Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ferrara: Foodie Edition

In the square behind the Castello Estense there appeared to be a marketplace, with vendors’ stalls under white tents; naturally I wandered over to investigate.  It wasn’t a market exactly, but a fair to showcase the best of Ferrara, an afternoon program of speeches and music performances, a public dinner, and to cap it all off, a pageant to select this year’s Miss Padania.  (In case you who need to brush up on your geography, Ferrara is in the Emilia-Romagna region, in the Po valley; the Po is the longest river in Italy.  In Latin the Po is called Padanus—things that come from the Po valley are called padano, like grana padano cheese, and Padania is the area around and along the Po.  According to ancient myth, Phaethon fell into the Po after he took his dad’s chariot on a joyride, but that’s a story for another time.)

It was only noon and the fair wouldn’t be getting underway for another few hours, but a few stalls were already set up.  I caught a whiff of something seductive on the wind—something porky and savory, no mistaking it—and followed my nose to this glorious pile of deliciousness:


Garlic salame.  Oh, baby.  I go weak in the knees for every kind of garlicky sausage, from burnished maroon salametti to delectable rosy-pink saucisson à l’ail.  Even more enticing, they were produced locally in small handmade batches using organic ingredients, slow food all the way.  These hefty sausages weighed over a kilo each but cost only €10 apiece, a veritable steal, and if I had the faintest hope of being able to smuggle it home with me, I would totally have bought one…but the thought of having this gorgeous hunk of meat confiscated by customs officials was too sad for words.  Instead, I bought a small portion of a Ferrarese specialty called salama da sugo.  I’d never heard of it, and the women running the booth eagerly explained how to prepare it.  First, the sausage is made of ground pork (shoulder or some other fatty, sausage-suitable cut), guanciale, tongue and/or offal, red wine, salt, and black pepper.  It’s aged for several months and then simmered in water for many, many hours.  This is the stage at which I found it for sale, vacuum-packed in foil.  Then, the ladies instructed me, I was to boil it for thirty or forty minutes in plain water, and when it was done, slice it and serve it over a potato puree, and it would be very good, and very classic.  You could also eat the cooked sausage on bread.  The ladies were excited that I was excited, and impressed that I’d come all the way from California.  I think we chatted for almost half an hour, about food, language, and travel; they offered me complimenti on my Italian and wished me tanti auguri for my studies and travels—in bocca al lupo!

There was also a vegetable stand with some very beautiful squashes and pears and apples, and late-summer plums and tomatoes.


But then there was this perplexing object at the end of the table:


Perplexed, I asked the gentleman behind the table, “Is this a melon (melone) or a squash (zucca)?”  He replied, “It’s a cocomero, for making jam (marmellata).”

Cocomero?” I repeated blankly.  I had certainly encountered the word before, but I think that I never bothered to look it up because it looks like cucumber so I assumed that’s what it was.  I also had a vague sense that I’d seen it in Renaissance cookery texts and not much in modern Italian.  The modern Italian word for cucumber is cetriolo.  The Pocket Oxford Italian Dictionary defines cocomero as “watermelon.”  The watermelons I’ve seen in the markets have been labeled anguria.  Besides, the guy had just said it wasn't a melon.  Figuratevi.

Now, of course, I’m away from my library so I can’t look up every reference, but thanks to the Internet, I can do a little digging into this knotty nomenclature.  Since the modern dictionary wasn’t much help, I turned to John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary (1611):
“Angúria, a kind of cucumber good to eat raw.”  (I’ll spare you a long digression on why early modern people preferred to cook their cucumbers, but basically it had to do with the balance of bodily humors…humans are warm, but cucumbers are cold, so in order to not be harmful to consume they have to be heated by cooking or by the application of hot spices like black pepper.  Perfectly logical, right?)
“Cedriólo, a little Cedar-tree.  Also a little Cytron.  Also a little Coucumber.”
“Cetruólo, a little Pomecitron.”
“Cocómero, a Cucumber.  Also a Citron.”
“Mellóne, a Mellone.  Also rowels in the mouth of a horses bit.  Also a kind of play that children use in Italie.  Also a grosse-headed gull.”
“Melóne d’acqua, a Cucumber.”  (But melone d’acqua literally means “water melon”!)
“Zúcca, any kind of Gourd or Pumpion. Vsed also metaphorically for a mans head, sconce, nole pate or scull.  Also a scull or a head-piece or steele-cap.  Also a kind of wine measure of about a pottle of oures.  Also a kind of drinking-glasse.  Also a salt-box, a bottle, or a Lanthorne.  For in Italy they make such of the dried rindes of Pumpions.  Also a casting bottle for sweet water.”

Er, that was not as helpful as I’d hoped it would be.  If anything, it confused things further.  A melon is a melon and a gourd is a gourd, but cucumbers appear under a dozen names, sometimes interchangeable with citron.  Or cedar.  Seriously?

