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The Babà is not Neapolitan. The crushing of food legends

Culture / -

il babà non è napoletano
Pasticceria-Scaturchio-©-Atlantide-PhototravelCorbis

There are plenty of surprises in store about the foods we eat. Very often we think that our food is connected to a particular cultural tradition, when in fact its origins are the result of fascinating intersections across different peoples, as in the case of the Neapolitan Baba.

Naples has a typical dessert whose origns come from a surprising source: the Polish father-in-law of King Louis XV, the nobleman Stanislaw Leszczynski. At a lunch in Lorraine, in France, during the first half of the 1700s, the Polish aristocrat tasted a sweet raised dough, soaked in sugar and Madeira wine, which he then named in honor of Ali Baba from his favorite story, "A Thousand and One Nights." French chefs, later introduced the Babà to Naples where it achieved world fame.
 
Macaroni, the pasta typical of Italy’s Campania region were originally deep fried and topped with honey and was first produced in the ninth century by Syrians and Lebanese who would dry it out in the desert. Meanwhile, Saffron, a fundamental ingredient of risotto alla Milanese, and the symbolic dish of Milan, host city of Expo Milano 2015, has Persian origins.

The banana is no exception to two more trampled food legends: as a fruit that in fact originates from Asia and not South America as we would expect, and what’s more, it should be eaten in the prime of its maturity, when its skin is soft and covered with brown spots; otherwise we risk indigestion.
 
In the past, eggplants from India and China were considered poisonous and were believed to cause psychological problems, and the potato to some extent, had a similar reputation. Discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors in Central America in 1500, it was considered dirty, toxic and was ignored for at least another two hundred years before being introduced in Europe by the Frenchman Antoine Augustin Parmentier, a pharmacist whose years' of study of its properties turned our earlier perceptions of the potato upside down.
 
Strudel is a dessert of Turkish origin with which the Hungarians became acquainted through the Ottoman domination. They liked it so much that the pastry became popular in the 1500s across the whole of Europe. Pistachios are another surprise: originally  from the western foothills of the Himalayas, they were considered aphrodisiacs and a useful antidote for snakebites.
 
Finally, an interesting fact about the bouillon cube, invented in 1850 by German chemist Justus von Liebig and perfected by the Swiss Julius Maggi in 1886. It had an illustrious predecessor: the tablet of chicken glaze used by the cooks of Napoleon Bonaparte to flavor foods as early as the 1700s. Obtained by boiling selected pieces of meat for several hours, it was then filtered, made solid and cut into small cubes to be stored in tin boxes until used.
 
These fascinating anecdotes about the history of food remind us that what we eat it is always the result of human creativity and cultural influences; all key themes in the debate on nutrition and relevant topics of Expo2015.
 

Fighting inequality: President Lula’s Zero Hunger Program

Economy / -

Fame zero il modello Lula per la lotta alle diseguaglianze
©Bruno Ehrs/Corbis

Launched in 2003, the Brazilian president’s initiative has contributed to combating hunger in Latin America’s largest country. Today, its neighbors are looking with interest at the possibility of importing a similar model to help them achieve lasting social equality.

With over 50 million people rescued from hunger, Brazil’s "Fome Zero" (Zero Hunger) program, which was launched in 2003 by the then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and featured radical measures in regard to agriculture, and schools, as well as support to the poorest families, with special attention to children. Among the outcomes: Brazil was able to reignite its economy, and has become a point of reference in the field worldwide.

Data from the FAO
The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has certified that Brazil has achieved its development objectives in terms of fighting hunger, with the number of undernourished people being reduced by nearly 10 million, from 22.8 million a 13.6 million, in just twenty years. Lula’s government’s declared objective was to effect a 50 percent reduction in the number of its citizens suffering from hunger, between 1990 and 2015. According to the FAO’s figures, that percentage is currently 54%. In 1990, some 15 percent of Brazil’s population went hungry. At the present time, it is just under seven percent.

Actions taken
With a budget of 500 million US dollars, Brazil’s Zero Hunger project has successfully reduced hunger, especially in the country’s poorest areas. A two-fold strategy was pursued. The “Bolsa Família” provided direct financial aid to the most disadvantaged families, and access to micro-credit was increased. Meanwhile, food was distributed directly to the poorest, so as to provide them access to essential nutrients.
 
The project also included building rainwater cisterns in the semi-arid areas of the country, opening low-cost restaurants, teaching good nutritional practice in schools; vitamins and iron supplements were also distributed. In addition, the fight to combat hunger included helping family-farmers, with government aid for this rising from one to four million dollars.
 
The government ministers who coordinated the program were at pains to stress that this was not a mere philanthropic mission based on “hand-outs”, but a policy that would set the foundations for helping establish certain human rights that had, to date, not existed.

The outcomes of the Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) Project
A research study undertaken by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) highlighted a 20 percent reduction in social inequality in Brazil since 2001, while a report commissioned by the World Bank called attention to a significant reduction in child labor among the children in the families that qualified for the “Bolsa Familiar”.
 
