You must know that my great grandmother wasn’t from the flat land of the Venetian countryside where our house is. She was born and raised up in the mountains, in the middle of the Venetian Dolomites, in a little rural village called Fonzaso.
Her family was from up there. Her appearance, look, language, and style were still up in the mountains as well. She kept her dialect, a quite incomprehensible, strict idiom that nobody outside of the family could understand. We were used to it, and I spoke that language too. My mother wasn’t much happy about that though:
-They won’t understand what you’re saying in school, and you’ll never get a friend- my mother used to say.
Secondly, the look: my great grandmother always wore a dark scarf on her head kept together by a golden brooch at the base of her neck, as it was fashionable where she was from. The gold pin was shaped like a flower, and along with a necklace, her only two pieces of jewelry.
As I said, this fashion of wearing a scarf was a common practice of the girls in the mountains:
- Nobody wants to see your ‘extremities’, never mind your messy hair - she used to say, and - you are always ready to go to Mass if you wear the scarf -.
Girls and ladies, in fact, had always to wear a scarf or a foulard on their heads while attending Mass. This became a sort of fashion statement in the village where my great grandmother was from, being the weekly Mass the best, or perhaps the only occasion to chat with friends, meet people, and especially meet boys, to meet your future husband. Girls used to wear their best dresses to Mass. Poor girls choose their best scarves.
She never took off her scarf, or at least she never did when I was around.
In the Venetian countryside, wearing the scarf wasn’t really common anymore, and because of that, my great grandmother and her scarf-wearing sisters were called “the witches”. We never found that cruel or mocking. On the contrary, she and her sisters were incredibly proud and fond of being the witches of the mountains.
Finally, the culture: even if living in the middle of the Venetian countryside, the alpine way of doing stuff and thinking was very much still part of my great grandmother. She was a stubborn lady, always decisive and really secure of herself. She was hard-working but still kind and sweet. She definitely was an introvert too.
Mountain people are introverts, hard workers, and really, really stubborn, but in a nice way. They believe in fairy-tales, and they like so very much to tell stories all of the time!
One of these tales was about a little girl called Fragoletta. Fragoletta was very poor, and the only food she could get to feed her two little brothers was the fruits of an apple tree. One day, a giant snake saw that Fragoletta was and asked her what the matter was. Fragoletta looked up at the tree and pointed that there weren’t any apples left and that her two brothers were going to starve. The snake got upset at hearing Fragoletta’s story and with a swing of its tale, magically made the tree producing hundreds of golden and silver apples.
Fragoletta was really happy and to thank the snake for its help, baked a beautiful cake, shaped like the tail of the snake. Here is where the apple strudel cake was born, and it still is one of the most popular and typical desserts of the Dolomites and the Alps.
The ingredients for the dough:
250 g of All-Purpose Flour
2 or 3 Tablespoons of Sunflower Seed Oil
1 Large Egg
100 ml of Warm Water
A Pinch of Salt
For the filling:
4 Big Apples
½ Cup of Breadcrumbs
4 Tablespoons of Sugar
½ Cup of Raisins
¼ Cup of Pine Nuts
1 Tablespoon of Cinnamon
As per usual, I was at the mixing station.
My great grandmother poured the flour on the table and created a sort of volcano or well shape.
With a quick and expert gesture, an egg was cracked open into the flour hole along with a pinch of salt.
Mixing the ingredients and creating the strudel dough was, of course, the funniest and most entertaining piece of my afternoon in the kitchen.
Her recommendation, or better her order, was not to let the egg drip out from the volcano of flour. Even with that recommendation, in no time, there was egg everywhere but in the flour well.
Slowly my great grandmother poured some of the warm water into the mix, followed by a couple of tablespoons of oil.
A soft but firm ball was formed, kneading it well until smooth and shiny.
She took the dough gave it a round dome-shape and dripped a couple of drops of the sunflower seed oil on the top, and gave it a delicate little massage. This treatment kept the dough from drying too much and forming a hard skin on the top while left to rest.
After making the strudel base, my great grandmother peeled the apples, cut them evenly in small thin triangles, and let them rest on one side, in a bowl where she added raisins and pine nuts as well.
I remember I used to steal pine nuts. They were deliciously tasty.
Pine nuts were a sort of a big deal for us all like apples were. Every year in August, my family went for a one-day trip to visit the relatives in the mountains, my great-grandmother's cousins.
On the day of the trip, after lunch, it was a tradition to go for a walk in the woods surrounding the village and collect pine nuts from fallen pine cones.
Once home, the pine nuts were cleaned and stored in sealed jars for the rest of the years.
They were delicious, as I said. Not just for the flavour but mostly for the memory of the day spent in the woods scavenging for pinecones and being amazed at the little jewels-like seeds.
My great grandmother, in a way, was quite attached to those pine nuts.
- They smell of home - she always said.
I realized much later what she actually meant: in the pine nuts, she could smell pine's essential oil. She could smell the wood that surrounded her village, and that was a very special memory link to her childhood, her familiar surroundings, voices, and laughter.
I don't know if you have ever been to the Italian Dolomites, but the air smells intensively of pine up there. Every day of the year, it does, and it is absolutely inebriant.
When dough and filling were finally ready, it was time to put together the cake.
On a tea towel, abundantly dusted with plenty of flour, my great grandmother flattened the dough using a wooden made rolling pin. The dough was flattened into a square, as large as the tea towel was. Really thin as well:
-You must see what’s out of the window through it – my great grandmother used to say.
On the flattened dough, she sprinkled a little bread crumb, not too much, sugar, cinnamon, and finally spread the apple, raisin, and pine nuts mix.
The smell coming from the apple and the cinnamon filled the kitchen, and we were immersed in a dazzling fuzzy cloud of exotic scents.
It has to be said that my great grandmother had a little trick to keep lingering and enhance the scent of cinnamon in the kitchen: she used to dust a very tiny pinch of cinnamon on the top of the hot stove. Like a true witch, with a broad gesture, and creating a cloud of smoke, she made the “magic of the cinnamon”. In just a few seconds the smoke was gone, but the kitchen turned into a beautiful cinnamony heaven for hours. It was comparable, I guess, to the scent they used in Christmas markets or fancy shops during the holiday season, to remind ourselves of family warmth and beautiful sweets.
I have never connected cinnamon with Christmas, though. For me cinnamon was my great grandmother's magic over the stove and apple strudel.
When the filling was evenly distributed over the dough, my great grandmother used to fold three sides of the dough toward the center, creating a sort of a lapel—five centimeters or so, not much more.
Then, with the wise help of the tea towel, the entire dough was rolled up creating, a very tight spiral as you do for a Swiss roll.
The strudel so formed was laid on a baking tray and brushed with milk and sugar, or honey, depending on what was available on the occasion.
In the oven, it went. One hundred and eighty degrees Celsius for forty minutes, until golden brown.
We couldn't eat it until the day after, though. It had to be cool and rested, and it was usually served covered in icing sugar or with some fruit of the forest jam on the side.