Monday, May 2, 2016

Italy in a Ball of Cheese

At left: provola affumicata or scamorza affumicata? (The pale cheeses on the right are unsmoked.) The website from which this image comes ( makes a distinction, but nothing is clear at our neighborhood market 

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that most Americans have a pretty low tolerance for ambiguity. It's particularly noticeable during the political campaign season, but it's evident all the time in Hollywood blockbusters, public policy, educational methods, religious beliefs, and 10,000 little everyday ways. There's an abiding urge in the American mind--if you'll pardon such a gross generalization--to assert that reality is inherently simple and clear, truth is singular and eternal, and only the misguided activities of clueless human beings cloud up what would otherwise be everyone's unanimous crystal-clear perception of what's really real.

Which is why Italy can be such a challenge for us. But let me give you an example of what I mean, which has nothing to do with the country's infamous bureaucracy.

A few weeks ago I was in our neighborhood pane e salame (a small market that sells bread and meats) to buy my son's favorite cheese, which he calls, and we've always called, scamorza. The kind he likes is smoked, with a thin but tough dark-yellow skin, and a cinched torso still belted by part of the ribbon from which it had been suspended to dry.

There were three or four mis-shaped blobs of them stacked in a bowl in the front right-hand corner of the glass display case, and I asked for one of them: "una scamorza." The dark-haired woman behind the counter, however, took a large cylindrical loaf of cheese out of the back of the other end of the case.

I quickly said, "No, this scamorza, a ball of it, here."

"That?" she replied to my pointing, "That's not scamorza. That's provola affumicata. This," she said, holding up the cylindrical loaf, "is scamorza affumicata."

That was news to me, but, then, a lot of my experiences here are, and she was so emphatic about it I had no doubt she was telling me the truth. In fact, I appreciated her emphasis, as it made me certain that this was one important distinction that would never slip my mind.

The next time I went into the same pane e salami I decided to put my new knowledge to use. As we'd been eating those blobs of provola affumicata while mistakenly believing them to be scamorza affumicata, I decided it was time to try the real thing cut from the cylindrical loaf.

There was a different woman behind the counter this time, another of what I assume are the three co-owners, a blond woman. I asked for some scamorza affumicata, planning to decide just how many etti I should ask for as she removed it from the back of the display case.

But, instead, she walked around to the front of the display case, to the corner where those mis-shapen blobs we mistakenly thought were scamorza affumicata were. "No," I said, "I'd like some scamorza affumicata."

"Sì, scamorza affumicata," she said, lifting the glass to get at the bowl of blobs. "How many do you want?"

I told her I thought those were provola affumicata

She assured me that they were scamorza affumicata.

I pointed to the cylindrical loaf of cheese in the back part of the other half of the display case and said that I thought that that was scamorza affumicata.

It is, she replied. "Sono uguali," she said, they were both the same.

"They taste the same?" I asked.

She assured me they did. The only difference, she said, was that the blobs had a slightly thicker skin created in the smoke house process, which made up more of their total mass and therefore gave them a smokier flavor.

This was actually much more explanation as to why they were basically the same cheese than the dark-haired woman had given me about why they were different--she'd given me no explanation at all. So I said, "Ah, va bene," but I told her I wanted to try that other form of scamorza affumicata this time, from the cylindrical loaf. 

The distinction made by the dark-haired woman lasted one week. I no longer knew what to think.

By the time I next went into the pane e salame to buy Sandro's favorite cheese--he still preferred the blob type, even after trying the cylindrical, though they did taste quite similar--I'd decided the term I would use to ask for it would depend upon which woman helped me. I'd ask for provola affumicata from the dark-haired woman and una pallina di scamorza affumicata from the blond woman.    

As it turned out, both of them were behind the counter when I entered this time. But there were a lot of other customers before me and as I waited my turn I reminded myself which term to use with which woman and hoped, if only for the sake of simplicity and speed, that whichever woman assisted me would do so out of earshot of the other. I just wanted a little cheese, not a debate.

It fell to the blond woman to help me and I framed my request accordingly. But as she came around the front of the glass case to take out my pallina di scamorza affumicata the dark-haired woman told her that the scamorza affumicata was back in the other half of case (that is, the cylindrical loaf).

