SPARKLING MINERAL WATERS

Milan, April 24 2018

When I first lived in Italy, in 1980, a wonderful ad campaign was launched for the Italian mineral water Ferrarelle. This poster greeted us all over Milan:

To understand the joke, readers must understand that “liscia” has a double meaning in Italian: flat, as in water, but also straight, as in hair. Thus, through the medium of Mona Lisa’s hair-do, passers-by were invited to decide if they preferred her hair straight, frizzy, or just slightly curled as in the original painting. By inference, it was being suggested that mineral waters such as Ferrarelle with modest amounts of gas were surely better than those which were either flat or strongly carbonated.

After the success of this ad campaign, Ferrarelle introduced another, based this time on a second great Italian icon, Garibaldi.

In this case, we were asked if we preferred the Hero of Two Worlds smooth-chinned, bushy-bearded, or with the sensible beard and mustache which he had in real life. And again, it was suggested that a mineral water like Ferrarelle with modest amounts of sparkle was surely preferable to its competitors with either no or too much sparkle.

I believe Ferrarelle followed up these very successful ads with a couple more in the same series, although at that point my wife and I left Italy for some eight years and so we never experienced them.

Cleverness aside, these ads spoke to a profound truth: that mineral water, like most things in life, should follow Aristotle’s rule of the Golden Mean. It should be neither flat nor highly carbonated but just somewhat effervescent. Like that, the sparkle enhances taste without giving the unpleasant, almost painful, prickles of tongue and mouth which come from strong carbonation.

This was brought home to me again a few days ago when our daughter took us to an Ethiopian restaurant in LA (Ethiopian food being an eminent subject for a post, but not this time). We were served a mineral water whose name I will not utter (although I will give a hint: two words make up the name, the first starts with an S, the second with a P) and which seems to have a monopoly on sparkling mineral waters in American restaurants. There was nothing for it but to dilute the mineral water with flat water to arrive at the correct levels of carbonation, an experience which is becoming distressingly common for us.

In our lives, my wife and I have come across only one other mineral water with the right level of sparkle: the French mineral water Badoit. Since I celebrated Ferrarelle with some ads, I will do the same with Badoit:

These too focus around a play on words, although somewhat more difficult to explain in English. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to do so. There is a French expression “et patati et patata” which can be roughly translated “etc., etc.” or “and so on and so forth”. The ads take this phrase and modify it to “et badadi et badadoit”. Cute, but not as clever as the Ferrarelle ads.

I’m sure there are other mineral waters out there with only mild levels of carbonation. We just haven’t come across them yet. Feedback from readers on this point will be gratefully received (but please do not tell us about that dreadful, but dreadfully popular, French mineral water whose levels of carbonation are so high that I cannot even bear to pronounce its name although I will say that it begins with a P). In the meantime, we will continue to mix our waters in those restaurants we frequent which offer us neither Ferrarelle nor Badoit.

PIAZZA DUOMO, MILAN

Milan, 7 March 2018

My wife and I frequently have to go up to Piazza Duomo, Cathedral Square, in Milan, where we visit a little store in the underground station to do our printing. We can’t be bothered to buy a home printer, and anyway we need excuses to leave the house – one of the early lessons of retirement.

Our usual route takes us through the back streets, coming out at the piazza’s north-east corner. This is the sight that greets us:

I’m very fond of this view, because it encapsulates something like a thousand years of Milan’s architectural history. There are some even older bits of architecture scattered around the centre of the city, but at this point in time they really are just bits – some mosaic-covered arches here and there, from Milan’s early Christian period, tucked away at the back of what were once 3rd-4th century basilicas; short stretches of the city’s Roman streets, preserved in odd corners of underground stations; that sort of thing. Milan’s visible architecture really only starts in the early 1000’s AD.

Which is more or less where I want to start unpicking my photo. I invite my readers to zoom in on the campanile poking up at the back of the photo.

This is the campanile of the church of San Gottardo, built around 1336 by order of Azzone Visconti, then Lord of Milan. Azzone dedicated the church to Saint Gotthard because this saint was invoked by those who suffered from gout and stones, and poor Azzone suffered from both. The campanile shows the typical details of the Gothic-Lombard style: red brick combined with white marble, the latter often used in a series of small columns at the top of the tower, but also used to pick out details. Here is the campanile from behind, where this lovely combination of red brick and white stone is seen clearly.

The campanile is particular in another way, in being octagonal. It is not unknown for campanili to take this shape, but the campanile of San Gottardo, in its slimness and height, is a particularly elegant example of the form. In its current format, the campanile has no clock, which is a pity because at Azzone’s orders it originally carried Milan’s (and probably Italy’s) first public clock. This caused so much excitement at the time that for centuries afterwards the area around the church was known as Quarter of the Hours.

Next in time is the massive white Duomo, the city’s cathedral, to the left in my photo.

