La Festa

 

This event happened in October of 2015 in Lucca, Italy. It changed my life and I wanted to acknowledge all my friends in Lucca who have opened my heart and showed me that anything is possible. The story is longer than usual so sit back with a coffee or glass of vino and enjoy.

This story is dedicated to my dear friend Davino, who showed me the real Italy, who taught me how to eat chestnuts and who had the biggest heart, always filled with love and generosity. I miss you Davino.

Davino Lazzarini

1947 – 2017

 

The Festa
A celebration of friends and food

This birthday stung. I felt like I was being propelled from the comfort zone of my “middle ages” into the “senior” zone. A downward spiral. What would mark the “age of wisdom” was otherwise depressing. We all experience milestones in our lives. I would survive.

To make this transition bearable, my mom, our dear friend Claudia and I planned a trip to Italy for late September into October. A visit to Florence, a week’s stay in Pienza and the grand finale, a week with my dear friends Angela and Davino on their comfortable farm, La Mimosa, in lovely Lucca.
As always, Lucca invited us in with open arms.

La Mimosa nestles itself into a landscape of spring mix salad greens, rolling hills, olive trees, and villas. My favorite view from the property is a stark but peaceful and eye-catching white washed convent that seems to hover, like a pair of angel wings, at the top of a hill in the distance. La Mimosa’s vast property houses two living spaces. One home for Angela and Davino and a renovated barn we three would share for a week. To me, this is the most peaceful place on earth and I was eager to reunite with my friends, their dogs Pongo and Gilda, the many cats and three donkeys that call La Mimosa home.

I’d been to Italy many times before but on this trip I would discover why I am seduced into returning here, to Lucca, even when there are so many other places I yearn to visit. The seduction was revealed during a festa, or party, thrown by Angela, Davino and my mom so I could reunite with all the friends I’ve made here the past three visits. The party would also take the sting out of my birthday. How exciting!

***

By early October, the autumn weather has shifted dramatically from warm sunshine to cool breezes. Black skies loom overhead throughout the day giving the feeling of constant dusk. The coziest and warmest room in the house is the kitchen, and, at its heart, a wood burning fireplace tucked in at waist level, delivering instant heat. An old wooden and well-worn farmhouse table sits in the middle of the room becoming the square kitchen’s centerpiece. When friends gather, it is often around this table where wine or espresso is shared and conversation flows freely. An antique meat slicer rests on a corner counter ready to deliver paper-thin prosciutto slices whose recipients are often one of the many lucky cats living at La Mimosa. Angela’s favorite cooking gadgets and appliances line another deep counter and directly above, open shelving houses plates and glasses.

In the comfort of this kitchen, Angela begins making Zuppa Verde, a traditional Tuscan bean soup with Fagiolini, a brown bean with swirls of red and shaped like a kidney. In Italy, this labor of love has many stages, the first of which is to cook the beans in garlic and sage. She then passes the beans through a hand-cranked press that extracts the skins pushing out only the inner bean. Next, Angela makes a soffritto, the Holy Trinity of Italian flavor basics: onions, carrots and celery. These ingredients are sautéed then added to the beans along with some pomodoro or tomato water. Aromas of the soffritto, which flavors the beans, steam from the tall pot on Angela’s large rustic stove, as the soup simmers for hours. Next, Angela stirs in chopped kale, swiss chard, celery and leek and the soup continues its journey building flavor upon flavor. “We have a contest here,” she tells me, “to see who makes the best Zuppa Verde in Tuscany!” Like our chili cook-off’s, I think to myself, only more sacred.

Our friend, Nico, arrives late in the still-dark day. His contribution to the festa would be homemade spinach-stuffed ravioli. We need ingredients so Mom, Nico and I pile into the car for an adventure at COOP, a large grocery store with good prices on the west side of town. Nico carefully chooses all the ingredients to make his special ravioli and we also purchase olives, jars of marinated red onions, and bottles of Prosecco to drink with the antipasti. The Italians love their coffee and with one whole aisle dedicated to this tradition, Mom finds an espresso coffeemaker to take home. She has learned how to make espresso the Italian way and so will carry forth the tradition – way to go Mom!

The rain is relentless. On the way home, Nico wants to show me where he works, at a center for learning that encompasses acres of land for group or individual gardens. Here he teaches organic gardening to children and disabled people. I can see how this is a good fit for him as he is so patient and kind. The garden is a canvas of design, color and texture. Some rows are well-manicured housing healthy, gorgeous heads of green and red leaf lettuce, spinach and arugula. On the other end of the color spectrum, scraggly bean stalks are saying goodbye to the season. A few aging eggplants still hang on. Nico explains, “This is not only a garden for the center, but the community can use it too for the small fee of 10 Euro a year.” Nico knows all the families, which plots they have and advises them on organic gardening methods. An Armenian family has even created a large coop for chickens and turkeys. Nico points out a giant white “Cinderella” pumpkin making an appearance in an open field. Nearby, a pergola houses hanging gourds of all shapes and sizes. We duck inside from the persistent rain to be semi-sheltered. The long hanging gourds almost form a curtain in the doorway. Some gourds look white-washed with their necks stretching three feet long. Some are deep green with a skin painted like a watermelon and oblongated bodies, perfectly shaped by nature. One must weigh 10 pounds and still hangs proudly on its sturdy vine. We traipse through the beds, picking various lettuces for the party and nibbling the spicy, fresh baby arugula. I am enchanted by this special place, this little microcosm of nature outside of Lucca, like a painting with rotating artists creating their own picture, year after year.

We return to La Mimosa around 5pm to begin making the fresh pasta. Nico proudly shows off his culinary skills by cracking the eggs into the flour to make the pasta dough, and Mom, his eager understudy, rolls the dough into long sheets in preparation for the ravioli. Angela pours us all a glass of their house-made red wine and takes a break from cooking to share her zuppa recipe with me. Then, with Nico’s guidance, I make the spinach filling for the ravioli. This filling is an Italian variation using half cow ricotta and half pecorino ricotta which give it a pleasantly tangy flavor. In a large sinkful of water, we clean, then blanch the abundance of fresh spinach we’d plucked from the community garden. Yes, we will have plenty of filling! We roll the pasta dough into six long wide strands and then dot three of them with the perfectly seasoned spinach, ricotta and parmesan filling. Another pasta layer is carefully placed on top and then gently sealed with fingertips to hold in the filling. “Which ravioli cutter should we use Nico? The big one?” I ask. “Use the small one,” Angela chimes in as she stirs the Zuppa. “We could use the wheel to make squares,” Mom comments. Nico was set on round. So small round it was.

Pasta dries quickly in a warm kitchen so we add pressure to cut through both layers of dough. A dusting of flour on top and voila! we have a finished product. The dough does not make as many ravioli as we project to feed 15 people. Considering all the food that would be served, I think we will have plenty, but the good Italian, Davino, wishes copious amounts of food for his guests. “When Italians are invited to dinner,” he reminds me, “they expect to be fed well.” No cocktail parties here! Yes, a feast, an Etruscan banquet this will be. We share a light meal with Angela and Davino before heading off to bed.

Friday – Festa Day
In the early morning, Mom and I drive to the seaside town of Livorno to purchase olive wood products for my olive oil business. The rain has not let up and is actually even more deliberate in its full throttle shower. The drive is exhausting and I need a nap.

Soon Davino is at the door, asking me to go with him to pick up the sausages for tonight’s festa. The weather is behaving brutto-ugly with angry booms and cloud bursts of torrential water. Onward we drive, winding in and out of country roads, making our way to his friend’s machelleria or butcher shop. Tucked away down a tiny, rural road is a short driveway and a small store front, the butcher’s living accommodations upstairs. Davino says this is how they can make a decent living, by having their shop in their house. The butcher and his wife, a handsome couple in their 60’s, dressed in their matching white aprons, stand proudly behind the small counter. Davino chats away with them, sharing the stories of the day. I watch as the butcher cuts the sausages from a long string, counting out 35 or two per person. How can we possibly eat all this food? The cost is 29 Euro, not bad for freshly ground, fat, pork sausages. Another slice of life in Italy. Doing what you love, even if it means living upstairs from a room of animal carcasses!

We return home and Davino insists that my mom goes with him to pick out the pastries for the party. He tells me I can’t go. “But pastries are my thing!” I whine. “No!” Davino says with a smile. “Only your mom and I!” They will drive to Davino’s home town, nearby, and meet his sister, the baker. I learn later that they are picking up my birthday cake and didn’t want me to see it before the party. My mom returns with stories of Davino’s home town and a glimpse of his past life. I think they really bonded!

I wander over to the main house to see how the preparations are going. Nico is busily poaching the ravioli and a pomodoro (tomato) ragu, to accompany them, bubbles on the stove. They look divine. Davino teaches me how to use the large, antique slicer to make thin salami slices for the antipasti. Nico prepares a gorgeous Mediterranean farro salad with beans, mint, tomato and onion. I place this in bowls and set up the antipasti area in the next room before going back to the barn to change my clothes. I wish I’d had something more appropriate to wear but had not packed for a party. The weather has shifted, fall is early and all my dresses are sleeveless. I put on my garnet-colored sweater and matching tank, some eye makeup, my favorite dangle silver earrings, rose-colored lipstick and now am ready to meet and greet.

Annalisa, Angela’s painting friend arrives first, followed by Mattia and Michelle, the incredibly talented opera singers I had stayed with the year before. Simonetta and Federico, Mattia’s parents whom I had met last year at their Vendemmia (grape harvest) came next and then Antonio, a well-regarded Tuscan painter, Liliana, his dentist wife and their daughter, Francesca, a concert pianist. The two Germans staying in La Mimosa’s studio also join us. A diverse, educated and artistic crowd will make for a lively evening. It is a quiet sort of mingle for the antipasti. Everyone gathers in the living room for Prosecco and Nico’s delicious farro salad. Soon Angela calls us all into the kitchen for La Cena. The kitchen table is flanked by two more tables creating a dining space the length of the room. A white tablecloth, white plates and simple white cotton napkins line the table along with carafes of Tuscan red wine. The food is to be the centerpiece. The fireplace roars with crackling wood, filling the room with warmth.

