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Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.

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A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.

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I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.

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On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))

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Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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Americans have never been ones to linger at the table after meals. Much more often it’s take off, wash up, on to the next thing. Compare the ants in our pants to the lack thereof in places like France and Italy, where two-hour lunches, with wine, are a scant minimum. Or Spain, where people take after-meal conversation so seriously that they have a specific word for it: sobremesa. These are the people who invented sangria. They’re not itching to get back to work.

The quality of the food and drink counts, it should be noted. (I just read a study in The New York Times that showed a clear correlation between the prevalence of fast food and our ability to slow down—not just while we eat, but across the board. Shocker.)

Even when it comes to proper restaurant food and home-cooked food, I believe people are more likely to stay to talk after enjoying a well-made meal. That’s not to say average food will thwart any chance at good conversation later; it’s just that especially good food relaxes people. Relaxed people want to sit in the moment. They want to make it last. Relaxed people aren’t obsessing with their phones. They like being there, right there. And relaxed people feel safe and satisfied enough to want to contribute to, absorb, and prolong the conversation.

Gathering (after dinner especially) in front of the stove or fireplace—historically, that was the time to share stories. In earlier pre-literate times, when all of the stories anyone knew were told aloud, many, many were told after dinner. Ghost stories, didactic stories, funny stories, tribal stories, hero stories—these were most often told around a nighttime outdoor fire. Beowulf comes to mind again, the oldest literary treasure to come out of England. It was written down sometime before the 10th century. But before that it was part of an oral tradition, told around fires for some four centuries, as sparks sailed upward toward night sky after night sky, thrilling generations upon generations. Some of the world’s best literature is borne of the hours after dinner.

Today, I am happy to report here are exceptions to the scarf-and-split rule here in the U.S. They are all my people. And we always feel closer afterwards.

Start with my sister and brother-in-law and our friends Kim and Doug and their two little boys. Continue with awesome pizza at our favorite spot or one of our friends’ comforting home-cooked meals,* and end with dessert and drinks. Our sobremesa always lasts way longer than dinner.

Then there’s theatre people. We have a tendency to linger not only at tables but in restaurant parking lots after post-show dinners, just kibbutzing until the clock hits the single digits. If you have actors in the mix—and you usually do—add ‘goofing off’ and ‘howling laughing’ to the list. Does it matter that it’s seven degrees out, the lot is a sheet of ice, and we’re all getting up to work in four hours? It does not.

Mind you, we’re not usually contributing to the Great American Works of the 21st Century. (Unless you count fiction; there’s a lot of that :)) It’s typically just garden-variety lunacy. Most recently I was talking in a local restaurant parking lot with three actors who are also brilliant comics. One was having a problem with her Mercedes and was getting no help from the mechanics at her dealership. Given the subtle hints above, which of the below is the likeliest scenario that followed?

a) Thoughts were shared on how the problem could have started

b) Advice was given on how to repair the problem

c) The conversation deteriorated into animated, farcical German accents and much feigned kicking of tires

d) Suggestions were made to try another dealership

Right.

There are many ways to feel hungry, and many ways to be fed. Among them: a good dinner, which nourishes the body…and paired with a good, long conversation afterward, much more is nourished, even healed: the spirit (whose isn’t wounded, even a little?), the outlook (whose can’t benefit from a new way of seeing things?) and the group (it doesn’t need Krazy Glue? Then it always can stand a bit of reinforcement: a laugh. A chill. A sweet reminder.)

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Nutella pizza, Porta, Asbury Park, NJ,

Statement out of the clear blue sky: I created a marzipan page (all the way above) as a portfolio of my work. Visit and enjoy, and if you have any ideas for future designs, please do tell. Wouldn’t marzipan LEGOs on a cake or cupcakes be the grooviest? Now I have to talk someone into ordering them so I can try it out. Totally can’t wait 🙂

*Guys. I’m still dreaming about that creamy seafood stew.

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October’s the Nigella Lawson of the year, an earth mother clad in warm colors, exuberant with life and heart, and eager to feed everybody. In temperate climates, farm stands overflow with the last of Summer’s tomatoes propped next to Fall’s butternuts. Apples, pears and figs hang heavy from trees, and the lustrous bloom on grapes foreshadows the frost soon to come.

With such abundance, it’s the best time of year to appreciate terroir—that ancient notion of place, and the confluence of elements from sky and soil that makes whatever that place produces unique.

In Italy in particular, each region takes enormous pride in the food that grew from its own soil, nourished by the peculiarities of the climate and the conditions of the land there. The pride of ownership comes from knowing that that patch of soil has its own character and what grows there can’t really be reproduced anywhere else.

What’s more, bringing together the produce of a region creates a unique harmony of flavor. Pasta made from local wheat, a sauce made from tomatoes from the garden, wine from the vineyard down the road, and ground beef from your sister-in-law’s farm—together they sing in their own distinctive way.

Calimyrna fig, a couple of days shy from ripeness.

Think about what your region produces. Is it known for specific types of fruits and vegetables? Unusual varieties, stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere? Or does it just grow the basics really, really well?

I live in New Jersey, which comes with its requisite jokes. But no one quibbles with our produce. Say what you will about us—we produce a damn good tomato. And peach, and apple, and blueberry, for that matter.

‘Liberty’ apple tree.

New Jersey’s beef, lamb, pork, poultry and cheese have a purity of flavor unmatched by those not eaten at the source. Beef stock made from local, pasture-fed cows won’t smell tinny or salty like canned stock. It will smell fresh and clean—like the grass that created it.

All of the produce in the photos here were taken at Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ, an organic farm about which I could rhapsodize for hours. They do it right, from their philosophy (sustainability), to their work ethic (hard) to their exceptional produce (authentic flavors). They live terroir.

‘Pink Banana’ winter squash.

Now’s the time to get it all in—flavor, pleasure, pride.

Find out what’s growing around you right now and seek it out. Wherever you are, there’s something growing nearby; and whatever it is, since it’s in season, it doesn’t need much to make it taste the best it can. It might need nothing at all.

Take a bite. What you’re eating won’t taste like THIS anywhere else on the planet.  Do you taste it, the sweet conspiracy of sun and rain and wind on your little bit of the earth?

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