Thursday, December 30, 2010

Parma, if the whiff is right...

Parma was the first stop of our holiday for culinary delight, (about an hour and a half out of Milan). I have now experienced my comfort food of a ham and cheese sandwich, but as the life of a rock star. A large plate of Parmesan cheese, parma ham and fresh bread rolls, (not quite the greasy square parcel I used to purchase from the school canteen growing up, nor was it served by my friends mum who wore a 'moo moo' and had flippy floppy triceps). I had a feeling this 'ham and cheese' would be the theme for lunch, dinner and an expected breakfast. Specialties of the region are prosciutto (ham), parmigiana reggiano (cheese) and Modena's Aceto Balsamico (balsamic Vinegar); also tortelloni and tagliatelle, (which we sampled at lunch in a pumpkin and salmon version). Our daughter ate the pasta, (which she usually pushes aside), and our son took one for the team, (again), hubby and I were left amazed again that the children had managed to eat majority of our ordered meals. Our first successful meal for our Christmas holiday.

The buildings in the historic part of town were pretty, neat and the town was clean with lovely shopping. But as my husband noted, 'there was a lack of balconies on the buildings', I did not really notice as my eye was drawn mid street to the Christmas lights still on display between the buildings, and the fresh produce markets.

IF - Interesting Fact

Parmigano reggiano cheese has been produced around Parma region for more than 700 years and is aged for 2 or more years. Parma's Prosciutto is left for 10 to 12 months of drying, salting and then the cutting process; ham is judged ready if it passes the final test. This involves being pierced with a needle made from a horse bone and sniffed by an expert - "If the whiff is right the ham is ready!" (Personally, I think this would make a good t-shirt logo.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

All I want for Christmas is a girdle...

Guess what I got for Christmas? Heavier. That's right. Heavier. Santa did not bring it, it was a gift to myself that came in all forms of good things to eat and drink...

The most significant meal of the Christmas Day is the lunch or il pranzo. In Northern Italy, Christmas dishes likely to feature are:

  • lo zampone - the skin of the lower pig leg, including the toe little bones, filled with minced meat and sausages

  • il cotechino - pig's foot stuffed with spiced minced meat

  • Sausages made of pig's intestines and smothered in lentils

  • Turkey stuffed with chestnuts

  • Lamb is also enjoyed with mashed potato and lentils

  • Panettone - light but buttery sponge cake

I become a little unsure about my culinary skills while contemplating how to stuff a pigs foot with minced meat, or even handling toe bones for that matter; therefor I decide it would be best to continue researching and to leave the piggy alone for Christmas. I wanted our first Christmas meal in Italy to be special while being reflective of our new Italian lifestyle. Ideally, a mesh of our Australian and Italian Christmas traditions and cuisines.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci), is celebrated on Christmas Eve, also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia). It is believed to have originated in Southern Italy and is not a known tradition in many parts of Italy; but since the typical Northern Italian Christmas does not particularly suit my husband, (being a vegequarian/pescatarian) I figure we can borrow custom from the South for a day, (even if it will appear a day late). This feast typically consists of seven different seafood dishes, (or 9, 11, 13, I think it must be an odd number). This celebration is a commemoration of the wait, Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.


Breakfast - Briòche and Champagne, (family tradition to start the day with a champagne while opening the presents, coffee prior of course!)

First Course-

  • Bruschetta with - smoked salmon / tomato, basil and mozzarella /tuna, sundried tomato, olives, capers, oregano

  • Figs and Ricotta wrapped in Prosciutto

  • Crumbed mozzarella balls

  • Arancini (rice balls coated with breadcrumbs, filled with ragù (meat sauce), tomato sauce and mozzarella)

  • Olive balls

  • Selection of cheeses

  • Bottle of Prosecco (dry Sparkling White Wine, similar to Champagne and apparently very Italian)

Main Course-

  • Marinated sardines

  • Marinated mixed seafood

  • Pesto and spinach lasagne

  • Mixed seafood salad

  • Mussels crumbed with parsley

  • Bottle of Insolia. (This is a white wine present mainly in Tuscany and Sicily, it is said to be paired nicely with fish dishes, marinated sardines in particular, sounds pretty specific doesn't it, it is amazing what you find on the Internet!)

