July 30, 2010

Stories that need to be told. Lia. Isola d'Elba

Luciano Casini's aunt Lia and me. Elba 2005

Letter to Sally April 3, 2003.

Last night was the festa for Luciano's restaurant as you know. 30 years! It was one of those parties where you don't know but one or two people apart from the host. I started to wonder why I came. That odd moment of getting all dressed up and standing around with your plate in your hand, trying to find a corner to put one's glass down.

I felt rather like a bird with my plumes spread, somehow there for the looking but not for the talking. Then I heard the name 'Lia'. I saw on old woman sitting in the back with longish gray hair
and sun glasses on, surrounded by people. I realized that this was Luciano's beloved aunt that I had heard so much about but had never met. She is almost 80 now; an alumni of Columbia University when Eisenhower was the president (of the school). She studied philosophy and taught in Rome for many years. She is the real story.

She quotes Dante, the Greeks, Shakespeare, sings Frank Sinatra, and can drink almost anyone under the table. She see's your very soul. The drink might as well have been coffee this night, as her performance grew more intense and passionate without a waver. She was the most awake of all of us in every sense and was still going strong until 3 am. Dagmar, Luciano's x wife and I took her home. We arrived and she said.."Peggy, Peggy, questo e il mio castello! Guarda come bello!" This is my castle, see how beautiful it is! Like my aunt Sarah, she lives alone without a car deep in the countryside in a glorified hut. Books were stacked unevenly on all tables. There was not much light in the house. She is legally blind but her memory is stellar.

When I first came to Elba and met Luciano, I knew then why Fabio was Fabio (Picchi~ of Cibreo fame in Florence) and why he had sent me there. He was heavily influenced by Luciano as he spent every summer in Elba and learned Luciano's gregarious, fearless, rustic ways of cooking. He took it and refined it. His habit of wearing red pants and orange shirts came from Luciano. He borrowed his fascination, as Luciano's 'devil may care' attitude, also suited his.

Now upon meeting Lia, I understood where Luciano's gioia di vivere' came from. His first trip with Lia to the movies when he was 10 years old, changed his life. She transported him away from the provinciality of Capoliveri in his mind and from there, she became his mentor. Luciano went on to live and work abroad, learn a few different languages and even became an actor in films. The restaurant, a stage for all of his talents.

The story does not end there. Lia had a mind of her own. Islands make strong women, especially if they are educated. Her sister's family moved to Australia with young children. When the nephew's returned grown and gorgeous, she fell in love with one of them, 8 years her junior.

It was shocking for everyone including them. They asked to be married by permission from the Pope and he granted it. Yet, they never married. He died early in an accident.

Lia remained unmarried, but not unhappy. She would raise her fists and quote Dante with bravado! She loved the world and it's mystery.

These women keep showing up..whether in Alabama, West Virginia, or here in Capoliveri. Their stories need to be told.

I'm off to the beach. Soon it will be a conversation 'voce a voce'. We'll be discussing how sweet the tomatoes taste this time of year..and how gentle the breeze feels today.

Big kiss,

Peggy li. ( she called me Peggy li as a form of endearment all night, not knowing my name was
Peggy Leigh.)

ps. she can't wait to meet you. New York never leaves a young woman's soul.
Lia died some years later. She had magic in her bones. She could quote the greats with great command, never missing a line. Sally came to Elba for a big birthday from New York. She brought Lia the New York Times. For a few years after that, she couldn't stop talking about the kindness of Sally li. Lia will be sorely missed. Her legend, a strong, shooting star.

July 26, 2010

Anna's Passing~ Fabrizia Lanza

There is much to say about Anna Tasca Lanza. My affection and respect for her is immense. It will take me a while to digest and post a proper tribute.

Here is her daughter Fabrizia's moving account of her mother's last days for all of those who knew her.


Anna Tasca Lanza, my mother, passed away on the evening of July 12. It happened with no suffering at all, while she was sleeping.

In these last months I have been so very close to her that it is difficult for me to talk about her or about our relationship. I think that memories and feelings will rise up, floating like oil on water, little by little, every day now for the rest of my life.

Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my thoughts with all the friends who receive my newsletter and who know about our cooking school, which Anna built from nothing in 1989 and that I have been proudly pursuing since 2004.

