Monday, July 22, 2013

An Italian Bakery

    This morning we were up and out early again, this time, mirablile dictu, at the instigation of Miss Sandy.  Meanwhile Dave was grunting in monosyllables and nursing a small cup of espresso.  What could prompt such a radical shift?  Nothing less than a visit to the pasticceria, the Italian bakery.

Last week as we were leaving the Centro we ran into Fabio while he was on duty, but he took the time to lead us down the Via Gasperi to the bakery of a friend, Signore Andrea, appropriately named the Pasticceria Carmen, after his wife.  Fabio introduced us to Andrea as well as his wife and son (it’s a family business, as so often in Italy), and we were treated to a delicious little sfoglietello, cheesecake, but in this case encased in crispy pastry and flavored with orange zest and (I think) orange water.  We had just finished eating at a local pizzeria where we had been porci, in the interest of research of course, and ordered two different pizzas.  Now, I’ve seen many an Italian down one of these pizzas, some 14” in diameter, and I confess I have myself on several occasions, but it was late by American standards, 9:30 pm, though still early for dinner by Agropolesi standards, and I’ve learned by experience that a stuffed stomach and sound sleep are not good bedmates for the Americano.  So we both ate several slices (in Agropoli the pizza comes unsliced and with a knife so you can DIY) and declared that we were finished.  And then ate another.  And another.  So we could tell that Signore Andrea’s sfoglietelli were delicious, but we really weren’t the best judges at the time.  
Fabio explained that I wrote about traditional foods and Sandy did the photos and Andrea generously offered to allow us to come back some morning to see the process.  Ergo our early morning visit.
Monday morning is a delight in Agropoli.  The hordes of weekend beach-goers have made their way back to Salerno, Naples, Rome, and points northward, jamming the superstrada with stop-and-roll traffic from 8 pm Sunday till some ungodly time I’ve never determined.  The air is cool and crisp in our little town, the streets are just beginning to come alive as locals make their way to work and stores begin to open.  Best of all, parking is a snap.
When we arrived at the bakery about 8:30, three young women were hard at work, one up front tending the counters where partially filled racks of gorgeous pastries were already displayed, and two in the laboratorio, the workroom.  Quarters were cramped and we were obviously in the way, but in the typical southern Italian way, these signorine gentili were incredibly generous with their time and workspace.  A large cooling rack held trays of assorted pastries fresh from the oven and the aroma was unbelievable.  Overpowering scents of freshly baked pastry, enough butter to resurrect Julia Child, and faint hints of almonds, orange, lemon, chocolate; Sandy was completely incapacitated for several minutes, not even able to take a photo.  In a large electric oven, sfogliatelle, the shell-shaped ‘many-leaved’ pastries for which this part of Italy is famous, were baking.  The spelling is not a typo; apparently the change of gender of the noun is enough to denote another kind of stuffed pastry. On the counter a tray of taralli were cooling.  Meanwhile, our two young artists were quietly, efficiently producing little masterpieces.  Maria loaded pastry cream from a generous bowl on the counter into a large piping bag and began to pipe cream onto little cookies, then covered them with a second cookie and quickly smoothed the edges before deftly pushing crumbled nuts onto the edges.  She explained that they were aptly named deliciosi.  
       Meanwhile her cohort Nina had filled another piping bag with chocolate cream and was filling little profiterole-looking puffballs that she said were called bigne, perhaps a cousin to the French (and New Orleanean) beignet.  Then she took two and glued them together with chocolate cream to create little pastry porcini mushrooms.  Maria checked the sflogliatelle in the oven (the little ‘leaves’ of pastry for which they are named are paper thin and easily burned), quickly rotated the tray to achieve even browning, and went back to work.
All quietly choreographed from some mental list that must have been ingrained from thousands of such mornings.  We never saw a list of items to be made, much less numbers of each, but there was never a wasted minute as these women whizzed through their routine.  Next Maria brought out little chocolate cannolini and piped cream into each end.  Behind her a stand mixer on the floor, big enough to make any Kitchen Aid in America die of embarrassment, some 4 1/2’ tall, rested quietly from its night’s labors.  Out came monster cannoli, 6” long, and were deftly filled with cream or chocolate.  Maria dusted both as well as her deliciosi with powdered sugar.  Nina laded what looked like eclairs with cream or chocolate.  Meanwhile, a special order:  Rita darted in from the front, grabbed two cornette, the huge croissants so popular in this area, as well as a big tub of apricot jam, sliced the cornette almost in two, smeared a generous blob of jam on each, and placed them in a bag.   Another young woman rushed in with motorcycle helmet in hand, was startled by our presence, retreated to the front of the store to deposit the helmet, then came back in, smiled shyly and quickly loaded a tray with fifteen sflogliatelle, wrapped them, and was out the door in a flash.  Italian bakeries deliver!  I assume to local caffé bars, since the whole population is not grossly obese.
Another special order, cornette filled with chocolate cream.  And out from the oven came the tray of sfogliatine, little cousins of the sfogliatelle that had recently left.  The aroma was amazing.  
I would continue, but I think Sandy’s pictures once again will tell the rest of the story better than I.  The display racks at the front held a gorgeous assortment of pastries of all sizes and descriptions: bocannotti, cassatine, zeppoline, crostatine, babá, ochio di bue, corteccie al cioccolato: even the names are delicious.  A cooler in the corner held equally beautiful torte, cakes.  We bought an alarming assortment of pastries, (mostly) as a gift, and the total bill was 12 euros, about 15 bucks.  
How in the world DO the Italians avoid obesity with that kind of temptation at such a price?  A few thoughts.  First of all, Italians enjoy their food and never feel guilty.  By not creating the allure of ‘forbidden fruit’ they seem able to place such indulgences in their proper place, an occasional treat to be savored without guilt. And then go back to their healthy Mediterranean diet. Meanwhile in America every other medical type in the country is screaming about our diets and we grow fatter as a nation all the time.  Could there be a connection?  Perhaps we need to quit shouting about the evils of food or, alternately, deeming it magic or medicine, and enjoy it for its own sake. 
Secondly, Italians rarely eat sweets as dessert.  The dessert of choice here is a luscious piece of fruit and perhaps a small piece of cheese.  Sweets are generally eaten at midmorning with a good cup of rich coffee, or perhaps as a spuntina along about four in the afternoon, with coffee or perhaps even with a tiny demitasse of Tio Nino’s homemade liqueur.  And then only in the company of friends and as a special treat.  
And that is perhaps the real key to the healthy Italian lifestyle.  Food is not just sustenance but an integral part of the social fabric.  Italians don’t just eat, they dine with family and friends, and the social interaction is more sustaining than the food itself.  As the ancient writer Plutarch said, “We come to the table, not to eat, but to share food with those we love.”
As more and more Italians are adopting the crazy American lifestyle, with family members grabbing a bite and rushing off in all directions, that healthy social system is starting to crack around the edges and, perhaps predictably, obesity is starting to become more and more common here.  But, grazie Dio, the majority of Italians still cling to their traditions, especially in small towns and here in the South.

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