In January 2018 I wrote about ‘prosciutto’. Recently Toni Brancatisano of L’Italo Americano magazine focused on San Daniele DOP prosciutto one of the best known prosciuotto’s around the world.
San Daniele del Friuli is a beautiful, quaint small town in Italy’s northern region Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the province of Udine. It is situated on the top of a hill, half-way between the mountains and the Adriatic Sea, near the Tagliamento River, which is the largest river of the Friuli region. It is a town rich in medieval history and artistic treasures such as the frescoes inside the tiny church of Sant’ Antonio Abate, otherwise called the “Sistine Chapel of Friuli,” and the Guarneriana Library (one of the oldest in Italy). Founded in 1466, this library contains more than 12,000 antique books including a priceless manuscript of Dante’s Inferno.
But, there is another treasure that has made this town famous all over the world: the delicious Prosciutto di San Daniele D.O.P.
Prosciutto is the Italian word for ham. Prosciutto Crudo is an Italian dry-cured ham that is usually served raw and thinly sliced. The word crudo means raw, as opposed to prosciutto cotto, which is cooked. It is characterized by a pinkish-red color and is slightly veined with thin streaks of fat. The fat or lard around it, which is pure white, is delicate and complements the meat, so when eating Prosciutto Crudo, both the meat and the fat should be enjoyed together. Prosciutto Crudo is eaten either wrapped around grissini (bread sticks), and in Summer is often paired with cantaloupe melon or fresh figs. Most commonly though throughout the year, Prosciutto Crudo is simply enjoyed as a sandwich filler, often paired with mozzarella inside two slices of rustic Italian bread. Prosciutto Crudo is perfect any time of day enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and is also commonly enjoyed during an Italian Aperitivo.
The geographical location of San Daniele del Friuli and the micro-climate there is fundamentally important for the production and aging of Prosciutto di San Daniele. The cold winds blow down from the Alps and meet the breeze from the Adriatic Sea, while the Tagliamento River in the middle ensures the air has a certain amount of humidity and is never too dry. So the only ingredients that are required to make Prosciutto Crudo are the hind legs of Italian pigs, sea salt and the magical air of San Daniele del Friuli.
No chemicals, additives or preservatives are used throughout the production of Prosciutto di San Daniele, which can only be made using the hind legs of pigs that are born, bred and also slaughtered in Italy. If the pigs aren’t of an excellent quality, one can’t expect to produce an excellent Prosciutto di San Daniele. The pigs can only come from ten regions in Italy: Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Abruzzo, Marche, and Umbria. The diet of the pigs is under strict control and all the phases required to achieve a prosciutto leg worthy of the SAN DANIELE DOP brand at the end of 13 months are controlled by rigid regulations.
There are only 31 producers that are recognized by the Consortium San Daniele (il Consorzio del Prosciutto di San Daniele). The Consortium is an association that functions much like a union, their goal is to not only protect and promote the brand but also to educate people about this unique and precious product.
Some of the prosciutto producers are 4th generation families who have continued the tradition of their ancestors. It definitely isn’t a job you could do if you didn’t have the dedication and passion required to pour your heart and soul into the care that goes into each leg of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Some bigger companies have machinery to facilitate the production process, but smaller businesses still use traditional methods. It is an artisanal job involving manual labor. Whether these companies use modern day machinery or traditional methods, the process of production must be the same and uniform for all the companies that belong to the Consorzio.
The production begins with the arrival of the pork hind legs, the thigh with the pork trotter attached (an identifying factor of Prosciutto di San Daniele). The thighs are inspected and only those passing the initial test will begin their journey to becoming Prosciutto di San Daniele. They are first stored for 24 hours at a temperature between -33°F and 37°F they are then trimmed with special cuts to facilitate the loss of moisture.
After a second 24 hours, the thighs are covered with sea salt and placed at a temperature between 32°F and 39°F. Each ham rests in this condition for a number of days: the time of this resting depends on how much each thigh weighs. After salting, Prosciutti di San Daniele are pressed along the muscle mass in order to make the salt penetrate deeply. This phase is exclusive to San Daniele and also gives the hams their characteristic “guitar” shape.
The salted thighs are left to rest in rooms where humidity varies between 70% and 80% and a temperature between 39°F and 49°F. This phase lasts up to the fourth month from the start of processing and allows the salt to penetrate evenly inside the ham. After the rest, the thighs are washed with warm water. This phase is very important because it promotes the toning of the meat and, with the change of temperature, the aging process begins. This must last at least thirteen months from the beginning of the initial process. During this whole period it is essential to maintain an optimal temperature, humidity and ventilation.
The next phase is called the sugnatura in Italian, sugna means suet. A paste is made consisting of pork fat and rice or wheat flour, and it is applied by hand and massaged onto the part not covered by the pork rind. This protects and, at the same time, softens that part of the meat, preventing the underlying meat from drying. Interestingly this has traditionally been a job done by women (this process has the side benefit of leaving lovely soft hands).
Periodic checks are done on every single Prosciutto di San Daniele during the aging process. One such check occurs at the end of curing: it is a fundamental test carried out using the olfactory senses and is another job where women are better than men, because they have a better sense of smell. The process involves piercing the ham with a horse bone needle, the ago di osso di cavallo, in three specific points of the muscle to assess how it is aging. The aroma left on the bone needle is then sniffed by experts trained to recognize and evaluate the aging process.
After thirteen months, only the hams that pass these stringent tests are certified and branded with the San Daniele brand. Each Prosciutto di San Daniele ends up having its own “identity card” stamped on it and this includes the identification code of the breeder, where the animal was slaughtered and also the producer. This guarantees the quality of the final product and constitutes a prestigious certification.
Eating Prosciutto Crudo is indeed a culinary joy and it is important to know a few things before buying it. Look for the brand on the skin, which makes it easily recognizable at the delicatessen, and don’t forget the characteristic guitar shape of the San Daniele Prosciutto.
