(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: food

Thanksgiving Monday

I was going to post about illustration today, but my drafts kept turning into Thanksgiving posts, so here goes:

I took last week off to catch up on errands and prepare Thanksgiving dinner. I find that studying illustration, like any other work, leaves me falling behind in the rest of life. So, for my week off I had such tasks in mind as doing a shopping run at one of the big suburban grocery stores, getting my Christmas tree from IKEA, and registering for my A2 level Italian language test for immigrants, in addition to food prep.

Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the rainiest week since we moved into this apartment five years ago. The rain started out as an inconvenience, but by Thursday it had become alarming and by Friday the rivers were so high that the tour boats came unmoored and wrecked themselves against the city’s main bridge across the Po. The  city’s trains were in such a snarl that the transit authority actually called off a planned strike, whether out of mercy or because they figured no one would notice it anyway, I don’t know. Sarie missed three days of work due to the flooding.

Against this chaotic backdrop, catching up on my postponed errands took a good bit of willpower, but I plowed through them anyway. The immigration process will eventually get a new post of it own, no doubt. I’ll just say that I had hoped that going to the patronato during a flood meant that it would be less crowded. I was wrong.

Meanwhile I had planned out an elaborate staging process for cooking Thanksgiving dinner–Making broth and pie crust on Thursday afternoon after the patronato; making egg bread for dressing, pie, corn pudding, preparing the table setting, transplanting the tree, brining the chicken, teaching my English student and making dinner for Sarie and Alberto on Friday;  baking the dressing, cooking the beans, preparing fruit and cheese, setting the table, and many other last minute tasks such as chilling the wine, reheating the other dishes, and making whipped cream for the pie, and decorating the tree, all on Saturday before 1 pm. Is it any wonder I didn’t sleep well on Friday night? I think I was too tired to sleep.

By Saturday I was beginning to think that perhaps Thanksgiving was an unhealthy expat obsession of mine and that perhaps I needed to let it go. But in the end, everything came out right and the dinner had other good fruits (so to speak) as well. But I did not take photos. After everyone left at around 6:00 pm, I lay down on the sofa for a little catnap before doing dishes and…woke again at 1:00 am.

A few take-aways from last week:

Carrefour LeGru carries Ocean Spray smooth cranberry sauce in their ethnic foods section! If you’ve ever read one of my Thanksgiving posts, you know how fixated I can get on cranberry sauce. But you can’t count on it being there when you need it, so if you’re an expat with a nostalgia for Ocean Spray, buy it when you see it. I bought mine during the summer.

There is no substitute for self-rising cornmeal. I don’t know why that is, but I have decided it’s worth smuggling a bag over every year in someone’s suitcase. There is no Italian substitute. I don’t know what kind of magic pixie dust they put in that stuff, but I’m not questioning it ever again.

I have finally made myself a list of all Thanksgiving dishes, ingredients needed, time required to do each task and on what day it needs to be done, with all measures and temperatures converted to metric, to make the job easier. It has taken five years to figure out Thanksgiving in Italy, but I think I’ve finally got it. The basic problem with Thanksgiving food is that it all has to go in the oven, one item at a time.

It’s much more fun explaining pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and dressing, Abraham Lincoln and the fourth Thursday in November, and why despite the fact that the pilgrims were giving thanks to God, Thanksgiving is considered a secular holiday, to Italians, than it is explaining the election. Anything is more fun than talking about this election.

And did you know that despite the fact that Italians don’t know when Thanksgiving is, they now have Black Friday? Thankfully, I didn’t see anyone charging any stores.

And now, back to the drawing board and my plate of Thanksgiving leftovers! It’s Advent!

img_5029

An unexpected Lenten trip

IMG_2835

Our group descending from our hostel in Claviere, Italy, about an hour west of Torino

Last weekend I finally made it to those mountains I keep looking at from a distance on clear Torino days. I went with a group of friends, other volunteers from the afternoon program I work with at Sant’Antonio da Padova. And I decided to go only at the last minute.

Claviere is a ski resort, so that was the ostensible purpose of our trip. I thought about skiing, but when I saw how steep the slopes were, I had visions of being stranded on some black trail and thought it might be better to first make sure that I could find a way down. And unlike the small mountain where I learned to ski in Pennsylvania, there were clearly other things to do, with hiking trails intersecting (and sometimes coinciding with) the ski slopes. In fact, among our group of about 15, only three people skied. So I went hiking.

