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Grana Padano

Saints, soldiers and unsatisfied wives: puzzling wonders of a viagra forerunner

Zabaione

Zah-bahl-YOH-nay, the pronunciation is the same regardless the way it’s spelled: currently zabaglione or alternatively zabaione, and indeed, zabajone in old written Italian. Some years ago, an Australian food writer, Steven Downes, slated a restaurateur, because his menu featured zabajone and not zabaglione; of course he had no idea of what he was talking about. As a matter of fact, zabaglione has been known also as zavajon, zavagion, zebaion and even xabaion. It shouldn’t come as a surprise; we are talking about a very widespread Italian sweet, perhaps one of the most popular of all. “Traditionally” zabaglione is made of egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine but the third ingredient can be considered a relatively recent addition.

The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well book cover
The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well book cover

The recipe given by Pellegrino Artusi, in his The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, from its first edition of 1881 on, for example, gives the liberty of using Cyprus (Commandaria, made with Mavro and Xynisteri grapes), Malaga, or Marsala wine. Marsala increasingly became the most used, since it enjoyed a huge popularity in Italy during 19th century. It was a consequence of the work initiated by English wine merchants who, at the end of the 18th century,  “modernized” the production of a very old and rare local wine, Perpetuo, made in the area of Marsala, in the Province of Trapani, Sicily, with cooked must. In Piedmont, for example, wines such as Barbera, Nebbiolo and Arneis, and Moscato were added instead, well before the market opened to the new Marsala, which, in the end, became a sort of Sicilian answer to Port.


Light, fluffy and ethereal

What can be surely admitted as “traditional” is the technique of preparing a creamy foam made by beating egg yolks with sugar in bagnomaria, in a double boiler that is, to which a wine, sparkling, still or sweet, is added; during the last two centuries usually dry Marsala. In any case, the result must be a warm froth, light, fluffy and ethereal that is served hot either as a dessert by itself in glass cups or to top cakes, fruit – fresh figs, in primis, ice creams or pastry, including savoiardi (ladyfingers) and amaretti. The cooking in bagnomaria, recommended to avoid the very possible sudden curdling of the mixture, was done in a ponzonetto or polsonetto, a small, heavy, round-bottomed copper pan not tinned inside. Many contemporary Italian chefs, however, prefer to use either a ponzonetto or a stainless steel pan directly over a hot flame.

Ponzonetto or Polsonetto
Ponzonetto or Polsonetto

To vary with tradition, zabaglione is also served cold, sometimes with whipped egg whites added and it may be prepared without sugar to accompany savoury dishes based, for instance, on oysters, chicken or asparagus. Sabayon, the French equivalent – no one questions the Italian origin of either the name or the technique – was included by August Escoffier in his La Guide Culinaire, 1902 as a sauce for hot desserts. In fact, zabaglione, in strict pastry terms is neither a custard nor a mousse. It’s considered to be a caudle, a remedial drink for a sick person, with a strong relation to the verb to coddle, which means, “to treat with extreme or excessive care or kindness.”


The origins

In which part of Italy was zabaglione born? That’s very hard to determine. Its origins are controversial and various parts of Italy claim its paternity. No surprise, given the simplicity of the execution and the readiness of the ingredients (honey instead of sugar was perhaps the earliest formula) it’s quite possible that it was born in various places at more or less the same time. The direct ancestor of zabaglione, beaten fresh egg – sometimes, in the country, just laid – with sugar, a pinch of salt, lukewarm milk (or red wine), has been a part of life for Italian families of every region for centuries. Scores of children have regained health and strength thanks to this homemade natural vitamin and protein integrator, given to them by their mothers or grandmothers. While in some regions this “preparation” had its proper name, as arsumà in Val d’Aosta, or sapajean or sabajessa in Lombardy, in many others, it was called zabaglione or simply beaten eggs.

Map of Illyria
Map of Illyria

It’s interesting to note that in the basic recipe of this egg preparation there is wine. According to some authors, (see Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food, 2002), the prehistory of zabaglione, was a drink made of wine or beer thickened with egg yolks. Its name, during the ancient Roman Empire, was possibly ‘sabaium’, which in Illyria, the Western part of the Balkan Peninsula, meant beer.


Born in Florence? Or in Sicily?

Legends and scarce historic sources fix the birth date of zabaglione in the 16th century. Some, as the mentioned Alan Davidson,  say that it was invented in Florence in the court of the Medici, however there is no evidence. It’s certain, though, that zabaglione was the base of some of the first gelati, otherwise ice-creams, an Italian invention that consequently travelled to France with Catherine de Medici and that chef Ruggeri who invented ice-cream.

It has been suggested that zabaglione has a Sicilian origin since the word is derived from the Sicilian word zabbina, which refers to the spume resulting from the boiling of milk for ricotta and roughly means to whip while boiling. Zabbina comes from the Arabic word zarb, meaning a kind of sweet milk made from the thick part of curdled milk – something similar to ricotta. Other authors have legitimated the Sicilian origins, as Waverley Root, who in The Food of Italy (1971) wrote that Sicilian migrants spread their zabaglione all around the world.