Presentation is everything. Angela lines a very large green ceramic bowl with day old bread slices, spooning the steaming Tuscan soup, Zuppa Verde, on top to soften the bread. Fantastico! From this bowl, she then scoops out some of the bread and ladles the hot zuppa on top into individual bowls for the guests. We all complete the zuppa with a ritual drizzling of Italian extra virgin olive oil. There is a hush and the only sounds are of spoons clanking the sides of the bowl scooping out every savory, creamy drop. The bowls are cleared away and new ones appear. Soon Nico’s ragu-baked ravioli are placed into the bowls along with a slice of thin, meat lasagna. It turns out Davino didn’t think there would be enough food so bought a beautiful homemade meat lasagne just in case. I am already getting full. Our ravioli are bursting with the delicate spinach and cheese filling and every mouthful dances on my tongue.

Listening to the various conversations is challenging since everyone is speaking in Italian but I manage to understand quite a bit. Mattia is clearly the entertainer, making everyone laugh and occasionally bursting out into song. His wife, Michelle, obviously adores him and enjoys bantering back at him. Antonio is a quiet and serious man with a big heart. I imagine him constantly creating a new painting in his mind’s eye. I hear him chiming in to comment, adding only a few words here and there. He is mostly focused on the food and like any artist, appreciating, with gusto, Angela’s masterpiece of the zuppa.

Angela comes alive, leaving her soft-spoken self and with animation, recounts a recent news story of people in Austria (her home country) trapped and locked away in a house for years. She has the entire table under her spell. It is a time to continue the digestion before more food.

Again, Angela clears away bowls and fresh plates arrive. She must have a magic replenishing cupboard! While we devour the ravioli, Davino is busy grilling the fresh salsicca (sausages), over the open fire in the kitchen. A cat appears and rubs up against my leg. He apparently smells the meat and invites himself to the party. The hot, aromatic sausages are delivered to each guest by Davino. How could I possibly eat more? But every bite tastes so good! Still the food keeps arriving. It is a dream I never want to end.

Earlier, Nico and Angela prepared fagioli, beans, simmered with copious amounts of garlic, onion and sage. So rich in flavor, I could eat these everyday. This is the accompaniment to the sausage. Dio Mio! By this time, my stomach is swelling out of proportion. Thankfully, after this course, we all retreat upstairs for some entertainment.

Francesca, Antonio and Lilliana’s 19 year-old daughter, is a classically trained pianist and treats us to a Beethoven concerto. I am mesmerized as her slender fingers slide so easily over the keys, making musical notes leap into the air. It is a masterpiece only to be understood by those of us lucky enough to be present in her company. Mattia and Michelle sing “Ol Sole Mio” and with gusto, everyone sings along. I have goosebumps. How can an evening be more perfect? I am about to find out.

I follow the rest of the guests down the stairs and back into the kitchen. To my surprise, the kitchen is dark and on the table sits a large gorgeous cake with “Happy Birthday Mary” written on it. A tiny firecracker sizzles and I blow out the candle that read “60.” Everyone sings Happy Birthday. It is beautiful and I feel a surge of love for these Italians who have become my family. This outpouring of food and genuine well wishes is overwhelming. I make a wish (to someday live in Lucca!) and cut the first slice of “Svoglia.” The cake is a giant Napoleon. When Davino ordered the cake, from his sister’s bakery he asked for a cake for 15 people. Instead, he got a cake for 50 people! A thin cookie crust creates the base, followed by layers of puff pastry, then panna (cream) and a thick layer of dark, gooey, delectable chocolate pastry cream fills the center. The entire cake is frosted in whipped cream with pretty flowers piped decoratively along the edges. A pink rose garnishes each corner. It is fantastico!

My incredible birthday cake!

Davino loves gelato and no party is complete without it. After cake, he brings out his four favorite flavors: Hazelnut, Pistachio, Chocolate and Cassata. I am ready to explode. Oh, all this with more Prosecco.

Nico, who is sitting next to me, gets up and presents me with a beautiful white bag. Inside is a bottle of perfume encased in a gold and white box. I am stunned. “Nico, sei troppo gentile.” What a sweet, sweet gift from this gentle man. Michelle then stands up and comes back with another white bag. This one holds a tiny dark blue bag closed with raffia. Inside are a pair of silver earrings studded with two rounds of emeralds. “Bellisima!” Again, I am almost in tears. This outpouring of love and gifts is almost too much for this person who is so unused to attention. The group cries “Speech, speech!” With Nico whispering in my ear, the Italian words I want to convey, I thank my guests for coming, express gratitude for their friendship and then say “Amo i miei amici Lucchese!” I love my Lucchese friends. Everyone claps and the chatter returns.

I sit in between Nico, who speaks English, and Simonetta, who doesn’t and try desperately to carry on a conversation with her in my intermediate Italian. She is a fabulous cook as well as an accomplished Flamenco dancer and I love her confidence and style. She has made my favorite Italian dessert, her specialty of Semifreddo, an Italian frozen mousse. We don’t even get a chance to eat it – we already pushed the gastro limits beyond capacity. It will wait patiently to be appreciated the next day.

I have an epiphany at that moment. Italy itself is oozing out of this table, like a tube of oil paint and with each squeeze and stroke of the brush, coloring the event with art and artists. Everywhere, art is complementing art. I am surrounded by artists all in their own right. Three fine art painting artists, two opera singers, one concert pianist, one European architectural restoration artist, one dancer, three cooks, and one garden expert and historian. This is Italy. Living, breathing, art. I am a part of this art, drinking in all its humility on one side and its ownership on the other. It has taken me years to fully grasp this concept even as “art” keeps singing in my ears.

The evening is ending and I say goodnight to all. I will always remember this very special day and how my mom, Angela and Davino planned the perfect surprise just for me. That night as my mom and I lay in bed, she tells me how she had planned this party back in March as soon as she knew we were coming to Italy. She wanted me to feel happy and loved after the year of struggle and ill-health I experienced. I am learning to accept love and attention. This is a start. I am so grateful for my mom and all the friends who truly care about me. Lucca is a gift and a treasure and I cherish every moment I am here to experience her loving arms and joyful vitality.

Ciao for now,




“Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”

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The most peaceful, beautiful place on earth. Lucca, Italy

My heartstrings are tugging like a hug you don’t want to release. This feeling waxes and wanes but mostly waxes. It’s a longing to be in another place, another reality far different from what I’m used to. A chance to reinvent oneself, live in the moment and not be caught up in the hustle bustle and busyness of big city living. It hits me hardest after I receive a letter from my dear friend, Angela, in Lucca, Italy, who tells me the news of our mutual friends, her painting and the latest art exhibits, her pets and garden. I flashback to our meals cooked together, excursions to the countryside and festivals, and friends picking grapes for our wine. How I wish I could trade places with her for a year!

What spell, exactly, does the charming town of Lucca have on me that calls to my heart like a siren at sea? In my eyes, it’s the one place in this world where everything I love comes together so naturally. Ancient history, walled cities, pasta, gelato, sculpture, pecorino cheese, opera, olive oil, wine, art, cobblestone streets with narrow alleyways, homes of rustic reds and harvest golds, the beautiful sing-song language (so romantic), markets of fresh garden vegetables, espresso, scarves, Buccellato bread, prosciutto and the list goes on.

Whenever I feel the need to return to my dreams, I review my favorite photos of Lucca. I thought I’d share a few that tell a story about the countryside, people and food I embrace so tightly. I hope you enjoy them and are able someday to travel to this special piece of paradiso. I’ve included an amateur video I took of my friends, the opera singers, Michelle and Mattia performing in a small church in Lucca. Bellissimo!

In the words of  the famous song by Janis Joplin, [Lucca}, “takes another little piece of my heart” every time I visit.

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Food Fraud Exposed Editorial

60 minutes recently aired an exposé on the Mafia’s control over food production in Italy, called “Agromafia.” It is scary. Chlorophyll and sunflower oil or canola oil mixed together to form olive oil; detergent added to cheese to whiten it; cheap wine touted as expensive reserve. Food is a big business, especially in Italy.

The show focused on Italy but the Italians aren’t the only culprits in the food industry. Remember the melamine from China in dog food that made so many pets sick? Food from China is often boycotted because we distrust their full disclosure of ingredients. I’ve been researching various food products around the world and each country has its pocket of villains trying to make an easy buck. God knows our country is not exempt and also has its share of fraudulent manufacturers.

It’s a world wide epidemic and why? Our need and want for more choices but at a low cost lures us into buying with our eyes closed. If you are paying $9.99 for a gallon of olive oil, do you really think you are getting the real deal? We convince ourselves that we are getting a bargain without questioning the source. As my high school English teacher, Mr. Bell, said repeatedly, TINSTAFL. There is no such thing as a free lunch!

There are many agencies that regulate food fraud including the FDA. Actually, my last shipment was randomly flagged and held over in customs for six weeks until an FDA agent could “test” my olives and make sure they were acidic enough. They passed the test with ease and I learned that some food companies pass through unnoticed with possibly tainted food while others, like mine, must endure the food safety process.

Beware of companies jumping on the bandwagon to sell trendy foods who do not do their research. My travels over Italy have led me to the true creators of authentic, family grown and unadulterated products. I care about what goes into my body and choose to support the independent businesses rather than the “box” brand names. I rely on them to deliver quality and they rely on me to buy their products. Food Fraud Resources is a great website and a tutorial for helping us to distinguish between authentic and fraudulent foods. There is an especially interesting article on fish that will surprise you and also make you swim away from certain seafoods. foodfraudresources.com

So let’s not live in fear of products from other countries, but rather be aware, read labels, and support the people who really want to make a difference in the world.

Here’s a video clip from the 60 Minutes episode:

Agromafia

Visit my site, thevirtuousolive to view a video from Galantino, the olive mill I receive my beautiful, pure oils from. You can see first hand how they produce their extra virgin olive oils.

Enjoy and drink your olive oil!!

Mary

 




The Fortress of Montecarlo

Every little village in Italy has something unique and special to offer it seems. Montecarlo, situated high on a hill near Lucca, is no exception. My dear friend Angela is fond of this artsy piece of antiquity and was eager to share its gifts with me.

The fortress, founded in 1333, feels cozy guarded by large wooden gates that in medieval times could be closed snugly to prevent intruders from Pisa and Florence from entering.  The two main narrow streets,  paved of thick, uneven stones and of different colors, meet in a “V” at the piazza center. This small village is an amalgam of old exposed brick and stone and houses painted in rich Tuscan colors. This mix of old and new, is to me, what gives it its charm.

The main street was quiet this time of year. Angela says it’s crowded in the summer but with the European crowd. It is not on the tourist bus route yet, thankfully.