In spite of the fact that she was helping another customer at the time, the dark-haired woman was compelled to make a point of this--and especially for my sake, it seemed. As if having taken the time less than two weeks ago to educate me in the proper terminology she wasn't at all pleased that her colleague would so cavalierly corrupt her pupil.

In truth, the dark-haired woman has more than a little of the stern, grade-school-teaching nun in her manner.

However, her blond colleague--who has much more of the truant about her than school teacher--paid her no mind and continued doing just as she'd begun.

And then, from the back room off to one side of deli counter, appeared the third partner in the pane e salame.

Now, if I were writing fiction I'd consider the following description of this third partner to be far too tidy to be credible--for fiction, after all, is all about credibility, not truth--and I'd go out of my way to make up something else. But the truth is that in hair color and bearing this third partner really does fall neatly between the other two. Her hair is a light-ish brown, and she has neither the rather punitive seriousness of the dark-haired one nor the rather more rock-n-roll vibe of the blonde. In her very air of sober moderation there is authority.    

In other words, here was the perfect tie-breaker, the ideal deciding vote in this deadlock over cheese terminology. And as it turned out she'd be compelled to weigh in on the matter, as neither the dark-haired woman nor the blonde--in spite of their busy-ness tending to customers--was ready to give up the matter. 

On the contrary, as the blonde weighed my blob of cheese the dark-haired woman, waiting for her own turn with the electronic scale, repeated again that that (on the scale) was provola affumicata. The blonde disagreed with her, and the dark-haired woman explicitly appealed to the judgement of the third partner in this matter--from which third partner, in that instant before she could respond, I somehow expected a judgement as insightful as anything Ruth Bader Ginsberg could come up with on the bench of the US Supreme Court.

But what she responded with, while busy helping her own customer, was nothing but a distinct and incontrovertible shrug. She was completely non-committal. And so authoritatively non-committal, at that, so fully resigned to irresolution, that I couldn't help but feel that the whole issue had for all time been concluded inconclusively--at least in that particular pane e salame, the one we go to most often.

Now I ask you, as I ask myself at times, How can they live this way, these Italians?

As prone as I myself may be to get lost in mitigating circumstances, in ambiguity and ambivalence, when it comes to certain minor matters--matters involving, for example, the name of cheese, if not matters of faith or politics or history or ethics--there must be some definitive answer possible, some simple distinction to hang onto, if only as a paltry compensation for all our great, insoluble, existential muddles.

But no, not even when it comes to cheese, not here.

This was really brought home to me in full force just a couple of days ago, when I returned to the same pane e salame to buy that same cheese in question. The dark-haired woman was alone behind the counter--there wasn't even another customer in the small market--so I knew exactly where I stood. No pointing required, no extra specification needed: one distinct term for each distinct cheese. Perfect. It was really so easy with her, with her insistence on a rigid difference.

I confidently asked her for one provola affumicata and, just as I knew she would, she walked around to the front right-hand corner of the glass case and removed one of the blobs, returned to her usual place behind the counter, and placed it on the scale. Then, her finger poised just above the keypad on which she was supposed to punch in the price per kg, she paused, obviously having forgotten what it was.

My eyes automatically went to the front right corner of the display case where the remaining cheese blobs were, and I prepared myself to read off their price from the little sign stuck into the top one. But she--because this is Italy and ambiguity must always be reasserted, even by those who'd seemed most committed to clear distinctions--she reached into the back of the glass case, pulled the price sign out of the cylindrical sphere of scamorza affumicata, which she'd insisted had nothing to do with the blobs of provola affumicata, and punched in the price from it.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Recommended at the Rialto

Giuseppe, left, and Nerio Baita at their stall in the Rialto market
Venetian, and I believe Italian society in general, still runs (for good and bad) on recommendations, on  personal connections, on whom you know. It's important in America, too, but often in a more abstracted, more corporate way. It's vitally important to be in the know, and knowing, in America, but because the dissolution of social ties seems further along in my home country than in Italy, and because of the dominance of corporate chains there, the motivating sense of felt connection is, as often as not, with a brand or chain as with an actual, individual person. I've heard many Americans rhapsodize about Trader Joe's, for example, a corporate chain, while Venetians, on the other hand, will enthuse about the merchant Giovanni (or Alvise or Rita), a specific person so named, and probably tell you a little about their family and their own experience with them. 

