Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tears of St. Lawrence

By Patricia Winton

The Perseid meteor shower we enjoyed earlier this week is known as the “Tears of St. Lawrence” here in Italy. St. Lawrence’s feast day falls on August 10 at the beginning of the annual Perseids, and it is widely celebrated here. Lawrence is remembered for two things. The first is his association with the Holy Chalice, the cup purportedly used by Christ at the Last Supper. According to tradition, the cup passed from St. Peter, the first pope, to his successors until 258 when the Roman government demanded that all church relics be turned over to them. The pope at the time, Sixtus II, gave the cup to Lawrence, one of his deacons. Lawrence, who hailed from Spain, is said to have sent the chalice to his parents there.

Italian celebrations to St. Lawrence sometimes focus on the chalice theme. A group called Chalice of the Stars organizes stargazing events on August 10. Across Italy, people gather in piazzas to drink wine as a toast to St. Lawrence and to watch the Perseids. This year, the sky was clear, and the show glowed.

Grill believed to be used to martyr St. Lawrence
Lawrence’s death marks his second claim to fame, the reason he rose to sainthood. As a deacon, he held the responsibility of distributing alms to the poor. When the persecuting Romans executed Pope Sextus II, the Prefect of Rome ordered Lawrence to show him all the church’s treasures. Lawrence complied by lining up true believers and offering them as the jewels of the church. The enraged prefect sentenced Lawrence to death by barbecue. He was tied to a large metal grill and placed over a slow fire where he was slowly cooked to death. Legend has it that midway through he called out, “I’m done on this side; turn me over.” Thus St. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks and chefs.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

August Snow in Rome

By Patricia Winton

It rarely snows in Rome, even in the depths of winter, but it snowed in Rome this past Monday, August 5. The temperatures have been hovering around 36 C (upper 90s F). But on Monday, snow fell outside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, also known as the Madonna of the Snow. The snow was artificial, of course. People stood outside the basilica in summer clothing awaiting the cool flakes to fall.

The annual event reenacts the Miracle of the Madonna of the Snow dating from the 350s when Pope Liberius dreamed that the Virgin Mary told him to build a church where snow fell. On the scorching night between August 4 and 5, according to the legend, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill. The basilica, one of the five in Rome belonging to the Vatican) was completed in 440.

Another version of the legend holds that a wealthy couple without heirs prayed to the Virgin for guidance on how to dispose of their property. Snow fell on that August 4-5 night, and the Virgin appeared to them in a vision, telling them to build a church where the snow had fallen. According to this legend, they built the basilica. We know them only as “a patrician named John and his wife.”

The Catholic church took no notice to either legend for about 1000 years. The celebration of the feast has had a varied history, celebrated first in Rome only, then in other churches around the world. Today, it’s celebrated as the Dedication of the Basilica.

On August 5, during the celebration of two masses at Santa Maria Maggiore—in the morning and at vespers—white petals float from the dome onto the congregation. Originally these petals were from roses; today, they’re from dahlias. Beginning at 9 PM, a light show illuminates the exterior of the basilica. The festivities continue to midnight. Midway through the show, artificial snow falls on the crowd.

Last year, the truck delivering the snow equipment broke down en route and the event was postponed to Ferragosto (August 15—one of Italy’s premier holidays). Just thinking about the snow can cool you down on a sweltering August night.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Buone Vacanze!

Today is August 1st, the traditional start of vacation in Italy. People are heading for the beach or the mountains, and are planning picnics and barbecues. I hope you are having a splendid time. Buone Vacanze!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cleaning House

By Patricia Winton

I’ve spent the last two weeks having my apartment in Rome refurbished with a parade of workers coming and going. My place is quite small, and everything has had to be moved from place to place as the work progressed. I have lots of books and papers, and they all had to come down so the furniture could be moved. Below is the diary I kept one busy day at the midpoint of the process.

