Monday, January 30, 2012

Condoms and Cappuccino: Italian Vending Machines

Cappuccino Machine
Vending machines are slowly making their way into the Italian culture. I saw my first one in Italy about fifteen years ago—a machine dispensing espresso and cappuccino in the Milan train station. I was horrified. Italian bars are so efficient that you can get a quick cup of coffee in the time it takes a paper cup to fall in a vending machine. And I had unpleasant memories of foul coffee coming from machines in America. I didn’t try that coffee at the time, but made my way into the bar next door.

When I came to live in Rome ten years ago, there were three common vending machines. The first, machines that take your photo and automatically prints it, are scattered across the city. It Italy you have to provide your own photos for identity cards and the like and you need these for everything from transit passes to drivers’ licenses to residency permits. In fact, I was able to get the correct size from one of those machines the last time I renewed my U.S. passport.

Condom Machine
The other two types of vending machines were located outside pharmacies and tobacco shops to provide emergency supplies 24-7: cigarettes and condoms. Since most shops close at 8 p.m. daily, these machines were both very popular. Pharmacies and tobacco shops still provide this service today, but vending machines are slowly making their way into other aspects of the culture.

Until about five years ago, for example, public transit tickets could only be purchased at tobacco shops, some news stands, and bars—never in the subway stations. Now there are “automatic ticket machines” in most stations, but the personnel still don’t sell tickets.

Vending machines have not made their way into the public schools—yet. Most schools and workplaces with lots of employees have bars where you can get a cup of coffee or a soft drink, a sandwich or a plate of pasta. With that kind of service available, vending machines are superfluous.

The Way I Prefer Cappuccino
Most of the time. For the past few years, I’ve done occasional work at the Italian Ministry of Culture. Imagine my horror when I first went there and looked for the bar. I was directed to a vending machine area housing snack and coffee machines. The latter identical to the one I had first seen in the Milan train station. My immediate reaction was to forgo coffee, but my Italian clients, being the hospitable souls most Italians are, began dropping money into the machine and asking me to choose my poison. I chose cappuccino and prepared my mouth for unpleasantness.

The machine whirred and gurgled a minute, then a cup fell down and frothy milky coffee poured into it. There was even a stirrer. The coffee was gooood. Almost as good as that served in a bar. I truly hope that these machines don’t catch on because losing the Italian bar as an institution would be a real loss, but in a pinch, I hope I’ll find one of these machines when a bar isn’t available.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Golden Egg

When I’m in Rome, I usually do as Romans and other Italians do and breakfast on milky espresso, fruit, and carbohydrates in the form of pastry, toast, or biscuits (cookies).

But occasionally I yearn for a good old Anglo-Saxon breakfast of eggs and bacon. Sometimes these breakfasts come from the American south with fried green tomatoes and grits. At others, they hail from Britain with grilled ripe tomatoes and tea.

I love eggs. My Aunt Marjorie kept chickens, and it thrilled me as a child to reach into the hens’ nests and retrieve eggs, still warm from the oviduct. I waited expectantly for the next morning’s scrambled eggs and licked my lips with gusto.

As a member of the 4-H Club a few years later, I found myself on an egg judging team. We visited commercial chicken houses and small farms with open pens, learned how to determine an egg’s freshness by floating it in water, and examined the eggs emptied onto a saucer to determine their quality. I learned a lot about eggs.

As my life carried me to urban areas where I got my eggs from supermarkets, I still enjoyed my egg salad and scrambled eggs and omelets. But I didn’t realize for years that the intensity of the taste I had enjoyed as a child had diminished.

Then I began eating eggs from happy chickens raised by friends on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These chickens scratched in the dirt and nibbled on grass and other vegetation in the chicken pen. Their eggs burst with a flavor that took me back to Aunt Marjorie’s hen house. The doorkeeper of my apartment building, one mile north of the White House, always laughed when my friend arrived with a couple of dozen eggs under her arm. He didn’t get it.

When I moved to Rome in 2002, I noticed the vivid color of egg yolks right away; it’s a deep orange. In fact, the usual word for egg yolk in Italian is il rossothe red. And the flavor, even of the supermarket variety, is even more powerful than those from the Eastern Shore.

I bought my first eggs here from an elderly couple at the market. They sold only eggs, arranged in a basket on a makeshift table behind their car. You could buy however many you wanted—even one. They would wrap the eggs in brown paper and hand them over with a smile.

