Thursday, August 30, 2012

Il Palazzo del Freddo

By Patricia Winton

From Website TantaSalute
The l'afa blankets Rome with temperatures hovering around 100˚ F. (37 C.)—and humidity to match. Afa is the Italian noun identifying muggy weather, but the English noun mugginess doesn’t really describe the situation here. There’s an unrelenting heaviness to the air that saps your energy. It’s like wearing a steel suit with a mask to restrict breathing.

Most Romans, indeed most Italians, have escaped to the sea or the mountains. Many shops, many stalls at the markets, many businesses are closed. The streets have fewer cars, the busses fewer riders. Those of us still here are moving slowly, staying indoors until dusk. Mosquitoes are the only things traveling with any speed, and even they lack their normal velocity. When we finally amble out as the sun approaches the horizon, we head for the one shop guaranteed to be open—the gelato store.

At this time of year, bars usually have at least a few gelato selections, many pastry shops also carry it, and some shops are devoted exclusively to it. While all are good, the best comes from establishments boasting “la nostra produzione,” (our production) or “gelato artigianato” (handmade ice cream). Some shops exhibit plaques showing membership in the Handmade Ice Cream Association of Rome. They are your best bet.

The oldest ice cream store in Italy, the Palazzo del Freddo (the Palace of Cold), dispenses gelato and other frozen treats to crowds. When the store opened on May 12, 1928 by Giovanni Fassi amid much fanfare, the Palazzo del Freddo was touted to be the most modern such facility in Rome—and perhaps in Europe. According to contemporary advertising, it had the newest mixing machines, the best refrigeration, and the finest ingredients to be found, with an owner boasting 40 years of experience. It’s still one of the best.

It is an enormous establishment, by Italian standards, in a once elegant neighborhood; the walls and tables are made of marble from Pietrasanta; mixing machines from the 20’s and 30’s are on display; and posters and newspaper accounts from throughout its history line the walls. From the latter you learn that Giovanni Fassi was the son of Sicilians Giacamo and Giuseppina Fassi who came to Rome and opened a small beer and ice shop in Piazza Navona in 1880, changing locations a couple of times and expanding to gelato production before Giacamo died in 1902. Giuseppina and son Giovanni carried on the business until Giuseppina died in 1913. Giovanni continued alone, and opened the current shop on the 15th anniversary of his mother’s death in 1928. He proclaimed then that everyone would remember his mother on that date in the future.

One of its components in the early days of the store was Telegelato Giuseppina, “the gelato packaged to carry great distances.” One poster from the 1930s advertising this feature shows a family in a convertible carrying a large box of Giovanni’s gelato. It reads “to the beach, to the mountains, in all of Italy.” It was even possible to have the gelato packaged and shipped to north Africa and across Europe! Even today, Romans stop by the Telegelato counter to have ice cream hand-dipped into great tubs and packed in dry ice for the trip home. You can also get various types of ice cream cake thus packaged. It’s guaranteed to remain frozen for an hour without refrigeration.

One of the most curious elements of the Palazzo del Freddo’s history occurred during the American occupation of Rome in World War II. A notice now on display reads “These Premises Are Reserved for the United States Army By Order Rome Area Commander.” A note accompanying it reads, “with this notice our business was requisitioned by the American Red Cross from July 1944 to December 1946, and used for the production of gelato for the American troops in Rome.” If the Red Cross made the gelato according to the Fassi family recipe, the troops were well fed indeed!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Celebrating the Harvest

By Patricia Winton

Yesterday, August 15, was Ferragosto, one of Italy’s favorite holidays. A day when people splash at the beach or seek the cool of the mountains. When they barbecue steak and sausage or lick cool cones of gelato.

A Harvest Festival by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Some say the holiday dates back almost 3000 years to the legends of Romulus and the founding of Rome. The ancient Romans certainly celebrated an August festival called Consuali, dedicated to Conso, the god of the harvest. According to legend, Romulus invited the neighboring Sabines to the feast, and the Romans kidnapped the Sabine daughters to be their wives, an event known a The Rape of the Sabine Women (rapito in modern Italian means kidnap).

Whether you accept the legend or not, fact is that the Emperor Augustus instituted a similar festival, called Feriae Augusti, in 18 BC. During the month-long festivities, celebrations honored various gods associated with the season, including Conso (harvest), Opi (fertility), Vortumnus (seasons), and especially Diana (woods, wild animals, maternity, and childbirth).