Prosciutto Crudo should be sliced in front of you at the deli counter and eaten preferably that day. Even the journey from the deli home will alter the flavor of this delicate cured ham. Hand slicing is preferred to electric machinery, as the heated blades will also alter the flavor and quality of the Prosciutto.
It should be sliced very thinly with a percentage of the fat on every slice. It should literally melt in your mouth with the experts saying that Prosciutto San Daniele does not need to be chewed. Don’t forget the fat is what gives the prosciutto the sweetness and softness it is famous for. Without the fat, prosciutto would be a different product and the balance and ratio of fat to meat is one of the important characteristics of Prosciutto from San Daniele in Friuli.
Hope to see you in Italia . . . buon appetito!
Spending more time in Italy every year reminds me of things I didn’t notice about my Nonni (grandparents) growing up, but as I grew older I wondered why they did certain things in certain ways, meaning not like everyone else!?
I learned that how they lived in Italy was how they lived in the US. They shopped for food on a daily basis (usually in the morning) as opposed to a large once-weekly shopping trip. Shopping for food in Italy means buying food that one needs for that day (maybe two because there may be leftovers, depending how many people showed up!?), and buying only what is fresh and “in season”, or vegetables that my Nonno hadn’t grown in his garden. I think we now know it as the Mediterranean diet. Life for my Nonni in Italy before their immigration to the US was difficult. They didn’t waste anything even after coming to the US, so this concept of buying fresh everyday also helped in reducing food waste.
Most Italian dishes are from ‘cucina povera’, poor kitchen, or poor peasant cooking. That being said, there are some wonderful traditional recipes in Italy that are made with ‘stale’ ingredients, like bread.
Tuscan bread, used in this recipe, is usually unsalted, the reason is it dates back to the 12th century. The rulers of Pisa were at odds with the rulers of Florence, and cut off their supply lines from the coast. This made salt prohibitively expensive. The Florentines, unwilling to cave to the pressure, simply began making their bread without it, and this tradition continues today.
So, our Tuscan chef at Villas of Italy, Chef Mauro, has a wonderful recipe to use day old rustic Tuscan style Italian bread, Pappa al Pomodoro. Those of you who have stayed with us have enjoyed Chef Mauro’s Pappa al Pomodoro, and this is the perfect time of year to talk about this recipe because it's ideal to take advantage of the delicious plump red tomatoes that are abundant in super and farmers markets during the coming hot summer months.
The Italian word 'pappa' translates to baby food, which pretty much describes the consistency of the finished product: a dish that can be eaten at any age. But with amazing tomatoes, fresh basil and high-quality olive oil, the flavor is anything but boring.
Many Tuscans will tell you not to even think of putting grated parmesan cheese on it... but sorry… I love a scattering of freshly grated cheese and freshly cracked black pepper on top!
PAPPA AL POMODORO
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Cut a slit in the base of each tomato. Add the tomatoes to the boiling water and blanch just until the skins start to split, about 10 seconds. Transfer the blanched tomatoes to the ice water to cool.
Peel and halve the tomatoes crosswise. Working over a mesh strainer set over a large bowl, pry out the seeds and press the tomato juice and pulp through the strainer. Discard the seeds. Coarsely chop the tomatoes.
Wipe out the pot and heat the 1/2 cup of olive oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and crushed red pepper and season with salt. Cover partially and simmer over moderately high heat until the tomatoes have cooked down, about 30 minutes.
Add the bread and the reserved tomato juices to the soup and cook, mashing the bread until fully incorporated, and season with salt. Stir in the basil leaves. Spoon the soup into shallow bowls, drizzle lightly with olive oil, top with a few torn pieces of basil and serve right away.
Make Ahead - The soup can be prepared through Step 3 and refrigerated overnight. Reheat before proceeding.
Suggested Wine Pairing - This traditional Tuscan soup is robust enough for red wine, but its summery flavors taste particularly good with rosato (rosé), especially ones made from Sangiovese; the wine's cherry-berry fruit seems to intensify the already sweet flavors of end-of-season tomatoes.
When we travel to Italy we typically travel through Rome as it is the most convenient flight for us, and taking trains from Rome to elsewhere in Italy is incredibly easy. This means we’re in Rome a lot. Having seen the major sights I was planning to write a blog about what else to see and do in Rome other than the, often crowded tourist locations. Now, if you’ve never seen the major sights of Rome, well you kind of have to see them at some point, but if you already have, or are planning to return one day, what else is there to see to avoid those long lines and overcrowded places.
While sitting down listing all the places of where to go in Rome to see some amazing things I ran across a great article by travel writer Cameron Hewitt, he mentions a lot of the places I was going to write about so I thought rather than recreate the wheel, why not give Cameron some kudo’s and let him tell you what else to see when in Rome. So . . .
“Tourists are fainting inside the Vatican Museums. Literally, about 10 times per day, someone drops to the ground from heat and exhaustion. It’s crowded — with up to 40,000 daily visitors. It can be sweltering — with temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And everyone is squeezed through the pope’s sumptuous halls in one vast, slow-moving mosh pit of humanity…like hot toothpaste slowly moving through a tube. While home to some of the greatest art of human civilization — including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling — the Vatican Museums are also, for anyone claustrophobic or simply pooped, one of travel’s most unpleasant experiences.
On my recent visit to Rome, I talked to several Romans who, on a daily basis, interact with visitors, hotel owners, local tour guides, restauranteurs, and so on. When I asked what was new, every single one of them mentioned the crushing crowds at a handful of world-famous sights — the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum topping the list. Every day, they see travelers exhausted, frustrated, frazzled, and demoralized after trying to see these great sights. Those poor visitors retreat home with their tails between their legs, feeling bruised and disillusioned and not liking Rome. And in my informal straw poll, about half of these Roman experts propose (and strongly endorse) an unconventional solution — one that’s as revolutionary as it is infuriating to purists. Hear us out, now.
