Sunday, February 26, 2012


Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - a common meeting  place for the Milanese
Milan is not usually the first city which springs to mind when thinking about food in Italy.  However, like every other area in Italy, Milan has some fabulous dishes, ones that have interestingly acquired international fame without necessarily being associated with their origin. Here are some of the most important:

One of the most famous signature dishes of the city is the risotto alla Milanese, characteristically yellow from its star ingredient, saffron.

Risotto alla Milanese
 Saffron is a spice which comes from the flower commonly known as the Saffron Crocus. Each stem carries up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas. 

Saffron Crocus
Together with the stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas have been used for centuries in various cuisines as a seasoning and colouring agent, as well as a dye for materials. It is native to southwest Asia and was first cultivated in Greece. It is one of the world’s most costly spices in weight, as the flower’s stigmas need to be collected by hand. One thousand five hundred flowers are needed to make one kilo of saffron spice. Iran now cultivates 90% of the world’s saffron.

Saffron fields in Iran
In the 1300s, rice was extensively cultivated in the area around Naples. Due to the close political and parental relations between the Aragonese in Naples, and the rulers of Milan (the Visconti ruled Milan during the years 1277-1477, and afterwards the Sforza family) rice plantations made their way to northern Italy, where the plain of the Po river was particularly conducive to its success in cultivation. Risotto alla Milanese, which combines both saffron and rice, is thought to have originated in the 1500s. There are some fantastic legends explaining its origin. One of them tells of a very well known and talented glass maker from Flanders who had been called to Milan to work on the windows displaying the cycle of Saint Helen for the cathedral, who had a very talented young craftsman in his workshop, particularly talented in the rendering of colours. His nickname was ‘saffron’ as he put a tiny dose of the plant into the vitreous paste to achieve a brilliant yellow. When his master’s daughter was getting married, in order to increase the magnificence and spectacle at the wedding feast, he did the same for the risotto as for the stained glass windows and added some saffron to the rice, and the rest is history!

Costoletta alla Milanese (called cotoletta alla Milanese by the locals) – is another one of the staples of Milanese cuisine.  The name means ‘little rib’ because of the rib that remains attached to the meat during and after cooking. The veal cutlet is breaded and browned in butter.

Costoletta alla Milanese
This of course immediately reminds many of us of the Weiner schnitzel.
Milan, as well as most of northern Italy, was under Austrian rule for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, after the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the war of the Spanish succession and assigned Spain’s Italian possession to Austria. Both the northern Italians and the Austrians exchanged cultural and culinerary practices. It is maintained that the Austrians imported the cotoletta alla Milanese to their native land, and not the other way round. The Weiner Schnitzel (Viennese Schnitzel) differs in that there is no bone, and it is thinner and typically crunchier.

Weiner Schnitzel - the Viennese schnitzel
The cotoletta a orecchio di elefante (elephant ear cutlet) is a slight variation also found in Milan, using a thinner larger cut of meat, deboned and tenderized prior to frying. It is called ‘elephant ear’ due to its shape.
Ossobuco – the name translates into 'bone with a hole’, a reference to the marrow hole on the centre of the cross-cut veal shank.

Raw cross cut veal shank showing the marrow bone
It was first documented in the 1800s. Most recipes start by browning the veal shanks in butter (some recommend vegetable oil or lard) after dredging them in flour.   The braising liquid is usually a combination of white wine and meat broth flavoured with vegetables. The shanks are cooked in a low heat for 1-1.5 hours.  Five minutes before the end of the cooking time, the gremolata is added (a chopped herb condiment of parsley, lemon zest and garlic). Ossobuco is often served with risotto alla Milanese, or creamy polenta.

Ossobuco with risotto alla Milanese
Cassoeula – is a great winter dish. It is a thick hearty pork, sausage and cabbage soup.

 Variations with the pork cuts can occur depending upon taste (trotters, ribs, rind, head, intestines) and sometimes, in the countryside, variations of the type of meat such as chicken or goose. Either way, they all share the common ingredient of cabbage.

Finally, the national Italian Christmas cake, the Panettone, is originally from Milan.

