It’s been a month and a half since we returned from Rome and, surprisingly, I have been evading a post about the trip. Initially, I was over the moon about the photographs I took, eager to write about all the places we visited and the foods we ate, but the second thoughts started to creep in. Writing about Italy is difficult. Considering all the volumes that are written about pasta, renaissance, Giorgio Armani, gelato, Italian soccer teams, and topics alike, and considering all the petabytes of information about Roman lands that now float in the cyberspace, how can one add anything of value? How does one write something new, something fresh, and something that, perhaps, has not been said before? Hence, the feet dragging part.
To add to the challenge, I might not be the very best expert to write about Italy. Despite living in a neighboring country for good two decade, until the neighboring country fell apart, and despite quite a few trips I made, my perceptions of Italy might be a little bit skewed, because, for a long time, I thought of it as a country of tramezzini, cartolerias, Baci, Kinder eggs and miniature Murano glass animals. All other subjects came to the picture much later.
My views were permanently molded by three trips, which I made with my parents in the seventies, during the golden years of Yugoslavian communism. Despite practicing somewhat relaxed version of the communist ideology, and despite being perpetually at odds with the Soviet Union and the comrades from the Eastern Bloc, the leaders of our Party shared the same sentiment towards broad economic prosperity and greedy commercialist practices of the West, as their once-upon-a-time communist friends. Which basically meant that we had plenty of food to eat and plenty of clothes to wear, but they were, how shall I put it, not quite pleasing aesthetically. The supermarkets were filled (thank God!) and food products were yummy (double thanks on that issue), but they arrived in simple and unappealing packages. The chocolates I ate as a kid were delicious and of a good quality, but came mostly wrapped in brown paper and without any surprises inside. Ditto with all other edibles. And the clothes... Manufactured locally in good old communist enterprises and sold in government-owned stores, the clothes were appalling. The foods issue never bothered Mom much, because: a) Mom was never much of an eater, and b) she mainly relied on green markets to provide the necessary nutrients. But the lack of pretty clothes required intervention, thus, Mom and Dad saved diligently, and every spring and fall they made a trip to Italy to update their closets. This sounds lavish on paper, but in reality, these were bare-bone trips. Most of the time they drove in Dad’s beaten up Beatle to Trieste and stayed for two nights in a small room at the back of an inexpensive pension; they brought just enough money to have a nice lunch, buy a pair of shoes and a pair of jeans, a dress and a sweater, and to fill up the tank on the way back. Mom was never much of a shopper either, nor was she a traveler, and a couple of years into the marriage, she outsourced the excursions to Dad. Armed with an enthusiastic friend or two, who pitched in for the gas, Mr. Stan left Belgrade with a shopping list and came back with a small bag of goodies: a pair of shoes and a pair of jeans, a dress and a sweater, and a big box of Baci.
Baci Perugina. The Kisses from Perugia. The kisses of rich, dark chocolate and hazelnuts, wrapped in a love note and a star-patterned silver foil. I recently bought a box in my local supermarket and realized that -- God bless the Perugina factory -- the cobalt blue box, featuring two lovers embraced in a kiss under glittering sky, remained unchanged over all those years. I think it is the box and love letters that attracted Dad to the chocolates; he was never into sweets, but he always tried to find innovative ways to tell Mom how much he loves her, and Baci was a definite way to go. Hence, it became their thing. As soon as the box arrived, Mom opened it carefully and each of us took one chocolate. We always read the letter first, before savoring the chocolates. Once done, Mom collected the letters and stashed them in her green onyx jewelry box.
When I was about seven, Mom and Dad decided that I was ready, and they organized our first family trip to Trieste. That’s where Kinder eggs come into the picture. First imagine an Italian coffeshop -- you know those little mom and pop places they call Bar & Tabacchi, where the pop works at the bar serving espressos, freshly pressed orange juice, Sambuca Romana and sandwiches, while the mom is in charge of the register, usually somewhere close to the entrance to the store, and close to the shelf with tobacco, sweets and chewing gums. Then imagine a kid from an impoverished communist country next to a shelf filled with artfully decorated chocolates, multi-colored Smarties, and vintage looking tins of fruit bonbons in the pastels of midsummer night dream. And then imagine that kid in a possession of a chocolate egg, which opens up into a skylab-shaped yellow box and into a toy surprise! That is where my recollection of Italy stops, because it was simply too much to absorb.
Eventually, Mom and Dad concluded that maybe it is too early for my tender soul to fully embrace the wonders of capitalism, and placed the family trips to Italy on hold. Instead, Kinder eggs and Smarties joined the box of Baci as permanent members in Dad’s Italian goodie bag.
