Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Lollipop Guild

By Patricia Winton

Munchkinland isn’t the only place with a Lollipop Guild, but Italy’s Lollipop Guild isn’t here to welcome you; they’re here to stop you. Italian police use the paletta del poliziotto (which resembles a giant lollipop) as a signal for drivers to stop. The paletta is a metal or plastic circle, about ten inches (25 centimeters) in diameter mounted on a stick; one side is red, the other green. Police keep them handy, attached to the doors of squad cars. Spiffy motorcycle cops tuck the lollies inside their boots, making them easy to grab. I’ve seen bicycle troops with the paletta sticking out of saddlebags, and while I haven’t seen them, I suspect the Venetian version of motorcycle patrols use them as well.

Italian motorists, and even pedestrians, know the paletta means stop. Squad cars, sirens wailing, swoosh through intersections with a cop holding the paletta out the window. To the uninitiated, that little circle of red may go unnoticed, but you ignore it at your peril. The police officer with the lolly has the right of way. Fortunately, the sirens are a better signal for most tourists to Italy.

There can be perils for the police, as well. A couple of years ago, a police officer saw a motorist trying to pass another car on a dangerous stretch of road where passing was prohibited. The officer stuck out his paletta to stop the car. It was traveling too fast, and the side mirror of the car struck the paletta, wrenching the officer’s arm and breaking his elbow.

The paletta is also sometimes used in crime. Thieves armed with a counterfeit paletta target cars with foreign tags. In one recent case, such a thief stopped a French man driving a camper. Once the driver opened the window, the thief ordered him to open up the back of the van, which he planned to strip of its valuables. This tourist was lucky. Real police officers came upon the incident. The thief tried to hide his paletta falsa under his jacket, but he was apprehended and the French man went on his way.

In another case, two men impersonating police officers stopped a van carrying three Hungarian tourists, using a counterfeit paletta. One of the tourists became suspicious and asked to inspect the police credentials. This trio enjoyed good fortune as well in that Caribinieri came along in time to interrupt the thieves and take them into custody.

Genuine and Counterfeit Palette

The genuine paletta has a band of white reflective material around the rim with the name of the issuing agency (municipal government, defense department, state department, etc.) with the agency’s seal in the center. Many counterfeits don’t have any identifying marks. So if you’re in Italy, respect that lollipop if you encounter one, but be wary as well. That is, “trust, but verify.”

Please join me on alternate Thursdays at Novel Adventurers. Next week I'm writing about one of my favorite Italian treats.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Chocolate Battle

Today is Valentine’s Day, and if tradition holds, Italian television viewers will be treated to emotional discussions about why Italian chocolate is the best. On cooking segments of news shows. On a consumer affairs show. On the grandaddy of Italian cooking shows “La Prova del Cuoco” (“The Test of the Cook”).

It’s a ranting that has waged for ten years, but its seeds go back to the early 1970s. In 1973, Britain, Ireland, and Denmark produced chocolate using vegetable oils such as palm or karité instead of cocoa butter. Other countries in the European Union had the option of banning chocolate made without cocoa butter. Not only could countries such as France, Belgium, and Italy regulate how chocolate was made within their own borders, they could also ban imports that didn’t follow their rules.

Italy's favorite, gianduia
For 27 years, the European parliament tried to hammer out a compromise to please all 15 member nations. Two primary arguments emerged, economics vs. taste. The cost of cocoa butter continues to rise, argued those who favored economics, while vegetable fats allow manufactures to produce chocolate at a lower cost—a savings passed on to the consumer. But, counter the purists, chocolate made with cocoa butter simply tastes better.

The purists didn’t rely on emotional responses here; they had science on their side. Cocoa butter, it seems, has a melting point that is slightly lower than human body temperature. When chocolate made with cocoa butter goes into the mouth, it melts faster than chocolate made without it. Thus, there is an immediate burst of flavor.

Finally, in 2000, the European parliament voted to allow chocolate made with five percent vegetable oils to be sold across the union. This change in the law meant that Italy and other countries banning British, Irish, and Danish chocolate had to amend their own laws.

Italy and Spain held that chocolate without cocoa butter had to be labeled “substitute chocolate.” These regulations affected the importation of chocolates made in six of the 15 EU states. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled against the southerners in 2003, saying that Italy and Spain, along with other EU members, had to accept chocolate made with other oils as “pure chocolate.”
Italy continued to rebel, requiring that chocolate sold within its borders could only be labeled “pure chocolate” if it contained cocoa butter. The EU court ruled against Italy in 2010, threatening the country with a fine if it didn’t permit chocolate with other oils to have that label.
Thus the annual rant. In Italy, where gusto, flavor or taste, is prized above most anything, we’ll hear about what makes chocolate taste good—that cocoa butter melting immediately in our mouths. I challenge you to a taste test.