Elle Newmark Quotes
“I followed the chef to the circular herb garden with relief. Here were familiar plants with gentle smells: thyme, dill, mint, basil, and others equally benign. He asked me to identify the ones I knew and gave me a brief dissertation on their uses: Dill was good with fish, thyme complemented veal, mint went well with fruit, and basil was perfect for the dreaded love apples. He plucked two large mint leaves with purplish undersides, placed one on his tongue, and gave me the other. We came to rest on a curved stone bench in the middle of the garden, and we sat there sucking on fresh mint, him enjoying the breeze, and me awaiting the judgement that must be coming.
He continued his lecture on herbs. He talked about the subtlety of bay laurel, the many varieties of thyme, and the use of edible flowers as garnishes.”
“I leaned back against the hearth, and the fire's warmth and fluttering light lulled me into gentler thoughts of Francesca. I closed my eyes and saw the beloved face dominated by wide-set antelope eyes. Her eyebrows arched like the wings of a swan, and the whites of her eyes, almost bluish, made a startling contrast to her caramel skin. I later learned that her great-great-grandmother had been kidnapped by slavers in Turkey, brought to Venice, and then sold to a German trader. It was a common story in Venice. Francesca's more recent ancestors had been German and Italian, and the result was a mix of northern ice and Mediterranean warmth.
Francesca's upper lip curved in that sensual way that caused jealous Muslim husbands to veil their wives' faces. Her smoldering Levantine beauty contrasted with her silver-blond Teutonic hair, shockingly fair next to her dusky complexion and the sultry hint of Byzantium flashing in her dark eyes. Her nostrils were shaped like perfect teardrops.”
“I remember that pomegranate well- the leathery red skin, the fleshy weight of it in my hand promising wine-sweet clusters of ruby fruit. As I lifted it off the pile, I imagined the satisfying crunch, the release of tangy perfume, the juices glazing my lips and running down my chin. Ah, that biblical fruit with its poignant umbilical tip, choice of the gods and food of the dead.”
“The first time I noticed Francesca in the Rialto, I thought she was alone. Then the crowd shifted and I saw her massive Mother Superior standing at the stall of a spice merchant, picking through a sack of peppercorns, her nose twitching like a rabbit's, her face set and ready to do battle over the price. Francesca waited nearby, swinging her market basket and smiling at passersby. That smile snagged me, held me, and wouldn't let me go. She had all her teeth and they were white, so white, and her face was clean and sunstruck.
A dog, small and wiry, sniffed the hem of her robe, and she knelt down to pet it. I heard her cooing and the dog nuzzled into her arms. She glanced around to be sure Mother Superior wasn't watching, then quickly took a sausage from her basket and fed it to the dog. He bolted it down greedily and then looked up at her with naked adoration. She laughed, and her laughter made me think of a field of wildflowers.
Francesca pulled a square of lace from her sleeve to wipe the sausage grease from her fingers, and I had the fleeting thought that I'd never before seen a nun with such a fine lace handkerchief. But that thought vanished with the sight of Mother Superior rising up behind her.
The older nun stood over her, shouting. "Don't you know better than to touch a stray animal? I swear, you're hopeless, girl. Hopeless."
The light went out of Francesca's face. She moved off behind the older woman but looked back at the little dog and rolled her eyes. She waved good-bye and her fingers moved like butterflies.”
“For the primo piatto, the chef had chosen to serve a dish he called gnocchi- small dumplings made with potato flour. It was an unusual dish as potatoes were a rarity from the New World and largely unknown. The gnocchi were simply dressed in browned butter and sage and then dusted with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was a plain presentation with no garnish, and it was accompanied by a white table wine of no special distinction.
My mouth watered as I carried the gnocchi up to the dining room. I'd tasted one dumpling in the kitchen, and I loved the earthy flavor as well as the way it resisted when I sank my teeth in. The butter and sage coated my mouth so that the taste lasted even after I swallowed. I liked the way it felt in my stomach, solid and nourishing, and I looked forward to learning how to make it.”
“After the simplicity of the gnocchi, the fish course was astonishing. Pellegrino had spent the entire day preparing the two red mullets. He had partially removed the heads and cleaned the fish through those small openings, leaving the bodies intact. Then he massaged each fish to loosen the flesh and bones, which he painstakingly removed without breaking the skin. The mullet flesh was combined with chopped spider crab, cream-softened bread, finely minced shallots, and a whisper of garlic, thyme, nutmeg, and butter, and then carefully stuffed back into the skin. Pellegrino returned the heads to their natural position and patted each fish into its original shape. He surrounded the stuffed mullets with vegetables and herbs and sealed all of it in parchment to poach gently in its own flavorful steam.”
