Thursday, 25 July 2013

Calabrian Mustazzoli and the Disappearing Act

If there was one thing, one pleasure my Nonna indulged in, it was her afternoon 'espresso con i biscotti'. Always tenacious and gracious, she loved eating cookies and sweets, and giving them, even though she was diabetic. Talk about living on the edge. But, in hindsight, those characteristic made her a strong female presence in our house hold that not only took care of others, but herself as well, always remembering to slow down and stop for a moment to recharge and indulge in what made her happy. Great habit to have in our day and age, and vital to survival in our loud, flashy, processed world. I'm now finding myself doing the same thing, trying to find a moment of peace and healthy proactive indulgence to get me through the rest of a busy work week.

Out of all the cookies my Nonna loved, none could ever compare to Calabrian mustazzoli. Dense, sweet, biscuits infused with the deep floral aromas of honey. Anytime my Nonna's friends would come back from a visit to Italy, or my Zia would visit her back from a trip to Calabria, they would bring her loaves and wreaths of mustazzoli. I remember the Italian ones were so hard and dense, that chewing off a piece took what felt like an afternoon. Then there were the mustazzoli that my father's side of the family would make every celebration and Christmas season. Those were softer and lighter, a dangerous combination resulting in eating enough slices to make a half loaf.

A few years back, I wanted to try my hand at baking mustazzoli for my Nonna, so I got my father to ask his mother (my other Nonna) for her sought after recipe. I really commend my father for, in the end, getting me the recipe. Do you know how hard it is to get recipes from the older generations, the generations that fought through world wars and experienced television for the first time, black and white of course. That's the thing that I feel is forgotten by my generation (the age of 20 somethings with hash-tags, and 'selfies'), people don't care enough about the past, it's not a priority, and its survival is just not that important.

In this lies a devastating reality, the Italian tradition of regional cooking was not a documented tradition, was never fully written down, as a result of many families more than not, able to work than to read and write. The tradition was not a written one, but an oral one, a sensory one, a physical one. Ingredients were measured by texture, look, feel, and taste, never litres and grams, ounces or cup measures. With the older generation dying out, how do these traditions survive if no one cares to continue them, or even inquire about them. There's also a language barrier that presents itself too. Most young Italian-Canadians I know my age aren't literate in Italian. Even if they had an interest in preserving their family traditions, there is a barrier of communication that stands in the way. This is the great disappearing act of our time, the loss of culinary traditions or traditions all together, where the young generation, too busy focusing importance on their 'self celebrity', existence through fame, and cheap highly processed 'reality' entertainment, constantly host feasts for their egos to devour over.

I've experienced living with my Nonna (mother's mother) my whole life, seen and experienced my first encounters of communication, human connection, and love through my Nonna's Calabrian culinary and cultural traditions. Now that she's gone, I feel the full weight of her absence, not only of her presence, but the absence of my cultural learning, and a large chunk of my heritage, ultimately a large part of where I've come from and what is part of me. I speak and write a small amount of Italian, but not enough in my opinion, so this year my goal is to be fully literate in it. With more of my grandparents' generation ageing and passing away, who will continue their legacy and the treasures of our shared identities? There are some components of the Italian culinary tradition that is too far out of context now to survive with relevance today, like the idea that women only cook and that men provide and work, but tradition can be revived, refreshed, and revised to full relevance. In order to create the future, one needs the knowledge of the past. And besides, with how monotonous and sickly our main stream society is, we need authenticity, cultural richness, and the awareness and appreciation of the deepest roots of our existence.

I take pride in my culture and that I have the power to immortalize the best of my Italian traditions, and this is the very thing I plan to do, my purpose.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I was in my kitchen on a day off work and felt the impulse to dust off my Nonna's mustazzoli recipe and make it for my family. The recipe is so simple with minimal ingredients, which from experience is the precursor to seriously good food. Eggs, honey, and a flour mixture, that's it.

The key is the technique, similar to other dough recipes I would watch my Nonna make in our kitchen, so my mother and I tried our best to remember what she did.

First, a flour well, slowly mixing in the wet ingredients with the notorious chopstick (the tool of choice for my mother, and works so well to mix in the beginning).

Then kneading the dough by hand, committedly, devotedly, until the dough is refined and smooth. For those that opt for mixers, I understand your POV but there is nothing more meaningful than the connection our hands have with our food. It's this unity, this oneness that my Nonna used to determine the amounts of the ingredients and when it was ready to form and bake. We are already so disconnected from each other and nature as a result of electronics and machines, let's not let this happen with our food.


Once the loaves cool, all that needs to be done is to phone over a good friend or family member, put a pot of espresso on the flame, and slice enough mustazzoli to go around, and then some....

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your article. I tried making my own mastazzoli, and included my own twist using diced dried figs, crushed pistachios and pecans. Yum!

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