Sugar and spice and all things nice . . . Laura Orvieto’s Italian Ambrosia

Dorota Bazylczyk takes us back to Italy this week, with further reflections on the delicious writings of Laura Orvieto.  — Elizabeth Hale

Laura Orvieto was an expert in “sweetening” stories of antiquity for contemporary Italian children. One way she did this was by putting the elements of Italian cuisine into her mythical stories. In her Storie di bambini molto antichi we can find many references to Italian food, drinks, sweets, traditional and regional products.

The best example in this context may be a chapter in which the author describes the story of Hebe. We read there that at Aphrodite’s and Hephaestus’ wedding party, ambrosia had a taste of:`

The Food of the Gods on Olympus
Italy Attributed to Nicola da Urbino Dish: The food of the gods on Olympus, 1530 Majolica, Istoriato style Donation collection: Mr. J.W. Frederiks 1994. Licensed to share: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

…violette e foglie di rosa, di fiori d’arancio, di crema alla vaniglia, di mandorle pestate con lo zucchero, di panna montata con i cialdoni e di liquirizia alla menta[1].

…violets and rose leaves, orange blossoms, vanilla cream, almonds grated with sugar, whipped cream with cialdoni and liquorice flavoured with mint.

Doesn’t it sound delicious?

The flavors of the drink of Gods, described by Orvieto, are strongly associated with many Italian traditional products. Recalling those particular elements, the author wanted to make it easy for young readers, to imagine the situation of an Italian celebration day, full of typical sweets and fresh ingredients (in this case a wedding day). In addition, she decided to recall the products logically related to the characters, that had taken part the ceremony, so in this case with Hephaestus, a god connected with the region of Sicily.

Let’s take a closer look at the Italian tastes of Orvieto’s ambrosia

Cannoli from Palermo
Cannoli from Palermo, by Claudio Longo, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I cialdoni siciliani are the typical Sicilian cakes, covered with almond grain and stuffed with ricotta cream (type of cannoli). The choice of these sweets by Orvieto is appropriate to this specific situation – Hephaestus earlier lived inside a Sicilian volcano, so he could have tried them himself 🙂

 

 

 

Confetti Assortiti
Confetti Assortiti, by Kate Hopkins. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

almonds and sugar are also not an accidental products while describing a wedding. In Italy, the famous sweets associated with this occasion are called confetti – those are dragées-almonds covered with sweet sugar shells. Their roots reach back to times of ancient Rome, but in those days honey was used instead of sugar.  I Confetti have a symbolic meaning – each color represents a different occasion (eg, azure blue for the birth or baptism of a baby).  It is also important what amount of them we offer to somebody (they usually should be packed in bomboniera) (5 confetti for riches, happiness, long life; 1 confetto for a unique event).  Sicily has its own type of confetti, called confetti con mandorla di Avola, which means that they are made from the specific type of almonds, that come from the city of Avola;

Pastiglie Leone by Graeme Maclean
Pastigli Leone by Graeme Maclean, reproduced under licence through https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 liquorice flavoured with mint can refer to the very famous Italian sweets made for example by Amarelli company, or – what is more likely – to the liquorice Due Sicilie (the name refers to the ancient Italian Kingdom) related to the southern Italy, made since 1957 by the Pastiglie Leone company.

And of course, lemons and oranges are the fruits strongly associated with the Sicilian region. Those are also ingredients present in many traditional Sicilian wedding dishes. In the context of ambrosia, we can also recall a famous Sicilian orange liqueur – Arancello.

Italian flavours as literary treatments . . .

Italian flavors described in Storie di bambini molto antichi are one of the literary treatments that helped Orvieto to anchor the mythical stories in Italian children’s imagination. By approximating the “ancient tastes” to young readers, she emphasized two important aspects of food – its importance in every child’s life and its huge role in Italian culture. Thanks to the stories of Orvieto, kids were able to start to perceive Italian cuisine – their important cultural signifier[2]as an a centuries-old element of a great importance. They could also look at the figures from the ancient world as people similar to them, who like the same flavors and who like to celebrate equivalently. The modern illustrations made by Rita Petruccioli, included in the edition of Storie di bambini molto published by Mondadori (2014), additionally emphasize the Italian aspect of Orvieto’s mythical food. It is apparent that the illustrator decides to continue the concept of the Orvieto, placing on Aphrodite’s and Hephaestus’ wedding table, an additional Italian element – Panna cotta – one of the world’s most famous Italian desserts nowadays.

Rita Petruccioli's modern illustration of the gods' banquet
Rita Petruccioli’s modern illustration of the gods’ banquet (courtesy of the artist).

Thanks to the references to Italian cuisine, Orvieto’s text gains even bigger importance for today’s readers – it starts to function not only a source of knowledge about the myths, but also about the specific elements of Italian regions – their traditions, dishes, local products etc. It is amazing that reading Orvieto’s Storie di bambini molto antichi today, we can still become the witnesses of “continuity of taste” and we can still start to perceive Italian cuisine as an element that combines modern times with antiquity in the most delicious way.

[1] Orvieto, Laura, Storie di bambini molto antichi, Mondadori, 2014, Milano, Italy, pp. 45.

[2] Kara K. Keeling, Scott T. Pollard, Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature, Routledge, 2012.

 

 

Dorota Bazylczyk is a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Artes Liberales, at the University of Warsaw.  Her PhD is funded by the ERC, through the Our Mythical Childhood project.  She is working on the function of mythology in Italian children’s literature.  It is my great pleasure to introduce her work here, in the second of a small series of posts on Laura Orvieto (1876-1953), a pioneer in retelling mythology for young Italians.    In her next post on Orvieto, Dorota will discuss Orvieto’s use of nursery rhymes and poetry. . . .

 

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