the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: December, 2017

COTECHINO FOR NEW YEAR’S DINNER

Milan, 28 December 2017

Many posts ago, I promised that I would render public the recipe for mashed potatoes which had been handed down for generations from mother to daughter on my mother’s side (at least, that’s what I would like to think; I certainly got the recipe from my sister, who in turn got it from our grandmother). I will finally unveil it today – but first, I will dreamily describe the meal which it accompanied, which happens to have been our Christmas lunch.

The centerpiece of the lunch, the pièce de resistance as the French would say, was two cotechini. For readers who have no idea what a cotechino is, let me first say that I completely understand; I too had no idea what it was before I had slices of one put on my plate some forty years ago, when I passed my first year’s end in Italy. Let me go on to say that it is a sausage – such an ugly term for this glorious dish! the Italian term salume is so much more elegant, I will use that.

It is made with pork meat, both lean (shoulder, neck, leg, shank) and fatty (throat, cheek, bacon) as well as rind. The meat portion is chopped coarsely, the rind finely. Nowadays, the lean meats predominate in the recipe, with about a fifth each by weight of fatty meat and rind added, but I suspect that in the old days there was much more rind since the salume’s name derives from cotica, the Italian word for rind. In any event, salt, pepper, spices and herbs, and even sometimes wine, are added to the mix. The precise types and amounts of spices and herbs are of course closely guarded secrets handed down from generation to generation in the hush of rural kitchens, but nutmeg, cloves and sometimes cinnamon are present in modern recipes. This fragrant mix is then squeezed into a casing of pig’s intestines. The resulting salume is cured for about a month, after which it is ready to eat. But first it needs to be cooked, which luckily is easy though slow: place the cotechino in boiling water over low heat for some four hours, first pricking the casing to allow the fats inside to ooze out. Et voilà! (I feel I must inform those readers who are pressed for time that there are now modern pre-cooked cotechini which can be ready for the table in half an hour, but I would really urge them to make time in their busy lives to purchase a raw cotechino and cook it the full four hours).

Today, the cotechino is a very respectable dish, but I suspect this is because it has been subjected to the culinary equivalent of gentrification. It must have started life as the ingenious response by poor people to the pressing need to use every bit of their pigs, even the hard, gristly, tough bits. In fact, the region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, which until recently was a very poor region of Italy, has always claimed the paternity of the cotechino. In truth, though, it is found in substantially the same form throughout the whole of north-eastern Italy, and has spread west to Lombardy and south to the Apennines. Northern Italy was full of very poor people until comparatively recent times. Some years ago, riding the wave of sourcing your food locally, Modena has cannily parlayed the greater notoriety of its variant of cotechino into a certification of Protected Geographical Indication, no doubt much to the annoyance of all the regions in the north-east who believe that the cotechino was born in their region.

Well, I don’t object to this social upgrading of the cotechino. I’ve always thought that simple “peasant” food is much nicer than the fussy, overwrought creations invented for aristocrats with nothing useful to do with their lives and always looking for something new to excite their jaded palates.

In northern Italy, cotechino is the dish par excellence for Christmas and New Year meals. It is joined in this distinction by the zampone from Emilia Romagna, which is identical to the cotechino except for the casing used: the pig’s front foot rather than its intestines.

It is probably its role in year’s end festivities that has turned the cotechino into a respectable, middle-class dish. But I suspect that its place on the Christmas or New Year table in the first place is actually due to simple chance. In the old days, it was customary in the countryside to slaughter the household pig at the beginning of winter. The meat and offal were then cured or otherwise preserved to build up food supplies for the lean winter and spring months. Cotechino, which is cured within a month, would have been ready by the end of the year, just in time for the festive season. Thus did it happen to become, in my humble opinion, the centerpiece – the piece de resistance – on the Christmas or New Year table.

What of the side dishes to be eaten with cotechino? This year, we followed the time-honored tradition of eating it with lentils.

I personally think this is an excellent culinary pairing. Cotechino has rather a sharp taste, which is admirably offset by the relative blandness of lentils. The relative dryness of lentils also soaks up the cotechino’s tendency to excess fattiness. But I’m not sure this was necessarily the reason for which the pairing originally occurred. Since time immemorial, lentils have been the poor person’s food, so it seems natural to me that it should have been paired with cotechino, the poor person’s salume. It could also be that there was already a tradition of eating lentils at the new year. It seems that since at least Roman times there has been the belief that eating lentils at the new year will ensure your prosperity in the year to come. This credence is based on the shape of the lentils – they look like (very) small coins. I suppose this must be based on a belief in some sort of sympathetic magic: eat coin-shaped food and real coins will soon be clinking in your pocket. I wish it were that simple …

Which brings us back to where this post started: mashed potatoes.

