“’tis the sun that gilds flowers, oranges, and our hearts with its mellow, golden coat of love; and its color, its smell, its purity… ”
I am 27 years old, a number that, at times, feels a thousand years heavier.
My name is Fortunato [‘lucky’ in Italian]. There could be more apt names for sure, but I would be a fool were I to deny it is quite fitting: as I roamed the Seas, I survived wars, venom, shipwrecks and famine, and emerged from each with just a few scars and a missing finger, which I lost as I tried to grab a hold of the sails during a disastrous storm.
I was born in Venice and I am no more than a miserly, foul seaman, yet in love with all things that belong to the world of poetry. In this century of the Lord 1700, I board cargo ships that import citrus fruit from China to Amalfi, Genoa, Venice and Spain. We also carry citrus and silk to Villa Pisani, in the countryside outside of Venice.
We carry citrus fruit in that villa of the Pisani family, where she resides.
As we carried our citrus fruit to the villa, we could hear her voice in the air, singing Scarlatti’s arias, taught to her by her Neapolitan music master.
She, who wanders through her father’s orangerie, her golden hair falling on her shoulder and her straight nose smelling its perfumes. She who is the only reason why I go back and forth to Asia, carrying citrus fruit for her family: so I can see her from afar when we unload our treasures at her home, and dream about her. Lady Amalia! How lulled I was by dreaming of you during my long travels!
“Don’t stare too long, for even eyefuls have a price here,” says Sperindio, one of the loyal fellow seamen who I always board cargo ships with.
Besides myself there are, in fact: Sperindio, a talented thief who escaped Amalfi under mysterious circumstances. Joining us there is also Angiolino, an under-the-table distiller hailing from the Veneto countryside, who made friends with me after I saved his legs during the same thunderstorm in which I lost my finger. Angiolino spits a great deal of tobacco, and speaks with the most peculiar accent. He has such a curly mustache and such a pointy chin – they almost look like they were designed using a goniometer.
We are no more than three tramps… not even the sum of us could produce a gentleman, even when properly combed and dressed up. I like to think we are good in other ways.
“That is not true, my friend,” I object. “Eyefuls are just like your thievery: there’s no [punizione] to pay unless they catch you red-handed…”
I loved to spy on her whenever the lord of the Orangerie called us upon his garden.
I saw her amongst the cedar and orange bushes, moving ever so graceful as she put flowers in between her golden curls. I imagined her to smell like citrus herself – though I could never get close enough to determine it – emanating the same smell as the oils exuding from those shiny peels, her gilded corsets tightening her white skin and breasts as round as those fruits.
…Mentr’io godo in dolce oblio
Con piu lento mormorio
Scherzi l’aura intorno al cor!
Oh, Donna Amalia! Oh gleaming, oh fair lady! How your silk gown caresses your thighs and all else that hides underneath it! How I imagine your touch, how disturbed are my nights by the thought of your skin! I would squeeze you and I would peel your silk gown off of you as it is done with those oranges of yours, and this is all that I am going to write as if I am caught fantasizing dirty fantasies such as these I am going to have my legs cut off and maybe some other body parts as well.
Today, after the sweet endeavor of unloading the cargo, after I finally saw you again from afar after months out in the sea, we all get back to being the harbor rats we always are, ready to plague once again the decks of our ships.
‘So, what about women?’ asks Sperindio. ‘Still thinking about the Pisani chick? I know what I’d do with that silk gown of hers…’
‘You – !’
‘Do not disturb his idols’, says Angiolino as he starts to chew a brand new piece of tobacco.
‘Ah! If I could only carry her with me in my next journey! If I could hide her in my pocket! If I could bottle the gold of her hair and her scent of orange and carry it on myself, as I would with a bottle of rum! How quieter my nights would be, and how lulling the tides!’
‘I trust life on the ship would be sh*t all the same,’ states Sperindio, and that’s where our dialogue ends.
The captain of the [bastimento] that would have us on board next was Eugenio Aureliano Dell’Arcimboldo, son of some goddamn local duke, a cretin with an ecru wig and, given how tight his jackets always looked, a little too much love for banqueting. His only talent was manage people who could run a ship – not even running the ship himself.
Rumor had it that he and my sweet donna Amalia Pisani were about to be engaged. Ah! What unfair world could give such beauty in marriage to a fat, wigged man who wears the same womanly corsets to keep his overflowing belly on hold?
And there we are, ready to board.
Angiolino sticks a bottle in my hand.
‘What is this?’ I whisper.
