Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pasta, Buona Pasta

                           Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

Tell people you are going to Italy and someone will invariably say: "Eat some pasta for me." I'm doing the best I can, but I'm only here for two months and there are hundreds of different pasta dishes in Italy. I'm not sure if a lifetime is long enough to taste them all. 

According to the International Pasta Organization, Italians, not surprisingly, are the world's number one consumers of pasta, eating an average of 26 kilos (57.2 lbs) of pasta per capita each year. That puts them way ahead of second-place Venezuela at 13 kilos per person. The U.S. is in 7th place at 8.8 kilos.

Pasta is not an Italian invention, but seems to have sprung up in various locations around the world. As soon as humans gave up the nomadic life, they began cultivating grain and making various forms of pasta and noodles. Even so, no country is more closely associated with pasta than Italy. 

The 2,600 year-old Etruscan tomb of the Matuna Family in Cerveteri has drawings that resemble pasta-making utensils that are still used in Italy today. The connection between these drawings and pasta has not been scientifically confirmed, however, and the first verified date in the history of pasta in Italy is 1154. In that year, the Arab geographer al Idrisi wrote about "a food made from flour in the form of string" in the area of Palermo in Sicily. He goes on to describe a large farm with many mills that produced pasta that was sent on ships to Muslim and Christian territories. 

Dried pasta made its first documented appearance in a 9th-century Arab cookbook while the oldest existing written recipe in Italy for dried pasta dates to 1474. It appears in a cookbook written by Platina, an historian at the Vatican Library. Dried correctly in the sun, Platina tells us, the pasta will last for two or even three years.  

By the 1500s, Italian pasta makers had formed associations and unlicensed vendors could be fined and imprisoned. In 1641, in an attempt to regulate the pasta trade, Pope Urban VIII issued a papal decree dictating a distance of at least 24 meters between pasta shops. 

In 1554, pasta found the perfect partner, the tomato, which was imported into Italy from the Americas. Pasta with tomato sauce, however, did not become widespread in Italy until the 17th-century when tomatoes began to be cultivated in Italy. Today, Italy is the number one producer of tomatoes in Europe and grows approximately 7 million metric tons annually. 

As in the crushing of grapes for wine, feet were used in commercial pasta making to knead the dough. A machine for this purpose was invented in 1870 by Cesare Spadaccini, but it was not until 1933 that a process capable of performing the entire pasta manufacturing process was copyrighted in Italy. Italy now produces approximately 2,900,000 metric tons of dried pasta per year.

Pisa is historically a maritime republic so many of its pasta dishes are served with fish and shellfish. At this time of year, however, there are lots of pastas made with vegetables and wild greens, which are at their best and freshest in the early spring. Right now, the fields and hillsides around Pisa are filled with people (including me) picking asparagus, wild chard, fennel, dandelion, and various other bitter greens. While out on a bicycle ride a couple of days ago, I came upon some spinach plants growing in an abandoned farm field. Though not exactly wild, they were young and fresh. I collected a bagful and last night, I added the cooked spinach to a traditional ricotta cheese pasta sauce. I also put in some pesto and chopped ripe tomatoes. Here is the recipe:

Pasta with Ricotta Cheese, Pesto, Cherry Tomatoes and Spinach

1 lb pasta (I used penne)
7-8 tablespoons ricotta cheese (I used sheep milk ricotta)
5-6 tablespoons boiling water in which pasta cooked
2-3 tablespoons pesto
12 or so cherry tomatoes chopped (more if you like)
a plateful of cooked spinach, chopped coarsely
salt and pepper
parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in several quarts of boiling, salted water until it is "al dente." Do not overcook.

1.  Put cherry tomatoes, cooked spinach and salt and pepper in a large frying pan. Turn heat to low and warm until tomatoes start to give up their juice. Add a bit of olive oil if needed to keep ingredients from sticking.

2.  Add ricotta, pesto and as much hot pasta water as needed to achieve desired consistency.  Stir to blend ingredients.

3.  Drain pasta and put into frying pan, turning pasta to coat and continuing to warm over low heat.

Serve with grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste.