I also had access to Giacomo Castelvetro’s 1614 treatise, Brieve racconto di tutte le radici, di tutte l’erbe e di tutti i frutti che crudi or cotti in Italia si mangiano, that is, "A brief account of all the roots, vegetables and fruits that are eaten in Italy, raw or cooked."  It’s a pretty fascinating, often mouthwatering piece of work.  Anyway, here’s what he has to say about cocomeri:

De’ cedruoli o cocumeri. Nel medesimo tempo son buoni i cedruoli, che cocumeri qui chiamano, li quali, per esser essi assai freddi, seco mangiam la cipolla e ’l  pepe, e ne facciamo ancora minestre con l’uva spina o con grani d’uva accerba, né usiam noi mai i grossi e gialli per insalata, come qui usano, ma i piccioli e tutti verdi. De’ più grossi ne facciamo un buon cibo, aprendogli pel mezzo e tutto quel tenerume cavato; e con buone erbette ben tagliate vi mettiamo un uovo e pan grattugiato con cacio e olio o butiro; il tutto impastiamo e il vòto del citriuolo ne empiamo, e ad arrostire su la graticola lo mettiamo, o in una teggiuzza di terra o di rame stagnata col suo coperto lo lasciamo adagio cuocere. Vi si può ancora aggiungere pepe o spezie forti.

About cedruoli or cocumeri.  At the same time [that is, in summer] the cedruoli are good, which are called cocumeri here [that is, in England, where he wrote this, fondly remembering the veggies of his Italian boyhood], which, because they are rather cold [remember what I said about humors?] we eat together with pepper and onion.  We also make them into a minestra [kind of a thick soup] with gooseberries or with sour grapes.  Nor do we ever use the large yellow ones for salad, as they are used here, but the ones that are small and green all over.  Of the largest ones we make a good dish, opening them through the middle and taking out all the soft part inside; and with good herbs, finely chopped, we put an egg and breadcrumbs with cheese and oil or butter; we mix it all together and fill the hollow of the citriuolo with it, and we put it to roast on the grill, or we leave it to cook slowly in a covered pot of earthenware or tinned copper.  You can also add pepper or strong spices.

Well, according to Castelvetro, cocomeri and cetrioli are the same thing—cucumber.  Or maybe cetrioli are cetrioli but the English call them cocomero, which they aren't?   But this monster at the Ferrarese farm stand was clearly not a cucumber.  And honestly, it didn't much look like a melon either.

When I first did an Internet search for “cocomero,” every page I could see was about watermelon.  So then I tried “cocomero marmellata,” and I finally got something that made sense: marmellata di cocomero bianco, which is made from a pale-fleshed, pale-skinned watermelon that looks more like what I saw on the table.  The idea of watermelon jam is a little odd to me, though, I’ll admit…I’m curious to taste it.

Because the nice fruit vendors let me ask questions and take photos, I didn’t want to leave without buying something from them.  I picked a couple of beautiful red apples, which unlike most of the other fruits would be sturdy enough to survive the trip home if I didn’t eat them that day.  The proprietress was helping another customer so I patiently waited my turn and then reached to hand her the apples to weigh.  She waved me off.  “Take them!” she commanded.  But…didn’t I have to pay?  She scoffed and winked.  “Are you sure?”  I asked timidly.  She huffed goodnaturedly.  “Am I sure, she asks!  Prendi, prendi!  Mangia, mangia!” and shooed me away.

Mid-afternoon I was starting to run out of steam, so I popped into a bar for a quick coffee.  And lo and behold, I had stumbled into yet another sumptuous display of sausagey goodness:


I am pretty sure the expression “hog heaven” was coined to describe just this.

By the time I was done museum-hopping, it was late in the day and my feet felt like bricks.  So then I turned to a very important task: finding dinner!

A travel guidebook had promised a good, fairly priced meal at a wine bar called Messisbugo.  Now, really, with that name, how could I not go there?  But when I got to the address, there was no sign of it—a hip, trendy-looking bar with a hip, trendy-sounding name had taken over the space, and I didn’t trust it to have good eats.  It looked far too slick.  Messisbugo’s was the only address I’d copied down out of the guidebook, but I figured I could nose out something on my own.  It was still too early for dinner, so I wandered around the city center, reading menus and poking around, till I finally found a place that looked interesting, Cusina e Butega.  I think I would have gone in even if it didn’t look that interesting, because by then I had been on the move and on my feet for the better part of twelve hours, and I needed to sit down.  Which I did, with a glass of Sangiovese and this lovely platter of salumi and cheeses:

Clockwise from top: coppa di testa (headcheese); a kind of cheese whose name, sadly, I didn't catch, but it was very good; prosciutto di Parma; mortadella di Bologna; and salame di Ferrara, strong and garlicky and very delicious.  Center, grana padano.
It came with a basket of little bread puffs, like pizza dough cut into small squares and fried.  Decadent and wonderful.  I got to chat a bit with the barista, who had been to California and thought it was great.  Some bar snacks had already been set out, peanuts and pumpkin seeds and potato chips, but then he pulled at this huge bowl of bright yellow lupini beans and I got so excited I almost jumped out of my chair.  “Lupini!” I said.  “You know these?” he asked.  “I love them!” I replied.  So he brought me my very own little bowl.  Yum yum.  Sorry, I should say that in Italian.  Gnam gnam!


Well, all that was supposed to just be the antipasto, but I was so full of fried bread and headcheese that I couldn’t even contemplate ordering a meal.  Which was too bad, because the menu offered such temptations as quail with grapes, and roast goose with green apples, not to mention the traditional primo, a baked pasta dish called pasticcio di maccheroni.  I guess those delights will just have to wait until my next visit.