Throwback Thursday

…. to a post from April 21, 2009 in which I recount my attempt to recreate a Neapolitan Easter Dessert.

I realize it’s a bit late for Easter but as I was decanting a cocktail recipe my friend Yannis posted on his website the smell of essence of orange reminded me of a kitchen adventure from our time in Rome. My friend Marco the Neapolitano was good enough to share his family recipe for La Pasteria and I was foolish enough to believe that it was a simple task. Oh foolish man!

This is a two parter and the link to – spoiler alert) – the IMHO “triumphant” conclusion is at the bottom of the first post.

Willy Or Won't He

I first encountered Pastiera, the traditional Napoletano Easter dolci, when we were doing an “Italian theme” Easter dinner back in 1990.  My friend John was delegated to make it using a recipe from the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Back in those days many of the ingredients were hard to find and the “wheat berries” had to be bought in a health food store and the lengthy process of cooking them followed. John wasn’t too confident that this such a great idea for a desert and made an angel food cake as well. As I recall the “pastiera” was considered to be a bit on the exotic side.

I wasn’t to encounter it again until I moved here four years ago and then only really became familiar with it after meeting my friend Marco, the Napoletano.  Two Easters back he talked about it – and how he had…

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Veni Etiam*

*They gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

Francesco Sansovino
Citta Noblisissima et Singolare – 1581

Painted between 1580 and 1585 the fresco maps in the Gallery of the Maps in the Vatican represent the Papal States and other regions of Italy during the papacy of Gregory XIII (1572-1585).  Venice was, of course, an independent Republic and often at odds with Rome and more than once under papal interdict.

I was chatting with my friend Marco the Napoletano a month or so ago and mentioning to him that over the past while I’ve been seized by a longing for Venice.  The French have “envie” and the Italians “brama” both of which have a depth of meaning but for English I didn’t really couldn’t come up with one word that adequately expressed what I have been feeling other than longing.  Craving? Hankering? Desire?  Lust?  Hmm not sure if all of those don’t in some way apply.  Though I had been travelling in Europe since 1967,  except for one brief stopover in Milan on my way from Aix-en-Provence to Salzburg in 1978, Italy was a country that just didn’t enter on my travel map until 18 years later.  In 1996 a trip to Venice was my serious introduction to Italy; though of course Venice is no more Italy than Rome, Palmero, Napoli, Milan or Trento is Italy.

I was no stranger to the Venice of novels, operas, plays, movies and travel books – this was the place of music, art, warfare, debauchery and intrigue.  It was the place of Monteverdi, Casanova, canals, gondole, La Fenice, the Lido and San Marco.  It was a place I had visited time and time again as an armchair voyager but now I was going to confront the reality of all those images and impressions.  I  flew in from Ottawa via London to meet Laurent who was coming in from Amman and as I looked out the aircraft window there in the bright sunlight was the lagoon and its many islands dominated by that great winding inverted S curve of the Grand Canal and what I immediately recognized as the Campanella in Piazza San Marco.  As with all things dreamt about there was a certain sense of apprehension; I remember thinking, well I’m either going to love or hate this place.

As I struggled with my suitcase over the cobblestone and narrow bridges from the dock at the Giardinetti Reali to our hotel beside the burnt out shell of La Fenice – despite fatigue (I had been on the road for over 20 hours at that point), hunger and jet lag – I felt that somehow this place would not disappoint.  Within a few hours I had succumbed to the pull La Serenissima has exerted on travellers for over a thousand years.  And four more visits over the next 16 years has done nothing to lessen that pull.

Now Marco being from Napoli has a natural aversion to much that is above the Great Apennine Tunnel (and even that may be pushing boundaries) so it came as no surprise to find out last summer that an impending vacation would be the first time he had been to Venice in his life.   On his return he told me how much he – I think to his surprise – loved La Serinisima; and as he said in our chat “it is such a romantic city” and he is right, particularly when you are seeing it, as he did, with someone you care about. That is not to say that Venice cannot be enjoyed on your own, just that perhaps it is a place best shared with others  – lovers and friends.  And if you can’t share it in person then some of its magic can still be captured in pictures and words.  And so many pictures have been painted or been taken and countless words written in an effort to capture “Venetia”.

