Very few cultural icons have an impact as high as Nutella. With over thirty books published on the hazelnut spread, film, TV and music reference it, and full page editorials on the alleged health benefits have been published. Amazing when you think, Napoleon can be credited with original the creation of the hazelnut paste from Piedmont.
Nestled between Maserati and FIAT on the ConfCommercio website of top 20 Italian brands by sales, Nutella is one of Italy’s most famous exports. Yes, two famous car companies are separated by this chocolate producer, rendered famous by its manufacturer, Ferrero.As a child, summer holidays in the homeland would consist of getting through a jar without much bother. As I got older, and more boisterous, my brother and I believed that fighting over the last slither of nutella was the most grown up thing that you could do. Now, in our thirties, I would quite happily put him, a dad of two, in his place should we ever find ourselves in such a similar predicament.
The sight of fresh oven baked bread with a selection of either Nutella or fruit spreads could quite happily summarise my favourite childhood memories, but now, those days are nearly gone. I think we all have Mr Atkins to blame for that.
You see, before Atkins, before the bickering, before discovering the weird fact that Gerard Butler does indeed want to be buried with a jar of the hazelnut delight (don't take my word for it just google that one),I knew two things about Nutella. Firstly, in Piedmont it’s known as Gianduja, and secondly, I knew that both Napoleon and Hitler had something to do with it’s creation.The Piedmont farmers whose range of produce spans from meats to dairy and even corn and wheat supplies, were also keen chocolatiers. In fact the region itself has laid claim to the creation of praline and chocolate fondant above many other produce.
It was during the Napoleonic wars that these very farmers got creative. Whilst Napoleon spent the majority of his time trying to destroy trade routes and thus create economic advantage over the Brits by stifling the export economy, the price of food commodities unsurprisingly shot up; in particular, cocoa solids. Rather than no longer produce chocolate from the solids, they added more milk and cultivated the hazelnut trees around the region and added these ingredients to create a chocolate hazelnut paste; later to be called Gianduja.
It was a pattern that was to be recreated some one hundred years later with the second world war. With food rationing in full swing across Europe, thanks to, well, you know who, the price of chocolate once again increased and a solution needed to be found. An Italian pastry maker, Pietro Ferrero, father to Michele Ferrero who would go on to created one of the world’s largest chocolate factories, took the hazelnut chocolate recipe and created ‘pasta Giandujot’, modifying the recipe slightly.
And even the word, Gianduja, has it’s own unique history. “A smiling Piedmontese peasant with a three point hat, riding around on a donkey clutching a duja of wine” This is Gianduja, a character created by Giovan Battista Sales who after fearing his other notable fictional character had too many similarities to Napoleon created a more representative character of the region. His name is apparently meant to come from “Gioan d’la’ douja” meaning “John of the wine people”, Piedmont being notoriously famous for its fine selection of wines even as early as the late 18th century.
And it’s amazing how far the spread has come since the 1940s. Random statistics about sales, “a jar is sold every 2.5 seconds across the world” to the amount of hazelnuts used in a daily production cycle “75 million”. The fact that it has it’s own “World Nutella Day” started by two bloggers who chose the week before Valentine’s day probably out of spite for all the happy couples; who knows?
And pop culture hasn't spared Nutella in books, TV or films. Nanni Moretti, a film pioneer of Italian irony and sarcasm famously devoured a whole a vat of Nutella after a romantic liason in the film Bianca; it was his own unique way of describing that men can't live off one decadent indulgence at a time. There have been over thirty books written solely on the subject of Nutella, and its facebook page was the third most liked until last year, coming behind Barack Obama and Coca-Cola.
The Vespa was designed to get people around war torn streets in Italy, designed and built by a navy supplier they were the transport of the youth. My nonni hardly took them out of the village, many wouldn't travel that far either. But one man defied all of these notions, taking a Vespa where no man would have taken one before, becoming an icon in the process.
