Saturday, September 11, 2010

Coppiette: Far from your basic jerky

Article by Brette A. Jackson
Photo by Brette A. Jackson

Among the many things I do to earn a living in Rome is working as a docent for a tour-company. One of the more popular expeditions that I lead is called “Savoring Rome,” a three-hour degustation-oriented promenade that allows patrons to taste their way through the city. On a typical walk, we visit the old Jewish Ghetto and sample the famed carciofi alla giudia (whole fried artichokes, whose method of cooking was perfected by the area's Jewish inhabitants), and work our way throughout the historical center to partake of pizza, coffee, gelato, chocolate, local cheeses and salumi. Of the latter Lazio produces few varieties, and coppiette (an air-dried, jerky-type of salami stick that hails from the Castelli Romani) is one of the least known. The long strips of desiccated meat have a ruddy color and traces of spices; they're usually met with suspicion, if not outright bewilderment, by most foreigners—“How the hell do you eat that?" I’ve been asked on several occasions. But this ugly duckling that’s part of the country’s pantheon of cured-meats is delicious, and like most edible things born in Italy, they were once a humble source of protein consumed by poor farmers.

Once upon a time coppiette were primarily made from the short, sinewy muscle tissue located around the hind limbs (il garretto) of grazing animals such as goats, sheep, horses and donkeys. When slowly cured or stewed, the meat becomes slightly tenderized. The process was a means of using every part of the precious animal, so that nothing went to waste. The meat was cut into thin strips and seasoned liberally with salt, to promote dehydration, and flavored with fennel seeds and pepperoncino (Italian hot chili pepper flakes). The strips were tied in pairs (thus the name coppiette, or “little couples”) and allowed to dry in front of the hearth of a fireplace for about 60 days—for this reason they were usually prepared during the colder winter months. Once the meat was preserved, it was eaten as a chewy meal with simple bread, and washed down with rough, local wine. Coppiette were later offered as a snack in the area’s taverns (and in some simple eateries in Rome), since the salty, spicy meat would inevitably cause customers to order a round of fojette (half-liter carafes of local wine).

Today, coppiette are made primarily from pork tenderloins that are similarly seasoned as those produced in days of old—coppiette made from donkey, a rare specialty, are still produced in the small town of Genzano.  The process of dehydration, however, is often performed in a special drying room, and the meat ages for only 48 hours or more—see note below.

To fully enjoy coppiette eat them like the Lazians do, as part of a salumi course accompanied by red wine. Or, serve them as part of an aperitivo along with a crisp white, prosecco or sparkling wine. When in Rome, look for this unusual treat in small specialty food stores, some butcher shops, or outdoor markets. They’re usually sold in hermetically sealed plastic bags, and make great gifts—your foodie pals will be very grateful, since they’re virtually impossible to find abroad. They’ll give your jaw a bit of a workout, but a fojetta, or two, will keep your hinges well oiled.

Note: If you’re fortunate enough to visit the Castelli Romani (located south-east of Rome) make sure to make a trip to Genzano and visit La Castellana, a jewel of a salumeria run by the great Gino Galieti: a true artisan who makes some of the area’s best, traditional, coppiette, guanciale (cured pig’s jowl), pancetta and sausages.

La Castellana
Viale Rosselli Fratelli, 6
00045 Genzano di Roma
(Roma) Italy
+39 069399745

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Porchetta di Ariccia

Lovers of all things porcine: the June issue of La Cucina Italiana (the American version) is featuring an article that I wrote on "La Porchetta." If you've never had the pleasure of eating porchetta, you're missing out on one of Italy's great culinary treasures. Porchetta is ubiquitous street food, but it has a special place in Ariccia, the area southeast of Rome that's part of the Castelli Romani. The Ariccini are famous for this deboned, spit roasted pork that's seasoned with salt, garlic, rosemary and black pepper. It's typically eaten as a sandwich, but in Ariccia there are osterie, known as fraschette, that serve the revered pig with other Lazian specialties (and delicious local wines; particularly those that hail from Frascati). Want to learn more? The magazine will be in stores and at newsstands on May 18th. Check it out, and I'd love to know your thoughts.

A presto,

On a more cultural note (man cannot live on pork alone!), Ariccia is also famous for two edifices designed by the formidable 17th century sculptor/architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (i.e. the Palazzo Chigi, now a state-run art museum, and a centrally-planned church dedicated to the assumption of Mary). For great food, art and architecture Ariccia is definitely worth a visit (it's only an hour outside of Rome, and easily reachable by train or bus).

Sushi? Si!

