Friday, July 14, 2006

Fruit encounter.

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvUPDATE THURSDAY 3/20vvvvvvvvvvvvv

My friend Shelley is sure nespoli are loquats! She writes:

"We had a loquat tree in Davis and they looked EXACTLY like your picture. The descriptions match too. I think it’s the same thing. They had great flavor, sort of a cross between an apricot and something else. They don’t keep at all. As soon as you picked them they started to bruise so the kids (neighbors included) would stand under the tree while Kevin picked and distributed. They ate them on the spot, spitting those gargantuan seeds all over the place! They loved them! I wish you could have had more while you were there."

Thanks, Shelley!


(first posted July 14, 2006)

On the drive from Genoa to the Riviera, we noticed many trees heavily laden with small orange fruit. They looked a little like apricots, but the trees were too short, too spreading. Our Liguria guide, Fausta, said they are nespoli.

Back in Genoa, Arianna presented me with a few of these fruits.

The slightly tart fruit is extremely juicy, and as you can tell from the picture, contains three to six large, round brown seeds. They were a real suprise, popping out of the fruit's hollow center, seeming far too large to reside in such a small space.

In an attempt to uncover the fruit's identity, I've read that nespoli are also called medlars. However, pictures show a brown fruit, not an orange one. Some think it's the same as a loquat, which looks like the fruit above, but the description of the taste doesn't quite fit. Still, loquats are called Japanese medlars, so they're probably from the same family. Nespoli - Italian medlars?

I think so. At any rate, medlars have nice cameos in literarure, as a symbol of prostitution, or early dissipation. Hmmmm. Medlars are said to be "rotten before they are ripe." I don't know. With just one encounter, I couldn't learn enough to say if that is true.


As I was cleaning my bookshelf this week, I found my copy of The Decadent Cookbook, by Medlar Lucan(!) and Durian Gray. These are the pen names of Alex Martin and Jerome Fletcher. If you accept that medlars are rotten before they are ripe; if you regard the smell of the durian as one of the most offensive on the planet; and if you remember that at the root of the word decadent is decay, you'll appreciate the wry wit in these authors' choice of pen names.

It's been several years since I looked at the book. Co-author's name aside, this was also the first time I'd remember actually getting some information about medlars. In the chapter entitled Decay and Corruption:

"...medlars, which resemble grenadillas, are best eaten when they have begun to decompose. To accompany the bowl of medlars was a bowl of 'pire fotute', a precise translation of which need not concern us here. This, my host informed me, was a Sicilian dish made from rotting pears which tasted like chocolate. I took his word for it. Along with the fruit we drank a glass of Sauternes. Needless to say, (my host) waxed lyrical on the subject of 'la pourriture noble' or noble rot."

That perplexed me when I first read it in the late 90s, as there wasn't a real description of the fruit or its flavor. I'm glad I now know - though the medlars I ate were anywhere close to decomposing! Ah well, next trip to Italy...

This is what Shakespeare said about nespoli in As You Lke It:

Truly, the tree yields bad fruit.

I'll graff it with you, and then I shall graff it with a medlar: then it will be the earliest fruit i' the country; for you'll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that's the right virtue of the medlar.

Shakespeare refers to the medlar again in Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio mocks Romeo's unrequited love for Rosaline:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.

(BTW, even though R&J is set in Verona, I didn't see any nespoli trees there.)

Another reference is in Chaucer's The Reeve's Tale:

My heart, too, is as mouldy as my hairs,
Unless I fare like medlar, all perverse.
For that fruit's never ripe until it's worse,
And falls among the refuse or in straw.
We ancient men, I fear, obey this law:
Until we're rotten, we cannot be ripe;

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I love Bellini and Bellini (and Bellini).

Bellini, "the lovelies," so to speak; bellino means cute, charming or lovely.

What an appropriate name for some artists bearing this name, creators or incredible beauty.

One of them is Vincenzo Bellini, opera composer:

In 1831 this Sicilian composer gave the world "Norma," a work that defines the bel canto style of opera. This work demands a lot of the soprano: the big hit aria "Casta Diva" is more closely identified with Maria Callas than any other prima donna.

