Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree – Our First Christmas Dinner in Italy

This is the third article in December of the School for Housewives 1906 series published on December 23, 1906, and is a discussion on keeping house in Italy.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of Boston Sunday Post.

Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree

Our First Christmas Dinner in Italy

“Nume——ro
Ot——to!
“Ter——zo pian——o!
Via San Sebastian——o!”

THUS “Boy,” aged 5, set our Roman address a to a tune of his own making, and chanted it twenty times a day at the top of lusty lungs, for mnemotechnic purposes. He was never suffered to go into the street alone, and when there, was held closely by the hand of his nurse, who regarded “those Eyetalians” as bandits all ready and eager to kidnap fairer-skinned babies—Americans in particular. But in case he might slip his moorings, the name and number of the old and brief street, where we had set up our Lares and Penates for the winter, were fastened upon his glib tongue by the process.

“Terzo” (pronounced “tertzo”) “piano” meant that we toiled up two flights of stone stairs to the third floor of the building—once a palace—that looked out from the back windows upon the Pincian Garden—a never ending delight to old and young. Orange trees flowered in the court at the rear, and the steep little street made a short run in front down to the world-famed Piazza di Spagna.

Where Italy Yields to France

Location was all we could have asked. Nor were the interior accommodations amiss to tenants who had, by now, become in a measure accustomed to stone walls, brick and stone floors, and kitchens like penal calls in dimensions and bareness.

Our Parisian kitchen was tiny, but bright and even gay with the touches of decorative art the French lend to the commonest household appointments.

Marie, albeit not a commissioned “cordon bleu,” sported a ribbon in her cap border, or upon the pockets of her broad white apron. Her marketing always included a bunch of flowers, to be divided between the salon, dining room and kitchen. Her very manner of disposing herbs intended for soups and garnishes had a suggestion of festivity.

My Italian kitchen was, if not absolutely gloomy, dingy and ugly. Instead of the white tiled rang and floor, we had an iron stove and a brick floor. There were four holes in the top of the stove, in one of which burned a low-spirited charcoal fire. A box of charcoal stood in one corner; in another was a heap of kindling in the form of balls of shaving dipped in rosin. They made a quick, hot flame, and sufficed to boil the kettle for afternoon tea, and to make the coffee for breakfast, or to cook the eggs for the same meal.

The body of the range was taken up by what the Italian-speaking member of the family informed me, after consultation with the presiding genius of the precincts, was a plate-warmer.

“Where, then, is the oven? You must have misunderstood her.”

Another consultation ensued, in which the native was raked fore and aft by the energetic young foreigner, the former emerging from the dialogue flustered and tearful, but resolute and respectful.

“She insists that no private kitchen is fitted up with a range oven; that, while she can boil, broil, fry, stew and saute like an angel, she never was called upon to bake bread or roast meat. Such joints as are not to be braised must be sent to the bake shop around the corner. Just as one sees in Hogarth’s pictures,” concluded the student of art and languages, with evident relish of the situation.

A Gem of a Cook

We bowed to the inevitable more complaisantly than would have been possible a year earlier, and entered upon our apprenticeship in Italian cookery. The cook—Septima by name—was prettier of feature and slimmer in build than Marie, but so much less neat in apparel and person, not to mention methods, as to suffer grievously by comparison until we learned to value aright the sweet temper, the gracious deference, the unfailing cheerfulness and desire to oblige, which endear the Italian servant to the employer whom she serves long enough to give the superior the opportunity to become well acquainted with cook, waitress or lady’s maid.

From the second day of her residence with us we saw that Septima’s interests and ours were identical in her creed. Having taken service with us she was bound by honor and by feeling to take our part against tradesmen and peddlers. We were as sheep without other guardian than herself in a wilderness of extortion and crookedness. She did our marketing, beat down prices in all directions, and ate so little that we were uneasy as to her health, wiry and industrious though she proved to be. The excellence and variety of the fare cooked in the dingy kitchen over the dreary holes in the uncomely stove were, to the last day of our sojourn in the Eternal City, a continual surprise.

At 9 o’clock each morning she brought in the breakfast tray. It wound have been vain to hope for the materials of the simple meal at an earlier hour. She made delicious coffee. Like our French cook, she knew little and cares less for tea. It was, as she informed us, the drink of “forestrieri” (foreigners) and aristocrats. With coffee, she was joyfully at home; she could make good chocolate, even milling it, when ordered to prepare it in that way. We wisely took the tea-making out of her hands, brewing the breakfast and afternoon cup at the table by the help of a spirit lamp. Our breakfast bill-of-fare was invariable. Crips, tender rolls, left hot at the door, and kept warm in the hollow that should have been the oven; coffee and tea for the elders, and cocoa for the children; pats of unsalted butter we came to like so well that it took us a long time to get over our distaste for salt butter after our return to “The States;” a boiled egg apiece, and—an innovation upon Continental custom—honey in the comb, or marmalade. In the two years we passed in Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland we never wearied of what would seem monotonous fare to untraveled Americans or English, accustomed to the hearty first meal of the day. Yet, strange to say, we found it tiresome in a short time when we attempt to introduce the Continental breakfast into our home across the sea.

