Monthly Archives: June 2018

A cockatoo in 13th century Sicily

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Siciliancockatoo

Look at this bird. How adorable and grumpy he looks. He’s also the oldest depiction of a cockatoo, a bird from Australia, in Europe:

“The four images of the white cockatoo feature in the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Sicily’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds), which dates from between 1241 and 1248.

These coloured drawings pre-date by 250 years what was previously believed to be the oldest European depiction of a cockatoo, in Andrea Mantegna’s 1496 altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria.”

I just love that Frederick II called the sultan of Cairo “the sultan of Babylon.”

Frederick II is after the period that I favor, but his court managed to translate the cultural achievements of the Norman court to a much broader audience, besides creating achievements of its own. The Italian forms of poetry, canzone and sonnet, were invented at his court. I often wonder what would have happened if his son Manfred was able to keep the throne, instead of being killed at the Battle of Benevento

 

Bread, the staff of life: an update

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I bake a lot of bread these days; I very rarely buy any storebought bread, unless it’s something like potato bread. At first, I was using traditional yeast. When I started exploring historical baking—particularly medieval baking—I realized very quickly that any bread before commercial yeast was available in the 1800s was going to be sourdough.

I had clues about traditional Sicilian bread from Mary Taylor Simeti’s “Pomp and Sustenance.” In it, she gives a recipe for traditional Sicilian bread, which I have quoted in my paper on Sicilian food on academia.edu. Even though the recipe uses commerial yeast, she notes that some bakers use a “criscenti”, a bit of dough from the bread batch preserved in olive oil, as a starter for the next batch of bread. This bit of dough would accumulate other yeasts and lactobacilli, and so on and so on.

Inadvertently, I think Simeti gave another clue as to how some Sicilians created their own starters and introduced wild yeasts to their loaves. She said one old woman told her that in her tiny mountain village while she was growing up, the women would knead elderflowers into their dough: Elderflower contains wild yeasts, which makes the flower a good candidate for fermentation for elderflower cordials and champagnes.

Today, elderflower-infused dough is essential for the production of vastedda, a focaccia-like bread filled with sliced tuma and salami. In this article, a more thorough description of vastedda is provided:

Vastedda con sambuco

The last specialty we will be featuring takes us to Parco dei Nebrodi, a protected natural area that extends between the provinces of Messina, Catania and Enna. In Troina, a village in the verdant mountains of the Enna province is where vastedda cu sammuccu, or, vastedda with elderflower is made. According to different sources, the term vastedda (or guastedda) could derive from the ancient French term gastel or Germanic wastel. In Sicilian, this word has several meanings, the majority of which refer to bread products. The one exception is in Valle del Belice, between Agrigento, Trapani and Palermo, where vastedda is a PDO protected cheese (Vastedda del Belice Dop).”

My own sourdough was derived from a starter given to me by a friend. It was originally white, but I fed it durum wheat flour over time to make it an all-durum one.

I have no idea how the microbiota of my starter compares with that of traditional Italian breads. There is actually a research paper, from the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, that does profile the microbiotas of 19 traditional Italian sourdoughs, but I am no scientist and I do not have access to a lab to profile my starter. But I can tell you one thing: my bread is delicious.

My next step is getting some coarser semolina flour, possibly traditional Indian atta flour, and create a starter and bread from that. But that is an experiment for another day.