Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Monday, June 27, 2011
Did you know that the fig is one of the first plants cultivated by humans? Fig fossils dating back to 9400 BC prove it! It's even believed that they could have been planted and cultivated intentionally, one thousand years before wheat and rye were domesticated. Figs also served as a common food in Roman times. And as for nutrition, figs are one of the highest plant sources of calcium and fiber. But they also have a laxative effect, so it's best not to eat many at one time.
(postscript: later, I learned that this crop of figs is basically of no value. Usually, they drop to the ground and are not used. In September, the sweeter figs arrive, the settembrini, which are much juicier and sought after.)
I have some other beauties in the yard, including melagrana (pomegranate), which are just starting to form their fruit, as shown below.
I neglected the carciofi (artichoke), but now have a lovely plant to watch as they go to seed.
And these aren't plants, but I enjoy their shape: demijohns once used to store wine, that were rescued from rubbish bins.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Tordo Matto (crazy thrush): a roll of horse meat, (usually locally bred), seasoned and stuffed with a mix of prosciutto lard, coriander, parsley, sage, garlic, salt and ground red pepper. Sounds yummy, huh? This is what's being featured this weekend at Zagarolo's annual Sagra del Tordo Matto.
The sagra is usually held in the main piazza, and vendors set up stalls to sell all kinds of fare, from local food to candy, clothes and jewelry. Usually a communal meal is prepared, and long tables are set up in the piazza. Larger sagre have musical entertainment or some type of competition. The sagra season usually starts in June and continues through the fall months.
The preparation of Zagarolo's Tordo Matto is closely linked to the rural economy of the country. Traces of Tordo Matto go back to the 1800's, thanks to some photographic evidence depicting the first "crazy thrushes" cooked on a spit. From an essay written in 1820 it is clear that the spread of this dish was mainly due to a large horse and donkey population. It was a time when Zagarolo lived only for agriculture and sharecropping. The thrush was a delicacy for the richest, and when farmers ventured into the woods in search of animals to hunt, they seldom met with success. As a result, they were forced to kill older animals used in the fields, like donkeys or horses. And since the meat of the horse and the donkey was too sweet, they created a way to make it more spicy and appetizing.
The legend of the "mad thrush" goes back even further, to the sixteenth century when Zagarolo was under the domination of the Colonna family. A wounded soldier took refuge with a farm family who offered him wine and horse-meat rolls made with lard and spices. The drunken soldier began to play the fool and kept repeating the word "drossel" or "thrush" in German, and because he seemed crazy, the meat rolls evolved into "Tordo Matto". Whatever the origin, each year the Zagorolesi honor the tradition by having a sagra where they serve this dish.
I've been to a few sagre, and some are more interesting than others. I especially enjoyed the Sagra delle Castagne (chestnuts) last fall in Marradi.
I missed out on the main events of the Zagarolo sagra, which happened on Saturday night, because I was unaware that it was going on. But today I made sure to be on hand for a lesser version of the festivities. As sagre go, it was small and uneventful, but I was there early in the evening: I didn't stick around for the communal cena (meal) and musical entertainment, scheduled to start after 9 p.m. Instead, I took a pleasant passeggiata through the town and returned home. My main goal was to have a taste of the legendary "tordo matto." Here's what I got: a small meat roll between two slices of bread, for 3 euros. Nothing fancy here. Actually, the meat roll was quite tasty, though it could hardly serve as a meal. Still, I can imagine how it might substitute for a roasted, stuffed bird in a pinch.
Much later that night, I heard fireworks for what seemed an interminable amount of time, more than an hour, so I'm guessing that things picked up at the sagra after I left.
When I told my friend Massimo in Bologna about the sagra, he said that the tordo brings to mind another comic event for most Italians: a scene from a movie by the comedian Paolo Villaggio, who plays a character called Fantozzi, a "common man" who continually gets into trouble. Here's a link to a scene that shows Fantozzi attempting to eat il tordo for the first time, while his upper class companions look on in disgust.
Fantozzi - Il Tordo
Saturday, June 25, 2011
But today I'm using the word tesoro to describe a real treasure, offered to me by five-year-old Francesca, who lives next door. A happy, precocious child, Francesca greets me with a sweet "ciao, Maribett" every time she sees me (the Italian tongue has trouble with the "th" sound, and there is no y in the language, so here I'm often called Maribett.) Her parents are also friendly, but Francesca goes out of her way to greet me often. When I was in Rome the other day, I came across a street vendor selling trinkets, and I bought a few for Francesca and her older sister, Sara (a 12-year-old who is more likely to scowl). As soon as Francesca received her gift (a small glass bear), she ran inside to create the above drawing, which now has a place of honor on the refrigerator. Tesoro, indeed! And for once, Sara also smiled. Evviva! (hurray!)
