Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CELLULOID CALORIES: AMADEUS



PRÉCIS NO.4: Amadeus (1992, dir. Milos Forman)


Culinary delights, gustatory pleasures, divine sensations, passionate embraces. Years ago I delighted in such interests during my travels across Europe and distant, faraway lands. In my magnificent carriage drawn by six horses, built by Rudolph Ackermann before he went on to establish the Repository of Arts, I dashed through lightning storms, glided softly through idyllic countrysides and dirt lanes lined with plane trees and witnessed the changing scenery so representative of a nation.

My companion on these journeys was the young Eva, who I had met one inky night amongst pine trees and the blare of a foghorn, as though she had caught me in a dream.

Eva.


I had carefully assembled my carriage to be complete with all essential elements of pleasure, art and taste suitable for a gentleman on a long journey. It housed a full size Bosendorfer piano, where during sleepless nights I enjoyed playing Liszt’s Transcendental Études for my intrigued and sleepy-eyed companion. My bed was draped in the finest Egyptian linen, the walls of the carriage covered in crimson damask wallpaper. My table was always set with hand-painted Royal Copenhagen china, Buccellati silverware and Moser crystal glasses with their famous gold overlay that my great-grandfather had salvaged from the collection of the deposed Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II. The fragrance of field flowers and potpourri that I had collected and dried myself according to a specific mixture ensured the somewhat stuffy room always retained a fresh smell.

We stopped at countless inns and sampled a wide variety of local cuisine and, speaking now for myself, other delicacies specific to a town or province. Many truths were revealed during these stopovers at suppers joined by both locals and travelers, aided by fine wine and food, and Eva’s particular form of companionship.

It was in the town of Halstadt that I met one of Liszt’s descendants, Wolfgang Wagner.

Wolfgang Wagner with his brother Wieland.

Wagner was a notorious epicurean, but his tales of Liszt taught me the spiritual significance of frugality. He told me how Liszt observed rigorous periods of fast, and despite appreciating excellent meals every now and then, on which occasions he became an elegant and refined man of fashion, he otherwise ate in a simple and moderate way. His breakfasts, even while he lived in the lavish Villa d’Este in Tivoli, were Franciscan, consisting of raw fennel and red turnips. During these frugal meals, he would talk about St. Francis of Assisi, and taught his guests the true, ideal Franciscanism by reciting passages from Fioretti di San Francesco d’Assisi, the poverello di Cristo.

The fabulous Villa d'Este, an ideal romantic setting.

Liszt during his period of ascetic austerity.

Similarly, Wolfgang’s grandfather, Richard Wagner, intensely poetic, unrestrained by religious, conventional or prudential considerations from whatever indulgences inflamed his passion, was far from a glutton and abhorred drunkenness or debauchery. Instead, he preferred vegetarianism, practiced waterdrinking and openly revolted against the social evils that attract the average man.

This saint-like asceticism was not uncommon during the romantic era. Amid lavish settings, we find simple enjoyment of food. For Chopin it was rum and chestnut mousse. Brahms, despite a love for food, had non-extravagant tastes. At his favorite restaurant, the Red Hedgehog, he would enjoy Hungarian goulash, chicken paprika, pumpernickel bread, Tokaj, Bavarian tort and German beer. Predating the romantic composers, Mozart enjoyed pork chops and beans.

The “Roter Igel”, or “Red Hedgehog”, in Vienna.

Brahms on his way to the Roter Igel, by Otto Böhler.

The Furmint grape, source of the famous Tokaj wine.

Beethoven enjoyed macaroni and cheese, or, more precisely, a mess of macaroni with loads of cheese on top. Upon his arrival in Vienna, he knew nothing of the fine art of cooking and cared little for good food. Apart from the pasta dish, he enjoyed simple stews and fish from the Danube. One observer reported a fondness for a bread soup cooked like mush, that he would eat with ten large eggs which, before they were stirred into the soup, he first separated and tested by holding them against the light. He would then abruptly decapitate them with his own hand and anxiously sniff them to see whether they were fresh. If any of them failed this test, he would unleash a torrent of rage against the housekeeper. While working, he would snack on stracchino, a soft creamy Lombard cheese, and Verona salami.

Salumeria G. Albertini. Source of fine Verona salami.

The romantics may have learned from the lessons of their predecessors. A 2009 exhibition at the Handel House Museum in London called “Handel Reveal'd”, to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, focused on his love for food and money and its effects on his music. In the last two decades of his life, Handel became obese and lost control of his appetite. During his travels, he incurred huge food bills and suffered from an inordinately extravagant hunger.

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy.

Goupy’s caricature was prompted by an evening at Handel’s home on 25 Brook Street for supper. Goupy, a lover of food with a refined palette, was not impressed by the menu, but what irked him more were Handel’s frequent disappearances from the table. Upon finding his host in the kitchen gorging on food that was superior to that offered the visitor, the artist was inspired to create the damning picture.

The motto at the bottom of the image, “I Am Myself Alone”, we know as the creed of the devout hedonist. However, by placing Handel’s shoe above the word “myself”, Goupy is remarking that, as a slave to one’s gluttony, one threatens to destroy oneself.