Light Luncheons

Luncheon consisted of a dish of hot meat, or an omelette, one or more vegetables, a salad, biscuits and cheese—the latter often of goat’s milk, and a sweet of some kind. The light wines of the country, hardly more intoxicating and sometimes not sweeter than vinegar, are the universal beverage at luncheon and dinner. The prejudice against the former water supply of Rome and Florence impelled foreigners to fall in with the national fashion. Part of Septima’s wages was half a lira (ten cents) for the purchase of wine for her daily consumption. She brought it home in her market basket—a flask (fiasco) of thin red liquid that smelled and tasted sour, which scarcely any other flavor. I doubt if it did her one-tenth of the harm that Bridget’s stewed tea works upon her stouter stomach and nerves. I am sure that it would be a difficult task for any one—be he native or forestieri—to drink enough wine of the quality brought by the peasants of France and Italy to make him drunk.

But to the chief meal of the day—never served earlier than 7 P.M.

Let my first Christmas dinner in the land of poetry and painting stand for a fair sample of the matter and manner of the same.

Our dear friends, the K——s, who had been abroad twice as long as ourselves, but who had kept moving for so much of that time that they had never “kept house” anywhere, were in Rome for the winter, and, as usual, at a hotel. A week before the great festival we determined, in pity for the homeless and out of our love for the particularly charming exiles, to ask them to dinner. The invitation was accepted with gratification that was pathetic in the light shed upon the acceptance by the last sentence of the note:

“You may guess what this feast will mean to us when you know that for eighteen months we have not broken bread in a private house—birds of passage that we are!”

Four days later, without taking counsel with Septima, whose ultra-economical propensities might, we feared, interfere with our hospitable designs, we went to the poultry market in the immediate neighborhood of the Pantheon. Up to that December day I had resented the profanation implied by the proximity. Today I thought more of the probable difficulty of finding a turkey large and plump enough to express the fullness of our desire to make up to the pilgrims for the privations of the last year and a half than of the history and the meaning of the mighty temple, for we had already noted and remarked upon the insignificant fowls roasted to our order at the convenient bakehouse. We had remarked, also, and in bewilderment, that they shrank more in the cooking than might have been expected from their plump outlines when Septima held them up for our inspection on her return from market.

The biggest turkey in the exhibition on the sunny side of the Pantheon was alive. That should not be an obstacle to our purchase, the dealer assured us, obligingly. In ten minutes he should be dressed and ready for our larder. To show his willingness to make his words good, he forthwith began to strip the wretched creature of the breast-down, despite frantic squawkings and struggles. Nor was this all or by any means the worst of the operation. While we looked on in wonder and pity we could not recall enough Italian adjectives to express, an assistant of the obliging center tied a string so tightly around the gobbler’s neck that the strangling bird, like the young woman who horrified the elder Weller by drinking six-and-twenty cups of tea at a church party, “swelled visibly before our eyes.” I beat a hasty retreat into the open door of the old temple, my companion smothering his disgust in the consciousness that, if he did not keep his eyes upon the prize, he would probably be exchanged for one less eligible as soon as his back was turned.

We held the “facchino” who took the turkey home for us under guard until the puffed-up body was safe in Septima’s hands. She praised his fair proportions generously, while assuring us mournfully that she could have brought him for three lire less than we had paid to “that wicked robber.” She was not shocked when we told of the manner of the fowl’s decease. Her wide, innocent stare supplied the rest of the story.

The simplicity of her “Why not, Signora?” needed no comment.

A Novelty in Soup

The first course of that memorable dinner was a clear soup, based upon a strong stock of veal and lamb bones and thickened with “manestra.” Manestra, be it known, includes countless kinds of paste, compounded of flour and water, eggs and a little salt. One and all, they belong to the macaroni family, and Italy is the home of macaroni. The maestro of our Christmas soup was in the shape of stars, emblematic of the Star of Bethlehem. We had a constellation in each plate. Parmesan cheese, finely grated was passed with it. It is a savory accompaniment to all soups that contain macaroni in any form, and one soon learned to enjoy the seasoning, which seemed odds to the uneducated palate.

A fish of noble proportions and handsome figure had been selected as the second course. I had instructed Septima to boil it, and how to prepare a Bearnaise sauce to accompany it, discovering, to my delight, that she had made it before, and was adequate to the preparation without my supervision. Potatoes a la Parisienne were to be served with the fish. It appeared duly and in fine shape, whole, from nose to tail, imbedded in celery tips and parsley, the alternation of pale and dark green skillfully managed and enhancing his comeliness. An exclamation escaped my surprised lips at the first mouthful. The fish was ice-cold! Luckily, the guests were familiar friends, and had a keen appreciation of the humorous. I had never eaten cold cooked fish, except as a salad, but they had, and were ready with the information that the fashion was common in southern Europe. I had not told poor Septima of my wish to serve it hot, and she, coupling my order that the fish should be carefully boiled whole with that for the sauce tartare, did as she had often done under similar conditions. Really—as the Edinboro’ gallery god said of one of Mrs. Siddons’ grandest outbursts—it “was nae sae bad!” We condoned the untimely introduction of a fish salad, and found it uncommonly good when masked by the sauce, even relishing the queer adjunct of hot potato.