We stayed in a traditional hostel-type house that was halfway up the first slope, accessible only by walking or (for baggage) by snowmobile. Lunch, at a communal table with a red-checked tablecloth where everyone talked loudly at once, was of the typical leisurely Italian type with a pasta, a meat and vegetable, fruit, and red wine throughout. Then we’d go across the path to the other building for coffee and grappa (for those who take a caffè corretto for digestion). After all this lunch, you were either going to burn off energy or sleep. Some threatened sleep, but usually we walked to France instead.

Montegenèvre, France is the next resort over, about 30 minutes’ walk from Claviere–no border patrol to be seen. People in our group went to buy things from the pharmacy, because they said the same brands cost half as much there as they did in Italy. One fellow, whose part in our group’s play includes trying to hide his wedding announcement by swiping and balling up every copy of Le Figaro he sees, said he was going to stockpile French newspapers. What we all ended up doing was buying pastries.

While in Montegenèvre, we discovered that we were walking along the traditional pilgrimage road to Sant’Iago di Compostela in Spain (named for St. James the Lesser). The estimated remaining distance of 2000 km brought nods of appreciation.

IMG_2850 IMG_2908

Tiny sugar animals at a French patîsserie and a roadside chapel along the route to Sant’Iago de Compostela, Spain.

On Sunday morning, about seven of us decided to hike about an hour up the mountain to a coffee bar. Two people wore snowshoes, but the rest of us just wore snow boots and ski pants. The weather was warm and the day fine. We had to slow down a bit when the trail became narrow and slippery, and a couple of people had trouble keeping up, but I’m so used to hiking with people who are faster than me that it was delightful to finally have time to take photos, admire whipped-cream snowdrifts, and find a lovely, almost fluorescent-green lichen.

FullSizeRender IMG_2883 IMG_2891

 Hiking up to the coffee bar, a pretty lichen, and the lawn chairs we commandeered upon arrival

When we got to the coffee bar, we took several commemorative group pictures, and then most of us ordered apple cider and sat outside to drink it. After cider, with some jokes about how Italians know how to enjoy life better than anyone else, we commandeered the row of deck chairs in front of the bar and soaked up the sun for about 30 minutes while the Germans, English and French exerted themselves on the slopes. We were back to the hostel in time for lunch.

I’m sure this doesn’t sound like a particularly Lenten trip, but for me, it was a reprieve from the usual routine, and a chance to appreciate other people for who they were. As we women went to sleep in one room on Saturday night, we could hear two of the men in the other room laughing so hard that they couldn’t take full breaths. At four a.m., I was awakened by more stifled laughter from the other room. But in many ways, it was quiet, and far from my usual concerns. Very early, I got up, read my Bible, and took a walk outside where I watched the rising sun shine golden on top of the facing mountain and listened to tiny flocks of birds feeding in the firs above. In the walks, in the meals, in nature, in the generous hospitality of the group, in the perspective that comes from being away, there I found a gift from the Lord.

10406810_10205536591688096_3295644587190713416_n Someone else in our group took this photo of the church in Claviere at dusk. I took the same shot, but this one came out with less “noise.”

Translating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has passed now, but I thought I’d say a little bit about the preparation process. After all, before Thanksgiving, we were all too busy shopping and cooking, right?

Thanksgiving takes on a new dimension for expats. First of all, it becomes nostalgic. We’ve adopted a new language, new foods, a new way of life, and sometimes new holidays. Thanksgiving is our chance to be American.

Secondly, it’s a holiday that Italians are curious about. After all, it involves food, and almost all Italians love to talk about food. So right away we have an interested audience and get to be ambassadors, sort of.

But expat Thanksgiving requires a few adjustments to the menu.

Surprisingly, the turkey is easy. I just go downstairs and order it from the butcher, who has several American customers and knows the routine. “Ciao, cara! I’ll order you a female turkey,” he says, and I hear him ask the vendor to add another turkey to the order, and to make it as small as possible. The main problem is getting it into my IKEA oven.

Pumpkin pie has its own adjustments. Italians are curious about the Halloween pumpkin. I think this is partly because the idea of having a whole different word for one variety of winter squash makes them think maybe they’ve missed out on some category of good food. Then they want to know if pumpkin pie is connected to Halloween, since they don’t really celebrate that either. And they’re not really sure when Thanksgiving is (that floating holiday thing is confusing), so maybe they go together? And naturally they seem disappointed when you tell them that a Halloween pumpkin isn’t much good to eat. How American! What’s the point in getting rid of a few seeds when it ruins the taste?