Wanted in Rome:
Photo by Brette A. Jackson

"Fresco Painting in Italy"

Wanted in Rome:
Photo by Brette A. Jackson

"Our Daily Bread"

Wanted In Rome:
Photo by Brette A. Jackson

“The Bicycle Chief:” Collalti Bici: When in Rome bike as the Romans do

Photo by David T. Mayernik

I recently watched Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece,
Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves), and for those of you who’ve never seen it, it’s the tragic tale of a working-class man in financially depressed, post-World War II Rome who, along with his young son, spends most of the film combing the streets in search of his stolen bicycle, which he needs for his job. Without completely ruining the plot, the protagonist and his wife and children live in abject poverty, and the loss of the bicycle has placed the family on the brink of total destitution. I’ve seen this film several times, but now that I live in Rome it struck a new cord; it’s difficult to imagine a period in the city’s modern history when the automobile, moped or scooter were not the primary forms of transportation, and how something so simple and low-tech as a bicycle could make or break the lives of an average, urban family.

During the 1950’s Italy rebounded economically, which opened a space for a burgeoning middle-class who welcomed the comfort and prestige that came with owning a car, while the now healthier “proletariat” sector whole-heartily adopted the affordable moped and scooter. Over the years both forms of transportation grew exponentially, and by the millennium the bicycle was all but extinct. But progress is often accompanied with sacrifice, and Rome (like other European cities) was forced to acknowledge that there was nothing “dolce” about a life plagued with gridlock traffic and elevated levels of air pollution that threatened the health of its citizenry, and had the potential to cause irreparable damage to many of the city’s soot encrusted monuments. In 2005, Rome’s then Mayor Walter Veltroni set into action a dramatic plan to reduce traffic and pollution. For instance, each month driving was prohibited in the historical center on three different Sundays, car and motorini use were limited one day weekly, and each Thursday automobiles with odd and even numbered license plates alternated the use of major thoroughfares. Some deemed the course of action punitive. However, many agreed that things had gone too far, and learned to live with the restrictions by utilizing a simple and environmentally friendly means of transport: the bicycle. In June of 2008, local government collaborated with the Spanish company Cemusa in a program designed to allow residents to use bicycles (set up in major piazzas), as an alternative means of getting around Rome’s center. Cemusa and the city are currently working out the logistics for long-term service of the program, and advertising. Still, in spite of the tension that has ensued (Cemusa has twice threatened to pull the plug), the program has been hailed a huge success—and has been the catalyst for privately owned bicycle rental shops that have mushroomed across the city and spurred some tourist agencies to offer “See Rome by bicycle” tour packages.

Having recently returned to Rome, I was astounded by the number of bicyclist negotiating a path through crowded piazzas, and taking on cars and motorists in zones where there is still relatively high traffic—riding a bicycle in Rome is definitely not for the faint of heart! I was also struck by the elegance of many of these bicycles, particularly those with the trade name Collalti that seemed to be everywhere. I spied several with mod brushed aluminum, pastel colored or sleek black frames; some were fitted with leather seats, handle bar grips and saddlebags—leave it to the Italians to make something as perfunctory as a bicycle chic! Out of curiosity, I visited this little shop located in the heart of the city, and learned that the Collalti family have been making bicycles since 1899. Depending on how much you want to spend the current capo Danilo Collalti will set you up with a “bespoke” bicycle that could grace a catwalk in Milan; but there are many affordable, and more austere, models from which to choose—prices range from as little as 200 to 1,500 euros for a touring, city, mountain or hybrid bicycle. I decided to join the ranks of the intrepid urban biker, and with Danilo’s assistance I settled on a shiny, black cruiser that sold for 200 euros. We decided to increase the number of gears, and he agreed to attach a basket and a bell (and buying a good lock in critical!); the total package came to 280 euros—less than I spent, without the accoutrements, for a similar style, off-the-line bicycle that I own in the States. The bicycle was ready in less than a week, and upon retrieving it my uncontrollable excitement had Danilo—who on first impression appeared stern and businesslike—smiling from ear to ear, and I caught a twinkle in his eye that you only find in people who truly love and take pride in what they do. Some Romans have commented that the recent popularity of the bicycle is merely a trend. When I mentioned this to Danilo he disagreed, and expressed that Romans are fascinated by novelty and quick to try new things. “But the bicycle isn’t really ‘new’ and in essence it allows people to better appreciate the city.” "On Sundays, for instance, you can find families biking in parks, and in areas once dominated by motorized traffic; it’s a new way to enjoy la passeggiata."

Even as the country seems to be teetering on the edge of economic crisis, his bicycle sales have remained steady—and 2008 was a record year when he sold over 800 bicycles (that may seem like a small figure, but remember this is Italy, where family owned businesses are only opened five days a week, are closed for most major holidays and shutdown for up to two weeks in the summer). The reality is, automotive transportation isn’t going away. But as in De Sica’s era, the bicycle has proven to be a necessary and even vital means of transit.

