Fare La Scarpetta

While having lunch with friends this week, Steve said, one of the things he likes about Italy is that it’s socially acceptable to dip your bread into your sauce.This reminded me of an article I wrote for Italy Magazine when I wrote for them. So I’ll share it with you all, and some images of bell’abruzzo.

Fare la scarpetta is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

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This end to a meal ritual is vastly popular all over Italy; however, where it originates is still open to debate. There’s one theory that the practice began in Venice, though bread wasn’t usually served with pasta in northern Italy, whereas it was in the south of the country, therefore it is implausible to assume it originated there.

In his book about medieval eating habits, Fabrizio Vanni proposes that the act took place following the introduction of tomatoes to the Italian diet back in the late 16th century. Before this time sauces tended to be thicker and more robust; with the introduction of the tomato, sauces became lighter and therefore required mopping up. Another suggestion regarding the origin of la scarpetta is that back in a time when wasting food was frowned upon, the bread merely became a tool to be used much like cutlery.

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A Calabrese friend of mine who tells me the phrase has its origins in Southern dialect prefers to have a more romantic notion regarding la scarpetta. He is convinced it stems from the heart of cucina povera (poor cuisine), from a time when people were literally so hungry they’d have eaten the soles of their shoes. He says when you are unsure when you’ll eat next, it made sense to mop up every last drop of sauce.

As with many Italian expressions, the reasoning behind the phrase is visual: during the practice of sweeping the bread across the plate the finger becomes the leg that pushes the bread which becomes the shoe. It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

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This said there is a time when making the little shoe is frowned upon and Giovanni Della Casa explained it in Il Galateo, his guide to the rules of polite behaviour and etiquette: it is acceptable to engage in the practice during an informal meal, however, in a formal setting and in public, when making the little shoe you must use a fork and not your finger to move it across the plate.

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Qualcosa Semplice

Happiness is a thing that cannot be measured. It cannot be given and it cannot be stolen. It’s a fundamental part of life. Many people strive for ultimate happiness while many people have none. Wealth and power do not necessarily facilitate happiness and the acquisition of those things we desire only delivers a quasi-happiness. Sometimes real happiness comes from something simple.

Take last week for instance, I popped into the post office to post a letter. Like post offices the world over it was filled with people waiting until it was their turn to be served. I took my position in the queue and after several minutes one of the ladies behind the glass called out to me asking if I was just there to purchase a stamp. I told her I was and she beckoned me to the front of the line of people, who had bills and savings books in their hands. I told her I could wait as there were many people patiently waiting their turn in front of me. Just then as if rehearsed, the queue all ushered me past to the front where I was promptly served with a stamp. This random act of kindness deposited itself in my happiness tank.

Later in the week I was buying a loaf and was about to go when I asked for a slice of sausage and mushroom pizza only to be told by the lady serving that they only had one slice and the corner was burnt. I told her it didn’t matter I’d take it anyway. She then wrapped it up and told me I could have it for free. She wished me a good day and I left with another deposit in the happy tank.

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You can also create your own happiness by just doing something simple. This morning I drove to the beach with my partner and we walked along the pebbles watching the lazy winter waves saunter towards the shore. The sky was clear and the December sun danced across the sea. I picked up shells and driftwood, as I had done as child on family holidays and these simple acts contributed to a further deposit into the happiness tank.

I know there will be times for everyone when happiness avoids us, when unhappiness invades our life, but as I get older I choose not to dwell on the negatives and eagerly embrace every positive, because sometimes all it takes to make a deposit into your happy tank is, qualcosa semplice – something simple.

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Literally 28 minutes after publishing this blog entry, Mario drove up our lane and gave me this large wedge of sheep’s milk cheese made by his wife earlier this week. I think the happy tank is full now.

A Life on Shuffle wishes you all happiness.

Bread and Wood Burning

It would be fair to say that today my senses have had an olfactory workout. First the kitchen is enveloped in the delicious smell of fresh baked bread, my olive and pepper loaf sits on a cooling rack as, Never Can Sat Goodbye  by Gloria Gaynor plays on the iPod.  I transferred the song from my sister’s original 7” vinyl single onto my hard-drive and formatted it for my Apple device many years ago. To be honest I always preferred the b-side of this classic, We Just Can’t Make It.

Compared to commercially made bread, I love homemade. There’s sense of satisfaction when you throw together a handful of ingredients and out comes something so delicious. I say, throw, as when I’ve finished making bread the kitchen is a mess and looks like a mad baker has had a fit during the kneading process. I’ve had no training in the kitchen, but my paternal grandfather was a baker, so maybe there’s a bit of flour in my genes. This past two-weeks I’ve produced a rosemary focaccia, a fennel and garlic ciabatta and a couple of crusty white loaves, so am feeling like I’m becoming a little more like a traditional Italian peasant farmer. I was chatting to my friend in the local independent supermarket a few days ago and commented that they don’t sell bread. “We sell flour and yeast, why should we sell bread?” was her reply. “Every Italian mother knows how to make bread, why waste money buying a loaf when it only costs cents to make it at home?” I agree with her, as for the cost of one loaf you can buy the ingredients to make three or four.

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Later in the evening we decide it’s time we tested the wood burner. We purchased it two-years ago from a friend in Cellino Attanasio, and the cast iron burner took us nearly three hours to transport back as it weighed down my old Berlingo as we criss-crossed mountain tracks. The fire was laid and tentatively the paper was lit, I opened the windows expecting the room to be filled with smoke, but none came, it travelled up the chimney, as it was intended to do. The windows are closed and our living room is bathed in a red glow, twenty-minutes later the windows are opened again to let in some cool air, the room is stifling. Not having a handbook or instructions and being wood-burner virgins, we fiddle with vents and dampers and soon the heat is brought under control and a log glows seductively behind the glass-windowed door. Or fiddling has let the aroma of burning wood float into the air and it assaults the senses.

There are some smells that give pleasure more than others, and everyone has their favourites, be it freshly ground coffee or tarmac. It might be vanilla or even wet dog. But for me it has to be fresh bread or wood smoke, so today’s olfactory perception has been pleasurable on two counts. I just love days like this.

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If

In 1971, singer David Gates sang the lyric, ‘If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?’  The song written by Paul Heaton, Scott Shields and Martin Paul Slattery was made famous by Gates’ band, Bread and its popularity cemented the phrase within the public consciousness. So famous is the line, it soon become a cliché. But is this a bad thing?

Not in my opinion, because if by becoming a cliché its saved it from being copied and used by less talented writers.

A few days ago a photograph landed in my inbox and upon opening the attachment the lyric came to mind instantly.

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The photo, by Graham Ward, was taken one evening after we had eaten dinner at our favourite local restaurant, from the roadside at Selva Piana looking up at the town of Casoli. The three-quarter moon looks like someone has cut a slice away and the soft ochre coloured lights of the town give the castle a welcoming hue. The fact that only two pictures were taken before the camera battery died makes them even more special. I could go on enthusing about the majesty of the image, but what’s the point. This is an image that paints its own one-thousand words and sums up just why this part of Italy is a special place to live.