Skip the Sistine Chapel. Skip the Colosseum. Instead, experience a less famous, less trampled corner of Rome. Because that way, you will truly experience Rome — not just tick off an item on your bucket list.
What Is Your Purpose?
The Romans I talked to are sad. They’re sad that their grand city is getting a bum rap because visitors are forcing themselves, as if on a forced march, through the same three or four sights on a short visit — leaving themselves with not nearly enough time, money, or patience to experience all the rest of what Rome is about.
If you have dreamed your whole life of seeing the Sistine Chapel, then by all means, go to the Sistine Chapel (just be sure to use a good guidebook to do it smartly). Reserve ahead, ideally first thing in the morning or — even better — during their new Friday night opening hours. But before you assume that you simply “have to” go there, ask yourself:
Are you sure?
And also: Why?
To put it another way: Why are you coming to Rome? Is it just to see the great sights, period? Or is it to have a transformative encounter with the art and history of the Eternal City? Are you determined to see the Sistine Chapel only because it’s famous — or is it to have a personal encounter with an artistic masterpiece?
If it’s the latter, I have some good news: Rome has more great art than perhaps any place on earth. They have a ridiculous bounty of world-class art. They possess such an embarrassment of cultural richness, it’s bursting out of their attics and basements.
If you could stand under the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a moment of tranquility and centered awareness, and take the time to simply be still and take it all in — to let Michelangelo speak to you — then yes, that would be a lifetime experience worth any amount of toil and tribulation. But that is, most likely, not what’s going to happen when you get to the Sistine Chapel.
First, you’ll already have had your patience stretched to its limits, after traversing a half-mile of congested hallways. You’ll be sweaty and flushed. And you’ll have been bumped and jostled and rubbed against by a thousand different art lovers, from every corner of the globe.
Then, once you finally reach that majestic space, as you crane your neck to make out the details, you’ll hear not the voice of God (or even the voice of Michelangelo), but the voice of an impatient security guard shouting “Si-len-zi-o!” again and again. Within a few minutes, you’ll feel the need to leave…no, to escape. And so, having squinted at some great art — briefly — you’ll squirt out the exit door and finally take a deep breath. At long last, your vacation-turned-ordeal is over. When you get home and people ask what you thought of Michelangelo, you’ll say, “Michael who? Was he the guy who kept jabbing me with his selfie stick?”
Try Something Different
Instead of the Vatican Museums, go to the Borghese Gallery — a beautiful, concise art gallery that fills a grand old villa tucked in a verdant park, with exquisite works by many of the great artists you’ll see at the Vatican: Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Bernini, Canova, and much more. If you’ve seen Michelangelo’s David in Florence, head to the Borghese and stand toe-to-toe with Bernini’s David — carved about a century later — and contemplate the differences…without some stranger’s elbow in your ribs. Or, hop on a train for an hour to visit Orvieto, where you can stroll its relatively undiscovered cobbles, enjoy intoxicating views over the Umbrian countryside, and ogle the glorious, vibrantly colorful frescoes by Luca Signorelli in the town cathedral. Signorelli may be no Michelangelo. But gazing up at his masterful scenes of the Antichrist, the dead rising from their graves, and the Last Judgment…you might just not care. As a bonus, the chapel is uncrowded — and you can linger as long as you want.
Rome’s Colosseum is an astounding feat of engineering. It’s also — if I’m being frank — pretty dull inside. And, again, it’s crowded. Not quite “cramming two pounds into a one-pound bag” crowded, like the Vatican Museums. But still unpleasant.
My visit to the Colosseum earlier this summer was just fine…mostly. But when it was time to leave, things took a turn for the worse. From the upper-level cheap seats, I reached the exit staircase at the same time as a huge school group, which poured down the steep, vertiginous steps alongside the usual flow of tourists. It was a little scary; while I’m sure on my feet, I saw other visitors who looked a bit panicked as the crowd effectively swept them up and hurried them down the steep, unforgiving stone stairs.
So here’s your alternative plan: Walk all the way around the outside of the Colosseum. Twice, if you want. It’s free, and it’s so big that crowds are not really a problem. But — unless you can’t live without seeing the ancient Roman equivalent of the concourse in a football stadium where you buy nachos and use the bathroom at halftime — skip the interior…and the long, slow-moving security and ticket lines to get inside.
Instead, after doing your loop around the Colosseum, walk 15 minutes to the Baths of Caracalla. This gigantic, communal bathing complex — dating to the third century A.D., back when almost nobody had a bathtub at home — could wash 1,600 sweaty Romans at the same time. This is where plebs would come to scrub up and to socialize, in lavish tile tubs under vaulted marbled ceilings. While admittedly about one-hundredth as famous, the ruins of this bath complex are every bit as impressive — from an ancient engineering and architecture perspective — as the Colosseum.
At day’s end, let yourself be tempted to join the passeggiata — that wonderful late-afternoon Italian custom of strolling around aimlessly, perhaps licking a gelato or pausing for an aperitivo cocktail, while bumping into old friends and catching up. Just don’t do it where everyone else does it.
The classic Roman passeggiata route meanders between Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. But it’s been eons since everyday Romans actually spent time in that area. While the landmarks are sumptuous, the streets are entirely given over to tourists. Don’t get me wrong: I love this part of Rome. The Pantheon is my favorite of Rome’s many great sights, and only the most hardened cynic could manage to not be just a little enchanted by the majestic Trevi Fountain. However, don’t mistake this area for “Rome.” This is a theme park filling some old Roman streets. If you stroll here, you’ll see not Romans out and about, but grotesquely tacky souvenir stands, hacky restaurants with interchangeably uninspired menus, street performers singing opera arias or playing pop songs on the violin, and lots and lots and lots and lots of tourists.
