“She’s prettier in person,” the middle-aged man next to me whispered. He was right. Francine Segan, cookbook author, host of the TV series Americans who Love Italy, expert on Italian cuisine, stood at the lectern wearing a beautifully-embroidered coat. She was ready to deliver a complete history of Italian cuisine in a little over an hour. A neat trick, especially with the audience distracted by the ornate decorations of the European Reading Room.
We were seated in between the rows of bookcases in this remote section of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building (usually open only to scholars), to hear Ms. Segan deliver a talk rather grandiosely titled “Italian Gastronomic Traditions and Innovations: The Historical, Cultural and Social Importance of Food in Italy.”
Introduced by Grant Harris, the Head of the Room, she proved to be warmer and more engaging than her talk’s title. Concentrating on pasta, desserts and coffee, she provided a dizzying tour through many types and shapes of pasta I had never before seen, then transitioned to desserts by way of pasta combined with sweet cheese (cannoli, cassata), and gelato in brioche for breakfast (!)
Panettone, that sweet, raisin-filled bread ubiquitous around the winter holidays, is traditionally made with natural yeast which must be nurtured for 30 to 40 days before the bread is made. Ms. Segan told us how she decided to test the claim that it would keep for six months without preservatives. She tucked several loaves away in her closet and – lo and behold! it’s true!
Did you know that there is a tradition of caffè sospeso, or “suspended coffee,” by which one pays for two coffee drinks but receives only one, and that other one is later served free to a patron who would not be able to afford it?
And then there is Caffè alla valdostana, coffee and grappa passed around in a communal cup after a long day skiing in the Valle d’Aosta. La dolce vita.
After her talk, Renato Miracco, Cultural Attachè at the Embassy of Italy, presented one of Ms. Segan’s cookbooks to the Library. He also reminded us that the next day Ms. Segan would be speaking at the Embassy about chocolate. Indeed!
“Italy’s Sweet Chocolate History,” a talk without a colon but with just as much culinary content as the day before, had a bigger audience and a more accessible venue – and tastings as well.
Before the history, Ms. Segan (in another beautiful coat) gave a lesson in tasting chocolate, which we were to save for later. We must snap, smell, feel and taste the chocolate “just like wine, except you don’t have to spit!”
She had spent some time in a cacao-growing region, and took us through each stage in the preparation of chocolate: harvesting the pods, fermentation, drying, shipping, toasting, grinding. The cacao was consumed at this stage for centuries by the Aztecs and others, dissolved in water.
In Italy, it was sprinkled on polenta and combined with game, and used in a dish that sounds so good I can’t wait to try it: Tagliatelli al cacao con salsa gorgonzola (Chocolate Tagiatelli with Gorgonzola Sauce, and walnuts).
It was the first food containing caffeine brought into Europe, before tea and coffee. It must have had quite an effect on those who could afford it!
And then in 1865, gianduia was invented; and in 1964, Nutella. Both are chocolate and hazelnut confections, and both were responses to chocolate shortages. Nutella made gianduia spreadable, and thus popular as an after-school snack on bread. Now, gianduia is considered the fourth flavor of chocolate in Italy. There’s milk, dark, white, and gianduia.
Among many desserts using chocolate in regions of Italy is melanzana chocolato: layers of fudgy chocolate sauce and eggplant, served cold – another one I want to try. Chocolate tarts, chocolate-topped couscous, cocoa-dusted pasta shells filled with pudding, four-foot-tall chocolate eggs, and La Befana
an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5). You can take gifts to chocolate-makers and they will put them into hollow eggs for you. There are chocolate tools to make work sweeter. It was starting to make my head spin, but I had to keep it together for the tasting.
But first, there was a drawing for two of Ms. Segan’s cookbooks. I didn’t win. But Mr. Miracco did invite us to enjoy the tasting and soft seats in the hall. “Don’t hurry out!” And when we discovered that, in addition to two kinds of chocolate, there were strawberries and prosecco, we were delighted to obey him.
There was an Italian chocolate I had not seen before, Antica Lavorazione a Bassa Temperatura from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily, a tablet with cacao nibs included, good for the snapping-smelling-tasting routine we had been schooled in; and Ferrero SpA’s Ferrero Rocher, the round, chocolate-covered whole hazelnut candy that has become very familiar (but has far from worn out its welcome).
The chocolate from Dolceria Bonajuto is made by a process very similar to the one brought back to Sicily from the New World by the Spaniards. The ingredients are still only cocoa, spices and sugar. It is very close to the version of chocolate known to the Aztecs – a fitting historical note.
These events were sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute, the Italian Embassy, and Italy in US in advance of EXPO MILANO 2015, the Universal Exhibition in Milan, Italy, running from May to October. Its theme is providing food for the world’s population, while respecting the equilibrium of the planet. There will be coffee and chocolate pavilions, programs by world-class chefs, and many other attractions.