The first sign of my mother's illness was that she was not willing to cook anymore. She completely lost her appetite, and when I went on holiday last summer, I found upon my return that Mum and Dad had simply stopped eating, a fact complicated by the heat, the loneliness, the loss of enthusiasm.... The moment I came back I suddenly found myself inverting the usual familial roles; I had to start cooking for my parents and found that it wasn't simple at all!

Mummy was fussy, like anyone who has lost her appetite and doesn't feel like eating anything but a very few and precious things. I realized I had to catch up with food, which in my childhood had meant comfort food for both of us, the food we used to eat on the blue table of the kitchen when Dad wasn't home (he hates peasant food!)...Anna and I, whispering and giggling together about anything we talked about.

At that point I realized that these comfort foods were the only things my mother would enjoy eating: capellini in brodo con la ricotta, spaghetti con la salsa, fave bollite, gazpacho, pasta con le zucchine fritte, minestra di zucchine e tenerumi, plus an endless variety of sweets, which she had always adored: lemon curd, taralli, blancmange, almond brittle, chocolate mousse. In fact, what she most demanded in her food was love, and I would use "all my love" as the main ingredient.

In her last month she was completely out of the world of food, managing only fruit juices and pistachio and walnut ice cream. She wouldn't talk, she wouldn't open her eyes. Now and then she would move her right arm or squeeze my hand very gently when I told her about my children, Ruggero and Virginia. I was afraid to experiment with foods because she very quickly got tired with our timid feeding temptations.

One day I decided I would dare something new, since she had always had a love for fresh, rather acidic and sweet flavors. With the fresh citruses from the garden, I made a lemon granita.

She ate it, and in a whisper she said, "Squisito."

This is the last comprehensible word I recall my mother saying. I love her so much for this last present, for being capable of appreciating quality and pleasure up to her last moments...I will never forget it.

July 23, 2010

Our Captain: A Man of Substance

His head fell into my lap with exhaustion, preceded by the rest of his Neapolitan body. He was wet and cold and the night sea water was rough and dangerous.

A fisherman’s trawling net was caught in the motor of our sail boat. A family of seven and a crew of three were with us on an overnight transfer from fire-breathing Stromboli in the Aeolian islands, off the northern coast of Sicily, to the great seaside city of Napoli. Darkness fell and the boat motored on. It was rough, our 46-foot Beneteau swimming upstream directly into the wind. Tough conditions for sailing in any case, but more pleasant to navigate if not been in a rush. We needed to get the family back, so we motored full-throttle.

We waited for the darkness to bring calm, a chance to sit down to a proper dinner, but that calm never came. Unusual for the Mediterranean.

We were hungry but afraid to eat. The sky was clear and stars appeared, but the sea churned as if the wind had an invisible hand in the stirring. It was going to be a long night. I gave my guests bread with honey as to comfort.

I went to my own cabin near the prua to try for sleep though the dishes were crashing around in their holds. A stray closet door kept breaking loose, swinging open with a bang. With my son, Graham, helping watch I shut out the chaos in my small cabin. Five minutes later, hearing a huge noise, I bounced up and ran out to the poppa, the stern, to take a look.

Captain Nardella, 36, knife in hand, was stripping off, heading into the crashing water. A fisherman’s trawling net was tangled in the motor. If he couldn’t get it loose by hand, he would have to cut it. He knew that if he didn’t free it, we would have to wait for the fishermen to come to us, which would take hours, equivalent to a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in a storm.

Dripping, he came up onto the deck and revved the motor stronger, standing in his wet tee-shirt. I offered him a dry one. He wouldn’t take it, the wet shirt drying on his body in the cool wind. His bare legs were exposed; hairy, tan and strong. Once he was sure we were out of danger, he felt the cold. A deep chill set in alongside the exhaustion. He bundled in a wind parka while I took a turn on watch.

Sitting cross-legged with my back to the boat, I told Tony to rest his head in my lap. It would keep my legs warm and give him a place to lay his head. There were no other dry places to sit on the boat. He collapsed and I covered him in the only wool blanket on board.

Jumping into the waves had been heroic, risky and a bit renegade. A short rest was in order. He was tense and trembling. Trying to get a few winks in between watches is a captain’s classic dilemma. He would get comfortable, then shoot up to look around, then close his eyes again.

