While walking around the Union Square area I was struck by the number of chocolate stores, bars and cafes I saw. The one with the largest crowd, extending to a queue outside waiting to go in was the newly opened Nutella Cafe. It made me wonder about the history of the chocolate-hazelnut spread that I’d always been vaguely aware of. It turns out that Nutella descends from a hazelnut and cocoa paste that was fairly common in Piemonte in the period between the two world wars. Chocolate was expensive and the paste was a cheaper treat. Pietro Ferrero, the founder of a family-owned pastry shop in Alba, used the paste in many of his successful creations. His son Michele was responsible for the industrial level production of the paste, now known as Nutella, with its characteristic jars and logo. The popularity of Nutella spread throughout Italy and Europe starting in the early 1960s and reaching its current iconic status. Many of my friends love Nutella in all its forms and various (younger) family members seem to consume vast quantities of it. They would be delighted with the Cafe: it features all sorts of Nutella based confections from cakes to ice cream, brioche sandwiches, parfaits and more. There’s even a section to create your own dessert. Nutella fans can indulge and satisfy their wildest dreams!
The Frick Collection is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Luigi Valadier, subtitled “Splendor in Eighteenth Century Rome.” To me, the name Valadier evoked only the Casina Valadier, a building on the Pincio, in Villa Borghese, where I would meet friends for coffee. (It has now been refurbished and is also a restaurant and event space.) It turns out that the neoclassical Casina was built by the architect Giuseppe Valadier who was the son of the Luigi of the Frick show. Luigi (1726 – 1785) was a master draftsman and designer and a silver- and goldsmith. His parents had moved from France to Rome and his father too was a silversmith – Luigi’s career began in his father’s workshop. Luigi and his assistants produced objects, both religious and secular, for the pope, for noble families and for the tourists (foreign aristocrats) for whom Rome was an important destination on the Grand Tour. Although Valadier’s workshop produced hundreds of objects, most of the silverware and gold was pillaged and melted down during the Napoleonic wars so relatively few works survive today.
The Frick show is divided into three sections. One focuses on religious works, including the complete set of silver and gilt bronze statues from the altar of a cathedral in Monreale. Another is dedicated to secular objects – my favorite is a silver coffee pot with a wooden handle. The third part revolves around what I would call more whimsical works of art that use and include a remarkable range of materials. For the pope, Valadier mounted spectacular antique cameos in a frame that includes other cameos and antique gems. They are rather astounding. Yet the highlight of this section is a “deser” or large table centerpiece comprised of small recreations of ancient temples, arches and obelisks made of an incredible array of stones, marbles and metals. It’s an intricate and stunning masterpiece. All in all, I was glad to learn about this artist who amazed me where I didn’t expect to be amazed.
Earlier this fall I saw two works by Giacomo Puccini at the Met Opera. First, what I thought of as an old standard, La Boheme, in a surprisingly fresh and charming production. Then, La Fanciulla del West, which I remembered as dull but which turned out to be really interesting musically. Reflecting on these operas, I realized I didn’t know very much about Puccini’s life, so I did some reading.
Puccini was born in 1858 in Lucca. For generations his family had been organists and composers linked to Lucca’s main cathedral. Giacomo was expected to follow in this tradition and though initially an indifferent student, by the age of 14 he was an organist at the cathedral. The story goes that after seeing a production of Aida in Pisa in 1876, he developed a passion for composing, threw himself into his studies and was admitted to the Conservatory in Milan in 1880. (In those years he lived with Pietro Mascagni in a form of gayly artistic poverty which one can imagine as the source for the backdrop of La Boheme.) His first opera was La Villi, which had a mixed reception with the public but brought him to the attention of the music publisher Giulio Ricordi who commissioned new operas from Puccini and supported him financially. Puccini’s first major success was Manon Lescaut, followed by the “big three” operas: La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Later would come La Fanciulla, Il Trittico and eventually Turandot. He died in 1924 in Brussels after treatment for throat cancer. Puccini had become famous and financially secure. He had travelled the world to see productions of his operas but his favorite place would remain his house at Torre del Lago, near Viareggio, where his remains are today.
The most interesting biographical info regards his personal life which was somewhat operatic in its drama. In 1904 he married Elvira Gemignani with whom he had been in a relationship since 1884 – when their affair started she was married to someone else. Of course, Giacomo was involved with other women and Elvira was unhappy and jealous. In 1909 she publicly accused a servant, Doria, of having an affair with her husband. Doria, distraught, committed suicide and then it was proven that she was a virgin… Her family brought charges of slander against Elvira, who was sent away to Milan by Giacomo. Elvira was tried but in the interim Giacomo took her back and paid off Doria’s family and the charges were dropped. Sound like the plot of an opera?
There are two things which mark the pre-Lenten days of Carnevale: masks and sweets specific to this time of year. These dolci are part of the climate of excess and partying that precedes the period of abstinence and repentance of Lent. Recipes tend to be from the popular tradition, that is, fairly simple with easily available and cheap ingredients. While there are a few sweets that are baked, such as the Tuscan schiacciata – a (usually) white cake, often orange-scented – fried dolci are really the symbol of this time of year. Every region has variations on this theme, from Alto Adige to Sicily. Throughout the country, similar sweets have different names. The two most common styles are rectangular-shaped dough that is fried and dusted with powdered sugar (frappe, chiacchiere, bugie, crostoli) and balls of dough, sometimes filled, that are then fried (castagnole.) Sounds dull, but when they’re good, they’re very, very good and worth every caloric bite!