There are some flavors from our time in Naples that still pervade our lives. Blood oranges, for one. We first tasted them the rainy winter we lived in Naples. All of a sudden they were the only oranges available in the markets. The skin displayed dark red blotches; inside was darker still, even purple.
They did not look like the oranges we knew. And the flavor was different, not as sweet, yet somehow deeper. A small fruit with a big taste. In Naples they are known as red oranges – arance rosse.
But Jim did not like them. He went on search of a “real orange”. He would ask all the vendors in Italian, “Ė questa un’arancia arancia?” “Sí,” they would be the puzzled response. What he didn’t realize was that the vendors thought he meant, “Is this a real orange?” which indeed it was.
For me, now, blood oranges signal the beginning of Lent. The red oranges arrive, we were told, in February. The winter we spent in Naples Ash Wednesday happened to be in February, preceded of course by Carnevale. Carnevale in Naples is quite a lively affair involving rotten eggs. The teachers at Centro Italaino where we were studying told us that some people saved eggs from the previous year to toss at passersby. We spent a week sidestepping the putrid eggs splattered in the streets.
Carnivale, of course, initiated the season of Lent, with its obligations of sacrifice. Old traditions linger. We no longer have memories of winter stores running low at this time of year – after the autumn harvests and before the new growth of spring. Food would have been scarce in times past, however. Supplies like meat and fat that might spoil would have been consumed during Carnivale. Yet for us that winter in Naples, Lent brought the new taste of blood oranges and something else delicious besides.
Now something new appeared. A new dessert in the cafes and pastry shops.
I first tasted it one evening when I arrived home from my Italian lesson. Jim said he had something for me and presented me with a dish of what looked like chocolate pudding that he had bought. He told me it was called sanguinaccio.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked.
“Something to do with blood?” I guessed, knowing that the Italian word for blood is sangue.
“It’s chocolate cream and is supposed to be thickened with the blood of a pig.”
I imagined that they must have slaughtered pigs at this time of year to make prosciutto for Easter. I didn’t really know. Or perhaps food supplies were running low for animals too and there wouldn’t have been enough to feed them. In any event, nothing would have been wasted and the blood, which would have had to have been used quickly was made into blood sausage and a remarkable dessert
Nowadays, the pasticcerie no longer use blood, but their confection is delicious nevertheless having been thickened with lots of dark chocolate.
After some experimentation, I duplicated it (somewhat) for my family back in New York. I have included this recipe in my book Ciao, Napoli. And here it is:
3 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 cup sugar,
1 1/2 cups whole milk or soy milk,
4 ounces baking chocolate
1/2 cup red wine
Melt chocolate and set aside.
Beat the eggs with red wine and 1/4 cup of sugar in large heat-proof bowl and set aside.
Combine corn starch and 1/4 cup of sugar in a saucepan. Stir with wire whisk to sift together. Gradually add milk and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Add the chocolate and continue to cook until well blended. You may add more sugar if you thing the chocolate is too bitter. Mixture should be very thick but not boiling.
Add the chocolate mixture to the egg mixture, beating constantly until blended. Return to saucepan and cook for 2 minutes, but do not allow it to boil.
Spoon into 6 individual serving dishes and allow it to cool before serving.
Ash Wednesday has just passed and I am continuing my lately assumed tradition of making sanguinaccio on the Sunday before. This time I used coconut beverage instead of soy milk and the result was denser, needing additional red wine. Meno male! Red wine and chocolate make for a luscious combination. We’re going to enjoy this tonight.
As for the blood oranges, both Jim and I developed a preference for them. Then at the end of spring, they disappeared from the markets as suddenly as they came. We couldn’t find them anywhere. Not until February, the vendors told us over and over again. Yesterday in New York I found some in the supermarket and brought home a couple of bags. So we are enjoying what has become our customary feast on the first Sunday of Lent.
Ahh, the pleasures of the late-winter table!