“I fired up the brick oven, reminding myself that garlic has no place in a confection and butter becomes a layer of oil floating atop the cheese. I felt confident and excited; this time I would get it right.
I helped myself to the triple-cream cheese (still convinced it it would make a delicious base) and then added a dollop of honey to sweeten it and heavy cream to thin it enough for my whisk. Since my last endeavor, I'd noticed that wine was primarily used in sauces and stews, and so, in a moment of blind inspiration, I added, instead, a splash of almond liqueur, which I hoped would add subtle flavor without changing the creamy color of the cheese. Instead of the roach-like raisins, I threw in a handful of chopped almonds that I imagined would provide a satisfying crunch and harmonize with the liqueur.
I beat it all to a smooth batter and poured it into a square pan, intending to cut rectangular slices after it cooled. I slid the pan, hopefully, into the oven. Once again, I watched the edges bubble and noticed, with satisfaction, that instead of an overpowering smell of garlic there was a warm seductive hint of almond in the air. The bubbles turned to a froth that danced over the entire surface, and I assumed this was a sign of cohesion. My creation would come out of the oven like firm custard with undertones of almond and an unexpected crunch. The rectangular servings would make an unusual presentation- neither cheese nor pudding nor custard, but something completely new and unique.
The bubbling froth subsided to a gently bumpy surface, and to my horror those damnable pockmarks began to appear with oil percolating in the tiny craters. The nuts completed the disruption of the creamy texture and gave the whole thing a crude curdled look.
If only this cross-breed concoction would cohere, it might yet be cut up into squares and served on a plate with some appealing garnish, perhaps strawberries and mint leaves for color. I took the pan out and stared at it as it cooled, willing it to stand up, pull itself together, be firm. When the pan was cool enough to touch, I dipped my spoon into the mixture and it came out dripping and coated in something with the consistency of buttermilk. It didn't taste bad at all, in fact I licked the spoon clean, enjoying the balance of sweetness and almond, but it wasn't anything I could present to the chef. It was like a sweet, cheesy soup into which someone had accidentally dropped nuts. Why was the cheese breaking down? Why wasn't it holding together like cake or custard?”
“Chef Ferrero had taken charge of the main dish himself. Tender veal cutlets had been dipped in beaten eggs and seasoned flour, then lightly seared and served in a dark brown sauce. The presentation was completed with a sprinkle of lavender leaves and marigold petals- green and gold, like a spring morning- and served with a loaf of crusty bread rather than the customary glazed onions.”
“The following morning dawned clear and cool, and the chef decided to send me to the Rialto to buy pears and Gorgonzola. It was a culinary test, and I was ready. I'd accompanied him on other shopping trips when he instructed me on how to judge pears by scent and color and touch. They must be bought at the absolute peak of ripeness, with no hint of green or bruising. They must be firm, though not hard, and well perfumed, ready to be eaten the same day but overripe the next. The cheese must be dolce, not picante, because it would be served with the pears for dessert. The ripeness of Gorgonzola is more forgiving than pears. Already veined with a pungent mold, it will last a good while, although even molded cheeses have their limits.”
“Even the narrow canals around the Rialto teemed with floating shops- a small barge piled with jumbled green grapes, a boat heaped with oranges and limes, and another listing under a mountain of melons. I jogged along, drunk on all the colors and smells of the known world: pyramids of blood oranges from Greece, slender green beans from Morocco, sun-ripened cherries from Provence, giant white cabbages from Germany, fat black dates from Constantinople, and shiny purple eggplants from Holland.”
“I started with a wedge of triple-cream cheese because that seemed like a rich and elegant base that would need little embellishment. I cut a large slice of cheese and stripped off the skin, leaving only the voluptuous center, which I set into a clean bowl. I had noticed that wine went into the best dishes, so I added enough claret to thin the cheese to a mixable consistency. As I beat it together, I watched the pure white turn a murky shade of rose, and the sharp smell of wine overpowered the milky fragrance of cheese. Although such a dramatic change in color and aroma was unexpected, I decided it was not a fatal blow to the plan.
The chef had once said that the cornerstones of culinary art were butter and garlic, so I cheerfully whipped in a knob of softened butter and pressed a large clove of garlic. I whisked it all until it was smooth, tested it with a fingertip, and judged it to be not bad. But not bad wasn't good enough for a grand gesture. I stood before the brick oven and pondered what might elevate this concoction from an oddly flavored cheese to something that would make the chef raise his eyebrows with appreciation.
