Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cono - that Perfect Package

My gaze was drawn immediately to the domed ceiling. In Sistine Chapel like fashion its elongated surface portrayed a painted sun, whose brilliant yellow rays gradually transitioned about mid-way over the span of the ceiling into the cold darkness of space, accented with a moon and stars. Here was a clear depiction, in the extreme, of oppressive heat at one end and absolute cold at the other. This imagery was totally befitting for Maria Elena and I were about to experience a ritual borrowed from the bathing practices of the ancients. To be exact, we were about to take part in a modern reenactment of the Roman bath ritual.

For me this would be my first spa experience. I’d always sympathized with the cliché that real men didn’t eat quiche, nor I thought did they frequent spas. Protection of my real man persona would rest only in the fact that no one would know of my indiscretion since we were so far from home. Unfortunately, we were also far from the birthplace of the Roman bath, Italia. We were in California’s Sonoma Valley to be exact, at the thermal spa of the Fairmont Mission Inn Resort. I doubted the Romans ever had it this good even in the giant baths of Caracalla!

Roman bathing tradition consisted of three distinct phases, each marked by ever increasing heat therapies: the frigiderium, the tepiderium and the caldarium. Today’s modern technology allowed all three to be hosted in one room at the Fairmont resort. Large urns in true Romanesque style decorated a stone shelf perched high up at the base of the domed ceiling. Pillared porticoes, lining the perimeter of the room supported the shelf, separating Earth from the heavens. One segment of niches held showers with drenching sunflower showerheads. These substituted for the cold immersion of the frigiderium (cool bath), which if you allowed it, could produce a deluge as cold as a plunge in the North Sea. Centered beneath the dome, in the floor of the room, was the tepiderium (warm bath) with the temperature of the mineral water maintained at body temperature. The caldarium (hot bath) was a ‘trifecta combination’ starting first in an oversized hydro-massage jacuzzi of 102˚F (39˚C) mineral water, augmented by two adjacent hot rooms – one a dry European sauna and the other, a eucalyptus herbal steam room which could suck your very breath away.

As I experienced the heat of the caldarium, what especially filled my mind was something most probably totally anti-spa … the coolness of gelato. The soothing thought of it right at the moment of consummate heat was like the refreshment of a cold drink following a few hours of yard work in the heat of day. No, better than that. I imagined how ingratiatingly refreshing a scoop or two (due gusti) would be right then. The eruption of another cloud of steam, as though emerging from Hades itself, quickly melted that thought just as it would have any gelato, suddenly leaving me with only the cone. In no time, like ice or gelato before sweltering heat, only the host or the cone soon remains.

While gelato and a cone go together like TV’s Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, it is the gelato that garners the fame. The simple cone (cono) is straight man Ed, playing second fiddle to the gelato. Yet in Calitri the cono is king, although the gelato, especially when made by Lucia at ‘The Bar Jolly’, is fabulous. Even absent my steam room analogy, I had recently seen the remains of many cones in Calitri, for cone making is an industry there, as I was fortunate enough to realize during a visit to the local production facility of I. Co. Cialde (The Waffle Company).

I first become aware of the Cialde ‘cone confectionery’ a year earlier while visiting the fiera (fairgrounds) at the western edge of Calitri. Regional businesses and light industry throughout the Irpinia region of Campania were showcasing their products in a fair-like atmosphere. We'd expected to be inundated with information on agro-products like cheeses and wines, even a tractor or two, and we were. However, the discovery of a booth featuring an ice cream cone producer caught me by surprise, especially when I learned it was based right there in Calitri. The booth promoted an assortment of cones of all sizes, shapes and colors - some as small as your baby finger. I discovered that these tiny cones with their tops cut on a slant were used to scoop-up ice cream in lieu of a spoon. There was apparently more to this cone business.

