As part of a series of articles delving in to the magazine's history we revisit our Autumn 1957 feature written by fashion designer, and arch-rival to Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli.
One of the most innovative couturiers of the 20th Century, Schiaparelli was born in Rome, but spent the majority of her life in Paris. Closing her design house in 1954 after struggling to compete with the popularity of Dior's post-war New Look, she remains a prominent and influential figure within the fashion world to this day. Less well known is that she was a fabulous cook, who here describes the joys of Italian cooking and shares her favourite recipes from the trattoria she created for friends in her Paris cellar
"Are you going to Italy for Easter? Elsa Schiaparelli, arbiter of gastronomy as well as elegance, describes some of her native dishes.."
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Italian cookery reflects the character of the country: it's gay, colourful, full of zest, sometimes rather unusual to strangers, but perfectly sensible to the Italians themselves. Authorities on the subject rate it third in the world, after France and China. Certainly Italian dishes have some characteristics in common with Chinese specialities: plenty of rice and noodles, all first-class in the way they are prepared. France is favoured by the fertility of her soil and the variety and richness of her products, but Italy has a less kindly earth and climate. These deficiencies have to be made up for by ingenuity.
The great speciality is pasta; there's hardly a meal eaten anywhere in the country that doesn't include it. There are many varieties of shapes, colours and flavours, but there is one universal rule as regards cooking pasta: it must be al dente - only just cooked, so that it is firm when bitten through.
Another national dish, which comes from the northern part of the country, is polenta. This is made from maize flour cooked with Water in huge cauldrons and stirred until it becomes almost solid. Hunks are then cut off it and it is served with little sausages or sometimes with ortolans. It is also eaten cold with milk, or sliced and fried, or made into croquettes rolled in grated cheese. There are many special Italian cheeses: provolone isn't used for cookery but Parmesan is, of course, and ricotta, which is rather like coeur à la crème, also goes well with pasta, and no one needs telling how good bel paese is. Less well known to foreigners, but equally delicious, is caciocavallo, a pear-shaped, cooked cheese.
As hors d'oeuvre in Italy, you will be offered little fresh vegetables, picked before they have come to maturity and served plain, or with a vinaigrette sauce, or just sprinkled lightly with salt; tiny onions, broad beans that can be crunched like sweets, miniature tomatoes, tender artichokes, minute carrots, cucumbers and celery, and peppers scooped out and filled with dressing. A salad will consist not merely of raw green leaves but of cooked vegetables as well, each kind seasoned just according to the extent to which it will absorb flavour. They may be arranged in heaps, perhaps round cold cooked fish. For example, a dish of tunny may be bordered by aubergines, little marrows and peppers.
Meat, also, is eaten while the animal is young because of the difficulties of pasturing and rearing which, among other things, means that beef is not plentiful, because it is the flesh of a grown animal. Young lamb - abacchio - larded, flavoured with rosemary and surrounded by potatoes, is cooked in the oven and basted with vinegar. Another young meat, and national dish, is veal, cooked as the escalopes which are almost as famous as macaroni itself. As for the widely known and popular Parma ham, there's hardly a farm where there isn't one hanging from the rafters, or a larder where there isn't one kept ready - first-rate when cut wafer thin and served with melon. Unlike Provençal cooking, Italian dishes are only rarely seasoned with garlic. Rosemary, basil, parsley, capers, vinegar and lemon juice are characteristic flavourings, and black olives accompany many dishes.
Italians adore fruit, either fresh or as a fruit salad made with kirsch or port. So as to keep the flavour of strawberries, they are washed in red wine - never water never water. First, they are rinsed and the wine thrown away, then when the wine is added for the second time, lemon juice is put in as well, in the proportion of 1 lemon to every glass of wine and, finally, sugar to taste.
Italians are credited with a passion for sweets, pastries and ice creams, and two of these last are especially good. Cassata, which is a fruit slice from Sicily (the Neapolitan version is only a copy), is a vanilla ice cream put together with layers of strawberries or raspberries. Granita, of Roman origin) is an ice made from black coffee and finally shaved ice chips, with sweetened whipped cream on top, or else made with lemon juice instead of the coffee and no cream.
Coffee, black and very strong, is the drink - anywhere and anytime; the inevitable espresso machine goes whistling on, and the Italians drink little cups of coffee at any time of the day or night.
But if Italian meals are, on the whole, rather abundant, breakfast in Italy is very modest, consisting merely of coffee, either black or with milk, and, for those with large appetites, a little bread and butter, nothing more. Lunch is between half-past twelve and one-thirty, and the working classes are inclined to eat earlier than the aristocracy and bourgeoisie; the latter have dinner from about seven-thirty onwards and, although the very late hours of the Spanish meals haven't caught on in Italy, it's smarter not to dine before nine o'clock. The practice of eating outside on terraces or under colonnades is typical of Italy, as of a countries where the fine weather lasts a long time. In really stifling heat, restaurants in cellars, like those in Florence and Rome, are very popular. I have made my own trattoria in Paris in the cellar, and my friends seem to like it very much. I have chosen a few recipes from those I serve in this cellar. Each serves about 6.
Spaghetti with anchovies:
- First make the sauce. Finely slice 5 onions and let them just begin to brown in oil.
- Add 2 anchovies for each person and fry them, crushing them with a spoon, and then add chopped parsley, rosemary and sage - a good pinch of each.
- When everything has started to colour, add some chopped fresh tomatoes (about 3-4) and a scant gill of dry white wine.
- Let it all heat and then just keep warm.
- When the spaghetti is cooked, mix in the sauce, add grated Parmesan, turn it well together and serve.
- Cut up half an onion into small chips, dry it with a cloth
- Put it in a heavy pan with a knob of butter and an egg-sized bit of beef marrow, let it turn brown
- Then put it in 1lb. of well-washed rice, and stir with a wooden spoon so that it doesn't stick.
- Pour on hot stock to cover the rice and add salt and pepper and more stock as necessary to swell the rice grains.
- Halfway through, add saffron to colour the rice and, when it is cooked but not all soggy, put 2oz each of butter and grated parmesan cheese.
- Take one aubergine for each person, peel them, slice them finely and then fry them in oil. Drain them and add a sprinkle of salt.
- Make a tomato sauce from tomato puree slightly diluted with stock, and add to it some oil, a chopped onion, salt and pepper; it must be fairly thick and you need quite a lot.
- Take an ovenware dish, put some sauce in the bottom, then add a layer of aubergine, then more sauce, then a layer of chopped, cooked meat covered with grated parmesan. Continue until the food is used up.
- Beat two eggs with two tablespoons of parmesan, pour this on top of the aubergine mixture and put the dish in the oven.
- When the top is well browned, serve in the dish in which it has been cooked.
- Cook together very slowly a scant 2oz of butter and an onion, a stick of celery and a clove of garlic, all very finely chopped.
- When they are just beginning to brown, add 6oz of chopped ham and cook for a few minutes, then put in several tomatoes and about a tablespoon of chopped parsley.
- Let it all cook briefly, then add a quart or so of water and salt to taste.
- As the water comes to the boil, put in 5 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into smallish pieces, 4 peeled, chopped courgettes and about 9-10oz of the small shell-shaped pasta.
- Meanwhile, put a couple of yellow peppers under a hot grill and then pour water over them so that you can skin them.
- Chop them into small pieces and add them to the soup.
- When everything is cooked, add a handful of parmesan mixed beforehand with a good pinch of basil.
- Serve the minestrone accompanied by more grated cheese sprinkled on the top to taste.
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