Pass the Peacock in Treviso

Thanksgiving is less than a week away and that got me to thinking about another bird that has been part of traditional celebratory meals – the peacock.

peacock-mosaic ravenna

Peacock Mosaic – Ravenna

One day when I was reading my hometown newspaper I came across the reader’s Q & A Section where someone asked the unlikely question “Does Anyone Know if Peacock Tastes Good?”. I looked at it with some trepidation not knowing whether to reply. Answering it might have caused people to think I was part of some underground gourmet society like Brando and Broderick in the film The Freshman. But as a matter of fact I knew the answer to the question and the answer was “I do!”.

On one of my earlier trips to Italy, I along with our Italian cousins were invited to a friend’s house in Treviso for Sunday dinner. As we drove up  through the gates of the farmhouse villa there were peacocks roaming the grounds. Little did we know that they would be part of the afternoon meal.  In Italy peacock is called pavone and prepared similar to pheasant or turkey. Over 4 hours, our host, an Italian book editor, served a wonderful dinner of several courses that began with a brodo made with peacock and nidi d’amore, little nests of pasta filled with ground veal floating in the broth. This was followed by braised peacock, then goose and an Italian style meatloaf. Fantastici! The pavone was served on the bone and the legs were large , much bigger than a turkey. The meat was dark and flavorful and did not taste gamey at all. In the beginning we were not told we were eating peacock. I suppose our Italian hosts weren’t quite sure how gli americani would react.

In Italy there is a culinary tradition  of eating all types of birds – chickens, hens, capons, pigeons, partridges. Our Nonna told us about a time when her family in the Veneto caught small song birds in nets draped between trees. The custom is commemorated in various polenta dishes including a dessert called Polenta e Osei, a specialty of Bergamo. Eating peacock was not unheard of although reserved for the culturally elite. Served  at lavish Renaissance banquets or at the dining tables of 16th century cardinals and popes, peacock was a popular center of the plate item among the aristocracy. The Italian scholar and cookbook author Platina, who dined with the Gonzagas in Renaissance Mantua, described peacock  as “more suitable to the table of kings and princes than the lowly men of little property”. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco segreto, private cook to five pontiffs mentions roasted peacock as one of his favorite recipes often prepared with an extravagant use of spices. Once cooked he suggests that the bird be reassembled with metal rods and have its feathers  reattached come se fosse vivo “as if it were still alive” for a spectacular display.

The elaborate, ancient and eccentric preparations  of peacock make eating it seem decadent and disturbing. Yet I felt neither during the meal in Treviso. It all seemed very natural, rustic and homey, sharing the bounty of the family farm at the table with our Italian family and friends. Much like Thanksgiving dinner.

If you were wondering whether I answered the Q & A question in my hometown newspaper I did. Did they publish it. No.


Tourist vs Traveler

louise-wade-aeroplane-braceletThe age of the tourist is over. Anthony Bourdain’s now infamous challenge to “be a traveler not a tourist” resonates with a new generation of travelers who want to remove the word “vacant” from vacation. Time and money well spent on a trip requires it to be more than a “show and tell” tour. Travelers look for the backstory,walking into a postcard rather than buying a postcard, taking time to see and savor the country and its people. A tourist often looks at the scene, a traveler wants to be in the scene. Travel need not be far and wide, nor expensive, nor complicated but it should be imaginative. Don’t settle for the trip du jour or boxed set. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see the Coliseum in Rome or the Milan Duomo. It just means that travelers move slightly outside the box up on the roof of the Duomo or eating at a Roman ristorante like Da Pancrazio built over the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey where Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. It can take some doing to find the right travel experience but you will find it well worth the effort.




Food Brings Life to the Table – Write About It

I’m a big fan of food writing. The backstory behind what, why and how food is eaten is both an interest and a passion. This may have to do with my travels in Italy with our Italian family and friends where food is a national treasure. It definitely has to do with childhood memories of  family gatherings where food was the centerpiece of the celebration.

Vietri dinner plate

Renna – Made of terra bianca and handpainted in Umbria. Vietri.

Eating, shopping, cooking and traveling in Italy with our Italian family and friends I’ve learned that every plate of food and every bottle of wine brings life to the Italian table. I’ve come to realize the pivotal place food has in Italian culture. Italians take time and effort to prepare a well-laid table where there is beauty and grace in the smallest detail. Meals are an essential part of Italian life. Not that they obsess about food or over indulge. Italians truly value food and its preparation. Without saying a word, season after season food is a vehicle for the transmission of culture and generational traditions and this is never more meaningful than during the holidays.