The Waffle Company is located behind a complex of Italian beehive high-rises very near where the new highway tunnel exit now deposits you into Calitri. Looking at it from outside its walled compound, 12 Contrada Sambuco doesn’t strike you as anything special. I had no clue I’d arrived from the look of the non-descript buildings. Maybe I was expecting a giant cone or something more 5th Avenue smart, but there was nothing like that. Only a paneled delivery truck with their name and a cone or two on its side, parked inside the courtyard, confirmed I had arrived. The company had been there since 1979. Over the intervening years they had acquired the needed experience and honed their skills and today continue a long and colorful tradition of cone making. From the piles of empty wooden pallets, no doubt from sacks of flour and sugar, it was evident they were very busy.

The cone and its crowning ‘ice cream stuffing’ is a friendship grown from need - a need for each other. With their union, the crispy crunch of the cone perfectly complemented the frosty smoothness of the ice cream, making for an interesting taste combination. But who first introduced this combination? There are almost as many hotly contested stories of how the cone first got together with ice cream as there are flavors a cone can hold. To this day there remains heated controversy over who first orchestrated this marriage. History records that at first, paper, glass, cups, and dishes were used to facilitate eating ice cream during the 19th century in France, Germany, and Britain. Before the invention of the cone, ice cream was either licked from a small glass (a penny lick) or taken away wrapped in paper, called a "hokey pokey." The term "hokey pokey" presumably evolved from the anglicized distortion of the Italian vendor's cry as he hawked his ices topped with a small piece of paper called the 'kibosh' (a là "put the kibosh to it"). By the late 1800s, ‘hokey pokey men’, as these Italian immigrants were called, had spread throughout Europe and the United States selling their ‘ices’.

One of the first references to an eatable cone, called a "cornetti", can be found in a British cookbook entitled "Mrs A. B. Marshall's Cookery Book", written in 1888 by Agnes Marshall. Her cookbook contained a recipe for "Cornet with Cream". However, the person credited with the invention of the edible flat bottom cake cup, a predecessor of the true cone, is Italo Marchiony. Italo migrated to the US from Italy in the late 1800s and produced what I’ll call his 'semi' ice cream cone in 1896 in New York City. On December 13, 1903, he was granted Patent #746971 for the "pastry comet", a cone making mold. The patent describes his invention as "a mold split in two like a waffle iron and producing several small, round, pastry ice cream cups with sloping sides”. The machine resembled a long waffle iron with enough space to cook ten cups. He used these edible "cuplets", as they were called, made on his patented mold, to increase his street-vending business. He is also credited with building the first ice cream sandwich using two waffle squares.

Still it was in Saint Louis, Missouri at the 1904 World's Fair where the history of the edible ice cream 'container', in true cone shape, really began. For it was here at the fair that a new American immigrant and a former sailor from Damascus, Ernest Hamwi, ran a waffle stand where he sold 'zalabia' - a thin, crisp, syrupy Persian waffle. Ernest went to the aid of a neighboring ice cream vendor, Arnold Fornachou. As the story goes, Arnold had run out of serving dishes, which customers tended to walk off with or drop. To help out, Ernest folded a still warm ‘zalabia’ over a sailor's rope mending tool to form a cone and proposed it as a substitute for Arnold's wayward dishes. According to most accounts there were more than 50 ice cream vendors and more than a dozen waffle stands selling their treats at the fair. Word quickly spread among the venders thus leading to confusion as to who actually first invented the cone, since with the cone's instant popularity many took credit. Born of necessity, the World's Fair "Cornucopia", as the first cone was called, was an instant hit. So Ernest is typically credited with creating the classic cone shape we’re so familiar with today and introducing it at the fair, quite unintentionally, but leading to its eventual international fame. Helping thy neighbor can truly pay off, which it did for the rest of Ernest's life!

When I arrived at the Cialde cone company, I had no appointment. I doubt if they ever got any requests to take pictures or simply just look around at their operation. In fact, I may have been the first ever cone factory crasher! However, their almost munchkinland-like innocence and friendliness kicked right in. They had no objection to my looking around the facility and observing how they went about the process. This was a far cry from a time years earlier in Murano, an island hop away from Venice. On that occasion I couldn't get close to the glass blowing then underway. It had something to do with their paranoia over the theft of trade secrets by Chinese industrial "glass" spies. Nothing like that going on here, however. In any case, I didn't look Chinese! Other than the formula for the confection they whip-up at Cialde each day, there isn't much to protect, since everything is done by machines, which anyone can go ahead and purchase for themselves. Who knows, the machines may even have been Chinese made like seemingly everything is these days! I didn't ask.

