Monday, March 18, 2013

Under the Tuscan Rain

The Arno River approaching the top of its banks as it passes through Pisa

Since we arrived in Pisa last week, more than once we have heard the phrase: Povera ItaliaPoor Italy.  The economic crisis is worsening and young people are returning home to mamma in droves because they can't find jobs. In the recent national election, no one party received a clear majority. The various factions could cooperate and form a government - on the order of Republicans and Democrats in United States coming together for the good of the country. That tactic hasn't worked so well in America in the last few years and cooperation is, apparently, even more unlikely in Italy. So it is probable that there will be new elections in the next couple of months. On top of that, the highly-respected president of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, has announced that at age 87, he will step down when his term ends on May 15.  Even the Pope has turned in his red shoes and resigned. And then there is the rain - weeks of it that has flooded roads, turned the fields into lakes and filled the rivers to overflowing.  

Nonetheless, the Italians are still displaying their customary friendliness. And now there is a new pope, Francesco, so for a few days at least, the politicians and the weather were banished to the back pages of the newspapers. 

As has become our custom, we had dinner our first night at nearby Giorgio's Pizzeria. As we entered, Giorgio himself rushed from behind the counter to embrace us. The next day, my friend Roberta drove me to the supermarket, to stock up on wine and olive oil and cheese and pasta and all those other wonderful Italian products. Beautiful, fresh octopus was on sale so we each bought one. 

On the way home, we decided that it would be a great idea to invite some friends for dinner and have a Saturday-night, Italian-American octopus cook-off. By the end of the meal, there was not a scrape of octopus left so the competition was declared a tie! (My recipe is below; if you can't get octopus where you live, the same recipe works equally well for squid.)

On Sunday, there was the possibility of no rain, so when another friend invited us to drive with her to the mountains of Liguria, we said yes. As we approached the mountains -  invisible in a mass of dark clouds - rain began to pelt the windshield and hiking no longer seemed like a good idea. Fortunately, in Italy, a museum is never far away so we drove into the town of LaSpezia. There, we spent two hours at the Museo Amedeo Lia, a little-known, but wonderful museum housed in a former 17th-century church and convent. 

When I went out to buy bread this morning at our favorite bakery, Panetteria Tolemei on the via San Francesco, it was still raining. Traditional Tuscan bread, known as pane sciocco, is made without salt. Some say it is because centuries ago, the government levied a tax on salt. The locals say it's because their saltless bread is especially suited to the strong flavors of the Tuscan cuisine. Even Dante, apparently, loved saltless bread because he laments its absence in his canto in Paradiso that talks about the pain of exile:

You shall leave everything you love most;
this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots
first.  You are to know the bitter taste of
others' bread, how salty it is....
We, however, have not yet learned to appreciate this Tuscan speciality and prefer the salted pane brutto di Pontedero, which we buy every day at Tolemei. Its name translates to "ugly bread," but it's got a wonderful crispy crust and a nice, open crumb that is perfect for soaking up sauces and just enough salt to make it tasty. 

JR has been picking up the bread each morning, so this was the first time I went into the shop this year. "Signora, welcome back to Pisa," said the baker. "You look younger every year." I graciously thanked him, but added: "I don't know about that.  In fact, I was just looking in the mirror this morning and thinking how old I look." "Signora," he said with a smile, "the mirror was wrong." 

Ah, these Italians, they can make the sun shine even on a rainy day.

For more photos, click here.


Octopus in a tomato/wine sauce

Octopus, cooked as below
1 medium onion  or comparable amount of shallots chopped
two to three tomatoes chopped or one medium can Italian chopped tomatoes
2-3 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
garlic crushed
glass of white wine
chopped boiled potatoes (optional)

Buy a cleaned octopus, wash in cold water.  Leaving just the water that clings to the octopus, put it in a saucepan over very low heat.  Cover and let simmer for about 30 minutes or until almost tender.  When octopus is cooked, allow it to cool somewhat and then cut into pieces (bigger than bite size since the octopus will shrink when cooked in the sauce.) Preserve the liquid from the cooked octopus. This will be added to the sauce below.  

While octopus is cooking, saute onion or shallots - add flour, tomatoes, salt and pepper, crushed garlic, dash of cognac and a glass of white wine. Bring to a boil, stirring. Lower heat, cover and simmer until sauce is a good consistency and some of the alcohol has cooked off.  Add the chopped octopus (and cooked potatoes if desired) with any liquid it has produced and cook in the sauce until tender - about 15 minutes.  

Without the potatoes added, the octopus can also be used as a sauce over pasta or served over rice.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Cluny

For my birthday this year, we had lunch at Ledoyen, the wonderful restaurant I wrote about last year (click here to read). On the same day, I was invited to the press opening of a new exhibit at the Cluny Museum. Officially known as The Museum of the Middle Ages, the Cluny is housed in two exceptional Paris monuments: the Gallo-Roman baths and the 15th-century hotel of the abbey of Cluny. Founded in 1843, the museum's original collection was donated by private collector Alexandre Du Sommerard. Enriched over the centuries, the Cluny now houses a collection that spans the period from the 3rd-century Roman Gaul to the beginning of the 16th century.  Among the treasures of the Cluny are the Roman baths; ancient textiles, including the famous Unicorn tapestries; gold and ivory objects; illuminated stain-glass windows; gothic sculpture; and an important collection of objects from the every-day life of the Middle Ages. 

The current exhibit - "Alabaster Tears: the Mourners of the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy" - sounded a bit depressing for a birthday outing, especially since I've now attained and even passed un certain âge. Nonetheless, since the Cluny is one of my favorite museums in Paris, JR and I decided to stop by on our way to the restaurant.

Among the master works of 15th-century sculpture, the Burgundy mourners follow a tradition that goes back to depictions of sorrowful subjects on ancient sarcophagi. The 39 dazzling, delicately carved statues in the Cluny exhibit are approximately 42 centimeters high (16 inches). They were sculpted between 1456 and 1469 by Jean de La Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier.

For more than 500 years, the figures have been affixed to the base of the tomb, which resides in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. There, the pleurants as they are known in French, form a procession around the dead prince and his queen, Margaret of Bavaria. While the Dijon museum is undergoing renovations, however, the mourners, freed from their eternal vigil, have been touring the world. The Cluny is their last stop and probably the last time each sculpture can be individually viewed.  

Representative of the elaborate royal funeral services that developed at the end of the Middle Ages, the mourners in the Cluny exhibit march one after the other in an ascending spiral, led by clerics and two angels. To illustrate the universality of death, the mourners are dressed alike in long, flowing robes. The diversity of life, however, is astonishingly captured by the remarkable detail of each sculpture, the variety of stances, and the expressions that reflect the different ways in which each person mourns. I recently lost my older sister and my father-in-law so death, sadly, has been on my mind. But, although the subject of the Cluny exhibit is death and mourning, the sculptures themselves are gloriously alive. They left me thinking not about loss, but about life and art and love. 

The exhibit - whose title in French is Larmes D'Albâtre, Les pleurants du tombeau de Jean sans Peur, duc de Bourgogne - is on until June 3, 2013.  If you are in Paris, don't miss it.

Musée de Cluny
6. place Paul Painlevé
75005 Paris

A bientôt,