 One charming story as to the origins of this traditional Christmas cake dates to 1495, when the head cook of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, having too many things to organise for the sumptuous Christmas dinner for the duke and his guests, burnt the cake that was for dessert. A kitchen hand, called Toni, had made a cake that morning with the remains of the ingredients used for all the other meal’s dishes (flour, butter, egg, lime peel and some raisins. Toni presented his creation to the cook, who in desperation took the strange cake, in the shape of a large bread loaf, to the duke’s table. Proving to be a huge success, all the guests wanted to know the name, to which the chef replied that it was ‘Toni’s bread’ or Pan di Toni, which morphed, over time, into panettone.
Another explanation for the origin of panettone is documented by Count Pietri Verri, who described the ceremony of the breaking of bread that both rich and poor families would perform at Christmas time. The ‘ceremonia del Ceppo’ would be when the whole family would gather together and the head of the family would break a loaf of bread into pieces, enough for each member, so that all would share from the same loaf, symbolic of the strong family ties which bind all together. The poor man’s bread was made from millet (pane di miglio, called ‘pan de mej'), and the bread of the wealthy and nobility was white bread (called micca). It was decided however that on Christmas day everybody should use the same bread as in the Ceremonia del Ceppo, as a symbol of equality and togetherness. This bread, made from butter, pure flour and sugar was called the pan de’ sciori or pan de ton meaning the luxury bread. In 1919, Motta, the Milanese company, produced the first industrial panettone.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Security, holding a proclamation and overseeing the countryside on the outskirts of  Siena, with peasants working the fields and noblemen riding ( c.1337) detail from Good Government fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Siena is, historically, the closest great rival to the Republic of Florence. The families of the two wealthy banking republics vied for the role of papal bankers during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as well as fighting it out on the battle field, before Florence rose supreme. After a brutal siege which began in 1554 and lasted nine months, the Sienese surrendered to Duke Cosimo de Medici and the Spanish Imperial troops who were camped around the city and who had been starving the Sienese to death. Shortly afterwards, Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence, became Duke of Florence and Siena.

Cosimo de Medici's triumphal entry into the newly conquered city of Siena, pedestal bronze bas-relief on the equestrian sculpture in the piazza della Signoria by Giambologna, 1590s.
From the thirteenth century Siena had been a wealthy republic with a developed government body. She made her wealth from the trade generated from the via Francigena (the ‘French road’, as called by the Italians because it lead them to France, called by the French the via Romea, as it lead them to Rome - it was the highway from northern Europe to Rome) which ran straight through the city. 

Map of the via Francigena as documented in his diary by the Archbishop of Cantebury, Sigeric, in 990.
The Sienese became money lenders and merchants to an international community. The high road of Siena is indeed called banchi di sopra which translates into 'the banks of the high road'.  By the thirteenth century, Siena was a wealthy city-state and of course began to invest in the urban landscape. The remodelling of their cathedral had already begun the century before as well as the building of their government building – the two most important centres of the city. They are both splendid displays of the sophistication of the city during this period.

The cathedral of Siena
The town hall of Siena
Inside the town hall of Siena is one of my most favourite fresco cycles. The Good and Bad Government cycle was commissioned by the Republic of Siena to one of their leading painters, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, for the walls of the room where the Council of Nine, the highest and most important government elected body at the time in the Republic, met to discuss matters of state in private.
Lorenzetti finished the cycle of freschi parlanti (called speaking frescoes due to their highly communicative nature) in 1339, as can be read in the border below of one of the three major scenes.

The room isn’t overly large and the exquisite allegorical cycle covers three of the four walls.  Each wall depicts a complex scene: an allegory of Good Government virtues and characteristics represented by personifications, The Good City urban landscape, and thirdly, The Bad Government and City. The remaining fourth wall, with the only window, looks down onto the town hall square below, and provides a reminder to the Council of Nine of the civic responsibility entrusted to them.

On the opposite wall to the window is the allegory of Good Government, a series of personifications of the virtues and objectives which represent, allegorically, what the priorities and moral ethic should be of all those involved in governing.

Allegory of Good Government fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Sala dei Nove
The inscription of the personification is written in Latin above. Sapentia (wisdom), with her book in hand, holds the scales of Justice which are regulated by Justice herself, seated below. There are two equally important parts, distributive and communitive justice. Two ropes descend below the scales which are entwined by Concordia (harmony), who in turn passes the unified rope to a series of twenty four men, of equal standing, who represent the general assembly of Siena. They pass the rope up to the personification of the Common Good (or, Good Government), who is dressed in the Sienese national colours, black and white, with the initials CS and CV on either side of his head, Commune of Siena, city of virtue. Above are the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and on either side are the four cardinal virtues (temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude) along with two additions seemingly considered of equal standing by the Sienese, peace and magnanimity.