Sure, check out the Pantheon and toss a coin into Trevi Fountain. But then head to a more local neighborhood for your evening stroll. Just a few minutes’ walk away, the tourists melt away and are replaced by actual Romans…just enjoying their city.
For example, wander Via dei Coronari, a little street with a few touristy shops and lots of local ones, which stretches west from Piazza Navona to the river. Being here at 5 or 6 p.m., you can watch Romans emerge from their apartments and prowl their characteristic streets. Earlier this summer, I got one of the best gelati of my trip at Gelateria del Teatro (their fruit flavors are explosively flavorful) and leaned against a pillar in the piazza at the Church of San Salvatore in Lauro. Neighborhood kids were out playing in the square, doing three-legged races and jumping rope. Their parents were trading gossip and enjoying the cool of the evening. Tourists are tolerated, but this part of Rome is decidedly not for tourists. And that’s a good thing.
Or go to Monti. My favorite little corner of central Rome, the Monti neighborhood hides a few minutes’ walk from the major archaeological sites. On my recent visit, I left the Forum at closing time, crossed Via dei Fori Imperiali, angled left to avoid the busy Via Cavour, and walked no more than three or four minutes through deserted cobbled streets. I popped out at Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, a humble Roman square with a too-big fountain alongside a narrow, traffic-choked street.
In the late afternoon, the fountain swarms with the après-work crowd: Romans who buy an aperitivo at the nearby bar, or a cheap bottle of beer at the convenience store. They’re all simply hanging out, catching up, flirting, and laughing. It’s a wonderful cross-section of Rome: well-dressed office workers, grungy young people, older folks from the neighborhood, American students, and just a handful of tourists.
The streets of Monti aren’t even in the running to be named Rome’s most glamorous, or most historic. This is simply a real neighborhood, a very short walk from the rushing river of tourism. Its streets teem with hip restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops where you can grab a panino, a slice of pizza, or a cone of gelato. And yet, spending the evening here instead of around the Pantheon, you’ll come away with a stronger impression of having actually been to Rome, the living, modern city, rather than Rome, the touristy stage set.
The Bottom Line: Take the Time to Let Rome Breathe
I know, I know: It’s very easy — condescending, even — for someone who’s already seen the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum to advise someone else to skip it. But honestly, seeing what I’ve seen recently, if I were going to Rome for the very first time, I really would skip them. Ultimately, I’d rather have an “A+ experience” at a lesser known sight than a “C- experience” at a famous one.
Of my Roman contacts, about half suggested skipping the biggies altogether. The other half felt that, despite the crowds and the stress, it really would be a shame to miss these great sights — just be aware that they will be crowded. But unanimously, the Romans agreed that it’s essential to complement the big sights with some time spent simply strolling the lesser-known corners of Rome: parks, piazzas, streets, and neighborhoods where Romans outnumber visitors.
In the age of overtourism, everyone still has the right to see the great sights. But that doesn’t mean the great sights are right for everyone. We would never give blanket advice to simply avoid the Sistine Chapel, but it’s important for travelers to recognize that it’s a choice — not an obligation. It comes down to an individual decision: balancing your personal desire to see the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum against your threshold for crowd headaches.
Big-picture, the crush of crowds has an impact on your itinerary planning. My Roman friends have noticed a trend: People come to Rome for a very short time. “We’re here for two days,” they say, “and then we’re going to Tuscany to a villa for a week.” Most visitors seem to take the “strategic strike” approach to Rome: Get in, tick off those bucket list sights as quickly as possible, then get out fast. They do this partly because they’ve heard that Rome is intense and grueling. Ironically, it’s visiting Rome in this way that fills their trips with the aspects of Rome that are intense and grueling (its major sights), instead of the many, many aspects of Rome that are exactly the opposite.
So, even if you do insist on doing the big sights — s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Take your time. Stay longer, and for every big sight you tour, offset that by watching the sunrise or sunset from an uncrowded park, or kicking around a soccer ball with neighborhood kids on a street with no English signs. Or, if time is short, be selective about which sights you see — and build in opportunities to take a deep breath and experience the true essence of Rome. Linger a bit, and you’ll find out why they call it the Eternal City.
What do you think? Sistine Chapel or no? Colosseum or any one of a dozen other great sights from ancient Rome? What has your experience been — and if you were (or are) going to Rome for the first time, would you skip the Sistine Chapel?”
Cameron endorses the same philosophy we at Villas of Italy have always expressed, “s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Take your time. Stay longer . . . watch the sunrise or sunset from an uncrowded park, or kicking around a soccer ball with neighborhood kids on a street with no English signs. Or, if time is short, be selective about which sights you see — and build in opportunities to take a deep breath and experience the true essence of Italy.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself, thanks Cameron.
Ciao . . . a presto,
For many, many years I've been intrigued by the concept of the 'Gladiators' of ancient Rome (not to mention that one of my all time favorite movies is Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator' with Russel Crowe) .
Were they slaves who were forced to fight, were they free men who were the glamor athletes of their time? Francesca Bezzone of L'Italo-Americano magazine researched Gladiators and found that before Pompeii and Hercolaneum were rediscovered by archaeologists in the 18th century, we knew relatively little about them and the way they lived, but today, thanks to the findings coming from these two cities, we can reconstruct fairly well the way these entertainment-warriors were selected, and perceived by the public.
So who were they?
Gladiators were not a right or privilege of the Romans: sources tell us long before the Romans that the Etruscans, too, had a penchant for arena fights, not only a way to entertain, but also a window for the rich and famous of the time to show off their wealth and power. The Etruscans were not much different from our forefathers, the Romans, who used gladiatorial games as a way for the Emperor to display power, riches and, often, his right of life and death upon other human beings. Mind you, in Roman times gladiators also had a pretty strong political role: rulers used them and their combats to sweeten up the common people to draw their attention from more pressing issues such as high taxes, lack of food, poverty, another war to fight and pay for.