In fact, after we first moved to Venice I couldn't help but notice how our retired native Venetian neighbor would look at me as I recounted, for example, a trip to the Rialto Market I'd made: with the kind of compassion and pity typically inspired by urchins, by those solitaries adrift in the cold world, reliant upon their own inadequate resources. Then he would take out a pad of paper and pen and quite literally map out exactly which stall I should go to in the Rialto pescheria, and write the name of the man I should speak to, whom I could trust--once I'd told him who'd sent me--to sell me only the freshest fish.

It is in something like this spirit that I write of the fruit and vegetable stand of Nerio Baita and Germana Zanella at the Rialto. Natives of Sant'Erasmo, each comes from families with long histories on the island. They bought the stall 30 years ago, and are now helped to operate it by their son Giuseppe (whose twin brother left his native element of water to take to the air, and works as a pilot in the Far East). Germana, who didn't want to be photographed for this post, was a champion rower, winner of the Regata Storica, and an abiding force in the two-women races until quite recently.

The vast majority of the produce they sell at their stall is Italian-grown--some of it from Sant'Erasmo--and brought in fresh each morning by Nerio himself, who rises by 3:30 am five days a week to drive his mototopo (large work boat) from their home in Sant'Erasmo to the wholesale produce market on the edge of terraferma, in the port of Marghera.

They sometimes carry produce they've grown themselves, but their working hours leave them little time to grow much. Though you can be sure you'll find their own home-grown pepperoncini (chili peppers) year-round at the stall: offered freshly picked from August into the fall, then dried and gathered into piquant red bouquets for sale the rest of the year.

Their stall is easy to find: it's the last of the smaller row of produce sellers located between two rows of buildings that one encounters after exiting the vaporetto at the Rialto Mercato stop, and it looks out on the longer stalls which are open to the Grand Canal on one side.

Is it the only fruttivendolo one should go to in the Rialto? I don't think even the two Venetians who suggested it to me would be so rigid as that: after all, Nerio and Germana can't carry everything. But it's an excellent place to start, and if it's your first time ever shopping at the Rialto you'll now at least be equipped with that most necessary of things in the minds of Venetians: a recommendation.   

A view of the stall, with its dried bouquets of pepperoncini in the wicker basket in foreground
Nerio Baita selects castraure for a customer
The good boat Baronetto, in which Nerio makes his early morning trips to and from Marghera

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A (Very Large) Fish Named Leo: Rialto, This Morning

The large red fish partly visible at left was labeled "Monica"; if you had any inclination to wonder if it might not be better if these two impressive creatures were still in the sea rather than on ice, this anthropomorphizing didn't help.

For a better sense of the size of the swordfish, see the image below. Venetian shoppers may do a lot with their trolleys in this city without cars, but nothing less than a full-scale commercial delivery cart would be adequate for "Leo."

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Bite of the Lagoon: Crab Season Around Mazzorbo

A line of metal upright pipes support branches to which ten submerged crab traps are tied

It's moeche (soft-shell crab) season in the lagoon and as you pass through the Mazzorbo Canal on your way to or from Burano on the number 12 vaporetto line if you look carefully down the broad short channel that branches off it in a northwesterly direction you may catch a glimpse of some of the crab traps (crab crates, really) pictured above and below rigged up along its banks.

Not far off this broad short channel there are more traps lining the banks of channels too narrow and shallow for any vaporetto. Oddly enough, it's along these banks that we happened upon three signs posted on a chain-link fence rather imperfectly enclosing a few simple, low-roofed fishermen's structures. One, employing the iconography common in many churches in Venice, forbade the use of photo cameras. A second, in the same manner, forbade the use of video cameras. The third simply declared "STOP STALKING."

It's not the kind of area you'd expect to be subjected to heavy tourist traffic, but I suppose there's not a single waterway anywhere in the lagoon these days that's not likely to be trawled by some commercial boat or other promising to take its clients out of the usual channels. After all, who among us doesn't crave a unique personal experience of a place--even if it happens to be one we've found out about from a cable travel channel, or a newspaper, magazine, or guidebook?

But because of those three signs I'm afraid that the most picturesque images of the crab traps--like the close-up one showing the small crabs packed thick as cockroaches against a cages's screen, visible in the few inches of muddy transparency just below the water's surface--exist only in my own memory, rather than on any memory card.