I soon noticed that most eggs on sale in Italy were stamped with an eleven-digit code. I learned that this derives from European Union regulations that require eggs to wear a coded label showing how the chickens were raised, the country of origin, and the individual producer. Italian regulations are more stringent in that they also require each egg to identify the province and commune (political jurisdiction) of origin. Individual producers selling directly to their customers do not have to label their eggs.

The regulations about how the chickens are raised are very specific. Organic eggs, for example, must come from chickens raised in the open with ample vegetation and at least ten square meters of ground per hen. That’s a lot of space. On the other hand, chickens grown in cages must be in spaces of no more than twenty-five hens per square meter with roosts of at least fifteen centimeters per hen. That’s a very small space indeed.

The economics of egg production is clear. In the space required for one organic egg per day, producers can obtain 250 caged eggs.

This morning, as I dipped my spoon into a soft boiled egg, the deep orange yolk dribbled down onto the porcelain egg cup. I scraped it off with my spoon, then licked the liquid gold with my tongue. This treasure costs five times as much as the eggs in my fridge waiting to become cake batter. It’s worth every centesimo.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Banking at the Post Office

Crowd waiting to enter Italian post office
For most of my tenure in Italy I’d rather have had my eyeballs peeled than go to the post office. First, it’s the lines. There’s a take-a-number system, but even so, there are always crowds. Second, it’s the inefficiency. Often you need a particular form to complete business—from mailing packages to renewing residency permits—but there are no forms available, so you can’t complete that business. You have to wait for another day or try your luck at another post office.

And delivery service is woefully hamstrung and spotty, too. Mail carriers must provide their own transportation. You may remember the film Il Postino where Massimo Troisi’s character needed a bicycle to get the job because new mail carrier had to deliver mail to Chilean poet Pablo Neruba outside the village. It’s still like that today. I once had a student who delivered mail by bicycle, and I’ve even seen mail carriers riding city busses with their bags of mail.

Don’t get me wrong; the staff is pleasant. It’s just that the system is hampered by too many layers of bureaucracy.

Bancoposta card
One place the Poste Italiane do excel is banking services. The post office offers regular bank account with all the services a regular bank has: checks, debit and credit cards, cash machines, etc. The debit and credit cards can be used at points of sale like any other card as well.

I think the flaws in the mail system actually make the bank system work so well. I say that because everyone, and I mean everyone, must use the post office to pay bills. When you get a telephone or electricity or other bill it is accompanied by a bolletta, a bill which includes the payee’s vital information including name, address, and post office account number. It also includes the payer’s vital information, minus the account number. The payer takes the bolletta to the post office and pays the bill directly into the payee’s account, getting a receipt as proof of payment. In my opinion, this system developed because the mail service is so unreliable.

It is this bill paying scheme that makes the post office so busy. You don’t have to buy stamps or mail a letter there. Stamps are available at tobacco shops and letter boxes are usually outside those.

Take a number
Service at the post office is divided into three areas, and you take a number for each service separately. First, there’s bill paying and other general postal business; second specialized services such as mailing packages, completing government forms, and picking up registered mail; the third area is reserved for clients with post office bank accounts.

This third area works like an express line. As a bancoposta customer, I do any normal banking business here but I can also do some other post office business as well. Thus all the people without accounts who are there just to pay bills have a much longer wait.

Italy is currently undergoing a census. The paperwork can be completed online or the paper forms turned in to the post office. I’ve been procrastinating because the online service wouldn’t accept my password and I shuddered at the postal line. So I was pleasantly surprised when I last went to the post office to pay bills, steeling myself for the business line with the census. I got to the teller for account holders almost immediately, although there were about fifty people waiting for other services. The teller saw my census form, and took it too.

Yea, for bancoposta!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hot Comfort

Minestra is an Italian word for soup, though not the only one. The word comes from the Latin verb minestrare, also the origin of the English verb “to minister;” it means “to take care of wants and needs.” Minestra is a comforting word.

I once stayed in a drafty 18th century villa on a damp winter weekend. As a first course at dinner, my hostess served a simple soup of onions, carrots and potatoes, deliciously seasoned. As she ladled it into our bowls, she said, “I thought we needed a good minestra to combat the cold.” It was a comfort.

