October 28, 2010

Pomegranate Risotto and Roast Rabbit

I am beginning to understand why American people become enamored of Italian culture. Although a reverence for local foods can be found in many places world-wide, the Mediterranean climate allows such traditions to shine through the variety of ingredients available year-round. In Vermont, we cultivate beautiful vegetables, tend to winter-hardy fruit trees, pasture healthy animals, and grow an impressive variety of grains. Because our growing season lasts five months at best, we do not have access to fresh foods all the time. As supplies dwindle during the cold months, so do I feel a growing desire to visit the warmer places where these foods grow year-round. Certain parts of California may reflect the Italian peninsula's growing season, but the scale on which food is raised does not compare to the small production to which Italy must adhere due to its mountainous geography.

With the Apennine mountains running a spine north-south and the Alps holding the northern part of the country, there are few places to cultivate anything on more than a handful of acres. Hence, even though the growing season here is luxurious, Italian food acquires a precious quality due to its small-scale production. Regional recipes are integral to the cultural paradigm. One of my childhood memories of autumn's arrival is marked by the truckloads of blood oranges and clementines that make their way North from Sicily in November so that households may prepare the Sicilian recipes to highlight the citrus. Here in the Po River Valley, my father and I discovered an agritourism that raises rabbits and grows pomegranates, both of which get sent to other Italian provinces so that others may enjoy them.
In honor of our local foods, we decided to make pomegranate risotto and roast rabbit with white wine and chestnuts. Risotto is a rice dish that hails from Italy and has myriads of regional variations. To make this beloved primo piatto, or first course, with the tangy crimson-seeded fruit that informs the length of Persephone's stay in the underworld, it is essential to remove the seeds from the fruit body, boil them briefly, and spin them through a sieve in order to catch the brilliant juice. This succus becomes the broth with which we cook the rice.
Rabbit meat is rich and lean, but often have a gamey flavor unless and retained water is removed first. We seared and rinsed the rabbit before placing it in a roasting pan with garlic and much of the rosemary and sage we collected when we visited the hill village Arqua Petrarca. These herbs, when minced, create a paste that can coat the rabbit and help it to retain its juices while roasting. We poured a quarter bottle of the whine wine made by one of my dad's university colleagues into the roasting pan and sent it on its way into the hot oven.
Meanwhile, we sliced crescents along the rinds of chestnuts gleaned from Imperia, a nearby town on the ocean. We placed them on a baking sheet and roasted them until the nut meat began to escape from each sliced section. We wanted to peel them immediately, savor some of their sweetness as a prelude to our meal, but we had to allow them to cool. Instead, we sampled some of the rye bread we had baked with flour from my family's home town in the Dolomite mountains of Trentino alongside a few of the tangy, tiny black olives that my father picked and pickled in Pienza, Tuscany last year. Bread and olives can provide enough temporary respite to any hungry Italian.
When we added the chestnuts to the rabbit, gave the risotto its final stir, poured bubbling glasses of Serprino Prosecco from the nearby Euganei Hills, and sat down to dinner, we were satisfied by the process before we ever ate one bite.
Please email me at lisamase@gmail.com for more detailed recipes and cooking guidance.

A Culture of Walking and Biking

The nearby Adriatic Sea lends to Ferrara both its mild climate and its flat streets, which make it an ideal city for biking and walking. Local people use these modes of transport as part of their daily lives. As a result, citizens are not only healthy overall but also live in an environment with less air pollution. Growing up, I always took public buses to school or rode my pink bicycle with a wicker basket affixed to the front and a pedal-powered tail light on the back for evening travel.

The medieval walls that surround the city provide an ideal way to get from place to place. Biagio Rossetti, their original architect, envisioned them as protection, practicality and beauty. The holes from which soldiers shot at invaders are still as visible as the curved viaducts that welcomed water to pass underneath the walls for public water access. The hand-made bricks whose ruddy structure still holds true offer grounded contrast to the towering green of ash, oak, linden and ginkgo trees that arch into tunnels above them.
Le Mura, the walls:

Walls are flanked by new buildings with many antennae!

