Thursday, February 1, 2018

Pina Menichetti, Italian Divas and Testaroli with Pesto

A few weeks ago while researching the great Italian chef, Pelligrino Artusi (who I wrote about HERE), I came upon an image that burrowed into my consciousness, took hold and wouldn't let go. I realized I had to explore the possession to be free of it.

The image was the face of Pina Menichelli - one of the great divas of early Italian cinema. Early? I mean early. Her heyday was 1913-1924 when she retired at age 34. I watched her films in their tinted glory, translating the Italian title cards as best I could but not needing them most of the time -- the emotions were simple and powerful and the stories were secondary – she devoured your attention when she was on the screen.

Il Fuoco

The whole concept of the Diva is remarkably apt in these days of growing female empowerment. Menichelli was a dark queen during the shimmering youth of the silent film

I learned much about the infancy of Italian cinema from the passionate silent film aficionado, Gene Zornarich, at 11 East 14th Street  (a brilliant site named after D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio in NYC at the dawn of American cinema in 1906). Even though many assume that the femme fatale was born in celluloid, the powerful seductress has been emasculating powerful men since the beginning of time. The cinema diva-femme fatale was a new version of an ancient archetype.

The whole idea of female empowerment is part of the definition of the Diva. Zonarich writes “The diva as a concept arises with the support of popular late 19th century western philosophy which posits the existence of human ability to create, to reinvent, to overcome — a life force that allows one to shape ones own destiny no matter what the obstacles. But for women, this concept clashed not only with centuries of patriarchy, but also with contemporary writings of Italian criminal anthropology — that women were biologically inferior and limited without recourse to be either a mother or a prostitute and a criminal. The Catholic church offered women its own form of spiritual redemption, but small consolation: to suffer as mothers suffering for Christ — the mater dolorosa  ….”

“Out of this clash of cultural concepts, the woman of early Italian cinema became the film icon, “diva.” The stories of these women, of diva film, are the stories of their struggles, strivings, failures, successes, loves, illnesses, obsessions with material objects, their ability to accept, or not, the destruction caused by time: age and death.”

Pina Menichelli started out with a female-run theater company,  under the wing of a strong professional role model (female-run theater companies popped up in Europe, England and even America -- Drew Barrymore's great grandmother ran a theater in Philadelphia). Menichelli gravitated toward playing women who were strong –– not the usual virtuous doormat or frail beauty to be ground under a male heel. The femme fatales that divas often played took men, had their way with them, and then tossed them away. If the men survived they were broken. It was the woman that walked away triumphant and ready to move on to the next victim lover. The diva was independent and sexually rapacious. I wonder how many women of the day got a vicarious thrill watching films that were full of such potent possibilities for women? These films, like Tigre Reale and Il Fuoco were very popular all over the world.

Pina exemplified the femme fatale –– “La favilla, la vampa, la cenere,” “the spark, the flame, the ashes” as the title card says in one of her films –– the passion that burns and destroys. Is it a coincidence that the concept of the 'vamp' may be related to the Italian word, vampa meaning  flame as much as it is to the word vampire as we have often heard it defined? America's most famous vamp Theda Bara chose 'vampire' and once said "I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin." One burns, the other sucks the life out of their victims.  Which do you prefer?

I had great fun reading many writers and artists thoughts about the diva-femme fatale.  Often wry, but very entertaining. They almost always reference Pina's work.

The famous French author Colette, writing about the femme fatale in film in her work, Short Manual for the Aspiring Scenario Writer, drolly observed: "The femme fatale's hat spares her the necessity, at the absolute apex of her wicked career, of having to expend herself in pantomime. When the spectator sees the evil woman coiffing herself with a spread-winged owl, the head of a stuffed jaguar, a bifid aigrette, or a hairy spider, he no longer has any doubts; he knows just what she is capable of. And the rising gorge? The rising gorge is the imposing and ultimate means by which the evil woman informs the audience that she is about to weep, that she is hesitating on the brink of crime, that she is struggling against steely necessity, or that the police have gotten their hands on the letter. What letter? THE letter.”

