Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dining with Verdi, Chicken a la Verdi and Verdi Cream with Cherries

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) by Boldini-1886

My great friend, architect and opera lover, August Ventura, is on a mission.  Next year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi and he is producing a documentary film about Verdi and the unique opera culture that exists in Parma, Italy.  The pull for him was undeniable, “What IS IT about Parma’s infatuation with music and drama?  Parma's Teatro Regio, dating from 1829, is world famous for being Italy's "toughest" opera house and stands at the center of some intriguingly unique operatic sub-cultures." Operatic sub-cultures?  I was unaware of them until August introduced me to the volatile loggionisti –– hard core fans in the nose-bleed seats who dictate the way applause will go for better or worse (their booing can stop a performance in its tracks).  And then there's the legendary Club dei 27,  arguably the world's most exclusive opera club. 

August hired a superb Italian documentary production company to capture the essence of this place during last October's month-long Festival Verdi –– when the Maestro's works are performed before excitable and demanding audiences.  During the 2011 Festival, the ancient Teatro Farnese in Parma hosted a production of Verdi's Falstaff, "the first time since 1739 that an opera performance was presented within these walls."

Being around someone so passionate about a project is intoxicating.  When you see the theatre, you can understand why.

Built in 1618 to celebrate an upcoming visit of Cosimo di Medici II (who snubbed the honor and never showed), Teatro Farnese played host to just a handful of performances before languishing for centuries.  Looking at the place, you can’t imagine why –– there’s nowhere else quite like it.

In his recent article on the Farnese for the May 2012 Opera News, August writes that no less a personage than Charles Dickens was under the spell of Teatro Farnees in 1846 when he wrote in his Pictures from Italy:

“It is a large wooden structure, of the horse-shoe shape; the lower seats arranged upon the Roman plan, but above them, great heavy chambers; rather than boxes, where the Nobles sat, remote in their proud state. Such desolation as has fallen on this theatre, enhanced in the spectator’s fancy by its gay intention and design, none but worms can be familiar with. A hundred and ten years have passed, since any play was acted here. The sky shines in through the gashes in the roof; the boxes are dropping down, wasting away, and only tenanted by rats; damp and mildew smear the faded colours, and make spectral maps upon the panels; lean rags are dangling down where there were gay festoons on the Proscenium; the stage has rotted so, that a narrow wooden gallery is thrown across it, or it would sink beneath the tread, and bury the visitor in the gloomy depth beneath. The desolation and decay impress themselves on all the senses. The air has a mouldering smell, and an earthy taste; any stray outer sounds that straggle in with some lost sunbeam, are muffled and heavy; and the worm, the maggot, and the rot have changed the surface of the wood beneath the touch, as time will seam and roughen a smooth hand. If ever Ghosts act plays, they act them on this ghostly stage.”

Today the ghosts are gone ––although as a Miss Havisham  fan, I can see an intimation of Satis House   in Dickens’ description of the teatro and have always loved ruins. Not everyone shares my affection for noble rot however –– during Verdi’s centennial in 1913, the citizens of Parma decided that sleeping beauty should awaken from her moldering slumbers and they restored the teatro to its former glory.  

Its next reconstruction came thanks to WWII bombings.  Yes, I know, that sounds utterly mad but true, RAF bombs did enormous damage to the square and the theatre and Parma rallied to repair it.  Both times it was not “modernized” –– it was restored to its original form using as many of the original elements as possible.

For those of you who are geographically challenged like myself, the ancient city of Parma is midway between Bologna and Milan on the A1. The city is bisected by a small tributary of the Po River called the Parma River (more like a large stream) and the theatre is close by the right bank of the river in the gorgeous Piazza Farnese –– quite a setting for this dusky jewel.