In Venice, though, the Bellini who shines bright is the founder of the Venetian school of art, Giovanni Bellini, (c.1430-1516). He turned Venice into a center of Renaissance art, and took realism and color to a new level of sensuousness. I saw some of his breathtaking paintings in Venice, including the Pieta in the Palazzo Ducale:

Not much of Bellini's work remains in the Palazzo Ducale: his greatest canvases, six or seven of them, were destroyed in a huge palace fire in 1577.

Though Giovanni was the best known of the Bellinis, his father Jacopo and brother Gentile were also noted artists whose work was deemed worthy of being placed in the Palazzo Ducale, so the Bellini dynasty is at the core of Venetian art.

And finally, there's the Bellini born in Venice in 1934, in a bar near San Marco, a real peach:

Of course, I didn't order this one at THE Harry's Bar where it was first concocted, and where it remains the most popular drink for those making the pilgrimage to to Ernest Hemingway's old haunt. For one thing, nothing could convince me to fight the hordes of San Marco to get to the storied bar; for another, I'm not sure a cocktail of peach juice and bubbly prosecco ever justifies a bill of nearly $30 (or so I was told, more than once, by a disgruntled visitor.) And let's face it, you aren't going to see Hemingway there anyway.

Instead, this lovely drink was served at a little bar in a campiello somewhere in San Polo, after a whole morning walking around the Rialto and surrounding neighborhoods, up one bridge and down another, down one narrow alley after another, and then through countless squares. I just could not take another step in the suffocating humidity, and simply had to have something cold.

The Bellini really is a great cocktail (made all the better by an hour of very interesting people-watching). If you use pomegranate juice instead of peach, then it's called a Tintoretto, named for another of Venice's greatest artists. Gotta love those Venetians!

Gillian Coldsnow

Thursday, July 6, 2006

On street signs, Venetian addresses...and advertising.

After the first week in Italy, I got used to the place naming systems. Common terms are via for street, piazza for square. I didn't see a single sign on a post, as we do in most countries; rather, the street names were on marble blocks set into building walls, such as this one in Milan:

Many of the street plaques list the birth and death years of the person for which the street was named, and sometimes, their profession. In Milan, a major street is sometimes called corso, as in the city's longest street, Corso Buenos Aires (where we stayed.)

Here's a pair of street signs at an interesection in Verona. Because the city was controlled by Rome, Verona has many depictions of the empire's symbol, the she-wolf suckling twins Romulus and Remus:

Then, some cities use unique street nomenclature, as in Genoa's caruggi and vicoli, terms which come from the Ligurian dialect.

Venice, however, takes the cake when it comes to this subject.

Here, a campo is a public square; a small one is called a campiello.

A Venetian bridge is street is called ponte. A street is a calle; a particularly narrow one a calleta. However, I also saw narrow streets named rame, riva and fondamenta. The three days I spent in Venice didn't allow me enough time to observe the distinctions between them. However, here's a good primer on the mysteries of Venetian addresses.)

Still, the place names are a good indicator of the sort of activity that took place in a particular area. Near the Rialto, for example, place names around the vegetable market indicated where fish, bread and other foods were sold. Some of those words were in Spanish or Arabic, so one could also surmise the origins of the merchants who did business in those locales. (La Serenissima has always been cosmopolitan.)

Here's where a greengrocer (l'erberia, from erbe, vegetables) set up shop, in a covered walkway through a building (sotoportego):

Our Venice guide Laura gave us a very good idea of what we would have seen on those streets five hundred years ago; from Jewish moneylending tables to bakeries (panataria) and orange sellers (naranzaria), to more venal pursuits. Campiello de la Stua was one example.

Laura told us stua means "stove" in the Venetian dialect. Apprently, way back when, this little square was the site of big stoves which heated water for bathhouses. As with many bathhouses today, it was also the red light district. So you can walk through the adjoining sotoportego (a covered walkway going through a building) to the neighboring street.

Translation: "Street of Breasts." Only the word is the colloquial term for mammary glands. You get the gist. The prostitutes who lived around this fondamenta and its adjacent bridge, Ponte de le tette, advertised their wares by baring their breasts at their windows. And there were many. Laura told us there were approximately eleven thousand prostitutes in Venice in the 1500s - to a population of about two hundred thousand.

The ladies are gone now, but their memory lives on. This painting was in an art gallery on Fondamenta de le tette.

Gillian Coldsnow