These dramas were sometimes referred to as being 'tailcoat cinema' meaning they were about the upper classes.  The women of this class were in many ways given far more room to maneuver in society than their counterparts in the middle and lower classes.  Having lovers was part of the game and, then as now,  money and power often protected society ladies from the fallout. Women who did not belong to those elevated circles were fascinated by them (and secretly wished to emulate them perhaps?).

Eugenia Paulicelli, in the book, Italian Style, said Menichelli appeared ‘naked in full dress’, and that she represented “ the other woman, the seductress, the femme fatale on the verge of becoming a vamp, an antagonistic specter to the apparent bourgeois order. Once again, clothing and costume play a pivotal role in the way her erotic charge is conveyed and constructed.”

In an interview in the periodical, In Penombra in 1918, “Menichilli acknowledges the role played by the direttore di scena (set designer) in the meticulous construction of her image…. Film, she says, is the result of a collective effort; the diva is the beneficiary of this effort as well as being part of it.” In the same magazine, the director and writer, Nino Oxilia, reflected,  “from the marriage of storytelling and painting, cinema is born.” You can feel that evolution happening before your eyes.  First, the scene opens,  playing in a flat, two-dimensional plane.  Suddenly,  Pina changes the dynamic, using the close-up to reel you in ––to feel her passion.  It's no longer a stiff tableau!

Il Fuoco

Even her coiffure was designed to convey her intent as the curls were loosely bound or released with the pulling of a comb to flow wildly about her, “Everything came from her crown of hair, that was a pure masterpiece: a Gorgon’s mane, serpents of hysteria, curls of pathos, desire and madness intertwined. Monstrous adornments of a crowded garden: all around Pina Menichelli, Our Lady of Spasms ['Notre Dame des Spasmes' or Nostra Signora degli Spasimi] . . .” (Nino Frank, Cinema dell’arte. Panorama du film italien, Paris, Bonne, 1951.)

Many have been obsessed with the idea of the diva. In Salvador Dali’s surreal script,  Babaouo, there is a preface entitled, The Age of Hysterical Cinema” (words from the preface translated by Gene Zornarich) Dali confesses his own obsessions with them, fixating on Menichelli's manifestation of her sexual desire through nuzzling, then biting into her flowers....

Tigre Reale

“I recall those women frantic and wobbly of step, their hands caressing the castaways of their love down the corridor walls, clinging to the curtains and plants, those women of the screen, whose neckline slipped continuously over bare shoulders, in an endless night among cypress and marble staircases.”

Tigre Reale

“At that critical and turbulent period of eroticism, palms and magnolias were literally taken in bites, torn with their teeth by these women, whose fragile and pre-tubercular appearance did not preclude, however, their audacious shapes thriving on a precocious and feverish youth.”

Tigre Reale

J.K. Huysmans precedes cinema's femme fatale diva by 20 years but captures the throbbing spasms of the ‘goddess of immortal Hysteria’ Salomé beautifully in his essay Sisters of Salomé.  Salomé and the 19th century evocations of her are the great progenitors of the femme fatale diva of the 20th century.

“No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.”
— Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours, Sisters of Salomé 1884

Il Fuoco
Menichelli was all these things on screen which is why her nitrate-self will always be the stuff of legend --  you can't look away when she is on the screen –– no matter what indiscretion she is up to or how explosive her acting becomes.

But who was she?

Not surprisingly, given the fact that most of what was written about her 100 years ago is stored in European libraries and not in easily accessible databases, only the bare facts of her private life are there for us to rummage through.

Born in 1890, Pina came from a Sicilian theatrical family tradition dating back to the 18th century. She began acting as a child but was sent to a convent school in Bologna to get an education.  She continued in the family tradition after school and went off on a theatrical tour of Argentina in 1907 where she met her first husband.  Beginning in 1909, she lived in Buenos Aires and had 2 children, one of whom died soon after his birth. She returned to Italy in 1912 to give birth to her 3rd child  -- separating from, but not divorcing her husband.

