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Shormishtha Panja
Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 12 : 30

Italian Food Safari


A recent list of ten foods from all over the world that one must taste-a list that includes masala dosa, by the way-got me thinking about the dishes I've savoured in my favourite travel destination: Italy. Since I work in the Renaissance, for me a trip to Italy is something like a devout Hindu's visit to Amarnath or a faithful Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca. Apart from the mind-boggling collections of art it boasts, the country is, as everyone knows, a foodie's delight.

Florence was almost a painful destination. There was so much to see-I was stressed out by the fact that I might not be able to see more than a handful of art treasures on my list-Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel frescoes, the Brunelleschi crucifix in the Santa Maria Novella basilica with a facade by Alberti, the Botticellis in the Uffizi and of course Michelangelo's David. After a long day of touring the Duomo, the Accademia and a part of the Uffizi, my son and I picked up some heavenly melon gelato from a shop near the Campanile that was just about to close. The colour of the gelato was a pale cantaloupe, and the taste was full of the fresh flavour of fruit, not too sweet and not too creamy. It quenched one's thirst and refreshed one, unlike a heavy and too-sweet ice cream that makes one feel parched. Having a lower fat content than ice cream, gelato doesn't coat the tongue; as a result, the flavours are that much more intense.

In Milan, recovering from the gut-wrenching experience of seeing Leonardo da Vinci's Las Supper along with ten other people in a special climate-controlled room in the erstwhile dining hall of the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie, my son and I strolled down the Naviglio Grande and picked up some pain au chocolat from the many handcarts selling fresh baked goods. The pastry was golden and feather-light; the amazingly generous helping of gooey chocolate inside, warm and melting on the tongue, instilled a great sense of peace and inner contentment.

On my fist trip to Italy, backpacking as a graduate student, I remember an ethereal meal of squid cooked in white wine with tomatoes and onions in a tiny little town, Santa Margherita di Ligure, with a wonderful statue of the Virgin Mary looking out over the bay, welcoming sailors home. I would take out my phrasebook and hurriedly look up the translations of all the marvels listed in the all-Italian menu. The waiters knew no English and I had no Italian! In fact, I ordered the squid without quite knowing what it was. I saw a fragrant bowl being carried to an adjoining table and just told my endearing waiter, Paolo, "That, please!" It was my first taste of squid and the freshness of its taste-Santa Margherita being a coastal town-made me a convert. After the meal I was scrabbling in my phrasebook for superlatives to express my satisfaction and satiety.

Siena was an absolute gem, with the mellow brick tones of the ancient buildings maintained by stringent laws that do not allow any vehicular traffic in the main square (that's how the colour of the buildings, Burnt Siena, a shade that we all remember from our paintboxes, is preserved). Rather than rushing through the town, one is forced to take a leisurely stroll to take in the sights and the colours. The castle dominates the main square and offers a fantastic view of the rolling Tuscan countryside from its tower. It is so civilised to see only pedestrians and bikers in a 21st century town. It enhances the feeling of travelling back in time. As one left the main square, one passed a quaint looking confectionary shop with modest metal tables and chairs and a sole woman in glasses, yellow uniform, and apron working behind the counter. The shop was like something out of a black and white Fellini film. What was on sale, besides the famous Siena panforte and ricciarelli (Siena desserts have an eastern influence because of trade with Turkey) was the rum baba or baba au rhum. This confectionary is nothing much to look at: it looks like a square of yellow sponge not decorated with any swirls of cream or made pretty with coloured icing. However, take one tiny bite and the delicious taste of plain cake absolutely soaked in rum fills one's mouth in an explosion of flavour. No sooner had I finished one than I wanted another! The baba au rhum was apparently invented in France in 1835 and is actually a yeast cake soaked in liquor.

Venice is an ethereal, enchanting, unreal city, a city that captivates you as the train seems magically to run on water as it approaches the destination. It is one city in which food is the last thing on one's mind, so occupied is one at looking out to the sea, or wandering in what Napoleon called Europe's biggest drawing room-the Piazza San Marco-or marvelling at the canals that zigzag through the cobbled city as one crosses a small bridge or a big one to traverse the city on water. In Venice we usually had meals of exquisitely cooked seafood, but the one that stands out in my memory is not a seafood dish but the Venetian staple-liver and onions. I don't know if it was calf liver or chicken liver, but the liver is chopped, the onions sliced, and the two are sautéed in olive oil with a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper. Simplicity itself, but lip-smackingly delicious down to the last strand of caramelised onion and the last crumb of soft liver! And how good is it then to mop up the juices with a piece of fresh bread!

(Please send your comments to panjashormishtha@gmail.com)


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More about Shormishtha Panja

Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.