I've always thought that most cooks are naturally helpful and unselfish, willing, as they are, to share their recipes at the drop of a cranberry and to give tips and encouragement to others. But last Friday, on Bakeoff Italia - Dolci in Forno, we saw a quite extraordinary example:
In this seventh episode of the fourth series, the contestants who had already been eliminated from the contest were invited back for a cookoff in which one of them could be reinstated. They had to make the ever-exacting Ernst Knam's seven-layered torta extreme and the twist was that the contestants still in the competition, not the show's resident judges - Knam, Clelia d'Onofrio and Antonio Lamberto Martino - would do the blind tasting. Then the two best cakes would undergo scrutiny from the resident judges. The cakes chosen were baked by contestants called Annalisa and Stefania but neither seemed very happy. After a few minutes, we learnt why; they both felt that there was another cake on the table which was better than theirs and that their peers had made a mistake in their tasting. Obviously, in pointing this out, they had sacrificed their own chances of being allowed back into the competition. Presenter Benedetta Parodi asked the resident judges to taste all the other cakes, which they did, and they agreed with Stefania and Annalisa that the best cake had been baked by a contestant called Bartolomeo.
How nice to see such altruism in a reality TV show!
As a young Italian graduate, one of the voices that I felt spoke to my generation was that of Dario Fo - dramatist, theatre and film director, actor, writer, painter, political activist, Nobel Laureate  and so much more - who died today at the age of 90. I continued to read the work of Dario Fo and his wife, Franca Rame and it never failed to surprise me and make me think. As I've said before, the literature of the 20th century asked the questions but did not, usually, provide the answers and Dario Fo asked the questions that politicians, in particular, did not wish to hear.
A stationmaster's son from Sangiano [Varese, Lombardy], Dario Fo joined Mussolini's Repubblica Sociale Italiana army at 17, a fact that would haunt him in later life. When he did talk about it, he said that he had joined the only Italian army in which he could enlist so as not to be deported to Germany to work. There was also a theory that he joined to deflect suspicion from falling upon his family, who were partisans.
After studying at the Brera Academy in Milan, Dario Fo joined Rai as an actor and satirical scriptwriter. He and Franca Rame wrote sketches together but their material was so often criticised by the Italian equivalent of the British "establishment" that the couple abandoned television for the theatre, founding their own company. Fo's theatrical solo piece Mistero Buffo was famously declared blasphemous by the Vatican and became all the more renowned for that. Other internationally well-known pieces by Fo include Morte accidentale di un anarchico [Accidental Death of an Anarchist] and Non si paga! Non si paga! [Can't Pay, Won't Pay].
Two books by Dario Fo which I have enjoyed recently are La figlia del papa [a biography of Lucrezia Borgia] which I reviewed here and Dario e Dio, a long interview in which he expounds his ideas about God - or the lack of such a being. I especially like a passage in which Fo says that the God of the Old Testament "demands tests of love that not even a Sicilian ... [would expect]."
To a man who never stopped fighting, questioning, campaigning, surprising and making us laugh, I would like to say, "Thank you".
Dario Fo died on the day it was announced that Bob Dylan is to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think he would have approved.
In this Apple advertisement from 1997, Dario Fo narrates and Bob Dylan makes an appearance among the innovative thinkers of the last century:
I am more often than not ashamed of my own country these days and am particularly so today regarding a gaffe involving my beloved Italy:
Online enrolment forms for certain schools in England and - I am sorry to say - Wales, ask parents to indicate their child's nationality. For Italians, however, there is not one code but four and they read as follows:
ITAA Italian [Any Other]
ITAN Italian [Napoletan]
ITAS Italian [Sicilian]
Is this stigmatising the South or is it just ignorance?
The Italian Ambassador to the UK, Pasquale Terracciano, protested yesterday, pointing out that Italy has been unified since 1861 and today the Foreign Office has formally apologised to Italy, promising that the forms will be amended.
Whoever compiled the form seems not to know the English word denoting a person from Naples, either.
I would be interested to know what kind of schools were involved and if I find out, I will update this post.
Update: 13.10.16 It seems that these were state schools and that the forms were compiled by the British government. A government spokesperson has said that there was "an historic administrative error" in the language codes used. Are we to believe, then, that in the 21st century, the UK government is using pre-1861 language codes for an online form? The first complaint is reported to have come from the city of Bradford.