I’m sitting at my desk before my computer screen. Chaos reigns, even here, as two plumbers and one painter work their magic in my tiny abode. I slept last night on half my bed—the other half piled with sofa cushions and assorted pillows. I got to the bed via a small pathway between the chest of drawers that belongs there and the kitchen table that definitely does not.

I follow the same trail out of bed and into my breakfast spot where the painter has left me space to make coffee. I drink it sitting on the terrace which hosts the painter’s supplies, a refrigerator, two ladders, and three lamps plus the things that belong there like plants, a watering can, and assorted outdoor furniture. I’m surprisingly calm.

Maurizio the Painter
At the moment, the painter is rolling paint onto the ceiling. One plumber is assembling the base cabinet that will replace the rotted one under the sink in the kitchen. The other is on a ladder working on the toilet tank (they are high on the wall here in Italy).

The plumber discovers that I’ve left some things under the sink, and I go to remove them. The first thing I do is pick up the basin collecting water under an open pipe and promptly dump it on the floor. A bit of mopping, and I complete the task. The plumber rips out the base.

The painter takes a snack break with grissini (bread sticks); he offers me one and I accept. The plumbers take a smoke break while I scour the mess behind and under the old sink. What horrible grime! I spray it all with bleach and hope that I haven’t transmitted anything serious to some guest who’s eaten here.

Now the plumbers are fitting the sink over the new base cabinet—it has five drawers! The painter stands astride his ladder covering the horrible orange paint the the previous resident chose with my pale gray. He’s humming “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”

Francesco the Plumber
The water’s turned off while the plumbers replace the kitchen faucet. I forget, go to the bathroom, and flush. Quite a noise comes from the water tank, but nobody chastises me. I skulk back to my desk.

The plumbers have gone now, taking a wad of my cash. The painter is humming a different tune, but he’s still cheerful. He says we may be finished by Tuesday. The air is so humid that the paint is drying slowly, and he can’t do the 12 hours of work he had promised me. Oh, well.

I’m alone at last. There are still more coats of paint to be spreadin Italian, a coat of paint is a mano (hand). This lull is relaxing with my new calm paint color. I'm sipping a glass of wine and mi riposo (I'm resting). 

This day turned out not to be the most stressful one. That came on the next-to-last day when I had two painters plus an electrician tripping over each other. Most of the work took place in the bathroom that day, so I had to shoo them all out when I needed the facilities. It became much more stressful when they took the bathroom door off. My sister says I felt stressed because it had been a long time since I'd had to ask permission to go to the bathroom.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Afternoon Drink

By Patricia Winton

My apartment is teeming with painters, plumbers, and electricians. I’ve finally put my office back together, but I haven’t written a post this week. I published this piece last year at Novel Adventurers when the topic of the week was “Beverages.”

This topic turned out to be a difficult one for me because there are too many choices in Italy! Coffee? Espresso or cappuccino, caffè macchiato or latte macchiato. Wine? Red, white, or pink, house or vintage. Water? Mineral or tap, fizzy or still. My mind swirled with the possibilities. I needed to clear my head, so I went for a walk.

The afternoon passeggiata is a time-honored tradition in Italy. People stroll down the avenues and window shop; they linger in piazzas and gossip; they admire babies in pushcarts; they greet friends and neighbors. And, if they don’t favor a gelato, they usually stop by a bar for an aperitivo before going home to dinner.

At my neighborhood bar, family and friends cluster around tables for this ritual. Many Italians rarely drink alcohol, just a celebratory sip of wine at birthdays and Holy Communion. For these people, bitter (pronounced BEE tare) is the drink of choice. This herbal-based brew is a refreshing carbonated confection that comes in red or white, like wine. Oranges give the red its color and strengthen its flavor.  Most bitter is bottled in 100 ml glass containers‒about three and a half ounces. Kept in the cooler, bitter is served with a slice of lemon or orange. These should not be confused with amaro (the Italian word for bitter) which is a digestivo and served after dinner.

