5 September 2013

Another Odd Thing That Italians Eat

                                        —Fabiana Geomangio

We were in Rosciano, our hamlet in Umbria, at a dinner party when we were first offered tidy rectangles of toast topped with a dark brown paste that had a delicately pungent, liver-like taste. Informed that they were called ‘Crostini di milza’, we happily munched on them on several other occasions in Umbria and Tuscany before actually remembering to look milza up (this was back in the pre-internet era). We discovered that it meant ‘spleen’.

Spleen! Isn’t that the organ of ill temper, the one that one must periodically vent?

Must I observe you? must I stand and crouch

Under your testy humour? By the gods

You shall digest the venom of your spleen.

—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Even in awfully offal-ly France, where the thymus gland of the calf (ris de veau) is one of the stars in the gourmet constellation, you never see spleen (rate) in a butcher’s or on a menu, or at least we never have. Of course there is the great Charles Baudelaire’s Spleen de Paris, but you wouldn’t want to eat that, either:

“Nothing is as tedious as the limping days,
When snowdrifts yearly cover all the ways,
And ennui, sour fruit of incurious gloom,
Assumes control of fate’s immortal loom”

But spleen is not all bad. In traditional Chinese medicine, one of its functions is to house the yi (thinking). It governs pondering—something Baudelaire might have held a world record for. In Greek, the language that gave us the English word ‘spleen’, people who are good hearted are ‘good-spleened’. And the Greeks eat their share: lamb’s spleen is one of the organs in the Easter dish, kokoretsi, braided into intestines and grilled on a spit (kukurek in Macedonian, kokoreç in Turkish). In southern Italy, in fact, they makes something similar, be it marro (Puglia), cazzmarr (Marche and Basilicata) or cazzamarro (Calabria), among other names.

Other regions of Italy partake as well. In Trentino, they use spleen to make gnochetti with greens, garlic, bone marrow and egg. In Alto Adige they make milzschnittensuppe (beef broth poured over spleen-covered crostini). And Rome's Jewish community makes milza di bue in padella (sautéed ox spleen).

But it’s in Sicily where spleen triumphs in Italy as soul food, especially in Palermo, where the locals are said to have learned their love of spleen (or meusa as it’s known there) from the city’s Jewish butchers, who slaughtered the animals in the Vucciria market, and were paid in offal instead of money. To turn it into cash, they set up stands along the street, boiling and frying the sliced spleen, or stuffing it in rolls. Today it’s called 'pan cà meusa' and served with a squeeze of lemon, ricotta and grated caciocavallo cheese.

For first time spleen eaters, though, you may want to stick with Tuscany and Umbrian crostini di milza. If you can get the spleen, it’s easy to make with butter, red onions, nutmeg and anchovy paste and a food processor: Marco Tomaselli reveals all in this short video:

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