The “Milanese” connection

Cover of The art of cooking by Martino da Como
Cover of The art of cooking by Martino da Como

A recipe for making a “bono zambaglione” (good zabaglione) is contained in the Libro De Arte Coquinaria (Book of Culinary Art) by Maestro Martino da Como, otherwise known as Martino de’ Rossi, the first modern Italian cookery book, dated approximately 1465. “Get four eggs (just the yolks) and [...] a generous amount of sugar and cinnamon, and add some sweetish wine. If the mixture begins to smell like smoke, add a little water or lean broth. Cook in the same way as broth, stirring constantly with a spoon, and when it soils [the spoon, serve it in a cup]”. The soiling point is “when the mixture is so dense that it adheres to the wooden spoon”. The only problem with this recipe is that it appears only in the “original” of the Libro kept in the Municipal Library of Riva del Garda, which is believed to be only a copy of the authentic one in the U.S. Library of Congress.

In any case, the inclusion of zabaglione in the Maestro Martino collection of recipes could imply that the sweet was born in Lombardy, possibly in Milan. There is, indeed, at least one source that presents zabaglione with the same ingredients as in Martino’s recipe as a “Milanese specialty.” It’s the book La commare o riccoglitrice (Venice, 1595), a very successful treatie on midwifery written by doctor Scipione, the Dominican friar Girolamo Mercurio, who recommends zabaglione to people who had exhausting jobs or were debilitated, exactly as women who had recently given birth. On the gastronomic side, Mercurio explains that zabaglione is ready when it assumes "the thickness of the top of milk," that is, the consistency of cream.


The tale of Zvan Bajoun in Emilia

There is a widespread tale that zabaglione was born in Emilia, part of the Region of Emilia Romagna, in the 16th century Italian, when Giovanni Paolo Baglioni, a local warlord known as Zvan Bajoun (his name in the Emilian dialect) set up camp near Reggio Emilia during a campaign. He sent out troops to forage for supplies but they came back only with eggs, honey, white wine and aromatic herbs. He ordered to cook them as a soup and give to the troops who enjoyed every drop. The modern pronunciation of zabaglione could be then a linguistic corruption of Giovanni Baglioni’s nickname, ‘Zvan Bajoun,’ transformed in zambajoun, then zabajone and finally zabaione or zabaglione. The problem with this tale is that there are too many question marks about the identity of Baglioni and that of the author of the tale, a certain Numa. Some say it was possibly the French Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, though he had a reputation of being a too systematic and uncompromising historian to spread something so vague and without backup.


A Venetian option and the legend of Turin’s Sanbajon

For Giuseppe Maffioli, the Italian food writer and author of Il ghiottone veneto (The Glutton of Veneto, 1968), zabaglione originated from zabaja. This was a sweet dessert of Illyria, a region that was for long time a territory of the Republic of Venice. According to Maffioli, zabaja was prepared with sweet Cyprus wine and was part of the nuptial ceremony. “The groom’s bachelor friends at the end of the long wedding banquet, teasing maliciously, gave him a big bottle of zabajon before the couple retired, to guarantee a successful and prolonged honeymoon.”

Saint Pascual of Baylon
Saint Pascual of Baylon

Anna Gosetti della Salda in her classic book on the Italian regional cuisine (Le ricette regionali italiane, 1967) presents zabaglione as a typical dessert from Piedmont Region. We don’t know on which historical evidence she made this decision. A recipe, pretty similar to modern zabaglione, appears in the Il Cuoco piemontese perfezionato a Parigi (The Piedmont Chef Perfected in Paris), 1766, an anonymous culinary treaty attributed to King Carlo Emanuele III’s chefs. It’s called sambajone. L. Sanbajon is later mentioned in the Piedmont dictionary by Vittorio Felice di Sant’Albino, published in Turin in 1859. According to a popular tale, circulating in the 19th century in Piedmont, the name was a corruption of San Pascual de Baylon (1540-1592), a Spanish Franciscan friar, canonised in 1680 and venerated in the church of Saint Thomas in Turin. The real Saint Pascual had a very pious and austere life in Spain, nevertheless, popular imagination attributed him with the invention of zabaglione in Turin along with the famous 1+2+2+1 formula: 1 egg yolk, 2 egg-shells of sugar, 2 egg-shells of wine, and one egg-shell of water. There is no historical basis to this legend, Saint Pascual never went to Turin and couldn’t be the inventor of zabaglione, particularly if a recipe of zambaglione was already, as we have seen above, in Maestro Martino’s De Arte Coquinaria of the 15th century. Notwithstanding this, Saint Pascual was even made the patron saint of Turin's pastry chefs in 1722. All this was born possibly by the fact that the Saint was believed to be protector of women (for which, he was deeply venerated in Naples, for example) many of whom went to him to complain about the poor marital performance of their husbands. So, to alleviate the aches of the unsatisfied wives, Saint Pascual allegedly invented the reinvigorating dessert, a sort of natural Viagra ancestor. Of course there is not scientific relation between zabaglione and sexual performances, though eggs contain cholesterol, which is a precursor of testosterone, the male hormone that influences masculine sexual conduct.

A view of Turin, Italy
A view of Turin, Italy

In any case, seduction is, by now, part of zabaglione’s image. The late, great Catalan writer, Manuel Vazquez Montalbán, has his version of the sweet in the Immoral Recipes: he calls it Goduriosa (that it could be loosely translated as the orgasmic) and adds some cinnamon, lemon and toasted almond powder. “After having profoundly enjoyed the Goduriosa,” he writes, “one undoubtedly realises that the new love performances will have more haughtiness and tenderness, they’ll be less aggressive and full of that subtle unarmed touch, through which true love expresses itself.”

Rosario Scarpato

Zabaione
 
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