Fennel Taralli, a song from Ornella Vanoni, and a reflection on La Cucina Ebraica.
Today was a typical winter's day in Adelaide. Too wet for the garden, too windy for reading, rugged up, on the verandah.
I dug deep into the musical archives and found....Ornella Vanoni!
Think an Italian Cleo Laine and you'll get the picture.
I have just lost everyone under 60 years. But if, like me, you must have music in the background, you should listen to Vanoni's dulcet voice as you cook the following recipe for taralli. Vanoni’s “L’Appuntamento” is a good place to start. You’ll know the tune from the Ocean’s Eleven remake in 2001 but the words are so sad – she waits for her date, hopeful, anticipating as always, and then.....
The lovely Ornella Vanoni provided the sound track for an afternoon in the kitchen.
Anyway, I was in a warm kitchen with the afternoon stretching ahead of me. I had made pasta e fagioli Tuscan style (this is really a thick soup, not the pasta asciuta dish that I grew up with) and I decided what was needed were some fennel taralli. I used my mother’s recipe and as I kneaded and stretched, boiled and baked, I was struck by the Jewish influence in so many ‘classic’ Italian recipes.
The canon of Italian dishes is awash with Jewish recipes and adaptations. Some have retained their clear allegiance – carciofi alla Giudea, caponata ebraica, riso del sabato while others like agnello brodettato, served for an Abruzzese Easter, is clearly Sephardic in nature and origin.
In my travels I have often been drawn to explore the ancient Jewish areas of Rome, Bologna, Venice, Palermo. Why? Partly it is to honour the wonderful, warm, generous swathe of Jewish clients I had in my early catering career and partly it is because I feel an inexplicable connection through history, through the family rituals, through the food.
Many years ago, I spent a happy holiday in Pitigliano - in the Maremma region of south western Tuscany. I had been inspired to visit the town because of a cookery book written by a Melbourne woman, Edda Servi Machlin. (Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, Giro Press, NY. 1993. Also available at Amazon.) Born in Pitigliano, she wrote to capture the history and recipes of the women in her family. I found her book to be a powerful tribute to a rich cultural and culinary heritage. Pitigliano, known as "little Jerusalem" for its Jewish quarter and the synagogue, is situated on a spectacular outcrop of tufa in an area inhabited since Etruscan times.
Until about twenty five years ago, the bakers of Pitigliano prepared the matzo which was distributed throughout Italy. Gradually, the Jewish population diminished and the Jewish commercial centre became unviable. It was with some urgency, then, that Edda Servi Machlin wrote her cookbook to record for her children and grandchildren the quintessential recipes for Holy Days and everyday. Sure, most of the recipes can be found elsewhere but where else will we find two competing aunts' version of the one dish?
I will return to Pitigliano with my little tour group in October and I will report on the changes I find there.
Pitigliano. The tiny 'viale', the little cobbled streets in the Jewish quarter lead to the edge of the tufa bedrock - and a sheer plunge to the bottom. Luckily, the little winery near the synagogue is no longer in working order.
I contemplated all of this while my dough rose and doubled in volume and gave me time to retrieve a pile of cookery books on Italian Jewish food from the book shelves. Dipping in and out of several volumes I felt confident that these taralli, so beloved in the south of Italy, are surely a play on bagels. Made with flour and yeast they are shaped into rings, boiled and then baked. Savoury taralli may be flavoured with caramelised onion, sesame seeds, fennel, pepper, chilli or just salt. Sweet taralli are often glazed with a thin lemon icing. Smaller taralli, called tarallini, with a circumference of 3.8 to 7.8 cm are sold on every street corner in Puglia.
FENNEL TARALLI - makes 64
2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 tsp liquid malt or raw sugar
2 cups warm water
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 kg '00' flour
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp fennel seeds
Combine the yeast, malt or sugar, water and oil. Stir and allow to activate - after ten minutes or so it will start to bubble.
Combine the flour, salt and fennel seeds in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the liquid. Bring the mixture together. At this point, assess whether your dough needs a little extra water or indeed, is it too wet and needs a little more flour? When you are happy with the consistency, tip onto a floured bench and begin to knead until you have a soft and smooth dough. Smear the bowl with a little oil and put the dough in, covering with a damp tea towel. Set it aside and allow to double. This will take at least an hour.
Punch back the dough and divide into quarters. Cut each quarter into 16 even pieces to weigh about 25 grams each. Roll each into a rope of about 20 cm. Roll them thinner if you want crispy taralli. I like mine a bit chewy. Shape into an elongated shape.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil, add salt. Plunge in 6-8 taralli and wait until they bob to the surface. Count to about 30 seconds, then remove to a clean tea towel. When completely dry on the underside, flip them over.
Bake for 15 mins at 180C and then for another 15 minutes at 160C until they are golden and crisp.
They will keep for at least a month in a paper bag in a dry place.
For Easter, my mother used to make a larger version of taralli. The dough had eggs and they were glazed with egg wash to give them a shiny veneer. I will make these on the next rainy day and let you see.
I guess the much loved zeppole that are eaten for Carnevale are merely a variation made by deep-frying a sweet version of the rings and serving them with strong coffee or a sweet dessert wine.
As Ornella softly sings: “La mia ombra si e’ stancata di seguirmi, il giorno muore lentamente” (My shadow is tired of following me, the day slowly dies), I realise that the day has indeed dissolved into evening and I have a stack of books on Italian Jewish Cookery – La Cucina Ebraica – that await me.