Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Italian Connection

At lunch last week, I was craving Italian, so I went to Roberto's place. He works alone in a little open kitchen near the St. Vincent fresco, where he prepares food from his motherland.

He shakes the other neighborhood chefs' hands on the street, takes his breaks on the square in front of the fresco, and people go to his place to enjoy his Italian market menu at lunch and dinner. I hit the tail end of his lunch service that day, so he sat down with me to talk. He told me a little bit about what it's like to serve foreign food in France. The thing that kills him is what many of these pizza joints are presenting as Italian food. "They're giving Italy a bad name", he said in his quiet way, looking a bit worried. "The creamy sauces, and the things they're passing off as Carbonara..."

I assured him that this is done the world over. My observation is that every culture seems to have its own take on the rest of the world's cuisine. If someone adjusts a recipe to cater to the tastes of the host country, a descending spiral leading to the destruction of an imported culinary identity takes place. Then there's the supply chain. Local substitutions added to recipes that were once authentic dilute the formula even more. People like Roberto are rare. His food gets its reputation because it is real and honest market cuisine, done according to his training.

I asked him about Italian imports. There are a few bijou boutiques, you know, that place in the Croix Rousse where you can get a nice Italian fennel sausage. Then there's that place at Les Halles, the one that specializes in ravioli. A boutique near Cordeliers has a nice selection of vinegars. There's the shop that just opened five months ago down on rue de Charité across from Cap' Epices, a little Casino called Cas'Italie, that looks like a popular chain of grocery shops called Casino, but actually is stocked completely with popular grocery products direct from Italy.

Roberto seemed amused at my obsession with finding authentic Italy in Lyon. I told him that the place I grew up has an established Italian community. Its simple. The American version of Italian is different from the French version. In short, when I am craving that authentic fennel sausage from the Italians here in Lyon, it's because I'm really looking for a little bit of home. It is rather strange and convoluted, isn't it?

Yesterday at the end of the day, I went to a quiet cafe to write some notes. The cafe is actually not far from Roberto's place. When I was coming out, I saw him standing at his door, and waved. He motioned for me to come over. When I stepped inside, he was already in the kitchen.

"I have something for you", he said, turning around with something in his hands. He placed things one by one on the counter. "Here we have a cheese I made myself. It is called Marzolino, a goat cheese. A strong cheese. We make it in the month of March, when the goats have been grazing on strong winter herbs. And here, a sausage I also made, with peppers like Espelette but not Espelette, orange zest and fennel seeds. You will see. You mustn't cook that. And some Ventresca. You can use this in cooking but also you can eat this just like this. This is from my home." He smiled and quickly bundled these things into a sack and put the bundle into my hands. "This is for you."

I thanked him profusely and scurried off in the direction of my own kitchen. I barely heard what my neighbors were saying. They were standing out in front of the building, looking at the facade, talking about EDF (the electric company). There was the question of an extra 4 meters of wire and who was going to pay for it. Their brows were furrowed. I had this bundle of neighborly good will in my hand, and it was like a good luck charm. I bustled through, surrounded by my beaming aura, and went directly upstairs.

He said I mustn't cook the little sausages. I sliced off the end and popped it into my mouth. A feeling of warmth filled my heart. I poured a glass of wine and prepared a torta, with some greens I found at the market a big bunch of garden grown arugula, and some of his Ventresca.

His gifts to me.

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Blogger Sarah McColl said...

is the first photo your torta? looks divine. would love a recipe to try it myself!

7:08 PM, October 09, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Dear Sarah, it is the torta I made last night. Alright, I'll post the recipe tomorrow, just for you.

8:24 PM, October 09, 2007  
Blogger Wendy said...

Looking forward to that recipe too.

A delightful post. Loved the sense of your neighbourhood. Once again, your blog has left me feeling rather serene. :)

10:07 PM, October 09, 2007  
Blogger winedeb said...

Wonderful story! Too bad there are not more folks in the world like him. What a treasure he is!

10:19 PM, October 09, 2007  
Blogger misschrisc said...

Oh I love gifts of food! I could identify with your dashing upstairs with your treasure sack. And yes I was wondering if you were going to post the torta recipe. It looks wonderful!

I hope you are well :)

11:48 PM, October 09, 2007  
Blogger Anita said...

What a generous spirit, and a great story.

10:33 AM, October 10, 2007  
Blogger campo di fragole said...

Hi Vanel, very nice story, very warm. In my region the make the same kind of cheese: marzolino. Maybe your friend is from the same part of Italy.

11:59 AM, October 10, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

So thankful that you've stopped by, friends.

10:39 PM, October 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful story, and esp great writing lately, btw. I've really enjoyed the last few posts, esp the last one with the peche de vigne cake. You're such a talented writer.

Also, these charming stories have left me wondering how to improve upon the regional classics in my own area. In the US, they tend to be so poorly made. I am challanging myself to choose one and make a truly good version. Though, I doubt I am connected enough to tell if the goats have been eating winter herbs. I wish I was!

1:33 AM, October 11, 2007  
Blogger Jann said...

It was a nice gesture ....food as a gift,perfect....the meal is heavenly! you certainly did a wonderful job on this one!

4:09 AM, October 12, 2007  
Anonymous Abra said...

Lucky Lucy to have a Roberto!

6:14 PM, October 13, 2007  
Anonymous myfrenchkitchen said...

A great torta and a wondefful story alongside, which filled my heart with warmth too, like all things authentic. It made me think of and long for my homedishes and goodies...

9:53 PM, October 14, 2007  
Blogger Maryann@FindingLaDolceVita said...

I really miss the way I shopped with my Italian grandmother in her neighborhood when I was a little girl. The meat man, the vegetable man, the bakery. We'd hop from store to store and everyone knew each other. Somtimes the store owner would do what this man did for you. You must have been so happy. A gem indeed :)

12:15 AM, October 20, 2007  

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