Collalti Bici
Via del Pellegrino, 82
39 06 68801084
They also sell bicycle paraphernalia and offer bicycle repairs

Death, Birth and Beef Stew

In Memory of Emma C. Mayernik
May 28, 1925 - December 18, 2009

We stood by her bedside and watched her dying; slowly and seemingly painlessly thanks to medical technology and pharmaceutics. She is my husband’s mother, Emma Mayernik. She’d been complaining about stomach pains recently, but she ignored her daughter’s urging to go to the hospital, perhaps thinking it wasn’t anything severe, or more likely she was afraid. When she finally yielded and went in for tests, it turned out she had a bleeding ulcer, which then erupted and the trauma sent her heart into arrest. She had open-heart surgery, and was put on life support. The bleeding continued and couldn’t be stopped. Years ago she had a living will drawn up, and in it she was categorical: If in the event that she ever ended up in such a predicament, life support should be ceased. So just like that, within forty-eight hours, she was here and then gone. My husband and I had just gotten off a plane in O’Hare airport, and were about to make the journey to our apartment in South Bend, Indiana. We planned to spend a few days there before heading off to disparate parts of the country to share Christmas with our families. His father died in October, so he decided to spend the time with his mother, sister and nephews in Pennsylvania, and I would go to California to celebrate with my mom. We are gypsies, and separate holidays have become part of our tribal rite. But this year an untimely death changed all that, forcing us to realize that we actually don’t have as much control over our lives as our “vagabond” hearts would like us to believe. We were making our way to pick up a rental car when my husband’s sister called and urged us to come to Allentown immediately, or we might not have a chance to say goodbye.

And now we’re all in the process of dealing with her death, which at first entails mostly perfunctory tasks: making arrangements with the funeral parlor, the church, packing up her clothes, going over her will, etc. She wasn’t my mother, so I’m spared the anguish of that loss. Instead, I’m doing what I do best in crisis situations: making sure that everyone eats, and that they eat well. It’s freezing outside. I was born not far from this part of the state, and I’m reminded of the raw, frigid winters of my past. I was a February baby and I have a deep-seeded love of cold weather, but I’m suddenly feeling the need for warmth, and I’m inspired to prepare the following dish:

Brette’s Frigid Weather Beef Stew
Serves 6 (with leftovers)

3 lbs of chuck roast
2 small cleaned fennel bulbs
1 large yellow Spanish onion
1 head of garlic
3 carrots peeled
extra-virgin olive oil
two heaping tablespoons of tomato paste
orange peel
bay leaf
fresh thyme
three cups of strong beef stock
half bottle of hearty red wine (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, etc.)
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the roast into two inch sized cubes (you can buy this cut of meat already cut into stew sized pieces, but it cost less, and it’s more gratifying, to cut it up yourself) and put aside. Cut the fennel bulb in half, and make medium-thin slices across the length. Cut the onion in half and cut off both the root and bloom ends. Slice it in the same manner as the fennel. Cut the carrots on the bias, so that you have long, beveled slices. Separate the garlic cloves and peel each leaving them whole. Heat a heavy, cast iron Dutch oven over medium high heat until hot, and add two tablespoons of the olive oil; sauté the beef in batches until it’s well browned (adding more oil if needed with each batch). Reserve the browned meat on a platter. Add more oil and sweat the aromatic vegetables (onion, fennel, carrots and garlic cloves). Add the tomato paste and stir until blended. Add the bay leaf, orange peel and the browned meat, and increase the heat to high. Add the wine, stock and salt and pepper to taste; cover until it reaches a boil and turn it down to a simmer. Cook for two hours. When the stew is finished, adjust salt and pepper and add fresh thyme leaves. Serve with roasted or mashed potatoes.

For a while we keep our spirits lifted with cheerful conversation, and in each others' eyes we find hope. An anonymous man in navy scrubs enters the room and informs us that we have to leave; he needs to perform some superfluous procedure, and our vigil is broken. Before we gather our coats, hats and scarves a tiny, bell-like piece of music can be heard chiming from the loudspeakers. It’s Shubert’s Lullaby, and its incongruous sweetness makes it all the more surreal that I’m bundling up in a room of an intensive care unit. “That piece of music is played throughout the hospital whenever a baby is born,” my sister-in-law informs me. Then we’re heading for the elevators, and I'm comforted by the image of myself at the stove preparing a hearty stew for her children, family and friends on a snowy December afternoon. Somewhere in this vast building people will soon gather together. They’ll encircle a man and a woman and they’ll smile, marveling at both the fragility and power of a swaddled newborn.