As for its new life as home for Verdi?  August is hopeful, “Wish as one might, the venerable Farnese proved less than ideal in terms of acoustics and sight-lines.  The 17th century wooden theatre was built for Baroque sounds and performance styles far removed from the emotional heft we associate with 19th Century opera.  But history and the atmosphere had a way of combining to create an unforgettable experience.  In this regard, the "Falstaff" was rapturous in so many ways."  No doubt, the stars will align once again when the Farnese hosts more Verdi here in October 2012 and during the Maestro's bicentennial to follow.

But there's more to August’s investigations than the delicious histories of venerable architecture. Another Parma treasure that he explored in much detail involved people –– Club dei 27 or the Appassionati Verdiani.

I read all about the club in a wonderful article by Fred Plotkin in Opera News.  Founded in 1958, there are 27 members of Appassionati Verdiani with each member representing one of Verdi’s 26 Operas (plus his Messa da Requiem).  When a member passes on or retires, his opera is then passed on to a new member and the tradition continues.   The members come from all walks of life and political persuasions and meet every Thursday to discuss all things Verdi.  They travel to his birthplace in  Roncole  twice a year on the anniversaries of his birth and death.

As it turns out, Parma's affection for operatic traditions is matched by those of the kitchen.  The cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna enjoys a reputation of being one of the finest in Italy -- which is saying a good deal.  Thus, whenever the Club meets, food and wine are involved in some way. Plotkin discovered that club members often prepare favorite dishes for the meetings so you might partake of pasta made by “Il Trovatore” and a dessert whipped up by “Aida". It is no accident that food and Verdi are a harmonious combination –– Il Maestro, it seems was quite an epicure.

This symbiosis is beautifully captured in a magnificently produced volume called "Dining with Verdi" [Mondadori].   Enormous amounts of material exist on what Verdi ate, enjoyed and shared with his huge entourage. I had no idea of any of this until August lent me his copy of “Dining with Verdi”. The recipes gathered in this sumptuous book may be approximative at best but they are accompanied by stunningly beautiful photographs and illustrations.  The English edition has been out of print for some years; let's hope for a reprint as the bicentennial draws nigh!

Aside from what was prepared for him privately, the book reminded me of the many dishes that famous chefs named after him, most notably, Escoffier.  Escoffier had Consommé Verdi (simple consommé, garnished on the side with little meatballs filled with chicken, cream and spinach sautéed in butter, sprinkled with Parmesan in melted butter and veal stock), there’s also a Filets de sole Verdi (sole on a bed of pasta with cream cheese, lobster meat and truffles covered in a sauce Mornay and glazed in the oven), Oeufs Verdi, (lightly scrambled eggs with Parmesan and cubes of truffles in molds buttered and lined with slivers of truffles, cooked in a bain-marie and served on toast fried in  butter), Poulet Sauté Verdi (Chicken sautéed in butter and placed in the middle of a Piemontase risotto, garnished with sliced of foie gras and truffle and served with a glaze of Asti wine and brown veal stock) and Salade Aida (curly white chicory and tomatoes on a bed of raw, thinly sliced artichokes, small peppers and slices of egg white covered in a grated egg yolk ‘vermicelli’ with a bit of mostarda).

Other than Escoffier’s soup to nuts Verdi menu, my friend Henri Paul Pelliprat (who I wrote about HERE), constructed a wonderful dish in his honor, Risotto Giuseppe Verdi (a risotto with asparagus, mushrooms and tomatoes and cream).

Verdi at table with friends (from Dining with Verdi)

In George Martin’s Aspects of VerdiI discovered when Verdi traveled with his productions, he brought along many provisions to make him feel at home including “rice, maccheroni, cheese, salumi and some French wines.”

