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Borderstan Candids: “Al Fresco” Memories in the Summer Heat

by Borderstan.com June 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm 0

From Candida Mannozzi. You can reach her at candida[AT]borderstan.com.

Featured image of Dupont Circle Fountain by Candida Mannozzi.

Borderstan, we’ve been lucky with the heat, so far, this summer — until now, it appears. In fact, with the more typical DC temps and humidity suddenly upon us, I’m reminded of how good we’ve really had it. The Mallard Duck I recently spotted bathing in the Dupont Circle fountain instantly evoked a number of memories from my summers growing up in Italy.

The first image was literally a transposition of the duck-bathing-in-Dupont-fountain: I remembered the many tourists literally cooling their heels in Italian marble fountains (or worse, stepping over the ledge to soak in them completely).

"Tomatoes and Lemons"

Dining al fresco on the appropriate summer foods was important as a child in Italy. (dracisk in the Borderstan Flickr pool)

While this may be a welcome relief to the tourists, we Italians, by and large, really don’t appreciate the spectacle, nor do we enjoy this misuse and disrespect for what are, in many cases, historic sculptures. We locals usually go past such scenes thinking or even muttering: “I’d like to try that in your main piazza’s fountain back in Switzerland, Germany, fill-in-the-blank… and not be hauled off by the municipal police!”

But back to the cooling memories: another is of the delicious “granite” (pronounced: grah-KNEE-tay), called sno-cones here. Some of the favorite flavors among Italian children are lemon, mint, sour cherry and coconut. I remember the ambulating vendors, their call as they pushed an umbrella-shaded cart: “Eccole! Le graniiiiiteeeeee!” working their way up and down the seaside promenades. They would stop whenever a flock of children or families gathered around them.

The ice was shaved into a little pyramid off a huge block, the syrup poured over it liberally. Then, it was all scooped up and served in a pointy cup made of twisted wax paper. Often mothers cautioned the vendor not to give the kids too much sugar by going easy on the syrup (try putting any bambini down for their afternoon nap after a dose of THAT!).

Grownups found refreshment in various aperitivi, like the bittersweet “Campari e soda,” or the citrus-flavored “Aperol.” White wine (the cheaper table wine variety, mind you!) was sometimes lengthened with sparkling mineral water. Ice cubes were rare (they are gaining some traction now), so most drinks were just fridge-cold or cellar-cool.

During the summertime, dinners started much later in the evening, to allow an appetite to really build. Who wants to eat in the blistering heat, after all? It was not uncommon to sit down to dinner around 9 pm or later, having also slept for a few hours during the hottest part of the afternoon in a shaded room or hallway, with a cross-breeze blowing over cooling tile or marble floors.

Summertime meals started with slices of prosciutto and chilled “melone” (cantaloupe) or figs, or with a helping of the famous Caprese salad made of  alternate mozzarella and tomato slices, dressed in basil leaves, salt, pepper and olive oil (if I hear you pouring vinegar on this, I am coming after you!). What a great way to rehydrate and also replenish the sodium that the summer heat had sapped from us, as we played and perspired outside in the sun!

A favorite seaside breakfast was yesterday’s not-so-fresh bread, sliced, toasted, rubbed with the open face of a halved garlic clove, and then covered in the dark red, meaty, sweet diced tomatoes that abounded in the summer. Basil leaves, a pinch of salt and a light circle of olive oil topped the whole thing off: viva la bruschetta! The moisture from the tomatoes and olive oil softened the bread, though we could still feel the crunch of the toasted crust, the oil and tomato juices would go running down our cheeks and chins with each bite. We gobbled down kilos!

Washing-up? We just hit the sea.

But the most fun came from eating watermelon. We held a variety of contests with the seeds, either measuring spitting distance, or target accuracy, or pinching their pointy end to make them flip up in the air and (hopefully) plink rewardingly into a bowl or glass. On some occasions, the competition was about volume of seed-volleys: a few kids (and dads!) were true pros at conjuring almost machine-gun like effects with a mouthful of seeds. Don’t come near me with those seedless watermelons, they may be organic, but they’re sad, genetically modified freaks to me! Not to mention witnessing the hilarious effect of people arguing over a disputed target hit or other disagreement through a mouthful of juicy, oozing watermelon…

Most summertime dishes were served cold or at room temperature, and had been prepared that morning, sparing the cooks any work over heated ovens or stoves in the hotter hours. Some favorites were the stuffed tomatoes or peppers (pomodori ripieni, peperoni ripieni) filled with rice salad, or rice-and-mincemeat, or tuna salad), meatballs (tiny, rolled in bread crumbs for a lovely crisp finish, flavored with herbs, garlic and some hot pepper flakes… some even had melted mozzarella in their center), capponata (a vegetable medley similar to the French ratatouille — though, forgive me, way better!), and of course myriad pasta salad variations.

I remember the excitement of being able to play with the other kids late into the night, feeling the cool nighttime breeze as we found our way around in the darker shadows and splashes of moonlight, guided by the scent of a jasmine hedge or a lavender bush, tip-toeing or running, crackling over the rough needles of the fragrant Mediterranean Pines, while the grownups remained within earshot at the table, chatting, laughing, sharing the last bit of cellar-cool wine.

Borderstan, my nostalgia aside, what are some of your favorite summer cooling-off activities or recipes? Share, will you?

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