The next course was a royal dish of Frittura. (See recipe column.) It was a chef d’oeuvre in its way, and amply redeemed the blunder that preceded it. I have never eaten frittura out of Italy, and despair of making the uninitiated reader comprehend what gave it an honorable place in our menus.

It was attended by risotto, a recipe for which will be found in another column.

The turkey, somewhat shrunken in the cooking that had let out the air from the artificially distended body, but respectable still as to size (for a transatlantic fowl), was done to the brownest and juiciest of turns. He was stuffed with chestnuts, and lay in a nest of greenery, with egg-shaped croquettes of polenta tucked snugly about his sides. Instead of giblet gravy, the liquid left in the roasting pan was made thick with dried mushrooms, soaked, stewed and finely minced. Stewed artichokes, baked macaroni and fried fennel—a species of celery some of us liked from the first, and others never learned to relish—were passed with the turkey.

Tasty Game and Salad

The game course was broiled snipe, wee birds shot on the Campagna, and sold at an absurdly low price in the Roman markets, or what seemed small to us until we found that one made but half a mouthful. They were fat and sweet at this season and an appetizing bonne bouche.

Instead of the toast on which they would have been served in America, a round of chestnut polenta, fried to a delicate brown, lay under each of the savory mites.

The salad succeeding the birds was mixed lettuce and chicory, with French dressing. Fromage de Brie, such as one never gets on this side of the Atlantic—soft as cream and nearly as sweet—and strips of the black bread of the country support the salad.

The conventional Christmas pudding might have been brought in tins at the English grocery in the Plazza di Spagna. We maintained the Italian character of the feast by substituting a lighter and a toothsome native sweet dish—chestnuts smothered in whipped cream, attended by luscious cream puffs from Nazarri’s, the famous confectioner of the old city. Mandarinoes (miscalled “tangerines” in the United States), oranges and certain crescent-shaped grapes we liked so much that we mourned their disappearance from the fruits-shops soon after Christmas, and figs were our fruits. Olives, candied cherries, nuts, celery and sugared ginger were hor d’oeuvres.

Coffee, black, clear and fragrant, follow us to the salon.

A big bowl of camellias, crimson and white, formed the centerpiece of the table. We bought them from street peddlers for 2 and 3 cents apiece. A spray of holly was at each plate. In the salon or drawing-room were broad dishes of the glorious purple violets that grow nowhere else in such profusion as in Rome, and are never so fragrant under any other sky as that of Italy.

Frittura.

One pound of lamb’s liver, cut into dice after boiling it and letting it get perfectly cold. The giblets of chicken or other poultry, boiled in salted water, cooled and cut into pieces of uniform size. A calf’s brain, cooked and cooled, then cut small. A dozen small oysters, drained dry; small artichokes, Also boiled and cooled, then divided in to halves or thirds. Cold boiled celery, in inch pieces. Cauliflower, treated in like manner. Cold cooked potatoes cut into neat dice. When all are ready sprinkle with salt and pepper; roll in egg, then in flour and again in egg. Let them get very cold before frying in deep fat-dripping, if you have it. First, cook the liver and giblets, next the oysters, then the vegetables. In Italy all are cooked in pure, sweet olive oil. Drain and serve very hot.

Risotto.

A cupful of rice, washed and cooked for twenty minutes in plenty of boiling water. Drain and keep hot. Slice an onion and fry in butter. (In Italy the butter is displaced by oil.) Add to the fat and onions a cupful of stewed tomato, and when it boils, two sweet peppers, previously seeded, scalded, cooled and minced. Heat for a moment, in the rice lightly, cover, and let all simmer for ten minutes. Turn into a deep dish; strew Parmesan cheese on top and serve. This is but one of many varieties of the national risotto.

Polenta.

This is really generally nothing but cornmeal mush, thoroughly cooked, cooled and fried in oil.

Chestnut polenta is made of the large chestnuts of the country, boiled, then ground fine and kneaded into a thick dough or mush. It is offered for sale at the street corners in the winter, in the form of huge cakes, that look like big cheeses. They are piping hot, and, sliced as one would cut a pie, form the only supper of many a gamin and grown-up tramp.

Chestnut Stuffing for Roast Turkey.

Boil, shell and take the inner skin from the chestnuts. While they are hot, mash them smooth and work into the paste a tablespoonful of butter to a cupful of the chestnuts, and salt and pepper to taste.

Chestnut and Cream Charlotte.

Boil, shell and skin the chestnuts. While they are hot, mash or run them through the vegetable press. Sweeten to taste, and beat to as of it paste with a little cream. Mound in the middle of a glass dish; set where it will get very cold, and just before serving heap sweetened whipped cream over and about it.

OTHER ARTICLES ALSO PUBLISHED…
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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