“In vino veritas?” …MaybeWine and its sharp-tongued sister, vinegar, are certainly sacred in rural culture, if not harbingers of truth. Our wise farm friend, Peppa, told me that when her family farmed, weak baby chicks were strengthened by wine. Her nonna would swish a gulp of wine in her own mouth to warm it, then try to open the beak of the chick, spitting in the wine… per dare forza, explains Peppa. Another farm friend, Giuseppa, told me that her nonna rubbed many a weak baby chick’s wobbly, stick-like legs with a piece of warm wool soaked in wine to give strength. For these farm people – all mezzadri (or tenant farmers) – every animal was essential: each was food on the table for a large extended family.
Farm neighbor Quinto told us that after scything endless fields of wheat by hand, rubbing the legs with wine relieved sore muscles. Old Alessandro told me that childhood headaches were soothed by the application of a vinegar soaked rag on the forehead. Cuts, insect bites, and rashes were all swabbed with vinegar, a natural disinfectant and soothing healer.
Wine and vinegar were used for cleaning. On cold winter nights, farm families gathered around the huge fireplace where a cauldron of boiling water bubbled over the coals. The hot water was never enough for the washing of everyone. Infants in the family were washed with rags soaked in wine, which had been warmed in the mouth of the grandmother. Bedsheets were washed in cold water and vinegar. Windows were rubbed with vinegar til they shone and floors were mopped with cold water and vinegar. Marble-topped farmhouse tables were scrubbed with water and vinegar (and I do the same on our marble-slabbed countertops). Rural families were most hygienic in spite of their poverty.
Wine and vinegar star in traditional Italian rural cooking. Vinegar in any dish stops the food from spoiling and is therefore an essential ingredient
in the cucina povera (after all, not until the late 1970s did small refrigerators appear in farmhouse storerooms). Countless dishes of southern Italy (where summers are hottest and homes once lacked refrigerators) feature vinegar.
Here is a recipe for peperonata, one of my favorite Siclian vegetable dishes (if any is leftover, do not refrigerate – simply enjoy the next day at room temperature):
Wash 5 or 6 bell peppers.
Slice into strips about 2 inches wide.
Cover stainless steel frying pan with olive oil.
Add 2 whole garlic cloves and when garlic is golden, turn peppers into
sizzling oil, browning the pepper strips.
When peppers are blistered, pour in about 1 c. or more of wine vinegar.
Add about 1 1/2 tsp rock salt. Cook til wine vinegar is almost all evaporated.
In summer, add about 2 c. diced very ripe tomatoes (in other seasons, add 1 large can tomatoes).
Simmmer til liquid of tomatoes evaporates.
Note: all quantities are approximate as I learned this by watching my Sicilian mother-in-law make this dish. After all, “qb” (or quanto basta, i.e., “as much as you need”) is the most common Italian cookbook annotation!
Note: This recipe is featured in some of my U.S. tour cooking classes.