The most familiar Italian sweets eaten during the Christmas season are panettone and pandoro, with the ongoing discussion about who prefers which one and whether or not panettone should have candied fruit peel in it or just raisins. Other confections that are eaten at this time of year are struffoli, zeppole, panforte, pan giallo and pan pepato. I was interested in discovering biscotti that are typical of the season. My family always bought ricciarelli for Christmas. They’re from Siena, originating in the fifteenth century, and are a diamond-shaped, dense, delicious type of almond macaroon. Other biscotti recipes that I found are often based on ingredients that are usual for the festive season: nuts, dried fruit, honey and spices. There are mostaccioli which, in the Neapolitan version, are made with chocolate, honey, almonds and a spice mixture called pisto. Also from the Campania region are roccoco’ cookies which are crispy, spicy (that pisto again) and doughnut-shaped. Susumelle, from Calabria, are glazed cookies made with nuts, dried fruits and honey and lightly spiced with cinnamon or cloves. The Christmas dessert table often includes a croccante, a caramelized nut brittle, and wouldn’t be complete without torroni, hard and soft nougats.
Parmigiano Reggiano: it’s the king of cheeses. It has ancient origins and its characteristics have not changed over centuries, it has one of cheese’s longest documented histories. In the 12th Century in Parma and Reggio Emilia Benedictine monks were already known for their production of hard cheeses. The first written mention of a “formaggio di forma parmigiano” is in 1344 and in that same year Boccaccio describes a mountain made of grated parmigiano in one of his stories. By the 18th Century there were around thirty dairies producing the cheese, today there are some 350 Parmigiano Reggiano producers. Parmigiano Reggiano is made under very strict standards using the milk of cows raised under equally strict standards – hence the quality of Parmigiano is very consistent, always aiming for perfection in texture and taste. The only flexibility allowed is in aging. To be considered Parmigiano Reggiano it must be aged a minimum of 12 months and labels can have only have the designations of 18, 22 and 30 months. A comparison tasting of these variously aged chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano (even better if you do it in Parma…) is really like being in heaven – you totally understand why it’s called il re dei formaggi!
As a reader of mystery books and Italian gialli I have great affection for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano. But coming in a close second is Vicequestore Rocco Schiavone, the protagonist of a series written by Antonio Manzini. He’s bad-tempered and dour, dabbles in some illegal activities but is a good investigator. He’s imperfect and intelligent. He’s from Rome but has been posted to Aosta as punishment for taking the law into his own hands and beating up the criminal son of a well-connected person. He hates everything in Aosta, the cold, the mountains and the ugly snow boots everyone wears. He smokes weed in his office. He has lovers but is in love with and has long conversations with his wife – who is dead. The stories are gritty and tightly written, often a commentary on contemporary society. They’ve also been adapted into a highly watchable and atmospheric TV series starring Marco Giallini who inhabits the role of Schiavone perfectly.
Coinciding with the many events commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, the Metropolitan Museum is displaying one of his most extraordinary works, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. The painting is on loan from the Vatican Museums. This unfinished work, which was started around 1483, brings to mind other paintings by Leonardo because of its background landscape and tones of ochre and green. But what draws one in is mostly the face and posture of the saint which strongly evoke his devotion and at the same time his torment. It seems almost trite to say it but Leonardo’s psychological understanding and artistic genius are on full view in this painting. See it.