Her career took off like a rocket and within a few years she attained her diva status. A dozen years later, when her first husband died in 1924, she married studio head Baron Carlo D'Amato and quit working just like that. She never went back, didn’t like to talk about her life on screen, destroyed her memorabilia and lived to the ripe old age of 94.

scene from The Second Wife 1922

For a dozen years she was the premiere Italian diva.  I think the world is ready to rediscover her once again.

I tried to imagine what scent might surround a diva in 1915 and my friend and perfume scholar, Lucy Raubertas at Indieperfumes recommended two early 20th century gems (you can get vintage samples of them from Surrender to Chance). She recommended  Rosine Nuit de Chine Eau de Cologne by Paul Poiret in 1913 (The New Yorker in 1932 said it was for tigress women!) or Caron's 1919 Tabac Blond to get you in the mood.  Apply your scent, then watch and see if you agree she is one of the lost immortal divas of the silver screen.

So what do we eat with a diva?? How about something ancient from around the neighborhood of her old studio, Itala Films of Turin  ?

I have wanted to make testaroli for years. It is an ancient pasta that goes all the way back to the Etruscans (their domain was located around the knee and the shin of the Italian boot) before Christ.  The way this pasta is made is a bit different than we are used to. The foundation is not a dough but rather a batter that is cooked like a crepe on a flat round pan called a testo. A lid is then placed on it for a few moments and then it’s flipped and removed and cooled. There are records of a tax on the testo in 1391 and again in 1564 – this is a dish with history.

The round pancake is cut into triangles or diamonds and served crisp immediately or cooked a bit less and cooled and boiled for a few moments before being served like a regular pasta – usually with a pesto sauce these days but perhaps only with oil and cheese. I made the pesto old school with the mortar and pestle and it really is creamier and more luscious than using a processor if you are willing to put in the time and the muscle. The pancake can also be kept whole and used to make a sort of lasagna – especially a version with wild boar or venison. It has been called the first pasta.

Make your testaroli, turn on  Il Fuoco and devour orgiastically -- it's a very voluptuous pasta, if I may say. Pina would approve.

Testaroli for 2-4

250 grams of flour (I did a combination of whole wheat, AP flour and semolina)
1½ to 2 c water (this can vary with the dryness of the flour – start with less and add as needed)
1/8 t. baking powder
pinch of salt

Combine the ingredients and then pour through a strainer to get rid of lumps and any large bits of whole wheat – it should have the consistency of cream –– or a crepe batter. Allow the mixture to sit for 20 minutes

Heat a cast iron or non-stick skillet to medium heat (texture might be different with non-stick). Oil the skillet and use a ladle to pour enough batter in the skillet to make it about 1/8 to ¼” deep -- this is sort of up to you as what appeals to you. I'd say it's like a fat crepe or a thin pancake.  Allow it to cook till the underside is lightly browned and then flip it - it will be textured on the bottom. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than 8 minutes. Remove from pan and place on a towel. Then repeat, oiling in between until all the batter is used (I made 4 - 9 to10" pancakes).

Take the pancakes and cut them into diamond shapes anywhere from 1-2” wide. Boil a big pot of salted water and remove from the heat. Put the testaroli pieces in the pot for 1-2 minutes -- you should experiment and decide what you prefer (I went for 2 minutes).  Strain and serve with pesto or simple oil and cheese.  May I say it was also good as a brown crusted pancake -- like the texture of a fried dumpling and great smeared with pesto.


½ teaspoon coarse salt
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 cups fresh basil leaves
¼ cup pine nuts
½ cup olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan

Put the salt in a mortar with the garlic. Grind to a paste. Add the basil leaves and grind with the garlic-salt until smooth. Next add the pine nuts and grind to a paste. Add your olive oil to this paste, continuing to grind with the pestle and then the Parmesan the same way and set aside.

