Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cornettos, Cornettos, Cornettos!

Well, having already touched on and analyzed the espresso, I thought I'd move onto the other half of the typical Italian breakfast, the cornetto. The word cornetto translates to what we call a croissant, and I'll tell you, I was thrilled to be given the license to eat one or more a day. Cornettos in Italy mostly aren't as light or flaky as some of the better ones I've had at places such as Pain Perdu here in Toronto or in some of the better boulangeries in Montreal, so I suppose less butter is used and the dough and cold butter are folded over into one another less in the process of making it. At good pasticcerias (pastry or cake shops) the variety of cornettos was often astounding. I didn't take any pictures within pasticcerias for fear of looking like a tourist (as if The Mixmaster's backpack and my map didn't give us away), but they often contained long, gleaming glass cases filled with every type of pastry imaginable: little tartlets fill with custard and topped with fresh fruit, these cunning little shell-like things that appeared to be filled with custard, and cakes, cakes, cakes.

On the average day in Rome, The Mixmaster would sleep in a little and take her time getting dressed, while I would shower more quickly and pop down to Squisito for my morning cappuccino. Then I would walk over to the corner of Via Merulana and Via dei Statuto where there was a lovely pasticceria (if I bought our cornettos from there, they were about 30 euro cents cheaper than if I got them from Squisito, and the selection was much better; we paid about 80 euro cents or about 1.50$ per cornetto). I went to the slightly stern woman at the cash, paid for our cornettos, then went and served myself at the counter. They were apricot jam-filled, custard-filled, chocolate-filled wonders, they were topped with apple slices or powdered sugar or chocolate crumbs; I'm getting nostalgic just thinking about it. The Mixmaster and I would eat our lovely pastries on the train to Pompei, or in a piazza as a mid morning snack, or in our hotel room, while we planned our day's excursions.
One little caveat: er, after several days of indulgence in white flour pasta and white flour cornettos, the average health conscious North American might wish that they had packed their psyllium husk along with their Gravol and Pepto Bismol. Apparently I hadn't been thinking! Because I didn't know what sort of help I'd get at the local pharmacia if I went in and said, "Mi scusi signore, vorrei Metamucil, per favore" (excuse me sir, I'd like Metamucil, please)!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Espresso, Plantations, Sambo Imagery, and Colonization in Reverse

The Mixmaster and I just got back from Italy, and yes, it was lovely. Everything I dreamed it would be. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting on my trip, and places to eat (and places not to, of course) in Bella Italia. But I thought I'd begin my discussion of my whirlwind 8 days there with that quintessential Italian drink, espresso.
On day 2 of our trip, the first full day in Rome, I headed down to Squisito (the cafe just below our hotel) on Via Merulana and had my first cappuccino. We here in North America really drink coffee-flavoured steamed milk. The Starbucks "venti" is a travesty! The average cappuccino in Italy is about half the size of a regular ceramic coffee cup, and is drunk in a few minutes while chatting with the barista at the bar. Or, in my case, smiling shyly, and saying "Grazie, Signore," when I leave. The cappuccinos at Squisito (which translates to delicious in English), were 90 euro cents, and were frothy, not overly bitter, and creamy. The milk seemed to be full fat, which made for a silkier tasting beverage. And on offer was a dusting of premium quality sweetened cocoa powder. The baristas could even make heart shapes when pouring the frothed milk into the cup. You might want to check out this website to learn about all things espresso.

Espresso beans, sugar, cocoa: these are all goods that come from countries of the south (either the Caribbean, South and Central America or Africa). Edward Said, writer of the pivotal Orientalism, writes that European orientalists saw the East as a place of rejuventation, as a place where raw energy could come from that could invigorate the West. But we cannot forget the actual imported raw materials, that are turned into such highly prized food and other luxury goods made in Europe (this expands too to the highly regarded fashion industry, in which Egyptian cotton is a prized staple).

This is an image of the sugar packets at Squisito. I quickly snapped a photo, and brought one home with me, for my research. Racist imagery of black people (and others) in food is not new, of course. We here in Canada and the US have seen smiling black people feeding us everything from table syrup to rice (I'm thinking of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben respectively). And the less critical among up might say, "What of it? It's just a happy man in a hat!" without knowing of the history of caricatures of blacks. And they're always happy. If "moca" man wasn't smiling, we'd have to think of the conditions on his sugar plantation, Italy's (albeit limited) past forays into imperialism in such places as Libya, and our espresso might start to taste a little bitter on the tongue.
But one of the most exciting things I found in Italy was the scores of people of colour! I had thought that The Mixmaster and I would be stared at, and possibly experience racism in Italy, but Rome had more people of colour than Montreal, easily. There were sushi restaurants, and "Cinese food" (sic) places, and it made me think of a poem I read for one of my comps, Colonization in Reverse by Louise Bennett, in which the poet speaks of how the Empire "strikes back". I'm including a few stanzas here (the full poem is available online):

Wat a joyful news, miss Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in Reverse

By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town,
By de ship-load, by de plane load
Jamica is Englan boun.

Dem a pour out a Jamaica,
Everybody future plan
Is fe get a big-time job
An settle in de mother lan.

What an islan! What a people!
Man an woman, old an young
Jus a pack dem bag an baggage
An turn history upside dung!

Yes, struggling African Italians, and Asian Italians might find it hard to challenge the hegemony of Italy's history and culture, but they speak back to the narrative of the Dolce Vita and make it their own, by adding "Cinese" food to the menu, or lapsing into Hindi when selling Venetian masks (as one vendor did with us). The Venetian South Asian we spoke with spoke Italian, some English, and Hindi. And it got me to thinking about what his life might be like. Similar to what mine was in Montreal, I guess, a riot of multiple languages and cuisines. Colonization in Reverse, indeed.
God, I wish I wasn't so jet lagged...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Croissants and Alphonsoes does Italy

Well, in two short days, The Mixmaster and I will be leaving for bella Italia! I have about a million things to do before my trip, including figuring out what a "Farfalle con pomodorino fresco, rucola e mozzarella" is, because I'll be eating it, if all goes according to plan, along with two other courses, with bottled water and wine at a "menu fissi" (fixed menu), in Florence. A few things I've learned about Italian dining, and will be careful of in my 9 days there are:
  • Espresso bars charge about triple if you sit down. If you're not tired, and just need a quick caffeine fix, getting your espresso at the bar is a better option. Oh, and tipping is a must (where isn't it?).
  • Italian restos often tack on hidden charges, often even charging for tap water, and bread baskets. Being smart about the bill and asking if what the cost of everything is is a good idea.
  • Always be certain to clarify what size of an item you want. If you want a small slice of pizza, ask for a "piccolo," or you may pay more than you want.
Some things I'm dying to experience are the Trevi fountain in Rome, seeing David's naughty bits, eating a "bagna" boiled beef sandwich in Mercato Centrale in Florence, and going to Naples, the birthplace of the margherita pizza (a pizza with the colours of the Italian flag, for you nationalists out there...). And also sitting in cafes, writing postcards. Maybe going to St Peter's Square, and thumbing my nose at the Pope.
My goal is to record as much of my culinary experiences as I can, and report back. And hopefully, I'll have more to say than "Era squisito!" (That was delicious!).
Hope all of you out there have a lovely week and a half.