She opened the icebox door and jumped back as a two-foot long snake-like creature slithered out and onto the kitchen floor. No one had warned her that a fisherman from the lake of Bolsena had passed by to leave the usual Christmas homage to the architect, the head of the house. After the initial shock, the capitone, as slippery as the proverbial eel, was soon captured and laid to rest in a bed of herbs and olive oil. Christmas Eve did mean fish, for on the 24th you weren’t supposed to eat meat. The popes in Rome, famed as gourmets if nothing else, sent for eels from Bolsena and even got around the ban on fish by saying that ducks were not meat, since they ate fish, and could therefore be served on fast days. After all, meat, in the form of capon, was for Christmas Day. (As an aside, when friends started asking me about the Feast of Seven Fishes, all they got from me were blank stares. No one I knew had ever heard of it and then I discovered that it was an Italian-American tradition, perhaps hailing from Southern Italy, but certainly not from Umbria or Lazio.)
The capitone, I was told, was the female eel, and the smaller males ended up being marinated with chili peppers and vinegar. While I did remember seeing boxes of slithery eels at the Christmas fish market in Rome, I was never tempted to buy a live one.
One year I accompanied a friend who specialized in medieval cooking to Giggetto’s, a restaurant on the lake of Bolsena. When she said ruefully she had never eaten eel, I disappeared into the kitchen and asked the chef if he didn’t by chance have some, and sure enough in 15 minutes a plate of eel appeared on the table before her. She was game, and delighted to finally see what eel tasted like. I am still a bit reluctant to eat eel, grilled or roasted or what have you. Reminds me too much of snake even though I am told that rattlesnake is also very good, rather like chicken.
My only other contact with eels dated back to when I was a teen-ager and my German grandfather was working as a draftsman in Boston. When he came home weekends, he would often bring a packet of smoked eel, a delicacy at the time.
Mention of eels always brings to mind garlic and the long-awaited feast day of St. John the Baptist, June 24. We did need garlic and this was always the occasion to stock up for the coming year. The outing to the fair of San Lorenzo Nuovo, about 15 kilometers away, always became a kind of social gathering with family and friends piling into the various cars. Originally on the shores of the lake of Bolsena, the town had been abandoned in the eighteenth century because of malaria and redesigned and relocated up higher.
Before setting out though we have to wash our faces with the acqua odorosa, in which sprigs of rosemary, herba della Madonna (trust your botanist friend to identify the right one, Google in this case is no help), golden petals of the broom cloaking the hillsides (basketfuls will be used to carpet the streets with flower pictures over which the religious procession will pass later in the day), a few wild rose petals for color, malva, and sage, and whatever other fragrant leaves you could find, had been set out the night before, to be touched by the magical rays of the moon.
If you want to know what a fair used to be like, go to San Lorenzo. The whole town has been turned into a market place, the streets so densely packed with stands it’s often alternating one-way traffic for pedestrians. Practically everything is sold, cheeses, roast pork, tiny fried fish known as latterini or whitebait, marinated eels, pots and pans, clothing, tools, and until a few years ago white oxen and horses, with the farmers sealing the sale by a double handshake. We have been there so often we know where the bakery is and after stocking up on bread and cheese, the small fried fish from the lake, to be eaten whole, we make our way to one of the cellar caves, to share a long bench with the locals as the owner brings out a bottle of his cannaiola, available only at this time of year. Oddly enough this fragrant sweet red wine redolent of roses and violets is perfect with fried fish and porchetta. As usual, the best part is people watching, for sun-baked faces and calloused hands show our fellow diners to be hard-working farmers taking the day off as they exchange information about the crops and prices. Children watch as their fathers play morra or numbers games and a second bottle of cannaiola is brought out. Then once the wine is finished and leftovers wrapped up, we make our way back to the car, the sun now definitely a bit too hot for comfort.
But we still have to buy our yearly supply of garlic – always making sure it is “red”, the cloves tinged pink. The garlic heads are braided into ropes of various lengths, piled high on the small three-wheelers known as Ape parked here and there on the outskirts of the town. Italian cooking wouldn’t be Italian without garlic, but my favorite recipe, aside from the bruschetta when the new oil comes in, is what we called Carolyn’s potion, infallible remedy for coughs and colds. We did have to convince my son to try it when he couldn’t get rid of his cold: Take 5 garlic cloves, peel and mince, cut very fine a finger of ginger root, boil in two cups water for 20 minutes. Strain (works best if put through a cloth so you can squeeze out all the juices), add juice of one lemon and a tablespoon of honey to each cup. Take for three days. Probably does help and doesn’t taste too bad. Nor does it leave you surrounded in an aura of garlic, like my German cousin who ate, I forget how many, cloves a day for her high blood pressure. Impossible to be in the same room with her.