When I was about nine, Mom and Dad regained the courage and we embarked on the second family trip to Italy, destination Venice. Two years of exposure to gifts from Dad’s goodie bag might have helped in Trieste, but they definitely did not prepare me for Venice. Imagine the canals and the gondolas and the narrow streets in one of the most picturesque cities of the world. Then imagine these streets lined with colorful shops, thousands and thousands of them, overflowing with crystal and Murano vases, gold-leaf fixtures, carnival puppets and silk sequined Venetian masks. And then imagine a kid from an impoverished communist country... Yet again it was too much to absorb and the impressions from Venice disappeared into a blur. Except for the blast of colors and crowds of people, there are only two things that I remember from that trip. The first is a dusty pink Murano figure of an elephant, the size of my fingernail; I bought it on our first day in Venice and insisted on carrying it around in a small velvet pouch. Every once in a while, the pouch and the elephant decided to escape and I would throw a majestic tantrum, leaving my parents and whoever else happened to be around -- a store owner, a waiter, a kind pedestrian -- with no other option but to get on their knees and crawl on the floor, in search for the figurine. I also have a vague memory of an afternoon stroll, somewhere around Ponte Rialto, when my dad for a brief moment considered putting me on a leash. Mom gave him a look and he abandoned the idea, instead he placed a note with the address of our hotel in my pocket, and I, possessed by a Venice-induced amok, continued to run around uncontrollably, getting lost in the crowds over and over again.
The third and the final family trip to Italy was the most fortunate one. When I was ten, we returned to Venice, where I happily discovered tramezzini, the crustless, cloud-like sandwiches sold in Italian bars (how could I miss them the first time???), and I maintained my very best behavior as long as there was an opportunity to munch on a tramezzino. Happily for all of us, Venice is lined with bars and we just kept on going.
Therefore, you may agree that I am not the world’s greatest expert on Italian culture. But I am an expert when it comes to visiting Italy with kids, so here is my advice, and a small contribution to the topic of Italian travels: when bringing a tiny person, get yourself a leash, have a pocket money ready for Kinder Surprises, feed the little fellow tramezzini until the little tummy is filled up (you might observe that it never happens), and everything will be better than dandy.
So how did we do this time around? We did not have a leash, because when I suggested that we buy one on Amazon.com, Dr. V refused to take me seriously. And although we ate a decent share of carbonara, cacio e pepe, trippa, carciofi and porchetta, most of the time we ate tramezini. Because Miss Pain was close to always hungry. Hence, we kept on stopping at every Bar & Tabacchi, buying tramezzini, Smarties, Kinder eggs, and Baci (that was for me, in honor of Mom and Dad’s love affair). And since Rome, just like Venice, is lined with bars, we kept on following the path they put us on. And we made it to the Pantheon. And St. Peter's Basilica. And the Colosseum. We made it to Bocca della Verità, Forum and San Luigi dei Francesi. And thanks to a couple of tramezzini I stashed in my bag, we even made it to Sistine Chapel. Twice.
Baci Chocolate Hazelnut Truffles
for the truffles
* 1/4 cup heavy cream
* 1/4 cup sugar
* 7 oz bittersweet chocolate couverture (I used Lindt Chocolate Piccoli Chocolate Bittersweet Couverture, 58% cocoa)
* 3 tsp glucose syrup (optional)
* 1/2 cup butter, softened
* 7 oz hazelnuts
for the glaze
* about 8 oz bittersweet chocolate couverture (the more couverture you have, the easier it will be to glaze the chocolates and the glaze will be more uniform, but you will have leftovers)
Toast the hazelnuts. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread the hazelnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure that the hazelnuts toast evenly. Remove the hazelnuts from the oven when they are fragrant and golden, and allow them to cool at room temperature. Once the hazelnuts have cooled completely, rub them with your hands or between two kitchen towels to remove the skins. Reserve about 40 hazelnuts. Chop the remaining hazelnuts finely. (You can also smash them using mortar and pestle, or chop them in food processor, but be careful not to over-process and turn the hazelnuts into a meal.) Chop the couverture into small pieces.
In a medium sized saucepan combine cream and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat, while stirring constantly. If using, add the glucose. Slowly add chopped couverture to the hot cream, a little at a time, stirring constantly, until it is completely melted. Remove from the heat and leave on the side to cool.
In a separate bowl, whip the butter until it is fluffy and significantly increased in volume. (I do this by hand if I am making smaller quantities, and in the mixer if I double the recipe.) When the butter and chocolate mixture are the same temperature, gradually add the chocolate mixture to the butter. Continue to beat until the mixture becomes homogeneous and light brown in color. Add the chopped hazelnuts and continue to beat until the hazelnuts are fully incorporated.
Line a baking sheet or wood board with parchment paper. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag with a round tip and pipe small balls (the size of a small walnut) onto the parchment paper. (If you do not have piping bag, you can cover the mixture and chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or overnight. Using a small icecream scoop, melon baler or small spoon, scoop the mixture into balls. Dip the spoon into cold water from time to time to prevent the mixture from sticking.) Press a whole hazelnut in the middle of every ball.
Temper the chocolate couverture for the glaze in a double boiler. I like to use the smallest double boiler possible, because dipping will be easier. If you do not have double boiler, fill one (larger) pot with about three inches of water, and place one (smaller) pot on top of it securely. Immerse each Baci into the couverture, using a dipping fork, or wooden stick. Knock of the surplus glaze and transfer the Baci to a wire rack or flat surface to dry.
Makes about 35 chocolates