So why this sudden “longing” to once again see Venice and to compulsion to revisit old photos and memories?  Blame it on those words!  In late April as I was trying to put some semblance of order into my books and discovered that I probably have more books about Venice – travel, anecdotal, historical and fiction than any other place on the plant.  I started rereading The Stones Revisited,  Sarah Quills’ distillation of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice: an exhaustive three volume study of the architecture of the Republic as Ruskin found it on his frequent visits in the early 1800s.  He wanted to record in drawings and words the many buildings he feared would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian the way that he felt the artists of the Renaissance had destroyed the majesty of the Gothic island Republic – physically, spiritually and morally.  Putting aside the Christian outrage he felt, his details are incredible – both graphically and verbal.  And despite his fears most of what he records still stands today – often the only changes being those created by the natural element that both gives Venice its glory and its despair – the Adriatic and the man-made element that give its citizens mostly despair – the local government!

Then  I came across Jane Turner Hyland’s Venetian Stories – a series of interconnected short stories that caused a bit of a stir in Venice when it was first released – apparently realty was often thinly veiled as fiction and tales were being told.  It was also suggested that perhaps Hyland, who has lived in Venice for many years, had a few scores to settle and had decided to do it in non-libel fiction.  I had intended to pick up her second book, Across the Bridge of Sighs when it was first published but just never got around to.   However it was easily enough found on Kindle (I finally gave in and started reading e-books, not quite the same as holding a real book in your hand but easier for those bus rides in the morning).  Hyland continued the stories of many of the people she introduced in Venetian Stories – though I was sad to see that one of her more intriguing characters,  the aging gondelieri Volpon, had died at the hands of an inept Italian medical system.   In the first book Hyland’s pen dripped a fair bit of acid but time has diluted some of the vitriol that had coloured her first book.  Though she does a fair job on several of the more objectionable parvenus her stories could have done with a bit more of that acid and some pruning from a less indulgent editor.  But I was happy to see that Contesssa Panfili had, in one of the more touching episodes, made peace with a Venice that was no longer the place of her youth.  Strangely much like Ruskin, Hyland and her characters often seem to be celebrating and mourning a Venice that has been changed by another element that is both its boon and bane  – the constant flux of tourists clogging its streets as they pour money into its coffers.

And often in Donna Leon’s mysteries the constant parade of day-trippers – hotels are so expensive these days in Venice that it is cheaper, though very inconvenient, to stay in Mestre and bus or train it over – are often as much of  a source of irritation to Inspector Guido Brunetti, his family, friends and colleagues as the murders that seem to happen with alarming frequency in their home town.  I had gone off Leon for a while, her writing had become a bit too dark and at times almost preachy.  But I now realize that much of her disdain and despair for what was happening in Venice in particular and Italy in general was justified.  These are attitudes shared by many Italians and people, like myself, who love Italy.  Her two most recent novels – is it possible numbers 20 and 21 in the series? – still deal in murder, corruption, a crippling bureaucracy and a Venice beset by problems of bad government, a declining populations and increasing numbers of tourists but with a less heavy hand than the previous three or four.
Drawing Conclusions and Beastly Things include her cast of familiar regulars – Guido, his wife Paola, the enigmatic (though less cold with each story) Signora Elettra, his colleague Vianello and even, dare I say it, the pompous and much-despised Vice-Questore Patta have all grown into fully-realized people since Death at La Fenice back in 1992.  And that is what makes Leon so readable – her characters, even the murder victims, have a life of their own.  Not that she has given up on the social issues that beset Italy – and indeed much of the Western World.  Drawing Conclusions centres on the problems of care for the elderly in a world where the social net has been strained or is broken and Beastly Things begins with a short episode that brings the horror of dealing with a much loved spouse dead before their time with Alzheimer’s tragically to life.  But along with the tragic we get the joyful and the quietly thoughtful – Brunetti’s relationship with his family, his musings as he wanders the rias of Venice, the strange, unspoken and often strained bonds between colleagues and in Beastly Things one of the most devastatingly bittersweet conclusions to any novel that I’ve read in a long time.  I’m back on a Leon kick and will be more than happy when she produces number 22 and I can revisit Venice through the good Inspector’s eyes.

In the meantime, until I can return to Venice to wander the campi, stop off at della Madonna for polenta with sepe and take an overpriced late night drink in front of the glorious stage set that is San Marco, I will have to settle down with one of the many other books that line my shelves.  The word for the moment will have to do – until it can be made flesh.  Though I’m not at all sure that “longing” can be truly satisfied until I have that coupe of pistachio gelato at Cafe San Stefano sitting in front of me.

