Cookbook author and memoirist Marlena de Blasi does not seek the limelight, preferring instead to write her books in the shadows. The shadows, that is, of the great stone monuments of Italy, first San Marco in Venice and now a sixteenth-century palazzo in Orvieto in Umbria.
De Blasi’s body of work includes A Taste of Southern Italy: Delicious Recipes and a Dash of Culture (2006, originally published as Regional Foods of Southern Italy, 1999), Regional Foods of Northern Italy: Recipes and Remembrances (1997), A Thousand Days in Venice (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) (paperback, 2003), A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure (2005), The Lady in the Palazzo: An Umbrian Love Story (paperback, 2008), and That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story (paperback, 2009).
Her book on the food of northern Italy is, in my opinion, the best of the lot. Although the memoirs contain recipes (usually from her previous cookbooks), her strength lies with her descriptions of food and community in the cookbooks. The universal narrative always sways more than the personal, and de Blasi’s later work — caught up as it with telling her personal story — loses the deep sense of the universal necessary for readers to identify with the narrator.
And yet, de Blasi’s lyrical prose, as well as her enthusiasm for life and community, permeates both her cookbooks and memoirs. A touch of mystery, of the unknowable, of the inexplicable, wends its way through her stories, peopled with characters, with harlequins and tricksters, as it were. Reading de Blasi is like sitting by the fire, a glass of Vin Santo shimmering in the scarlet light, a copy of The Legend of the Villa Della Luna: The Sequel to the Secrets of Pistoulet opened to the page redolent with moonshine and gardenia petals.
Where does de Blasi fit in the pantheon of English-language writers on Italian food? She’s a compatriot of Patience Gray (Honey from a Weed, 1986) and Elizabeth Romer (The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Valley, 1984). Very few food writers approach Italy in the same way that M. F. K. Fisher celebrates France, even though Elizabeth David wrote Italian Food, not a bad beginning, and Samuel Chamberlain contributed Italian Bouquet: An Epicurean Tour of Italy (1958). And of course, the doyenne of Italian cooking, Marcela Hazan, writes winningly of Italian food, but her prose doesn’t always dazzle.
Because de Blasi shrinks away from the celebrity trail (she doesn’t even have a Web site, much less Twitter or Facebook), her work doesn’t surface foremost in the minds of Italian-cooking aficionados besotted with Mario, Lidia, and Giada.
And that is too bad. Or is it? Maybe knowing too much about an author — cookbook or otherwise — detracts too much from their legacy.
For just a small taste of de Blasi’s culinary genius and her fresh use of langauge, try her recipe for Schiacciata con Grappoli d’Uva (Flatbread Baked with Bunches of Grapes). It’s guaranteed to lure Italian-food lovers into seeking out Marlena de Blasi’s cookbooks, and maybe even her other books, filled as they are with food, friends, family, and community.
Which is what food really means, no matter where, or how meager, it might be.
Schiacciata con Grappoli d’Uva (Flatbread Baked with Bunches of Grapes)
Makes 1 large round bread
So beautiful to look at, this bread festooned with grapes is a glory to taste — sweet, peppery, spicy, crunchy, and wet with the grapes’ warm juices. A legacy from Etruria, it is depicted in ancient friezes, being carried forth to the harvest tables.
5 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 1 T. light brown sugar
2 packages active dry yeast
1 cup warm water plus more as needed, usually at least ½ cup more
1.2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 T. fresh rosemary leaves, minced
2 T. fennel seeds, crushed
2 T. anise seeds, crushed
1 T. freshly cracked black pepper
1 T. sea salt
Green, purple, and red grapes, trimmed into small bunches of about 6 to 8 grapes each — about 12 bunches in all
2/3 cup granulated sugar
A pepper grinder
- In a large bowl, combine 1 ½ cups of the flour, 1 T. of the light brown sugar, the yeast, and the warm water, allowing the sponge to activate for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a small pan, warm the oil over a low flame and add the rosemary, fennel, anise, and black pepper, permitting the spices to perfume the oil for 10 minutes. Remove from the flame and set aside.
- Return to the sponge in the bowl and add the remaining 4 cups of flour, the salt, ¼ cup of light brown sugar, the eggs, and all but 2 T. of the spiced oil with its seeds, incorporating the elements well.
- Turn the mass out onto a lightly floured board and knead for 5 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and permit the mass to rise for 30 minutes. Deflate the dough and roll it, or flatten it with your hands, into a free-form circle or rectangle, and position it on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Press the small bunches of grapes into the dough, drizzle them with the remaining 2 T. of spiced oil — seeds and all — dust them liberally with the sugar, and grind over generous amounts of black pepper. Cover the bread with a clean kitchen towel and permit it to rise for 40 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake the schiacciata for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it is golden and swollen, the grape skins bursting. Cool the bread on a rack for 5 minutes.
Serve the bread very warm, warm, or tepid. Wonderful with Gorgonzola strippled with honey and black pepper, and/or a glass of Vin Santo or other sweetish dessert wine.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen