Aug 162016
 

mantua1

On this date in 1328, 4 members of the Gonzaga family who had been state officials – the 60-year-old Luigi and his sons Guido, Filippino, and Feltrino – overthrew the last Bonacolsi, Rinaldo, to become rulers of Mantua and remained in power until 1708. I wouldn’t normally memorialize the sordid machinations of a power-hungry elite, but I live in Mantua and the historical footprints of the Gonzagas are everywhere. Furthermore my apartment is right behind the duomo which is on piazza sordello, site of the coup that installed the Gonzagas and of the ducal palace (palazzo ducale) where they lived and ruled for four centuries. So I figured I’d give them a tip of the hat and give myself a little history lesson on my current home.

Mantua was originally an island settlement that was first established about the year 2000 BCE on the banks of River Mincio, which flows from Lake Garda to the Adriatic. In the 6th century BCE, Mantua was an Etruscan village which. The name (Mantova in Italian) may derive from the Etruscan god Mantus, although this is disputed. Mantua was subsequently fought over in the first and second Punic wars between Carthage and Rome. Eventually, what became new Roman territory was populated by veteran soldiers of Augustus. Mantua won’t let you forget that its most famous citizen from antiquity is the poet Virgil who was born in the year 70 BCE in a village near the city which is now known as Virgilio.

DSC_0446a

After the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 CE, Mantua was invaded in turn by Goths, Byzantines, Longobards, and Franks. In the 11th century, Mantua became a possession of Boniface of Canossa, marquis of Tuscany. The last ruler of that family was the countess Matilda of Canossa (d. 1115), who, according to legend, ordered the construction of the Rotonda di San Lorenzo which can still be seen in the historic district, although it has had to be significantly restored both in the post-war years and also in the last few years.

DSC_1088a

After the death of Matilda of Canossa, Mantua became a free commune and strenuously defended itself from the Holy Roman Empire during the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1198, Alberto Pitentino altered the course of River Mincio, creating what the Mantuans originally called “the four lakes” to reinforce the city’s natural protection. Three of these lakes still remain and the fourth one, which ran through the center of town, was drained in the 18th century.

mantua12 mantua4

During the 13th century there were a number of power struggles between major families in northern Italy, and in 1273 Pinamonte Bonacolsi took advantage of the chaotic situation to seize control of Mantua and was declared the capitano del popolo (Captain General of the People). This office was created in the 13th century in Italy as a way of balancing the interests of the people with that of the nobility. The Bonacolsi family ruled Mantua for the next two generations and made it more prosperous. On August 16, 1328, Luigi Gonzaga, an official in Bonacolsi’s podesteria, and his family staged a public revolt in Mantua and forced a coup d’état on the last Bonacolsi ruler, Rinaldo. Over the next 4 centuries the House of Gonzaga ruled Mantua.

mantua2

The history of the Gonzagas is not pretty. Over the time of their rule the family included a saint, twelve cardinals and fourteen bishops. Two Gonzaga descendants became Empresses of the Holy Roman Empire (Eleonora Gonzaga and Eleonora Gonzaga-Nevers), and one became Queen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Marie Louise Gonzaga). Ludovico I, who had been podestà (chief magistrate) of the city in 1318, was elected capitano del popolo when the Gonzagas seized power. The Gonzagas built new walls and renovated the architecture of the city in the 14th century, but the political situation did not stabilize until the third ruler of Gonzaga, Ludovico III Gonzaga (1412 – 1478), killed his relatives and centralized power to himself. During the Italian Renaissance, the Gonzaga family softened their despotic rule and further raised the level of artistic refinement in Mantua, making it a significant center of Renaissance art and humanism, still reflected in art and architecture throughout the old part of the town.

DSC_0960a

Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua in 1490. When she moved to Mantua from Ferrara (she was the daughter of Duke Ercole the ruler of Ferrara) she created her famous studiolo first in Castello di San Giorgio for which she commissioned paintings from Mantegna, Perugino and Lorenzo Costa. She later moved her studiolo to the Corte Vecchia and commissioned two paintings from Correggio to join the five from Castello di San Giorgio. It was unusual for a woman to have a studiolo in 15th century Italy but she was a powerful force in northern Italy. Niccolò da Corregio called her ‘la prima donna del mondo’.

Through a payment of 120,000 golden florins in 1433, Gianfrancesco I was appointed Marquis of Mantua by the Emperor Sigismund, whose niece Barbara of Brandenburg married his son, Ludovico. In 1459, Pope Pius II held the Council of Mantua to proclaim a crusade against the Turks. Under Ludovico and his heirs, the famous Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna worked in Mantua as court painter, producing some of his most outstanding works.