We decided to add this to the basic pairing of cotechino and lentils. I feel that the gentle sweetness of mashed potatoes helps the lentils in its task of smoothing out that bite and tartness which is an essential part of the cotechino’s identity. I’m convinced that our mashed potatoes’ sweetness is enhanced by the way we prepare it (I say “we” because I have passed on the age-old secret recipe to my wife and daughter): mash the potatoes, preferably in one of those old-fashioned manual food-grinders, add enough milk to nearly liquefy the mash, add an extremely large nob of butter, stir. That’s it.

And so we all tucked into our Christmas lunch of cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes.


Nothing fancy, just damned good food. And of course followed by that glory of Milanese cuisine, panettone.


Well, it’s taken me a little time to prepare this post, but readers still have just enough time to rush out and buy themselves a cotechino for their New Year’s lunch or dinner. I suggest going to your nearest Italian Deli to see if they have it – you can buy a zampone if they stock that. If not, you might just have time to buy it on-line. But hurry! Time is running out!

__________________

cotechino: http://www.academiabarilla.com/italian-recipes/second-courses/cotechino-with-lentils.aspx
cotechino di Modena IGP: http://www.pubblicitaitalia.com/eurocarni/2007/2/7179.html
zampone: http://www.salepepe.it/ingredienti/tipi-di-carne/zampone/
lentils: http://www.lacasadellericette.com/2011/12/lenticchie-felice-anno-nuovo.html
mashed potatoes: http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/mashed-potatoes-with-roasted-garlic-and-mascarpone-cheese-1947695
cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes: https://cucina.doki.it/secondi-piatti/cotechino-pure-patate-bimby-tm31-ricetta
Panettone: http://www.alimentipedia.it/panettone.html
New Year’s dinner: http://www.grubstreet.com/2016/12/where-to-make-last-minute-new-years-eve-reservations-in-nyc.html

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING

Milan, 25 December 2017

I suppose it’s a sign of old age creeping up on me that I recall with ever greater fondness the memories of my youth, and in this festive season no more so than to Christmases past – here, to get us into the spirit of things, I throw in a picture of Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past.

There is one Christmas in particular which comes back vividly to mind.  I must have been six years old, old enough to remember things forever more and young enough for incidents to be deeply impressed into my still malleable brain. I can still see in my mind’s eye the living room of our house in Eritrea – this was probably the last Christmas we spent there; we would be leaving it forever within the coming year. The furniture had been moved around to make room for a Christmas tree in the corner and a nativity scene along the edge of one of the walls. Following the cultural divide in our family, my British father was responsible for the tree while my French mother was responsible for the nativity scene, or crèche as she used to call it. The tree was a source of endless fascination to me, covered as it was with those glittering balls and other baubles. This picture of a Christmas tree from the 1950s captures well the glittering fantasy I beheld.

The balls in particular were a magnet for my little fingers, which was a problem because they were incredibly fragile in those days, made as they were of some very thin, very easily breakable material.  Alas, despite numerous parental warnings to keep out of the living room, I could not resist sneaking in and touching those beautiful balls, with a broken ball and a sore bottom being the inevitable result.

The crèche was an equal source of fascination: the little manger, the figurines of Mary and Joseph, the Mum and Dad to that little baby, Jesus, lying in the hay, the donkey and the cow, very much like the ones I saw when we went for drives in the countryside around the town, the shepherds hanging around the manger, who also looked pretty much like the shepherds I sometimes saw out in the countryside, the angel which hung by a thread over the manger, the three old fellows and a camel who, day by day, were brought closer and closer to the manger until they reached it some time after Christmas … all wonderful stuff. The crèche photographed here has the rough and ready look which ours surely had – in fact, it looks already to be one level above whatever it is that we prepared, although to my innocent eyes ours was a work of art.

I had little understanding and, frankly, zero interest in the theological profundities which were being exposed before us. What I loved were all those little figurines which we could move around! Our mother made it even more interesting by allowing us to add our own figurines to the mix. I don’t recall what I brought but I remember that my elder brother came with his toy cowboys and indians which he proceeded to hide behind the various trees and bushes dotting the papier-maché landscape.

In all my Christmases Past, I have had a particular fondness for these Christmas trappings, even though for reasons which are now not clear to me the crèche quite quickly dropped away in my parents’ Christmases, leaving only the tree and its baubles. When my Italian wife and I started having our own Christmases the decorated pine tree also dominated, although my wife remembered with great fondness the crèche, or presepe as she calls it, which her father would create when she was young. As she described it to me, it seemed very much like the crèche of my memory, although her father had inserted a pond into the landscape using a mirror and had rigged up a little light driven by a battery which would shine in the star above the manger. Since it was very much my father-in-law’s project, I suppose that after his early death my mother-in-law never had the heart to take the presepe out and set it up, even when our children were young and might have appreciated it. But we took them along to the local churches – every self-respecting Italian church will have a presepe set up in one of the side chapels at Christmas.

