Viva le Donne! Matriarchs of Italian Culinary Tradition
It is a responsibility to carry the torch. Once you have been welcomed into the fold, nurtured, and taught, you feel you must carry on the tradition – you WANT to carry on the tradition. For generations, Italian women have preserved and passed on the recipes, rules, and secrets of their mothers and grandmothers in an ongoing rite of passage. They are the keepers of culinary folklore and memories deeply rooted in family history. Every year, on International Women’s Day, my thoughts return to my mentors in our trattoria’s kitchen. This week, I revisit recipes handed down from my “Mamme Italiane”.
Chef's Travel Notes
It is a responsibility to carry the torch. Once you have been welcomed into the fold, nurtured, and taught, you feel you must carry on the tradition – you WANT to carry on the tradition. For generations, Italian women have preserved and passed on the recipes, rules, and secrets of their mothers and grandmothers in an ongoing rite of passage. They are the keepers of culinary folklore and memories deeply rooted in family history. I knew at the time, while I spent hours in our trattoria’s kitchen, that I was experiencing something incredibly special. As life in modern Italy was moving away from its agrarian roots, this time shared with “le donne di cucina” (the women of the kitchen) with their connection to recipes and customs that were gradually fading was a preciously unique opportunity.
Having a young foreigner with limited grasp of the language in the kitchen was a novelty, but these generous women embraced me and my eagerness to learn with patience and good heartedness. I realize now how much I didn’t know at the beginning and how much I have assimilated of what they taught me. Rarely was there ever anything written down. They cooked with their eyes, their noses, their hands. Their measurements were “all’occhio” (by eye), “un pugno” (a handful), “al dito” (by the finger), and “quanto basta” (as much as needed). There were no measuring cups or spoons. These were methods entirely passed down verbally for generations. These women were the keepers of memories and cherished recipes.
International Women’s Day (La Festa della Donna) on March 8th, is a popular holiday in Italy. It is a day when women are recognized for their economic, political, and social contributions. Though originally a day to mark the struggle for women’s equal rights, it has become almost more like Mother’s Day, a day when every woman (and girl) receives bouquets of delicate, yellow mimosa blossoms. The city’s florists and sidewalk stands are brimming with cellophane wrapped golden bundles. Every year, on this day, my thoughts return to my mentors in the kitchen and to what they meant to me and to my extended family.
This week’s menu celebrates simple recipes I learned from Bruna, Maria, and Bianca. Every day, as service was dying down at the trattoria, they would start to prepare our communal staff meal. Maria would truss the chicken and toss it in the wood burning oven while Bruna started a quick pasta with zucchini. Crostini al Formaggio e Salsiccie is a simple, but very flavorful Tuscan starter. We begin by sautéing our homemade fennel sausage and combining it with soft cheese – we use a combination of goat and mascarpone cheeses and then spread it on slices of our homemade bread before passing it briefly under the broiler.
The quite simple, but delicious Spaghetti alla Nerano has sprung recently to notoriety in Stanley Tucci’s televised Italian culinary travel log. But this is a pasta that is prepared, in some form, all throughout Italy, either with zucchini or some other vegetable. I started preparing it years ago for my children and now it is one of my grandchildren’s favorites. Alla Nerano was said to have been invented by a woman named Maria Grazia at her trattoria in the small fishing village of Nerano near Sorrento. It is a perfect example of cooking with all the senses, letting the dish determine just how much of each ingredient to add.
Pollo al Limone / Lemon Chicken is also a dish that can be found almost everywhere in Italy. We take local chickens, raised in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and season them with lemon, garlic, rosemary, and sage. We make a sauce with the pan drippings and serve it with the ever-popular Tuscan roasted rosemary potatoes.
Torta Mimosa is a relatively new specialty prepared by bakers to celebrate Women’s Day. It is usually a butter cake filled and frosted with light orange cream to resemble the yellow mimosa that have become the symbol of the holiday. For portioning ease, we have baked them into individual cupcakes.
Pairing a wine to this menu was an easy decision. Not only does the Bramito Chardonnay pair beautifully with our zucchini pasta and lemon chicken, but it is also the product of a company headed by women. “The woman’s role in our business, especially in Italy in the past, was something that was considered unattainable,” says Alessia Antinori, who with her sisters Albiera and Allegra are the heirs to Marchesi Antinori, one of the oldest wineries in the world, and its first female management team in the company’s storied history. “We brought fresh points of view to marketing and sales,” and the female perspective has also enhanced the critical area of tasting where, “the female palate can be incredibly precise,” she says.
The role of women at the heart of Italian culinary culture is undeniable. As matriarchs, their dedication to preserving tradition and nurturing their families through food has helped to make Italian cuisine beloved throughout the world. “No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past.” Laurie Colvin
Viva le donne!