Thanks to archeological research, we know that Roman gladiators were usually aged between 20 and 35 years of age and had an average height of 1.68 meters (around 5ft 5in): do you think they were short? Well, not for those times, when the average height for a man was just that.
But the first question to ask ourselves is: who were the gladiators and where did they come from? Well, there is a fairly widespread misconception they were exclusively war prisoners and slaves forced into fighting for the sake of Roman pleasure, but sources tell us a fairly different story. If, indeed, a great part of them had been captured during combat and forced into becoming an arena hero (a bit like the way you see in the movie Gladiator, with Russell Crowe, where his best fighter friend was a captured enemy warrior), there is proof a number of free, Roman men decided to take up this dangerous career. Dangerous, because you risked your life every time you went to work, but the rewards could be incredible, if you were good and lucky.
Free gladiators came usually from Rome’s poorer social strata, and saw the arena as a way to gain prestige, popularity and, first and foremost, wealth: the best gladiators were protected by noble families, received lavish gifts and could in fact lead a pretty glamorous lifestyle. Many of them, it seems, were also favorites in the bedrooms of Rome’s most powerful Matrons: it is even said that Eppia, wife of a Roman senator, abandoned her husband to be with a gladiator.
Living as a gladiator
In many ways, gladiators in Rome were like modern day athletes. They bonded during training and fighting and often shared profound friendships, to the point official unions called 'collegia' were formed. Collegia took care of many aspects of the life of gladiators, including the expenses related to their funeral and burial, should they die during a combat, and financial compensation for their family.
If you wanted — or were selected — to become a gladiator, you had to attend one of the Empire’s gladiatorial schools, the most important of which was in Capua. And, just as it happens today with footballers or other athletes, there were bonafide talent scouts cruising the Empire, looking for fresh talent to add to their “teams.” If you were a free man, they’d entice you to become a fighter with tales of wealth and status; if you were a slave or a prisoner, you had no choice but go with them.
Life in the gladiatorial school was very strict: all men had to train daily and it was not all about fighting. Indeed, the first months were dedicated to become “gladiator fit,” which means physical exercise and strain could become rather excruciating. They all followed a healthy, three-meal-per-day diet, which is thought to have included fruit, vegetables, cheese, grains and meat, although recent archaeological findings appear to prove many gladiators were, in fact, vegetarians (to my great chagrin).
But the comparison with modern athletes ends pretty much here: all gladiators attending school had to sleep and spend all of their free time in 'cells' and were only freed from them while training and eating. They would fight four to five times a year, and most of them specialized in specific types of combat. A harsh life, for sure, but the rewards were worthy in the eye of a vast majority of them, because gladiators were the Empire’s stars: they endorsed products, their portraits were placed in public places, children had toys — often clay figurines — modeled after them. And, they were, as we said, considered great lovers and Roman women thought their sweat was an aphrodisiac.
Little curiosities about our fighting heroes
Gladiators have always been very popular characters of Roman history: they embody strength, courage and as we mentioned have a good deal of sex appeal. But, there are many things we believe about them that are not as true as we think.
For instance, not all gladiators were men: women liked their fighting, too. Contrary to men, though, the vast majority of women chose to become fighters freely, attracted by the lifestyle and by the allure of the arena. There is also new research about the gladiators and death: while the risk of not ending up alive at the end of a combat was certainly high, death in the gladiatorial arena was not as common as many of us may have learned from history books and tv; indeed, gladiators were only part of the arena entertainment offered during the games, which usually also involved animal fights and, alas, executions.
This meant that people got their need for blood and gore out of the way by the time gladiators came “on stage,” which often allowed them to end their fights alive, even if they lost. And, gladiators had their own energy drinks, too: apparently, they would mix together water, vinegar and wood ashes to create an reinvigorating concoction, the chemical traces of which were found in the bones of gladiators analyzed a few years ago by the Medical University of Vienna.
"My name is Gladiator . . ."
In last month's blog we learned about cork trees. Wine corks are made from cork oak (Quercus suber), which are native to southwest Europe and northwest Africa. The tree forms a thick layer of bark that once it reaches the right thickness is harvested and processed into wine corks, as well as many other useful items. What’s truly unique about this process is that unlike almost all other products made from trees, cork is a completely renewable resource. The harvesting of cork doesn’t damage the tree and so they are left uncut and allowed to continue to grow. Pretty cool!
Over the last few weeks we've been asked about corks vs. screw caps . . . which is better? Is there a difference? Is it all about cost? Should I be wary about buying a higher priced bottle of wine if it has a screw cap vs. a cork? Why veer from tradition?
Well, like most innovation, the answer was necessity. Since cork is only stripped in nine-year intervals, the cork companies weren’t necessarily scrambling to provide the developing areas of the wine-producing world (like New Zealand - yes this craze started in New Zealand!) with the best corks. This meant that these regions were receiving subpar corks that were more likely to produce cork taint. Not wanting their juice to taste like wet, moldy newspaper, the New Zealand wineries began using screw tops. The idea of screw tops for wine had existed since the 1970s but consumers had been slow to accept change.
So, is one better than the other, are there advantages/disadvantages for the wine using a cork or a screw top? Here's the bottom line for us. For wines that are meant to be consumed young, like whites, rosés, and fresh styles of reds (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Dolcetto, Schiava, Grenache and Carignan), screw tops are perfect because these wines don’t need to breathe. For wines that need a little age to come together (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinotage, Malbec, Aglianico, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Sagrantino, Bordeaux, Nebbiolo and most Barbera, Merlot, Aglianico, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Zinfandel), corks are really the only way to go for now; however, we’ve heard talk of a breathable screw top in the works.