The name Cesare Bocci is not a household one in English-speaking countries, but if I were to say "Mimì Augello" and post a picture of Cesare, many of you would recognise him as the actor who plays Montalbano's deputy.
It is often true that we can look at people, particularly celebrities, and think that everything must be fine in their lives but we usually have no idea what those lives are really like. Until I read an interview with Cesare Bocci and his partner Daniela Spada in an Italian TV listings magazine, I had no idea what they had been through in the last 16 years:
This part of their story begins in Rome on 1st April 2000. The day before, they had brought their newborn baby, Mia, home and today all is well until suddenly Daniela cries out that she has a terrible headache. Her condition worsens with terrifying speed and she is rushed to hospital, where the doctors are convinced that she is having a panic attack after a row with Cesare, who has to fight to get her seen by a neurologist. She has suffered a massive stroke. She lies in a coma for 20 days and when she wakes, her body has changed forever and , though she recognises Cesare as someone she loves, her memory is affected. Tragically, she cannot hold her baby daughter.
What follows is the story of Daniela's long road back, Cesare's unstinting support , the family and friends who in turn support him, his battles with hospital staff and bureaucracy alike and the bond that grows between him and his daughter. Cesare at last finds an Austrian doctor who treats Daniela as a human being first and a patient second and this proves to be the turning point. Slowly, and with great determination, Daniela is rehabilitated, not to her old life, but to a life which she can lead. There are still heartbreaking moments, such as those which describe the reactions of strangers to her disabilities or when she thinks of all the things she will never be able to do for her daughter. However,
"Never, never give up", she says, and Cesare says of her,
"Daniela taught me that, in difficult times, your uncertainties, fears and frustration can bury you or they can motivate you to start again."
Daniela Spada decided to think of sweet things so as not to think of her illness and became a cook and pastry chef. She now runs a cookery school, which she insists has the atmosphere of a welcoming family kitchen, in Rome.
This book is for anyone who has suffered, or been close to someone who has suffered, a stroke or other brain injury. It is also for everyone who has ever kept a long vigil at the bedside of a loved one, not knowing if they will wake up, or who has had to make a hospital corridor their home. It is, above all, a story of courage, determination and of course, love and so it is a book for all of us.
I've posted this song before, but not recently. As it's the eternal cry of that dangerous creature most single women will, at some point, meet, the bored married man, I thought it deserved another airing. Here are two versions [the Italian one is implicit whereas the English is explicit] from the lovely Mr Buanne:
On Monday, the Day of Memory for Migrants, I wrote that over 6,000 had been saved in Italian-led operations in the Mediterranean on that day. In the two days since, a further 11,000 desperate people have been saved in 72 operations coordinated by the Rome Coast Guard. Sadly, 28 bodies were also recovered, 22 of them from an inadequate boat crammed with 1,000 migrants.
Some of the migrants were transferred to the Coast Guard ship Dattilo, on which three babies were safely born. All are said to be healthy.
Today 1,020 of the rescued migrants were brought to Palermo but almost all will shortly be taken to centres in other regions. How awful it must be to make that perilous sea crossing in terrible conditions, then not even know if you will be allowed to stay in Europe as your fate is held totally in the hands of others. I am ashamed to say that migrants can now expect even less help from my own country, which has lurched dangerously to the right, and the mood has obviously hardened in several other European countries obsessed with building walls.
On the third anniversary of this tragedy in the Mediterranean, at least 6,000 migrants have been saved by the Italian Coast Guard, Navy and ships belonging to international non-governmental organisations. The Coast Guard reports that there were 18 rescue operations involving 39 migrant boats. Sadly, nine bodies have also been recovered in the Sicilian Channel. On one dinghy a man was found dead and several migrants had burns and other wounds caused by leaking fuel. Two children and a woman with serious burns were rushed to hospital.
The surge of boats again heading for Italy from Libya is due to calmer weather conditions after a week or so of rough seas and no one expects them to stop coming. Laura Boldrini, the Speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, again asked the rest of the EU to take their share of responsibility for migrants, reminding these countries that they do not hesitate to take their share of incoming EU resources. It is with little optimism that I express my hope that her words will be heeded this time.