Actually, the building took centuries to complete, so it’s a little difficult to know what century to assign it to. Going by overall style, we can say that it belongs to the late 14th, early 15th Century. And in fact the decision to build the Duomo was taken in 1386 – so some 50 years after San Gottardo was built – by the-then archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo. It was to take the place of a baptistery and two existing cathedrals – the “winter” cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore and the “summer” cathedral of Santa Tecla (a combination I have never heard of before). Antonio da Saluzzo was thinking big; he wanted a very large church worthy of the great city of Milan. But he was still thinking traditional; he had in mind a brick and marble church along the lines of San Gottardo. But that idea was nixed by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who had just taken over the lordship of Milan (through a treacherous attack on his uncle Barnabò, who died shortly thereafter in prison; poisoned, it was whispered, by his nephew). Milan, ever since the Roman Empire, when it became the capital city for a while, looked north across the Alps towards the Empire’s border on the Rhine as well as south. Gian Galeazzo wanted to use the new cathedral to firmly anchor Milan to northern Europe through the use of its architectural styles, which at this point meant late gothic in the Rhenish-Bohemian style. Not only did that mean a different architectural style to the ones then in vogue in Italy, it meant a stone-faced building. So the Duomo that we see today is at its core Lombard, made essentially out of brick, but northern European in look because it is faced with stone. And what a lovely stone it is! A white marble with pinkish hues from the quarries of Candoglia close to Lake Maggiore.

To get the style he wanted, Gian Galeazzo imported French architects, who already then behaved in that typically French manner, poo-pooing on the building techniques of their Lombard masons and generally pissing them off. Neverthless, things moved along, and by the time Gian Galeazzo died in 1402 (but not before becoming the first duke of Milan by paying Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, King of the Romans, 1,000 florins for the privilege), half the church was complete. At that point, the whole building programme ran out of steam. Things crawled along for another century and a half, until Cardinal Carlo Borromeo took over the archbishopric. There was a spurt of activity for several decades until his death, at which point worked slowed to a crawl again. There were endless arguments about what style the facade should have, and numerous designs were proposed, accepted, then abandoned (something which seems to have been a general problem in Italy, as an earlier post of mine attests). This photo shows what the Duomo looked like in about 1745.

As readers can see, not only was the facade of the Duomo a mess, the cathedral itself didn’t yet have that forest of spires which give the building its distinctive look today. It took Napoleon to get the city to make the final push to get over the finish line. In 1805, he wanted to be crowned King of Italy in the cathedral and he wanted it to look worthy of this solemn ceremony. He made the rash promise that the French State would pay for the final works. This never actually happened, but the promise that someone else would pay galvanized the community and by 1819, when this painting was made, the Duomo looked pretty much how it is today.

Work still continued, and strictly speaking even today it is not finished; there are places where statues are still missing. But when the final door in the facade was installed in 1965, a mere 600 years after work was started, the Duomo was officially declared to be finished. Oof!

Next in time, we have the building standing in front of the campanile of San Gottardo.

Unfortunately, because of the city government’s bizarre idea of planting palm trees in the piazza, one can now hardly see the building in question from where I took my photo, so let me insert here another photo which I lifted from the internet.

This is the so-called Palazzo Reale, the Royal Palace, although it almost never had royalty staying there. Since the earliest times, this was the area where the government buildings of the Comune and then the Duchy stood. As rulers of Milan and the surrounding territories succeeded each other – the Viscontis, the Sforzas, the French, the Spaniards, the Austrians, the French again under Napoleon, back to the Austrians once Napoleon was safely locked away on St. Helena – they or the Governors they sent added, demolished, changed, extended, and remodeled the government buildings and the lodgings they inherited to fit their needs and their egos. You would think that the result would be a hodgepodge, but actually a remodeling carried out in the 1760s gave the building its defining characteristics both inside and out. The facade that we see in my photo, the first example of the neoclassical style in Milan, is the fruit of that remodeling. Its architect, Giuseppe Piermarini, had a really hard time with the work. His purported client was Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este, a younger son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (and brother to Marie-Antoinette, who lost her head in the French Revolution). Maria Theresa had packed him off to Milan to marry Beatrice d’Este and to be Vienna’s governor of Lombardy. Ferdinand had dreams of Piermarini building him a residence worthy of his status (at least as he saw it) and a building that would rival the other stately piles going up around Europe (he particularly wanted to compete with his elder brother’s Schönbrunn summer palace in Vienna). But Piermarini’s real client, because she was paying the bills, was Maria Theresa. She was famously cheeseparing and anyway didn’t see her younger son’s position in quite as grand a light as he did. She just wanted him to suitably represent the Austrian Empire in Lombardy and to leave all the decision-making to Vienna. Somehow Piermarini managed to satisfy everyone without getting the sack or having a nervous breakdown and came up with the austerely elegant building that we see today.

The building experienced numerous further vicissitudes. Its moment of greatest glory was under Napoleon, when Milan was the capital of the Kingdom of northern Italy. After the Austrians came back in 1815, Milan went back to being capital of just Lombardy. With Italian unification, the building was handed over to the House of Savoy, but they rarely used it and eventually sold it to the municipality. It got badly damaged during a bombing raid in World War II. It now houses various museums and exhibition spaces.

Then we go to the building on the far right of my photo.

This was part of a rebuilding campaign decided on in 1860 in the wake of Italian unification. In their enthusiasm, the city fathers proclaimed their intention of radically redesigning the piazza in front of the Duomo, making it bigger and grander, and of creating a new major avenue to celebrate King Victor Emmanuel II, first king of the newly-united Italy. I suspect this urban remodeling plan was also seen as a way of cleaning up some embarrassingly leprous zones of the city centre. For instance, putting up the building in my photo, the southern Palazzo dei Portici, allowed the municipality to clear away a whole neigbourhood located there which went by the name of Rebecchino and which was full of petty criminals and other louche types who preyed on the pilgrims and other assorted tourists who visited the Duomo. The remodeling of the piazza in front of the Duomo took from 1865 to 1873. Its most famous element, which you can’t see in my photo, is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which runs from Piazza del Duomo to the piazza in front of the Scala theatre.