For the people who want a bit of kick with their aperitivo, Campari reigns as the drink of choice. Also based on various herbs, straight Campari has about 20 percent alcoholic content, but it usually comes as Campari Soda at 10 percent. Sometimes served over ice, Campari Soda is also accompanied by a slice of lemon or orange. Campari is the key ingredient in a variety of cocktails rarely, if ever, served in my neighborhood bar. The best-known of these, Negroni, contains Campari, gin, and red vermouth.

Vermouth steps up as the next favored aperitivo. The vermouth that stars in the standard martini just doesn’t do it, either. Italian vermouth comes in sweet and dry, red and white. The choices never end. Yet another herbal-based confection, Italian vermouth varies by brand, the most popular being Cinzano. But, even the lesser-known can satisfy.

During aperitivo hour, children probably drink Cokes, and at least one person is sure to have a glass of mineral water. That’s a perfectly acceptable drink at the bar.

When the drinks arrive, the staff also brings snacks. These can be as simple as a bowl of potato chips and a plate of olives. Other times, there are small sandwiches and tiny pizzas. You might get fried potatoes or strips of prosciutto, rounds of salami or pieces of cheese. The same establishment may be generous with the snacks one day and stingy the next.

After drinking and snacking, I’m not sure that I really need dinner.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Notes from Florence

By Patricia Winton

I visited Florence last week. Here are some brief observations that I made. I’ll write more about some of these topics a bit later in the year.

Bicycles rule. Although I’ve been to the city many times, I’d never noticed so many foot-powered two-wheelers. My Florentine friend tells me that with increased restrictions on motorized vehicles, bicycles are the way to go. 

There are many places where motorized traffic is limited to taxis, emergency vehicles, and busses. There are lots of bicycle rental stands for tourists, and bicycle parking racks are among the biggest I’ve ever seen.

Florence is much cleaner than Rome. There’s less litter on the streets—even cigarette butts. And even though Rome—at least in my neighborhood—has daily garbage pickup, there’s always piles of trash lying outside the dumpsters, including the recycling bins. Florence is experimenting with a new collection system called Trashcube. The bins are actually underground. Above ground chutes, that close after use, guide the trash into appropriate receptacles for organic matter, recyclable material, and non-recyclables. And I came across municipal workers hosing down bins after they had been emptied.

The weird house numbers. The first time I visited Florence looking for a specific street address, I despaired of finding the place. The numbers read, in order, something like this: 24, 26, 28, 30. Suddenly the next numbers were 127, 129, before reverting back to 32.

I’ve since learned that the original numbering system, dating back for centuries, assigned black numbers to residential buildings and red ones to commercial properties. Over time, some of the distinctions no longer apply because a former residential building may have become commercial and vice versa. The original numbers have been retained. Florentine addresses are given as Via ____ 34n (the “n” for nero, black) or 127r (rosso, red). Today, the black numbers are often blue, and in large properties that have changed purpose or have been subdivided, the colors may no longer ring true.

I dodged a bullet. One afternoon I sat in the tranquil piazza in front of the home of the late Magdalene Nabb, mystery writer extraordinaire. Friends were chatting on benches; a crazed drunken woman sat on the edge of the fountain, spouting a litany of complaints; children ran around chasing pigeons. Suddenly, I felt a thud against my chest. I thought a pigeon had landed until I saw a young girl kicking around a rather large rock. She’d hit me then went merrily on her way. I’m lucky the rock hit the purse I cradled instead of my face. What an ignominious end that would have been!

Language lesson. On my first night, I had a pizza at a pleasant cafe. A little girl sitting at the table to my left kept flirting with me. She didn’t speak—possibly hadn’t yet learned to talk, but she practiced her gestures. She pointed; I pointed back. She waved; I waved back. She clapped; I echoed her. She gestured, ‘come here;’ so did I.

At the table on my right, three college-aged guys kept switching languages. One spoke primarily German, though he appeared to be Japanese. Then he’d speak in perfect English. One appeared to be Italian, but his English was quite good.The third appeared to be American, but he could switch to Italian mid-sentence.