‘Rosolio di Portogalli,’ [orange rosolio], he answers under his black moustache. ‘Here is your lady, all bottled up: the saffron I stole from a Venetian cargo as the gold of her hair, and the oranges I stole from a carriage of Neapolitan merchants enclose her scent, and all the rest of the poetry you would like to see within this alcoholic solution. You are no more than a rough seaman, but this is art: I used up some of it for your ugly face in regards of that time you saved my legs along the Chinese shores. Hide it well inside your pants, and drink a few drops at night to ease your dreaming.’
I was surprised and I was grateful as I had never been.
’Shucks, there’s no use dreaming too much about it,’ butts in Sperindio, who had been eavesdropping from the back rows.
‘Everybody knows ’tis the captain who shags your fair lady.’
Angiolino kicks Sperindio’s shin with his heel.
’Such is life,’ whispers Angiolino. ‘Do not listen to that party crasher. If you cannot have her, you can at least dream a little.’
Mormorando su la sponda
Vada a passo l’onda
Or che poso in grembo al fior…!
‘What are you carrying?’ asks the boarding constable, as we are called to board the ship.
’Nothing. Just my dreams.’
The constable gives me a sideways look. He flicked his pen as a sign to move on and get the hell outta his sight.
Once on the ship, we form our usual row in front of the captain. In my head, confused amidst the sounds of the Lagoon, the words of Scarlatti’s ‘Mentre io Godo in Dolce Oblio’ still echoes.
The captain scratches his head under the wig with a porcupine needle. He fixes his curls and, with a whip on his constable’s butt, he orders the horn be blown.
‘Off we sail,’ he declares. ‘Art here those who art here, and that which is missing…well, just dream of it.’
This is just a silly little story I wrote without even thinking, almost as soon as I read this recipe for rosolio ‘di Portogallo’ in Pellegrino Artusi‘s book, La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene, the most important Italian cookbook ever written.
A couple historical notes about this recipe: back when cargo ships and carriages would carry oranges from the Far East, oranges were called ‘Portugals’ (Portogalli in italian and Portugals in French). The reasons why could be several: maybe because the kingdom of Naples bought most of its oranges from Portugal, or maybe because the name was changed from the Greek word for orange, which is portokalos… who knows, really?
Whatever the reason, the name of the recipe makes sense, as it is made with orange peel.
This liquor is wonderfully scented and absolutely delicious, and it is slightly reminiscent of a limoncello, except that it is less alcoholic and sweeter. Back in the 1800’s, in Artusi’s time, rosolio was very popular among ladies and one of the most famous rosolios was made with roses. Still today, rosolios are mainly used to brush sponge cakes, as addition to custards and cream, and in sweets and baking in general.
I had a lot of fun writing this little story, and I had loads of fun making this liquor, which will surely be the first of a series.
A FEW NOTES
The original recipe called for 650g of sugar. I used 300 and felt like it was the perfect amount. I suggest you do not use a whole 650g of sugar – sugars back then were not as refined as they are today and had less sweetening power.
I used a fat pinch of saffron strands – I think they ended up being about 10 – 15 strands, and the saffron flavor was veeery subtle, which was perfect for me. But the saffron I was using was a little old and surely lost some of its power. I am sure that, is using fresh saffron, you would need no more than 5 to 10, depending on how strong you like it.
- 375 ml (1½ cups) 95˚ edible alcohol for liquor making
- 625 ml (2½ cups) pure water
- 250 ml 35˚ alcohol solution (see above instructions to make it)
- The peel from 1 medium organic orange
- The peel from 1 small lemon (my personal addition)
- A fat pinch saffron strands (5 to 10, depending on how strong you like it)
- 300 g powdered white sugar
- 360 g Water
- Simply measure out the 95˚ alcohol and water and combine them together. Store in a bottle.
- Measure 250 ml (1 cup) of the alcoholic solution and add it to a large glass jar.
- Carefully cut the orange peel, avoiding the white part (scrub it off if you can't leave it out). Add it to the alcohol along with the saffron, and cover the jar with a cotton cloth and a rubber band to keep it in place (or, if it is a Weck-type jar, use its lid without the rubber band and clasps). Let it infuse for 3 days.
- On the fourth day, combine the sugar and water in another jar and shake well to dissolve the sugar. If the sugar does not dissolve completely, slightly heat it up in a pot. Add it to the alcohol and stir very well to combine. Let sit for 8 more days.
- When ready, filter through a clean cotton cloth into a pretty bottle.
- This light liquor, which is really easy to make, is perfect to use in baked goods, as an addition to custards and cooked fruits - especially berries.