But more significantly, I think, the whole piazza in front of the Duomo now has a harmony and elegance which it definitely lacked.

For once, a rebuilding programme decided by a municipal government has left us with something better than what it replaced, especially after a much later municipal government decided to ban advertising billboards on the building opposite the Duomo, Palazzo Carmini.

Which brings us to the final building in my photo, the one squeezed in between the Palazzo Reale and the Palazzo dei Portici.

Again, I think readers need another photo from closer by and without those silly palm trees in the way to appreciate the building.

It is a building in the Fascist style, the competition for its design being held in 1937 and construction of the winning design starting in 1938. I don’t know if there is a formal definition of the Fascist style, but these buildings tend to have a “Roman” look to them: the use of white stone facing and of semi-circular arches. They also tend to have little external decoration other than massive, heroic-looking statues and bas reliefs. I don’t know if De Chirico was a Fascist, but many of his paintings have such building in them.

This particular building goes by the name of Arengario, which is an old Italian word first used in the Middle Ages to describe municipal buildings. The root of the word, “aringare”, is the same as the English word “harangue”, and in fact Arengari were buildings from which the municipal authorities addressed (or perhaps harangued) the local citizenry. In later centuries, the term Arengario fell out of use, presumably because municipal authorities couldn’t be bothered any more with the direct democracy of addressing the people. But since the Fascists, Mussolini in the lead, liked to harangue the luckless populace, they brought the word back into use. As a result, a number of Facist-built Arengari, Milan being one of them, are to be found throughout Italy. I presume the idea was that the Fascist cadre would adress Milan’s citizenry drawn up in the piazza below.

The winning design actually had as its overall objective to balance the triumphal arch at the beginning of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele directly across the piazza, which is why there are two more-or-less identical buildings flanking the road which passes through them, rather than just the one you would need if all you were interested in was haranguing the crowds. The idea was that the road between the buildings would lead to another piazza (today Piazza Diaz) where the country’s modern (Fascist) companies would build their headquarters.

In the event, World War II intervened, construction was halted, what had been built was damaged during the bombing raid that damaged the Palazzo Reale next door, and the municipal authorities found themselves after the war with a damaged, unfinished Fascist building on their hands. The balcony from which the Fascist haranguing was meant to have taken place was quietly demolished and the rest of the buildings were completed by 1956. After various uses, the building next to the Palazzo Reale now houses Milan’s museum of 20th Century art. I highly recommend this museum to any of my readers who happen to be passing though Milan.

Well, that finishes my little tour of Piazza Duomo. Without wanting to sound too much like the local tourism office (which used to be housed in the Arengario), I highly recommend my readers who come to Italy to stop off in Milan before they hasten on to Florence, Rome, and Venice. A stop in Milan can be highly rewarding – in my case, it got me my wife.

________________

Overview and zoom-in photos: mine
San Gottardo: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_di_San_Gottardo_in_Corte
Duomo 1745 circa: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Milano#Contesto_urbanistico
Duomo 1819: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piazza_del_Duomo_(Milano)
Palazzo Reale: http://ciaomilano.it/e/sights/preale.asp
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_Vittorio_Emanuele_II
Piazza del Duomo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRUXl0wyvLY
Palazzo Carmini, 1970s: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palazzo_Carminati
Arengario: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/339177415661775996/?lp=true
De Chirico painting: https://www.arteallimite.com/backup_2017/en/2016/07/la-pintura-metafisica-de-giorgio-de-chirico/

SPARKLING RED ITALIAN WINES

Milan, 1 March 2018

Many, many years ago, when I first came to Italy, my wife to-be introduced me to a wine from the Oltrepo’ Pavese, that tongue of land in the south of Lombardy wedged between its sister regions of Piedmont, Liguria, and Emilia-Romagna. It was a Bonarda, a red wine. A sparkling red wine, to be precise.

This was a revelation to me. I had never known that red wines could be sparkling. Certainly, in France, land of my mother, I had never come across such a wine. It seemed to me almost a heresy to have red bubbly. But I was made to understand that Italy had a long tradition of sparkling red wines, so I tried it.

I can’t say I was bowled over. But I think that was simply an extension of my distaste for sparkling white wine. My New Year’s Eves have never been made jollier by having to quaff bubbly, and I try to avoid the stuff whenever I can. Over the years, I’ve experimented with various sparkling Italian reds, and it’s always been the same. The one exception is the sparkling sweet red wines, good as dessert wines. Lambrusco is probably the most well-known of these, its vineyards clustered around the town of Modena in Reggio-Emilia.

But there is also Brachetto d’Acqui from around Acqui Terme in Piedmont, a town known also for its thermal baths.

And then there is Sangue di Giuda, the Blood of Judas, made on the hills around Broni, a fairly nondescript place in the Oltrepo’ Pavese.

It was trying a bottle of Sangue di Giuda recently that set me off onto writing this post. As I sat there rolling this sweet wine around my mouth, I couldn’t understand how it could possibly have been given this name. I mean, the man who sold Christ to his enemies for thirty silver talents, who betrayed him with a kiss, the man whom early European artists depicted like so:

this man’s blood must have been dark, bitter, acidic, thoroughly undrinkable! In contrast, Sangue di Giuda tastes sweet and happy, and like all the sweet sparkling red wines, has a lovely dark red colour and a wonderfully dark pink foam.