When the waiter brought their bill, they calculated what each owed and asked to pay each part with a different credit card. The poor waiter, who spoke very little English, became somewhat confused by this turn of events. The American student gave the amounts, in English, and the waiter repeated in Italian as he wrote down the amounts. I heard the American say, “Fifty for this one,” and the waiter say, “Quindici per questa.” The waiter had understood 15 for 50, a common error—even for mother-tongue speakers.

I didn’t want to jump in to a conversation that was clearly none of my business, but I learned later that they got it all sorted out at the register. When the waiter brought my bill, I asked him about it and gave him a mini-English lesson: Dov’è l’accento, c’è la cifra. (The digit is where you hear the accent.) FIFty is 50; fifTEEN is 15. He was very pleased and asked I teach English in Florence. Too bad I had to say “No.”

Thursday, July 4, 2013

All Roads Lead to Rome

By Patricia Winton

The Appian Way
We all know the phrase. It means the same as “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” That is, there’s more than one way to reach a goal or to get what you want. But did you know that the phrase has an historical origin? That at one time, all roads—at least in the known Western world—did lead to Rome? From ancient times, Romans constructed a network of paved courses going south to ports leading to other points on the Mediterranean and north to points over the Alps. These arteries originally provided efficient modes for troop movement but eventually became trade routes as well.

Construction on the first road, Via Appia (the Appian Way), began in 312 BC and eventually proceeded 122 miles southeast to Brindisi—a port town for ships heading for Greece and Africa. Other roads followed including the Via Flaminia, the Via Cassia, the Via Aurelia, and others, radiating from Rome like sunbeams. Some of these early roads take their names from the builder.

Fragment of the Golden Milestone
Emperor Caesar Augustus consolidated road-building and established the Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone) in the Roman Forum. From this point, distances along roads throughout the Roman empire were measured and milestones were erected. Eventually, the network included 400,000 km. of roads throughout the republic.

The network throughout the Italian peninsula has proved to be so valuable that modern roads have been build parallel to the originals. The Via Appia has become the Appia Nuova (New Appian Way) but most of the others simply retain the old name while the old road is called, for example, the Flaminia Originale (Original Flaminia). Railway lines often follow the course as well.

Via Flaminia and Flaminia Originale
Many of the roadways still exist in Italy. There’s a section of the Appian Way that hosts limited traffic, but other parts make beautiful walking or bicycling tracks. Recently, I wandered on a section of the Via Flaminia still in use by a limited number of residents living along that stretch. It apparently gets visits from local garbage trucks, too, because I saw trash bins awaiting pickup! And sections of Roman roads have been unearthed throughout the reach of the empire.

With all these roads leading to Rome, is it any wonder that the city has some of the worst traffic congestion in Europe?
Traffic near the Golden Milestone fragment

Friday, June 28, 2013


 By Patricia Winton

In my first post at Italian Intrigues, I asked “Does the World Need Another Blog?” While I expressed skepticism, I launched this effort. And strangely, when I was invited to join the awesome team at Novel Adventurers six months later, I jumped aboard with enthusiasm. During the past 18 months, I’ve had divided loyalties, enjoying the teamwork and camaraderie offered by the group blog and the focus provided by this one devoted to things Italian. Sometimes, I've been stretched too thin, and my efforts here suffered, I think.

My stint at Novel Adventurers is drawing to a close. From now on, my posts will be here, with guest pieces on other blogs from time to time. I hope you will continue to read and enjoy. In the future I'll be writing about weather superstitions, about maladies that seem to occur only in Italy, and as always, about the unbeatable cuisine.

I hope you'll continue to read.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Drinking Walnuts

By Patricia Winton

On a mid-summer evening a few years ago, I joined a group of Italian friends for dinner. Seven of us gathered around a large kitchen table and feasted on lasagna as the first course—a staple for dinner parties because the cook can prepare the pasta ahead of time with no last minute prep needed. On the terrace, our host barbecued fat sausages, steak, and chicken along with eggplant, zucchini, and red peppers. A sumptuous—and typical—Italian summer feast.