This year, as I did my annual trek to the attic to bring down our Christmas tree (made of plastic and reusable; I have to walk my talk, after all, and I can’t stand those piles of dead and dying pine trees on pavements after Christmas), I spied in the corner the box where my mother-in-law had stored the presepe materials, an old box which had once contained a humidifier and which still had her handwritten note on the top of it – a message from the past.

Since it was to be a family Christmas this year, with both our children joining us, I decided on the spur of the moment to set up the presepe. I brought the box down, took everything out, and carried out a general inspection. I decided to drop the pond; I didn’t approve of this novelty. The electrical system was kaput, so I ditched that. The main actors were all there – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ass and the ox, the shepherds and their sheep, the angel, the three Wise Men and their camel. But I was going to need some extra characters, to make up for the cowboys and indians which in my wiser old age I recognized as very incongruous – and anyway I had no cowboy and indian figurines at hand (I had some of my son’s Warhammer figurines in the back of a cupboard, but they would have been even more incongruous).

I decided to check out the greatest of all presepi in Italy, the ones made in Naples, which had brought the art of nativity scenes to heights of splendour. I mean, look at these two!


Now that’s what I call nativity scenes worthy of kings! (and queens) Making one was to be my KPI!

A little research informed me that there are a certain number of stock characters in Neapolitan nativity scenes. There is Benino, the sleeping shepherd, a reference to the line in the gospel that the shepherds were out in the fields at night (and therefore presumably snoozing). There is the wine seller, a reference to the Eucharist, but there is also Cicci Bacco, who is a reference to earlier pagan rites. There’s the Fisherman, symbolizing the fisher of souls. Then we have the two pals Unc’ Vicienzo and Unc’ Pascale, personifying Carnival and Death. There’s the Monk, who is meant to symbolize the union between the sacred and the profane in the Neapolitan nativity scene. There’s a Gypsy Girl, whose symbolism is uncertain but who is fun to have around. There’s Stefania, around whom there is an elaborate tale which I will not relate here. There’s the Prostitute, who is there to form a contrast with the purity of the Virgin and who normally is made to hang around outside the tavern – where else? Finally, there are the sellers in the market, one for each month of the year: butcher for January, seller of ricotta or cheese for February, seller of chickens and other birds March, seller of eggs April, a married couple holding a basket of cherries and fruit for May, baker for June, tomato seller July, watermelon seller August, fig seller September, wine seller October, chestnut seller November, fishmonger December.

A rapid comparison of what I had inherited from my in-laws told me that we had a lot of gaps. I had a Benino, a fisherman, a fishmonger, a young girl with a basket who could be one half of the married couple of May, a young girl who could be Stefania. And that was about it. I had a number of other figurines who it seems are not part of the stock players in a Neapolitan nativity scene. There were a couple of figurines of men playing various instruments, maybe referring to a tradition which was still alive – just – when I first came to Italy in the 1970s and which saw men appearing a little before Christmas playing the Lombard equivalent of bagpipes and inviting donations from passers-by for their efforts. There was also a neat little figurine of a fellow making polenta, no doubt part of an effort to defend the honour of northern Italian cuisine. My wife had come across by chance a little shop which sold a medley of figurines for nativity scenes, so we stocked up on a few of our missing characters. We also bought some sheets of coloured paper to use as backdrops, a bag of moss to sprinkle around as generic vegetation, and some little houses to create a nearby Bethlehem.  Then we got to work, my wife on the tree and me on the presepe alla napoletana. The result is not so bad, even if we say so ourselves.

But there is still much to do on the presepe! Luckily, I am a believer in the philosophy of continuous improvement. Next year, we will make our presepe somewhat better, the year after that better still, and on and on. If I’m lucky enough to celebrate many more Christmases Yet to Come we will finally end up with a magnificent Neapolitan-style presepe! – with some tweaks to distinguish ourselves from our southern cousins.

 

Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Buon Natale!

____________________

Ghost of Christmas Past: http://www.wisegeek.com/who-is-the-ghost-of-christmas-past.htm
Christmas tree: https://it.pinterest.com/suehirtle1/1950s-christmas/?lp=true
Manger: http://www.unionesarda.it/articolo/sardegna_agenda/2017/11/29/a_villamar_un_corso_per_salvare_l_arte_del_presepe-122-671332.html
cowboys and indians: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/hajosc49/toy-land/
Parish church nativity scene: http://www.valcenoweb.it/2017/12/10/chiesa-parrocchiale-di-pione-bardi-inaugurato-il-presepio-venerdi-8-dicembre-2017/
the presepe box: my photo
Warhammer figurines: http://www.sickchirpse.com/peta-campaign-against-warhammer-fur/
Presepe napoletano: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presepe_napoletano
Presepe napoletano-2: http://www.oggiroma.it/eventi/mostre/il-presepe-religiosita-e-tradizione-popolare/27671/
The finished Christmas tree: my photo
The finished presepe: my photo
Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adorazione_dei_pastori_(Ghirlandaio)

AUTOSUGGESTION

Milan, 9 December 2017

I was recently reading The Lying Stones of Marrakech, a volume of essays by one of my favorite authors, Stephen Jay Gould.