At any given time, there are elderly ladies with flowered scarves wrapped around their heads who pedal slowly along the tree-lined promenades; runners dressed in spandex race each other from one lamp post to the next; teenagers lug book-laden backpacks on one shoulder and take a break to sit on a park bench and sneak a cute graffiti phrase on its slats; men in indigo pin stripes and sunglasses stroll from work to their favorite caffe' to share the day's stories over an evening aperitivo at the tiny bars that sprout from the corners where the Mura, the city walls, meet the streets.
The tree-lined path that allows travel by the tops of the walls:

Some bikers along the path:

During a recent walk along the walls with my dad, much to the delight of my herbalist's sensibility, I discovered nettles growing everywhere! These prickly plants are rich in iron and vigorous in the fields that separate the walls from the countryside. Who knows? We could return with scissors and bags to pick them for soup!
Here are the nettles:

My father counts the rings on a cottonwood tree stump:

To see the Mura and bicycle culture in film, you can rent the Garden of the Finzi Contini, originally a novel by Giorgio Bassani set in World War II era Ferrara. I remember seeing the movie cameras come to my favorite park, Parco Massari, because I could not access the Lebanon Cedars, my favorite climbing trees, for what seemed like ages! However, I realize now that it was well worth the interruption because I have a film I can watch when I feel nostalgic for my home town.

October 27, 2010

My apartment

This is where I grew up!
My pink bedroom with balcony view:

The map of the United States with each state flower, needle-pointed by my American great-grandmother Elizabeth, is one of the few "American" possessions that informed my Italian childhood. I treasure it:

Dining room, complete with my dad's paintings from art school, and efficient kitchen:

October 26, 2010

Night Life in the Walled City

Ferrara is a medieval city, constructed primarily during the period between 1100 and 1400 CE when the Estense family ruled the Po River delta region. As primary suppliers of grain, cheese, fruit and produce to the Florentine Renaissance empire, this city played a crucial role in maintaining the lavish lifestyle valued by those empowered during the time of this cultural pinnacle. As this brilliant rebirth of arts and culture diminished, so did the privilege of the Estense family fizzle into stardust. Ferrara's construction ceased, stilled despite time's passing, to stand as a monument to a time in Italian culture that valued beauty above much else.
From a Romanesque-style cathedral and a moated castle gracing its center piazza to twenty-foot walls with gates and turrets surrounding its perimeter, Ferrara still holds magical echoes of fairy tale mystique as compared with more recent American constructions. After dark, the intricately laid brick structures of walls, gates, palazzos and porticoes are illuminated by golden floodlights that lend a glow to the architecture.

When my father and I discovered that the local university's music conservatory had created a jazz initiative, we were intrigued to hear some of the musicians whom the department has both attracted and produced. Music history, when brought to life by its players, can display a richness similar to the kind flaunted by long-standing palazzos. Last night, we visited Monday Night Jazz Sessions at the Torrione to discover more.

This building, erected in the 1300s as a watchtower to protect the city against potential Turkish invasion, stands at the mouth of Corso Porta Mare, the road that 'leads to the ocean'. It is impressively round and solid from the outside. We run up the external staircase that leads to the second story entrance; a northeasterly wind from Yugoslavia, the Bora, is blowing through the only open alpine channel down the Adriatic Sea and filling the temperate fall air with a decisive chill. Once inside, the ingenious architecture is revealed. This massive tower has twenty sides, laid in hand-made bricks and upheld by oak posts and beams that still hold together thanks to their original wooden pegs. We look up at the ceiling in awe and notice the marks of chisels on the hand-hewn beams. "Per fortuna", my dad explains, "luckily the Turks did not invade, or this building might not be standing today".
Here is the Torrione:

We move curiously through the space, completely set up in the round with small black bistro tables both on the floor and on a balcony above us, each adorned with a single candle. When we encounter a twisting staircase and wind down into the first floor, we are met by a humming bar scene populated by bohemian characters between their thirties and sixties who are sipping cocktails and glasses of Italian wines. I look at the drink list and realize that local establishments in Italy can flaunt wines that local vinters will never release for export because they are the gems of their vineyards. I feel like I have stumbled into a treasure trove of counter-cultural delight.

The stereo system is blasting tunes by Tower of Power and sparkling laughter dominates the basement bar room, once a munitions storehouse whose ceiling still boasts an impossible spiral of bricks. We walk back upstairs to find seats not yet labeled with the tag "riservato" and explore the black and white photo exhibit along the round walls of legendary performers who have visited during the forty years that the nearby Bologna Jazz Festival has taken place. As people settle into their seats, I smile at the uniquely Italian fashion that surrounds me: men wearing jeans that might seem obscene to more conservative eyes; women with straight black hair and arched black eyebrows wearing anything elegantly, from baubled chains to flowery perfume and low-cut dresses. Thankfully, I already went to one of manh local shoe stores and found a classic pair of tall leather boots to place an Italian seal on my American wardrobe. The ones who stand out to me are a group of four women, two of whom appear to be natural blondes. I know that my alma mater, Middlebury College, hosts a semester abroad program in Ferrara. I imagine that they belong to that crew. They end up leaving before the evening's conclusion.
It's an ideal jazz venue:

