Tim Parks' Italian Ways & Gluten-Free Pistachio Cookies
Train travel sounds romantic until you actually board the train. In the United States, the country is so large and trains are so slow that flying or driving makes much more sense. In Italy, train travel is plagued by strikes, bureaucratic red tape, and a ticketing system that’s incomprehensible even to people who have been riding the train for years. So why even bother taking the train? In Tim Parks’ new book, Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, he explores his adopted country through its rail system’s quirks and ultimately decides that the train provides a “beautiful respite” from everyday life.
Parks, who moved to Italy from England when he was in his 20s, commutes from his home in Verona to his teaching job at a university in Milan—by train. In Italy, it's common for people to commute long distances to work. He also has students who live at home with their parents but travel long distances to go to class. The first hurdle in train travel is getting a ticket, and Parks explains the many different ticket options. Or tries to, at least. In Italy, there are all different kinds of trains, like regional and fast trains, and while sometimes you can buy a ticket from a person at a window, sometimes you cannot. Sometimes you have to use a machine with sticky buttons. Or sometimes there’s a person and you can buy tickets from them, but they can’t answer questions—that’s someone else’s job. The process of just getting on the train is difficult. Then, once you’re on the train, sometimes there are strikes, over things such as milk production, that pause the train for an hour. And sometimes, you may get off at the wrong Verona train station, since there are two with the same name.
Once Parks is on the train, he wants to pull out his book and sit quietly for the ride. But of course, there are fellow passengers who want to talk, or people loudly gabbing on cell phones. The train ride is a moment that’s removed from real life. The train is a liminal space—everyone, all strangers, are suspended between the place they departed and the place they are going. It’s a space in which passengers are subject to the whims of the rail system, or the government, or the fellow passengers in their car, but the only way to get through it is to slow down and relax.
At times, Italian Ways feels like a travelogue about the journey, not the destination, or a memoir about purchasing rail tickets, but it’s really the portrait of a society. Italian society is obsessed with speed, but it’s ultimately slow and traditional. The train has been involved in the country’s political, military, and cultural history, and Parks touches on each of these. The train brings everyone—students going home to visit their families, people on the way to work, retired people on vacation—together in one cramped car. While there isn’t a lot of action in Italian Ways, Parks’ portrait of the country is warm and charming—much like a visit to Italy itself.
When I was 20, I traveled through Europe—including Italy—by train, and my friends and I always picked up snacks to take with us. Cookies were a good choice, since they were delicious any time of day and were easy to pack. We weren’t alone in our train eating—Parks spends time discussing the various dining options available in Italian train stations. Pistachio is a popular flavor in Italy, so here’s a recipe for Italian pistachio cookies that would be ideal to eat while watching the Tuscan hills roll by. Or, just while standing in your American kitchen.
GLUTEN-FREE PISTACHIO COOKIES
- 2/3 cups pistachios (raw, shelled and to be finely chopped)
- 3/4 cups pistachios (raw, shelled and to be coarsely chopped)
- 1 cup almond flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup egg whites
- powdered sugar
Lightly toast the pistachios for around 10 minutes in a preheated oven at 320ºF.
Chop 2/3 cup of pistachios finely or pulse them in a food processor.
Chop 3/4 cup of pistachios roughly.
In a bowl, add the finely chopped pistachios, almond flour, sugar, and egg whites. Mix well until it forms a paste. You can add extra almond flour if the dough is really sticky.
Roll dough into little balls and roll them through coarsely chopped pistachios.
Bake at 350º for about 12 minutes, until very lightly browned. The cookies will harden slightly when they cool, but will be soft inside.
Remove cookies from oven and let cool. Dust with powdered sugar when cool.