  • Chiant Classico. (Red wine that tends to be medium-bodied with firm tannins and medium-high to high acidity, a Tuscan wine. And yes this is pretty much how I was speaking sniffing my wine and swishing it around my glass by the time my husband and I reached the 3 rd bottle of the day!)

  • Spaghetti and Clam dish was on the menu but decided my eyes were bigger than my belly.


Tiramisu (One of Italy's most famous desserts)

There is some debate regarding tiramisu's origin:

It may have originated as a variation of another layered dessert, an Italian version of the English trifle.

There are claims that the dessert is a recent invention and Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary gives 1982 as the first mention of the dessert.

Several sources claim that tiramisu was invented in Treviso at Le Beccherie restaurant by the god-daughter and apprentice of confectioner Roberto Linguanotto, Francesca Valori, whose maiden name was Tiramisu.

Other sources report the creation of the cake to have originated in the city of Siena.

There are also allegations of the recipe's invention at an Italian brothel to provide an energy boost to exhausted clients. (I guess this was before the invention of energy bars and boost drinks?)

Pandoro, (similar to Panettone) was also on the menu but there was no more room for anymore food, even after changing into my drawstring pants!

So I guess you are all ready to say congratulations on making so many friends to come and feast with you on Christmas Day... alas... it was just us. I did however cook for ten, (a door to door salesman or Jehovah witness would of been dragged in at the front door), the day was still special and very relaxed. We celebrated with food, family, fun and frustration (we were irritated by excess jail like packaging on children's toys), but had a very merry day!

(Due to the last minute cancellation on my clam dish I was concerned that my 7 fish dishes became 6, so I counted the types of seafood in the salads and came up with an odd number. I figure this is acceptable? And if it is not?)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Polytheism Christmasism

I am officially a polytheist of Christmas. Like those that worship many gods, this Christmas I shall worship many of the 'present givers'.

Traditions regarding the exchanging of gifts vary from region to region in Italy; and this takes place either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. Why not both I say! Presents are left for good children underneath the Christmas tree either by Santa Claus (called Babbo Natale) or, according to older traditions, by Baby Jesus himself. Personally I am a little confused how a baby can carry the toys, but then I guess if Santa can fit down every ones pretend chimney, anything is possible...

In some areas of Italy children might receive gifts earlier. St. Lucia is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse (Sicily), where she was born; she is said to bring gifts to good children and coal to bad ones the night between December 12 and 13. She arrives in the company of a donkey and her escort, Castaldo. Children are asked to leave some coffee for Lucia, (how very Italian) some flour for the donkey, (carrots would probably be more appropriate) and bread for Castaldo. They must not watch Santa Lucia delivering these gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them. (Surely, "Please don't tell anyone you saw me", would suffice.) If I knew about this one earlier, it definitely would have been a new family tradition.

In some areas of Italy children may receive gifts later. "La Befana", the 'benevolent hag', (I think 'charitable biddy' sounds less intimidating), is said to bring sweets and gifts to good children and charcoal or bags of ashes to naughty children. In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve, (the night of January 5) in a similar way to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus. The hag has been hit with the ugly stick and looks more like left over merchandise from Halloween, she delivers on a broom not a sleigh, therefor I am presuming that she can not transport the quantity of gifts that Santa is capable of producing?

On the 6th of January decorations are usually taken down, and in some areas female puppets are burned on a fire (called falò), to symbolize, along with the end of the Christmas period, the death of the old year and the beginning of a new one. I am still unsure as to why male puppets are not burnt also, maybe it is like a modern day 'burning of the bra' type thing?

So with faith being held in '3 new givers' this year, I have hopes that I may even receive a surprise myself. Grasping at all straws, I am officially celebrating an Australian/ Italian Christmas.

  1. We will leave an empty stocking on our children's bed for baby Jesus to fill.

  2. Santa will get a plate of Australian Tim Tam chocolate biscuits and a Scotch Whiskey, also oats will be left for the reindeer.

  3. We will all wear goggles to protect our eyes from thrown ash and we will 'Hang a Hag', (sounds like a line from a Quentin Tarantino movie), in hope for a visit from La Befana.
Buon Natale and a very Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Men waving knives

L' Artigiano in Fiera, (the craftsman's fair), is a unique event that is held every year in Milan. This is a place to learn about and embrace the tradition and culture of the work of over one hundred countries. It had an atmosphere of celebration, chaos and multiculturalism. You were able to come into direct contact with the artisans, as well as the public of Milan that had obviously never been given free things before. Taste tests of various meats, cheeses, sweets, beer and wines were on offer. Also on offer was the push of a crowd panicked that the last taste test would be given to the person in front of them.