Handel’s enormous appetite may have led to corpulence and dissipation but also death, through the inadvertent consumption of lead, which at the time was used to prevent fine wines imported in England from going bad. It was lead poisoning that was the cause of the paralysis of Handel’s right hand, temper flare-ups and incipient dementia that overtook him by the 1750s. This also corresponded with a shift from more commercial operas with their embellishments and histrionics to the more spiritual, introspective oratorios which dominated his later creative life.

In his later years, the composer simply stopped playing the organ. Although his excuse was the paralysis that afflicted his right hand, some sources maintain that he simply had gained so much weight that he became incapable of reaching the keyboard. During this period he became withdrawn, ashamed of his appearance. Colleagues noted that he rarely left his apartment and never powdered his wig. Women he courted feared being pulverized under his enormous gravity. Some observers witnessed him eating sheet music during the coronation of King George II, others saw him gnawing at the velvet curtain during the premier of Judas Macabeus.

Handel.

During my twilight conversations with Wagner, his anecdotes also included a composer lesser known in our time: Antonio Salieri. I remember these stories in particular on account of Salieri’s sweet tooth, which is a curse all-too familiar to me. Imagine my delight when I saw these stories depicted so perfectly in that most remarkable film Amadeus, decades later! Witness, for example, Salieri offering Mozart’s wife, Constanze, a bowl of capezzoli di venere, “nipples of Venus”. Wagner and I were served those unique truffles one smoldering night which prompted him to embark upon tales of this illustrious court composer much maligned in later years.

Salieri.

Capezzoli di Venere.

Nipples of Venus are an addictive dessert made of fresh Roman chestnuts pureed, coated in white chocolate, cocoa, brandied sugar and marzipan. The best Roman chestnuts come from the town of Viterbo, north of Rome. Towns around Rome still have fairs in honor of their beloved chestnuts, served roasted and accompanied with “acquata”, a sweet red wine that is produced when winemakers wash out the wooden casks with water in preparation for the new vintage which is ushered in by the festival.

Typically, the caldarrostai who sell the chestnuts sit before a large round grill with a lower level filled with charcoal and a flat, perforated top. They slit the chestnut shells with a sharp, short-handled knife before putting them on the grill. The caldarrostai maneuver a large tray over the grill to keep the chestnuts hot. They then scoop up a serving of hot chestnuts with a slotted spoon and pour them into a paper cone for a customer.

Roman chestnuts.

Another of Salieri’s preferred dishes is crema mascarpone speziale, or cream cheese mixed with granulated sugar and suffused with rum. Mascarpone is a triple-crème cheese, made from a generally low-fat (25%) content fresh cream. Of utmost importance is that it uses milk of cows that have been fed special grasses filled with fresh herbs and flowers. It is peculiar to the regional cuisine of Lombardy and is generally used alone with some sugar or in zabaglione which is made with egg yolks and normally served with figs. It is thought that the cheese originated in the area between Lodi and Abbiategrasso, west and south of Milan, probably in the late 16th or early 17th century. The type generally available in North American supermarkets nowadays is an abomination.

Salieri enjoying crema mascarpone speziale.

When surrounded by a lavish feast of desserts, with heaps of petit fours such as baked meringues, macaroons (both traditional and Amiens-style), puff pastries, tartlets, mignardises, punschkrapfen, palatschinke, kaiserschmarrn with caramelized raisins, chocolate covered cherries with cognac, bichon au citron and mille-feuille, Salieri is beside himself with desire.



While Salieri is relegated to the multitude of mediocrities forgotten by history, those illustrious unknowns passed over by later generations, Mozart, the face of youth, is immortal. His death continues to remain a mystery, fueling the myth behind the genius. Was it murder? Disease? An insidious parasite from badly cooked pork? Aqua tofana?

His youthful profile continues to adorn a variety of products. I, for one, have enjoyed Mozartkugeln for many years. Created by the famous Salzburg confectioner, Paul Fürst, in 1890, and still produced according to the original recipe, the chocolates are made of small balls of pistachio marzipan and nougat. The balls are speared on little wooden sticks and are then dipped in warm, smooth dark chocolate until coated regularly with a chocolate layer all over. Fürst received a gold medal at the international trade exhibition in Paris in 1905 for the perfectly round Mozartkugel.

Since Fürst did not have his invention patented, the name “Mozartkugel” was free for others to use which resulted in several imitators that use inferior and ghastly industrial techniques.

Paul Fürst.


The original Mozartkugel.


The pains of indulgences, of passions inflamed and overwhelming one’s senses tired and frail, those compulsions that cannot be conquered, since the wild feasts of Belshazzar which led to the fall of Babylon, are magnificently expressed in this sequence of Handel’s oratorio of the same name:

Behold the monstrous human beast
Wallowing in excessive feast!
No more his Maker's image found:
But, self-degraded to a swine,
He fixes grov'ling on the ground,
His portion of the breath Divine.
Behold the monstrous human beast
Behold. . .

Matthaeus Merian the Elder, Belshazzar’s Feast, 1699.

I don’t recall the point at which my journey began, nor where it ended.

Niklaus D’Oloferne
the clutterer Web Developer

2 comments:

  1. You are a gentleman, you are an artist!
    This is the most beautiful reading: it is romantic, it is funny, it is filled with imagination, it is informative, it takes you to a different world.
    You don't know when your journey started - but I want to tell you, it should never stop.!

    A food and music lover.

    ReplyDelete