02 September – 1666: The Great Fire of London breaks out and burns for three days, destroying 10,000 buildings including St Paul’s Cathedral.

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Marco’s Presepe

Over the past few Christmastides I’ve posted entries about crèches – those traditional tableaux that retell the story that is the Christian origins of the Feast Days. In my travels I’ve always found a certain comforting familiarity in seeing the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child in places as far away as Saigon and as nearby as Sussex Drive. As the location changed so did the world surrounding those three figures – often touching reflecting the lives of the people and place.

In our own household there are three nativity scenes that have been bought in our travels and set up at various times in our households in Ottawa, Mexico, Cairo, Chicago, Warsaw, Aylmer and Roma. Limited surfaces in the new apartment have meant that again choices had to be made. Sadly the charming corn husk figurines, including a slightly wall-eyed wise man, of the crèche from New Mexico have been left in their box to be used another time. The carved szopka I bought in Warsaw – though not the traditional colourful to the point of gaudy scene – has found a spot on a credenza in the living room. And I was able to find a place for the exuberance of Emanuele Luzzati’s pop-up presepe – a Genovese’s take on the traditions of Napoli.  Which is probably where this whole obsession – and yes I admit it is an obsession – with crèches came into being.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues its tradition, begun in 1957, of displaying the incredible collection of Neapolitan presepe figures collected by the late Loretta Hines Howard.  Well over 200 18th century figures from her collection are displayed on and around the gigantic tree set in front of the enormous medieval choir screen.

I first became acquainted with the elaborate crèches of Napoli when, sometime in the early 70s,  the late lamented Gourmet Magazine featured the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum in New York on is cover and in its lead article for Christmas. The elaborately robed angels watching over an even more elaborately costumed Mary and Joseph caught my, at the time decidedly baroque,  fancy. I recall immediately wanting to do an angel theme on the tree that year but that was long before angels became ubiquitous in Christmas stores so I settled for the somewhat less heaven-bound theme of toy soldiers.

A few years later my friend Naomi and I made a day trip to New York to see a matinee of Amedeus with Ian Mckellan, do a bit of shopping at Bloomies and see the tree.  Set against the imposing choir screen it proved as magical as I had imagined from the photo and word picture that Gourmet had painted.  It was only later that I discovered the story behind the elaborate display – how the humble presepe with its painted terra cotta figures that appeared in almost every Napoletano home had been elevated to a high art form by King Ferdinand in an effort to foster industry and the arts in his kingdom.

Though I saw many manger scenes during the four Christmases I spent in Italy I was never able to get to Napoli over the holidays so missed seeing the hundreds of public – and for the privileged, private – presepe on display throughout that most marvellous of cities.  And on the three occasions I did get there I never did make it to Via San Gregorio Armeno – the street of the presepe makers.  But that just might have been a good thing – I’m sure the temptation to recreate my own presepe Napoletano would have been far to strong.

Knowing my fondness for these little scenes and I’m sure knowing that I wouldn’t find too many here in Ottawa my friend Marco thought he’d share his presepe with me, if only digitally.  In his apartment in Trastevere he has a traditional Napoletano nativity scene, given to him by his mother and father as a reminder of the traditions of his childhood.  Not the elaborate-gowned and bejewelled figures of that courtly New York tree nor the resin creations sold today but the simple painted terra cotta figures  that you would find in many homes near Piazza San Carlo or off Via Toledo in earlier times.  It is wonderful to share it with him if only at a distance – mille grazie caro.


But in common with all those nativity scenes I love so much – the crèches, szopka, presepe call them what you will – there is world outside the stable.  Recognizable figures people the little village – more Campania than Bethlehem – the shepherd boy, the bagpipe player, the fishwife and – perhaps my favourite – the sleeping shepherd who is missing the great events taking place nearby.  Perhaps that is what gives these scenes their charm –  that as a great event is taking place people are going about their business – some stopping, other continuing on with their daily routine and a few sleeping and missing the whole thing.  In other words – life!

A few other entries I’ve posted over the past few years on nativity scenes:

The Presepe Maker

A Procession of Presepe

A Polish Presepe

Borgo Nights


21 dicembre/December – San Pietro Canisio

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È arrivato

You may recall that a week ago Friday – October 21 – Laurent dropped a small parcel in the mail destined for my friend Marco the Napoletano in Roma. I took a small – very small survey – and the general feeling was that it would take between 10 and 14 days to reach him. Myself, based on previous experience – hey 62 days isn’t all that bad from Canada to Italy,  it took Phineas Fogg 80 days to go around the world – I guessed 20 or more but wouldn’t you know it Post Canada and Poste Italiane proved me wrong.