This was held at Fiera Milano, a huge exhibition centre, that was, well, huge! It was scheduled from the 4 to the 12 of December, and with six large exhibition halls displaying crafts, Christmas fair, furnishings, art, clothes, and food; Milan proved again that they like to do things big and well. (Disappointingly for me, apparently Australia was too busy to attend this year. Was hoping for vegemite tasting, wooden boomerang, oh and Fosters beer?)

We went on the last day of L’Artigiano in Fiera Christmas craft fair, so it was extremely busy, and perhaps attempting this outing with two small children would of been better done during the week. Transportation for us was easily accessible; it was ten stops away on our train line (Red line, Rho stop), but crowds were not an exemption on the train. This did build the excitement that we were going somewhere special; if we were to be fooled by marketing, then so were the other 1000 people compressed into our train carriage.

The food is of course always a factor for us to mark the success of our outing. We enjoyed some Italian seafood, (deep fried, but my weekend rules are different to my weekly rules), German hot dog, (you'd think I would be over the sausage after our 'meat and potato' holiday, but I was still unsatisfied with quality of hot dog experience after our German trip), and an array of sweets from middle east, (that my daughter and son managed to devour extremely quickly). Biscuits, meats, truffle and sweets were sampled, and I must admit that the array of choice was overwhelming. Cuba's only stall was for 5€ majitos and daiquiris, and Spain had paella pans so big I wanted to take a soup bath.

Interesting, (concerning) sights on the day included; men waving knives at you with bits of meat on the tip and expecting you to approach them, real fur (hats, scarves, jackets and gloves), gas masks, samurai swords and voodoo dolls. Just made me want to find a wild furry animal and provide it with gas mask for safety, sword for self defence and voodoo doll for revenge.

When the crowds became too much at the fair, we squeezed back onto the train with the entire population of Milan and experienced what being trapped in a lift with 10 elephants would be like. This was another outing that may make the annual list...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Non-carnivores menu please

Austrian Cuisine

Austrian cuisine is a style of cuisine composed of influences from Italy, Hungary and Germany.

With temperatures of -12 degrees, we enjoyed hiding away in a nice warm pub for goulash, sausages, sauerkraut, dumplings, soup with pancake strips, a few mounds of meat and potato. Children gorged on meat, meat and more meat. At no stage did I wear a lederhosen or dance to an 'Ompah Lumpa' band, (call me old, call me sober?) But I still managed to enjoy...

Drinking mulled wine in the streets of the Christmas Markets seemed to be customary. Everyone stood around with their mugs warming their hands and allowing the steam to defrost their cheeks and noses. On our second day, we decided to give it a go. We anticipated a five minute window for relaxing and reflection by the river as the children rested in the pram. What I received was crushed alcohol cloves, (not really my cup of tea, or shall I say not really my cup of mulled wine). I utilised the mug as my body warmer for a while, then I inconspicuously tipped it out in the snow at my feet. Now I see the wine was red. I have just reproduced a pile of snow road kill at my feet- not so inconspicuous!

Munich cuisine

Apparently Munich's cuisine differed somewhat from the everyday cuisine of the rural people of Germany, (especially by the greater consumption of meat). In the city, more people could afford beef, and on festival days, roast veal was preferred. From 1840 to 1841, with Munich having a population of about 83,000 citizens, a total of 76,979 calves were slaughtered, statically approximately one calf per citizen. My husband would of been extremely hungry, "May I have a green salad with my full calf please?" In the 19th century, potato's were also accepted as a part of Bavarian cuisine, but they could still not replace the popularity of dampfnudel, (steamed white bread roll). Veal is predominate on the menus, and pork also dominates. Welcome to the world of meat and potato!

My children were in their element eating sausages for our entire stay and using pretzels as frisbees. I enjoyed authentic schnitzel (pork and veal), goulash, sauerkraut, various sausage, pig in all forms, potato; oh and did I mention meat?

Liechtenstein Cuisine

The cuisines of Liechtenstein have developed over the years with the influence of the neighboring countries. It is now considered as a country having one of the most diverse cuisines in the world. Cuisines in Liechtenstein are sure to satisfy international palettes, it is here where I had my favourite meal of the entire trip. The restaurant boasted to serve food from the page of Liechtenstein with a dash of Italy.