I first watched as they made cake cones with flared tops using an arrangement of upright injection molds. As the precise amount of cone batter was squirted into each mold, an additional conical mold was inserted to form a sort of mold within a mold and in the process squeeze the batter between the opposing surfaces into a thin shell. Then in carousel fashion this arrangement of multiple molds rotated through an oven to emerge, following one rotation, for the molds to separate and voilà, a crispy cone was born. They would then be automatically ejected from their molds to shuffle down a series of shoots, seven abreast, for boxing and shipment. Other machines on the floor added to the throbbing fugue as they hummed, clicked, squished and continually ejected their particular style of cone. It was all a very clean and orderly process bathed in a toasty scent with only a handful of operators to service the machines and load boxes. I could only imagine and would consequently want to avoid the place on a sizzling day in August .... the very thought gave me a caldarium steam-room flashback!

The most impressive operation I observed was the production of cannoli shells, a blood relative of the ice cream cone. Here again the process was largely automated. The centerpiece of the operation was a mammoth machine I'd estimate to be about 30 feet long. It was basically a 30 foot conveyer belt, totally enclosed within a metal housing, top and bottom, that stretched across a room. Operators were positioned at either end. One, an older woman, was in charge of feeding the monster at the input end while three workers, scrambled to keep up at the output end where the finished product emerged in true Lucille Ball candy factory fashion (if you are too young to have ever seen this TV classic or would like to see it again, simply click here on I Love Lucy). I soon understood why they flip the switch to start the cannoli machine only on afternoons. It must have taken all morning for someone, or team of someones, to make the batter concoction for the circular, mini pancake-size waffles that went in at the front end. I suspected it was the older woman’s job. Her hair was in something resembling a shower cap and she wore an apron over her smock doused with flour as she loaded them in from tray after tray of as yet uncooked cannoli. I observed her as she feed the gluttonous machine. Was hers affection or frustration to rid herself of her charges and call it a day? She had a wry expression on her face akin to verbally saying "take that" or "now, how about that one" as she shuffled the 'cannoli ammo' into the breach. Hers had to have been a lot of prep work for not only did she apparently make the cake batter and shape it into patties stamped with a waffle-like pattern, but she then had to carefully roll each onto short metal cylindrical molds and refrigerate them for a time. The insatiable conveyor belt slowly moved the cylinders deeper inside to disappear as it descended, along with its charges, into a vat of heated oil. What else went on inside the belly of the beast was invisible to me but eventually this horde of metal cylinders emerged still shiny but now encrusted with a pair of crisp, toasted shells. The operator's task at the far end was to quickly remove the cannoli shells from the rods, toss the rods into a box and gently return the cannoli shells to the conveyor, without breaking any. They disappeared once again, but only briefly this time, for some final treatment before reappearing to continue on just a bit farther to then cascade off the belt in a blizzard of cones into waiting collection boxes, apparently now much tougher.

So there you have it, the inconsequential yet utilitarian cone, quietly fashioned out of necessity over a century ago, is today being mass-produced in this seemingly insignificant part of Italy only to spread far and wide. The manner of its actual birth may be shrouded in the mist of time but it was a fun, eye-opening experience to have had the opportunity to see how they are being made today at the Cialde cone company. As in the ritual of the Roman bath, where we transition from frigiderium gradually to caldarium, so to in the self indulgent ritual of enjoying an ice cream cone do we first move through the enjoyment of the rich coolness of the gelato to reach that satisfying crunchy final destination of the cone itself. Shortly after that last lick, the cone itself is consumed signaling the completion of our brief flirtation with guiltless pleasure. Just as Ed McMahon each night for 30 years served to bolster the host of the 'Tonight Show' with his resounding "H-e-e-e-e-e-ere's Johnny!" introduction, so too the loyal cone has and will no doubt for centuries more to come serve as the loyal, though subservient sidekick to its glorified companion.

That Rogue Tourist, PAOLO