If you do not want to bother with a mortar, put the garlic and pine nuts in a food processor with salt and process. Next add the basil and process. Add the oil to the mix and then the cheese and give it a quick process and set aside.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Crown, The Kennedy Dinner at Buckingham Palace and Sole Princesse

I binge-watched THE CROWN II – there, I said it. The show was diabolically addictive and nearly impossible to turn it off. I finished it in 2 days (8 episodes the first day and 2 episodes the second) and had period-film withdrawal when it came to an end --like I’d been kicked out of a dream.


The story is killer – and it’s bound fairly decently to British history, in all its ormolu bedizened glory.

      Queen Elizabeth II   Claire Foy      Prince Phillip      Matt Smith

The Crown I-II begins with Elizabeth II at the end of WWII --  her courtship, marriage and early life with her blond Prince Phillip, ending in the 60’s. The cast of characters and historical events flash around the Elizabeth like Roman candles flashing through the firmament.

Statesmen Churchill, Mountbatten, McMillan and Eden – and the Royal family and their friends and associates keep the story sparkling along with great costumes and sets to frame the drama magnificently at superb stately-home locations.

Sir Anthony Eden

Harold MacMillan

Lord Mountbatten

Winston Churchill

The palace’s private quarters were mostly built-sets  (yet not copies of the real private quarters), done with exquisite detail and then edited seamlessly into the real grand houses where most of the shooting was done – no wonder Netflix spent $100 million on the program.

The Set for The Crown’s private royal apartments by designer Martin Childs

Connecting passage built between Philip and Elizabeth's bedrooms
Queen’s bedroom with the catchy ciel de lit / baldaquin bed crown and ‘curtainage’ 

This was a location: High Canons, Buckettsland Lane, Well End, Hertfordshire

The 10 episodes in The Crown II take us on a solo royal journey with Prince Phillip as he tours the world as an ambassador on the royal yacht ­­–– from Sri Lanka and Ceylon to Melbourne and Antarctica. He returns to drama with his queen, Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones’ romantic hijinks and the Nazi peccadillos of the Duke of Windsor that come home to roost and make another mess that needs fixing.

Royals – English and American. President Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

One of my favorite episodes of The Crown II is #8. It dramatizes the dinner between the Queen and American royalty – the President and Mrs. Kennedy (it’s about food, what a surprise - I've written about the Kennedys and food Here and HERE).

Eltham Palace, London as Hartnell showroom

Eltham Palace

Fresh from her triumph in France, Jacqueline Kennedy arrives at Buckingham Palace radiant in her Chez Ninon Paris knock-off and for all Elizabeth’s shy attempts to up her fashion game for Jackie at her favorite designer, Norman Hartnell’s showroom (staged in a spectacularly re-purposed Eltham Palace entryway), Elizabeth looks rather like a dowdy bedspread in her tulle compared to the sleek, ice-blue column of satin on the first lady.

The script has the 2 ladies bonding over their shared battles with introversion and love of dogs and horses. Knowing Jackie loved architecture and antiques, the Queen gave her a warm, guided tour of some of the rooms.

What Liz had thought was sincere shared feelings of friendship was betrayed by snarky comments by a loose-lipped Jackie at a party a few nights later, It was genuinely hurtful to Liz. In the end apologies soothed the royal breast and Liz is magnanimous -- she treats Jackie with enormous

 The dinner itself went off without a court crisis. It was a private dinner rather than a state affair so more personal and intimate (30-odd instead of 100 or more guests to wrangle) and better for getting to know the new president (and a smaller audience should Liz be upstaged).

What about the food? Liz's chef from 1953 to 1964 was Charles Mellis.   He divulged the queens tastes to Chatelaine and I'll share them with you.  Liz is not a fancy eater.