Now, that’s not to say we're topper snobs. We're more concerned with the juice inside, not the way the wine is topped, but its helpful to know which wines should be corked vs. screw topped . . . at least for now.
il vino è vita!
Ever wonder where the 'corks' in wine bottles come from . . . how they're made? And, there has been a great proliferation in items made from cork over the last several years.
Laura Morelli of Italy Magazine tells us the stripping of cork oaks (Quercus suber) is nothing new. In fact, we know that the inhabitants of pre-Roman Italy were already using cork to cap bottles of wine and oil, but they also used the material to make surprising objects. Pliny the Elder, the esteemed Roman naturalist, wrote in his Natural History that cork oaks were used “chiefly for ships’ anchor drag ropes and fishermen’s drag-nets, for the bungs of casks, and also to make soles for women’s winter shoes.”
Just as in centuries past, the processing of cork still begins with stripping bark from the oak, a process that does not harm the tree itself. The bark is seasoned in vast outdoor vats for up to two years. Then the cork is boiled and disinfected, dried, cut, and packaged.
Although workers on Sardinia were well experienced with harvesting the bark of cork oaks and working the material for a variety of uses, it wasn’t until relatively recent times that they began exploiting the island’s natural resource on a wide scale. In the mid-nineteenth century, Sardinian entrepreneurs began to cultivate crops of cork oaks more systematically. They began to produce wine stoppers on a large scale, using their own local raw materials as well as bark imported from Corsica and mainland Tuscany.
Today, cork is considered one of Sardinia’s most characteristic natural resources and manufactured products. The town Calangianus, on the north end of Sardinia, is the island’s major cork production area. Hundreds of cork enterprises (sugherifici), large and small, are concentrated around this town of just four thousand inhabitants. The cork industry is divided into two main sectors, industrial and artisanal.
Most of the industrial-scale cork factories on Sardinia are focused on the production of wine and champagne corks, or 'tappi', churned out in breathtaking numbers. A single sugherificio can produce tens of thousands of tappi per day, many destined for the great wine producers of Tuscany and Piemonte. Sardinia has earned a worldwide reputation in the production of wine corks, because of the high quality of both the material and the long experience of Sardinian cork makers. Winemakers from Tuscany to California to South Africa—and most recently, China—import Sardinian wine corks in vast numbers.
Giovanni Pasella, a fourth-generation wine cork artisan, tells us, “Today, most of the production of tappi is consolidated in a few companies of enormous size. As a result, some of our smaller companies have decided to focus on specific, high-value steps of the processing. Others have pursued the production of “natural” corks aimed at the highest end of the market —intended for fine wines and special aging.”
In the 1990s, there was a move among winemakers away from natural wine corks and toward plastic, but cork is coming back into vogue. “Cork is an exceptionally pliable material,” says Pasella. “European winemakers are returning to natural cork after a ‘parenthesis’ of the plastic cap.” In addition, the larger cork factories are looking for new opportunities for the use of cork, and Sardinian entrepreneurs are exploring the use of cork in surprising ways—the production of shoes, of apparel, even eco-friendly building materials like wallpaper.
Pasella says that he believes Sardinia’s cork producers must continue to think beyond the wine bottle with their products and processes if they are to adapt to changing global markets. “We face many challenges, but those of us in the cork industry around Calangianus have always been good at collaborating to overcome obstacles. That takes determination—and humility.”
Davide Sessa says working from his small leather and cork studio outside of Cagliari, “My challenge is to make objects that no one has ever imagined could be made with cork.” Sessa’s workshop, filled with jackets, umbrellas, hats, shoes, and other items—all crafted from the bark of the island’s cork trees—stretch the imagination of what could be made from sughero, one of Sardinia’s most versatile raw materials.
Although tourism on Sardinia is on a much smaller scale than mainland Italy, it remains one of the most important sectors of the island’s economy. And, Pasella says, a growing number of those visitors are interested in their products, “We recognize that outside visitors to the island are an important driving force for economic growth,” says Pasella. “More and more people want to learn about cork processing. For us, it indicates how important it is to preserve our know-how and to share it with the growing numbers of visitors who come to Sardinia.”
Davide Sessa says that it’s not only a growing number of visitors to the island but also the creative impulse itself, that he believes will keep the working of cork alive for the next generation, whether in the making of wine corks or objects yet unknown. “What motivates me to create is often the desire to materialize something I’ve seen in a dream or vision. I don’t think about reselling a new creation. I make it for the pure joy of seeing something new born from my own hands. That’s the secret.”
A lot of the cork wares sold throughout the retail shops of Sardinia are aimed for the tourist trade, stamped with scenes of Sardinia or silly sayings in Italian. Make the trek to Calangianus, or seek out the island’s individual cork artisans, to ensure that you buy a high-quality, handmade item directly from the source. Handmade cork items are relatively affordable, easily portable, and make great gifts to bring home in your suitcase.
L‘ Italio-Americano, the #1 source of all things Italian since 1908 reminds us when growing up your Nonni (grandparents) curing your ailments with peculiar medical remedies is as natural as getting double portions on your dinner plate. We all got warm milk, honey and a drop of whiskey when we had a bad cough, and eating eggs or drinking milk was certainly forbidden if we were taking antibiotics. My Nonna, as many others from the Liguria area, also swore by 'segna la tosse con l'olio d'oliva’- she would make crosses on my chest after dipping her finger in olive oil warmed in a half of a walnut shell for a cough, or putting a pungent smelling herb (still don’t know what it was) under our pillows when we had a cold. Every time I’d roll over I’d get this awful smell of something and thought – my God, what is that, and then I would remember my Nonna had put it there. But, you know what, my colds didn’t last very long!? If some of these concoctions and practices are certainly more folklore than medicine, some others have solid roots in ancient medical practices and are worth knowing.
