In summertime, the living is easy. Grandparents walk hand in hand, bare-armed, as little ones skip down the street in bright plaid shorts and thongs and sing out of tune. Three generations of strong women sit on café terraces, and passersby don’t have to ask if they are related. Lovers love each other more than ever, their blood heated by the sun. Even the flowers overflow onto the sidewalk, expressing their joy to be alive.
I wish I were on this beach in Normandy today, walking on the Trouville promenade, the French flag flying high and proud, the sea breeze in my locks. I might fling off that long, thick dress with its petticoat, however, and walk shoeless into the sea and stick my toes in the chilly water, before going up for coffee and a Madeleine in that little tower in the half-timber house looking out to sea. That’s me in the blue dress, of course; I always wear a color that matches the sky.
This painting is from the current exhibit at the Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris. By Claude Monet, The Boardwalk on the Beach at Trouville, 1870.
This guide is the testament of a woman who based her cooking life on the truth of every dish she cooked and taught, the vigorous truth of clear, uncluttered taste, taste that arises neither from obeisance to dogma, nor from a craving for attention, but evolves inspired by, and respectful of, the ingredients that nourish it.–Victor Hazan in the introduction to Ingredienti
Marcella Hazan, the “godmother of Italian cooking” and the woman many credit with bringing Italian cuisine to the U.S., died in 2013, leaving behind two years’ worth of handwritten notes in Italian in preparation for Ingredienti. Her lifetime collaborator, Victor Hazan, translated and edited these notes, resulting in what is undoubtedly a classic before its time.
With Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks in my suitcase, I was already “tasting Italy” on my way back from London to my home in France. I had a plan: to use her books to learn how to cook Italian food.
That was nearly twenty years ago. It didn’t take me long to realize that the precious ingredients required were simply not available in provincial France. French supermarkets sold pasta made in France with French flour, not Italian pasta made from grano duro. French tomatoes were watery-tasting, even the canned ones. Mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano were rarities found only in a few exclusive shops in Paris. The French were just starting to get interested in olive oil, although in the Southeast it had long been the fat of choice thanks to its Greek and Roman history.
Disappointment quickly set in. Marcella’s Italian recipes weren’t going to taste of Italy using French ingredients. It is no wonder that she wanted to write Ingredienti. She knew this was a problem when living outside Italy and felt the need to enlighten her readers about how to choose and treat ingredients.
It was only later when I moved to Switzerland, where good-quality Italian ingredients of all kinds — tomatoes, pasta, cheese, fruit — were readily available that I returned to Marcella. From Geneva, it was also easy to travel to Turin to the Slow Food gatherings. During the Terra Madre conference, I’d arrive every morning with a roller suitcase and, over the course of the day, fill it with food to take back to Switzerland.
Later, in my Italian food journey — even when living in Italy — Marcella, and later Victor, became for me household words, their books like a treatise, a bible, that I refer to in times of doubt, for example, when I make “red” spaghettini alle vongole, which I must have made a hundred times using Marcella’s recipe.
As important as this book is, Marcella Hazan’s recipes are not only about ingredients. The true secret to her success is the lucid precision of the explanations. A scientist by training with two doctorates, her instructions are methodical, almost mathematical. She counts in minutes and half minutes, and you can count on what she says. Though her cookbooks were not written as culinary classes per se, once you’ve followed her risotto instructions a couple of times, you are struck by the rigorousness of the recipe, of how each step is in its proper place, and each time given is exact, and it becomes like a work of art or a perfect mathematical equation, with no excess and no frill.
Ingredienti is indeed a testament to Marcella Hazan’s undying commitment not only to Italian cooking, but also to the importance of choosing products and the actual process of shopping, on which we put too little emphasis. Marcella had an intimate relationship with products, knowing them inside and out as if they were the baby she’d raised. “Choose a pepper by its size, shape, and heft. It should be large, heavy, shiny, firm, and cubical in form. The long tapered ones are not as solidly meaty.” Now you have a clear image in your mind of what to look for next time you buy a pepper. The entire book is like this, leaving you with the impression that you’d been going to a market class with Marcella for a week and held the artichokes or peppers or onions in your hands.
Speaking of extra-virgin olive oil, she says, “if olive oil were a drug, it would have a place of honour among miracle drugs,” saying that “it well might be the most significant contribution to my survival.” Although she embraces the use of lard and butter, used in her native Emilia-Romagna, olive oil was the superstar in her kitchen.