An alternative recipe  is ricotta cheese, the zest of one lemon, fresh basil leaves, salt and pepper.  Serve with olive oil and parmesan cheese.

For more photos, click here.

Bon appetito,


Photos (unless otherwise indicated) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Au Revoir Paris - Ciao Pisa

                   Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

                   Do you know the land where the lemon trees grow,
                   In darkened leaves the gold-oranges glow,
                   A soft wind blows from the pure blue sky,
                  The myrtle sands mute, and the bay tree high?

When the German poet Goethe wrote these famous lines about Italy, he was in the midst of a two-year, sun-filled escape from his cloudy northern homeland.   

We've come to Italy for only two months, but we quite understand Goethe's sentiments. On the morning we left Paris' Orly airport bound for Italy, we could barely see the runway through the cold, thick fog. Just two short hours later, we walked out of the plane and into the warm Italian sunshine.

Pisa has to have one of the most convenient international airports in the world. The Galileo Galilei Airport  is so close to town that you can walk to the historic center -  something we have done in the past. This time, however, we were met by an Italian friend who dropped us off at our apartment in Pisa, which is located in a 12th-century Casa Torre.(Click here to read Travel Oyster's Medieval Skyscrapers of Pisa.)  

In the eyes of the world, Pisa has one main attraction and every day, thousands of tourists come to Pisa with a single thought in mind: to see the Tower in all its leaning splendor. And splendid it is, but the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the Tower has been leaning almost since it was erected in the 12th century, is also home to Pisa's magnificent cathedral founded in 1064, its Bapistery and the Campo Santo. At one time, tourists to Pisa came to see not the tower, but the Campo Santo, whose walls were covered with frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli. Tragically, most of these frescos were destroyed by American bombs during the Second World War. (The small number of frescos that survived the bombing are still on display in the Campo Santo and viewing them, it's easy to see why people came from the world over to see the entire series.)

Almost 1,000 years ago when the site for the cathedral complex was chosen, it was located in the center of the action near the busy port of the now non-existent Auser River. Today, however, the Piazza dei Miracoli finds itself on the edge of town. So, if you live just a few blocks away in the historic center as we do, you don't see the tourists, who arrive principally in buses and cars, which are parked in a huge lot outside Pisa's medieval walls. They walk across a busy street, visit the famous monuments and leave. Most visitors never see the rest of Pisa, one of the most beautiful medieval cities in all of Italy. 

The date of its founding is uncertain, but Pisa is a town that ancient Roman writers were already calling old. Archeological findings date the city to somewhere between the 3rd and 6th century b.c. If tourists ventured beyond the tower, however, they would find that Pisa is also one of Italy's youngest cities since it is home to 60,000 university students. Most of them attend the University of Pisa, one of the oldest and best universities in Italy. Even more prestigious are Pisa's two elite institutions, the Scuola Normale Superiore, founded by Napoleon in 1810 on the model of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna.  

Fittingly, our first event in Pisa took place at the University. We deposited our bags at the apartment and walked across town to the Sapienza, a Renaissance building that houses the University's Law School. In the library, filled with ancient volumes and precious manuscripts, we listened to a panel discussion on a friend's recently-released book translating 12 sonnets of the Portuguese poet Antero de Quental into Italian. (Amore lotte pessimismo morte, Dodici sonetti di Antero de Quental, F. Franceschini, Felici Editore, 2011.) 

It was a full immersion into Italian and the two-hour discussion (some of it in Portuguese) had our heads spinning well before we joined a group of friends in a nearby bar for a celebratory toast. 

As in years past, we had our inaugural dinner in Pisa at Giorgio, our favorite pizzeria in town. Giorgio, himself, always greets us like returning heros and the pizza is crispy and delicious.  

Our first week in Pisa has been a busy one filled with work, lectures, dinners, catching up with friends, and with walks under "the pure blue sky."

So to all those who have asked: Isn't Pisa boring after the big-city life of Paris? The answer is a resounding NO.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor