers Exchange doesn't list any "San Marzano" seeds out of respect for the D.O.P. designation of the originals. So, the next time you're in the Naples neighborhood, buy some San Marzano fruits and save the seeds.
There's nothing like home-grown tomatoes, as my father always said...
by Jerry Finzi
While exploring the villages of the Amalfi Coast, Voyagers are certain to notice that the lemons there are larger than they are used to. They are sure to come across the Sfusato lemon (about two to three times the size of a supermarket lemon) and will be further shocked when they are confronted with the giant-sized, Cedro Citron variety of lemons. They are beastly looking things, with a pebbly surface, strange shapes with a large nipple at one end, and are often as big as your head!
Cedri are primarily found in Italy, from the Italian Riviera down to the Amalfi Coast, though they are occasionally spotted in France, Isreal and even exported to Britain. There are three different citron types: acidic, non-acidic and pulpless. Of the different cultivars, the acidic Diamante is more common in Italy.
Cedro citrons are usually up to three to four times the length of common lemons and can measure between 10 and 15 inches in diameter. They can weight up to 3-4 pounds each.
The pebbly surface ripens from green to a bright yellow--both colors can be harvested, the peak season being fall and winter. Most--about 70%--of the lemon is white pith from 2-5 inches thick with a soft texture and almost sweet lemony fragrance. In its center is a small amount of segmented pulp with a few pale seeds. This lemon is fairly dry and not used for its juice and the taste is milder than a common lemon.
The pith can be eaten raw or cooked: in salads, atop bruschetta, in jams and preserves, in risotto or pickled. The rind of this citron is very aromatic and a bit sweet, and is used to produce "citron", or candied lemon (used in Italian celebration breads and cakes, like panettone). Some claim it can be a remedy for hangovers, coughs and indigestion. Since the Renaissance, the oils from the skin have also been used in perfumery and cosmetics due to their delicate and fragrant scent.
If cooking while in Italy (or if you can get some cedri at home), try these recipes:
Risotto alla Sorrento with Fennel and Sage
1 Cedro lemon
1-1/2 cups rice for risotto (Carnaroli, Vialone Nano or Arborio)
1-1/4 cups freshly grated parmesan
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus another tablespoon to finish
4 tablespoons Extra virgin olive oil
1 head of finoccio (bulbing fennel) - finely diced
3 stalks celery - finely diced
1 cup white white Vermouth
1 quart chicken stock
4 large julienned sage leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried-crushed)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Candied Chocolate Cedro Strips Recipe
(A great holiday snack)
1 - 2 pound cedro
1 cup sugar
1 pint water
3-5 ounces bitter sweet chocolate
You can store these in an airtight container and serve at the end of a meal with fruit, nuts, biscotti and espresso.
© GVI 2018
You might also be interest in:
When Life Gives Them Lemons, Italians Make Limoncello
Amalfi Lemon and Chicken Pasta
Lemon and Turkey Pasta with Prosecco
Broccoli rabe (räp’ - eh) is actually a member of the turnip family (rabe in Italian means turnip). The stalks, leaves, florets or yellow flowers are all edible. The leaves and stalks are usually cooked to soften their toughness and the flavor can be described as nutty, bitter, peppery or spicy and reminiscent of mustard greens. Broccoli Rabe can also be called broccoli raab, broccoli rape, or rapini, although, botanically speaking, rapini is a different plant entirely.
Rapini and broccoli rabe are close cousins and their names are often used interchangeably. They are in the same subspecies as the turnip, hence they have the characteristically slightly bitter taste of this group. Neither Rapini or broccoli rabe form the large floret heads that are seen in broccoli. “Rape” is the Italian name for turnip.
Broccoli Rabe is not broccolini. Broccolini is a hybrid created in 1993--a cross between broccoli and Chinese broccoli. It has small florets, long stalks, and a few small leaves, where Broccoli rabe has large leaves. Broccolini stalks look like asparagus.
Native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia and one of the earliest cultivated crops, broccoli rabe (Brassica rapa) was first eaten for its roots and leaves. It can also be allowed to flower and go to seed, with seeds collected and crushed for their high oil content (40 percent), commonly known as rapeseed oil, or in today's cooking as canola oil. The oil, in its simplest form can be used as lamp oil and a lubricant, in the same way olive oil has been used throughout history. Brassica rapa may have been used as oil in Italy as early as the 13th century and was the major lamp oil in Europe by the 16th century. Botanically speaking, Brassica campestris, Brassica rapa and Brassica napus are identical.
In Italy, there can be different names for it: in Naples it is known as friarielli; in Rome broccoletti; in Puglia, cime di rapa (literally meaning "turnip tops"). It is also known as i broccoli friarelli and sometimes broccoli di rape, rapi, or rapini (little turnips).
How to Use Broccoli Rabe
How to use broccoli rabe in Italy depends on the region... in northern Italy, they will throw away the florets and use only the leaves, while in southern Italy, they will throw away the leaves and each only the florets. It is a cool season crop, so you will find it locally--and fresh--during late fall, through the winter and into early spring. In U.S. supermarkets, you can usually find it year-round, grown in other countries and flown in.
Broccoli rabe contains tons of nutrients: 3-1/2 ounces provides half your daily requirement of vitamins A and C. It’s also a good source of folate, potassium, fiber, and calcium. It's also high in antioxidants, protecting you from cancer, inflammation and coronary disease.