To mark this Day of Memory for Migrants, Rai 3 tonight showed the film Fuocoammare, directed by Gianfranco Rosi. I wrote about this film some months ago but had not seen it before tonight. The director spent 18 months on Lampedusa, filming a migrant boat trying to reach Italy, the rescue and recovery operation, the processing of the migrants once they reach the island and the daily life of the islanders, including that of ER medic Dr Pietro Bartoli. Prior to tonight's screening, Gianfranco Rosi told Panorama magazine that on Lampedusa he found a much more complex and multi-layered story than he had expected . He said,
"It is not a political film but we cannot let the Mediterranean be the tomb of people fleeing war, hunger and desperation... It is useless to erect barriers as walls have been toppled throughout history... People fleeing desperation and death have no choice."
Fuocoammare is to be Italy's entry for Best Picture in the 2017 Oscars but its nomination has given rise to controversy. Paolo Sorrentino, director of La Grande Bellezza, has raised an objection not because he doubts the film's merits but because he believes it should be entered in the documentary section. Others do not think the film is sufficiently commercial. I have an opionion but will leave those of you who intend to see it - and I hope many of you do - to make up your own minds. I will say that I couldn't speak for at least half an hour after watching it and twitter revealed that many Italians felt the same. It is my belief that the film should be compulsory viewing for all would-be builders of border walls.
I would also like to say that I am very proud of Italy tonight and will close with a quote from Dr Bartolo: "È dovere di ogni uomo che sia un uomo aiutare queste persone - It is the duty of every man who is a man to help these people."
This dish gets its name simply because it's the end of summer, which "hath all too short a date" and all that. I like the fusion of 'strattu and herbes de Provence with ginger, which gives the dish a bit of a kick.
Here's what I did:
To serve four people generously, you need:
6 chicken drumsticks, skin on
1 chicken breast*, skinned and boned. cut into pieces
small pack unsmoked pancetta cubes [75 - 80 gr]
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
about 20 datterini tomatoes or very small cherry tomatoes
200 gr mushrooms, sliced
125 gr green beans, previously blanched and cut up
dried herbes de Provence [or use oregano and thyme]
fresh rosemary sprigs
good-sized knob of ginger
seasalt and freshly ground black pepper
dash of white wine
1 tablesp 'strattu dissolved in hot water [tomato paste, not purée]
Smear a wide pan with olive oil and brown the chicken on all sides. add the onion and garlic and cook till soft, not browned. Add the pancetta and rosemary sprigs and cook for about 2 mins more. Add the mushrooms, beans, tomatoes and 'strattu and stir well. Bring to the boil, then turn down to simmer. Season and sprinkle in a good pinch of herbes de Provence. Grate in the ginger. Stir well, add a dash of white wine, cover and cook for c. 45 mins.
*One skinned and boned chicken breast if you are in Italy, where the two halves of the breast are sold as one or two breasts if you are in the UK, where each half is sold as one breast.
It's always lovely when someone brings you a present from home and when you live so far away, I think the memories that these thoughtful gifts evoke can flood your mind - in a good way.
My maternal grandad was a Cornishman [though he spent most of his life in Wales] so when a friend brought me a Cornish pixie wall plaque the other day, I immediately thought of Grandpa and felt I could hear his soft,West of England tones as he told me the pixie-themed little brooches or ornaments he would bring me back from his annual holiday in Cornwall held magic powers. Of course, Devon has pixies too and they are not to be outdone in the magic stakes! Mum, Dad and I used to head for Paignton every summer and I've had the pixie ornament from Dawlish Warren since I was about five.
Now that Mr Dawlish Pixie has some company, I'm convinced my luck is about to change!
It has been a particularly rainy day in Modica today and there have been floods in nearby Siracusa. Perhaps this is what has prompted more social media posts than usual marking the anniversary of the devastating flood that happened here on 26th September 1902, leaving 112 dead, heartbreaking damage to both public buildings and homes, crumbled bridges and a lower town that would be changed forever.
It was in the early hours of that fateful day that the equivalent of six months' normal rainfall plummeted down on Modica and you can see the watermark on the building below. [I'm sorry the plaque is not clear in the photo.]
After this event, the rivers that flowed into and through Modica were covered up. If you come to Modica, the first thing you'll probably do is take a stroll along the Corso Umberto I in Modica Bassa. You'll be walking where the river flowed until the beginning of the last century.