May 19, 2010

Slow Food: Black Cherry Torta (and an Italian Seaside Fairytale)

Discovering a secret recipe, and a moonlit story to remember it by, along Italy’s Amalfi coast.

Colors can be seen at night by a full Amalfitana moon.

In the coastal village of Praiano, suspended between the mountains and the sea, our mouths water as we approach a dimly lit piazza in the center of the small sea port surrounded by cliffs.

Colored boats and nets line the shore as old men, looking more like crustaceans than humans, sit around tables playing cards, listening to the sea. They are waiting for calm, when they will jump in their boats and paddle out for the catch.

A boy of about eight rides his bicycle, a bit too big for him, around and around the piazza dodging everything in sight. It’s a night for cats. Some friends and I thought we would prowl around as well, for che ce ce, “what there is, there is. ”

Before we sit down, we talk with Armandino, a serious man, a bit shy, but molto simpatico. He owns one of only two small trattorias in the square. From behind the bar, he tells us that he has just prepared an excellent squid sauce, very fresh, and that we should take a walk and come back in 10 minutes.

We decided to follow a railed walkway around the rocky coast of the village. It leads practically to no-where, other than an African style disco-tech that has a Plexiglas dance floor, through which one can see fish swimming around below. Off-season unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to try it out. Just as well, as Laura, Sergio, Giocondo and I were ready to sink our teeth into dinner.

Back at Armandino’s, we sat down outside to a simple table he had just covered in crisp white linen, set with glasses and a bottle of local wine. The wine was “Furore,” named for and produced from the next village. A light, dry, fruity wine—it was perfect for our meal and an honor because Giocondo, our host, was born there.

While we feasted on coral-colored squid in a tasty stew of its own juice over tubetti, Giocondo told us a story from when he was a little boy.

Furore is a vertical village, with life happening below along the sea, and above among the vineyards. Everyday his father and brothers went out in the boats to fish. He would cry, “Let me go!” and his father would say, “No Giocondo, not today.” But Giocondo would cry and cry until his mother finally said, “Let him go.” So, off he would go.

Inevitably, the lull of the boat would put him, a five-year-old boy, to sleep. The problem was that once he fell asleep his brothers would have to carry him up 200 stairs to the house!

Everyday he cried, “ Let me go!” And his father said, “No Giocondo, not today,” and somehow his mother was always able to convince him. Giocondo inevitably fell asleep from the rocking and had to be carried up the 200 stairs.

We laughed about many things in between sips of Furore and our second plate of freshly grilled anchovies and more squid. The night was magic, the waves and moon setting the ambiance of the piazza. We ate the accuighe with our hands, eating their flesh right off the small bones and tossing them to the cats, which held court around our table just waiting for something to drop. Perhaps some boney morsel would fall their way. Something had happened to one of the cats and her top lip was missing, which gave her the strangest, almost Chesire expression.

Armandino fed us fresh melon and torta for dessert, which was an experience equal to the magic of the night. It was moist, flavorful and so deliciously honest that I asked him for the recipe. Armadino’s wife, Filomina, came to the door and told us, blushing, in a soft voice, how she had done it. It was Passiciotto; a traditional dessert of the region (borrowed from the Pugliese) with black cherries and custard. Four ingredients simply prepared.

As if dessert wasn’t enough, Armandino served us a special digestivo made from wild laurel. Its herbaceous quality was subtle, yet soulfully satisfying, enough depth to cap off a somewhat rustic night in the open air.

Another walk in the moonlight. Satiated, we had no need for conversation. Only the sound of the sea and the moon’s reflections on the water.

I couldn’t help but picture Giocondo, this content little boy, slung over his brother’s shoulder, flopping in his slumber still thinking he was fishing on his father’s boat.

For Filomina’s black cherry passiciotto recipe, visit Peggy’s blog.

For more Italian fairytales, travel tidbits and recipes, become a fan of Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures on facebook.

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