The locals have come up with a thoroughly preposterous story to explain the name. According to them, Christ in his immense goodness resurrected Judas after he’d committed suicide by hanging himself, to give him a chance to redeem himself. Judas turned up – what a coincidence! – in Broni. The townspeople recognized him and wanted to kill him. Judas saved himself by curing the surrounding vineyards of some disease they had, and the Bronians, in their joy, named the wine after his blood. A completely silly story! I prefer an alternative explanation, which has it that the name was given to the wine by local monks, who believed that drinking the wine would lead you to betray yourself and do naughty things, especially of a sexual nature.

Or perhaps the name can be linked to a similar idea that floated around in Champagne, at a time when no-one had any idea of the chemistry behind wine-making. The seemingly random process by which bottles of wine sometimes turned out sparkling and, worse, could blow up, often in a chain reaction with one bottle setting off the others, was seen as the work of the devil. It’s no great step to go from devil to Judas.

Whatever the explanation, Sangue di Giuda is a delicious wine, and its grapes grow in a zone visible from the train line and motorway which lead from Milan to Genoa. Over the years, as we have sped by on our way to the sea, I have gazed at those vine-covered hills, thinking to myself that one day, one day, my wife and I would go for a nice little trip into those hills which so remind me of the vine-draped hills of the Beaujolais, home to my French ancestors, where I spent many a happy summer a-roaming. I have made a mental itinerary for this trip, and I insert here a map with its trace.

As readers can see, after starting in the Piedmontese pre-Alps, it would meander along the northern face of the Apennines. Taking sparkling red wines as our guide, we could start in Piedmont, at Alto Monferrato, whose surrounding vines make Barbera del Monferrato DOC frizzante.

After a glass of this Barbera (it would seem that Monferrato is the birthplace of the Barbera grape), we would move on to Acqui Terme.

I’m sure we could find a nice cafè on whose terrace we could dreamily sip on a glass of Brachetto d’Acqui.

After which, we would curve into the Oltrepo’ Pavese, home to Sangue di Giuda, but also to that Oltrepo’ Pavese Bonarda which I first tried so many years ago.

We would loop back around into the Colli Piacentini, the hills behind Piacenza.

We could find somewhere there a welcoming taverna and settle down to a nice glass of Colli Piacentini Gutturnio DOC frizzante.

After which, we would make our way along to the zone behind Modena.

There, we could ease ourselves into seats at a bar and order ourselves a glass or two of Lambrusco. Which one to try? Lambrusco di Sorbara? Or Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, perhaps. Or, why not?, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro.

Finally, we would wend our way, unsteadily no doubt by this point and hoping not to meet a police patrol with breathalyzer at the ready, to the Colli Bolognesi, the hills behind Bologna.

There, we could sink down onto a banquette in a restaurant and while we eat we could finish with a Barbera just as we started with one, trying a Barbera Colli Bolognesi frizzante.

Yes, I think this will do nicely. I will work on my wife to turn this little trip into reality. We can think of doing it in May perhaps, when the weather is good but not too hot.

________________

Glass of sparkling red wine: https://www.vinook.it/vino-rosso/curiosita-vino-rosso/il-vino-frizzante.asp
Modena: http://misure2017.ing.unimore.it/Modena.html
Acqui Terme: https://www.gogoterme.com/terme-di-acqui.html
Broni: http://ilpattodeibuongustai.it/broni-il-re-dei-paesi
Judas: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/judas/
Sparkling red wine with foam: https://culturecheesemag.com/cheese-pairings/great-28-pairings-cheese-sparkling-red-wines
Medieval love-making: https://it.pinterest.com/jamieadairwrite/medieval-love-making/?lp=true
Northern Italy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_Italy_topographic_map-blank.png
Alto Monferrato: http://www.terredavino.it/en/il-territorio/lalto-monferrato-acqui-terme/
Acqui Terme vitigni: https://www.vinook.it/uva-e-vitigni/vitigni-rossi/brachetto-d-acqui.asp
Oltrepo’ Pavese: https://www.contevistarino.it/en/the-vineyards/
Colli Piacentini: http://www.rgvini.it/it/colli-piacentini
Lambrusco: https://www.vinook.it/vino-rosso/vino-rosso-emiliano-romagnolo/lambrusco-grasparossa-di-castelvetro.asp
Colli Bolognesi: http://www.spreafotografia.it/photo-7724-ma-come-bello-andare-in-giro-sui-colli-bolognesi.html

WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

Milan, 25 February 2018

Yesterday was a day of political excitement in Milan. With the elections only a week away, things are hotting up. There was a large gathering in Piazza Duomo of the Lega, a much smaller gathering of left-wingers in Largo La Foppa, and an even smaller gathering of anarchists of various stripes somewhere else. Below, I show a picture of the leftwing gathering in Largo La Foppa.

The police barred their way as the marchers tried to leave Largo La Foppa, the temperature was mounting, and at some point the police charged – or maybe the marchers charged, or pushed forward. Anyway, the police started wielding their batons, while the marchers protected themselves, somewhat bizzarely, with inflatable boats – taken to remind the world of the plight of the refugees, according to the newspapers, but it seems to me also an excellent way of protecting oneself from the police batons.