Mellis revealed Elizabeth liked the American custom of  having salad with lunch.  She had a great affection for our Chicken Maryland (fried chicken with cream gravy), served with fried banana and bacon, sweet corn pancake with horseradish sauce.  Dinners always started with small hors d'oeuvres like tomato canapés topped with peanut butter (???) or peppers stuffed with shrimp.  Some of her other favorite dishes were sole with asparagus and cheddar and Tournedos continental (a steak with tomato, mushroom and maître d'hôtel butter).  Mellis observed that the Queen was not fond of dessert and often had Scotch woodcock ( scrambled eggs on toast with anchovies, capers and parsley - I just made it for breakfast and it is really good!) after dinner  - she liked oven baked fries.

Given the Queen's simple tastes, Chef Mellis didn’t push the envelope for this dinner even though Jackie wasn’t an unsophisticated American rube that had to be cooked-down to.  He made a simple meat and potatoes dinner for the Kennedys, or, as a spokesman reported with just a hint of irony, “a good old English dinner” – read boiled and bland.

The dinner commenced with a Crème Clamart, a cream of green pea soup sometimes enriched with egg (Clamart is the pea capitol of France) followed by a Filet of Sole Princesse -- a fillet of sole, poached or breaded and fried, with a mushroom scented velouté and asparagus. I believe the saddle of lamb 'l’Anglaise' is a big boiled slab of meat but it may well be simply roasted  (no wonder the good old English dinner comment -- I would have preferred the Prime Minister’s luncheon dish of filet of beef á la Favorite with artichoke bottoms and Parisian potatoes that is referenced in the NYTs article). This is served with buttered beans and browned potatoes – usually cubed or cut into ovals. The mimosa salad is a chopped egg layered salad served in a glass bowl so the layers are seen. The meal finishes with a fine standby, the Grand Marnier soufflé. Not an inspired celebration of French cuisine to be sure.

When deciding what to cook from the menu, I decided to try the sole.

Jack Kennedy and Elizabeth watching Jackie and Philip warily

Jackie served both sole and salad mimosa often at the White House so she must have liked them. Trying to find a recipe for that sole princesse was a lot harder than I thought. My old 60's copy of Larousse Gastronomique gave the basic outline for the dish – sole, with a sauce and asparagus but most of the recipes I found were bastardized  modern versions of the dish. Larousse says that it can be breaded and fried but is usually poached. The classic sauce is a fish-based velouté but many more modern recipes use a hollandaise. 

Since I was stuck inside with the cold snap in the East, I decided to make some puff pastry for a case to hold the asparagus (you can use regular pastry or buy pre-made frozen vol au vent cases or cut a piece of purchased puff pastry).  I was pleased that mine puffed up successfully (because with puff pastry you never know). I also figured I’d try the old fashioned velouté since it’s about the same amount of work as a hollandaise and a bit more unusual.

I make my fish stock by saving and freezing shrimp and lobster shells and any bits of fish and cooking it up when I have enough – giving me about 1-2 c of reduced stock and freezing it. The result is that my shellfish-based velouté  tastes like a lobster bisque –  delicious. If you can’t spring for truffles – use truffle butter to get the truffle flavor. You will be very pleased with the result. The madeira sauce is just the dark knight the dish needs – it works superbly with that lobster-y velouté  and the asparagus – a delicious stuffing for the puff pastry basket. Pretty much everything can be put together in advance and warmed up and quickly cooked at your dinner (just warm the sauces gently or they will separate).

Fillets of Sole Princess - serves 2 as light main course

4 small fillets of sole
1 cup fish stock
2 T white wine
herbs like chervil, parsley
s&p to taste
1 recipe Normande Sauce (which used a fish velouté as its base)
2 baked pastry cases for asparagus
6-8 asparagus spears, cooked and sliced in half and cut to fit case
1 recipe for madeira sauce
truffles or  2-3 T black truffle butter (I use D'Artagnan's version) optional

Salt and pepper the sole and fold them. Warm the stock and wine and herbs. Lay the fish in the liquid and gently poach for a few minutes – it cooks quickly.

Toss the truffles and the asparagus in the madeira sauce to coat and warm through.