John Gerber on his 1964 Vespa GS
In 1966, John would ride through eight countries, starting in Minneapolis finishing in Panama. 18,000 kilometres would have been travelled, all unsupported, all on the back of a Vespa. (A single cylinder scooter that is).Gerber had been inspired by the completion of the Inter-American highway which had been finished in 1963, his own recounts of the road would make you think that calling it a highway was somewhat generous; as he would later write "between San Jose and Panama City lay 300 miles of unpaved road, much of it over 11,000 foot mountains. The condition of the road confirmed my worst fears. Foot wide boulders and pot holes were the rule rather than the exception".His journey began in auspicious circumstances as well. After crossing the Minesota - Iowa border a light drizzle turned into a torrential downpour; after seeking rain shelter under telephone box for three hours he made it to the nearest motel for the evening, discovering the next morning that there had been wide spread flooding across the state. A decision to not risk travelling turned out to be the wisest, although the following days travels were done under 100 degree temperatures and not in the most comforting of sceneries.On his travels, Gerber would discover that Mexico didn't allow Vespa sales because of anti-competition laws, that Guatemala's romantic sounding names qualified the nation as 'the most interesting' and that Honduras may just be one of the best places to break down. After sheering pistons and finding dealerships that supplied everything but the parts he needed, Gerber turned to the locals,"Latin American mechanics are noted for their resourcefulness and the head mechanic proved to be no exception, with considerable difficulty these obstacles were overcome."The journey to Panama continued with stops in Costa Rica where he would get the opportunity to drive up the Irazu Volcano, active at the time. 'The twenty mile paved road to the top was steep and winding, requiring first gear most of the way. Once at the summit superlatives abound in the description--magnificent, stupendous, mighty, marvelous, unbelievable, beyond the imagination--they are all justified.'The last part of Gerber's journey was arduous, he battled with poor road, weather and bike conditions. His earlier mechanical problems had returned and made riding the Vespa a near impossible task. He lost a silencer, the repaired piston was nearly destroyed and electrical problems didn't exactly help either. Panama City gave Gerber the time to rest and sight-see, after sixteen days which included repairs, Gerber set off home making the trip back in eleven days.John Gerber would write of his journey in one of the many travel logs he kept. A year later he published the manuscript of his Pan-America tour which he subsequently submitted to Scooter World, the most published scooter magazine at the time; he was to receive an answer nearly two years later, unsurprisingly his work was rejected for a 'a young welsh rider who is doing an around the world trip on a Vespa'.
Gerber would go on to break world distance records, all unsupported, all on a Vespa. He would once again return to South America and spend nearly two years covering forty thousand kilometres submitting pieces from telegraph stations in some of the most remote locations on his journey; Scooter World proudly publishing his tales after the earlier rejections. And whilst his achievements weren’t splashed over the world news, he would go on to be a cultural icon for anyone mad enough to fall in love with the scooters from Italy, a new age explorer is perhaps most fitting.
John Gerber's achievements could be matched today but the likelihood of it happening in such similar ilk, probably never; as Norrie Kerr a mod pioneer noted at the time, 'this guy has a backside like an ironing board to do this".
But, where's Mario?
Silvio was forced to resign because of lo spread. Very little to do with the bunga bunga as many would have hoped. Mario, he reduced lo spread but then brought in l'austerita'; he didn't last much after that. Pier-Luigi, he according to the foreign press is the 'cigar chomping former communist', beating his much younger and apparently more popular political rival, Matteo, in the primaries; what a pity. Beppe, he's popular, but has already declared, 'I won't be president'.
Silvio, he promises to give back l'IMU, economists can't figure out how. Mario, he promised that he wouldn't run for president, three months into campaigning he's a seasoned pro. Pier-Luigi, he should have had this all wrapped up, but now he needs his 'friend', Matteo to not blow a thirty percent lead; Beppe, he's won in Sicily but he still won't see the inside of Palazzo Chigi.
Silvio, Mario, Pier-Luigi & Beppe, they can't/won't even sit down together to discuss politics.
Promises made, very few kept. A new Italy or one that refuses to change? La classe politica (the political class) with very few new faces, forced to be run by i tecnocratici (the technocrats) because the Italians wanted it that way... actually they didn't. The markets, the ECB, the EU, Angela Merkel, we all have our theories, showed their hands in that one.
Lets take Elvira, from Naples. A lawyer and friend, disillusioned by party politics and it's public faces. "I have a thousand doubts, but I can't not vote. That's not an option. It's a delicate time for Italy, but who do you vote for? One man, Silvio, kept saying the economy was fine, right until the last day of the technocrats taking over."