At the same time, the police shot off a couple of canisters of tear gas, that white smoke one sees behind the marchers.

Meanwhile, my wife and I were sitting down having tea and cannoncini (a puff pastry stuffed with vanilla cream) under those large white umbrellas one can see to the left in this last photo. We were there quite by chance, being on our way to see Daniel Day-Lewis in his last film, “The Phantom Thread”. We were early and those large umbrellas belong to a good pastry shop, so we decided to treat ourselves. We made our way round what seemed to us quite a small crowd (the papers talk of 1,500 but in my opinion it was no more than 200), got our tea and canoncini, and sat down. It was fun to watch all the flag waving going on in front of us and reminisce about our youth. Suddenly, the noise levels rose, there were sounds of shots, and two little smoking canisters landed almost at our feet. My wife, a veteran of Milan’s 1968 riots, leaped up in alarm and urged me to move. But I saw no need for panic, I thought they were crackers thrown by some of the marchers. I rapidly changed my mind when I breathed in the smoke. It immediately caught you terribly in the throat and made your eyes burn and weep. This was tear gas, for God’s sake!! I grabbed my cup of tea and the remainder of my cannoncino and shouted to my wife to move. Together with other customers, we blundered into the pastry shop and stood there gasping and wheezing and coughing. According to my wife, who had had a whiff or two of tear gas in her youth, technology has improved in the last fifty years; she didn’t remember it catching you so strongly in the throat. I wouldn’t know, this was my first exposure to the stuff. Eventually, we were shepherded out to a back yard, from which we exited into a side street and made our escape to the cinema.

All this excitement has led me to reminisce about marches and protests in the arts. The most well-known painting on the topic of marches must be Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s “The Fourth Estate”, which gives the working man a wonderful dignity

while “Liberty Guiding the People”, by Eugène Delacroix, must be the most famous painting on the topic of insurrections, in this case the insurrections of 1848.

Once the October Revolution rolled around, revolution and the working class became respectable subjects of art. Staying with marches, where I started this post, we have, for example, “The Bolshevik”, by Boris Kustodiev.

And, of course, we have the start of that wonderful art form, the propaganda poster, where marches of the proletariat were a popular subject. Here we have a Soviet propaganda poster.

The Chinese picked up on the art form with a vengeance. They made some great paintings, which I mentioned in an earlier post about a new museum we visited in Shanghai, but their propaganda art was fantastic. Here’s one with the Chinese people walking towards a bright future.

The caption declares: “Smash the imperialist war conspiracy, forge ahead courageously to build our peaceful and happy life!” Change that to “the 1%” and we have a message for our times …

I have to say, though, I always preferred the type of Chinese propaganda poster which has smiling, muscular workers:

The North Koreans were still making these type of poster when I made an official visit there with my wife in 2009. We asked if they could give us a copy of one of these posters, but the best they could come up with was one urging people to wash their hands to reduce the spread of illnesses…

The Mexican muralists also painted some great revolutionary art, especially Diego Rivera. We have here his “Uprising”

and this is his “Distribution of Arms”

I posted photos of some of his other revolutionary murals earlier, after our last visit to Mexico.

Wonderful stuff. But who paints it anymore? Revolution is out of fashion, at least for the moment.

Ah well … In the meantime, we will be passing through Largo La Foppa again today, to go and see another film. That gives my wife the opportunity to have another cannoncino; while I saved mine, hers got lost in the confusion of running away from the tear gas.

____________

March in Milan: http://milano.corriere.it/foto-gallery/cronaca/18_febbraio_24/scontri-corteo-milano-largo-foppa-polizia-antagonisti-moscova-1d7e8c1a-1974-11e8-9cdc-0f9bea8569f6.shtml
Quarto Stato: By Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo – Associazione Pellizza da Volpedo, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2588195
Liberté Guidant le Peuple: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_Leading_the_People
Boris Kustodiev, The Bolshevik: http://www.rusartist.org/boris-mikhailovich-kustodiev-1878-1927/#.WpKLb6inFPY
Soviet propaganda poster: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/26/communist-propaganda-post_n_6377336.html
Chinese propaganda poster: https://chineseposters.net/gallery/e16-266.php
Chinese propaganda poster2: http://www.businessinsider.com/chinese-propaganda-posters-2012-9?IR=T
Diego Rivera, the Uprising: http://bigthink.com/Picture-This/occupy-moma-diego-riveras-populist-murals-reunited
Diego Rivera Distribution of Arms: http:// http://www.leninimports.com/diego_rivera_distribution_arms_canvas_print_9a.html

SPRING IS COMING!

Sori, 14th February 2018

Once, after I’d made a speech in Bangkok about how the world was going to hell in a hand basket, with multiple environmental disasters awaiting us, I was asked by the MC (who clearly had no idea what to say to me) what I most missed in Thailand. The seasons, I replied: winter, spring, summer, autumn. It was indeed one of the few things I missed in Bangkok from my European heritage; I always felt that South-East Asia was seasonal monotony. It was either hot or hotter, with rain added from time to time.

Now that I’m back in Europe, I can enjoy the four seasons again. Right now, in a masochistic sort of way, I’m enjoying the tail-end of the winter season: ah, that cold north wind which causes you to pull your head and shoulders into your coat like a turtle into its shell … But here on the Ligurian coast, located in its own warm microclimate, we already have signs that spring is on its way! As we have been walking the hills, there have been signs all around us that Nature is getting ready to burst forth again, like in Botticelli’s Spring.