Afterward, we ate splendid peaches and cherries. When we were sated, out came the espresso and tiny glasses that signaled a digestivo would follow. When our host brought out the bottle, the Italians began muttering, “Oh, Nocino!” and “Did you make it yourselves?” and “Did you gather the noci at San Giovanni?”

When the dense syrup trickled into my glass, everyone gazed at me. They held their breath as I lifted the glass and sipped. My mouth tingled with a hint of cinnamon and cloves. When I swallowed, the flavor of walnuts lingered. The silence evaporated as everyone began talking at once to let me in on the secret. I understood nothing. Finally, order prevailed, and as I continued taking tiny sips, the story emerged.

An ancient belief held that the dew on the shortest night of the year was a panacea for every illness, especially digestive problems and liver ailments. Traditionally, midsummer was celebrated between June 21 and June 25. In Italy, that became the birthday of St. John the Baptist (June 24). Thus, the dew on the night of June 23 was the most revered.

Walnuts have always been linked to witches and spells, and the superstition required that the dew on the walnuts be collected by a barefoot virgin to counteract those spells. She was supposed to climb the tree and collect the walnuts without using metal to cut them. The following morning, the liqueur was mixed and set to age until the night before All Saints Day—Halloween—when it was sipped to ward off those witches and spells.

Today, few barefoot virgins collect the walnuts, but some people enjoy the tradition of making the liqueur. That early in the summer, the green walnuts can be easily cut into quarters. They are placed in a glass jar; flavored with cinnamon sticks, cloves, and lemon peel; sweetened with sugar; and infused with grain alcohol and sometimes a bit of red wine.

Nocino is made commercially in Modena (home of balsamic vinegar) where a group called Ordine del Nocino Modenese promotes the region’s Nocino. So, if you don’t have a walnut tree handy, or a barefoot virgin available to collect the nuts, perhaps you can sample this wonderful after-dinner drink at home anyway.

Today’s post is late, but it coincides with the day for collecting the walnuts, June 23. Changes are coming to Italian Intrigues. Beginning next week, I’ll be posting here every Thursday.My last essay at Novel Adventurers will appear next week as well.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Summer Treat—Pesto

By Patricia Winton

I’m writing this post under duress. Not duress, exactly, but under orders.

There’s a woman in Rome who’s been my student for the past ten years. We meet weekly just to talk, to help keep her English speaking skills honed. Last week, I checked the time just as I rang the bell and was horrified to discover that I was an hour early. When she opened the door, I offered to go away for an hour, but she ushered me into the kitchen. “I’m cooking,” she said and steered me to a chair.

Strictly speaking, she wasn’t cooking. She was preparing pesto. As she stripped the basil
leaves from the stalks and chunked the Parmigiano-Reggiano, I had a ringside seat. We chatted as we do about this and that. When she finished, I got to sample the finished product. And she said to me, “When you put this in your blog, you have to say it’s Olimpia Pallavicino’s recipe—not yours.” And so it is.

Olimpia didn’t measure anything; she just prepared it by instinct. I’ve tried to standardize the recipe, using American measurements (with metric equivalents in parentheses).

Pesto Milanese

2 cups basil leaves, lightly packed. Olimpia used the leaves from three stems.
1/3 cup pine nuts (40 grams) Olimpia stressed that you must use the best pine nuts you can find.
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (45 grams)
1/2 to 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (120-160 ml)
1 clove garlic (optional) Olimpia omitted the garlic.

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Olimpia did not grate the cheese. Instead she added it in chunks. She used a blender, and it took a while for the cheese to be completely pulverized. As a result, the pesto was very smooth.