1858 Cartoon of Verdi and Baron Genovesi cooking maccheroni and risotto

The maestro even cooked from time to time –– judging from the cartoon above.  It seems he was particularly adept at risotto.  A letter of the period gushes; “ But at the end of the second act of La favorite he was recognized and they began to shout “Viva Verdi” and everyone, from the boxes to the pit, stood up to salute the Great Composer from Le Roncole.  If only they knew how well he composes risotto alla Milanese, God knows what ovations would have showered on his shoulders!” Verdi was proud of his risotto (usually made with saffron, beef marrow and wine – the exact ingredients in Verdi’s culinary masterpiece were his secret), even plotting to eclipse great tragedienne La Ristori’s  tagliatelle when they cooked together in St Petersberg.  He had a special recipe for pork shoulder that he gave out to friends (often accompanied by a gift of the pork as well).

A 1913 edition of Scena Illustrata said that Verdi had other favorite dishes,  “crayfish escalope, minute slices of sea prawns as a side dish for a course of maccheroni prepared with butter and Parmigiano, as well as fine slivers of white truffles sautéed with tomato preserve, poached eggs over a purée of mushrooms and small onions.”

Verdi’s last luncheon (from Dining with Verdi)

"Dining with Verdi" even contained the menu from Verdi’s last luncheon at the Grand Hotel Milan before his stroke and death in 1901 –– printed on his own engraved stationary.

He liked strong coffee, chianti and sweet sparkling wine (Asti) and when he was on his annual winter visit to Genoa, he came to love Genoa’s gnocchi with basil and ravioli Genovese (that Martin, thanks to Elizabeth David, discovered was stuffed with 4 scarole (Batavian endives), a bunch of borage, one pound of lean veal, ½ pound of calf’s udder, ½ a calf’s or lamb’s brain, a sweetbread, butter, four whole eggs and 2 yolks, a handful each of breadcrumbs and grated Parmegiano cheese and seasoning)  He was also fond of  their capon magro (crustaceans, mollusks, fish and vegetables served with a green sauce made of oil, lemon juice, parsley, capers, garlic, salt and pepper).

Villa Verdi

But meals on the road were nothing compared to meals at his home. Verdi owned Villa Verdi, in Sant’Agata from 1848 till his death.  Seats at his table, like those for his operas, were hot commodities.

"Dining with Verdi" quoted poet and Puccini librettist, Giuseppe Giacosa who said: “The dinner table at Sant’Agata is, in my view... truly amicable, that is to say magnificent and perceptive: the cuisine at Sant’Agata deserves the honors of the stage, for its picturesque nature and grandeur, and its diversification as a workshop of the highest Pantagrulian alchemy…. It pleases him to see all around him, with his guests, the keen and sincere joy that accompanies and follows a beautiful and exquisite meal… he believes that each function of life must have its moment of importance; he is an artist, and as such considers, and with reason, a meal as a work of art.”

Villa Verdi’s kitchen (from Dining with Verdi)

Silverware order from Christofle (from Dining with Verdi)

Although I couldn’t find a photo of Verdi’s dining room, the photo of the kitchen table made my mouth water –– what couldn’t you make at a kitchen table like that?  I had to share the flatware order when I found it. It's remarkable that the order from Christofle was saved, a rare prize indeed that shows the expensive tastes of the owner.  I imagine the dinners were beautiful as well as delicious.

Now, what to make from the Verdi kitchen.  The Chicken Verdi is an Escoffier recipe that I’ve wanted to try for quite some time, it is a great combination made easy and not that expensive using D'Artagnan products (the original did call for lots of truffles and foie gras!).  It appears in Escoffier’s 1903 Le Guide Culinaire and is fairly straightforward unlike the recipes of Verdi’s cook.  As I’ve mentioned before, many private recipes are merely meant to jog the memory of the cook and they leave out vital information that would have been unnecessary for the cook like measurements of some ingredients and cooking times and temperatures. 