I stroked his forehead, trying to relax him. It relaxed me as well. We were in this together. He turned onto his side and ever-so-gently put his hand on my crossed leg to brace himself. It was the touch of a gentleman. I looked down at this man in my lap, this hunk of courage, so gentle, sweet, capable and intelligent and…felt a pull in my heart. His broad shoulders fit into the curl of my legs. It was not just his love of the sea, his spontaneous opera when at the helm, he was not only a capable captain, but a sensitive intellectual with a PhD in wild orchids. (Napoli was once the cultural capitol of Italy and the place to send your children to be educated.)We spoke once, on the bow of the boat, about his good fortune. He was full of gratitude to be born in Napoli, the son of a doctor, at the foot of Vesuvius in a village of sailors. He spoke willingly about his Napolitanita, how they thrive on drama, deep feeling and the friggatura; the clever getting away with va fan cuolo rule-breaking that delights a free soul and their appetite for living in the flesh, eating well,living large, simply and sensibly.

When the elements were with us, instead of against us, sailing with him was a blue dream, like being on the back of the surfboard of a skilled surfer, going up and down the swells with controlled abandon. Whehew! Fantastico! Che pezzo di oumo! What a man!

How I appreciated the man he had become. One to scoop up, to have and to hold. It wasn’t the years between us or the fact that he was already taken that made it impossible. Or that I have no Neopolitanita’ in purezza to match, fiery and demanding enough to hold the line. Nor do I have soft cappuccino-colored skin. It wasn't about that.

I missed in that moment, a man of my own to adventure with, wondering if there is such a match for me. There was no rain, but my cheeks were curiously wet. Emotions tumultuous as the the sea.

Then I realized; I am forever meeting and adventuring with amazing men and women in my work, all the time. Relationships can be geographical, about place, and connection. About the wind. Something unspoken. A glance. Trying to keep others and each other safe in a storm. An unconditional relationship, strong, available and true.

A smile cracked through like the sun.

Tony Tony, moi e Anello, Amalfi portmaster.
We eventually arrived safely in port after 22 hours of rough seas, what normally takes 16 on smooth. The drama, and the tenderness, now a thoughtful memory.

Capezzana Olive Oil takes the Cake

Peggy and Lori at her farmhouse in Tuscany. 2000

Lori de Mori, food writer and one of my best friends, gave me this recipe a few years back. It was given to her by Contessa Lisa Contini Bonacossi of Tenuta di Capezzana one of the finest wine and olive oil producers in Tuscany. Whenever we gather for big lunches or dinners, Lori most often says, 'Via, I'll make Capezzana cake and we'll all be happy'. Big tea drinkers, we are even happier when there is some left over for tea as well.

A great-grandmother, with seven children of her own, Lisa Contini knows a few things about cooking and no less about sweets. Her husband, Conte Ugo, is one of the best producers of Vin Santo, the quintessential Tuscan desert wine. The Tuscan's aren't big on pastries, preferring dolce secche 'dry sweets', like cookies or a simple cake.

Tuscan's are no strangers to doing things their own way, refusing to use salt in their bread to avoid being taxed. Here, they avoid using butter, in favor of using what they have; orci, large terracotta containers full of some of the most flavorful olive oil in the world. Records show that olive trees were first planted in Capezzana over 1200 years ago.

This cake is moist and delicious. I varied the recipe to include almonds, as I adore nut cakes. I have also been known to substitute a cup of honey for the sugar. It deepens the flavor and harmonizes with a glass of Vin Santo, like 'a kiss on the lips.'

