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!
A recent New York Times article as a comic strip was a reminder of a classic Italian dessert – trite, ubiquitous, yet delicious – the tartufo. Tartufo means “truffle” and when you look at this chocolate and ice cream confection you can understand the resemblance. The article describes the tartufo as a maraschino cherry surrounded by a half chocolate, half vanilla ice cream ball, the whole of which is encased in a chocolate shell. There are of course many variations on the ice cream, including fruit flavors. My memory of the tartufo at the Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona is of a pure chocolate bomb. The original is said to be the tartufo di Pizzo, in Calabria. This is generally hazelnut ice-cream surrounding a core of chocolate ganache. The whole thing is then rolled in cocoa powder and frozen. In general if you can find a non-industrial, locally-made version, it’s a great treat and totally worth the caloric splurge!
When thinking of food that represents spring, fresh new vegetables come to mind immediately. In Rome one of the most frequently seen spring vegetables are fresh fava beans, often eaten raw with pecorino cheese. A favorite springtime dish – almost a symbol of the beginning of spring – is vignarola. It consists of a mix of fave, fresh peas and artichokes that are sautéed in olive oil with spring onions. The name is said to come from the word vigna (grapevine) because the vegetables used were typically grown in the spaces between the grapevines. As in most Italian dishes, there is no one recipe written in stone: the vegetables are generally in equal proportion with the artichokes prepared Italian-style, outer leaves and fuzzy choke discarded until only the tender parts remain so that they can be sliced. The most traditional recipe also uses shredded lettuce. Some people add mentuccia (a wild mint similar to pennyroyal) and some versions contain guanciale or pancetta. It’s a simple, bright-green, fresh and delicious medley that can be a starter, main course or a side dish.
In Italy Carnevale means not only costumes, masks, playing jokes, parties and parades but also eating lots of sweets at a time of year when excess is celebrated. Most of these – like frappe (or chiacchiere), castagnole and cicerchiata – involve different forms of fried dough. Instead, the Neapolitan ricotta cake called migliaccio is a baked dessert. Its origins can be traced to the Middle Ages and its name derives from the Latin word miliaccium – the traditional bread made of millet flour. Up to the 1700s the term indicated a sweet made by peasants using millet and pig blood (considered particularly nourishing). The Catholic church discouraged the use of blood because it associated it with pagan traditions. Gradually it was substituted by the use of eggs and ricotta, eventually becoming today’s cake which is made with semolina flour. Traditionally the cake is cooked in a copper pan but nowadays it’s more common to see it in an aluminum cake tin. It’s a light(ish) cake, not too sweet, usually with a citrus fragrance. There is no one “original” recipe but this one makes a nice airy cake and a good way to participate in the revelries.