One crab trap submerged at left in use, the other suspended in reserve

Picturesque as the crates may be, though, harvesting crabs from them is demanding work, a native Venetian friend told me. During the two seasons--one in spring, one in autumn--a fisherman must haul up each of his traps every two hours or risk losing his saleable crabs.

For what the fisherman is looking for as he sorts through the mess of crabs in his crate are not, as I'd imagined, crabs of a certain size, but crabs which are just about to lose their shell. We eat them once they've actually shed it, of course, but if the fisherman doesn't remove the crab just immediately before they do the other crabs will cannibalize their shell-less cohort.

How does the fisherman know which crabs are on the verge of losing their shell? "Experience," my friend said, "Practice. They just know."

This was the same kind of answer I got to my question about how the specially-hired pruners working in the old cloistered vineyard on the cemetery island of San Michele knew exactly at which point of the vine to make their cut (

Is it something the fisherman feels when he touches the shells? "No," my friend said, "more to do with appearance, color, I think, not feel."

But what about the crabs I've seen them pick out of the crate and throw back into the water? Are they too small? Too large?

"No," he replied, "nothing to do with size. Those are the crabs that the fisherman knows are never going to lose their shells."

How do they know that?

My friend shrugged. "It's a very particular thing," he said. "And every two hours, no matter what, they must check the traps. In the rain, in all weather... Not an easy job. But I suppose better than being stuck inside a factory."

We talked about this as we ate some fresh moeche (mud-colored and weed-colored like the banks along which they're found) that his neighbor had left off for him and his family. They were lightly powdered, then lightly fried; each one not much more than matchbox size, to be eaten in a single bite. I'd never had them before.

I bit one cleanly in half and glanced inside. In the back half of the body was what looked like a dab of white crab meat; in the front half was a tiny mass with something like the color and consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk. The legs were like those of a large beetle. I quickly popped it into my mouth, deciding not to get distracted by minutiae from all the history and culture and work contained in this one bite of the north lagoon.        

Saturday, April 16, 2016

MOSE as Art and as Mirage

The backdrop of white fluffy clouds in this image taken two days ago are in sharp contrast to the dark clouds that have figuratively hung over MOSE since its inception
Though the threat to Venice is from too much water rather than the complete absence of it, when it comes to the giant flood gates known by the acronym MOSE in Italian it seems to me the city is stuck in a long fruitless trudge through a hopeless desert, its eyes fixed upon a vision of salvation that forever recedes, mirage-like, before it.

Originally scheduled to be operational by 2012, the functioning date is forever being bumped a little further into the future. The last I heard it was 2017--which strikes the perfect balance being close enough to encourage some hope and distant enough to allow ample time to target yet another slightly more distant deadline as the former one approaches.

But then the other day I happened upon a piece on Venice in the Financial Times that referred to an operational date of 2020! Considering that the journalist--and I use that term in its loosest sense--got a number of other basic facts about the city wrong, perhaps it shouldn't be taken seriously. Or maybe in getting it wrong the writer actually got it right, as we do seem to be approaching close enough to 2017 that it's time for the relevant authorities to push back the date again.

In any case, after going to put some gas in our small boat two days ago I was struck by the sight of one of the giant flood gates near the lagoon-side dock of the Arsenale. Last year gates like this had inspired a round of dark, despairing mirth when local papers reported that once installed in their places in the mouths of the Lidi they were rusting far more quickly than ever imagined by the crack team of engineers assembled by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the conglomerate of Italian construction firms that without any competition had been handed the multi-billion euro project--and which, to absolutely no one's surprise (see, for example, the 4th- and 5th-to-last paragraphs in this 2008 piece), have in the last couple of years been found guilty of extensive corruption and fraud. Local papers pilloried the Consorzio for only having just discovered that there was salt in seawater.

Perhaps the gate above was a replacement for one already so far gone with corrosion as to need replacement? Whatever the reason, there it was on display, as utterly useless to this point in time as the most decadent of any old "Art-for-Art's-Sake" enthusiast could ever demand that a work of art be: more massive and more massively expensive than anything ever displayed nearby at that great International Art Show of the wheeling-dealing 1% called the Venice Biennale.      

This cropped image shows the depth scale in meters on the gate's side