The Good City

The Good Countryside
The next wall, ‘The Good City', shows the effects on a city if governed according to the principles of the Good Government. The shops are full, business is booming, the school is full of attentive students, the city is expanding with extra levels being added onto the existing buildings. There are nine women dancing in the street in time to the beat of one tamborine, who symbolically represent the rhythm and harmony which resonate in the city when the Council of the Nine have the common good as their priority. This allegorical ideal city becomes all the more local when the religious centre is noticed in the top left hand corner with black and white striped campanile and duomo. Outside the city’s walls is Security, flying high and overseeing the countryside which is booming with bountiful harvests and plump wildlife.

On the opposite wall, however, doom and gloom reign, the only possible outcome when Tyranny takes place of Good Government.

Bad Government
This wall has both the allegorical representations of Bad Government as well as the fall-out in the effects on the city and countryside in one continuous scene, rather than separated over two walls.

Allegorical representation of Bad Government
 On the left of Tyranny is Cruelty (tormenting a baby with a snake), then comes Treason (a man holding a lamb with a scorpion’s tail) and Fraud (a woman with bats wings and claws as feet). On the right hand side is, from the far right, War (holding a shield), Division (cutting herself in half) and Fury (a wolf). Above Tyranny, where the theological vitues were above Good Government, are from the left, Greed, Pride and Vainglory. At the feet of Tyranny is Justice, bound and with her regulating scales broken at her feet.

The effects of Bad Government on the city are disastrous.  Where there had been renovation and expansion there is now only disrepair and abandonment. The shops and schools are empty, the only craft flourishing is the blacksmith making weapons. People are being knocked down in the street and arrested without Justice. Outside the walls is Fear, and the countryside is burnt and ransacked. Ironically, the frescoes on this wall are quite damaged, due to the salt storage that was kept in line with the wall in the lower storeys.

Detail of effects of Bad Government on the city
This is one of the earliest surviving civic frescoes in Europe and is something not to be missed when visiting Siena. It provides some timeless food for thought for what the political objectives should be for all elected to governments in any period, anywhere.

Afterwards, Siena also provides sustenance for the appetite you will have worked up with all this cultural beauty!  Tucking in to some wonderful Cavallucci and Ricciarelli biscuits, and panforte cakes, with a coffee is the perfect balance for the perfect daytrip from Florence.

Panforte - perfect with coffee
The Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) is open every day from 10am-7pm from mid-March to the end of October, and in the winter months 10am-6pm.  Admission is 8€.

From Florence it is possible to catch the train from the main train station Santa Maria Novella, however catching the bus is faster and more direct. The Sita bus company depot is opposite the train station and buses leave twice hourly to Siena.  The journey takes approx 1.15 hours.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Camaldoli Monastery, in the Casentino forest
Saint Benedict, often referred to as the father of European monasticism, founded his monastery at Monte Cassino (in the region of Lazio) in the early sixth century. Monasteries are typically located outside of urban communities because, as the name of their inmates suggest, monks (derived from the adjective form of the Greek noun, monos, meaning alone or solitary) dedicate their time to work and prayer. Their motto is  prayer and work (ora et labora).

Benedictine motto above a door in the Monastery of San Miniato al Monte, Florence
In the eleventh century, many changes occurred within the traditional organisation of the Benedictines. Religious reformers within the monasteries, in different areas of Europe, began to react against the laxity of observance to the St Benedict’s rule, the decadence of those in higher positions and the lack of spiritual direction and devotion in the general ambiance of religious practices. The common link between these reformers was a desire to return to the austerity and simplicity of the early monastic period. These reformers branched off and created new monastic orders within the orthodox Benedictine hierarchy. In Citeaux, near Dijon there was the Cistercian order, Bruno of Cologne created the Carthusians in Chartreuse in France, and in Tuscany, two new orders were established; the Vallombrosans by the local Florentine, Giovanni Gualberto in Vallombrosa (about one hour from Florence), and Romuald created the Camaldolese order in Camaldoli (about 1.5 hours from Florence). This last order is celebrating their 1000th anniversary this year, a pretty big milestone indeed, one which deserves to be noted.

Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese order, was not from the Tuscan area, but from Ravenna (on the Adriatic coast, in the region of Emilia-Romagna). From a wealthy family, he became a monk at twenty years old after witnessing his father kill a man in a duel. From the onset of his religious path, he was particularly drawn to the austerity and solitude of spiritual life and spent much time living as a hermit. His spiritual devotion, severity and obedience came to become well known in religious communities. He spent years wandering both Spain and Italy, going from monastery to monastery in spiritual discovery, and began to establish new monastic communities and hermitages in various places with likeminded others who desired to return to a simpler more sincere religious life. 