My writing style in these posts owes a great deal to his essays. If any of my readers have an interest in natural history in general and paleontology specifically, I can highly recommend his books. Tragically, he died of cancer at the age of 60.

In any event, I had just started reading an essay entitled “Of Embryos and Ancestors”, which starts by Gould quoting the phrase “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. He then writes that the phrase was invented by a Frenchman by the name of Émile Coué.

Coué, Gould informs us, was “a French pharmacist who made quite a stir in the pop-psych circles of his day with a theory of self-improvement through autosuggestion based on frequent repetition of this mantra”. Gould mentions in passing that the phrase in the original French reads “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux”. I suddenly sat up – I was reading in bed – as if electrified.

To explain my reaction, I have to recount a little bit of the history of the French side of my family. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, my maternal grandfather contracted tuberculosis in the 1920s. This was in the days before antibiotics, so it was essentially incurable; 50% of the people diagnosed with active tuberculosis had died of it within 5 years, and it was the cause of 1 in 6 deaths in France at that time. Tuberculosis surrounded one on every side. Edvard Munch painted his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 14, sick in bed (his mother also died of the disease).

Claude Monet painted his first wife, Camille, on her deathbed, killed by tuberculosis.

Literature was full of people who died of tuberculosis: Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, Fantine in Les Misérables, Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Coming fast on the heels of my grandfather having lost all his money – actually my grandmother’s dowry – in a failed business, his contracting tuberculosis spelled economic catastrophe. My grandmother was forced to take a job as personal secretary to a rich English woman by the name of Mrs. Green, down in Menton on the Côte d’Azur where the lady and her husband would spend the winters. Mrs. Green stipulated that my grandmother could not live with her husband, for fear that she would contract the disease and – this was the real point – pass it on to her employer. So my grandfather was forced to live hidden away in Nice, where my grandmother would visit him from time to time in secret. In the summer, when Mr. and Mrs. Green returned to England, my grandparents would come up to the house they had managed to hang on to near Mâcon. But even here my grandfather lived apart, away from the children, in a room of his own, using his own sheets, his own towel, his own napkin, even his own plate and cutlery, all in an attempt to avoid infection.

To no avail. One day, my grandmother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Catastrophe reared its head again. Mrs. Green would fire my grandmother the moment she heard her coughing. But my grandmother was not one to give in to anything. As my mother recounted it, she began to repeat every morning, “je vais de mieux en mieux”. And by God it worked! The tuberculosis was stopped in its tracks. I had always thought that this was just one more example of my grandmother’s indomitable will overcoming yet another setback in life. But reading that phrase in French in Gould’s essay immediately persuaded me that my grandmother had actually been using Coué’s method of autosuggestion.

I was even more convinced of this when I read a bit more about Coué’s method. It was very straightforward. He said that people who wanted to get better should quickly, mechanically repeat the phrase “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux” twenty times, morning and night, while running a string with twenty knots in it through their hands. My mother’s detail that my grandmother had uttered the phrase every morning jibed well with the Coué method.

How my grandmother might have heard about the Coué method is now lost in the fog of time. Perhaps she bought one of Coué’s books, very popular at the time; his best-seller was La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente, published in 1926.

Perhaps she read an article in the newspapers about him. Perhaps she heard the record which he made to reach as many people as possible (I’ve heard it in Wikipedia, a thin, scratchy voice from a long time ago). Perhaps one of her friends told her about it. If she did decide to use the Coué method, she never told her daughter about it; perhaps she was a little ashamed of using something that appeared akin to magic.

Of course, as a scientist Gould is dismissive of the method, seeing it only as an example of the placebo effect. I’m sure he’s right, but it – or something very like it – seems to have helped my grandmother overcome her tuberculosis. Which is just as well. My grandfather died of his in 1936. If my grandmother had also died of it, who knows what would have happened to my now-orphaned mother (and her brother). For sure she would not have met my father, so I wouldn’t be around. So thank you, placebo effect! And thank you, Monsieur Coué, if you indeed helped out here!

____________________

Stephen Jay Gould: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Jay_Gould
Émile Coué: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Coué
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosis_in_human_culture#/media/File%3AMunch_Det_Syke_Barn_1885-86.jpg
Claude Monet, Camille Monet sur son lit de mort:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosis_in_human_culture#/media/File%3AClaude_Monet_-_Camille_Monet_sur_son_lit_de_mort
“La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente”: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Méthode_Coué