After enjoying a Negroni as a weekend evening aperitivo I happened to notice a New York Times article discussing the cocktail – which is ever more popular and is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. When I looked into the history behind the cocktail and its name I found the story goes that it was born in Florence sometime between 1917 and 1920 with the year 1919 being the most commonly referenced. It was named after a local aristocrat, Count Camillo Negroni, who was known as an elegant bon viveur. One day the count asked the barman of the Caffe Casoni if he could modify (or fortify) an americano, a popular drink then, by substituting gin for soda. Soon the drink “in the style of the Conte Negroni” became the new rage. The recipe for the classic Negroni is straightforward: equal parts of bitter (typically Campari), sweet vermouth and gin. The drink must be stirred in a cocktail shaker and then poured into an ice-filled glass. Usually an orange rind twist is added. The alternative Negroni Sbagliato (or incorrect) came about when a barman used a brut spumante instead of gin while mixing the drink. Nowadays there are myriad, often delicious, variations on the Negroni but the original version is hard to beat.
Going through old family photos I was struck by the fact that all the men – especially in the first half of the 19th century – were always wearing stylish fedora hats. This made me think of my own teenage years when I went on a search for a perfect men’s Borsalino hat to complete my (I imagined) chic bohemian look. It made me wonder about the mystique attached to the name “Borsalino” and what its history was. It turns out that the iconic hat factory was founded in 1857 in Alessandria, in Piemonte, and named after its founder Giuseppe Borsalino who had trained in Paris as a hat maker. Hats were extremely popular and the Borsalino factory was turning out some 2,500 hats a day by the beginning of the 20th Century and the word “Borsalino” came to be synonymous with a wide-brimmed felt hat. One of the most enduring and recognizable images of the Borsalino is of Humphrey Bogart wearing it in the movie “Casablanca.” As time went on, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s the wearing of hats became less popular and the company produced and sold many fewer hats and even filed for bankruptcy. It has since been taken over by a private equity firm and relaunched, focusing on new markets, innovation and sustainability but without losing touch with its tradition of glamour and cultural significance. Time for a new Borsalino hat?
One of the most frequent Venetian images is that of the gondola with its gondolier standing in the stern and propelling the boat forward with a single long oar. Recently while I was leafing through a children’s book about Venice I read a paragraph about the history of these boats that claimed that the gondola’s original design was inspired by Viking long boats. The story went that in the Middle Ages there had been commercial contact between the Scandinavians and Venetians, both maritime cultures. The Venetians thought that the flat-bottomed nordic boats would be ideal for their lagoons. I had never heard of this fascinating link and tried to find some confirmation of it but have not had any success. Most articles don’t cite any specific origin of the gondola other than to note a mention in a 1094 document and the first images in paintings from the 15th century. These early depictions are of boats that are shorter, wider and less streamlined in appearance than those we know today. In the 1600s the gondola, which was used for private transport, began to look more like the contemporary version both in terms of shape and color. Pitch had always been used for waterproofing, but in 1609 a decree was passed – to limit the excessively gaudy decoration (!) of the gondole – that the entire boat had to be black. Also, until the 20th century the boats often included a removable cabin (felze) which protected passengers both from the weather and from prying eyes. Today gondole are built to standard specifications: 11 meters long, made out of 280 different pieces of wood, slightly asymmetrical (the left side is larger than the right), with a characteristic iron prow-head (fero) that is rich in symbolism. The oar is made of beechwood and rests in an oarlock (forcola) made of walnut. In the past there may have been up to 10,000 gondole that plied the waters of the lagoon; the 400 or so that are left today are no longer a major means of transportation but a tourist attraction and an icon of Venice.
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!