 

Now, to disclose one of Montecarlo’s treasures – its wine. This small region of Tuscany grows the grape varietals of Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebianno and Pinot bianco and makes a white wine using French methods. It is only here in this small part of the world you will find this unique wine. Eager to taste the famous Montecarlo Vino Bianco, we sat down outside a small trattoria for pranzo (lunch) and immediately ordered a bottle. Clean and crisp with a soft hint of fruit, it was almost too drinkable! It is the perfect warm weather wine. Angela and I sipped wine, took photos and chatted away about the lessons of life. I ordered a risotto with pecorino and pear and Angela chose a risotto with sausage and radicchio. Both were delicious. The pecorino and pear complemented the wine and was a combination I had never eaten. Angela’s colorful risotto was equally fabulous.

While we were eating, Angela recognized an artist friend who soon joined us for an after lunch Limoncello. I love traveling with the locals as they introduce me to so many engaging people with interesting stories. Thank you Angela for a beautiful day!




Breakfast in Florence

Ditta Artigianale in Santa Croce

Hidden in the quaint neighborhood of Santa Croce sits Ditta Artigianale, a gem of a cafe that serves up creative and beautiful food in the tiniest of kitchens. We stumbled upon this cozy and comfortable eatery by mistake, no one recommended it, it just showed up.

The place to be!

The two large open front doors invite you in, and upon entering, a retro feel takes over, with a turntable on a bench belting out tunes of the Rat Pack and other crooners.

Hip and cozy.

Hits the spot!

At first our plan was to just have a coffee and a pastry but we curiously wandered to the back where the wow factor took over as we observed sumptuous plates of salads and perfectly poached eggs leaving the kitchen. We were intrigued and immediately decided to stay for breakfast. In Italy, breakfast means standing at the counter of a “bar” tossing down an espresso and munching a brioche (croissant). This place was decidedly different.

Brunch of Croque Madam ala italiano.

The menu offered such enticing dishes as an Italian version of Croque Monsieur and Croque Madam. I chose the Croque Madam, a grilled sandwich stuffed with eggplant, pesto, spinach and mozzarella, topped with a fried egg. Decadent. The drinks were even more inventive. Hot coffee was out of the question because the morning weather was already steaming hot, so I tried the double espresso with tonic water over ice. Refreshing and surprisingly tasty.

Tonic induced double espresso.

I loved the vibe here. Local families dropped in proudly showing off their babies, the staff joyfully arranging flowers and everyone genuinely having fun. If I lived in Florence, this would be my morning feel-good hangout!

Ditta Artigianale

Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

Ciao for now,

Mary




Olive Oil Granola

Today's breakfast!

Today’s breakfast! Granola topped fruit and yogurt.

Olive oil? In granola? Certo! (Certainly!) This idea offered to me by my sister-in-law Mirna, was worth exploring. I’ve made plenty of granola in the past and recently started craving it with my morning yogurt and fruit. A quick label read at the local healthy grocery store revealed that every single brand on the shelf from medium-priced to expensive all contained canola oil. As a canola oil rebel, I was disgusted that all these companies creating so-called nutritious and healthy cereals would be reluctant to add anything other than canola! Yes, I realize that canola oil has its benefits for some but I choose to eliminate it from my diet – GMO’s, pesticides, high heat processing – you get the picture. When the suggestion was made to substitute olive oil for canola oil, at first I suspected it might have a flavor incongruent to the cinnamon and maple syrup in the granola. I took the chance anyway. The results – the best granola I have ever made. I used my Galantino medium fruity EVOO but think it would be extraordinary with lemon or mandarin oil. The granola cooks at a very low temperature so the oil remains stable and holds onto all its health benefits. Because the ingredients in granola are personal, feel free to substitute your own favorite nuts or fruits. I love coconut and feel this adds the amount of sweetness I like. One trick I’ve learned over the years is to add the nuts and coconut nearing the end of the baking time so they do not over-toast. I stir in the dried fruit when the granola has cooled.
So for you brave hearts that try this delicious snack, please send me a comment and let me know how you liked it. I think it will make a great nibble at work!

Olive Oil Granola
 
Ingredients
  • Preheat oven to 225 degrees
  • 4 cups oatmeal   I use Trader Joe’s organic
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon  I used a bit more and love King Arthur’s Vietnamese Cinnamon
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup Galantino EVOO   Try lemon or mandarin too!
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • ¾ cup sweetened shredded coconut or unsweetened if you prefer1 cup nuts   I used ½ cup slivered almonds and ½ cup hazelnuts
  • ¼ cup tart dried cherries
  • ¼ – ½ cup dried fruit of your choice   I used Trader Joe’s mix of mango, dried blueberries and dried cranberries

Instructions
  1. Mix together the oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt.
  2. Combine the olive oil and maple syrup.
  3. Pour olive oil/syrup mixture over oats and stir to combine well.
  4. Pour out onto a 13 X 18 baking sheet lined with parchment paper. I do this so the pan stays cleaner! You can also use two smaller cookie sheets. If you use two cookie sheets, the layers are thinner so watch carefully as it will cook faster.
  5. Bake for about 2 hours or until desired crunchiness and well-browned. Stir every 20 minutes to evenly brown the oats. Just before the granola is finished, stir in the coconut and nuts and cook just until browned.
  6. Cool and stir in fruit of your choice.
  7. This granola is not clumpy. If you prefer it clumpy, give it a gentle stir and allow pieces to stick together.

Olive oil update: My next shipment arrives in a week! New EVOO flavors and even olives! Check out www.thevirtuousolive for the latest tasty products to be added to my line-up.

EVOO = Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Thanks for reading
Ciao for now!
Love,
Mary




Dinner at 8, Lucchese Style

My beautiful new friends Mattia and Michelle

Once upon a time you meet people who forever change your life. Mattia and Michelle did just that. What originated as friends of friends, blossomed into a friendship and an Italian experience I will never forget and for which I will always be grateful. Both seriously talented opera singers, Mattia and Michelle shared their home and lives with me for 11 days this fall in Lucca, Italy. Besides their accomplished opera careers, they’re both amazing chefs, whipping up last-minute meals out of nowhere. And this is where my story begins…

Lucca, Italy 26 settembre 2014

It’s 7:00pm on a Friday night. Michelle and Mattia are throwing a dinner party and guests are due to arrive at 8pm.  I volunteer to bring the chicken, so before heading home, stop at a small family owned negozio di pollo, a shop that sells poultry. I tell the macellaio, butcher, how many people we are serving and without asking, trims the fat, debones and then portions the chicken, all while giving me cooking advice. The bird pieces are carefully wrapped in paper, the shop keeper, with a smile, generously tucking in seasonings of fresh rosemary and sage, herbs that show up frequently in Tuscan kitchens. Oh the charm of such exquisite customer service!

I arrive home to an empty and quiet apartment. Tick tock tick tock. Now it’s 8pm and no sign of Mattia or Michelle. A quick call reveals they have met an old opera friend at the Oratorio who has gifted them with singing lessons. Our guests have been notified that the party will now begin at 8:30. With a sense of calm, and very little prep done, Mattia and Michelle arrive home with joy in their hearts ready to prepare the dinner. The three of us work in perfect harmony, like a concerto, to produce a beautiful meal in 45 minutes! These two are now my role models for entertaining! Here’s what we cooked.

Infused with lemon, rosemary and sage, the chicken begins its journey

Mattia teaches me the Lucchese way to cook

Michelle, a native of Australia, prepares her specialty, Apple Crumble

A grating of fresh parmesan finishes the first course of pasta

Angela has a kitchen chat with Mattia

Il secondo. Tuscan chicken

A little vino, and charming company create the perfect ambiance

Mouth-watering apple crumble, Aussie-style

After dinner, Mattia shares his vintage record collection played on a gramophone. We loved the music and his singing!

Frank Sinatra inspires a dance

The evening ended with singing, of course, Michelle and Mattia at the piano, serenading us with Phantom of the Opera favorites. A night to remember!

Check out Mattia and Michelle’s website Lucca Opera Festival and when you are in Lucca, be sure to go to a concert to hear them sing!

My lesson for this day is to let the magic happen, and it will when you decide to just go with the flow!

Ciao for now!

Love,

Mary




La Vendemmia

La Vendemmia means the harvest, in this case of the Campetti’s beautiful vines near Lucca

Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.

Harvesting grapes is just as much fun as it is work. Michelle and Nicola crack me up!

The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.

The master fire cook Angela

The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats

A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making

The red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice

I give it a go. It’s not easy!

The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.

Revitalizing!

A tavola!

“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.

Ummmmm

Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.

The art of wood fired food

Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!

Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?

 

A yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?

Mattia donning a recently shed snake-skin. Eek. I hope we don’t run into any with the skin on!

Frederico’s artful transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico and his best mate Fiori

After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.

The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.

Ciao for now!

Love,

Maria




La Vendemmia

Grape vines

La Vendemmia means the harvest, in this case of the Campetti’s beautiful vines near Lucca.

Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.

Michelle & Nico

Harvesting grapes is just as much fun as it is work. Michelle and Nicola crack me up!

The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.

The master fire cook Angela.

The master fire cook Angela.

The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.

Future wine

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Copper vatsThe red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

I give it a go. It's not easy!

I give it a go. It’s not easy!

The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.

Revitalizing!

Revitalizing!

A tavola!

A tavola!

“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.

Ummmmm.

Ummmmm.

Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.

The art of wood fired food.

The art of wood fired food.

Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!

Patate Pomodoro Pranzo Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?

Simonetta's version of semifreddo with pinenuts.

SemifreddoA yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?

Mattia donning a recently shed snake skin. Eek. I hope we don't run into any with the skin on!

Mattia donning a recently shed snake-skin. Eek. I hope we don’t run into any with the skin on!

Frederico's transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico’s artful transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.

Napping

Even Buck is sleepy.

Even Buck is sleepy.

The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.

duskCiao for now!

Love,

Maria




Cooking with Chef Leo

Olive oil transforms good food to greatness.

Olive oil transforms good food to greatness.

My visit to Galantino in Puglia, Italy, was a composition of olive oil familiarization, in-depth visits to Puglia’s cheese makers, ceramists, bread artisans and olive groves and, the fun part, cooking lessons with Galantino’s head chef Leo. I joined a group from Holland who was also there for the same adventure. Each day we prepared different dishes all using a variety of what else – olive oil! The two recipes here, a foccacia and Caprese Cake are described with mostly technique as the recipes were for the masses. In the upcoming weeks, when my Virtuous Olive site goes live and I am back from Italy, I will publish detailed recipes. The Caprese Cake is especially delicious and different with the addition of orange or mandarin olive oil.