Capezzana Olive Oil Cake
  • Grated zest of 3 oranges, juice of one
  • 1 ½ cups granulated sugar (or 1 cup of honey)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil (the better the olive oil, the better the cake)
  • 1 ½ cups whole milk (or milk alternative)
  • 3 large egg
  • 1 cup of crushed almonds (optional alla P.M.)
Center an oven rack and preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly coat the cake pan with olive oil. Set aside.
In a large bowl, rub together the orange zest and sugar until the sugar is moist and fragrant. In a sieve, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder and crushed almonds. Sift over the sugar. Whisk to combine the dry ingredients, then make a well in the center. In a large liquid measuring cup, combine the oil, milk, and eggs. Whisk to combine, then pour the dry ingredients into the well and slowly draw in the flour mixture, whisking until incorporated. The mixture should be fairly smooth before you draw in more flour. Mix well.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. It should be no more than three-quarters full. Place in the middle of the rack.
Bake for 35-40 minutes until nicely browned and firm to the touch.
Serve with a fruit compote, Vin Santo, or eat plain with a little dust of powdered sugar on top.
I"m making this cake today for my daughter's 30th birthday. Wheat and dairy intolerant, this is the perfect cake for her, without a compromise on flavor, or making everyone else suffer through a highly processed gluten-free cake mix. I will substitute wheat flour for almond flour and soymilk for the milk. Everyone will be happy.
p.s. I recommend looking for Capezzana's 2009 harvest extra-virgin olive in certain high end stores if there's any left, or putting your name on the list for November 2010 harvest from Manacaretti, fine importers of classic Italian foods.
p.p.s. Lori's book, Beaneaters and Bread Soup, photographed by her husband, London photographer Jason Lowe, is one of the most endearing books on Tuscan food artisans. Lisa Contini Bonacossi's cake recipe is in there, with a charming photo, only Jason could capture.

July 20, 2010

The (Cheese) Ripening Cave

Cave d'Affinage

To be an affineur, is to be an expert on aging. Of cheese.

In St. Remy de Provence, cheese
makers bring their cheeses to this shop, where the resident affineur will take their product and put it in the ripening cellar. An affineur is sometimes described as the "foster parent of the cheese," overseeing its development with a keen sense for when its flavors will peak.

Even better, when customers arrive at the Cave d'Affinage, or "The Ripening Cave," they can place full trust in the affineur to find a cheese that will be ripe for serving at exactly the moment it is needed—whether that very afternoon, or three days away.

And if it's lucky, the cheese will end up on a table, in a garden, comme cette:

For more information and a good discussion write Robert Reynolds at www.chefstudio.com.
I visited my first 'cave d' affinage' when visiting Robert in Noir, in the Charente back in 1994. Who knew back then, that every product has an expert. A taster. A Phd in the science of finer nuances of flavor.

July 18, 2010

Be Still My Beeting Heart

In Venice on the vaporetto, I passed this boat with the name of Citta di Chioggia'. Chioggia is a mini-Venice located on a small island at the southern entrance to the lagoon, which I passed coming in from Croatia, amazed how long the lagoon stretched before we actually arrived close to the center. A water world of canals and boats, Chioggia is also known for its unique beet.

Red and round on the outside doesn't mean you can judge a beet by it's color. Upon slicing it, one's eyes marvel at the red and white spirals, not unlike that of a pinwheel that's gotten going. It gives a touch of carnivale to any dish. I like to cut them top to bottom sometimes, so they look like the painting of a flaming heart in the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Jose Maria Ibarraran y Ponce, 1896, that you find in prayer nooks along pathways in Spain, lit with a candle.

I found it puzzling that something as earthy as a beet could have come from a place that seems to be all water and concrete. "There must be earth here somewhere," I thought. If I hadn't been recently invited into a home with a small garden, I would have remained skeptical. Chioggia is also known for radicchio and other sea-faring gastronomic pleasures, like deep-fried baby soft-shell crabs.

Outrageously delicious and entertaining, I quite like to eat these bull's eye beets alone. I'm not one to fuss all of the time, especially when jet-lagged.

Just a day after arriving home, I popped into the Boulder Farmer's Saturday market and bought a few things, including carrots and beets from my friend Pete of Oxford Gardens. When I got home and cut into the marvelously heart-shaped beet, it spoke to me. Talk about alluring. It drew me in like the snake's eyes in the Jungle Book that hypnotizes with the song..."trust in me"...only my beets sang in Italian. Too tired to give it a party, I threw it into the pot with a few of O.G.'s carrots.

I wanted only to drizzle them with olive oil and salt, eat them quietly and go to bed. Which is what I did.

If you would like to cook some beets of your own, go see Pete at Oxford Gardens. If you would like to have them cooked for you, go see Dakota at Café Aion, his new restaurant on the hill . He roasts them and crumbles goat cheese on top with a few pumpkin seeds, if I remember correctly. A drizzle of e.v. olive oil is mandatory.

I think the next time I'm in Venice, I will prepare a bowl of beets to take on a gondola ride. The stripes will match the shirts of the gondolier. I'll appreciate the singing of both.