In any case, they all are part of that immense, age old traditional knowledge that makes so much of our heritage and marks our identity of Italians so profoundly. And you know what? Some of them, it seems, truly work. Let’s take a closer look at five of the most common throughout the peninsula.
"sage is known to have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and astringent properties, reason for which
it is a fairly common ingredient in many a toothpaste
1. Sage leaves to clean your teeth
Out in the garden was usually a sage bush, Italians often grab a couple of leaves and start brushing their teeth; “They’ll keep your teeth white,” we're often told. And indeed, there is science behind this old remedy so dear to Nonna's: sage is known to have anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and astringent properties, reason for which it is a fairly common ingredient in many a toothpaste, at least here in Italy. And it certainly does freshen your breath!
2. Sliced potatoes to soothe a sore head
I admit this sounds very strange, but it is a hit among Italian Nonne. Complain about a headache and they’ll come to the rescue with a few slices of freshly peeled, raw potatoes and a neck scarf, they’ll get you to lie down, place the slices on your temples and forehead and secure them in place with the scarf. Their prompt medical intervention usually ends with the warning not to move for at least 30 minutes. And well, as strange as this remedy may sound, it sometimes work. Potatoes are rich in starch, which is known to work as an anti-inflammatory. Moreover, potato juices are alkaline and improve circulation, thus helping blood flow to the brain. So, in this case, too, science supports our Nonna's’ advice.
3. Olive oil to cool down sunburn
Many Italian grandmas do swear by extra virgin olive oil not only in the kitchen, but also when it comes to sunburn. Olive oil softens, hydrates and it’s all natural, so it does not damage your skin: the best thing to do is to dilute extra virgin olive oil with an equal part of water and then apply the concoction on burnt skin. Once again, our Nonne are not mistaken: the anti-inflammatory and even painkilling properties of olive oil have been known to the people of the Mediterranean for millennia: you really only need to take a look at Greek and Roman medical treatises to understand how important an ingredient it was in ancient medicine. And so, it transpires, grandmas know well even the Greeks, the Romans and their secrets to make us feel better.
4. Onions to get rid of earache
Nonne would take half an onion, warm it up in a bit of hot water, then have you lie down and place it on the sore ear. Needless to say, she wasn’t the only Nonna to know about the medical properties of onions, which contain a natural antibiotic called allicin, the active ingredient helping ease out the pain.
Of course, the onion’s warm vapors, released thanks to its immersion in hot water, also work as a mild painkiller, which may not be as strong as a real medicine, but certainly helps: this is why Italian grandmas of the past often liked to put flannel to heat up on the stove and then placed it tight on their grandchildren’s sore ears. And the relief, believe me, was indeed immediate! Other times Nonna would use the above olive oil, warm if and soak somme cotton in it and place it in our ears for awhile - again, the anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties.
5. Clover to kill the pain of a toothache
I think there isn’t a pain quite as awful as that of a bad toothache, especially when you’re a child. The problem is that antibiotics often take a couple of days to get rid of the pain, so the agony lasts, especially when prescribed painkillers cannot be taken more than a couple of times a day, but their effect lasts only a handful of hours. Nonne of Italy swear by a couple of natural remedies, including that of imbuing a cotton ball in brandy and place it on the sore tooth although, now that I think of it, that’s not that “natural” of a remedy!?
But using cloves certainly is. As grandmas teach us, placing cloves on the aching tooth eases the pain almost immediately. This is because cloves have known anesthetic properties thanks to a substance, eugenol, they contain in abundance. If walking around with a handful of cloves in your mouth seems odd, then you can let them soak in hot water with a spoon of coarse sea salt and use the mixture as a mouthwash.
Looking at these remedies, and at all the others they like to use, it really seems Nonne truly know best, even when it comes to health. Though I think what made us feel better was the most important and amazing ingredient of all, the beautiful, heart warming and never ending love of Nonna.
“In Italy, food is an obsession and rightly so.” Traveling to Italy for over 40 years I have witnessed this infatuation and ardent passion for food on a daily basis. That is why, it comes as no surprise that in Italy almost every ingredient or traditional recipe is celebrated in some way, typically by means of a sagra or town festival. Montaquila, a town in the Molise region of southern Italy, celebrates La Sagra della Frittata or the “Frittata Festival.” In 2018, they kicked off the event by making a BIG-frittata with 1,501 eggs!
A frittata, is a great treat and for generations Italian's used it as a solution to reducing waste. After a family dinner in which there were leftovers (not often, but occasionally) those leftovers would make a tasty frittata the next morning. The frittata is a common way to use up any leftover ingredients you have in the fridge--vegetables, protein, pasta, beans, cheese--the list goes on. You can follow the recipe below or simply adapt it with what you have on hand. Enjoy!
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Add the water and leeks to a cast iron skillet and heat over medium high until the leeks are soft; about 5 minutes. Add the extra virgin olive oil, green onion, kale, brussel sprouts and mushrooms (or other vegetable you have on hand). Heat until vegetables are soft; 10-15 minutes.
In the meantime, whisk the eggs in a medium sized bowl then stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, milk and parsley. When the vegetables are cooked, pour the egg mixture over the vegetables. (For a prettier presentation, remove half of the vegetables, pour in the egg mixture then layer those vegetables on top.) Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes until the eggs are just barely set. Carefully slide (use a hot pad as skillet handle will be very hot) the cast iron skillet into the preheated oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the edges are slightly golden and the egg mixture doesn’t run (test with knife) when sliced with a knife (I turn on the broiler for a couple minutes at the end to get a nice golden brown crust on top, but you need to watch very carefully it as it will quickly burn). Remove from oven and grate Parmigiano Reggiano over top of frittata. Serve warm or cold.
Italy Magazine tells us that at the courts of Italy’s most powerful families of the Renaissance, as well as the
Vatican, hosting sumptuous banquets was a major pastime, used especially as a demonstration of power and wealth. Skilled chefs were in high demand. Two of the most famous from the Renaissance, Bartolomeo Scappi and Cristoforo di Messisbugo, worked respectively for the popes in Rome and for the Este court in Ferrara.