Make sure you are buying fresh broccoli rabe. Look at the base of the stalks for a cream color (not dark). They should be crisp, not floppy. The leaves should not be floppy or dried out and the buds should be bright green. If they are yellowed, pass them by.
It's natural bitterness is lessened with cooking and pairs well with strong flavors like pork sausages or starchy things, like pasta, rice and potatoes. If you like it milder, just cook a bit longer, or after blanching in very salty water (the way you cook pasta), remove from the water, drain and then saute in olive oil. (In Puglia, they tend to omit the blanching in water). As for the stalks, if they are large, peel them first before cooking, they same way you would peel asparagus. If you are using the florets, throw them into the pan after stems or leaves... they are tender and cook fast. If you are growing your own and your plants have started to bolt and produce yellow flowers, it's not a total waste (see below about plants "bolting"), just snip the edible flowers to toss into soups or salads or to top off your plating.
How to Grow Broccoli Rabe from Heirloom Seeds
The only difficulty is that the seeds are very tiny. You can sow them directly in the garden, but then thin the seedlings as soon as possible to 4 - 6 inches apart. You can use the seedlings right away by washing and tossing into your salads and soups.
When to grow broccoli rabe is up for debate. While it is considered a cool weather crop, like turnips, lettuces or radishes, many old Italians will tell you that they grow it all year long--even when the weather turns hot. You can plant seeds right after the last frost, but need to grow smaller and faster growing varieties... and remember to cut and harvest just as the florets are forming... not after.
Interestingly, varieties might have numerical names that correspond to their growing cycle, such as Quarantina (40 days), Sessantina (60 days) or Novantina (90 days), but regardless of the name, you need to pay attention to the plants and harvest immediately as soon as you see the florets forming... and all varieties tend to form flowers earlier than the seed packets claim. Wait too long--a day or two--and your plants will bolt (stop growing leaves and put their energy into producing seed). If this happens, this bitter plant will instantly turn into that proverbial bitter pill.
Stalks will store in your refrigerator for about 10 days, so it's best to stagger the planting of your seed into batches a week or more apart to ensure a fresh supply during the growing season.
One warning about growing broccoli rabe from seed... they tend to cross pollinate with other braccias like broccoli, turnips and even it's distant cousin, mustard. Don't plant braccias too close to each other.
If you want an authentic way to make the famous dish from Puglia, Cime di Rapa, check out this video with Gennaro Contaldo, from the Two Greedy Italians cooking show from BBC... Favoloso!
In the very first market we visited in Italy, we came upon a strange looking, rugged celery-looking vegetable: Cardi (Cardoon in English, in Italian it's Cardo, Cardone or Carduna). But Cardi is not celery and it is used in a very different ways. In talking to other Foodies in the States, I have found that many confuse Cardoon with Swiss Chard, or worse, with Rhubarb (which, because of its sweetness is used more like a fruit, as in pies). I thought I would explain the differences between this confusing batch of stalk veggies...
Cardoon is a member of the thistle family and a close cousin of artichoke, but unlike the artichoke, the stalks and not the flowers are eaten. In fact, it tastes like artichoke. If you like artichokes, you should enjoy Cardi. Cardoon grows in the field as a fairly dangerous, spiny plant, just like thistle. Unlike celery, its ribs are fibrous (and much more stringy) and need to be removed using a vegetable peeler. Along the sides of each stalk are fairly sharp barbs which also need to be peeled. Eaten raw, the stalks are nearly inedible--amazingly bitter, fibrous and tough. In general, there is no such thing as overcooking Cardi if you want to get them tender enough to eat--while getting rid of their dental-floss stringiness.
In Italy, the average supermarket variety of Cardi on sale looks like a rough textured, perhaps dirty celery, with the tops trimmed off and bound by a twist tie, but in open air produce markets, you might find more choices. Often you will see a very tall (3-4'), straight variety with its thistle looking leaves intact. There is also another called Gobbi, a curved, hunchbacked type.
Blanched Cardi are grown in darkness to produced a very pale color, in the same way white asparagus or white endives are grown by covering the maturing stalks. These are the more expensive and prized for culinary use because their taste is less bitter and they tend to cook faster. Their taste when well-cooked, as I mentioned earlier, is like artichoke, but with a smokey edge and hint of licorice, as with finocchio (bulbing fennel). If you ever decide to grow Cardoon in your garden, always remove the beautiful blue flower heads (they look like thistle flowers) to prevent the plant from dropping seeds or your garden will have hundreds of weedlings coming up next season.
Swiss Chard (Bietola)
You can sauté Swiss Chard leaves and stems in a small amount of extra-virgin olive oil and season with freshly ground black pepper, minced garlic, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Eat as a side dish or as a baked potato topping. You can also cook the stems by first cutting in a small dice to soften them and adding to salsa, relish or chutney.
The main difference between Rhubarb and the other "stalk" veggies discussed here is that it does not grow in a head. The stalks grows from a woody rhizome individually and are harvested by cutting each close to the ground. Of course, the obvious difference is that, although a vegetable, Rhubarb is used in the same way we use sour cherries in pies. They are highly acidic and blend well with other sweet ingredients.
Sauteed Cardone Recipe