BOOK SIGNINGS: THE UNKNOWN
Book signings of an unfamiliar writer can be rather awkward affairs. Patrons of the bookstore, library or other organization hosting the event may wander by to support a local initiative or they may just pass the author’s table by chance. However, without a line out the door, potential readers often find themselves at a loss.
Calabria isn’t a known entity, either. If my book’s title were Tuscany: Hidden Secrets or Venice: Beyond the Gondola, heads might turn. But unless the reader has Calabrian roots or happened to notice the region while sailing past on a cruise ship navigating through the Strait of Messina, Calabria: The Other Italy will frequently produce a wary, “Where’s that?”
MAKING THE UNFAMILIAR FAMILIAR
For a recent book signing at BooksOrBooks, a relatively new Las Vegas bookstore that features an interesting collection of very good condition, predominantly used books, Kim, the congenial owner and I decided to plan an event that would give the customers an idea of what Calabria was all about. However, chock full of books from floor to ceiling throughout, this old-style bookstore didn’t lend itself to formal presentations.
I had a good number of striking posters produced by the Province of Reggio Calabria’s tourist bureau to place around. And I could set up slide shows on a couple of laptops, talk about the region illustrated by the photographs and answer any possible questions.
What about food? What is unique to Calabria? Well, they’re quite fond of their cold cuts and cheeses. I could have gotten some sort of “Calabrese” salami in a local Italian grocery store. The region produces excellent wine, but not much is exported, so that might have been a challenge to find and a bit pricey. But then it dawned on me: the bergamot.
WHAT IS A BERGAMOT?
The bergamot is a round citrus, slightly larger than an orange and not as yellow as a lemon, with a very bitter pulp and an amazingly delicate fragrance given off by the oil in its skin. I wrote about it extensively in my book, as it’s peculiar to Calabria. The fruit flourishes in a narrow strip of land at the tip of the Italian boot, and its noteworthiness lies in the oil pressed from the skin. Its most important usage is in the perfume industry, but it also lends the distinctive flavor to Earl Grey tea. 90% of the bergamot oil on the world market comes from Calabria.
And speaking of the world market, when I was in my planning phase for the bookstore event, the store with the same name (sometimes prefixed with “Cost Plus” World Market) just happened to have bergamot marmalade made by “Orti di Calabria” from the town of Gioiosa Jonica sitting on the sale shelf. The jars were half price at $2.50 each. I hope that it wasn’t because they didn’t sell, but the strong taste may have been a surprise to purchasers unfamiliar with the fruit. The marmalade is made using the pulp, but also includes the rind as with the orange varieties.
INGREDIENTS OF THE BOOK SIGNING
At first, I thought I might be able to spread a little of the bergamot marmalade on crackers and call it a day. I hadn’t ever sampled it “as is,” and when I did, I realized that I was going to have to mix it in some sort of baked good like I had tasted in Calabria. It’s a very strong flavor and a little bit goes a long way. So, I found an orange marmalade cookie recipe, threw in some extra sugar, chopped up the rind to distribute the flavor better, and the result was a distinctly delicious morsel.
However, I couldn’t leave it at that as I had named the event “Calabrian Tea Party.” Just to be clear, tea parties are by no means a common occurrence in Calabria. However, if a Calabrian were to throw a tea party, food would be supplied in great abundance. So I needed to come up with more delicacies, but I didn’t want to get in over my head with complicated recipes.
I thought of the sesame cookies I had eaten in Calabria. I found them more often in bakeries (panetteria or fornaio) rather than in the fancier pastry shops (pasticceria). Looking for a recipe on the Internet, I figured I couldn’t go wrong with Joe DiMaggio’s mother’s recipe. Although the family is Sicilian, the cookies would be similar, reflecting the Arab influence on southern Italian cooking with the use of sesame seeds. I did leave out the anise flavoring, which was in many of the recipes I came across, as I didn’t recall that aroma in the cookies I had eaten in Calabria.
EARL GREY WITH REAL BERGAMOT FROM CALABRIA
A number of store-bought items from parts further north rounded out the offerings, all to be washed down by a cup of Earl Grey tea. Although bergamot oil has flavored this tea for a couple hundred years, the tea we drank that day wasn’t produced in Calabria. Only a very small amount of tea is made and packaged in the region. And unfortunately, several well-known tea brands on the world stage use what they refer to as bergamot “flavouring.” And no, that isn’t a misspelling. Twinings of London, by no means an inexpensive label, is amongst them.
The teas of several American companies, however, do use genuine bergamot oil from Calabria. For the party, I chose Bigelow, which uses oil exclusively from the “first cold pressing” and puts “Calabria” right on the front of the box. Stash Tea, another American company, boasts “100% pure bergamot oil from Calabria, Italy” on the back of its box. Fans of Downton Abbey can enjoy the Republic of Tea’s “Estate Blend,” one of several varieties that feature the bergamot of “Southern Italy.” For those in search of an organic tea with “real Italian bergamot,” Numi, a California brand, is not only fair-trade certified, but also has a Chocolate Earl Grey.
With teacups in hand and an assortment of authentic baked goods, the stage for the book signing had been set. Calabria was at the center. Interest was piqued, and the unfamiliar began to feel familiar.
And if I do say so myself, the cookies were a huge success. In Joe DiMaggio’s words, the sesame cookies were “simply the best to dunk in a glass of milk.” I can add that they complemented the Earl Grey tea quite nicely. The bergamot marmalade cookies, however, were the real hit. They were intriguing. Although clearly recognized as citrus, the specific taste evoked a unique sensation. Strong yet pleasant, delicate yet lingering. Hmm… a bit like Calabria.
Have the cookies and tea served at the book signing piqued your interest to learn more about the bergamot and the fascinating region where it grows? Read more about this versatile fruit in the blog post The Bergamot: Calabria’s Incredible Citrus as well as in Calabria: The Other Italy, a nonfiction