Significant amounts of olive oil coat the foccacia pans. All this oil enhances the flavor of this delicious Italian staple.

Chef Leo pours significant amounts of olive oil to coat the foccacia pans. All this oil enhances the flavor of this delicious Italian staple.

Chef Leo’s foccacia is a mixture of flour and potato flour. This cuts down the gluten and makes it a softer, spongier bread.  The copious amounts of olive oil give the outer crust a crispiness.

The dough is pushed into the edges of the pan with fingertips to create the small divets characteristic of foccacia.

The dough is pushed into the edges of the pan with fingertips to create the small divots characteristic of foccacia.

We each "decorated" a foccacia with slightly simmered pomodoro - tomato - oregano and sea salt.

We each “decorated” a foccacia with slightly simmered pomodoro – tomato – oregano and sea salt.

Perla, the family dog, makes her hang out strategically and hopefully between the dining room and kitchen.

Perla, the family dog, makes her hang out strategically and hopefully between the dining room and kitchen.

Eggs and sugar whisk together until fluffy with air.

Eggs and sugar whisk together until fluffy with air in preparation for the Caprese Cake.

Maud stirs the orange olive oil into the melted chocolate. Decadent!

Maud stirs the orange olive oil into the melted chocolate. Decadent!

Cocoa powder and ground almonds are carefully folded into the eggs.

Cocoa powder and ground almonds are carefully folded into the eggs.

The melted chocolate is stirred into the batter and poured into a oil and floured pan to bake for oly 10 minutes.

The melted chocolate is stirred into the batter and poured into an oiled and floured pan to bake for only 10 minutes.

The group eagerly awaits dinner and....the Caprese Cake.

The group eagerly awaits dinner and….the Caprese Cake.

This cake tastes as good as it looks. The orange and almond marry well with the chocolate giving it intensity.

This cake tastes as good as it looks. The orange and almond marry well with the chocolate giving it intensity.

Recipes will be forthcoming! I am eating more than I ever have here in the land of food alive with flavor and taking notes!

Ciao for now.

Maria




A Bit of Bisceglie

Che bello!

Che bello!

Nestled into the heart of Puglia lies the seaside town of Bisceglie in southeastern Italy. I am here on an olive oil discovery, to slip into a slower pace and to delve for clues about what makes this such an alluring part of the country.

The people have a warmth and contentment about them. They seem satisfied with life and most that I have met have long lineages in Bisceglie. It’s all about family and their culture of which they are passionately proud.

A visit to the Fish Market on Friday got my adrenaline flowing and whet my appetite for the cooking classes I will attend. For now, let me share with you my favorite photos of the people and their livelihood.

A thinking moment.

A thinking moment.

Live, fresh prawns awaiting their fate.

Live, fresh prawns awaiting their fate.

Advertising his seafood.

Advertising his seafood.

Describing, in Italian, how to stuff the zucchini flowers.

Describing, in Italian, how to stuff the zucchini flowers.

Dinner. Octopus soup.

Dinner. Octopus soup.

This is for you my belle soeur! Our favorite Italian plums.

This is for you my belle soeur! Our favorite Italian plums.

Scooping out the sea urchins' delicacies.

Scooping out the sea urchin’s delicacies.

Freshly picked chilis, roots and all.

Freshly picked chilis, roots and all.

Waving away the flies.

Waving away the flies.

Ciao! This darling group of friends called to me to take their photo. Looking good!

Ciao! This darling group of friends called to me to take their photo. Looking good!

My next story is on Pugliese cooking. Stay tuned!

Ciao for now.

Sending amore,

Maria




The Virtuous Olive

VO-final-shadow

The Virtuous Olive

Olive oil is my passion. Food is my passion and travel is my passion. I have decided to combine all these loves into my new business, The Virtuous Olive, and it is here that I am first announcing its launch. After last year’s visit to Puglia, Italy and to a local frantoio, (olive mill), my heart spoke to me and insisted that I import this olive oil. This is not just any olive oil. It is 100% pure extra virgin Italian oil made from olives solely grown in Puglia. Its flavor is lovely, distinct and makes a statement.

Italian Bootie from my trip last year.

Italian Bootie from my trip last year. I finished this lot off pronto and knew it had to be a part of my permanent pantry!

Next week I travel to Puglia to learn from the masters at Galantino all the nuances that make olive oil special. We will cook, olive grove gaze and be immersed in all things olive. This is just my cup of tea. I plan to post recipes, insights and historical facts as well as indulging in some amazing food. Puglia, also known as the heel of Italy’s boot, is magical and unspoiled and filled with warm, welcoming faces. Click here to see a map of the region and to read about its baroque architecture, trulli, music and artisans who inhabit this piece of paradise. Puglia map and highlights

My travels will also take me back to Lucca, where I will stay with two opera singers (Lucca is Puccini central) and renew friendships from last year. I plan to visit Modena, capital of balsamic vinegar, to discover the perfect balsamic to complement my beautiful oils. My foodie and adventuress spirit will be soaring!

My website and shop, www.thevirtuousolive, will be stocked with a variety of olive oils and vinegars, and open for business after I return, mid October. Stay tuned for more details.

Sending you amore!

Ciao for now,

Mary – Maria

 

 




Fava Frenzy

“I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antæus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows.” Henry David Thoreau

Macchismo Favas.

Macchismo Favas.

Hearty Fava beans. Grown for over 6,000 years, its peasant roots are now emerging as a new food trend. Each spring, Italians patiently wait for the grass-green pods to become elongated, filled with thumbnail sized beans. In Puglia last April, I noticed the variety of ways favas were incorporated into so many local dishes, especially when they are in season, which is right now.

Robust favas grown from seeds I purchased in Tuscany. They are producing heavily right now. Anyone have an extra pair of hands to help shuck the pods?

Robust favas grown from seeds I purchased in Tuscany. They are producing heavily at the moment and are my garden showstopper. Anyone have an extra pair of hands to help shuck the pods?

In Italy, favas dot pastas, soak up spicy olive oil for a salad, are smashed on top of crostini and pureed for a coulis to cuddle fish or seafood. Their bright green brilliance is appetizing and their taste is even better.

Freshly unzipped and shucked favas. Next they are blanched for 30 seconds, then plunged into an ice bath. The work begins now. I remove the tough outer skin and discard it, revealing the gorgeous green tender morsel inside.

Freshly unzipped and shucked favas. Next they are blanched for 30 seconds, then plunged into an ice bath. The work begins now. I remove the tough outer skin and discard it, revealing the gorgeous green tender morsel inside. 1 pound of whole fava beans equals about 1 cup of shelled beans.

The beans have a soft sweetness that almost melts in your mouth. I had heard of favas before but not attempted to prepare them because of the hype about how time-consuming they were. I assure you, they are well worth the sacrifice of time. You will be rewarded with a new taste, a gorgeous color addition to your recipes and a powerhouse of protein-rich nutrition.

A simple flavorful salad of sliced fresh fennel, favas, minced dill and lemon olive oil or lemon vinaigrette. Refreshing!

A simple flavorful salad of sliced fresh fennel, favas, minced dill and lemon olive oil or lemon vinaigrette. Decorated with the nasturtiums that are taking over my garden! Refreshing!

A bed of my garden greens, favas tossed with mint and a hint of olive oil, a few mozarella balls then drizzed with fig balsamic vinegar. Benissimo!

A bed of my garden greens, favas tossed with mint and a hint of olive oil, a few mozzarella balls then drizzled with fig balsamic vinegar. Bellissimo!

There are so many ways to incorporate these green beauties into your life, I just couldn’t make all the recipes I dreamed up! Some more of my ideas are: Garlic-infused fava purée under seafood kabobs,  pasta with favas and artichokes, olive oil dressed favas and shaved pecorino cheese (an Italian favorite), favas smashed with a bit of olive oil (basil infused is delicious) and spread on crostini.

This just in: While shopping at Trader Joe’s last weekend, the demo featured pasta salad with fava beans, imported from Italy and in the frozen section! Fresh is always best so check your local farmer’s market first.

I’d love to hear from you fava lovers. How do you use them in your favorite dishes?

Contact me for tips on growing favas from seed. They require a mild climate because they are planted in October/November and harvested in late March to April. My story “Garden RX” has photos of the established plants and their height.

For more information on favas, check out this fabulous website:http://www.delallo.com/articles/fava-beans-green-protein

Ciao for now,

Maria

 




The Romance of Italian Food

Such glorious creations. I admire the pastry chef who makes me drool.

A masterpiece created by the pastry chefs of Barberini.

Rome is romance. Besides the uplit temples at night, beautiful singing accents, soft and sweeping landscapes and smiles of a beautiful people, food may be the ultimate romance. The Italians equate food with love and show it in so many ways.

Rome’s reputation as a cuisine capital was enticing me to explore its specialties. I decided to splurge and eat the best of what Rome could offer that day. A four-hour walking tour of one of Rome’s hottest spots for food was exactly what my foodie spirit was craving.

The tour met in the neighborhood of Testaccio. Over 2000 years ago, it was Rome’s Food Emporium where the food arrived from afar for distribution. Chock full of family run businesses, many that have spanned generations, this funky yet hip neighborhood has it all.

Our enthusiastic guide Bo, was quick with the little known historical and trivial facts. She whisked us in and out of shops introducing us to the locals and handing out tastes every 15 minutes it seemed.

Warning! There are an abundance of food photos. You may go on a binge after viewing!

Little bites of tiramisu. So creamy and coffee infused.

Little bites of tiramisu. So creamy and coffee infused.

DSCN5007How Italian. Innovative marzipan spaghetti-topped meringue cake.

DSCN5001Happy Birthday!

The pizza maker, Octavio, named because he was the eighth born child, treats us to a Margarita pizza made with smoked mozzarella – benissimo!

The pizza maker, Octavio, named because he was the eighth born child, treats us to a Margarita pizza made with smoked mozzarella – benissimo!

My favorite stop – Volpetti, gourmet store extreme. If you are in Rome, do not miss this shop! With a proud history since 1973 of carrying the best and finest, you can find an almost infinite variety of cheeses and salamis, truffles galore, 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, gorgeous salads and more. According to the Volpetti brothers, “The major inspiration of all this activity is the ‘style’ (the philosophy) of Volpetti: 
to rediscover the ancient flavors and to create a culture of eating well.”

We are set free for a meager five minutes of tasting and admiring in this tiny jam-packed shop.