San Romualdo, painted for the church of San Romualdo, Ravenna by Guercino, 1641, showing an angel using the abbot's baton to chastise an errant figure (Pinatoceca Comunale, Ravenna)
When in the area of Arezzo in Tuscany in 1012, he was given some land in the middle of a forest by a man who had had a vision of monks in white garments ascending to heaven. The land was known as Campus Maldoli, or Camaldoli, (when the two words are run together). He built a monastery and shortly after five cells for a hermitage for those monks who wished to completely abandon community life and live in the cloisters in the forest, the life that he most felt at ease with. Two years later this monastery became the mother-house of the Camaldolese Order, which followed the rule of St Benedict but highlighted and embraced certain aspects of the rule more than others.  His order was a combination of the various influences that he had been exposed to. The admonition in his rule Empty yourself completely and sit waiting illustrates the emphasis Romuald placed on interior passivity and intellectual stillness in meditation.

Monks' cells in Camaldoli Hermitage in winter 
The Benedictines typically wear a black robe, however there are a few exceptions, the Camaldolese being one as is another Tuscan order, the Olivetans, who wear a white robe. The monastery and the hermitage are considered to be the two parts of the lungs that make the order breathe and survive. The symbol of the order, two peacocks (symbol of immortality) balancing on the rim of a golden chalice drinking from the contents, can be interpretated as the two life bloods of the congregation, as well as a symbol of the life represented by the Eucharistic chalice.

The symbol of Camaldoli on the fountain in front of the monastery of Camaldoli from which the monks draw water every day ( the water is said to possess diuretic powers) 
One thousand years later, the monastery and hermitage (there are about 18 monks currently living in the hermitage) are flourishing today, and organise very interesting spiritual debates, retreats, lectures series, and meets with religious men embracing various cultures. Located in the heart of the forest of the Casentino valley in the province of Arezzo, there couldn’t be a more suggestive place to discover, question and meditate. Both the hermitage and monastery churches are able to be visited. The hermitage is even further into the forest and higher up than the monastery, and it is not uncommon for the monks to have snow. 

It's a beautiful drive up to the monastery and hermitage through the Casentino forest
There is also a pharmacy in the monastery, open daily to the public, where you can buy products made by the Order. The monks began a hospital next to the monastery in 1046 to help the sick from the surrounding villages. They paid a salary to a doctor who lived in Poppi who would come to the monastery when needed. The pharmacy is where the monks made their herbal remedies and potions for the sick. The walnut wooden furniture dates to 1543. The hospital was in use until the Napoleonic suppressions on 1810. The pharmacy today sells fabulous soaps, creams and lip balm, shampoo, essences, and herbal drops amongst other products, in various scents and flavours.

My favourite hand cream from the pharmacy
Since the thirteenth century the Camaldolese monks also have tended a large plot of land out of the forest down in the flat of the valley. Today the area extends over 270 hectares, most of which is used for animal grazing. Nine of the hectares, however, are dedicated to vineyards, which are all cultivated organically. The fermentation and bottling all takes place at the farm called ‘La Mausolea’ on site run by the monks. The farm has been receiving more and more attention and acclaim in the past few years, the red and dessert wine can be bought directly from the La Mausolea.

La Mausolea farm 
The Casentino valley is the best kept secret in Tuscany. When most other areas are have been written about, filmed and are generally busy in the summer season with international tourism, this zone is still pretty much for the locals, with day tripper Florentines fleeing the heat of the city for the cool and serenity of the valley. It is separated from Florence by a mountain pass and there is no direct train route. The Sita bus company services the area and the wonderfully beautiful journey from Florence takes two hours. Just after Pontassieve, the road to the Casentino valley goes through the extensive terrain owned by the Frescobaldi family, their vineyards of Nipozzano and Pomino. Then, climbing higher, the forest becomes dense, often with snow at the top, where there is the village called Consuma, named after the Consumi family who migrated there from Ferrara in the sixteenth century, and where some are still living today. Their family bar is a pit-stop for all who pass through here; the filled sciacciata (with artichokes or sausage, porcini mushrooms, potato), cakes and chocolates, are famous.

Poppi, jewel of the Casentino valley
After Consuma is the descent into the luscious green valley of the Casentino. Little villages are nestled in pockets scattered around. Poppi is a small medieval town perched on a hill at the bottom of the valley and its magnificent fortress palace of the Guidi counts, built in the mid-thirteenth century, now used as the town hall, rises above like a beacon to guide the traveller to safety. Camaldoli is close to Poppi, about ten kilometres distance, driving high up into the forest, and the hermitage a few kilometres higher again.