The first Duke of Mantua was Federico II Gonzaga, who acquired the title from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530. Federico commissioned Giulio Romano to build the famous Palazzo Te, on the periphery of the city, and profoundly improved the city. In the late 16th century, Claudio Monteverdi came to Mantua from his native Cremona. He worked for the court of Vincenzo I Gonzaga, first as a singer and violist, then as music director, marrying the court singer Claudia Cattaneo in 1599.

In 1627, the direct line of the Gonzaga family came to an end with the vicious and weak Vincenzo II, and Mantua slowly declined under the new rulers, the Gonzaga-Nevers, a cadet French branch of the family. The War of the Mantuan Succession broke out, and in 1630 an Imperial army of 36,000 Landsknecht mercenaries besieged Mantua, bringing the plague with them. Mantua has never recovered from this disaster, and is now pretty much a sleepy backwater. Ferdinand Carlo IV, an inept ruler, whose only interest was in holding parties and theatrical shows, allied with France in the War of the Spanish Succession. After the French defeat, he took refuge in Venice and at his death in 1708, he was declared deposed, and the Gonzaga family lost Mantua forever in favor of the Habsburgs of Austria.

Here’s a little gallery of my photos to show the influence of the Gonzagas and to make it clear that Mantua is fortunate to have retained so much historical art and architecture, largely because for centuries no one cared about the town. It is swarmed with Italian day trippers on Sundays, but foreign tourists are in the small minority. Fine by me. Sundays are as awful for me as they were when I lived in san Telmo in Buenos Aires, but the rest of the week is fine.

mantua7 mantua6 mantua5 mantua3 DSC_0951a DSC_0428a

 

I’m not going to give you a recipe today but instead repeat what I wrote when I posted about Mantua’s patron saint http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mantua-and-anselm/ :

Mantua is famous as a culinary center. Some of the local specialties include bigoli con le sardelle, pasta with sardines, stracotto d’asino, donkey stew, salame con l’aglio, garlic sausage, luccio in salsa, pike in sauce, tortelli di zucca, pumpkin tortelli, and torta sbrisolona, a crumbly cake. I’m going to reprise what I used to write when I was living in China. If you want authentic Mantuan food, come to Mantua.

I gave a recipe there for bigoli which you can look at. Here’s a small gallery to make you drool.

mantua11 mantua10 mantua9

Jan 132016
 

xmas3

Today is Tjugondag jul (“Twentieth Day Yule”), or Tjugondag Knut (“Twentieth Day Knut”), or Knutomasso, in English, Saint Knut’s Day, (Finnish: nuutinpäivä), a traditional festival celebrated in Sweden and Finland on 13 January. It is not celebrated in Denmark despite being named for the Danish prince Canute Lavard, and later also associated with his uncle, Canute the Saint, the patron saint of Denmark. Christmas trees are taken down on Tjugondag jul, and the candies and cookies that decorated the tree are eaten. In Sweden, the feast held during this event is called a Christmas tree plundering (Julgransplundring). In other words, in Sweden and Finland Christmas is really, really, really over.

xmas4

Canute Lavard (Knut Levard in Swedish) was a Danish duke who was assassinated by his cousin and rival Magnus Nilsson on 7 January 1131 so he could usurp the Danish throne. In the aftermath of his death there was a civil war, which led to Knut being later declared a saint, and 7 January became Knut’s Day, a name day. As his name day roughly coincided with Epiphany (the “thirteenth day of Christmas”), Knut’s Day and Epiphany were more or less conflated. In 1680, Knut’s Day was moved to 13 January and became known as tjugondag Knut or tjugondedag jul (the “twentieth day of Knut/Christmas”).

xmas1

On Nuutinpäivä in Finland, there has been a tradition somewhat analogous to modern Santa Claus, where young men dressed as a goat (Finnish: Nuuttipukki) would visit houses. Usually the costume was an inverted fur jacket, a leather or birch bark mask, and horns. Unlike Santa Claus, Nuuttipukki was a scary character (like Krampus http://www.bookofdaystales.com/krampus/ ). The men dressed as Nuuttipukki wandered from house to house, came in, and typically demanded food from the household and especially leftover alcoholic beverages. In Finland the Nuuttipukki tradition is still alive in Satakunta, Southwest Finland and Ostrobothnia. However, nowadays the character is usually played by children and is rather mild and playful.

A proverb from Noormarkku says: Hyvä Tuomas joulun tua, paha Knuuti poijes viä or “Good [St.] Thomas brings the Christmas, evil Knut takes [it] away.”

