Bookmark and Share

Sempre Avanti
Canada 150


      L’arte del sapersi arrangiare

      Jun. 24, 2013

      June is Italian Heritage Month – 30 days to celebrate everything Italian and to remember the contributions of the Italian immigrants who came to Canada in search of a better life and opportunities.

      Leaving their mother country, these immigrants brought with them the world they knew, full of sounds of their mother tongue(s) and fragrances of their cuisine, a way of life that back in Italy was not easy but was nonetheless cherished. For many of them everyday life meant survival and many mouths to feed. Italians have always been very resourceful, since childhood they were taught to make the best out of situations, they were taught l’arte del sapersi arrangiare. Based on this principal, Italians learned how to use everything, never wasting, always finding a new use for something getting old. Re-inventing, recycling was and still is a form of art among Italians. It came natural to apply this way of life to the world of cooking. Italians, in Italy and abroad, were creative and took advantage of everything edible the land would offer. Farmers and shepherds lived following the seasons, knowing how to read the signs of the land and of the weather. Dishes and recipes that are now gourmet were born out of the need to feed large families and the cunning of grandparents and parents.

      Andare a erbette [picking wild herbs and greens], for example, is today an activity that many are trying to reintroduce and teach to the younger generations through special events. But only a few decades ago it was a common activity that would take place in the spring and in the fall. Venturing early in the morning, people would carefully search ditches and fields carrying with them only a plastic bag or at times a basket and a knife. The precious finds, luppolo [hop], ortica [nettle], papavero [poppy], dente di leone [dandelion] to cite a few, would end up in frittate, risotti or in pasta dishes. Dandelions were often served as a side dish such as for example erba cotta; literally meaning cooked greens, a mixture of greens and leaves first steamed and then sautéed in a pan with olive of oil and served with salt, pepper and some freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Another favourite was the wild asparagus, smaller in size than the store bought and perfect for a delicate risotto or a frittata with speck bits.

      The winner, however, is the lumachina da campo, the field snail that in Italy is the main ingredient of many traditional dishes, one of the most famous being i bogoi, one dialectal way of calling them. Cooked in big pots and served in big bowls with olive of oil, salt, pepper, parsley and a lot of chopped garlic, i bogoi are a summer dish, rarely still prepared at home, but largely available in the more traditional osterie where it is usually served with a glass of white wine. If prepared at home, it is served with boiled potatoes and of course plenty of toothpicks. The downside of this dish is the great quantity of garlic used, so if you have a work meeting or a date, this dish is not recommended!

      Italian immigrants in Canada tried to apply l’arte del sapersi arrangiare to the new environment, learning very quickly what the land here had to offer. One of the most sought after wild plants in Italy that is easily and abundantly found in Canada is the dandelion. You need to collect them before they flower otherwise the leaves are extremely bitter. Dandelions are excellent in salad, especially topped with a pancetta or bacon dressing that somehow counterbalances the bitterness of these greens. There are stories of individuals being collected by the RCMP because they were seen walking along the highways with a bag and a knife … hard to explain that they were not dangerous individuals who just escaped from prison!

      The brilliance of the Italians and of the Italian-Canadians is also shown in the butchering of the pig. In the old days, almost every farming family had a pig. Sometimes they would have two; they would raise one for them and one for the priest of their parish as a gesture of gratitude for his spiritual guidance. The pig was an extremely important source of food for the long winter months. The days the pig was butchered were busy days for the entire family and for the friends and neighbours who came to help. It was one of the many communal jobs that would bring the community together. This tradition was kept alive also in Canada where many accounts have been collected of the butchering of the pig, the festivities that ensued and the sense of friendship and belonging that helped many Italians adapt to a new place and environment.

      Radicchio is a very popular green [see “Il radicchio, the edible flower” published on February 21 2013] becoming increasingly sought after als in North America.  Not always easy to grow and requiring special care, in particular the Spadone of Treviso, some Italian-Canadians who can’t live without, and why would you?, have developed a method that enables them to grow radicchio in barrels inside their home.

      Not every aspect of their life in Italy was kept and maintained in their new world, but Italians certainly preserved their attitude trying to make every situation, even the most difficult one, work. They have always been very resourceful and innovative, never afraid of trying and finding solutions. Most of them became successful individuals and worked hard to provide a better life for their family members. They never forget to pass on l’arte del sapersi arrangiare!

      June is thus the month to remember and to thank those that came before us.

      [Photos: 1) I bogoi; 2) Risotto with wild greens; 3) A traditional way of serving wild greens, erba cotta.]

      One Response to “L’arte del sapersi arrangiare”

      1. Rosetta Rosati says:

        Well written, bravissima! All so true in the past and present. I remember seeing lots of Italians living in Montreal look for dandelion to bring home and cook. This ritual indeed, for them, meant feeling closer to Italy.
        Today, here in Italy and between Milano and Pavia where I live, during my daily Walking Groups (Gruppi di Cammino) around my beautiful town, we stop to pick up, wild asparagus (risotti and frittate!) cicorie, luppolo. Every season has its herbs.
        Today,here, fortunately among many, persists the mentality to appreciate what the earth has preserved and offers us for free. We try to transmit to our children that l’Arte di Arrangiarsi is always valid!