The picture above is of a Sicilian pastry, la rustichella, a ‘sweet dainty of beguiling charm’ to quote that admirable book, Summer in the Islands (available at all intelligent book shops; and, failing them, Amazon). The book goes on ‘The pastry is ineffably light and crumbly, with the hidden richness produced by using strutto (pig fat) in the pastry.’
Pig fat! In the pastry!! No one mentioned that as part of the `’Mediterranean Diet’. No olive oil? Sadly, not. Actually, not so sadly. Pig fat adds a distinctive greasy richness that is very pleasing, and gives an etherial lightness to pastry.
Animal fat is a key ingredient for many of the cooking cultures around the Mediterranean – pig in Christian countries, mutton fat in Muslim – that never gets a mention when the subject of ‘The Mediterranean Diet’ comes up (along with not inconsiderable amounts of wine). Yes, those bronzed healthy, long-lived, low heart-diseased Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccans etc etc dosed themselves up with tubs of saturated animal fat on a daily basis, and washed it down with rough alcohol.
The reason is very simple – the subsistence economics of peasant life. Olive oil was too expensive to use in cooking in peasant households. Olive oil was for the nobs. But many poor families kept a pig or two, one of which would be slaughtered each year to provide meat, blood, sausages of various kinds, and fat for frying and providing the shortening for pastries. It became ubiquitous and is still widely used by artisan pasticcerie.
I once watched two men making sfogliatelle in the laboratorio – pastry kitchen – of the celebrated cafe and peerless purveyor of Neapolitan pastries, Scaturcchio. They made the pastry in a big machine, pouring a jug of molten fat into the mix. Sections of the basic dough were rolled out by machine to a certain thickness. At this point, the two men began stretching it by hand, a gentle,precise tug here, and gentle, precise tug there, round and round until it was as thin as a veil. The two men laid the pastry down, and proceeded to paint it with more pig fat before rolling each gauzy sheet up like a scroll.
When it came to forming the sfogliatelle, they cut a piece of each dough scroll, flattened it out by hand into discs, plopped a spoonful of sweet ricotta with candied citrus peel to one side of each disc, folded over the other side and squeezed it along the endless to seal in the filling. The raw sfogliatelle were lined up on a baking tray before being slid into a computer controlled oven for the final conversion of raw matter into gastronomic treasure.
Some time later I was talking with some friends about the delights of Southern Italy and Naples, and of the pastries in particular. It turned out that they had become as addicted as I had to these delights. The only problem was that they were dedicated vegetarians. I was faced by an existential choice – to tell them and ruin the memories of their wonderful holiday or to keep my trap shut. Ever the moral coward I said nothing.
The true moral of the story, however, as far as I can see is, don’t believe all the hogwash people tell you about the Mediterranean Diet.
NB. This shell of heavenly delight is filled with chocolate and curdy ewe’s milk ricotta topped off with toasted almonds dusted with chopped pistachio, if you’re interested.