We have the mimosa trees, whose festival it will soon be

the almond trees, seen here on a walk in the Cinque Terre

the crocuses, in the shady underforest

a lone primrose, also spied on the sun-speckled forest floor

carpets of a yellow flower, to me unknown, bedecking the sides of the paths open to the sun


bushes of rosemary growing from out of the rocks

purple irises, not a flower I connect with early spring

a humble little mauve flower, growing at the foot of olive trees

even a bright yellow fungus, returning a dead log to the earth from whence it came.

Yes, nothing so lovely as the Earth bursting into life. No wonder the poets have often sung about spring! Here’s a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, entitled simply Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Happy Saint Valentine’s!

_____________

Boticelli’s Primavera: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primavera_(painting)
All other pics: all ours

RUBALDO MERELLO

Sori, 10th February 2018

My wife and I were recently in Genoa. Since it was a rainy day, we had decided that our usual excursions along the coast were out, and had opted to visit a couple of exhibitions at the Palazzo Ducale, the Ducal Palace. The Palazzo Ducale was recently the scene of much brou-ha-ha. It had hosted an exhibition of Modigliani’s paintings. Some Modigliani experts had claimed that half the paintings were fakes (apparently Modigliani is very easy to fake), the organizer retorted that all the paintings had certificates of authenticity emitted by various other experts and that very respectable institutions had already hosted the exhibition, the Carabinieri had nevertheless moved in and confiscated the whole exhibition and were pressing charges for fraud, the organizer in turn was suing person or persons unknown for making false claims … in a word, there was a right royal mess.

Luckily, the exhibitions we were visiting were not the subject of such polemics. One was an exhibition of works by Picasso from the Picasso Museum in Paris. Although interesting, I will not comment on it (although I should note in passing that Picasso has also been widely faked: organizers beware!). The other was an exhibition of works by Rubaldo Merello.

I will perfectly understand if readers have never heard of Merello. I had not heard of him either until we saw this exhibition advertised. He is, to be honest, a minor Italian painter and sculptor, and his story is quickly told. Born in 1872, he worked at the turn of the last century, dying in 1922 at the relatively young age of 50. He was a local son, learning his trade at Genoa’s Accademia Ligustica delle Belli Arti. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, he tied his colours to the movement known as divisionismo, Italy’s answer to France’s pointillisme. For some reason which is not completely clear but which may have had to do with his paintings being rejected by the 1st Venice Biennale, he started isolating himself from the art world, eventually holing up, in 1906, in San Fruttuoso, a small fishing hamlet on the promontory of Monte di Portofino.


I have already written about San Fruttuoso in an earlier post, but it’s worth repeating here that while charming San Fruttuoso is very remote. The only ways to reach it are by boat from Camogli, which even today can be impossible if the sea is too rough, or by foot up and around the mountain and then down a steep track to the shore – in Merello’s days either your own feet or mules’ feet. But Merello buried himself and his family here for eight years, despite many calls from his friends to return to civilization. He paid the price for his isolationism. In 1913, his younger son died of diphtheria because medical help couldn’t arrive quickly enough. His wife had a breakdown after her son’s death (poor woman, who can blame her after the hermit’s life her husband had imposed on her), and Merello himself was never quite the same. He moved the remaining family to Santa Margherita Ligure in 1914 and worked there, mostly on sculptures, until he died.

Because Merello chose to stay in San Fruttuoso, most of his paintings are of the hamlet and its surroundings. His paintings of the hamlet itself are interesting but no more than that.



It’s when Merello clambered up the mule track behind San Fruttuoso to be high up above the village that his paintings begin to grip me. There was one view in particular which he painted again and again, almost obsessively it would seem, a view of the small bay of San Fruttuoso from the Monte di Portofino, which I have been always fond of. It is a plunging view, from high up the mountain down to the lapis lazuli sea far below, seen through a screen of trees. It is a view much photographed.

Merello tried a number of colour combinations for the view, resulting in a fascinating array of paintings.


Even more striking, though, were his paintings still from high on the mountain but now focusing just on pines and the sea in the far distance.

He arrived finally at an almost abstract composition of pine against water.

If this last painting had fallen off the back of a truck, I would not have hesitated to keep it, on the basis of the morally dubious saying “Finders keepers, losers weepers”. Out of a somewhat masochistic curiosity, I checked auction prices for Merello’s paintings. While many orders of magnitude below what you need in your bank account to buy a (real) Picasso, at around €40,000 a painting they are way out of my league. Well, I guess I’ll never have a Merello on my wall – unless it falls off the back of a truck.

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Rubaldo Merello: http://www.palazzoducale.genova.it/rubaldo-merello-la-vita/
San Fruttuoso: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/san-fruttuoso-bay.html
San Fruttuoso: https://www.fondoambiente.it/luoghi/abbazia-di-san-fruttuoso
The bay of San Fruttuoso from above: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g227888-d4569424-i112196609-Camogli_San_Rocco_Batterie_San_Fruttuoso_Trail-Camogli_Italian_Riviera_L.html
Other photos: my pics

COFFEE AND ORANGE, COFFEE AND LEMON

Milan, 7 January 2018

Our son, who happens to be staying with us at the moment, is currently really into a new variant of our standard way of making our post-lunch instant coffee. Yes, in this country which gave the world cappuccino, espresso, macchiato, and dozens of other glorious versions of coffee, we use instant coffee at home. Let me leave aside any discussion as to why we do this and share with readers the variant in question. It is the addition to the coffee of some zest from the mounds of orange peels which we regularly generate at this time of year. The zest adds a slight citrus flavour to the coffee, which pleasantly smoothens the coffee taste. Our son was taught the trick by my wife, who in turn learned it from her mother, who used it very often when she was drinking her caffè d’orzo, her barley coffee – this is Italy’s non-caffeinated alternative to coffee, made from ground roasted barley; it is similar in function to, although better in taste than, chicory. This picture of caffè d’orzo with a twist of orange zest was tweeted by an Italian lady who was waxing enthusiastic about the cup she was just having.