The recipe for the Verdi cream came from Verdi’s cook, Ermelinda Berni and was evidently a great favorite of the composer. The recipe is sketchy but for some reason I kept coming back to it and thought I would give it a try.  It gave amounts for the butter, sugar and eggs but none for the chocolate.  Such a recipe with those proportions sounded to me like a recipe for an odd sort of truffle so that’s where I went with it. The biscuits soaked in rose oil sounded divine but on further thought ––– they would have been inedible with enough rose oil to soak a biscuit. Since the illustration in the book had the mold served with cherries, I went with that and soaked ladyfingers in rose and cherry juice –– perfect, especially with *Aftelier's Rose Essence.  It is very rich,  much like a giant truffle so tread lightly and invite a lot of people for a taste.

When you cook Verdi it's best to turn up your ipod and waltz to a bit of La Traviata and of course, sing along.  It will inspire to be sure –– or at the very least encourage you to make a lyre-shape out of your chicken breast as a wink to the Maestro.

Poulet Sauté Verdi (Escoffier) serves 2

2 small chicken breast, each sliced into 3 sections but not separated
2 T butter
1 c Asti wine (or a slightly sweet wine or champagne)
4-6 rounds of D’Artagnan foie gras with black truffles (2 -3 for each serving)
parsley or chervil for garnish

Risotto á la Piémontaise

Sauté the chicken in the butter till done and remove from the pan, plate and tent.  Pour the wine in the pan and reduce.  Add the demiglace and swirl to blend.  Remove from the heat and add the truffle butter.  Put the risotto around the plate.  Lay the chicken on the plate, place the ham in the risotto and place the foie gras mousse on the chicken.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and garnish with the chervil and serve.

Risotto á la Piémontaise (Escoffier) serves 2-4

1 onion, chopped
2 T butter
1 c Arborio rice
1 quart chicken stock
1 large pinch saffron.
¼ c parmesan cheese
2 small pieces of ham, swirled

Fry a medium size onion in butter till softened and add rice. Add some saffron to it and stir it until it is well saturated with butter.  Add stock to the rice 7 or 8 times and as fast as it becomes absorbed about ½ c at a time, more should be added.  Stir the rice with a wooden spoon. Save some stock to add just before serving.

Add the truffle butter to the rice and the cheese.  Stir in the last ½ cup of stock and serve with the ham garnish.

Latte alla Verdi (Verdi), serves 8-10 at least

2 sticks butter
1 c sugar*
5 egg yolks
7 oz. grated chocolate

syrup from Marenata
2 T kirsh (my addition)
1 or 2 drops Aftelier rose essence or 2 t rosewater

Mix sugar and butter, add the yolks one at a time, add the grated chocolate.
Place everything in a mold well covered with biscuits soaked in rose oil and chill.
*I thought this was way too much sugar… I think 1/3 to ½ cup would suffice.

Roll the ladyfingers in a mixture of the cherry syrup, kirsh and rose.  Line the bottom and sides of a bowl with the ladyfingers and pour the chocolate mixture into the bowl and refrigerate till firm.  Top with the cherries and serve.

This recipe would make 2 small or one large.  I show the smaller one that uses 8 ladyfingers to cover the sides and bottom of the dish.  It is easy to half the recipe if you do not want to be tempted to eat the whole thing!

Marenata (Verdi recipe)

1 pound sour cherries (pitted)
½ pound sugar sugar
peel of 1 lemon

Boil a quart of water with sugar and lemon peel.  When it boils, pour it over the cherries and cook slowly till a syrup forms

Ladyfingers (From Delicious Days)

Preheat oven to 390º

3 eggs, divided
90 g/3.17 oz sugar
1 t vanilla
60 g/2.12 oz flour
2 T confectioners sugar

Beat the yolks with the sugar till creamy and yellow then add the vanilla.  Beat the whites till glossy and holding stiff peaks.  Sift the flour into the egg yolks and fold in.  Add the egg white and fold… do not over mix

Use a piping bag (or a baggie with the end cut off and make the ladyfingers 4” long x 1” on parchment-covered sheets.  Leave space for them to expand. Dust with confectioner’s sugar then bake 8-13 minutes (keep an eye on them, they have a mind of their own) and then remove. Take off the parchment and set on damp towel to release then cool on a rack

August is hard at work completing his passion project just in time for Giuseppe Verdi's 200th birthday.  