Christmas tree plundering (Swedish: Julgransplundring) is a tradition in Sweden on St. Knut’s Day, marking the end of the Christmas and holiday season. It is also known as “Dancing out Christmas” (Dansa ut julen) or “Throw out the Tree” (Kasta ut granen). It is mentioned in the Old Farmer’s Almanac that “King Knut asked them for help to drive out Christmas”. In traditional Swedish agrarian society, children would run from farm to farm to “call out Christmas” (ropa ut julen), that is call out that Christmas had ended and beg for food and drink.

xmas11

The present day tradition has changed very little since the 1870s. During the 20th century, Christmas tree plundering became mainly associated with children and candy. The observance of the feast peaked during the period 1950–70. In private homes, there is often a party primarily for children. The Christmas decorations are then put aside. Such parties are also common in schools, kindergartens, churches and other places. In many towns, the illumination of the public Christmas tree is switched off, accompanied by an outdoor Christmas tree plundering for the community. In some areas the feast is known as Julgransskakning (“Shaking the Christmas tree”).

xmas12

Party activities involve singing and dancing around the Christmas tree, “looting” the tree of ornamental candy and apples, smashing the gingerbread house into pieces and eating it, opening Christmas crackers that have been used as decorations on the tree, lotteries, creating a fiskdamm (“fishing pond”) where children “fish” for toys and candy, or a treasure hunt. The songs and dances are essentially the same as those performed at Christmas and Midsummer with some additions of songs about the end of Christmas such as Raska fötter springa tripp, tripp, tripp:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbN3i0Bh2Vs

xmas10

During the 20th century, Christmas trees were literally thrown out of the window or from the balcony, on to the street once they had been “plundered” and stripped of all ornaments. Since the beginning of the 21st century, areas for dumping the trees are designated by local authorities but even by 2015, spontaneous and illegal dumping grounds were still a problem. Some customs die hard.

I like the idea of smashing the Christmas gingerbread house and eating it. Getting rid of my gingerbread house was always tough. I put a great deal of effort into it 30 years ago. It started off reasonably simply using a commercial template with a basic gingerbread recipe. But in the process my wife got so carried away with the decorating that we did not want to eat it or discard it. So we kept it until the next Christmas . . . then the next. But it was getting tattered by then, so we threw it out in the woods where it was descended upon by birds and wild animals within minutes of leaving it. Next year we built a barn replete with marzipan farm animals. Then I went completely mad the next year making a replica of Caernarvon castle including an array of knights on horseback. After that I settled for a few gingerbread cookies as a token.

xmas6 xmas9 xmas8

LONDON - DECEMBER 04: A gv of a gingerbread Houses of Parliment and London Eye creation by Chef Beate Woellstein at the Grosvenor House Hotel on December 4, 2007 in London, England. The creation is 2.5 diameters and used 50 kilos of gingerbread dough. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Here’s my standard recipe for gingerbread to make a house. For a simple house this will be enough. For more elaborate displays you’ll need several batches.

Gingerbread

Ingredients

250g unsalted butter
200g dark muscovado sugar
7 tbsp golden syrup
600g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
bicarbonate of soda
4 tsp ground ginger

Instructions

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan.

Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ground ginger in a large bowl, then stir in the butter mixture to make a stiff dough. If it won’t quite come together, add a little water.

Chill overnight.

Heat the oven to 390°F/200°C

Roll the gingerbread out to about ¼ inch (6cm) thick on baking parchment. Using a template, cut out the house components and remove all excess (which you can re-roll).

Bake on the parchment on cookie sheets for about 12 minutes. It may still be a bit soft after this time, but will harden on cooling. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Assemble the house using stiff icing sugar. Then decorate as you wish.

Mar 232015
 

Otis2

On this date in 1857 Elisha Otis installed his first elevator at 488 Broadway, New York City. Otis  (1811 –1861) was a U.S. industrialist, founder of the Otis Elevator Company, and inventor of a safety device that prevents elevators from falling if the hoisting cable fails. He worked on this device while living in Yonkers, New York in 1852, and had a finished product in 1854.

Otis was born in Halifax, Vermont to Stephen Otis, and Phoebe Glynn. He moved away from home at the age of 20, eventually settling in Troy, New York, where he lived for five years employed as a wagon driver. In 1834, he married Susan A. Houghton, and they had two children, Charles and Norton. Later that year, Otis suffered a terrible case of pneumonia which nearly killed him, but he earned enough money to move his wife and three-year-old son to the Vermont Hills on the Green River to convalesce. He designed and built his own gristmill, but did not earn enough money from it, so he converted it into a sawmill, yet still did not attract customers. Now having a second son, he started building wagons and carriages, at which he was fairly skilled. His wife later died, leaving Otis with two sons, one at that time being age 8 and the other still in diapers.