On the important subject of pasta: one can’t say fresh pasta is always better than dried pasta. Fresh pasta, made with eggs and flour, longs for butter and cream, which seep into the crevices of its rough surface; dried pasta, made with water and flour, is a perfect marriage for olive-oil and tomato-based sauces, which slide gracefully around it. You’ll never look at pasta the same way once you’ve “consumed” this chapter; in fact, you’ll want to read it over and over, making sure not to miss a single point.
She tells you everything you need to know about Parmigiano-Reggiano, not to be confused with generic parmesan cheese. Its goodness depends on the origin of the milk, the breed of cow, the age, the season, and, of course, the method used to make it. Though this is not a recipe book, Marcella throws in the prize of Victor’s grandmother’s recipe for Parmigiano crostini, not to be missed.
The book is broken down by category of ingredient, including “Produce,” “The Essential Pantry,” and “Salumi,” with individual chapters devoted to classic Italian ingredients such as artichoke, eggplant, and tomatoes; pasta, risotto rice, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and red wine vinegar; prosciutto, pancetta, and lardo, and a whole host of other products.
For those who live in locations in the U.S. where Italian ingredients are not available in the same way, just as I did in France, the book includes a fairly exhaustive list of online suppliers of good-quality ingredients with precise indications of what to order from whom.
Count on reading the book from front to cover in one or two sittings, and then keeping it on your kitchen shelf for easy, repeated reference, as you might do with a prayer book. As with all of Marcella and Victor Hazan’s collaborations, there is never an extraneous word, sentence, or idea, so you’ll want to read the important passages numerous times.
Like a yogi, Marcella repeated the same “postures” over and over, meditating upon the ingredients, seeking the truth in them with a focused faith and methodical effort. As a result, Ingredienti reads much like a text written by a spiritual master in old age. It is concrete proof of her dedication; it is the wisdom of years lived in perfect harmony with food, based on her immeasurable knowledge and intimate relationship with ingredients, but also on an almost spiritual reverence for their integrity. It is, indeed, a testament of Marcella and the truth she sought by going to the essence of every foodstuff she touched, and of the truth she attained in her reasoned, scientific manner.
It’s built in a marsh — thus the name, Château du Marais — and the water you see in front is the overflow from what you call the plan d’eau in French, meaning literally “water plane,” which is basically a mirror lake. As soon as there is sun, you can see a silvery reflection of the house, and sometimes the clouds, in the water. I lived in a bit of this house for 18 years. Because the little lake and the house are almost at the same level for the sake of aesthetics, and because the house is built on filled-in marsh, it takes very little to flood it. We always had our rubber boots ready and many the time I had to walk through knee-deep water and across the courtyard to get out. We’d park our cars on higher ground and wade to them if we truly had to go somewhere outside our little world. It was like being a princess locked inside a castle, except I wasn’t a princess. Maybe that’s why I sometimes feel peas under my mattress.
Publication of Marcella’s last book, Ingredienti, on July 12, 2016, translated and edited by Victor Hazan
At Easter Rome is bursting with pilgrims. They gather from across the Catholic globe and descend on the Eternal City like flocks of birds returning from their wintering grounds. Nuns cluster like crows, standing in line for the wonderful gelato, then swish down the narrow streets, rosaries jostling against coni.
I too visited Rome at Easter on a pilgrimage and, while my quest was corporeal, it was no less spiritual, for I had come in search of the Paschal Lamb. I wanted to cook Abbacchio alla Cacciatora. This dish of early spring lamb can only be prepared during a few short weeks as the lamb required is but one month old. The Italian sheep are a smaller breed to those farmed in the UK and, consequently, the lambs are smaller too. At their tender age, the lambs have only drunk milk. The thigh bone is no longer than that of a chicken drumstick. The meat is tender beyond description.
I discovered this dish while searching for recipes to prepare on a family holiday in Rome — as the old adage suggests, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” My chosen recipe was from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, a treasure trove of Italian cuisine. She describes the dish as a celebrated Rome speciality, which suggested to me that to cook it in Rome was imperative.
On the morning of our anticipated feast, my family set out early for the Campo de’ Fiori where I expected to find the full list of my ingredients, as the market stalls and small shops surrounding the square sell every culinary delight one could need for a happy life. On arriving at the Campo, my young sons were immediately intent on securing football shirts before my attention was diverted. For the princely sum of 10 Euros apiece, they each walked off in a “fake” footie shirt bearing the name of Totti, Roma’s favourite son. Their attire had a magical effect as they were soon patted on the head and smiled at by every man we passed, from the local stall owner to the guards in the Vatican! The universal language of football and the passion it evokes is at least equal to the glories of cuisine amongst Italian men. Perhaps the food served up at the Stada di Roma is an improvement on the hotdog and chips ubiquitously sold to English football fans attending a game on home turf.
But what of the lamb? The Campo hosted a butchery stall where I explained my mission. The butcher set about chopping up the meat of tiny carcasses, not a sight for the squeamish or sentimental nor for vegetarians or the virtuous. The meat was delicately wrapped in greaseproof paper and settled in my shopping bag. I set off for the Salumeria in search of salted anchovies. The Italian delicatessen was an Aladdin’s cave filled with oils, vinegars and relishes of every kind. Huge hams formed a sculptural installation on the ceiling. Tiny tins contained exotic ingredients. There was an array of pancetta, prosciutto and other meats, fresh pasta of every hue and flavour, pesto and parmesan wheels, an endless store of delights to bring a rush of excitement to the most jaded palate.
The customers discussed their requirements with the shop assistants who acknowledged the importance of every purchase and handled the food courteously, each item wrapped with care. My request for salted anchovies led to a debate between two assistants as to which anchovy would be better suited to Abbacchio. A third joined in and asked to see my recipe which I had removed from my bag to check on whether any guidance was offered by Ms. Hazan herself. He shook his head gravely and announced to my fellow customers that he had never prepared Abbacchio in this way and that, in his opinion, the anchovies had no place in the dish. I decided to have the casting vote and soon 10 anchovies were laid out. My shopping trip gave slow food a new meaning. Every ingredient was deliberated over, the assistants presented as specialists in their field who contribute their knowledge to enhance the food that will end up later on your plate.
Although described as a dish that is slowly pot roasted, the cooking time was surprisingly short due to the tenderness of the meat. The lamb was browned in batches. Then salt, pepper, chopped garlic, rosemary and dried sage were added before the meat was dusted with flour. Once the meat had been turned and it had darkened, the vinegar was added. The recipe does not specify what sort of vinegar to use but I think that balsamic adds great value to meat and so in went more vinegar than seemed sensible. The aroma that filled the kitchen at that moment was exquisite and the gathering guests were drawn to the tiny galley to discover the source. The anchovies were mashed and added at the end of cooking, giving the sauce a salty punch.
Within an hour we sat to eat on a terrace up above the city, the weather warm enough, even on an April evening, for al fresco dining. The Chianti flowed and the conversation was convivial but it was the lamb that stole the show. Meltingly tender, the meat was basted in its sauce which married the sweet balsamic and salty anchovies with the garlicky back note of herbs. A simple accompaniment of fave alla romana was served. It is true that food is best enjoyed when much anticipated and I had been waiting all day. It was declared by many as the best lamb they had ever eaten and who am I to disagree? Even the football shirts proudly bore the stains of a meal well savoured.
The Abbacchio grows ever more delicious in my memory as the years go by, tormenting me with the knowledge that I cannot recreate it in my own kitchen. Perhaps I too will have to make an annual Easter pilgrimage to Rome. As for the football shirts, they unravelled on their first wash and Totti will someday be sold to a rival team. In a world where everything is transient and football heroes are fickle, my sons are learning that when it comes to food, some things don’t change and old traditions can always be relied on to provide enduring pleasure
Madeleine Morrow is a freelance food and travel writer based in London and writes for several newspapers based in the U.S. and in South Africa. She also has two blogs. Kitchen Journeys (www.kitchenjourneys.net) has a focus on travelling with family in search of culinary adventure. It also covers restaurants reviews in London. From The Healthy Heart (www.fromthehealthyheart.com) has a focus on lowering cholesterol through eating delicious food.
From the publisher Simon and Schuster’s website:
When Marcella Hazan died in 2013, the world mourned the passing of the “Godmother of Italian cooking.” But her legacy lives on, through her cookbooks and recipes, and in the handwritten notebooks filled with her thoughts on how to select the best ingredients—Ingredienti, coming out on July 12. Her husband and longtime collaborator Victor Hazan has translated and transcribed these vignettes on how to buy and what to do with the fresh produce used in Italian cooking, the elements of an essential pantry, and salumi, resulting in this new book.
Before you know how to cook, you must know how to shop. From Artichokes to Zucchini, Anchovies to Ziti, Ingredienti offers succinct and compelling advice on how to choose vegetables, pasta, olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto, and all of the key elements of Marcella’s classic meals. Organic isn’t necessarily best, boxed pasta can be better than fresh. Marcella’s authoritative wisdom and surprising tips will change the way you cook. Her clear, practical guidance in acquiring the components of good cooking is helpful wherever you choose to shop—in supermarkets, farmers’ markets, specialty food stores, or online.