As the music starts, the bartender pulls up a stool and sips his own glass of red, which Italians call calice di vino, a chalice of wine. The sound tech, dressed in a skin-tight black shirt that offsets his full head of dark curls, steps up to one of the on-stage microphones and welcomes the band, comprised of docents from the Conservatory. They are a hap-hazard group of men, some utterly polished in silk shirts and ponytails, others hopelessly bedraggled in adidas sneakers and rumpled vests. Despite their mis-matched appearance, they communicate seamlessly during the soul quintet set that starts with Horace Silver and bops the night away through Charles Mingus and ends with Cannonball Adderly. My father and I are tapping are toes and clapping alongside everyone else. When other locals are invited to the stage for a jam session, the audience turns even more lively and the round tower is energized by the convivial weaving of timeless cultural traditions.

Jazz Club Ferrara closes its soiree announcing future engagements and inviting us to attend the upcoming Bologna Jazz Festival, where Sonny Rollins will celebrate his 80th birthday. Two nights ago, I visited a local brewery that was recently opened by one of my friends from elementary school and listened to young people talk about Ferrara's lack-luster night life. Yet, last night, I sensed a secret brilliance radiating from the burgeoning jazz scene at the Torrione, medieval bastion turned house of swing.

For details, visit www.jazzclubferrara.com

October 24, 2010

Terra Viva

Yesterday, we visited a biodynaic farm, Terra Viva, which is at the end of a little road in downtown Ferrara called Via Delle Erbe. I had no idea that it has been thriving there since 1985 and that its 4 hectares (approx. 2 acres I think?) comprise the biggest cultivated land area inside of city walls anywhere in Italy. Whoa! I was amazed to see that, first of all, they are planting a new round of veggies in October. Blissful Mediterranean climate! Second of all, their adherence to Rudolph Steiner's intensive gardening philosophy allows them to grow gigantic vegetables, raise bees and make linden honey, and have a little shop where they serve lunch every day and from which customers can purchase not only produce but also local products that they have made, even down to the pine nuts, raspberries, tomato sauce and fresh pasta! They gave us freshly roasted white sweet potatoes to sample - delicious! We chatted with the owners about things like, "italian people don't understand the delights of kale" to "where do you find those rare white truffles in the woods around here?" I can picture you loving this place up.

Learn more about it at http://www.nuovaterraviva.org/

After a brief walk back through the fields and past the city walls, we were back out on the streets and the main piazza of Ferrara, which leads into Parco Massari, the park where I used to play on the gigantic Lebanon Cedars whose thick trunks seem somehow smaller to me now that I have adult limbs with which to climb them.

October 23, 2010

Persimmons and Poverty

Driving between Ferrara, the medieval city in which I grew up, to Arqua' Petrarca, a village in the Euganei Hills where rosemary grows in bushes the size of a Vermont brown bear and pomegranates hang heavy from graceful tree limbs until they are so full that they split open and spill their seeds on the square cobblestones of the tiny roads that wind between ancient stone houses, I noticed many small gardens filled with a wide variety of trees and shrubs. Even though there is not much space for growing food in Italy, a peninsula dominated both by the spine of the Appenine mountains running North-South and the Alps covering the northern quarter of the country, people make the most of it.
Some images of Petrarca's village:

The further my father and I traveled, the more similarities I began to see between home gardens. Many display a lush tree with shiny, dark green leaves laden with huge fruits that look like rugged oranges. I wondered aloud what those fruits might be received the prompt reply, "cacchi, persimmons". Aha! I forget that, although Vermont and this Parmesan cheese-producing region of Italy are at approximately the same latitude, the Adriatic Sea's mitigating effects make the Italian climate far more temperate. I am awed by the gigantic persimmmons, originally from Japan, that thrive here. The ones I see gracing the produce shelves at the local coop for two or three rare weeks each fall are about a third of the size of these. They are delicious with chestnuts, which seem to be roasting on every street corner here this time of year.
Here is a fruiting persimmon tree:

After we reached our destination, home of the medieval poet Petrarca who, as those times required, was also a priest and a public officer, we walked past enough fruit and nut trees to feed a caravan of gypsies. Grapes are already ripe and fresh wine is available everywhere. Almonds are falling off the trees and tumbling with hollow echoes on the stone sidewalks. Olives are turning black and await harvest and pressing into olive oil during the first week of November. The pomegranates call Persephone into the darkness of winter as their crimson seeds fall everywhere, feeed the birds, rest among the thick, fragrant spikes of lavender and rosemary bushes, which are flowering their second annual round of tiny, lilac-colored blossoms. My father picks branches of the ones that grow out of seemingly groundless cracks in the tall rock walls. If that were not enough, the jujubee trees are also producing their rich, crunchy and sweet red-green fruits. They are delicious as is or fermented into a syrupy liqueur, which, judging from the dark-colored bottles for sale out of quiet front doors, seems like a popular way to consume them.\par
I wonder how much the local people take advantage of the abundance that comes their way each fall. While the earth is giving so many nourishing gifts before it rests for the winter, Vandana Shiva, an Indian biodiversity activist who runs Navdanya, a seed-saving organic farm and educational institution in North India, is speaking at the Terra Madre, Slow Food International's conference in Torino. This annual gathering is hosted in one of Italy's richest wine regions, from which the thick, tannic wines like Barolo and Barbaresco hail.
Vandana Shiva speaks about access to food resources at this year's conference:

As attendees gorge on local food and drink that is being offered by two convention center halls filled to the brim with purveyors from across Italy and the world, Vandana Shiva speaks of food poverty and unequal resources, which can make it challenging for certain local groups of people to enjoy the bounty of their own foods. At times, she explains, those who harvest this abundance must sell it to anyone who will purchase it so that they can earn enough money to support themselves and their families. When people lack the resources to meet basic needs such as procuring clean water and healthy food and must resort to selling the fruits of their own land in order to to do, the imbalance that propagates poverty becomes starkly evident. However, many of us turn our backs to this evidence and continue to spend our dollars and cents, unknowingly robbing local people of the nourishment that was once their birthright.
How can we find a greater balance between the disparity of people who have food and those who have buying power? We must return the food to those whose land produces it. Sounds simple enough, but large-scale economies make this intention relatively impossible. It is the small producers, who fight to maintain the local character of their products, that herald this change. When people become proud of the land that houses them, feeds them, reflects their cultural identity, and provides a backdrop for community exchange, then there is potential to re-define wealth so that it is valued not only as legal tender but also as fruits, nuts, legumes and grain. Until more people choose to eat locally and support their food sources, there imbalance will continue, certain regions will wilt from over-production, and others will suffer from malnutrition.
May the richness of the foods I eat today with my father, gleaned from the hills outside my home, nourish us into remembering that every region offers its own unique nourishment. When we savor the food that comes from our bio-region, we take in the local soil with every bite and eventually become native to the place that feeds us.
With the intention for earth-based inter-dependence and reverence, I set out on another journey with child's eyes open to the learning that may come today.

October 22, 2010

Arrival in Ferrara

I am safely in Italy, buying persimmons and chestnuts from street vendors. My dad and I are making artichoke sauce for fresh pasta and planning the typical Friday evening fish dinner. We went to a local butcher who, because Ferrara in one the Po River delta and so close to the ocean, has a wide variety of fresh catch from which to choose. We chose a fish called the "praying fish", which aligns with this Catholic Friday fish tradition and comes from the Adriatic Sea.
Food binds people in Italy, nourishes them on a level much deeper than simple caloric exchange, creates traditions that build bridges of understanding through the respect for regional culinary identity, and engenders joy in the hearts of those who share them. May we all honor our traditions.
I feel so lucky to have a homeland to which I can return, a source that feeds me and reminds me of the child-like bliss that comes through when I am not attaching myself to the false sense of duty or ownership that comes from being wrapped up in the repetitive patterns of my daily life. I am grateful to be here.
Ferrara's unique Romanesque-style catherdral glows with pink Italian marble:

October 20, 2010

To Italy!

I am headed to visit my family in Italy after five years. It is an honor!
I will start my trip with a visit to the International Slow Food Conference in Turin.
For details visit http://www.salonedelgusto.it/welcome_eng.lasso?-session=sg2010:1880C16418e7a230B1VvM3BD55AC

Afterwards, it will be time to travel to my home land of the Dolomite Mountains and celebrate All Saints' Day, November 1st, in Bressanone.

Then, I will travel to Pienza to shake olives off the trees and make oil with my parents and my fathers' friends from elementary school. What a fun crew of 75-year-old Italians!

Keep watching this bolg for photos, recipes, stories and other tidbits of Italian delight!

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