Knowing the rather louche reputation that chicory has, I throw in this picture which clearly shows that caffè d’orzo is considered a very respectable drink in Italy.

While we do not drink caffè d’orzo, our main use of instant coffee is in its decaffeinated form. This makes it pretty close in spirit to caffè d’orzo, so the orange zest works well with it too. I recommend that any of my readers who drink instant coffee and who happen to be eating oranges should try it.

As is my habit when writing posts, I cruised around the internet a little, this time to see what other coffee-orange combinations have been tried or are being suggested. There are quite a number, but I will cite just one or two. One that takes my fancy is actually more of a liqueur. Take a bottle of grappa, add three strips of orange zest and six freshly toasted coffee beans, and then leave the whole for about 15 days to allow the grappa to imbibe both the orange and the coffee flavours (in the first few days, turn the bottle once a day to ensure that the beans get waterlogged and sink down into the grappa).

I suspect that this is not really Italian – the net reports a similar liqueur made in the Netherlands using vodka (I would have thought that it should be made with jenever to be really Dutch, but perhaps I’m quibbling here).

For reasons which will become clear in a minute, another coffee-orange combination which caught my eye goes as follows. Peel off the zest of half an orange, put it in a small pan with eight teaspoons of sugar, two cloves, a piece of cinnamon, and four small glasses of rum. Heat the pan over low heat until the mixture is piping hot and the sugar completely dissolved. Add to the hot mixture four small cups of boiling espresso coffee. Mix in and drink. The recipe helpfully suggests to accompany the coffee with some biscuits.


While I was doing my searches for orange-coffee combinations, I decided to do a similar search for lemon-coffee combinations. Many years ago, when we were in the US we went to an Italian restaurant. At the end of the meal they served us an espresso with a small twist of lemon zest. I was somewhat surprised by this, but my wife explained that it was actually a Neapolitan habit – my reading for this blog suggests a somewhat wider localization, since it seems to also be a habit on the Sorrentine peninsula.

The reason for adding lemon zest to coffee seems to be to soften its bitterness. Apparently, one should also rub the lip of the cup with the zest, to disinfect it – I have to presume that cups were not that well washed in the old days … From the comments I found on the net, there must be many Italians who do not know of this Neapolitan-Sorrentine use of lemon zest. A number of entries written by Italians described similar experiences to mine in the US and put it down to the general barbarity of the Americans. Yet all it seems to show is that a lot of Neapolitans and Sorrentines emigrated to the US and took their culinary habits with them.

Here too I cruised around the net to see what other lemon-coffee combinations I could discover. The one that really captured my fancy is the Ponce di Livorno, the Leghorn Punch (how on earth did the English transpose the Italian name Livorno into Leghorn? A mystery to resolve another day). There was a time when Livorno, a port city in Tuscany, had a sizable British expat community, merchants for the most part. As British expats always do, they brought their gastronomic habits with them, one of these being the imbibing of punch.  By the time the local Livornese population was introduced to this drink in the early 19th Century, it had become quite genteel, being made with tea, rum, sugar, lemon and cinnamon. Since the Livornese, like Italians in general, were coffee drinkers rather than tea drinkers they decided to substitute the tea with coffee (they also substituted the rum either with Mastice, a local aniseed-based liqueur, or with “Rumme”, a fake rum made by mixing together alcohol, sugar and dark-coloured caramel. Nowadays, since rum is easily available they have gone back to using that). It’s become so much part of Livorno that the drink has been given a Protected Designation of Origin certification. To make it, put half a large cupful of rum into a small pan, add two teaspoons of sugar and some cinnamon (or Mastice), and heat. When hot, add an equivalent amount of espresso coffee, mix, and pour into a large cup. Add a twist of lemon zest.

It’s just as well that lemon juice is not added, as it presumably would have been to the original British punch. Many entries in the net refer to coffee-lemon juice combinations as a great emetic (people refer to their grandmothers using this with their grandchildren when they were sick to their stomach), or as a great cure for hangovers, or as a great cure for headaches. I’m not quite sure lemon-coffee can have all these effects, but clearly we must have no more than a faint trace of lemon in the coffee (I’m rather reminded of puffer fish sushi. Puffer fish contains a deadly venom. If not properly prepared and even a small trace of venom remains, that puffer fish sushi will be your last meal)

Well, with this, I wish my readers fun in combining either orange or lemon with their coffee, whether properly brewed or instant!