Based on sixty years of almost daily visits to the market to choose the ingredients of that day’s meal, Ingredienti is a life’s work, distilled—an expression of Marcella’s judgments, advice, and suggestions. Uncomplicated and precise, this volume will be essential to home cooks eager to produce meals in the same delicious style Marcella was the first to introduce to America.
The rain stopped in its tracks and the summer came down in a billow and I got out my summer dresses. The dogs lay down in the grass high from rain, rolling and frolicking with their limber legs toward heaven as the blue sky pushed its way through the month-long gray clouds. Teenage girls walked bare-armed, not yet tattooed, and young women strolled bare-legged in vintage print dresses resembling those in the Liberation photos but with tattoos blending into the flowers of their dresses. In 1944, it was D-Day on the shores of Normandy, but Chartres was occupied until mid-August, with the first American soldiers arriving in Proust’s beloved Illiers-Combray at 1 p.m. on August 15 and in Chartres at 10:30 a.m. on August 16th, my birthday. The people here love Americans; even young people repeat the stories their grandparents recounted of the American tanks driving up our street of St. Pierre a few days later and the 85-year-old butcher hugs me every time he sees me, as if I had been there and helped. The first time I came here, it was as if I’d found my home so far away from home, where I could wear pink and blue floral dresses like my grandmothers’ and wear white socks and sandals and dance in the same streets Jean Moulin had walked and feel free.
“A bare-chested sun-tanned peasant threshes the wheat, section of August from the Zodiac and the labors of the months stained glass window, 1217, in the ambulatory of Chartres Cathedral, Eure-et-Loir, France. This calendar window contains scenes showing the zodiacal symbol with its corresponding monthly activity. Chartres cathedral was built 1194-1250 and is a fine example of Gothic architecture. Most of its windows date from 1205-40 although a few earlier 12th-century examples are also intact. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.”–Art Archive
My adopted hometown of Chartres is in the Beauce region, the breadbasket of France. Large, flat wheat fields surround the single hill of Chartres, topped with the most beautiful Gothic Cathedral in the world. You can see the cathedral for miles when driving across the fields, and a quite magical view it is, its spires dominating the flat farmlands. No wonder people have been making pilgrimages here for at least 5,000 years.
Chartrains, as we call the people from here, come from the land. Everyone in the region has a farm or has family who owns one, and because of the abundance of grains of every kind — wheat, barley, corn, rye and many more — grains are an integral part of the local diet.
This traditional recipe is referred to as “bread from the mill,” but no one knows the exact origin of that name. In the past, the Beaucerons (the inhabitants of the Beauce region), of Celtic and Druidic origins, ate this on the Jour des Morts, the day of the dead, which fell on November 2 after All Saint’s Day, when the living were said to communicate with the dead, when tombs and graves were said to open so that the world of the visible and invisible could intermingle for a short period.
Early in the morning of November 2, local bakers made pain aux morts, or “bread to the dead” (this could even be translated in a more ghoulish manner, “bread (made from) the dead”), out of flour and milk, for a traditional 10 a.m. breakfast before going to the cemetery.
In the nineteenth century, the church decided that All Saints Day sufficed and such pagan customs were more or less done away with. Beaucerons continue to eat this bread during the All Saints celebrations, however, calling it “bread from the mill” instead of “bread to the dead.”
I often serve this recipe with apéritif, but it can also make a vegetarian dinner, and can, of course, be eaten year round.
6 pains au lait or 3-4″-long milk breads
6 cups milk
1 1/2 cups Swiss cheese or similar, grated
The Portable Feast: Creative Meals for Work and Play is the first cookbook I’ve read by Jeanne Kelley and I’m already a fan. It’s rare to find a cookbook that is both doable and in pace with the times. We all buy more pre-prepared food than we’d ideally like to. It is undoubtedly less healthy and more expensive, but in a fast-moving, do-too-much society it suits our needs. Carryout food also produces an inordinate amount of waste in terms of packaging. These recipes encourage wholesome eating for people on the go, dishes we can make ahead and take to work or school, on an airplane or a picnic, without producing waste, because Kelley also explains how we can equip our kitchens with reusable containers and gives us the names of manufacturers, making it all easy. The recipes are easy to follow and when she lists ingredients that might not be available all over the country, she takes care to suggest substitutes. This is the perfect gift for millennials or for anybody who is health-conscious, a bit taste-adventurous, and on the move. No more need to buy carryout, nor to feel guilty about not cooking. You’ll tantalize your taste buds, be healthier, and pollute less.
The Portable Feast: Creative Meals for Work and Play, cookbook by Jeanne Kelley, published by Rizzoli, April 12, 2016.