Olimpia planned to serve the pesto with rice that evening, but for pasta she recommended using fusilli because there are so many nooks and crannies for the pesto to cling to.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Tiramisù Is Out of This World

By Patricia Winton

When Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano arrives at the International Space Station next week, he’ll be dining on familiar food. The new ISS menu includes lasagna, risotto with pesto and another with mushrooms, caponata (a mixed vegetable dish including eggplant, zucchini, onions, and tomatoes), eggplant Parmesan, and for dessert—tiramisù. While it isn’t the first time an Italian has gone to the space station, it’s the first time for authentic Italian food. Heretofore, meals consumed there originated with the United States space agency, NASA, or its Russian counterpart, Roskosmos.

Chef Davide Scabin, whose Combal.Zero in Castello di Rivoli, near Turin, ranks as one of the world’s 50 best restaurants and holds two Michelin stars, developed the menu. He spent a year and a half researching ways to devise tasty, flavorful dishes while adhering to NASA’s strict guidelines.

All food headed for the space station must be treated to remove bacterial contamination, dehydrated, and packed in individual aluminum pouches. Each meal must also have a 36-month shelf life and be prepared without salt. Against this rigorous backdrop, Chef Scabin discovered another challenge. “The olfactory system doesn’t function at 100 percent in space. The astronauts eat with the sensation of having a cold,” he said in a recent interview. He further explained that for flavors to be fully appreciated, both the senses of taste and smell must work together.

Chef Scabin experimented with ways to concentrate the flavor in the foods he prepared. He developed 15 different dishes—including Parmitano’s requested lasagna and risotto—before settling on the five that have already arrived on the ISS.

The scheme to send Italian food into space has given a boost to the Made in Italy program that promotes Italian products at home and abroad and has renewed interest in scientific studies. 

The dishes were unveiled with much fanfare in February at an event for the Italian and European space agencies and government dignitaries. Chef Scabin himself placed a plate of lasagna in front of Parmitano. 

Afterwards, Parmitano embarked on a tour of schools engaging students in discussions of the importance of studying science. Parmitano talked about the experiments that he will be doing on the space station, including work with emulsions that have applications in many fields, including paints. He  adds, “Being Italian there is one field that is important to me, again it is the culinary art: a lot of the things that we make when we cook are emulsions.”

The dishes in the new menu have also been sampled by members of an international astronaut training program. One element of the training includes sending a multi-national group of astronauts into a cave for a week to gain experience working in a confined space in a multicultural environment. Before going underground in Sardinia, the astronauts gave thumbs up to Chef Scabin’s food. The beginning of this video shows their reactions.

Everyone eating the Italian space food is getting a good value. The average price per person for a meal at Combal.Zero is 160 euros—about 200 dollars. Chef Scabin has dropped hints that there is a “special celebration meal” for the ISS crew. Since Parmitano turns 37 on September 27, I’m guessing that’ll include birthday cake.

Astronaut Luca Parmitano will be blogging, in English, from space. You can follow him here. I blog on alternate Thursdays at Novel Adventurers where next week I write about a 19th century woman who revolutionized the way travel guides are written. Please visit my website

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Cat in the Pan

By Patricia Winton

He popped onto my TV screen soon after I moved into my first Roman apartment. The program, La Prova del Cuoco—The Cook’s Challenge—had been on the air for a couple of years at that point. A zany mix of professional chefs, amateur cooks, and even children, the program demonstrated the Italian obsession with food. The most serious notes came from Beppe
Begazzi, an expert on Italian cuisine, and especially, on the basic ingredients. His pedantic pronouncements about where to forage for the best porcini, how to cook bistecca fiorentina, when to eat sausage, or how to ensure the freshest salad greens provided a seriousness to the otherwise rapid pace of the show. His dark eyes and closely cropped white hair gave authority to what he said. Often clad in a plaid shirt with a bolo tie or a sweater, he fascinated me. I’ve learned a great deal from Beppe.

When I began creating characters for my mystery stories, I realized that my heroine needed a sidekick. A schoolmasterish figure like Beppe would do well. From this kernel of an idea, Nino Nardo emerged. He’s about 30 years younger than Beppe, who’s in his 70s. Unlike Beppe, his bald head shines above an impeccable business suit. Over time, Nino has become very real to me. He adopts his professorial voice when he wants to make sure the heroine understands something. He recognizes his weakness, and often gives her an apologetic smile when he’s gone too far.