So take time this holiday season to enjoy and write about the foods that are part of your holiday celebrations. They are part of your gastro-history with generational family recipes that bring meaning to what you eat. Transform your meals into writing experiences, not just with a list of ingredients but with the actions and memories that surround the preparation of the meal and the reasons why your family chooses to cook and entertain the way you do. Plan a holiday food album with pictures from past and present meals, recipes and remembrances to share. Technology and the Internet  make this a fun and easy way to connect. Programs like Evernote Food  help you collect and remember your life’s memorable food moments. On Pinterest you can create a “pinboard” with your favorite recipes and family traditions. Doing so keeps the warmth and generosity of the tables of your family and friends alive.

For when all is said and done “taste and smell alone, more fragile, more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest  . . . the vast structure or recollection” of life.

Quote taken from Marcel Proust.


Descended From the Doge

According to my cousin Mirna, the Trevisan side of our family was actually related to a 16th century Venetian Doge. Doge (pronounced do jay), as in the chief magistrate and leader of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, City of Light whose noble families ruled Venice for over a thousand years. Doge, who held office for life and was regarded as the ecclesiastical, civil and military leader of the Venetian republic which in those days extended into Dalmatia, further into Italy and across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Doge, as in Duke of Venice whose Palazzo Ducale contains magnificent state rooms, a staircase of Giants and exquisite paintings including Tintoretto’s massive “Paradise” said to be the largest oil painting in the world. Yes, descended from the Doges of Venice. I know, it was hard for me to believe it too.

Our Nonna alluded to this relationship but only in the most secretive way and now it was confirmed. But was being descended from the Doge such a good thing. I wondered. So I did a little research on the man behind the funny hat, the corno ducale, a stiff conical hat made of brocade encrusted with gems and worn over a linen cap called a camauro.

The Doge’s signature hat and his long sleeved gown (vesta) were meant to display the magnificence of Venice. Style, color and fabric were important to the political status of a Venetian Doge and he was expected to dress for success. The Doge and Dogaressa would dazzle the citizens of the Republic with gowns of silk, belts of gold, capes of ermine and necklaces of pearls. Venice was known for exquisite silks and textiles and the blue of the Adriatic must have made the fabrics shimmer in the sunlight and dazzle in the moonlight. One can only imagine scenes of Venetian life at the time of the Doge when opulence and intrigue combined to heighten every moment. You might meet Casanova walking along the fondamenta or hear a whisper from the Bridge of Sighs that connected the Doge’s Palace to the prison.

So was it good to be the Doge? In some ways yes. Venice was one of the most important cultural and intellectual centers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Then as now it is one of the most beautiful cities built by man and one of the most romantic cities in the world. The light reflected off the waters of the lagoon, the small lanes or calle that lead you to nowhere and everywhere and the exotic architecture all create a dreamlike atmosphere. During the Renaissance Venice was a prosperous empire, a major port of trade and a market for craftsmen, glassmakers, painters, lace makers and all manner of decorative arts. Living in Venice during the time of the Doge certainly meant living large. But the Doge was under constant surveillance, his mail was censored and he was restricted as to where he could go. He was not allowed to own property or foreign land. When he was selected as Doge he was presented to the people with the following caveat “This is your Doge, if it pleases you”. There were times when it did not. Three Doges were assassinated in the streets of Venice and over the years Venetian Doges became little more than figure heads with a ruling Council designed to limit their power. How did our Doge fare in all this? I really don’t know, not much has been written about him. His name was Marcantonio Trevisan and he was Doge of Venice from 1553-1554, his reign was short. His name comes up on the internet every so often in role playing fantasy games about 16th century Venice.

Marcantonio Trevisan by Titian. (1554)

Marcantonio Trevisan by Titian. (1554)

Traveling in Venice, the atmospheric mystique of the rule of the Doge still remains in the architecture and art  of the city. In the Council Chamber of the imposing Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) there is a huge painting of The Dead Christ Adored by Doges Pietro Lando and Marcantonio Trevisan  by Tintoretto.  Trevisan is the Doge on the right. We all seem to think he bears a slight resemblance to our Nonna mostly around the nose.