Tuesday, September 26, 2006

See for yourself

After recently visiting three very different regions in Italy I can say with confidence that there is no such thing as "Italian Food". Or, rather, the range of food that can be considered "Italian" varies so much from region to region that it defies categorization.

Our trip began with three days in Liguria, where I dreamed of bread every night. Camogli is on the coast close to Genova, and it was so hot we had to sleep with the windows open. The drool inducing smell from the panetteria below rises, wafts through the open window and seeps into your subconscious. They start work at 3:00 a.m. I don't need to tell you what you wake up craving for.

Liguria is where focaccia comes from, as well as troffie, pesto, sugo di noce, moscardini in umido, pesce in umido con patate bollite. We had gelato at least three times a day (after lunch, early evening and after dinner).

Our good friends Jacopo and Paola took us by boat from Camogli to San Fruttuoso for dinner one evening. On the way we saw Liguria from the water, its nooks and soft lights. I remember reading somewhere that when you cook pasta the water needs to be as salty as the Mediterranean, so I tasted it. Next time I’ll get it right.

We sat at a little table right on the beach, eating a seven course meal under the light of the moon.

After the coast, we went by bus up to the mountains to a small town where Luca's family, escaping the nightmarish, humid Milan heat, has spent every summer for the past forty years.

Whenever we visit Etroubles (which has approximately 200 inhabitants and is close to the border with Switzerland), Luca feels like a time traveler. The same six-year-old girl who used to sit behind the counter at the grocery store when Luca was twelve is still there, with her tangled red head, counting coins. Except that, on closer inspection, it's the daughter of the girl that used to be there. This phenomenon repeats itself as we walk through town in the boy on the swings, the teenagers playing soccer, the woman hanging her clothes to dry.

The food in Valle d'Aosta is stick to your ribs, rich, heavy, and slathered in butter, cream or cheese. Polenta e Camoscio, Polenta Concia, Fontina, Fonduta, Mocetta, Zuppa alla Valpellinese, Tegole, Carpaccio di Porcini. I had Zuppa alla Valpellinese and found myself in front of a deep dish of melted Fontina, which I then spread on thick, black bread with my fork. (You'd think "zuppa" would require a spoon. I love surprises.)

In Courmayeur, at the foot of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), I had the best yogurt I've ever tasted. The label on the glass container read "this yogurt is made only from milk of cows from the high Valle d'Aosta". As we drove through the mountains, I thanked all the cows who grazed there.

One of my favorite pastries are Brutti ma Buoni (ugly yet good.) They are amorphous blobs of heaven, made from egg whites, hazelnuts and sugar (no flour, no butter.) In search of the best, I decided to sample one at each pasticceria.

Despite the simple ingredients, the flavor and consistency vary greatly, from airy to crunchy to chewy to everything in between. I invited my husband, my in-laws and la Nonna, my husband's 96 year old grandmother, into this endeavor. I was to walk into each bakery, order 5 brutti ma buoni, and deliver one into the (ever so slightly disapproving) hands of each of my family members (Northern Italians pretend to frown upon excess. I say "pretend" because when it comes right down to the wire, they could turn it down but don't.)

It was in Cogne, a jewel of a town deep in a narrow valley, that I encountered the roundest, puffiest, most harmonious looking brutti ma buoni. I walked in and aghast, told the owner "These cannot possibly be considered brutti ma buoni. They aren't at all ugly."

"Regretfully, signora, we make everything in our pastry shop beautiful. These are indeed brutti ma buoni, only they are not brutti."

I looked around. This was truly a gorgeous pastry shop. Cookies piled high with different flavors of jam, goodies swirled in chocolate, meringues coiffed in cream, almond paste filled croissants dusted in confectioner's sugar.

Exercising atypical restraint, I stuck to our mission, ordered the usual five brutti ma buoni, and while my family still chewed I declared them the best in Italy. To be fair, I hereby disclose they couldn't object - they had gummy yummyness gluing their teeth together.

My political family is all originally from Lombardia (in this case, Milan) where we went to next. Typical Milan dishes are Risotto alla Milanese (which is made with saffron and is half the reason my blog is called 'Epazote and Saffron'), Osso Buco (which I admit I'm not a passionate fan of - but Luca's eyes bug out when he sees this on the menu, and when he breaks down and orders it he mops his plate clean with bread), Cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded meat which even in far away places like Mexico we call "Milanesa") and Panettone, the high, fluffy, dried fruit encrusted dessert bread sold in Milan over the Christmas holidays.

I know that my initial declaration of there being no such thing as Italian food is really nothing new. It's that it's such fun to experience it for oneself.

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