Beppe, too, can be over the top, but in my mind, Nino is such a separate entity that his image wasn’t tarnished when Beppe fell from grace a couple of years ago. At the time, Antonella Clerici, the show’s host who had been working with Beppe for several years, was on maternity leave. She knew how to slow him when he rode his hobby horse too fast. Her replacement, a former beauty queen named Elisa Isoardi, did not.

In the segment that got him fired, he talked about coniglio del tetto—roof rabbbit—a term used to describe cats. In earlier shows, he had talked about how people ate everything, including cats, during the hungry 1930s and 40s. On the broadcast in question, he gave a recipe. Poor Elisa stood mute, even sinking behind props, as Beppe described how to wash the cat in a flowing stream for three days before cooking.

As I look at the program in Youtube now, I think he was winding her up. The station’s manager had recently announced that Elisa would remain on the show, barring Antonella’s return after her maternity leave. I think Beppe was quite possibly trying to demonstrate what little control Elisa had. Animal rights groups denounced the program, talk shows debated the issue, and Beppe didn’t return. Antonella told journalists that she knew how to keep Beppe in check, but Elisa’s lips quivered as she spoke about her cat, Othello.

Things are back to normal in the world of television now. Antonella hosts the show again, and last year, Beppe returned as well. In my fictional world, Nino is headed for trouble, but not for eating cats.

I write on alternate Thursdays at Novel Adventurers. I hope you’ll drop by. And please visit my website at

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Rite of Spring

By Patricia Winton

Spring has finally arrived in Rome and with it fava beans, known simply as Le Fave here. You know they’re coming a couple of weeks before they’re available because these notices begin appearing outside shops selling fresh vegetables: This establishment sells fresh fava beans.

When I first noticed these signs ten years ago, I thought it meant everyone was anticipating the arrival of this venerable vegetable. I’ve since learned that there is a rare, though serious, allergy that can be triggered by inhaling the fumes released by these beans, much less eating them. Fortunately, perhaps, the condition is genetic, so you probably know if you’re vulnerable and should stay away from shops displaying the notice. But the signs still excite me because I know the treat will be here soon.

Favas were the only legumes eaten by Europeans prior to explorations of the New World. They have been a mainstay in the diets of Asians, Europeans, Middle Easterners, and North Africans for centuries, and it’s believed that North Africans may have begun eating them as early as 6,000 BC. Known by many names—broad beans, Windsor beans, field beans, or bell beans—favas are a harbinger of spring wherever they’re grown.

In Rome, May 1 celebrations—Labor Day here—include raw fava beans and pecorino cheese. But the real spring treat is vignarola, a medley of vegetables available concurrently as the weather warms: artichokes (just ending the season), favas, and peas. It’s a labor-intensive dish best prepared while seated at a table outdoors, accompanied by a friend and a glass of white wine. You can shell the legumes and clean the artichokes while enjoying the sunshine. When all the vegetables have been preped, move indoors for the cooking.


1 1/2 cups shelled peas
1 1/2 cups shelled and peeled fava beans*
2 large artichokes, cleaned ** and cut into eighths
1 lemon
2 large spring onions, thinly sliced
1/2 head Romaine lettuce, cut horizontally into strips
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup cubed bacon (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the bacon, cooking and stirring until it begins to brown (if you’re omitting the bacon, move to step 2).

2. Add the spring onions; cook until they soften.

3. Add the artichokes, Romaine, salt, and pepper. Stir well and cover. Reduce heat to lowest setting and cook about 10 minutes.
4. Stir in the peas and favas. Cook an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

5. Serve warm or hot. It can be a starter course or a main dish. It also works well as a sauce for pasta.

  * A video showing how to clean fava beans
** A video showing how to clean artichokes