When you think of an Italian kitchen, preserved food may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but Preserving Italy author Domenica Marchetti wants you to think again. She talks with Shauna Sever about Italy's long tradition of preserving foods.
Shauna Sever: You talk about the deep connection between the art of preserving and Italian history and culture. I grew up with a grandfather who is half Greek, half Italian. He put up vegetables and fruits like you wouldn't believe all summer long. So did his mother, who is from Italy. And it didn't occur to me as a kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs, watching him religiously can everything, until I was reading your book that that practice is probably deeply tied to his Italian heritage. It made me wonder what is it about Italy that creates that strong tradition of preserving food?
Domenica Marchetti: Italy is the kind of place where if there is a plot of land, somebody is growing something on it. It's the climate, and the fact that so many things grow well, and that people are used to growing their own food. I think these traditions still carry on today. Obviously, life has changed, and people buy convenience foods, but I think these traditions are still held dear by many folks in Italy.
SS: You go beyond the produce, too. You talk about fresh cheeses and cured meats.
DM: I took a very broad view of what preserving is. So yes, there are vegetables preserved in oil and vinegar. There are jams and fruit pastes. There are condiments. But there are also fresh cheeses and salumi.
A lot of people think of Italian cooking as spaghetti or pizza or gelato, and those are all iconic, wonderful Italian foods. But the Italian table is composed of so much more and a lot of what it's composed of is preserved food. Obviously this was something that was created out of necessity centuries ago, but these traditions continue.
When you go to a restaurant in Italy, you'll have fresh, house-made cheese or the cheese that came from the dairy down the road. You'll have house-made salumi. You will have hot peppers preserved in any number of ways: in oil, or vinegar, or dried and crushed. At the end of the meal, you'll be treated to house-made liquors. Everything from the beginning of the meal to the end of the meal contains food that is preserved.
SS: I was surprised to learn about how so many preserved foods are so much more than just condiments. Some of these recipes can really become the star of the meal and be the thing that really gets people talking at the table.
DM: There really is a whole spectrum. I talked about how preserving is pretty much a celebration of frugality and something that was born out of necessity, but right now I'm thinking of one of the condiments in the book, mostarda, which comes from the Lombardi region. It's fruit mustard. It is basically whole fruits or pieces of fruits that are poached in sugar syrup over a number of days, then spiked with very, very spicy mustard oil. This is kind of the opposite of frugality.
This recipe dates back to medieval times, and it is an accompaniment to roasts. You can almost see it on the table in a "Game of Thrones" episode. It's that kind of very rich, sumptuous condiment that was not born out of necessity but something that was reserved for nobility. But it persists to this day, and you can still go these places in Cremona and other parts of Lombardi and see these jars of mostarda, and you can buy it.
I wanted to create real mostarda for the book. I had a hard time finding very small fruits, so I ended up doing something a little different. I sliced pears and I poached them in this sugar syrup over a few days, and they became candied.
At the very end, I spiked it with this very, very, very hot mustard oil, and not only is it a great condiment for roasts or boiled meats, it's also great with rich cheeses. It’s nice that you can take these old traditions and kind of reinvent them in contemporary cooking.
Shauna Sever is the author of three cookbooks (Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet). She is the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on the Today show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.