Volpetti window of decadent black truffles, luring me in.

Volpetti window of decadent black truffles, luring me in. Only 398 Euros per kilo!

This signori offers me a taste of exquisite prosciutto.

This signore offers me a taste of exquisite salami.

DSCN5014Abbondanza!

What would the world be without olives?

What would the world be without olives?

Cram packed full of your heart's desires.

The products and the visitors are packed in like sardines. Volpetti’s has everything my heart desires.

Inticing vegetable tortes.

tantalizing vegetable tortes.

Colorful, fresh salads to take home.

Colorful, fresh salads to take home.

Most gourmet shops sell these cooked greens, ready to use as a side or to be used as a base for more elaborate dishes.

Most gourmet shops sell these cooked greens, ready to eat as a side or as a base for more elaborate dishes.

Showing off a Parma ham.

Showing off a Parma ham.

To digest our tastes so far, we take a stroll through the gorgeous “Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Rome,” which sits next to a giant pyramid – really. The story goes that the Pyramid of Cestius was built around 14 B.C. as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, by someone who may have been stationed at one time in Egypt. It is one of the best preserved tombs in Rome and is not open to the public.

The pyramid secret.

The pyramid under renovation.

Testaccio Market is 99 years old. The old market that had no power or refrigeration was recently moved to the new site. Oddly, as they built it, they uncovered multiple amphoras or vases revealing it might have been the site of a market long ago. Now it is home to 103 family owned businesses. All the produce is organic – yeah – in season and Italian.

Pretty displays of produce.

Pretty displays of produce.

One fun story we learned from Bo is that in the early days of tomatoes in Rome, the Vatican actually told the people not to eat them because they were too sexy! The average Italian eats 195 pounds of fresh tomatoes per year and three times that amount of gelato.

The produce keeper tidying her display.

The produce keeper tidying her display.

In the market we taste fresh bruschetta, caprese salad and the best cannoli my taste buds have ever experienced.

Bo's friend who makes the wonderfully fresh bruschetta.

Bo’s friend who makes the wonderfully fresh bruschetta.

Enzo and Elene, the butcher and cheesemaker are the cutest couple. Married 40 years and in business 30, their broad smiles show they still love what they are doing. They treat us to a caprese salad of buffalo mozarella made fresh 12 hours ago in Napoli – such a treat.

One of my favorite couples! They live and love food.

One of my favorite couples! They live and love food.

True authentic cannoli, Sicilian style. Ricotta and very fine chocolate ships are piped into a cooke tube and the ends decorated with chopped pistachios. Of course, they are divine. The dard cookie is really crunchy, the secret recipe coming from Gramdma who uses coffees as a secret ingredient.

True authentic cannoli, Sicilian style. Ricotta and very fine chocolate chips are piped into a cookie tube and the ends decorated with chopped pistachios. Of course, they are divine. The dark cookie shell is thick and crunchy, the recipe coming from Grandma who uses coffee as a secret ingredient.

The Cannoli makers enjoying a joke!

The cannoli makers enjoying a joke!

Another walk makes room for a fresh pasta lunch. We pass by the original slaughterhouse, the size of four football fields. The butchers were not paid in cash but only in the poor cuts of meat, the brain, snout, tripe, tongue, tail, and offal. The wives were forced to create recipes to make these cuts taste good. These cuts were called Le Quinto Quarto or the fifth quarter. The quarter that does not count. Alas, how some of the classic Roman recipes came about like Osso Buco and tripe. This ancient house of history was not closed down officially until 1975.

Who would know this is "the hill" of potsherds?

Who would know this is “the hill” of potsherds? Look carefully.

Across the street lies a tall hill. This hill is layered with pottery shards. Back in the ancient days, Romans used amphoras to carry oil, water and wine. Each Roman family went through around 1,010 amphoras per year and due to breakage, needed a place to dispose of the broken pieces. This Monte Testaccio became the collection point for probably millions of old, broken vases. Unknowingly, they were creating the perfect wine storage facility. The temperature at the bottom of the hill is ideal for wine keeping. Now osterias which are simple, inexpensive restaurants, wine cellars and trattorias all back into this hill. The wine is happy and when it is hot in summer, it provides a cool retreat.

The osteria that backs up against the hill of shards.

Our lunch stop. Flavio Al Velavevodetto backs up against the hill of shards.

We are treated to a taste of homemade pastas:caio e pepe- pepper and romano and pecorino cheeses; amatriciana – pancetta and tomato sauce and carbonara – bacon, eggs, Parmigiano and garlic. Bo shares with us that when you cook the pasta al dente, it is less fattening and has a lower glycemic index value than overcooked pasta. I’m down for more pasta in my diet!

Homemade Amertricata.

Homemade Amatriciana.

Even though our bellies are swelling, we must try a suppli in an inconspicuous joint that looks like a hole in the wall. The New York Times wrote up 00100 Pizza as an up and coming establishment with an owner who takes traditional Italian recipes and makes them gourmet. Suppli is a Roman favorite of risotto mixed with ingredients like beef, onions, carrots and parmesano formed into an egg shape, rolled in bread crumbs and deep-fried. You must eat them hot! One bite and you are hooked. Soft and creamy on the inside, a crunchy shell on the outside. I am in foodie heaven!

Last but not least, we get a gelato education. We learn that 85% of the gelato in Rome is made with a powdered mix and not true to tradition. Look for these clues to tell the difference:

Color. The color should reflect the true color of the fruit or nut. No lime green pistachio or bright yellow banana. Mint should be white, not green.

Height. The gelato that looks beautiful and is piled into wavy mounds is not real! It is made with powder and is full of air.

Real gelato.

Real gelato.

The real stuff will not exceed the container height. Bo tells us that in Rome, by law, you must get two flavors!

Flavio, the gelato maker loves his creations and when you order, if the two flavors do not harmonize, he will send you the end of the line to reconsider your decision!

Flavio scoops out my flavor combination of Amorena, black cherry and Mandore, almond. I got the approval!

Flavio scoops out my flavor combination of Amorena, black cherry and Mandorla, almond. I get the approval!

A man who loves his art.

A man who loves his art.

Flavio’s family are fourth generation gelato makers, in business since 1914, so they really know how to make the very best. Giottit’s is the place to go!

So now I have an education about Italian food and history that leaves me hungry for more – not necessarily more food but more knowledge. I must say that this was the most fun I had in Rome.

“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” – Federico Fellini

Ciao and Love for Now!

DSCN5578

Maria




The Eternal City

DSCN4949Enchanting and romantic Roma.

Ahhh bella Roma. This city of eternity has so many stories to tell. There are levels and layers of religion, architecture, emperors, sculpture, temples and more. What century do you want to discover? It’s all here, although perhaps parts of it hidden which is what makes this place so intriguing.

Temple bones in the Forum.

Temple bones in the Forum.

My traveling partner decided precipitously to take the next flight home almost as soon as we arrived. It’s a strange feeling to suddenly be deserted in a large, foreign city. A little frightening, a little challenging, a lot pushing my courage and self-confidence. I took a deep breath and regrouped.

Getting out of the taxi and heading toward the hotel, at first I thought, “So what, just another big city.” Am I really going to enjoy this as much as the country life I had just relished? A little hesitant and leaning in favor of the countryside, I decided then and there to let my expectations dissipate.  Alone in this vastness of ancient ghosts and relics,  the city slowly revealed its charisma to me.

Andrea, the historian and guide extraordinare takes me back in time.

Andrea, the historian and guide extraordinaire takes me back in time.

The first day there, my expert tour guide Andrea Valentini spent hours educating me on ancient Rome. As we strolled from temple to museum to Forum and Coliseum, I strangely felt a déjà vu, like I was back in time, walking the same pathways, viewing the builders grow the city, and experiencing the elaborate and majestic art in its glory days. It is quite overwhelming and humbling.

The Temple of Vesta. Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, chosen at a young age to guard and maintain the "fire of Rome" and to carry out sacred rites.They were sworn to celibacy for 30 years. In return, they lived lavishly, were free to own property and to vote.

The Temple of Vesta. Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, chosen at a young age to guard and maintain the “fire of Rome” and to carry out sacred rites.They were sworn to celibacy for 30 years. In return, they lived lavishly, were free to own property and to vote.

The Coliseum, home to many fighters, exotic animals and public executions. Standing on center stage is overwhelming.

The Coliseum: home to many fighters, exotic animals, public executions and at one time a lake for water battles.

Stage fright! My private tour allowed us access to parts of the Coliseum unavailable to most.

Stage fright! My private tour allowed me access to parts of the Coliseum unavailable to most.

Where the wild things go. Dark and mossy. The animals were kept below and emerged into the middle of the arena via large underground lifts. The spectators oftentimes did not know which animal was to be featured so they loved this element of surprise.

Where the wild things go. Dark and mossy. The animals were kept below and emerged into the middle of the arena via large underground lifts. The spectators oftentimes did not know which animal was featured so they loved this element of surprise.

I loved this dimensional sculpture - very classy.

The Capitoline Museum sits on one of Rome’s Seven Hills and houses Rome’s oldest works of art. I could have spent two days there alone. I loved this dimensional sculpture, the tiny angel, the gladiator-decorated vessel, the sun-like god. Such beautiful detail.

The sublime and sensuous Goddess Venus in her splendor sculpted in the 4th century B.C.

The sublime and sensuous Goddess Venus in her splendor sculpted in the 4th century B.C.

The Golden Boy Hercules in guilded bronze circa second century B.C. The stone background seems to emphasize his masculinity and strength.

The Golden Boy Hercules in gilded bronze circa second century B.C. The stone background seems to emphasize his masculinity and strength.

The emblem of Rome. Romulus and Remus nursed by the She-Wolf of Rome.

The emblem of Rome. Romulus and Remus nursed by the She-Wolf of Rome.

One of the few painted sculptures that remained from long ago. I learned from Andrea that very early Roman works up to about 200 A.D. were elaborately painted. Weather removed most of the color from these sculptures. When the Renaissance artists came on the scene, they only saw the white stone so continued to create works of art unpainted.

She was so different. A stark seriousness casts her face, almost in contrast to her beautiful, elegantly draped dress.

The Red Faun, a satyr and follower of Dionysus, the god of wine made of striking red marble.

The Red Faun, a satyr and follower of Dionysus, the god of wine made of striking red marble.

This olive oil urn to measured out the oil which was then decanted into a Roman's vase. Another large stone container measured wine.

This olive oil urn measured out the oil for decanting into a Roman’s personal vase. Another large stone container measured wine.