While hunger continued to be an emergency for hundreds of millions of the world’s inhabitants, Latin America is the geographic area where most effort has been applied to addressing this challenge, with Lula’s initiative being a guiding light.

Exporting the Fome Zero project to other countries
Brazil’s neighbors are currently looking at how the Zero Hunger project might be applied to their own situation. In Venezuela, the government has launched a number of programs to combat hunger. The largest so far has been “Mision barrio adentro" (Mission Inside the Neighborhood), whose aim is to guarantee acceptable standards of food and health security in the most disadvantaged social contexts. While positive results have been reported in some of Venezuela’s favelas, the success-rate overall has been inconsistent. Argentina, Latin America’s second-largest country, has also launched a government program to combat hunger. This might seem somewhat incongruous, since the country, which already holds much potential for social innovation, has a population of just 40 million inhabitants, along with the potential for producing food for ten times that many.
 

From Lucullus to bread, wine and radishes. Dining with the ancient Romans

Culture / -

cosa mangiavano antichi romani
A Roman Feast by Roberto Bompiani @Corbis

The ancient Romans were not above certain frugal practices, even if they did not hesitate, like the famous Lucullus, to offer sumptuous banquets of almost indecent proportions. In any case, there is one rule in mind: to eat alone is a very bad habit.

Frugality and abundance. Stoicism and Epicureanism. It is between these two poles that the question of food in Rome would oscillate throughout the entire classical period. Yet forever mindful of conviviality.
 
Frugality, commoners and slaves
Next to the less frequent and festive coena the usual meal, the prandium, would take place in Rome. It probably comes closest to the today’s brunch or snack - consisting of bread mainly, olives, onions, wine, cooked vegetables seasoned with olive oil, mixed salad and figs. The Metamorphoses of Ovid offers the declaration of a priest on the island of Delos: "Everything my daughters touch turns to grain, or pure wine, or olives," which says a lot about the symbolic significance of these foods.
Literature offers examples of humility when it comes to food, citing the simplicity of Horace, the frugality of Virgil, the thoroughly Etruscan composure of Maecenas, the admiration for Martial’s simple cuisine, and the ingenuity of Catullus.
 
The prandium  of peasants was based primarily on vegetables, the staple food of a soldier's bread, convenient to carry and highly energetic. Subsequently, among the more affluent classes, meat and cheese appear, and legumes become staples of plebeian dining. On a lamp found in an excavation near Aquileia, in the region surrounding Venice, there is a basket garnished with bread, wine and black radishes with the words: "The meal of the poor: bread, wine and radishes."
 
Cato the Elder repeatedly evoked in detail the meals allowed to slaves, consisting of bread and pulmentarium, a generic term for condiments. These varied according to the seasons, but always included oil, salt and vinegar and olives, or, when such stocks were used up, hallec,  was used, the liquefied residue of the preparation of garum, a fish-based pressed condiment typical of Roman cuisine, which is prepared in three qualities, flos, castimoniale, sociorum. After the harvest, slaves were given a little wine, but for the rest of the year, they had to settle for a substitute made with the leftovers of presses or vinegar diluted with water.
 
Abundance and splendor
Towards the end of the first century AD - when the most important cookbook in Latin, De Re Coquinaria, is believed to have been written - frugality and modesty at the table seem to eclipse the Roman Republic. The original author is Apicius, a great cook, but the many expansions of the original recipe made ​​in the three centuries that followed, now offer an exceptionally broad view of the tastes of the Roman world of antiquity. Wine flavored with fruits and spices, sauces made from seeds crushed with herbs and chicken meat, imaginative dishes doused in sophisticated sauces, inviting and exotic wild game such as ostriches, cranes, grouse and the warbler, fine fish, and vegetable blends. The desire to satisfy the greed of the participants brought Apicio towards the magnificence and completeness of a table fit for the newly wealthy, new nobles and the powerful novi equites.
 
Lucullus and Petronius offered fascinating testimonials of the new glitz. Lucius Licinius Lucullus, who died at age 57 after the birth of Christ, having taken part in the Mithridatic War with Silla and having shown himself a skillful and courageous general on the River Tigris and in the conquest of the Armenian cities of Cabira and Amisos. He retired to Rome to live in private splendor all over Eastern Europe, growing cherry trees brought from Pontus. The memory of his dinners are perpetuated by the adjective "lavish". Petronius, arbiter elegantiae, was one of Nero’s courtiers and the author of the Supper of Trimalchio, where playing the role of Eumolpo - refined in judgment and expert in the art of cooking – he admonishes the uncouth Enobarbus. As proconsul in Bithynia, Petronius was also acquainted with Asia Minor.
 
The common rule, eat together
In the scale of greek-roman values which went on to influence all civilizations of the Mediterranean basin, it is clear that civilized man distinguished himself from barbarians and animals by how he ate in a social way. In the words of Plutarch, "We do not sit at the table to eat, but to eat together."
 
From the history of food to the future of food, a long trip can be undertaken at Expo Milano 2015. In particular, at Pavilion Zero the history of man on Earth can be seen through his relationship with nature and food. 
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