Click to see the wonderful 22-minute promo reel HERE   
or visit his website HERE   

I encourage all of you film or opera buffs, lovers of all things Italian, and champions of the cause of musical education to support "27" if you can.  Great passions should always be nurtured and supported, don't you think??


La Table De Nana said...

I always feel like I know NOTHING when I visit you..

So interesting.. Your dishes look so good also:)

I am curious as to..if anyone else notices some grammatical errors in Verdi's menu?:)

I make so many typos..It could be me..
Thanks for this lovely post..
The research you do still amazes me..and you do it so well.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Deana:
Fortunately, the Opera in Budapest is till affordable and so we can indulge our love of Opera quite frequently. Verdi is a particular favourite and we have so enjoyed this most detailed insight into his life, loves and works.

We had never heard of the Opera House in Parma and have been totally fascinated by its history. The elite club of Opera fanatics sounds somewhat alarming, but it is good to know that the maestro's works are in safe and intelligent hands.

Verdi's own dining tastes sound to be as full-blooded as his Operas. Rather too rich for our liking but, the richness of his Operas lift our spirits to this present day. What a legacy!!

Diane said...

As always a post full of so many interesting things that I did not know. The theatre looks wonderful. The food excellent but I agree with Jane and Lance, maybe a little rich for me but there are some delightful flavours there. Have a great Day Diane

Catherine said...

Dear Deanna, There is no better combination that classical music and food! Everything looks delightful! Beautiful post my dear. Blessings, Catherine xo

Barbara said...

Another feast for the mind AND the eyes, Deana. Thank you for introducing us to August and his wonderful obsession. What a divine opera house. The determination over the years to rebuild says a great deal about the people of Parma.
I had no idea of the relationship of Parma and Verdi. Also had not a clue he was a gourmand and cook. What fun to read about the food and the recipes. You've chosen well. Very doable recipes. That cherry dessert is perfection.
I always have my iPod playing when I cook. Not opera however. :)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I'm quite the neophyte when it comes to opera, but how did I miss this magnificent theater when I was in Parma (hanging out at a cheese-making spot). I would love to wonder such a grand theater. Cooking to opera is invigorating, right?

Marjie said...

Your history lessons and travelogues are always such fun! Villa Verde is really cute, although I don't know if I would like to live in such a brightly colored house...

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

I adore opera, I love the passion with which Europeans approach their arts and I love YOUR mind. This recipe seems divine, and a must for one of my summer poetry and dinner soirées. BUT THAT KITCHEN of Verdi's...that is my kind of kitchen. NO NONSENSE, to crap to clutter, but just a good hard table upon which to WORK and make the most memorable meals. The copper pots resemble my own and the leaded window is also in my kitchen.....pure romance here my friend. Thank you ever so kindly for coming to visit me in my little fairy tale world.....Have a spectacular weekend!!! Anita

Fresh Local and Best said...

I like Verdi's priorities - traveling with his favorite foods. The Poulet Sauté Verdi is visually stunning. It would have made Verdi proud.

Lori Lynn said...

Oh, I'm waltzing Deana! I'm waltzing!
Your chicken presentation is a masterpiece!
I adore your blog, reading your posts is like nothing else on the web...

live sports said...

nice pics

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I know I am always in for a feast for the mind and eyes when I visit here, Deana! I can only imagine how wonderful it would have been to dine with Verdi judging from the menu and dishes you duplicated. I love the fan shape of the chicken breast when it is cut that way. Both the chicken and the cherry dessert are fit for a grand dinner with

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

With opera playing in the background is how that was supposed to finish :)

James Musto III said...

I need to check my resources again on this, but I believe a young Arturo Toscanini was the cellist in the orchestra of this theater. He certainly was a friend and a champion of Verdi's music and I am sure they shared a meal or two together !