Buon Appetito: Interview with Italian Chef Alessandra Rovati

Posted by: Laura Blum on Friday, November 16, 2012
Imagine Italian food without tomato sauce. Venetian-born chef and writer Alessandra Rovati does, and when she comes to Greenwich for a March 4 cooking demo, she'll tell us about the remarkable role that the Jews played in matchmaking between Italy and its beloved tomatoes. She'll also regale us with the fascinating history of chocolate and what the Jews had to do with it. So next time you reach for a Scharffen Berger, Sacher or Suchard, you'll know how such Jewish names got into the chocolaty mix.
JCC Greenwich sat down with Alessandra to get a taste of the Jewish connection with Italy's cuisine, and to whet our appetite for her eagerly awaited cook-in and talk.
Q: How did Jews come to have such a big part in Italian – and generally European – culinary history?
AR: When the Jews were expelled from Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy – which was part of Arab Spain and Portugal -- they brought a lot of their culinary traditions with them.
Q: Such as?
AR: Green beans and eggplant were not eaten by the people of Central and Northern Italy at the time. Some of the vegetables were shunned by the general population because there were legends around them. For example, eggplant was thought to make people mad. It’s called, “Mela insana,” which means “mad apple” in Latin.
Q: Was there a stigma attached to food that came in through the Jews?
AR: There was a stigma, but at the same time there was an attraction to the exotic. Artichokes and eggplants, even when they were no longer considered poison, were considered vulgar because the Jews ate them. We know this from one of the most famous books on Italian cuisine, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, which was published in 1891. The author mentioned getting recipes from the Jews when these dishes had become popular with the general population. But he also wrote that when he was young these foods were not easy to find at the market because they were considered vile foods for the Jews. So the change really happened during the 1800s.
Q: Are there some popular dishes that are still traced to the Jewish table?
AR: Some of the signature dishes of Tuscan cuisine, such as mullet stew with tomato sauce, are also called “Moses-style” because they were originally Jewish dishes that were then adopted by everyone else. Cacciuco alla Livornese (fish stew) is another popular tomato-based dish with Jewish origins.
Q: Did the conversos have to be discreet about their consumption of traditional Jewish foods so as not to be found out?
AR: When dried, smoked and salted fish, like salt cod or pickled fish, were introduced to Italy in the Middle Ages, they spread very quickly among the poor because this technique preserved fish for a long time and it was cheap – it probably saved a lot of people from famine – but in certain areas it became associated with being Jewish. It was one of the foods that the Inquisition was watching out for because high consumption could be a sign that someone was a hidden Jew.
Q: To what extent did the conversos keep kosher?
AR: While pretending to be Catholic, they probably just didn´t eat pork. Conversos who went to cosmopolitan places like Livorno or Venice usually went back to being Jewish. In general Italian Jews tried to keep kosher, but the rabbis in the different in communities had much more power than they do now – there wasn’t a rabbinical authority in Israel, for example -- so they interpreted the laws and sometimes adapted them to local traditions. In Italy there were some ingredients that local rabbis considered kosher but rabbis elsewhere in Europe considered tref. For example, certain types of fish had scales during some times of the year, so they were very popular among Italian Jews, but were seen as non-kosher in Ashkenazi Europe.
Q: On your website, DinnerInVenice.com, you have lots of recipes for chocolate desserts. What’s the Jewish connection with chocolate?
AR: In their role as international merchants after the expulsions, Spanish and Portuguese conversos set up trade points and built relationships with Jewish communities all over the world, including Curaçao and elsewhere in the Americas. From there they brought back both cocoa and sugar from sugar cane, and they had learned how to process the beans, so they held the secret of making hot chocolate in Europe. They also became involved in the production of solid chocolate when it was invented later. There were Jews in Amsterdam and Bayonnne in Southern France, which is where they developed chocolate factories.
Q: Chocolate was a power drink for the Aztecs. Did the Europeans also get hepped up on cocoa?
AR: Yes, and speaking of stimulants, coffee was also an ingredient that was was popularized by the Jews and their ghettos. The Jews were among the first to become coffee drinkers. The Jews didn’t introduce it; coffee first spread among Sufi circles in Yemen and to other Muslim cities.
Q: As something to alter consciousness?
AR: Coffee was seen not only as a beverage that tasted good, but as something that could keep you awake during night wakes for mystical prayers. Among the cities it spread to in the Muslim world was Cairo, in Egypt, which is probably where the Jews first came into contact with it, because that’s the first mention that we find of coffee in a Jewish document.
From there it spread very rapidly among the Jews. We know it arrived to Safed in the circles of Isaac Luria, because it spread among the Kabbalists, who at the time had also developed the habit of doing night prayers, which were said to be more effective with coffee. One of the first places it arrived to in Western Europe was Venice. Kabbalah had spread to Italy as well as to the coffeehouses in Livorno and in the ghetto of Venice.
Q: I read on your website that the coffee bars virtually put the wine bars out of business.
AR: That’s very interesting from a sociological perspective because it seems (the Italians) were walking around drunk, and suddenly they became very efficient.
Q: Their coffee bars were what Starbucks has been to our digerati.
AR: It changed a lot of things in the way people lived. People now had more time.
Q: Time to whip up Baroque art.
A: And even the Industrial Revolution several centuries later.


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