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Rossini on Food
A Symphony of Tastes

Had Rossini not been the composer he was, History, no doubt, would have ranked him one of the greatest gastronomes of the 19th Century. Alessandro Falassi reports.

"Drama, drama, drama! An Italian meal is like an opera," once wrote the well-known gastronome, Waverley Root, refering to the clashing plates and clinking glasses ringing out notes rather like a composer might have placed them. For him, Gioacchino Rossini was the greatest example of a man "who could have become a celebrated gourmet if only his musical genius had not eclipsed his gastronomic talents." Biographies of Rossini, half fact and half legend, abound in gastronomical anecdotes.

When Rossini was a young boy, biographers recall, he enjoyed the taste of the wine served at Mass. Elsewhere, it is recorded that the young musician raced through his account of the opening night of the Barber of Seville, to plunge into a detailed and lengthy description of a new recipe for a salad which, naturally, became Salad alla Rossini. In his biography of the Maestro, Stendhal wrote that the aria of Tancredi, "Di Tanti Palpiti," known thoughout Europe, was not only the most popular opera aria of its time, but was familiarly refered to as the "rice aria" because Rossini composed it while waiting for his risotto to cook one day in Venice.

Similarly, Rossini is supposed to have dashed off the aria, "Nacqui all'Affanno e al Pianto," in Cinderella, in little more than a quarter of an hour on the corner of a table in a tavern in Rome, while surrounded by friends drinking and making merry.

During the years the Maestro spent in Paris, he became the most acclaimed musician of his time. Biographers tell of his friendship with Antonin Carême, the culinary genius of the century, who spoke of Rossini as "the only one who has truly understood me." For many years, the two men exchanged tokens of their respect for the other's art. "I would go to America, Maestro, but only if you accompany me", Rossini would say. Carême would send a game pâté to Rossini in Bologna, and Rossini would respond by writing a short aria for Carême. In Paris, Rossini never missed an opportunity to savour turkey stuffed with truffles, which, according to the testimony of Brillat-Savarin, was the rage at the time.

Once, Rossini won a bet which entitled him to a turkey stuffed with truffles. The bet was not honoured, and in response to the continual requests of the Maestro, the loser excused himself by claiming that the season was poor and first quality truffles were just not to be found. "Nonsense, nonsense", blurted Rossini, "those are just false rumours circulated by turkeys that don't want to be stuffed!"

According to another anecdote, Rossini claims to have wept only three times in his life: the first time over the fiasco of his first opera, the second when he heard Niccolò Paganini play the violin, and finally, when the picnic lunch, a turkey stuffed with truffles, fell overboard on a day's outing on a boat.

The invention of the famous Tournedos Rossini has become a legend. It is said to have occurred at the Café Anglais in Paris. The story goes that Rossini insisted upon overseeing the preparation of his meal and obliged the chef to prepare it in front of him in the dining-room next to his table. When the chef finally objected to this constant interference, the Maestro replied, "Et alors, tournez le dos." or "So, turn your back." And that is how this savoury dish got its name!

There are other versions as to how the Tournedos got its name, but it is true that Rossini gave his to many gastronomic preparations. Great chefs dedicated many dishes to him, such as Poached Eggs alla Rossini, Chicken alla Rossini, and Fillet of Sole alla Rossini. Dedicated to Figaro, his immortal personage, was a type of extra- fine pastries or "pasticcini". Dedicated to his opera, William Tell, was a tart served on the occasion of the opera's 1829 Paris opening night; naturally, it was an apple tart decorated with an apple transpierced by a sugar arrow alongside a sugar crossbow.

The famous book of recipes written by Escoffier, which has become a culinary bible of modern cuisine, contains so many recipes dedicated to the Maestro that they could complete an entire menu. Many of the recipes have passed into the high spheres of French cuisine, and from there into world-class international cuisine. Tradition says that the Maestro also created several recipes, including Beef Marrow Risotto, which is still prepared in his native Marches, and the famous Cannelloni alla Rossini, stuffed with truffles and foie gras. Nineteenth century Paris caricaturists frequently depicted Rossini with the silver pastry-tube or syringe he used to prepare favorite dishes served to guests during his musical-gastronomical evenings at his house in the Chaussée d'Antin or at his villa in Passy.

Many savoury gastronomical and culinary references can be found in Rossini's musical compositions, where he often contrasted the abundance of the rich with the hunger of the poor. In Cinderella, Don Magnifico dreams of gastronomic grandeur as he anticipates the fruits of the marriage between the prince and his daughter. He sings:

"Sarò zeppo e contornato "I will have lots
di memorie e petizioni of memories and petitions
di galline e di storioni of hens and sturgeons
di bottiglie di broccati of bottles and brocades
di candele e marinati of candles and marinades
di ciambelle e pasticcetti of buns and cakes
di canditi e di confetti of candied fruits and sweets
di piastroni, di dobloni of slabs and doubloons
di vaniglia e di caffé." of vanilla and coffee."

Gastronomical quotations and feasting frequently appear in Rossini's operas, from L'Italiana in Algeri to La Cambiale di Matrimonio, from Il viaggio a Reims to Ciro in Babilonia, to little known unpublished operas left by the Maestro such as Péchés de Vieillesse (sins of old age), in which there is a collection of piano pieces collectively called "Hors d'oeuvre" (radishes, gherkins, anchovies, butter), and four dry fruit desserts (figs, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts), and even a small German cake.

Rossini was a gastronome of many tastes. He appreciated the original cuisine of his native Marches, Italian cuisine, French cuisine, and international cuisine. From each one, he chose what suited his discriminating cosmopolitan taste: he would receive olives from Ascoli, Italian truffles, panettone from Milan, stracchini from Lombardy, zampones from Modena, mortadella and cappelli del prete from Italy, ham from Seville, Stilton cheeses from England, nougat from Marseille, and finally, royal sardines, which his friends would compete among themselves to send him.

Rossini's taste for wine was also very wide-ranging. His wine cellar contained everything, from his personally bottled wine from the Canary Islands to bottles of Bordeaux, from the Johannesburg white wine that Metternich would send him to Malaga, to bottles of rare Madeira, from bottles of Marsala to Port from the Royal Household that the King of Portugal, who was a fanatic admirer, sent him. It is said that in 1864 his friend, Rothschild, sent him grapes from his vineyard. Rossini responded with amiable irony, that he thanked him, but that he did not care too much for "wine shaped like pills," quoted Brillat-Savarin. Rothschild took the hint and sent him a barrel of his best Chateau Laffitte. During a well-known improvised toast, Rossini is reported to have born tribute to the Malvasia he would drink with dessert, by calling it "angelic harmony" and "shimmering genius."

Rossini's spirit in the world of gastronomy remains alive and vivacious as ever. Pesaro, his native city, honours him each summer with an excellent festival. For the occasion, the leading restaurants, "Lo Scudiero" and "Luigi's" offer Rossinian dishes adjusted to our contemporary tastes.

Nowadays, one finds Rossini's cuisine in every corner of the world. In Salonika you might order Soup alla Rossini, made of mashed vegetables perfumed with dill. In Barcelona, Cannelloni alla Rossini has returned to Spain after being elaborated in Argentina. At "San Domenico's" in New York, you will find the latest version of Tournedos alla Rossini, made with roe-deer meat posed on a delicate corn canapé. In "The Pazzia" of Los Angeles, the Fillet of Sole alla Rossini harmonizes with the new Californian cuisine. At the legendary "Raffles" of Singapore, where the Singapore Sling was invented, they propose a remarkable Pheasant Suprême alla Rossini. In Tokyo, the "New Otani" offers an Asian Tournedos and the "Porto" serves a Risotto alla Rossini executed in strict Italian style. The Maestro has also left his mark on the new mass cuisine, where the new and daring Rossini Pizza with eggs and mayonnaise originated in Pesaro, but now there is a Californian version of it with seven different toppings. You will find the pizza at "Rossini's" in Los Angeles. Gastronomes still turn to the cuisine that carries the name of the Maestro.

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