Wine allocator.

The oil container seems much meeker and milder than this roaring lion urn. Is this what happens to you when you imbibe too much?

Lion Attacking a Horse, one of the earliest recorded works of art on the Capitoline Hill, created around 4th century B.C. This was a thrill for me as I visited this same sculpture at the Getty Villa last year.

Lion Attacking a Horse, one of the earliest recorded works of art on the Capitoline Hill, created around 4th century B.C. This was a thrill for me as I visited this same sculpture at the Getty Villa last year.

One of my favorite photographs. Such strong and beautiful feet adorned with seemingly gentle lions.

To walk in his footsteps. One of my favorite photographs. Such strong feet adorned with beautiful sandals. Does anyone know what the figures at his ankles represent?

The magic and mystery and ancientness seeped inside of me and hooked me for good. Being a history lover doesn’t hurt. I think you could live a lifetime here and still not see all the secrets this city harbors. Just for one day, I would love to travel back in time to walk in a Roman’s footsteps, maybe in the second century A.D. and experience Rome in its heyday, a brief time of peace and stability. To be surrounded by the sound of the chisel, the cithara’s sweet and lyrical music, philosophers debating the latest news, and yes, even the strategy of a gladiator show, would feed my soul for a very long time.

As Marcus Aurelius so appropriately stated, “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars and see yourself running with them.”

If you are planning a trip to Rome and would like to experience the immersion in culture and history I did, contact expert guide Andrea Valentini at andrea_valentini@hotmail.com

Ciao and love for now,

DSCN5578

Maria




Nicola Cooks Tuscan

The chef Nicola in his element.

The chef Nicola in his element.

My friend Nicola is a cook, gardener, artist, historian and proud  Lucchese – a person born in Lucca. Angela, of La Mimosa, introduced us while gathered around her rustic wooden kitchen table, a fire blazing in the open-hearth to warm us during a fall rainstorm. She was in the midst of preparing rabbit stew for lunch and we were the observers. I was drawn to Nicola’s enthusiasm and knowledge of traditional Tuscan foods, their heritage and cultivation.

I learned that olive oil from Lucca is lighter and softer than the spicy southern version I usually cook with. Tuscan bread is unsalted. The reason being, during the medieval times a high tax was levied on the salt and the bakers decided to go without. Romans used faro before wheat, so in keeping with their roots, many Tuscans use it in salads and soups. Tuscan foods have more of a French influence than other parts of Italy.

To become more familiar with typical, local ingredients, I asked Nicola if he would cook with me in my barn kitchen and teach me his family secrets. He eagerly agreed.

Here is his menu:

Antipasto of Artichoke Hearts, Olives and Pickled Onions

Pumpkin Risotto

 Faraona stuffed with vegetables and braised on the stove top

Rutabagas, cubed and cooked with butter, sage and garlic

A medley of sautéed greens, shallots, garlic and white beans

Unsalted Tuscan bread

Salad greens from Nico’s garden, dressed with local olive oil

Tuscan country wine

Our antipasto and my table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

Antipasto nestles between my Tuscan table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

When I saw the abundance of groceries overflowing on my countertop, I wondered how we would be able to eat it all. Good thing Angela and Davino were joining us!

Faison is a type of guinea fowl. typical of the region.

The Faraona, a guinea fowl,  is stuffed with leeks, garlic, carrots and celery. It is then trussed and wrapped with a layer of lard. According the the famous Italian culinary writer Artusi, the Faraona is native to Numidia and considered to be the symbol of brotherly love in the ancient world. How appropriate!

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved this paper it was wrapped in.

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved the photo on this paper it was wrapped in.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water and wine are added during the cooking process and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water just to coat the bottom of the pot, sage, garlic, pepperoncini and wine are added to braise and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The artist, Nico, set to work creating dish upon dish so effortlessly. It was as if he were floating through time, not rushed, just enjoying the moment. I watched (and helped) in amazement as each dish came together.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto, chopped greens with white beans.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto and chopped greens with white beans.

While the bird cooks, Nicola starts the pumpkin risotto. Italians call squash, “pumpkin.” Butternut squash is cubed and cooked in a pot of boiling water until tender but not overcooked. In another saucepan, sauté what else but olive oil, two minced garlic cloves, and  three chopped shallots until soft.  Add two handfuls of rice (arborio) for each person and water to cover. Stir and add water as needed. Drain the almost cooked pumpkin and add to risotto. When risotto is almost done, add white wine as the last reduction and salt to taste. Do not overcook!The secret is to cook al dente.

My kitchen was an infusion of mingling aromas – shallots, garlic, sage and roasting bird. In a soft tone, Nicola describes each step, keeping rhythmn with the courses. Rutabagas, which add a color contrast and bright flavor to our meal,  are cubed and cooked with garlic and sage in a small amount of water.

More olive oil, shallots and garlic are sautéed with a mixture of chopped greens, mostly spinach, that you can purchase ready-made at the store. This is all heated together, then white beans are stirred in. Very delicious and healthy.

Il primo. Creamy and al dented, it gets Davino's approval.

Il primo. Creamy and al dente, it gets Davino’s approval.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Angela with Tigre upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Angela with Lily upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Everything is perfect and so very delicious. The Faraono is delicate and succulent. Angela, Davino and Nicola ate it with fingers, devouring every morsel off the bones.

The conversation (and wine and Prosecco) continued until 12:30am. I will always remember this dinner, the new friendships formed and the enjoyment cooking brings when shared with others. By the way, do all Italian men know how to cook like this? I am impressed!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

So that’s my friend Nicola. The best part of traveling is meeting new people, discovering their artistic talents and sharing the journey. I wish you art and love everyday in your life.

Note: The photos in this story are off color. I had difficulty with the indoor lighting. They are not my usual standard!

Ciao!

Mary aka Maria




Artisans and Angels

Pietrasanta, a charming artist colony, is a stone’s throw from Lucca. La Mimosa’s Angela, who is an artist, thought it might be an illuminating place to spend a leisurely day. She was right.

The first of many sculptures I was about to experience. How lovely to be enveloped in children and birds!

Pietrasanta is small and silent but powerful. Her heavy hand of all thing artistic propelled me into a past time of creative exploration.

We stumbled upon this sculptor’s paradise while walking down a lonely street. Curiously, there were no humans present. Only guardians of stone whose stories would remain a secret.

She captured my soul. Her gaze. Her beautiful, confident wings. The clock she embraced. It was as if she was there just for me. I named her Giuliana.

Flying into the skies leg first.

The main piazza is a sculpture garden in itself filled with marble creations. The entire color scheme took my breath away.

The Italians just know how to display vegetables.

Another favorite -chestnuts- are omnipresent. I’ve grown fond of them.
This archway sits in the middle of the street. It is adorned with pomegranates, an ancient and treasured food.
Pomegranates are a favorite of mine so when I noticed the arch lined with them, I just had to share the details.
This ristorante looked alluring. We took a chance and were rewarded. Ristorante Quarantuno. Excellent.
Amber digs into squid ink pasta with local Pietra fish. Absolutely delectable.
Up close version.
Pasta with a light pumpkin sauce. Equally delicious. I do love pasta!

One of the most creative and taste bud tingling desserts I have ever enjoyed. Wine poached pear, cross split and filled with a chestnut purée. Magnificent. Exquisite. I searched high and low for the purée but it alluded me. Perhaps it was homemade.

Domes and olives. My passions are fulfilled.

Colorful Italy. What’s not to love?
More marble art keeping company with the tall brick tower with interior staircases crafted by The Michelangelo.
Pietrasanta oozing with artistic flair.

We were there on Halloween, a day that is just emerging in Italia. I loved this restauranteur’s sense of humor.

So, go explore the hidden and find treasures beyond expectations. This tiny villa was exactly that.

Ciao for now!

Maria




Lucca Revealed Part I

I love traveling to cities with ancient walls. In France, I was enamored with the bastides and cathars. Perhaps that is why I am charmed by Lucca’s fortress and her medieval city walls. There are four Portas or doors leading into the city. Along the outside up high, a pretty tree- lined pathway provides a walking and biking venue with sneak peaks into the city. Inside, a parade of multiple piazzas, churches, towers, and narrow cobblestone streets invite you to get lost in its history.

This lovely angel sits high atop a church keeping watch and on guard to protect.

A statue of a famous sculptor gazes toward the piazza.
Typical downtown colors.
Bikes are the prefered mode of transportation.
I’m drooling for these right now.
Cookies to celebrate Halloween, a newer holiday for the Italians.
An example of Luchese Pisano, an architectural style from Pisa. So much beautiful natural stone here. Carrera marble is a stone’s throw away.
This labyrinth came from Ancient Rome and was included when the church was built. Story has it that it is a pagan symbol that the church adopted to please the masses.
Other decorum of Lucca!
A friend from the gardens inside an old convent.
This beautiful bush is a Corbezzolo whose red fruit is edible. Such contrasting beauty.
The red roof view high atop the Guinigi Tower. You can see for kilometers and kilometers.
My guida or guide Nicola was happy to show me his home town of Lucca.
Only a handful of homes enjoy a rooftop garden. This one looks well cared for and used. Can you imagine having dinner here with this view?
Street vendors roasting the Italian favorite of chestnuts.
Just a stunning piece of art and history.
I am enthralled by this color combination which shows up in almost every little town.
More photos to come. I just wanted to whet your appetite. My visits to this beautiful city have been interrupted by a Comics and Games convention for four days so access to the city was virtually impossible not to mention the bumper to bumper traffic. A reminder to check for events before booking travel dates!
Ciao
Maria

 




A Colli Festa

Last week Angela and I ventured into the hills to find a “festa of the hills” or a celebration of life in medieval times. Once outside of Lucca, we began climbing up narrow winding roads, up to the clouds it seemed. The vistas took my breath away.