At 34 years old and hoping for a fresh start, he remarried and moved to Albany, New York. He worked as a doll maker for Otis Tingely. Skilled as a craftsman and tired of working all day to make only twelve toys, he invented and patented a robot turner. It could produce bedsteads four times as fast as could be done manually (about fifty a day). Otis then moved into his own business. At his leased building, he started designing a safety brake that could stop trains instantly and an automatic bread baking oven. He was put out of business when the stream he was using for a power supply was diverted by the city of Albany to be used for its fresh water supply. In 1851, having no more use for Albany, he first moved to Bergen City, New Jersey to work as a mechanic, then to Yonkers, New York, as a manager of an abandoned sawmill which he wished to convert into a bedstead factory. At the age of 40, while he was cleaning up the factory, he wondered how he could get all the old debris up to the upper levels of the factory. He had heard of hoisting platforms, but they often broke, and he didn’t want to take risks. He and his sons, who were also tinkerers, designed their own “safety elevator” and tested it successfully. He thought so little of it he neither patented it nor requested a bonus from his superiors for it, nor did he try to sell it. After having made several sales, and after the bedstead factory declined, Otis took the opportunity to make an elevator company out of it, initially called Union Elevator Works and later Otis Brothers & Co. No orders came to him over the next several months, but soon after, the 1854 New York World’s Fair offered a great chance at publicity. At the New York Crystal Palace, Elisha Otis amazed a crowd when he ordered the only rope holding the platform on which he was standing cut. The rope was severed by an axeman, and the platform fell only a few inches before coming to a halt. After the World’s Fair, Otis received continuous orders, doubling each year. He developed different types of engines, such as a three-way steam valve engine, which could switch the elevator between up, down, and stop rapidly.

otis3

In his spare time, he designed and experimented with his old designs of bread-baking ovens and train brakes, and patented a steam plow in 1857, a rotary oven in 1858, and, with Charles, the oscillating steam engine in 1860. Otis contracted diphtheria and died on April 8, 1861 at age 49.

The Otis Elevator Company is now the world’s largest manufacturer of vertical transportation systems, principally focusing on elevators and escalators. Otis has installed elevators in some of the world’s most famous structures, including the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, the original World Trade Center, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Petronas Twin Towers, Burj Khalifa, CN Tower, the Hotel del Coronado, the “Pizza Elevator” at Lake Point Tower, and the Skylon Tower.

Statistically, Otis is the world’s most popular transportation company. It is estimated that the equivalent of the world’s population travels in Otis elevators, escalators and moving walkways every three days. According to United Technologies, Otis elevators alone carry the equivalent of the world’s population every nine days.

otis1

From the sublime to the ridiculous: yesterday I had to pick a recipe using water and today I have to have an elevator theme !! More of a challenge than I can manage. However, Otis also worked on developing the rotary oven which gives me a little leverage. The rotary oven has shelves or platters that revolve gently so that baking items receive even heat during the cooking process. The challenge for Otis was to create a mechanism for rotating the shelves before the days of electric motors. His invention, and others like it, used steam engines, which apparently were quite successful. For example, the Scottish born Australian baker William Arnott established the William Arnott’s Steam Biscuit Factory in Newcastle, New South Wales in 1865 using steam powered rotary ovens. Arnott’s is still the largest biscuit (cookie) manufacturer in Australia – fond memories from my boyhood.

otis4

Rotary ovens are used primarily for baked goods including biscuits and breads. But they are not for the home cook. They produce commercial quantities of baked goods. You don’t really need one at home because it is easy enough to reach into your oven and turn trays around for even baking. But when you are baking on a large scale they are invaluable.

There’s not really such a thing as a rotary oven recipe. You just use your favorite cookie or bread recipe. So, take your pick. I’m not much of a baker but I do like to make a gingerbread house at Christmas. My masterpiece was a replica of Caernarvon castle replete with a battle scene. Took me one year to paint all the knights and soldiers and the second to build the castle. A friend commented, “Hmmm! Peace on earth?”

Here’s a serviceable recipe that can be used for a house or cookies. If you want to go hog wild as I used to, you will need to double or even triple the recipe. This will make one small house or about 20 cookies.

This image is taken from here http://www.toptenz.net/10-gingerbread-houses.php – house builders after my own heart.  Pity I could not find a gingerbread house that needed an elevator.

otis5

Gingerbread

Ingredients

¾ cup unsulphured molasses
¾ cup butter
4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Instructions:

Warm the molasses in a saucepan until it is just softened. Do not let it boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until melted. Let cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Add the butter/molasses mixture and egg and mix well. Refrigerate at least one hour or until the dough becomes stiff enough to roll.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Divide dough in half. Place each half between sheets of parchment paper. Place one half in the refrigerator to keep cool and roll out the other half to ⅛ to ¼ inch thick depending on use – thinner for cookies, thicker for house walls. Either use a template to make the components of a house, or a cookie cutter for cookies. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until an even golden brown, rotating the trays at least once to ensure even browning !!