Naturally there’s no Libby’s canned pumpkin available for the pie, but a large orange winter squash, sold in large slices this time of year, works just fine. What’s harder is finding a good pie recipe that doesn’t use evaporated or condensed milk. This year I made two using a new recipe. They look sort of fluffy and taste almost like they have the whipped cream already added, but I’m not complaining!

The dressing is particularly tricky. Since our family’s traditional dressing is cornbread based, I’ve tried to substitute with every possible type and consistency of polenta, including polenta mixed with flour, but nothing works quite as well as the old standby, White Lily Self-Rising cornmeal. This year I brought back a bag in my suitcase, and that seems to be the only acceptable solution.

And finally there is the cranberry sauce. Even before we moved to Italy, our family jokingly said that this was the one item on which we would not go organic, local or foodie. Nothing but Ocean Spray smooth jellied cranberry sauce, with the lines imprinted from the can, would do. But finding the necessary can in Torino is becoming increasingly tricky. At first there was a gourmet store, Paissa, that carried at least the whole-berry version in a jar, but they moved and when the store finally reopened, its stock was much reduced from its former exotic glory. Last year an American friend brought me two cans of cranberry sauce from the military base in Vicenza. But our friends moved too. This year I walked all over town, in the rain, following false leads and eventually discovering that the distributor of Ocean Spray had stopped carrying it.

Part of the problem with finding some of these ingredients in Italy is that it’s hard to describe what they are. This is definitely the case with cranberry sauce:

Sapete dove posso comprare un vasetto di sugo di mirtilli rossi? (“Do you know where I can buy some cranberry sauce?” Only I’m not sure sugo is the right word, because it means something more like a pasta sauce than chutney.)

Succo di mirtilli rossi? C’è un negozio bio in Crocetta che l’avrà. (“Cranberry juice? There’s a healthfood store in Crocetta that should have it.”)

Mirtilli rossi? Cosa sono? Vuol dire ribes? (“Cranberries? What are those? Do you mean currants?”)

È un tipo gelatina? (“Is it a kind of gelatin?”)

And finally, I heard one store employee say to another:

“Do we have cranberry sauce?”

“Cranberry sauce? What’s that?”

“You know! Americans use it to stuff the turkey on Thankgiving!”

But no can or jar, smooth or whole, made its appearance. Finally, on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I gave up and decided it was time to start cooking what I had. Sarie dejectedly posted on Facebook that this would be the first Thanksgiving in her memory without cranberry sauce. Within an hour, she had a message from an Australian friend, saying that she thought there was a can of unexpired cranberry sauce left over from our American friends’ dinner last year. A few more phone calls and a trip on the subway, and I had the precious jar of Ocean Spray in my purse. It may have been the last jar of cranberry sauce left in Torino. And we ate every bit of it.

For next year, I’ve figured out what to do about the cranberry sauce, at least. There’s an online American food vendor in France I can order it from. But the cornmeal, that will just have to go into my suitcase.

And all of the other days, I’m fine with eating agnolotti and ragù, polenta and turgia. Va bin parej!

Two treats

IMG_1482

 Mr. Meringue! (before baking)

I haven’t posted about food in a while, maybe because we eat it too fast to take photos, but I’m always learning something or other about cooking in Italy. And the number one thing that I’ve learned about cooking in Italy is that while New Yorkers like food from around the world (sometimes the stranger the better), Italians like their own food best. So, my cooking focus has shifted over the past few years, from reading cookbooks and buying spices from around the world, to talking with Italians about what they cook, then trying it myself, or better yet, being shown. Italians don’t really seem to use recipes for a lot of what they cook, and in fact, the foods are usually pretty simple, but of good quality.

Two of this fall’s additions are meringues and bagna cauda.  The meringue-making got started because we always had leftover egg whites after making egg cappuccinos and it seemed shame to waste them. I’d never thought of making meringues before because they always seemed a bit too sweet. But the idea is simple enough: Whip up the egg whites, add some sugar while continuing to whip, bake them at a low temperature, and then let them dry in the oven for up to four hours.

I haven’t got the details down to a science yet. The first time I made them they still came out too sweet, and too brown (though they didn’t taste burned), so I’m adjusting them a little every time I make them. Yesterday Alberto was helping me, and we used 1/3 c. sugar for three egg whites, squeezed the mixture out of a plastic bag onto baking sheets covered in foil, baked the cookies at 110° C (225°F) for an hour-and-a-half, and them left them in the oven pretty much all afternoon. And just to add a little fun, we mixed some chocolate powder with some of the remaining meringue mix and decorated the cookies, at first with a spoon and then with toothpicks. Thus was born Mr. Meringue (above)! This batch was still a little sun-tanned and their texture wasn’t perfect, but they’re coming along.