The brick oven reminded me of Enrico, who often bragged that his lightly sweetened breads and confections were everyone's favorite. He once said, "Meals are only an excuse to get to the dessert." I wasn't sure that was true, but I had noticed that people usually greeted the dessert course with smiles, even though they had already eaten their fill. Confections always found favor, and so I poured a golden stream of honey into my mélange.
After it was well blended, it was rather pretty- smooth and thick, luscious looking, like pudding or custard.”
“When I pulled the tall, narrow door open, a barrage of smells assaulted me. First a sweet blend of cinnamon and cloves with earthy undertones of thyme and oregano, then a piney whiff of rosemary and a heady punch of basil. The pungent mix stunned me, and I stood still, letting it envelop me. Equally dazzling was the knowledge that many of those spices had come from remote parts of the world. They were previous commodities carried over deserts and mountains and oceans, too expensive for any but the richest kitchens.”
“I only remember the green-apple fragrance of her breath, the shock of her eyes meeting mine, and the magnetic current that pulled me to her. I remember the fan of her eyelashes as she lowered her eyes to read, and I remember the translucence of her fingernails, the pale pink nail bed and clean white rim, as she pointed to each word. And, of course, the beguiling scent of her. I caught the smell of soap and baking and, under that, a flowery musk, mysterious and exciting. Her scent conjured a dreamscape of everything I longed for.”
“Most of the garden was devoted to the usual things- lettuces, onions, cabbage, and eggplant- ordinary ingredients for good, honest meals. But then there were the chef's other plants, the ones that made the cooks cross themselves and kiss their thumbnails whenever they were forced to handle them.
Take love apples, to start with. Their poisonous reputation was as well known as that of hemlock, and the cooks protested loudly the day the chef put in his seedlings. What if their roots contaminated the onions? What if their fumes caused swoons or fits? What if the odd, tangy smell of their leaves attracted disgruntled ghosts from the nearby dungeons? It took repeated assurances, the installation of a wire enclosure, and the fact that nothing catastrophic followed their planting to keep the staff from uprooting the love apples behind the chef's back. Even so, one cook quit, and another developed a twitchy eye and started nipping at the cooking sherry.
After the love apples, the chef put in beans- another rarity from the New World- and then potatoes. Once, he tried something he called maize, but the plants failed, so instead he bought sacks of dried maize from an unknown source. In a giant stone mortar, he ground the dried maize down to a coarse yellow meal from which he made one of his exotic specialties- polenta.”
“I was curious about the foreign foods I would come to know as chorizo, fire-roasted piquillo peppers, La Mancha saffron sealed in blue clay jars, Serrano ham, and pickled eggplant. That kitchen smelled like a cross between my maestro's kitchen and Borgia's. It had the clean airiness I was accustomed to, but a tang of briny olives and smoked meats flavored the air.”
“A misty vision of Francesca gazed down at me from a corner of the window. She gave me her wicked-sweet smile and the stars sparked in her pale hair. I wanted to call to her, but I had no voice. I smelled the mixed scents of her, and I imagined the lush, tropical feast I'd prepare for her on our wedding night.
I'd slip raw oysters between her lips. We'd share ripe figs and plump, dewy cherries. I'd offer her sweetmeats and honeyed milk, blood oranges peeled and ready, salty artichokes stripped down to the heart. I'd pry open a lobster shell and feed her tender morsels of meat, slowly, slowly. The flavors would mingle and mount and burst inside us like soft explosions. I wanted to believe it would all be possible.
I imagined her staring into my eyes while she dragged a buttered artichoke leaf between her teeth and sucked on the flesh. It was good. I rode through the long, lovely night on wave upon wave of pleasure, smelling her, tasting her, touching her...
I heard myself moan, and in that fierce embrace, I believed.”
“While Venice cowered under the watchful eyes of soldiers, the kitchen staff kept busy preparing foreign dishes for the inquisitive doge's steady stream of scholarly guests. We served professors from some of the oldest universities (pork and buttered dumplings for one from Heidelberg, and pasta with a creamy meat sauce for another from Bologna), a renowned herbalist from France (rich cassoulet), a noted librarian from Sicily (cutlets stuffed with anchovies and olives), a dusky sorcerer from Egypt (marinated kebabs), a Florentine confidant of the late Savonarola (grilled fish with spinach), an alchemist from England (an overdone roast joint), and monk-copyists from all the major monasteries (boiled chicken and rice).”