We feasted on soup, (Barley and Beef broth), antipasto platter, Mamma's home made gnocchi (tomato and mozzarella), veal and venison, with side of you guessed it... potato. The children loved Mamma's home made pesto gnocchi, and son as always, was looking for more!

Liechtenstein is also known for producing its own wine. Red wine is most famous and it is a common practice here to have glass of red wine along with your food, (or maybe I just made that last fact up to satisfy my conscience). There are a number of wine making estuaries in Liechtenstein

Switzerland Cuisine
Alright; so this is kind of a cheat to say that this meal was 'Swiss'. We stopped off at a place called San Bernardino in Switzerland for lunch on our way back to reality, (home). It is a mountainous village in the canton of Graubùnden in Switzerland. It is the southern entry point to the San Bernardino tunnel and the side of the roads were piled high with fresh snow. This was so exciting for me, as I had only seen something similar in a sand dune.

In winter, apparently San Bernardino becomes a winter sports haven. The ski area goes up to 2500 m, with eight lifts and 40 km of marked ski runs, offering an impressive view of the surrounding mountains. By my observation, early December, ski season was definitely due to commence. Two small lifts near the centre of the village cater for children, while there are 24 km of track round the village and Isola Lake for cross-country skiing. Winter walkers will find 14 km of prepared footpaths, (14km walking in the snow, are they crazy?) This extreme sport of skiing is seeming more and more intimidating to me as the days get colder.

Blah, blah, blah, on to the food... As I said, I may be cheating a little here regarding the cuisine. Now, south of the Alps, you are in Italian-speaking parts, and we found this featuring particularly heavily in the menu options. (Where did my meat and potato go???) Our meal consisted of 3 shared 'Italian dishes'; bolognese gnocchi, butter and sage fagotinni and tomato based tortellini. (Including of course a basket of bread and bowl of cheese, (formaggio), but that goes with out saying by now.) As this was the end to my holiday, of my holiday off gluten and wheat free, (just a trial, what are you crazy I live in Italy!!!), these meals were consumed pretty swiftly, with pure fear that someone would consume more than their fair share.
The holiday has ended... plates were literally licked clean... (and a whole lot of carbohydrates were absorbed; oh how I love food)... As we left we left our footprints in the snow, not quite as permanent as concrete but satisfying enough for us.

We slipped and slided back to the car over an icy car park, heading towards the real world. My interpretation of culture; views, people, atmosphere, mood, food... then rate your happiness from 1 to 10, (and also on behalf of your family). I love culture; this trip passed the test, definite 8.

Friday, December 10, 2010

View of the entire country

Our last nights holiday destination was the 6th smallest country in the world, Liechtenstein. It is 26km long, and 12km wide, so we figured that it would not take us long to explore. We were also very tempted by the hotel description which said you had a view of the entire country!!! (Which in retrospect would not be too difficult given the size.)

Liechtenstein brands themselves, "Unmistakable and Unique". Perhaps a little bit mistakable, if you blink you may miss it; but they do have the world's largest manufacturer of false teeth, I guess that makes them pretty unique?

We arrived at night time, so our view of the 'entire country' was purely sparkling lights from the capital Vaduz below. But when we woke in the morning, we were welcomed by the most amazing panorama. Beautiful snow peaked mountains, the River Rhine, little villages and a majestic sunrise.

We explored the country, it took us 30 minutes!! We headed to the top of the mountain to find a ski village in Malbun, not enough snow to be opened just yet, but apparently it has good slopes for beginners. Oddly enough the man at the hotel did not know that this even existed, (must be too much going on in Liechtenstein to notice the only tourist attraction the country has to offer?)

Liechtenstein was a lovely place. We had excellent accommodation, (Hotel Martha Bùhler) that provided us with that fantastic view, a separate bedroom to the children, and all the mod cons that you could request. The children made themselves feel at home and felt very grown up in their own room and bathroom. I think I had the best dinner of our entire holiday here. Breakfast was lovely and staff were very accepting of children's antics. Another country to tick off the list; aiming for 2 countries smaller than this in the next 6 months. Monaco and San Marino, both 3 hours away from Milan, we are so very lucky!