I received an SMS from Marco to tell me that when he got home from a trip to Sicilia this afternoon (October 31) there it was waiting for him. Now this could mean that it reached him last Thursday or Friday or perhaps today. But wither it was 7, 8 or 11 days its still pretty bloody impressive.

Way to go Post Canada and Poste Italiane – now you’ve really built up my expectations.  Still not as good as the record 4 days with Vatican Post to Post Canada of a few years back but ….

31 ottobre/October – Santa Lucillia di Roma

Marco’s Mother’s Pastiera – Day 2

I was so exhausted from all my culinary efforts – and you will notice there are no photos of the disaster area that was the kitchen or the pastry that had to be scraped off the walls – that though this was meant to be posted yesterday (Friday) I only got around to it today.

In the old days, back when I was an acolyte, I would have been at church by 0900 this morning if not earlier. This morning I was up at 0900 attempting to make short crust pastry for the next step in Marco’s Mother’s Pastiera. I was using lard rather than butter – good old fashioned pork fat that they sell in the stores here not the “vegetable” shortening that we get back in Canada. I had forgotten that it does have a “porcine” smell until it has cooked. That was my first surprise of the morning.

Once the pastry was made and set in the fridge to chill it was time to pick up Marco’s Mother’s recipe where I left off yesterday. The Good Friday portion of the process if you will.

The ingredients for the fillings: 6 eggs – separated; 2 bottles of fiori d’arancia; the ricotta/sugar mixture and the boiled grano prepared yesterday; candied fruit and 4 packets of vanilla powder.

Preheat the oven to 180c. Remove the ricotta-sugar and boiled grano mixtures from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.Separate 6 eggs.Beat the yolks and incorporate them into the ricotta-sugar mixture.

Whip the egg whites with an electric mixer – surprise #2: I couldn’t find our electric mixer, I’m sure we have one but… so I used the whisk – until they form soft peaks. (It only took 7 or 8 minutes with the whisk and actually did wonders in releasing a few aggressions I’d built up.) Fold them well into the ricotta-sugar-yolk mixture. Add the boiled grano-cream and mix well.

Add 4 sachets of vanilla, 3 bottles of fiori d’arancia – surprise #3 just before I started this step a blast of Robin Hood’s horn on my iPhone announced that I had a message from Marco.  He had seen yesterday’s post and noticed I was using the large size of fiori d’arancia and hold off on 3 bottles – just make it 2 and see how strong the smell of orange blossom was.  If I felt it needed more than add the 3rd!!!! Mix well.  Then add the candied fruit and mix well. Note to self:  next time maybe toss them in a bit of flour so they don’t sink to the bottom!  Mix well.

Roll out the pastry (thin) and fit into a baking dish that has been buttered and floured lightly. Make sure you have enough pastry to cut the decorative strips that are essential for a proper Pastiera. Pour the batter in – during cooking the pastiera will grow so it’s important not to overfill the pan. Surprise #4 – I had a whole lot of batter left over!!!! A quick message to Marco to ask exactly how big a pastiera his mother’s recipe makes? The reply: one or maybe two pans of normal size. Thank you Marco! Thankfully I had made enough pastry for two but ended up making another lot as its seems that maybe just maybe Mother Marco’s recipe can make three!!!!

Cut 6 strips of pastry and make a diamond pattern – if they sink in a bit don’t worry it is okay!

Bake in preheated oven for two hours (more or less). Do not open the oven – surprise #5 he tells me this in an e-mail after I’ve opened the oven twice to look!  Once they are cooked – you can tell because the filling will be puffed up and golden brown, mine only took about 90 minutes – turn off the oven and do not – repeat – do not remove until the oven has completely cooled down!  Surprise #6 – this came in a message just before I was going to remove them.

By this time the entire apartment was filled with the smell of orange blossoms, Lionel and Laurent said they could smell it in the lobby downstairs.  Surprise #7 – they came out looking like pastiera!

Now of course they have to be left for 48 hours – covered but not in the refrigerator – NEVER in the refrigerator!!!!! – and presented at pranzo on Easter Sunday.

That will be surprise #8 – will it actually taste the way it should???  And the tasters will be a table of Italians including at least two Napoletani!!!!!!

23 aprile – San Giorgio