Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Opera Lovers Cookbook

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast Page.

Carolyn: Francine Segan is a food historian, writer, lecturer and frequent radio and TV personality. She appears on CBS, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and of course, The Food Network. In her monthly feature for the Tribune Media Syndicates, she has interviewed chefs we all know; such as Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, and Mario Batali. Francine Segan has also written a collection of wonderfully themed cookbooks: The Philosopher’s Kitchen, Movie Menus, Shakespeare’s Kitchen and the one we’ll be talking about today, The Opera Lovers CookBook.

The Opera Lovers CookBook is a 2007 Cook Book Award Finalist of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and a 2007 Book Award Finalist of the James Beard Foundation.

Thanks to the support and collaboration of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera Guild, The Opera Lovers CookBook is even more than a wonderful collection of recipes. The book is illustrated with rare photographs and drawings from the archives of the Metropolitan Opera.

Carolyn: The book is so interesting, not only the recipes which are just great, but there are all these little things, opera notes, little snippets, trivia about operas and how certain dishes became focal points in certain performances. It’s more than just recipes.

Francine: it’s kind of this wonderful project of trying to get people who may not know opera, to have a little taste, in every sense. So there are of course recipes, which were inspired by different operas. And then are also little sidebars, little tidbits of information, like little morsels, little nibbles at a cocktail party, of information about composers or maybe a wonderful aria or song about toasting or drinking. Or something special about a composer and his connections w/ food. Little trivia things like, food that was inspired by opera and all that is weaved into wonderful recipes, wonderful photographs, photographs from the Metropolitan Opera.

Also, because this is so much a cookbook to get you to enjoy music and maybe share it with friends, it also has tips on how to entertain, how to do a little party or buffet or a dessert party. Just to invite people over, put on a little CD of opera music and kind of experience it in a different way.

Carolyn: One of the things that I like about it as well is the title, Opera Lovers Cookbook. You take it from many different angles. For instance, there are recipes that seemed to have actually been featured in certain scenes in certain operas. Then there are dishes that are named after composers or opera singers. Then there are dishes that come from the town of a great composer, or maybe a favorite dish of a composer or a performer. So you really do take the whole spectrum of the connection between food and opera and it’s wonderful.

Francine: Well thank you. Doing a cookbook is a lot like cooking. You take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and you stir a little bit more and you taste it and what does it need? It’s the same thing when you create a cookbook. Especially when you collaborate with such a wonderful organization like the Metropolitan Opera House.

Carolyn: Let’s talk about some of the Italian inspired recipes.

Francine: You can really see my Italian roots because it has 12 chapters and 5 of them are Italian language opera-centric. So there’s a very heavy emphasis. I did a Bel Canto chapter, composers like Donizetti from Sicily. And in his day there was a wonderful dish in Sicily spaghetti with eggplant and a wonderful tomato sauce and they, to honor their wonderful composer-son, named the dish after one of his best operas, Norma. So Pasta alla Norma which everybody knows, is really named after his opera, in his honor. So that’s one of them.

I give Verdi a whole chapter. Verdi’s a wonderful composer of so many important works there’s lots of different dishes that are inspired by him. Including an Aida pyramid dessert. You know the little, wonderful, the balls that the Italians we do for the Christmas time which we fry, the little honey dipped balls, we always serve it in a little pyramid. So I thought, how perfect is that for Aida? So I kind of did a little free association there.

Carolyn: Oh that’s great.

Francine: But then, Puccini’s got a chapter. So for La Boheme in the second act, he has a line where he has people strolling and saying a list of ingredients. It almost jumps out as a recipe to me. It says dates and ferone and candied fruit and all I’m thinking is: Macedonia la frutta seca, which is a kind of dried fruit salad that Italians make in the wintertime. And it’s a very homey dish. It’s all sorts of nuts and candies that are left over, like ferone, little bits of amoretti, dried fruit. They’re all mixed together, put a little splash of some liquor. and just that scene with all the ingredients being called out just kind of made me think of that.

Carolyn: Oh that’s wonderful. I’ve love for you to tell the story about what opera was like in the Baroque period. So different from what opera is like for us now.

Francine: When you’d go to the opera house, back when Rossini was a composer, you would enter and of course you’d be elegantly dressed with the long gloves. You’d mingle w/ friends and you’d take your seat. But unlike the theater today, right away you’d notice some differences if you went back in time.

First of all the lights don’t get dim in the audience the way it does nowadays. and also the theater stage wasn’t set up high, it was kind of the same level that you were. Those 2 changes, the proscenium going up and the house lights going down didn’t happen until Wagner, until like the 1870’s. In Rossini’s day the lights were on. A little bit because you had to read your libretto but a lot because you were chatting, looking at your friends what they’re wearing, getting up and down. Because also in Rossini’s day, there was no intermission. So you’re sitting for this long opera and the composers knew, the audience knew, the performers knew that you’d have to get up and stretch your legs, get a little snack.