On the way back home, figuring we don’t need any lunch, a stop at San Flaviano in Montefiascone gives a veneer of culture to this culinary outing. The town is famous for it’s est, est est, singled out as an excellence by the manservant of Johannes De Fuk, a German bishop on his way to Rome in 1111, with orders to mark est on the doors of taverns where the wine merited a stopover. In Montefiascone, he found the wine so good that he gave the town the equivalent of five stars and wrote the word est three times, adding exclamation marks. Prelates, like their popes, also loved good wine. The bishop wholeheartedly agreed and his journey, both physical and spiritual, ended there, thanks to his over indulgence of est, est, est. His final resting place is in the church of San Flaviano just outside the town, and every year his tombstone receives a “baptism” of est est est in his memory.
Since this post is mainly about food, truffles pair up well with garlic, wine and eels. If you’re someone who stays longer in Orvieto, you’ve probably already tried some of the truffle offerings. Personally, I’ve never gone truffle hunting, but then I don’t have a truffle dog either. Who knows? Maybe I do. I’ve never given her a chance and I know she loves to dig in the dirt. Traditionally though, pigs were once used to search for this fragrant tuber.
The story I love best about truffles is from Giacomo Castelvetro. I know I’ve mentioned him before. An Italian advising the Countess of Bedford that she and her English countrymen should eat more fruit and vegetables and how to cook them. There are recipes and wonderful illustrations, many by the seventeenth-century painter, Giovanna Garzoni in my edition of The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, originally written in 1614, and published in English in 1989. Of the many anecdotes, the one concerning truffles is dated 1572. Castelvetro was visiting Germany and a young nobleman, who had just returned from a trip to Italy, asked the Italian for an explanation to something he had seen – a gentleman perambulating on his estate in the company of a pig, which he found quite incomprehensible. Castelvetro explained that they were on a treasure hunt, for the pig’s keen sense of smell identified truffles under several inches of snow or earth, but also had to explain what truffles were. He advises cooking truffles in the ashes and eating them with oil, salt and pepper, nowadays much too expensive a dish for most people. They were also appreciated by the ancient Romans and I wonder how many people have actually sacrificed these tubers, whose cost nowadays is astronomical, in an attempt to recreate the recipes of Apicius, that first-century Roman gourmet, for braised or stewed truffles.
One of the best-known cookbooks in Italy is Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. It was first published in 1891 and is now a literary classic. One might consider Artusi the Italian equivalent of Julia Child for French cuisine or James Beard for American cooking. Despite the rather unromantic title, it is delightful reading, giving you the history of some of the local specialties and advising the reader on when to eat certain dishes and how to cater to what Artusi calls the more delicate ladies’ stomachs. They say there are over 50 recipes using truffles in his book, which went through one edition after another after initially meeting with skepticism on the part of publishers. Artusi’s principal recipe with regards to truffles is for truffle crostini or bruschetta. Toast bread over the embers, rub with garlic, inundate with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and then grate on top a black snowstorm of truffles.
There’s a trattoria in Orvieto, handed down from father to son, where if you order the typical Orvieto hand-made spaghetti or ombrichelli, with truffles,be prepared to snap a picture when either the owner or his lovely young daughter starts grating one of these gnarly black lumps generously over your dish.
There is also a recipe for truffle appetizers in the list of dishes attributed to Caterina de’ Medici, great granddaughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was sent to France as bride to Henri of Orleans, future Henry II of France, in 1553 and insisted on taking her cooks with her even though she was only 14 at the time. We know she stopped over in Orvieto and it is fun to imagine what the banquet there must have been like. I’ll settle, though, for Artusi’s recommendations, with roasted eels (as long as they are unrecognizable), truffle canapés and garlicky bruschetta. All washed down with est, est, est or perhaps a bottle of Orvieto Classico. For all this, as well as pizza and pasta, is Italy for you.