Now this is the Tuscany I had envisioned. Grandiose villas interspersed with burnt orange vineyards, olive trees bursting with fruit, ranging from deep purple to olive green, ancient stone towers poking up here and there and just a peaceful greeness overall if that makes sense.
Tuscan vistas. A little hazy but still stunning.
Angela and her pup Gilda sharing a smile.
After twisting and turning for half an hour, we spot a hand carved sign for A Colli Festa pointing up a walkway to the small villa of St. Pietro a Marcigliano.
Let’s go!
At the entrance a woman hands us fresh bread drizzled with her homemade olive oil with a sprinkling of salt. Such a kind welcome.
Up the road men and woman in period costume show children how to shoot a wooden bow and arrow.
Next to them I watch a game of eye-hand coordination. A nut rolls down a wooden slide as a villager uses a mallet in an attempt to squash the nut at the end before it escapes to the ground.
The cobblestone streets are crowded with local artisans displaying their crafts from carved olive bowls to hand- woven baskets.
Torta Verdura or Torta co’bbecchi
This crowd favorite is a traditional Lucca torte made with Swiss Chard, spices, liquor- infused raisins, candied oranges and pine nuts. Even though it is green, it is served as a dessert. I learned he recipe in a cooking class here and will post it when I return.
What’s a festa without the hot mulled wine?
The beginnings of one of my favorites – fried pasta! The dough is rolled thick and cut into rectangles.
Into the oil it goes, puffing and rising to the top as it browns.
Pasta frittam. Tossed in salt. Yum! This sort of ” donut” is delicious and reminiscent of Indian fry bread.
It’s a family affair.

The longest line is for the roasted chestnuts served warm in paper triangles. The six gentlemen manning the open fires are in their element, tossing the baskets of nuts in the air, catching them, then shaking them over the fire.

My favorite roaster to watch! Don’t you love his tossle of hair?
The party heats up as the sun goes down. All age ranges are mingling, laughing and celebrating life.
I love being a part of Italian living!

Ciao

Maria

 




La Mimosa

Buon Giorno from Lucca! This is the first in a series of my life on La Mimosa, an agritourisimo in the hills just outside of Lucca, Tuscany, Italy. This beautiful home is situated at the end of a long and narrow road, surrounded by olive and chestnut trees, wild herbs and flowers, lemon, orange and pomegranate trees and of course, rows of grape vines whose fruit was just last month harvested.
The renovated barn where I will live for two weeks. My room is behind the open windows.

The soft lit colors from my window.

One of the 14 cats on the property. The sweet life.

I arrived at La Mimosa not quite jet lagged yet and full of anticipation for the next few weeks. The roads were easy to navigate and I am feeling confident about driving on these narrow lanes. My hosts, Angela and Davino drew me a map and even led me to the supermercato in Lucca where I would purchase food. Fierce with hunger after eating meager plane food for a day, I went on a crazed shopping spree practically emptying the shelves! Gorgeous veggies – almost all Italian local- filled my basket: fennel, striped zucchini with flower tops, borlotti purple beans, cime rapi from Napoli which is a leafy green like a chard, large white mushrooms and fresh vibrant green spinach all to be given even more of a flavor boost with a gorgeous roped strand of small red onions, garlic and shallots. The cheese aisle lured me in next. Fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh butter from Lucca, and Caciotta Garfagnina cheese with its creamy, buttery delicate flavor to pair perfectly with crisp red Nurca Campana apples and William pears. My eyes continued to be bigger than my stomach when I spotted the fresh pastas. A spinach and ricotta tortelli packaged in small portions (yeah) and some scialatelli, a fatter linguine type pasta would be delicate accompaniments for the veggies. Olives, ciabatta, pancetta, porcini sauce, yogurt, fresh pomodoro sauce, tomato focaccia and Italian wine flew into my basket. What was I thinking with all this food and just me to cook for?

My shopping spree of local Italian foods. Where to begin?
I sautéed a shallot then added the sliced zucchini, mushrooms, some pomodori sauce and let is simmer whle I cooked first the scialatelli then the tortelinni. I tossed in a handful of spinach, let it wilt, then drained the pasta and added some of the pasta water to the veggies. Then veggies created a thick sauce from the tomatoes coating the pastas with a light touch. Although very simple, my pasta dinner of beautiful freshness sent me into a dreamy fog. Where am I and how did I get here so quickly?

The inspired dinner. After this delicious meal, jet lag finally kicked in!

Tomorrow I have been invited to make rabbit stew with Angela. I am exactly where I want to be!

Ciao until domani – tomorrow

Maria




Autumn Earth

Fall is a season of contrasts. Besides the obvious color change of leaves, there is a distinct softness in the air, a kind of fuzzy morning haze, with warm afternoons, cool evenings and if you’re lucky and the skies are clear, a chance of a green flash over the ocean with the setting sun. I love this time to reflect on what has grown, in my life and my garden, and the sweet anticipation of what’s to come.

My garden also is a contrast of various stages of growth. The Angel Pomegranate tree I planted last summer has gifted me five garnet red beauties. It has doubled in size and I imagine will continue to multiply its harvest next year. The Meyer Lemon is heavy with green fruit that is beginning to turn yellow for a most likely January crop. My raised bed gardens are filling up with young plants. I started chicory, kale, lettuce and beets from seeds. It’s so interesting to be able to identify the plants when they are so tiny!

Baby kale just learning its identity.

Romaine lettuce – very assertive.

Although not yet recognizable, these will be transformed into red and golden beets. So lovely.

Fava Beans started from seedlings. The anchor of my Italian garden.

Speaking of Italy, in a few days I embark on another adventure, this time to Tuscany. I’m staying on an agritourisimo (farm) for two weeks and immersing myself into the country lifestyle. This is the beginning of the olive harvest season and I am hoping to learn the craft of making olive oil with my farm family. Tune in for recipes I gather as I meet and cook with the locals and savor the foods of the season. The ancient cultures have so much wisdom to impart. I’ll keep my eyes, ears and heart open to learn from them as well as continue my search for Black Madonnas. Let the journey begin!

Be sure to click “follow” to get alerts of my postings.

Ciao for now!

Mary (Maria)




Black Madonna Sighting

My beloved Madonna.

My beloved Madonna.

The quaint village of Monopoli, Italy nestles into the Adriatic, just south of Pulignano a Mare. Our tour guide, Daniela, thought there might be a Black Madonna, my sought-after Goddess, in the local church. Our bus parked at the picturesque harbor which is surrounded by fishing boats but hauntingly deserted. We, as a 10-person group, wandered up the hill navigating the quiet, narrow streets in search of life. Real and rustic, clean laundry dangling from the balconies around every corner, there were no tourists except us. This village has a calm charm, everyday life going along in a nonchalant manner.

Colorful Monopoli!

Colorful Monopoli!

The Cathedral of the Madonna of the Madia’s exterior is the typical limestone foundation and could be any vintage house of worship. Perhaps ordinary on the outside but crossing the thresh hold, almost in unison, we breathed in a gasp of awe. This sanctuary had all the criteria of “wow.” We had learned that the Roman Catholic Church, in its attempt to win back Worshippers from the Reformation movement,  ordered the creation of the ornate, elaborate sculpture known as Baroque. Over the top design and architecture was the standard of the day.

Wow

Wow

This church had all that but it seemed more visually appealing, with softer lines, lighter domed ceilings and – a Black Madonna. My glimpse first went vertically down the main aisle, glancing left and right at the intricately carved pillars.

Baroque at its best.

Baroque at its best.

Then my eyes slowly climbed up to view a recessed white domed ceiling etched with brilliant golds and scarlet reds – stunning. Still examining the church’s lines, my gaze finally came to rest on a painting cradled in the center of the upper level. It is framed with a heavily carved panel of wood, angels on either side protecting her. We climbed the stairs to get a closer look. A middle-aged man moored himself in one of the curved pews, his hands working a rosary. I felt like such an intruder but this was my chance to come face to face with the Earth Mother. The Madonna is not black, yet not white either. My guess is that she is Middle Eastern.

Such contentment.

Such contentment.

According to the story, in the 12th century, this Madonna painting was sitting atop a raft of logs floating at sea and miraculously arrived in the port of Monopoli. A sign from God, the good villagers used the wood to begin building the church and eventually, a place to house the Madonna painting that dates back to the Byzantine era. Downstairs, another replica tells the story and displays a chunk of the wood intended to originate the church. This unique Madonna is a destination for pilgrims in need of her healing powers. Of all the churches I’ve experienced in Europe, this gorgeous holy house, tucked into this simple city, filled my heart with a sense of love, peace and gratitude I cannot explain.

Just plucked purple!

Just plucked purple!

Adjacent to the church, a tiny farmer’s market alive with local shoppers, displayed the best of seasonal veggies. The vendor’s lively nature, engaged us with their laughter, speaking Italian to us like we can understand them. “Take my picture!” they exclaim, as my camera follows their expressions. I feel immediate warmth and a difference from the French markets where the vendors never have seemed to appreciate their photos being shared.

Proud of his produce.

Proud of his produce.

The artichokes are at the height of the season and their purple tips and long stems prove they have been freshly cut.

One of my favorite veggies. Love the purple expressions!

One of my favorite veggies. Love the purple expressions!

The long, thick, bumpy beans – favas – are a favorite ingredient in the south.

Ummm. Favas.

Ummm. Favas.

I purchase some fresh almonds and notice sliced and dried fava beans. So this is how they easily make the bases for pasta sauces! I buy a Euros’ worth and take a photo of the happy seller raising his one finger gesturing “1 Euro.”

One Euro!

One Euro!

Another unusual veggie, feathers of thin green stalks, reminiscent of fennel caught my eye. Chicory I am told. Ever since eating chicory at our “crudo” dinner, I am hooked.

My new total favorite-Italian chicory. One of my dear friends found me some seed and they will be planted this month!

My new total favorite-Italian chicory. One of my dear friends found me some seeds and they will be planted this month!

My garden will be Italian-themed in an ode to this vacation

The best things in life are the unexpected.




Olives – Fruit of the Gods

Olive country

Olive country

Olive oil is so – Italian! Its warmth and/or sassiness can jazz up almost any dish, imparting different nuances for whatever food you want to enhance. The Italians are proud of their olive heritage and like to joke that butter is “forbidden” in Pulia. Instead of butter at the table, one often finds a bottle of local oil for dipping bread or topping off pastas and salads.

I am “in amore” with olive oil and use it daily but now have a renewed appreciation for its origin and its flavor. One of the highlights of my trip to Pulia was touring a 19th century olive mill and farm called Galantino.

The family that started it all.

The family that started it all.

Galantino is dedicated to the entire process of producing exquisite oil, sustainably with the least amount of impact on Mother Earth. Most of the olives for their oils are grown on the estate from their over 15,000 trees. Olives are harvested in mid October through December and then crushed within a few hours and never more than 24 hours.

Giant rounds of granite for the gentle press.

Mighty blocks of granite for the gentle press.