It was so known that in fact there are arias that are called Arias di Sorbetto, Sorbet Arias. Meaning in the middle of the opera, Rossini and other composers from that time period would stick in an aria because they knew you were going to get up and get a sorbet. Sorbet was really nice snack that they used to serve in the opera houses. Very elegant. So this Aria di Sorbetto which is always at the mid point, is always secondary characters, they’re not singing anything that’s going to advance the story, not particularly important, you can miss it. But it’s nice background music while you’re getting up and getting your snack.

The other thing that you would have seen if you went to the opera in Rossini’s time was that in the back of the house they would also have card tables set up. And people who were less interested in the opera would go in the back and play cards, they would gamble. And it was OK. Rossini got a cut of the house proceeds of the profits that were made from the gambling that was going on in the back.

So nowadays we sell popcorn and Jordan almonds in the movies, in those days you used to have sorbetto and your little gambling to make a little money.

Carolyn: Such a great story. I love that.

Francine: One of the things that I think also, just to kind of finish on Rossini, who’s of course the composer of L’Italiana in Algiers, La Barbara of Seville, lots of really wonderful works. He was probably the number one foodie composer. He loved food. He obsessed about it. He was a gourmet cook. When he would travel and he would have to put up a show, let’s say in Paris and he would have to stay there for a number of weeks. He would write home letters and I recently just saw one at a sweets shop in Genoa, that still exists today from Rossini’s times. It was a sweets shop that started in the 1700’s. And Rossini wrote a letter home to his friends, 2 separate letters to 2 separate friends, saying, please go to Romanengo and get me, and he’d make a list of all the sweets that he wanted, because here in Paris they don’t have such good food. He was so connected to Italy, he would always make fun of Paris. You know there’s nothing good to eat here, please bring me the salumi from Giuseppe’s Salumiere, please bring me the…You’d think that Paris was the wasteland of food. He just couldn’t tolerate it.

And of course this all spread and people knew, including the Baron Rothschild, from the famous vineyard. He was a wonderful opera lover. And he wanted to give a gift to Rossini. The opera season coincides with the grape harvest. So he took his most wonderful bushel of grapes and he had it personally delivered to Rossini’s dressing room and hotel. Rossini took the grapes, was very grateful, wrote a thank you note to the Baron saying, ‘Dear Baron Rothschild thank you so much for the grapes. But in the future I would like you to just know that for me, I prefer to take my wine not in a pill form. I like it liquid.’ So the Baron got the hint and he sent a case of Baron La Fete Rothschild, a nice case of wine to Rossini.

There’s also one, a funny Rossini story. When I was going thru the documents that the Metropolitan Opera had on all the composers, I was looking at the librettos because Rossini liked to dabble in art and he liked to draw. And on these librettos, when he was in Paris or Milan where his operas were sort of being tested, before they were finalized, in the margins he would draw these little Chianti bottles, these little bottles of wine in the margins and I would see 2, 3, or some pages that had 6,7 bottles of wine.

Carolyn: So these are like the old fashioned Chianti bottles with the raffia, wrapped?

Francine: Right. That little chubby bottle. So I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time. And then finally it dawned on me. In Italian, those kinds of wine bottles are called fiasco. Meaning like in English, fiasco, a disaster. They’re made from like leftover bottles or cheaper bottles. What he was saying was not, I need a drink, but this section of this opera needs help, it’s a fiasco!

Carolyn: So that was his shorthand?

Francine: That was his little crib note in the sides.

Carolyn: The trouble spots.

Francine: And he’s got some wonderful, wonderful urban legend and true food stories about him. Including, you know, going to a restaurant and asking for a dish and then not liking how it’s prepared so asking if he could go into the kitchen and re-cook things.

And there’s one dish that’s very famous. It’s named after him, it’s called Tornados Rossini, like a tornado, that’s how it’s spelled, that’s how it’s pronounced. And the story behind that name is that he was in France and he went into the kitchen to tell these French cooks that they didn’t know what they were doing, that they needed a nice Italian hand in there and he wanted to show them how to remake his favorite combination of food, which is filet mignon, truffles and foie gras. And so he was redoing it and the chef, of course, of this 4 star restaurant is screaming I can’t stand looking at you in here! I can’t stand looking at this! What are you doing I can’t look at this anymore! And Rossini turned and said, so then, turn your back. Tornez le dos in French. Which sounded sort of thru the way that the story got evolved to tornados instead of Tornez le dos.