Scappi started his career working for various cardinals, until he was hired to be the chef of the Vatican under Pope Pius IV and V. In 1570, toward the end of his career, he published a monumental cookbook, Opera dell'arte del cucinare, which listed 1,000 recipes of Renaissance cuisine; in it, he also described cooking techniques and tools and how to choose ingredients; he was the first to introduce ingredients coming from newly discovered America. In the book is the first depiction of a fork. Scappi wrote that Parmigiano Reggiano was the best cheese in the world (“il Parmigiano è il migliore di tutti i cacii”). Including numerous recipes of pasta, stuffed pasta, cakes and other pastry-based preparations, his book is a precursor of what would become modern Italian cuisine.
Ferrara-born Cristoforo di Messisbugo was a chef at the court of the Este, but his fame soon went beyond the city; he was often invited to Mantua, at the court of the Gonzaga, for consulting, while emperor Charles V, fascinated by his craftsmanship, nominated him a ‘count’. Cristoforo also wrote a cookbook, Banchetti, composizioni di vivande e apparecchio generale, where he described in great detail how to create the perfect banquet and the menus for his official feast at the Este court. Some of his recipes are still made in Ferrara today. Besides listing recipes, he also discusses logistics, decor, and cooking equipment. In the book, we also learn that the best caviar could be eaten at the court of the Este as it came from the Beluga sturgeon from the Po river, which flows near Ferrara.
In Italy, the rules for making the delicacy, panettone, are strict: in order to be labeled as such, a native panettone must be composed of no less than 20 percent candied fruit, 16 percent butter, and eggs that are at least four percent yolk. Attempts by the Italian agriculture ministry to have these standards applied abroad have not panned out, and the reality is that panettone is a dessert with many homes.
Panettone has actually been a worldly product from the very beginning. From the Middle Ages onward, the pastry was appropriate for a feast day precisely because it involved ingredients that were hard to come by. In the 15th century—a period in which bread flour usually involved cheaper grains like spelt and rye—the first panettone was made entirely from wheat flour, and thus more likely to impress the in-laws. And given the climate of northern Italy, additions like candied citron or orange peel would have had to come from hundreds of miles away, beyond, perhaps, even the borders of modern-day Italy.
“Panettone was not born as a homemade cake, nor has it ever been,” says Stanislao Porzio, a food scholar and author of a 2007 book on the subject. “It was never important that the place of provenance of the ingredients be near the place of preparation.
In other words, nothing is inherently inauthentic about a panettone made in the Western hemisphere. In the 1930s, when Angelo Motta was installing a 100-foot conveyor belt in his bakery on Milan’s Viale Corsica to create what Porzio calls the world’s first “industrial panettone,” an entrepreneur named Antonio D’Onofrio had already established a market for the pastry in Lima, Peru, where thousands of immigrants from Piedmont and Lombardy had arrived since the mid-1800s. Today, the brands of Motta and D’Onofrio (now owned by Nestle) compete in the Peruvian marketplace, where slices of panettone—inflected with bits of dried papaya—is the sweet of choice for both Christmas and Independence Day, celebrated in July. Italy may dominate in global panettone consumption, at a rate of 75 million cakes purchased in 2016, but Peruvian fans are no less sincere. They consumed 42 million panettoni in the same year, sometimes enjoying variations like cocatón, in which about five percent of the flour is made from coca leaves, or by incorporating a fruity edible fungus native to the pine forests around Lambayeque.
In sales, Italian confectioners have been outpaced for a long time by companies like Bauducco, another multi-generational enterprise, founded in the 1950s by an Italian immigrant to Brazil. The company is probably the biggest panettone producer on earth, making more than 200,000 tons each year for more than 50 countries and operating six industrial bakeries, including one in the United States.
“It’s a tradition that goes back generations,” says Ricardo Bastos, a Brazilian grocer in the Astoria section of Queens, New York. Bastos sells Bauducco’s panettone year-round at his store, Rio Supermarket.
Stanislao, the historian, admits to having tasted the Bauducco brand himself, and gave it a tactful review. (“It had a different, romantic character.”) He remains passionate about preserving the traditions of panettone-making in his home country of Italy and is the sponsor of a petition on Change.org to have the recipe recognized as a valuable cultural artifact by Unesco. In 2008, he launched Re Panettone (“Panettone King”), an annual competition in Milan aimed at promoting panettone variations made by artisanal bakers and pastry-makers. While far-off ingredients like saffron or tonka bean are welcome, entrants eschew the use of preservatives—even those somehow permitted by the Italian Pastry and Pasta Association—and are rewarded for their attention to detail and respect for the original formula.
A more historical perspective . . . The pastry was first mentioned in a manuscript from the 1470s, written by a preceptor in Milan’s House of Sforza. A legend tells of a story when Ludovico il Moro was the Duke of Milan. It begins one evening when the Duke's cook was asked to prepare a delicious banquet for the duke and a number of nobles. The cook successfully prepared the feast, however, he forgot about the dessert in the oven, which had burnt by the time he remembered it. The cook was in despair but thankfully the little kitchen boy, Toni, suggested using the sweet cake he had made for himself in the morning using flour, butter, eggs, lime zest, and raisins. The cook was afraid he had no other solutions, so agreed to offer the cake to the guests. They both nervously stood behind the door to see the reactions of the duke's friends.
To the cook's relief, everybody loved the cake. The duke enjoyed it so much that he asked for its name. The cook responded "L'è 'l pan de Toni", meaning 'the bread of Toni'. The name has since evolved to Panettone.
Hoping you get to enjoy a slice of my bread, L'è 'l pan de Toni, or panettone, this Christmas season . . . Buon Natale!
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.