By the way, these meringues go really nicely with jasmine or chamomile tea. As an aside which I am almost embarrassed to tell, people had been giving me loose tea for a while, and I was just keeping it in the cabinet because I had no idea how to make it or where to find an infuser. Finally a few weeks ago I ran across an infuser in a store somewhere, bought it, and tried it. Wow! I like loose tea so much better than tea from bags! So, now that the weather is getting cool and it’s cloudy out a lot (even though according to the Torinese it’s been that way all summer), we’re getting back into a cozy routine of having chamomile tea before bedtime. But this time we have chamomile-lavender loose tea, which is even better!

IMG_1473

IMG_1474
IMG_1480

Above: Whipped egg whites with sugar added, squeezing out the meringues, and the baked (and tanned) Mr. Merignue!

Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of photos for the bagna cauda. It simply doesn’t last long enough to photograph, and the dip in the pot by itself looks a bit bland (see below). In fact, when I explain what bagna cauda is to Americans, they tend to make faces. You mean it’s anchovies and garlic?! Well, yes, but it’s small amounts of each slow-cooked in a lot of cream! (There’s also a version with oil instead of cream.) And here in Piemonte, bagna cauda (which means warm bath) is the epitome of cozy fall food, a real treat!

To make it, you chop up about 8-10 anchovies (in Italy you can buy these in small glass jars, which you then rinse to remove some of the extra oil and/or salt), add 1 or more garlic cloves depending on your taste, sauté them in a small amount of oil, and then add about a box of cream per person. (Again, in Italy you can buy panna da cucina in boxes of about 20og ea., which is just under 8 oz. or 1 c.). You simmer the mixture on very low heat for about 2 hours, staying close by enough so that now and then you can stir the pot to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick.

When it’s done, you put the bagna cauda in warmed bowls for each person and serve it with various kinds of vegetables, including raw cabbage leaves, roasted peppers, a kind of small mushroom you can buy here in a jar, celery (or its rustic Piemontese cousin, cardo gobbo), boiled potatoes, and I’m sure there are plenty of other things that I’m forgetting!

A word of advice: One bowl of bagna cauda is almost a meal in itself, and as you might imagine, all that cream is very rich. The Piemontese see it as a once-a-month treat, so savor it in small quantities!

bagna caudaBagna cauda slow-cooking on the stove

Chantarelles

DSC_0100 DSC_0099Is is my imagination, or is the entire state of Georgia covered in chantarelles this rainy week?  Oh, if only I had the confidence to start munching on them!

Homemade cappuccino

DSC_0335DSC_0343

This is Sarie’s new favorite thing to make: A homemade cappuccino

Per cup, you’ll need:

Coffee

A cup of warm milk (just to bubbling)

An egg yolk, preferably at room temperature

A couple of spoonfuls of sugar

Whip the sugar into the egg yolks until they start to turn a lighter color (this takes a while but it will happen eventually). Pour into the bottom of the cup. Cover with the warm milk and a dash of coffee.

Gnam! (“Yum!” In Italian,”gn” is pronounced like “ny.”) To be eaten with cake dipped in it, which naturally, makes delicious crumbs.

***

I didn’t fall off the face of the earth.  I’ll be back soon.

Bits, snappy and not-so-snappy

I stood out on my kitchen balcony before 8 a.m. this morning, listening to swallows, which I could see circling above, and traffic, which I couldn’t see circling my block outside the courtyard. I had gone to hang out a towel and been charmed into staying. The sky was utterly clear, and the temperature was cold for late May (48/10 degrees).  I was (and am) wearing a pink wool sweater set as an homage to the two seasons between which the city is choosing.

Then I went inside and made a second caffè macchiato.  The sun is now slanting golden on my fake birch cabinets from IKEA. It looks warm despite the fakery.

I wonder, when I go outside our courtyard and cross C.so Matteotti, will I have a clear view of the mountains?

I’m alone. I am frequently alone now, and I’m coming to terms with it. Last night I sat down and taught myself the first of the Goldberg Variations, which I have loved for years. It’s not performable yet, but I practiced with interest for two hours. I also drew a quick sketch Virgin statuette from the Cloisters--twice, because the first time I botched the structure. The one below has problems as well (as pretty much any 15 minute sketch will), but I’m putting it in as an incentive to make myself practice.