A minestra is usually a light soup; minestrone, on the other hand, means “big soup.” Browsing through my Enciclopedia della Cucina Italiana, I find that most minestrone recipes have about fifteen ingredients. Traditionally, the ingredients should be seasonal, so that at this time of year, minestrone features pumpkin, broccoli and cabbage while in the summer, it has zucchini (zucchine in Italian) and peas.

Here in the markets, some vegetable sellers cut up vegetable to make a minestrone mixture which you buy by weight. A couple of days ago, I saw one vendor chipping up radicchio to add to a tray already laden with cauliflower, carrots, onions, shelled beans, and more.

There’s always a debate about the beans. Some people like them; others hate them. I hear people ask, “Do you put beans in your minestrone?” or “Do you have minestrone without beans?” I personally like it with beans, and I often add more if I buy from the market.

And buying from the market is a great way to get variety in your minestrone. Another real boon is frozen minestrone mix. I didn’t buy it for years because it seemed a bit ridiculous to buy a bunch of cut-up vegetables frozen together. I’ve since learned that it’s a great thing to have in the freezer. On a cold day when soup is in order, it’s wonderful to be able to pull out a package, add this and that from the vegetable crisper, a piece of sausage or pancetta, and some fresh herbs like bay leaf or thyme.

Summer Minestrone
The standard frozen food brand here is Buitoni. It’s classic ministrone package lists fifteen ingredients: potatoes, borlotti (a type of shelled beans), tomatoes, carrots, peas, zucchini, celery, swiss chard, pumpkin, green beans, cabbage, leeks, parsley, basil, and garlic. A winter and summer mix.

Recipes vary from region to region. In Liguria (Genoa), you’ll find lots of basil; in the northeast, sage. In the north, people add rice while central and southern Italians favor pasta. Some people may forgo both in favor of potatoes.

Winter Minestrone
There’s an old saying that if you ask one hundred French chefs to cook a traditional sauce, you get the same sauce one hundred times, but if you ask one hundred Italian chefs to cook a traditional sauce, you get one hundred different sauces. With minestrone, you get a different version with every cook.

There’s simply nothing like it on a cold day. Ladle up a big bowl, sprinkle it with parmesan, pull off a chunk of crusty bread, and pour out a glass of red wine. A simple feast.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Rare Red Wine

Recently, I visited a vineyard that makes some of Italy’s rarest wine. Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, a bubbly red, is produced in a tight geographic area within the province of Macerata. This wine is not to be confused with Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a still white wine from Tuscany.

Vernaccia di Serapetrona is an ancient wine mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy.

On the day I visited the winery, we drove through the vineyards after lunch. Signore Lanfranco Quacquarini, the owner, met us and took us into a large shed where bunches of grapes were hanging on racks and trellises; he explained the process to us.

Vernaccia Nera grapes drying
at Lanfranco Quacquarini winery
Following an ancient production method, the wine ferments three times. The grapes are harvested from mid-October to the beginning of November. Half the grapes are placed in traditional fermentation, but the other half is hung to dry until the end of February.

At that point, the dried grapes, now resembling raisins, are added to the mixture, and it ferments again. After a few months, the wine is transferred to pressurized steel tanks where it undergoes final fermentation before bottling.

Vernaccia di Serapetrona holds the highest classification of Italian wine: D.O.C.G, which means that the production and labeling is rigorously controled by law. Wine carrying this designation is tested and tasted by government-trained inspectors before it is bottled. To prevent adulteration, a numbered seal is affixed to the wine neck capsule.

This wine is produced in one of the smallest designated areas in Italy on the lower slopes of the Apennines. The government requires that the wine be made from at least 85 percent from a grape called Vernaccia Nera.

The Lanfranco Quacquarini vineyard, one of a few producing this wine, occupies 45 hectars at 400 meters (1300 feet), and uses 100 percent Vernaccia Nera. It’s annual production of both sweet and dry Vernaccia di Serapetrona is about 40,000 bottles. It is distributed only in the regions of the Marche and Tuscany, although I have seen some for sale on the internet from the UK. The winery makes only this wine and a grappa distilled from the residue leftover from the wine production.

If you are lucky enough to sample this wine, enjoy the dry with a local salami called ciauscolo, a spreadable salami. The sweet is good with biscotti.

I had the pleasure.