Melt the truffle butter if you are using it.

Put the pastry cases on the plate and put the asparagus and truffles in the cases – spoon some of the truffle butter over the asparagus if you are using it and then a little more of the madeira sauce.

Place the fish next to the pastry case, put some of the truffle on the fish if you have them or the rest of the truffle butter over the fish. Then spoon the Normande sauce and a drizzle of the madeira sauce over the fish and serve.

Normande Sauce

½ c fish fumet/stock
1 T dried mushrooms or fresh mushroom trimmings
½ c velouté sauce (*see recipe below)
¼ c cream
2T butter
2 T cream

Cook the stock with the mushrooms until reduced by half. Strain out the mushrooms and combine with the veloute and cream. Reduce by half. Add the cream and butter gently to keep the velvety texture. Strain and keep warm.


1 T butter
1 T flour
1 c fish fumet
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of cayenne

Cook the flour and butter for a few minutes to get rid of the flour taste. Add the fish fumet slowly and cook very slowly for 20 minutes (to 45 if you have time and patience), stirring frequently. Strain.

Madeira Sauce

¾ c demiglace
1-2 T madeira
2 T butter
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the stock till thickened a little more. Add the madeira, then add the butter in a few pieces stirring all the while over a very low heat to have a thick, glossy sauce

Puff Pastry

Butter layer

1/2 lb cold unsalted butter (I love Irish butter for this)
1 t  Lemon juice
1/2 c (65g) bread flour *
pinch of salt


1 1/2 c (200 g) bread flour (freeze it)*
1 3/4 T (28g) duck fat or butter
1 t Salt
1/2 c cold water (start with 1/3 and add as needed, you may not need a whole cup)

* with pastry -- it's a good idea to weigh if you can.   

Mix the butter and the flour and lemon and salt into a paste, make a 5” square and chill on wax paper till firm

Make the dough,  knead lightly and refrigerate.

Make the dough into a rectangle around 7 x 10"-- or just big enough that it will fold in and meet in the center when you put the butter in the center in a diamond with points facing the sides and not the corners - you may have to make it a bit larger but it doesn't have to be exact -- as long as the butter is completely enclosed.  Fold the dough around it like an envelope, bringing the 4 outer points to the center of the butter and seal.   If it’s hot, chill. Otherwise roll it to a rectangle and fold it like a brochure and chill ½ an hour. Roll it out to a rectangle again and fold again like a brochure - do this again 5 times, resting for 30 minutes to an hour in the fridge each time (weather changes this - in winter, 30 minutes is fine in summer you may need 1 hour -- keeping it cold is vital to keep the layers).

I left mine overnight in the fridge after the last turn. Take it out and roll it to about 1/8- 1/4" thick (the pastry will be very high at 1/4") the next day. After cutting your shapes, cut a little into the pastry leaving a frame (taking care not to cut all the way through) so you can pull the center out when it bakes making a well (you can see a technique HERE), I put it back in the fridge for 15-30 minutes when the weather is warm -- if the dough still feels cold after rolling it out, you can just bake it. Remember to cut with a sharp knife if you can or a sharp-edged cutter -- the more you use a sawing action, the more likely your pastry edges will catch and the loft will be uneven (I had one that plopped over to the side like a slinky).  It's best to make a few extra if for safety. You will have a nice amount to freeze for later and it freezes very well (I found some 1 year old in the back of the freezer and it still worked!).

Heat oven to 425º.  Place your pastries on parchment and lay another sheet of parchment over them.

Bake for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 375º, remove the parchment and turn the sheet.  Cook for another 7-12 minutes until nicely browned and cooked through, open the oven door and keep them in the warm oven for 10 minutes or so with the door open.  Remove and then pull out the center section -- the top will be cooked but the center will be a touch sticky - just pull it out -- a large tweezers is good for this.   You can pop them back in the over a few moments before  you serve them to warm them through if you do these in advance -- they keep well for a few days.