Giant granite rounds, which ensure a gentle, cool press, crush the olives employing the same techniques as the ancient Romans thousands of years ago. If the desired result is lemon infused olive oil, fresh lemons are crushed along with the olives. This method creates a bright, authentic fresh taste that makes my tongue revel with each sip.

Lemon infusion.

Lemon infusion.

Our Italian guides gave us a lesson in tasting olive oil. Similar to tasting wine, you follow a protocol. Visually, look for a yellow/green/olive color; smell the aroma, an olive scent with tones of grass, almonds, flowers; and then sip. Taste first under the tongue for sweet and fruity. The next taste should be bitter and the third taste, hot, peppery, spicy. If you taste all these elements in a balanced and harmonious fashion, there is no added filler oil commonly included in less expensive olive oils.

A specialty oil called L’Affiorato is the hand skimmed top 2-3% of the freshly pressed olives that naturally rises to the top of the olive paste after milling. Its exquisite, delicate and fruity flavor lends itself beautifully as finishing oil.

The many flavors we tasted.

Many of the infused flavors we tasted.

After our lesson in the production of olive oil, our host, Massimo, led us into an enchanting gazebo-covered garden where a tasting and lunch awaited us. A plate with the olive oil to be tasted was passed around accompanied by chunks of Italian bread. A unison of “oohs” and “ahs” sang out with the first taste of the olive oil soaked bread. From subtle to spicy, the distinguished flavors filled every sense in my body: the beautiful surrounding, the smell of the blossoming lemon trees, the romantic Italian accents, the feel of happiness and warmth for just being here and finally the taste of purity, of Italy, of love. I was in heaven.

Surrounded by citrus and olives.

Surrounded by citrus and olives.

Following the tasting, Galantino’s chef prepared a lunch spread, antipasto style, using all the oils we had just tasted. A visual feast, I could taste each dish with my eyes. Jugs of local, delicious wine graced the tables.

Antipasto style!

Antipasto style!

Colorful and as delicious as it looks.

Colorfully delicious.

A more familiar caprese.

A more familiar caprese. The Italian cheese is so creamy.

New friends.

New friends.

Pasta called "calamarata" probably because it looks like little calamari rings. Served with a fondue of pecorino.

Pasta called “calamarata” probably because it looks like little calamari rings.
Served with a fondue of pecorino.

Sharing our enthusiasm for the food of southern Italy.

Sharing our enthusiasm for the food of southern Italy.

The dessert, a mandarin olive oil cake, moist and not overly sweet was simple yet sophisticated. When asked about ingredients in the cake, the chef graciously gave us the recipe verbally.

Mandarin olive oi cake served with orange sorbet, drizzled with more olive oil!

Mandarin olive oil cake served with orange sorbet, drizzled with more olive oil!

Our bellies full and our minds, just a little fuzzy from the wine, we head down a pathway to their retail store. A shopping frenzy ensued. We are handed forms to fill out so we can have our “taste of Italy” shipped back home. Since my mom and I decided that olive oil is our souvenir of the trip, we shop with abandon. We both love to cook so I know we will use all the flavors within the year- a time frame for freshness.

Mom deciding what to buy. Too many choices!

Mom deciding what to buy. Too many choices!

The helpful, handsome Italian men help us with our orders and assure us our oils will arrive in about two weeks time. The anticipation is already killing me!

I keep reflecting upon the genuineness, if that is a word, of this company and their high standards. Granite, sustainable, local, sweet, bitter, hot and peppery are the images etched in my memory of this enlightening trip.

Recipe for the Mandarin Olive Oil Cake

My mom and I tested the recipe given to us by Galantino’s chef and here it is with a few tweaks and twists. The texture is like a moist sponge cake, the aroma out of the oven resembles a lemon angel food cake – dreamy! Feel free to improvise with orange olive oil.

Lemon Olive Oil Cake
 
Ingredients
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  • Line the bottom of a 8-9” springform pan with parchment paper. Oil the bottom and sides of the pan with olive oil.
  • ⅓ cup lemon infused olive oil or the best extra virgin olive oil you have on hand (75ml)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup plus 1 Tbls. sugar (200 gr.)
  • zest of one lemon
  • 1½ cups plus 2 Tbls. all purpose flour (200 gr.)
  • 2 ¾ tsp. baking powder (10 gr.)
  • pinch of salt

Instructions
  1. Stir together the oil, eggs, sugar and zest.
  2. Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Add the flour mixture to the oil and stir gently just until incorporated.
  4. Bake for 30- 35 minutes. Test that a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. Cool in pan for 15 minutes. Run a knife along the sides and release the bottom of the pan from the sides. Cool completely.
  6. Serve with any fruit, cream, ice cream or gelato. This cake holds up well to an assortment of fillings and can be made ahead. There are so many ways to serve this simple dessert. You can also split the layer in half, fill the cake with whipped cream and sprinkle on some fresh berries or slices of summer fruit.

 

 

Garnished lemon olive oil cake with fresh orange slices and whipped cream.

Garnished lemon olive oil cake with fresh orange slices and whipped cream.Let me know your versions!

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star.  Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Ciao for now!

Mary/Maria




Eating Crudo

Today's catch

Today’s catch

One afternoon in Pulia, our tour host Mick, asked if anyone would like to join him for a “Crudo” dinner. Crudo, in Italian means raw. We all had puzzled looks on our faces. As he explained what it was and how it was prepared, my hand shot up as a participant. When in Rome.

Certain restaurants that have a “Crudo” designation have met all the criteria for cleanliness, freshness and procurement from reputable fishermen. Because I enjoy sushi, I was curious to taste the difference.

French tuna drenched in olive oil. Can fresh be fresher than fresh?

Fresh tuna drenched in olive oil. Can fresh be fresher than fresh?

Several dishes were set at the table to share. Crudo is not like sushi. There is no wasabi, only lemon slices. The Italians prefer to serve their seafood with a dash of high quality (what else?) olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt. Some of the dishes did include a flavor, like the octopus with fresh mint and the cooked shrimp with fresh pineapple.

We did have a few cooked dishes like this shrimp with mint.

We did have a few cooked dishes like this shrimp with mint and pineapple.

The most delectable fried calamari my mouth has ever tasted.

The most delectable fried calamari my mouth has ever tasted.

One of my favorite fish to eat crudo was the swordfish. Sliced paper thin and layered on the plate drizzled with olive oil, its only garnish, a smattering of pink peppercorns and a few bits of spring greens. The pretty red dots that lined the curve of the fish revealed that is was unmistakably swordfish. So sweet and tender and mild. It hit my tongue and dissolved with its saltiness. The tuna was also sliced thin, unlike thicker chunks of sashimi.

Decadent swordfish. Warning: My local fish monger advised against eating swordfish raw here. It must be impeccibly fresh.

Decadent swordfish. Warning: My local fish monger advised against eating swordfish raw here. It must be impeccably fresh.

Something I had never seen or eaten before were red shrimp. These vibrant red creatures shimmered on the plate and tasted of a silky brine, the texture at first jello-y, then with a lobster bite.

Seductive red shrimp

Seductive red shrimp. Aren’t they stunning?

The oysters slid down ever so sweetly – the best I have ever had – or was it because I was in Italy? Raw mussels and clams also graced the table.

Seafood crudo galore.

Seafood crudo galore.

We had eaten cuttlefish, a squid like cephalopod, as an antipasti but not crudo. Crunchy and salty is the best way to describe the experience. The texture is similar to octopus and squid. A delicious side dish of black rice, tiny cubed carrots and corn were the accompaniment to the crudo.

Just enough of a flavor contrast to compliment the raw seafood.

Just enough of a flavor contrast to compliment the raw seafood.

After filling our senses with all the salty flavors of the crudo, we were offered a crudité platter of fresh radishes, Barattino cucumber, sliced in wedges like a cantaloupe, raw fava beans and chicory heart. I had never tasted fresh chicory before. It is unlike what we know as chicory here. The bulb looks like fennel but the flavor is mild and sweet. A perfect palate cleanser. I am researching how to grow it.  After explaining it to one of my dear friends, she purchased some seeds for me from an Italian seed company. They will be planted this fall and I will anxiously await their appearance in my garden.

Refreshing and also raw!

Refreshing and also raw!

Two things capped off this incredible dinner. A very icey, almost liquidy fresh lemon sorbet with just a hint of sweetness, not to be out done by the strawberries it was mingling with. Heavenly.

My mouth waters just looking at this photo!

My mouth waters just looking at this photo!

The owner, acknowledging our extreme pleasure in this meal, treated us to an Italian digestive, Amari Mere, a slightly bitter, herbal flavor that grows on you as you sip.

Per la salute! To your health!

Per la salute! To your health!

With an abundance of wine included in this dinner, the bill was about $40 each. When I return to Pulignano a Mare someday, this restaurant will be at the top of my dining list!

Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.
-Mark Kurlansky (1948 – present)

Ciao Bella!

Maria




La Dolce Vita

Pulignano a Mare. The name rolls off my tongue like a song. This sweet little town, perched on the Adriatic Sea in southern Italy, is a kaleidoscope of colors, textures, and flavors. There is a reason this place is called The Italian Pearl.

My mom and I are on holiday together exploring the best of this unique part of Italy called Pulia which means “stony lane”. Pulia’s rich history of ancient civilizations and status as a Land of Invasions has created an artisan culture made up of a melange of Mesopotamian, Roman, Greek and Turkish influences.
Mom and I smiling the vacation smile.
Art surrounds us and limestone walls serve as the back drop.

With over 20 gelato shops in Pugliano alone, you can be assured of never being too far away from a sweet treat.

The main piazza.
The people of Pulia live in an agricultural arena of tastes and are passionate about the preparation of food.

An antipasti tasting lovingly prepared with all local ingredients and liberal use of local olive oil. Fresh white sardines marinated and fried, mint marinated octopus and shrimp, local yellow potatoes, grilled eggplant, zucchini and peppers, freshly made creamy burrata ( a personal favorite), fresh prawns, cuttlefish, focaccia and more. Everything is served with jugs of the local wine which is always great.

Puglia’s Mediterranean landscape is a colorful composition of shoulder to shoulder olive trees – over 60 million in Puglia alone- short limestone walls, deep mandarin-colored poppies interspersed with prickly pear cactus and scatterings of ancient dwellings.

This photo was taken from the bus but shows the typical coastal terrain.

Crystal clear infusions of the Adriatic’s blue and green waters nudge up against craggy, snaking cliffs forming pools of white sand beaches. Today is a holiday bringing families and friends to the sun.

 

More later on our Pulia adventure.

 

Until then,

Ciao Bella!