And then there's Michelangelo, 27 from Bologna. He's a customs specialist, by my calculations, this will be the third time he's voted, it hasn't deterred him. "Let's just say that the majority of people, from my point of view will still vote, they'll still be aligned to the ideologies that they've always lived by." He continues "there's a lot more resignation than apathy. Always the same people, very little innovative ideas, very few young people. Instead of whinging about the future, make a change, that's why you should vote."
There is a crisi politica after all, but nothing to do with the ministers, but it's voters. When you're presented with this as your choice, it's crisi, but of a different kind.
A step away from food today, my other passions in life, football and cars combine in this latest post. Few things truly represent Italy more than a Ferrari. If I was going to own one as a child, I needed a plan, somehow, becoming the next football sensation seemed like the most appropriate avenue.
You probably remember being asked as a child what you wanted to be when you “grew up”. Friends would say things that sounded relatively normal, ‘fireman’, ‘policeman’, ‘doctor’. There was always that child, Michael Cross in this case, that wanted to be a ‘footballer’; he was ceremoniously discouraged to ever dream again.
To be different however, my answer would not be what I wanted to be, but what I wanted to own. ‘Ferrari 308 GTB’. That was going to be my car, but ‘how was I ever going to afford it’ as Miss Burton asked me. ‘Rob a bank, Miss’. If Italians hadn’t developed such a bad reputation as gangsters I wouldn’t have been forced to visit the school nurse for a ‘chat’.
At a young age though, it had occurred to me that I needed a plan, how was I ever going to legally get my Ferrari 308?
This all happened at the same time of discovering that I was now a defender. Not the classiest, not the greatest, but armed with my diadora’s and my posters of Franco Baresi and a young Paolo Maldini, I was inspired. ‘Become a footballer’ I thought, ‘but don’t mention that to your teachers. Poor Michael, never saw it coming’.
I would spend hours tackling myself, discovering that Franco and Paolo made what they do look relatively easy. Their ability something exceptional, something which few since have ever really recreated. If I could get as good as them, I could afford that Ferrari, the basic grasp of work life balance yet to afflict that naive seven year old.
I’ll see this side of me every week when I coach, the under seven’s now probably dream of a Bugatti Veyron, but I would take that 308 everyday; that was/is my dream car. Alas my football ability would never match up to that skill, my perennial injuries ensure that I’ll never get there.
If only aged seven I could have decided on another profession to get me there. I don’t have the stomach and I’m too sensitive to be a doctor. Too lazy to be a solicitor. And if I were a fireman, I’d treat every call out as a perfect on site cooking venue, not ideal when the aim is to save lives.
I was only seven, I had yet to discover anything other than ‘those’ careers, and now at thirty I’m even less likely to own a 308, but I can always dream. I should really have taken inspiration of where I saw the car for the first time, on TV.
I should have become a private investigator, I should have gone down the road of being the next Magnum PI. The car after all, comes with the job.
In a world where Danny De Vito has his own bottled brand of a Southern Italian liquor, I ask, how did that ever happen for a drink I associate with my uncle's home brew and BBQ parties going bad?
Danny De Vito, proudly presenting his OWN brand of Limoncello
Trying desperately to not laugh or show shock, I poured myself another glass. My uncle shook his head, “that will hurt in the morning” if only he meant just my finger.
Another digestivo, if any, that has made the transition from local campania produce to national recognition to international export; even Danny De Vito has his own brand of Limoncello.
There will be those who first taste the Italian southern comfort whilst on holiday, much to the exclamation of “oooff strong”. Over the years, friends and friends of friends have told me of their first limoncello moments, they always feature Sorrento, they are always followed up by tales of waking up with the worse hangover on holiday.
That’s where limoncello is misunderstood as a drink. It’s not served in pint glasses for a reason. It’s humble beginnings are still argued to this day. Between Sorrento, Capri and Amalfi, each are still fervently convinced someone, somewhere in their town first created it.
One such noted historical notion is one hundred years in the making. “Maria Antonia Farace religiously looked after her garden of lemons and oranges. After the war, her nephew opened a small deli/bar on the island of Capri, in the region near the villa of noted psychologist Axel Munthe. The speciality of the bar was that of creating varieties of different liqueur from the plants. In 1988, her grandson Massimo Canale started his own artisan production of limoncello, and trademarked the name.”
