Gillian Riley, the author of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food(TOCTIF) is a food historian and former typographer. In TOCTIF Riley has created an A-Z guide to one of the world’s best-loved cuisines. Her book covers all aspects of history and culture of Italian gastronomy, from dishes, ingredients, and delicacies to cooking methods and implements, and regional specialties. In the post below Riley writes about the role of chocolate in Italian cuisine. To read her previous posts click here.
Many stories and myths surround the origins of mole poblano, a classic of Mexican cuisine. One version has a wicked little wind blowing a packet of spices into a stew for which they were not intended, another tells of some chocolate falling from a kitchen shelf into a cooking pot in a convent kitchen. It was Alicia Rios who showed me the essay by Xavier Domingo which sheds so much light on this and other aspects of the history of Mexican food. My own paper on Sor Juana in the kitchen was a result of pondering on these ideas. It is possible to argue, although documentary evidence is sparse, that pavo in mole poblano, or mole poblano di guajalote, is one of the few recipes that might have been invented in a particular place at a certain time for a specific reason—a politically motivated ‘fusion food’ prepared in the Dominican Convent of Santa Rosa for the arrival of Don Tomás Anto-nio de la Cerda y Aragón, Conde de Paredes, the new Spanish viceroy at Puebla de los Angeles in the 17th century.
A native fowl cooked with native chillies and seeds, enhanced with ingredients from the Old World (spices, nuts and dried fruit), was a dish deliberately constructed to reinforce the message that the prosperity and survival of New Spain required a more subtle approach than a policy of subjugation and exploitation by the conquerors. Clear-headed Jesuit realpolitik had placed a Christian church over every native holy place or shrine, smoothly incorporating the blood, incense and sacrificial slaughter of one cult into the other. The welcoming banquet in Puebla did the same, with a recipe which might have been a way of acknowledging the complex racial mix of New Spain, each with their own cuisine. Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz experienced this as a child on her grandfather’s hacienda on the slopes of Popocapetel; the cookery notebooks attributed to her reflect this, as do the villancicos she wrote us-ing African dialects and rhythms, and the Nahuatl language, setting them to popular tunes to attract a congregation from the city’s underclass to Mexico City’s churches and convents.
In the recipe turkey joints are simmered in an aromatic broth made from the carcass, and finished in a complex sauce made from dried chillies (ancho, pasilla, mulato), toasted, soaked and ground, then fried in lard until spluttering and tasty, to which is then added a paste made from toasted and ground nuts and seeds (pumpkin, sesame, almond) and a discreet flavouring of ground spices (including cin-namon, cloves, anise). This is thinned with some of the turkey broth and the joints are finished off in this dense fragrant sauce. If you wonder how this can possibly relate to the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, the key ingredient is chocolate. A substance we think of as a sweet indulgence was in pre-conquest Mexico a prerogative of gods and rulers, a psychotropic beverage and expensive enough to act as currency. Putting chocolate in a dish prepared in a Christian convent for a Spanish ruler was not an idle gesture. Although chocolate was the drink of priests and kings and not a culinary ingredi-ent in Aztec cuisine, its sacred role is what mattered here.
Any version of this recipe which calls itself ‘Turkey in a chocolate sauce’ is a wicked lie. If it is sweet and cloying and chocolaty chuck it out and throw away the recipe book. The chocolate should add a sombre enigmatic note to an already deep rich sauce, but never betray its presence. This is what it does in Italian cooking when used in blood pudding, some salami, and many game dishes, giving dark undertones and barely perceptible sweetness. Anna del Conte has a wonderful recipe from Lombardy for joints of hare cooked in their rich spiced red wine marinade flavoured with bitter chocolate, and describes how dark chocolate is used in the caponata of Sicily, in which fried eggplant is simmered in a mixture of onions, tomatoes and celery, seasoned with a sweet sour sauce with chocolate, capers and olives. Mary Taylor Simeti has a recipe from Enna in the heart of Sicily for sciabbò, a Christmas pasta dish where the sauce of onion, pork and tomatoes is seasoned with sugar, cinnamon and bitter chocolate.
Sophie Coe pointed out that in 17th century Italy chocolate was being used experimentally in both sweet and savoury dishes, rather than in recipes derived from Spain. The court of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany took to chocolate in a big way, enjoying all the social and gastronomic advantages of this elitist and horrendously expensive exotic luxury, either in tablet form, as a whipped hot drink, or as a gelato in warmer weather. Francesco Redi, scientist, poet and eminent member of the Ducal court was happy to pay the equivalent of a month’s salary for a few pounds of cacao beans. This was not hedonism but part of a politically motivated strategy to enhance the prestige of the Medici rulers, who imported the beans direct from Mexico and claimed to have surpassed even the Spanish in the refinement of their chocolate, to such an extent that the recipe for jasmine flavoured chocolate was a jealously guarded state secret for decades. Walter Bernardi’s account of his pursuit of this delicacy reads like a giallo. (You can Google ‘Walter Bernardi La cioccolata del Granduca’ for the full story). The recipe involves layering pulverised cocoa with fresh jasmine blossoms, renewed frequently for days on end, and perfuming the eventual cocoa butter with cinnamon, vanilla and musk, sweetened with sugar. Worthy indeed of the baroque tastes and refined sensibilities of the Grand Duke Cosimo III.