November 6, 2010

Tradition Turns Creative with Marzipan

Bressanone, the Austrian-Italian town where my relatives live, is just as settled in its South Tyrolean ways as the majestic mountains that stood here even prior to the human species' advent. Many of the elders in this area do not quite grasp the concept of email; they prefer land lines to cell phones. On a morning drive to Maso Pineto, an old farm house turned hikers' rest stop, we saw local dairy farmers waiting by the narrow, twisting roads for the daily milk pick-up. Instead of building technological infrastructure like cell phone towers, this region has advanced through agricultural product subsidies, which include 20-gallon stainless steel containers with wheels for temporary milk storage and large milk trucks to visit each village and collect the precious liquid. I was awed by the wrinkled old men and women with their blue aprons and felted hats and coats, patiently standing next to containers whose silvery shine almost blinded me. Here, the meeting of traditional ways and modern conveniences highlights local industry. Instead of looking outside to define its standards, this region values the land itself as its most precious asset. The foods that come from these fields frame the most important traditions with which I was raised.

My uncle Harald hails from a well-known German family that ran a local sweet shop for generations. Although he has been a professional painter and sculptor for many decades now, his original artistic training is in the pastry field. He stretches layers of dough for flaky apple strudel with ease and flips crepes with admirable grace. When my parents proposed that he teach them how to make the traditional Tyrolean marzipan pigs, which locals exchange during New Years as good luck, his little blue eyes twinkled like sun glinting on fresh winter snow. He immediately took the traditional, adorable pig shape and spun it to envision even more animal shapes. "We could make monkeys, elephants, anything you want". We found fat rolls of marzipan, a classic European almond paste, at the candy store under the medieval vaulted porticoes in downtown Bressanone.

The next morning, Harald was already immersed in his creations. Instead of starting with the classic pig shape, he was fashioning a golden bear, eyes shyly upturned, holding a bright red rose. Next came an elephant, a monkey, and Santa Claus with shredded coconut for his snowy beard. My uncle still keeps a basket of powdered food coloring in the incredible basement cellar that holds all the abundance of my relatives' meticulous harvests. From pickeld cauliflower to dried mushrooms, from apricot jam to rye berries, from dried deer meat to thick-rinded cheese wheels, this granite-encased room with its marble work table and copper scales for weighing baking flours is the secret gem of the house. I was sent downstairs various times during this sculpture process to fetch a rolling pin, some blanched almonds, shredded coconut, and a mysterious liquid made from cocoa butter and egg whites that serves as a color-fast glaze for the marzipan creatures.
Harald at work:

When we made the New Years' pigs, I got to try my hand at one, too. It is hard to imagine that these hand-worked gifts are now made by factory machines in another valley. My uncle strives to highlight the importance of handwork when making and exchanging local crafts. He even makes the figurines for Catholic manger scenes that are so popular in the Alps. When we involve our hands, we can leave our hearts in the gifts we give. I felt the joy and satisfaction that came from shaping a marzipan pig whose character reflected my own. Even though the hand-made can be more time-consuming, we would not have raw milk cheese without the farmers near Maso Pineto who still milk their own cows. My uncle's handicraft skills also allow us to carry a Tyrolean mountain tradition to the United States and educate others about the world by sculpting our own version of these pink, chubby good luck charms.
Here are the pigs!

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