Virgin. Sandstone, polychromy and gilding, France 1247-52, from the cathedral of Strasbourg (47.101.11) Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters.

img-130523084512-001

Yesterday in Italian class I learned the congiuntivo imperfetto and the congiuntivo trapassato.  So now, if I could only remember how to conjugate even the most basic verbs in the present tense on the fly, I would be able to say the most complicated things in Italian–statements of possibility and emotion that occurred and continued in the past. I think you can make poetry with those!

On Tuesday I made a chicken broth (with the feet, of course) and yesterday I made a potato leek soup for Sarie and Alberto with some of it. We talked about film ideas and told viola jokes in two languages. Bob is in Vienna.

I’m continuing to read Psalms every morning, and often I sing traditional hymns. Sometimes I literally sing them in the closet.

I’m reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien again.  Of course I read them for the insight into how he wrote The Lord of the Rings, but what I really like about them is the inclusion of bits of side trivia, such as the following from a letter to his son Christopher:

“When fermentation was first managed, the beer was only in birch tubs and it foamed all over the place, and of course the heroes cam and lapped it up, and got mightily drunk.  Drunk was Ahti, drunk was Kauko, drunken was the ruddy rascal, with the ale of Osmo’s daughter-Kirby’s translation is funnier than the original.  It was the bullfinch who then suggested to Osmo’s daughter the notion of putting the stuff in oak casks with hoops of copper and storing it in a cellar.  Thus was ale at first created…best of rinks for prudent people; Women soon it brings to laughter, Men it warms into good humour, and but brings the fools to raving.  Sound sentiments. Poor old Finns, and their queer language, they look like being scuppered.*”

Italians traditionally don’t drink to drunkenness.  They consider that something that American tourists do, especially college students.  (In case you were wondering what their stereotypes of us were.)  But in this generation, things seem to be changing.  Sarie had to enter some data from an anonymous survey on various consumption habits for a school project.  Only two students whose data she entered had not gotten drunk. Some were as young as 14. My Italian teacher thinks this is an attitude imported from northern Europe. Of course it has been a problem in the US at least since I was a teen.

Some of the lines from Tolkien’s letters, such as the following, stand quite nicely by themselves:

It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!”

Which begs the question: Is this a snappy bit?

*The last line is in reference to the Finns’ tendency to be dominated by other countries.

Sunday afternoon

DSC_0277DSC_0274

Because it’s really nice to eat fried apples dredged in flour, sugar and cinnamon while watching Bach’s St. John’s Passion on You Tube, and it’s good to watch St. John’s Passion if you plan to perform it soon.

And after days and days and days of rain, it’s gorgeous outside!

Bob in Japan

IMG_0525 - Version 2

I just thought I’d share a few photos from Bob’s twelve-day business trip to Japan. He went with Italians, of course, because he works for an Italian firm. He said it was interesting being in a vortex of Italian/American/Japanese relations where there was usually some overlap between any two given cultures, but never all three. The conference he attended rotates between Asian countries, so next time Japan comes around, I hope to go with him!  It has been on my short list since I was a teen.

Below:  The height of cherry blossom season in Tokyo, a sleek conference room with reflections, the caffeinated secret of those 14-hour workdays, food as art, and an adorable little girl with her dad on a ferry.

IMG_0620 IMG_0656 - Version 2 IMG_0757photo IMG_0451 - Version 3 IMG_0455 - Version 2 IMG_0763 - Version 2IMG_0732 - Version 2

 

Easter windows

DSC_0059 DSC_0058I’m always interested in what’s displayed in the window of Amici Miei,* a nearby pasticceria.  This week, as Easter approaches, the windows are full of pane di pasqua (Easter Bread, and yes, that’s an egg on top) and agnelli pasquali (Easter Lambs).  I think the lambs are made out of a sweet almond paste.  The bread, in some versions, is braided.

Another popular Easter dessert is the columba, or dove. It’s a type of bread made from the same recipe as panettone, which is the main Christmas dessert, except that it’s baked in the shape of a dove and is usually a little smaller than a panettone (which means, literally, “big bread”).

So far, I haven’t eaten any of these Easter desserts.  I’m pretty content just to look at them through the glass.  But I thought this particular lamb’s expression was pretty funny, so I had Sarie take a picture with her phone.  I do confess, however, that one reason for our self-control was that we were on our way to get one last hot chocolate from Grom.

(*Check out the link for some nice photos of their other pastries and also of Il Padellino, our favorite local pizzeria.)