Please join me in welcoming Barbara Lambert, the author of The Whirling Girl, to Book Drunkard today! Thank you so much for stopping by, Barbara 🙂
Stay turned for the end of this post for a giveaway for my Canadian readers.
Squeaky Delectable Little Bites
At the mention of Italian travel (or travel in France for that matter) first to come up is almost always the matter of food and wine.
French cuisine is justly famous. But (don’t tell Escoffier!) it got its start when Catherine de Medici of Tuscany went to Paris in 1533, to wed the heir to the throne — taking along her entire kitchen staff, and introducing the French Court to her favorites including, I am told — gasp! — vegetables.
Presto! Into a jumbled culinary style that seems to have included sweets and savories and meats all eaten in any order, marched the soothing five-part panoply so familiar to those who have dined out in Tuscany: the antipasto, followed by the pasta, followed by the secondo, accompanied by the contorno (those veggies!), further followed by the dolce — with added grace-notes of a café and/or a digestivo.
As to pasta itself — Italy’s most iconic food — while some claim that the famous twirling noodle was brought back from Asia by Marco Polo, the response to this in any Tuscan trattoria, would be a simple, “Beh!” (Bringing the fingers to the lips, then releasing them in a sharp explosive gesture!) And aside from this unbeatable argument, there’s excellent archaeological evidence that pasta-making dates from Etruscan times.
In an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri, there’s said to be a mural showing servants in a kitchen mixing water and flour on a large table with raised sides — with all the familiar pasta-making equipment in the foreground. A ladle, a rolling pin, even a cutting wheel.
So really (though don’t tell Deng Xiao Ping!) we might even make the case that the noodle was brought to China in the Middle Ages by that famous Italian traveller.
Further evidence, from excavated Etruscan sites, reveal a people for whom eating was brought to a high and convivial art. The joie de vivre expressed in tomb frescoes, and the fascinating domestic detail, provide vivid evidence of the importance of banquets in the Etruscan social scene — banquets at which husbands and wives held an equally important place (as opposed to the situation among the Greeks or even the later Romans).
Etruscan women, indeed, may have been unique in the Classical world for the respect and equality accorded them. But that’s another story.
And what exactly did they eat? (Apart from pasta?)
The earliest “classical” cookbook to come down to us was written by a Roman, Apicius. Here we can read about (or even try!) any number of ancient delicacies — some appealing even today (a layered cheesecake whose only surprising ingredient is bay leaves; honey-glazed shrimps; fish in a coriander crust). And some less so. (Notably the famous fermented fish sauce, liquamen, involving whole fish fermented for three months, strained, bottled, and used in large quantities on almost everything. The smell of making this popular concoction would seem to have been so terrible, that production was outlawed in urban areas.
Given the Etruscan dominion over the seas in pre-Roman times, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s from the Etruscans that the Romans inherited a fondness for this smelly delicacy.
And there’s one further special treat that we know was inherited from them. In the Etruscan museum in the hill town of Chiusi, among a collection of kitchen implements, is a lidded terracotta pot studded with little holes, and shelves built round and round, inside.
This is a gliarium. A container for dormice.
Dormice. Those sweet furry little creatures small enough to snuggle into the palm of a hand. Noteable, too, for the length of their hibernation period — up to six months of every year.
And who could blame them, knowing what was in store.
In Etruscan kitchens they were kept close to hand in those jars, fattened on a diet of walnuts, acorns, chestnuts, after which they were dispatched and stuffed with more of the same sort of delicacies they’d eaten — or glazed in honey and rolled in poppy seeds, and toasted on skewers, perhaps even at the couch-side banquet table.
Delectable squeaky little bites, indeed.
Delectable! Thank you, Barbara.
Many thanks to the Saima Agency for allowing me to giveaway a copy of The Whirling Girl. If you read by review yesterday, I know you all want to read it! To win a copy, comment on this post with your email address and where in the world you’d like to inherit a house from. For an extra entry, comment on yesterday’s review. Sharing, etc, will get you more entries, so don’t forget to mention those in your comment. Contest ends on October 15. Good luck!