___________

caffe d’orzo with orange zest: https://twitter.com/alexethno/status/719877692846444544
caffe d’orzo Lavazza: http://www.areavendingcasa.it/cat0_14907_4780/cialde-and-capsule/lavazza-espresso-point-cialde/p28132-caffe-dorzo-espresso-point-50-capsule.php
grappa con caffe e arancia: http://www.vinibertot.it/index.php/it/grappe-e-liquori/grappa-con-caffe-e-arancia-gr-40-bott-cc-700-detail
caffe with rum and orange: http://ricette.donnamoderna.com/caffe-rum-arancia
caffe with lemon zest: http://www.dersutmagazine.it/cucina/caffe-e-limone-caffe-al-limone/
Ponce alla livornese: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-ponce-alla-livornese-ponce-al-rum-livorno-leghorn-tuscany-italy-ponce-32108130.html
people drinking coffee: http://nutritionadvance.com/drinking-coffee-every-day-good-bad/

ABDOULAYE KONATÉ, MALIAN ARTIST

Milan, 31 December 2017

My wife and I went for a walk the other day in Milan’s so-called Fashion Quadrilateral, the zone in the city centre bounded by four roads – Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Manzoni and Corso Venezia. Here, you will find the boutiques (shops seems too vulgar a word) of the greatest Italian fashion brands as well as of quite a number of the best-known foreign brands. I won’t name names, I don’t feel like giving even an iota of publicity to these temples of conspicuous consumption.

I should clarify that I dislike visiting shops, and the higher the price tags on the merchandise the more I dislike them. Visits to places like Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral therefore turn me into a rabid Socialist. In moments like these, my wife just ignores me and enjoys the window-gazing.

As I stumped grumpily along streets whose windows were stuffed with items the sale of any one of which could cover a Bangladeshi garment worker’s salary for several decades, I spied something out of the ordinary in a window. Now this was something intriguing indeed!

Seeing another one inside the boutique in question, I metaphorically held my nose and entered. It was somewhat smaller but just as striking.

A sign stenciled on the boutique’s window helpfully informed me that the works were by a certain Abdoulaye Konaté. I had never heard of this artist, but a quick search on the Internet revealed the bare bones of his life: he is a Malian artist, one year older than ourselves, and resides in Mali’s capital city, Bamako.

And what lovely pieces he creates! He works primarily with textiles, with one thread of his work – if I may put it that way – veering towards abstract compositions made with small rectangular stripes of highly coloured cotton textiles, much like his works in the boutique. I give here a little gallery of these works, drawn from the Internet.

This final one has recently been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

The other main thread of his work veers more towards the figurative, as these examples show:

Thoroughly excited by these discoveries, after Christmas I headed to the gallery in town which was lending the pieces to the boutique. Alas! The gallery only held the pieces loaned to the fashion boutique. Instead, it was holding a show dedicated to Gianfranco Zappettini, an Italian artist from the so-called Analytical school of the 1970s. Paintings like these surrounded us as the young, enthusiastic fellow on duty told us more about Konaté and eventually about Zappettini.

Analytic painting, and I quote, “wished to conduct an analysis of the material components of paintings (the canvas, the frame, the material of the paint, the colour, signs) and the material relationship that takes place between the work as physical object and its author. Painting therefore became the subject of investigation of itself and lost the references which linked it to reality (in figurative painting), to expressiveness (in abstract painting) and to the underlying significance (in conceptual art)”. Well, that pretty much sums up the complete dead-end that modern Western art has finished up in. A feeling that was underscored for me by a visit to a new art venue in Milan, the Pirelli Bicocca, once – as its name implies – a factory of the Pirelli Group, now a large ex-industrial space given over to art. The space is wonderful. But this is what we saw there – piles of old clothes passed off as art.

Konaté takes textiles and turns them into lovely pieces of art. We in the west can only make untidy piles out of these textiles and call it art.  It seems to me that contemporary art is like an old tree, rotted away at its heart but still living around its edges which are supporting an exuberant  foliage.

Thank God for Malian artists like Abdoulaye Konaté, or Inuit artists like Kananginak Pootoogook, or Malagasy artists like Joel Andrianomearisoa, or a dozen other artists from the so-called periphery of the world, who are keeping art alive!

___________________________

Shopping in Via Montenapoleone: http://www.wheremilan.com/discover-milan/sightseeing/montenapoleone-district/
Abdoulaye Konaté: http://www.artesmundi.org/artists/abdoulaye-konate
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-1: https://www.blainsouthern.com/artists/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-3: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/abdoulaye-konat-exhibits-merges-music-and-colour-at-blainsouthern-gallery
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-4: https://www.widewalls.ch/abdoulaye-konate-at-blain-southern-berlin-solo-exhibition-useful-dreams-2015/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstact-5: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/461689399276917735/
Abdoulaye Konaté-abstract-6: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/655979
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-1: http://biennaleartmagazine.com/1986/04/18/abdoulaye-konate-arken-21-april-18-september-2016-dk/
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-2: https://it.pinterest.com/sztukaafryki/abdoulaye-konat%C3%A9/?lp=true
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-3: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16308012
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-4: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/abdoulaye-konate-fete-africaine-the-men-and-the-marionettes
Abdoulaye Konaté-figurative-5: https://scope-art.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/SMB14-NL-03-v5.html
Gianfranco Zappettini paintings: http://www.primomarellagallery.com/it/mostre/63/la-luce-prima/
Old hollowed-out tree: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-6904222-stock-footage-old-hollowed-out-oak-tree-was-struck-by-lightning-about-years-ago-and-despite-having-a-lost-it.html

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!

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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!

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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)