It was a time to rest and play after the arduous growing season, and the homage to Diana may indicate hope for fruitful pregnancies as well. Roman women certainly prayed to Diana throughout the year in hopes of safe and painless childbirth. The festival to Diana during the Feriae Augusti were the only time during Roman period when all people could mingle, masters and slaves, patricians and plebeians alike.

Over time, the August holiday was gradually subsumed into the Christian story. On today’s Catholic calendar, August 15 marks the Assumption, the day that Mary was assumed into heaven. Vestiges of the ancient month-long festivities continue, too. Many Italians take the month off for vacation. During the first couple of days of the month, people asked me where I would be going for my holiday--this despite the fact that I had been away during both June and July.

Ferragosto traditions vary throughout the country and have changed over time. At one point, for example, Rome’s Piazza Navona was flooded and boat races were held. One event, calvacata dell’assunta (Palio of Siena), dates from the 16th century. Held on August 16, this horse race around the town’s shell-shaped central piazza features medieval costumes and music. Horse racing was apparently part of the ancient Consuali games, so this link has carried forward.

Purification by water and by fire constituted major parts of the Feriae Augusti rituals, and both elements continue today when a majority of Italians go to the sea or to a lake and end the day’s festivities with fireworks.

In some ways, the holiday reminds me of America’s Thanksgiving: it’s one of Italy's biggest travel days, people enjoy elaborate feasts (often picnics), and families gather to celebrate together.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Black Gold

By Patricia Winton
Last weekend, I joined an international group of writers for the Summer Truffle Festival of the Monte Cucco Park. The park straddles the boundary separating the Italian regions of Umbria and Marche in the eastern part of the country, about 70 kilometers from the coast. It rises 1,566 meters (5,138 feet).

Alberto Facchini, the dynamo who coordinated this event, is president of a group called Tartufi  amo. On the logo, there are two heart-shaped truffles—one black and one white—separating the two words, which mean, “I love truffles.” But if you put the two words together, tartufiamo, it roughly means “We put truffles on things.” I rather like this translation because I think Alberto is the embodiment of truffles.

He was everywhere. One moment he was overseeing stalls being set up to display typical products of the area: pecorino cheeses, various types of salami and other cold cuts, wine, and legumes such as lentils and farro.

That done, he ferried a group of journalists (including me) up hill and down dale in his Mitsubishi wagon. We forded two streams, bounced along a grassy track, careened perilously close to cliff edges, and made sharp v-turns that required much toing and froing. At one point, we went up, up, up with nothing ahead of us but sky. All of us were screaming like roller coaster riders, even the robust Russian guy. At the end of the journey, we watched our hosts prepare a local bread called crescia (also known as torta di testo). While the bread is common throughout the area, it is usually cooked on a large stove-top griddle, but we saw the traditional method, in the ashes of an outdoor oven.

At the official festival opening the next day, Alberto didn’t actually cut the ribbon; that was left to local political dignitaries, but he strung the tricolor and provided the scissors. And the truffles. These had been nosed out by his pack of truffle-sniffing dogs.

When the congresso—a symposium about truffles—began, Alberto mounted the podium to offer a welcome and introduced the first few speakers, including  leaders from various agricultural groups—especially those involved with truffles, local and regional government officials, academic researchers and others. He disappeared for a while, and I can only guess his motive, but he returned in time to bid everyone adieu and tell us about the Winter Festival, come December.

But he wasn’t done. He had awards for many of the presenters, the most impressive going to Fernanda Cecchini, who heads the regional department of agriculture.

Through all of this, Alberto arranged incredible lunches and dinners at restaurants known for their use of local products. Every meal featured truffles in each course! Except dessert. After Friday’s dinner, the sommelier decanted a plum cordial to end our meal, and we learned that Alberto had made it. It was superb.

Most of the writers departed Saturday evening, and Alberto gave each a package of truffles. I left the following morning, and somehow I got left out of the truffle presentation. Alberto did accompany me to catch my train, so I can only think that he was relieved that the event had proceeded with such success and truffles for me slipped his mind. I am a bit miffed, though. I had imagined trying to recreate some of the outstanding dishes I sampled. I questioned the cooks and chefs at each restaurant to make sure I knew how the dishes were constructed.

Oh well.