Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lucca IV: Fighting faintness

By my calculations, there were 2.7 minutes during my first day in Lucca, Italy, when I wasn’t eating or drinking. My hosts ensured such deprivation would end there by dispatching an English-speaking local to take me on a tour that afternoon of the city’s food shops and cafes. Our objective was to sample some of the delectables that are unique to the area. In true Italian style, we ended up trying most of them, though I drew the line at a local blood-and-pig’s-head sausage (at least until the next day). The experience underscored a brother’s contention that Italians could coax a delicacy out of virtually anything that walks, sprouts, flies or swims.

My guide-cum-enabler started me off slowly, suggesting we merely peer through a bakery’s window at a local specialty called torta di verdura. It looks like a green pie, and usually hits the dinner tables on religious holidays, the guide explained. I was about to suggest we give it a try when she described the ingredients: Swiss chard, maybe a little cheese, usually a few other vegetables baked into it to form a strongly flavored savory dish. There was a long pause. “It’s an acquired taste,” she remarked.

The other cake for which Lucca is known, she continued, is the buccellata, which at times looked like a giant bagel, at other times like a giant bagel whose sides are squeezed together to form a long double-tube loaf.

In what would become the pattern for our tour of gluttony, my guide suggested we give buccellata a try, and shot into a food shop. I started getting my Euros together while she chatted up the store keeper, pointing to me every four or five seconds. After awhile the proprietor brought me a dish with two slices of what looked like raisin bread, along with a tiny cup of pinkish liquid. I went to drink the liquid, but everyone in the place moved to stop me. “You dunk it,” the guide whispered. As soon as I lowered the bread into the wine—vin santo, literally holy wine—the whole place seemed to breath a sigh of relief. I realized why when I tasted the wine-soaked bread. The bread itself was mildly honeyed. But the wine could’ve sweetened a wedding cake. Downing it in a gulp might’ve put me into a sugar shock. Besides, the guide explained, vin santo typically costs five times as much as regular wines, and wasn’t to be gulped.

Not that I would have learned any prices from our tour. When I went to pay the proprietors, the guide invariably stopped me. It seems that ignorance of buccalleta or other local specialties is not to be tolerated in Lucca. And clearly I was more ignorant than most. Though we visited easily a half-dozen emporiums, each readily offered up free samples to a stranger they’d never see again. As far as I could tell, the motivation was pride. Which was why I soon found myself trying a rival establishment’s buccalleta. “It’s the best,” the proprietor confided in English. I skipped any vin santo there, still a little buzzed from the earlier sample.

But that was nothing compared with the near paralysis that set in when the guide took me to one of the city’s oldest and most famous cafes, Di Simo, which has been in business at least since 1846. The proprietor insisted we try one of the traditional local alcoholic drinks, a digestif called biadina. It’s traditionally served with several pine nuts, and local lore notes that it actually restores you twice—once with the liquid, a second time when you eat the pine nuts on the bottom of the glass. “Restores” is a carefully selected euphemism; “kicks your ass” might be a more apt descriptor. “It’s 40 percent alcohol,” the guide explained with a smile—after I’d downed a good lot of it.

We staggered out to take in some of the historical sights of the town. But a food option was never more than a few waddles away. My guide showed me several bakeries that stack trays of focaccia in front of open front-of-the-store windows so locals can grab a slice as they dash to work. But that’s as close as Lucca traditionalists come to fast food.

By the time our tour took us to one of the city’s many meat shops, further consumption would have been humanly impossible. So we merely looked at specialties like biraldo, a sausage that’s made by boiling a blood-and-scrap pork sausage for about six hours, if I understood the shopkeeper's account.

We also forewent a taste of lardo colonnata, or lard cured in a marble box. The process gives the lard a special taste, my guide explained. Locals slice the lard thin, put it atop a slice of bread, and toast the whole thing so that the lard starts to melt.

After showing restraint in the meat shops, we ended our tour at a gelateria. I was too stuffed even to taste anything, but my guide provided explicit directions as to how to get there from my hotel the next day. Which I, of course, did.

But that day of eating our way through Lucca had to end. It was almost time to get ready for dinner.

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