Other noted folklores point to fisherman using lemon liqueur to warm themselves on cold winter days to some going as far back to Spanish rule of the Southern territories, however this is widely disputed as most Spanish soldiers were forbidden alcohol in occupied lands.
Between my uncle’s padlocked freezer (photographic evidence is available upon request) and my tenacious drive to barter down prices in airport duty free’s, I find myself asking, do I have a limoncello problem? Sure, most of the bottles I bring back are for friends, but then comes the summer barbecue and many beers later, I believe the term “mine-sweeping” of limoncello takes over come 11pm.
My own lemon tree, lemmy, is yet to yield anything close to a crop. It sits, waiting to grow. That's what plants do right, sit, waiting to grow?! It knows it's name is marked for greater things, that its lemons will produce something spectacular, that I could potentially start my own limoncello empire. If only...
A trip to Naples rarely goes by where I don’t have a glass. A freezer shelf without a bottle is something unheard of. It should never be added to a new age Tiramisu (looking at you Nigella!) and it's not to be drunk from a tray in a mix with several other spirits floating at the bottom...
If it's good enough for Danny De Vito to build a small empire from, then it's good enough to drink after your Italian meal, just not a pint of the stuff, ok?
In lieu of MyLittleVespa winning the “Canolo Award” for services to Italian food and culture, we decided to look at the award naming sicilian delight.
‘Leave the gun, take the Cannoli’ uttered Peter Clemenza after he and his assailant killer, Rocco Lampone disposed of his now ex driver, Paulie Gatto. Words that would be included into the top 100 most famous film quotes of all time, and introduce a whole generation of non-Italians to the sweet Sicilian dessert.
My own love affair with cannoli started when I was young, around seven years old. I remember that the local pasticceria had a few items left in the cake display, the popular sfogliatelle had all but disappeared, the barman joking that my dad had been in earlier that morning. All that was left were two pizzette and a cannolo.
Ever since that day I have endeavoured to find a cannolo (singular) ensuring that the ricotta is fresh, the candied fruit is minimal and that the chocolate pieces plentiful. This is how a cannolo should be, for me anyway. Yes, the shell should be crispy with that tinge of citrus and the crunch should be a sensory explosion, but finding ones like these is like witnessing a cannoli shaped solar eclipse, very hard at best.
And yet the cannolo is a dessert which should have more recognition than the Italian American gangster films set in the 1930’s or the Italian American gangster series set in the 1990’s, are you noticing a pattern?
The cannolo’s origin is steeped in history. Some argue that Cicero’s description of a “sweet lactose tube” was the original cannolo.
Move forward a few hundred years and further historic writings have shown that elsewhere on the Island of Sicily, Caltanisetta to be precise, a conclave of arab women would dedicate their time in the production of favourite arab food, in particular pastry’s and desserts, cannoli being one such treat.
But cannoli's history is also dated to carnevale, Italy's version of Mardi Gras, the Shrove Tuesday/New Orleans kind not the Manchester Canal St rendition. Carnevale celebrates the beginning of spring and subsequently it is hypothesized that the cannoli were a symbol of fertility, and their shape would suggest who it was the townspeople were bestowing their good wishes to. Luckily for the townspeople and for us today, cannoli were seen as too good to have only once a year and have become a pastry that can be enjoyed all year round!
And why are cannoli so popular in Italian American heritage? Once again we have to turn to Sicily for the answer. It is estimated that over 7 million Sicilians emigrated to America between 1876 - 1925, many searched for, and created businesses that tailored to their very gastronomic needs; cannoli being a must.Whilst ricotta was hard to come by as well as other specific ingredients, the immigrants developed new techniques and used a widely disputed recipe to recreate their favourite dessert.
The cannolo is a piece of food nostalgia, loved by many Italians across the nation, and probably more by those living abroad; perhaps because it's so recognisable and so hard to produce that those who choose to make them, know what they are doing.
But beware as the cannolo is also the chosen weapon of many a fictional mafioso. In the first Godfather, the cannoli are just something that you collect after committing a murder. In the third Godfather they are used as a murder weapon of Mafia don and consilieri, Don Altobello. Gorging on his sixth, yes sixth, cannolo, Don Altobello discovers that he's been poisoned when its all too late.
The moral of the cannolo tale, enjoy them. Unless you are some fictional don, the worst they could do is add to your waist line, as I discovered in the Summer of '05.