Carolyn: OK, so it’s really, what’s the full name of the dish?

Francine: It’s really called Tornados, mispronounced, misspelled you know, like a storm, but it’s really called Tornez le dos. Turn your back.

Carolyn: I love the way these stories evolve.

Francine: A little urban myth, a little fact. It’s a delicious dish anyway. It’s a really heavy dish when you do it as a main course. In Opera Lovers Cookbook I do it as a little appetizer so you get just a little nibble. So one little filet mignon could serve like 6 people.

Carolyn: Puccini. Each dish celebrates his exotic operas. Can we talk a little bit about that?

Francine: Well, Puccini is uber Italian. I mean he was very connected to his Tuscany, very connected to Italy. But yet he set his operas in some pretty far flung locales. I mean, he’s got Madame Butterfly in Japan, he’s got La Fanciulla in America so I did a very eclectic buffet for Puccini. So I do some fun things. Tea eggs for the MB chapter and a ginger martini, sort of a Japanesey flavors. Tea eggs are just eggs that you boil then you crack the shells so it looks all broken up and then you soak it in the fridge for a few days in tea and some spices which flavors the egg but also gives it this pretty marble look. So that’s one example of a kind of far flung kind of recipe. It’s not Italian but it’s inspired by how eclectic his locales are.

Carolyn: The other thing I love about the book is I don’t know of another art discipline, or theatric discipline that’s so connected with eating as opera. I mean there’s just so many operas where you’ve got these fantastic ballroom scenes and banquet scenes and the actions revolving around the food.

Francine:One of my favorite categories are all the wonderful drinking songs in a sense, the toasting songs. Like in Don Giovanni, there’s a wonderful what they call a champagne aria. It’s really called Fin ch'han dal vino, just this very lively, one minute aria where he’s kind of telling his servant, go get every male guest drunk at the party because I want to sleep with all the wives.

Of course Don Giovanni is just this horrible character. But it’s a funny song and it’s one of the classic drinking songs. And of course the most beautiful probably is Brindisi from La Traviata. Libiamo, just that beautiful song that I think is the essence of the Italian spirit of you know, lift you glass, rejoice. The sparkling wine, the bubbliness, the effervescence of life that is in this glass of champagne or prosecco is something to be celebrated. And all the bubbliness of Italy’s wonderful sparkling wines just goes with the rhythm of the music and just is the perfect, perfect backdrop to a wonderful song celebrating what I think is some of the best of Italy. Our wine, toasting, having fun, enjoying life, celebrating life.

Carolyn: When Francine was a little girl, her Grandmother’s cooking rituals brought opera to life.

Francine: My grandmother would really cook to different arias. She’d pull out a certain one and so really felt like it was part of the recipe. Grandma’s got to go get this particular album, puts it on, puts it in a certain place. OK, now it’s the time to stir the risotto because this section’s going to last for whatever, 15, 17 minutes that she needs to make risotto. When she was going to cut onions, she go take out Madam Butterfly for the suicide aria and she says, I’m going to cry, I might as well have a good reason. And you can kind of hear the heart-wrenchingness of it, without hitting you on the head. It was just a wonderful music lesson to show the emotions that are in it, the fun of it, you know, when something is bubbling and boiling she’d put on something else very lively. So I think that cooking to opera can be a lot of fun and a great way to introduce it to yourself or to kids.

Carolyn: You know what’s wonderful about that? It makes opera approachable. This is something that you use while you’re doing your everyday things like cooking, opera is your accompaniment to that. As opposed to opera being some sort of rarified event that’s very formal and very separate from the rest of your life. This is like, no, it’s in my kitchen!

Francine: That’s a great point and why I like sharing with everyone that Rossini knew people needed a break. I do think it’s become something so fu-fu, high brow that we forget that this was supposed to be an entertainment form. This was fun, it’s OK to take it in snippets, you don’t have to sit with your hands folded in your lap. You can have a little bit. You can have more and you can take it when you like and that’s why I love the fact that CDs are now so great. You can have a little bit of it, and I also love that it’s in movie theaters now. So you can go for a very affordable price and experience the movie in a theater setting. If you do choose to want to sit and sort of see and listen to the whole thing from beginning to end, but I think it’s OK to just pick and choose your arias. And the Metropolitan Opera in fact, even made a little CD of just an assortment of different arias. They put the label of Opera Lovers Cookbook on it, and it’s a kind of CD for entertaining.

Carolyn: No kidding!

Francine: It’s sold in their wonderful giftshop, it’s the Opera Lovers Cookbook CD. Some of my favorites, some fun ones, a whole big mix. So when you are entertaining you can have a nibble of that, little piece of that, little bite of that.

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