Friday, June 24, 2011
Over the past few days, it's been heating up, into the 90's F (30's C), and the plum tree near the patio has been dropping fruit nuggets in the yard. They're quite small, and it feels like an Easter egg hunt to look for them in the leaves beneath the tree. In the photo above, you can see today's stash of le prugne (plums) from the back yard and gli albicocche (apricots) from the neighbors. Next to the basket is a pine cone from the Pino marittimo, or Maritime Pine, which gives us pine nuts (used to make pesto), covered by a hard brown shell. I've tried cracking a few of them, and it's hard work! Now I know why they cost so much.
Along with the heat come le zanzare, the mosquitoes that will plague Italy until it freezes in the fall. Purtroppo, unfortunately, the little buggers love to bite me, so if I want to have any kind of ventilation in the house, I have to use a mosquito zapper, starting in the late afternoon and continuing until morning. Window screens are not usually included in Italian houses, so mosquitoes have free entry whenever the windows or doors are open.
To ward them off, I use a handy little zapper that plugs into the wall. You slide a small pellet into the round ball, and it heats the pellet, perfuming the air with something that keeps mosquitoes at bay. A pellet lasts for 12 hours, and I've been using one every single day.
Tonight there's a fresh breeze in the air, and it's calling me outside for another long walk.
Buona sera! (Good evening!)
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Limoriz is a frozen gelato lemon bar with a licorice stick instead of the usual wooden stick in the middle of the bar. So when you're finished with the lemon bar, you still have another treat. I love it! It's my favorite new Italian dessert. And it's easy to keep them on hand in the freezer.
The cherry season is waning, but now there are fresh apricots and plums hanging from the trees. Claudio and Mariela gave me a fresh supply of apricots this week, in thanks for the kilo of cherries I gave them a few weeks ago.
It's heating up all over Italy, but it stays cool in the house, where I spend many hours working online right now. In another week, Deborah returns from Canada, and I'll be off to visit friends in Northern Italy. I'll be going to Verona, Trento, Padova, Venezia, Modena, either Parma or Cremona, and Firenze before heading back to Zagarolo at the end of July.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
I have to admit, it's a bit of a thrill to know my way around Rome now. With such easy access to the city, I'm glad I've been able to take advantage of the opportunity to explore, and at least once a week I spend the day in Rome. I have a long list of places I still haven't seen, and hope to have more chances to be a tour guide for friends in the future.
I needed a break from my work routine, so today I went to Trastevere, a quartiere or area of Rome that is known for its ''Bohemian" atmosphere. My goal: to locate a bar that serves drinks in chocolate shot glasses. Davvero! (for real!) I recently read about it in a blog about life in Rome, aptly entitled An American in Rome, and decided I needed to check it out.
I caught an early train, then at Termini I jumped on the crowded H bus, and was in Trastevere by 8:30 a.m. It was quiet, cool and devoid of people. In fact, it seems that this area of Rome doesn't "open" until about 11 a.m. Trastevere is known for it's night life, so I would be missing out on many attractions in the area.
Case in point: while exploring the winding streets, I located the bar that serves wine and chocolate, only to discover that on weekdays, it doesn't open until 7:30 p.m.! NOT FAIR! My plan was to spend the morning in Rome while it was still relatively cool, and hightail it out of the city about 2 pm, when the heat begins to get oppressive.
I had hoped to do some browsing and shopping in the quaint stores in Trastevere, but since they weren't open, I visited several churches instead (only three out of 45 in this part of Rome!) . The first was Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, which has lovely mosaics and an interesting crypt under the church.
Another church I visited, the most well-known in the area, was Santa Maria in Trastevere. Note the similarity of the mosaic scene. It is one of the oldest churches in Rome, dating back to the 3rd century A.D., and is perhaps the first in which mass was openly celebrated.
And the third church, Santa Maria della Scala, honors a supposedly miraculous icon of Mary. According to Wikipedia, "Tradition holds that the icon, when placed on the landing of a staircase of a neighboring house of a mother who prayed before it, had cured her deformed child. "
Besides the beauty of the mosaics and the tranquility of the churches, another benefit is that they were cool and virtually empty of tourists.
I wandered around Trastevere for several hours, enjoying the cobbled, quiet streets, stopping for gelato at one of the few open stores, and spied this advertisement at a liquor store.
Yes, it's true: a version of Duff beer is sold in Italy. It's curious, but the Simpsons (I Simpson) are quite popular with Italians. Another curiosity: Late Night with David Letterman is shown on cable TV, but not the Tonight Show, it seems. I'm wondering why: must be something about the irreverent humor that appeals to the Italian psyche. It's no wonder I fit in well here!
About 1 pm I took a bus over to the Jewish Quarter of town and wandered around, looking for a nice place to have a good Roman meal. (I heard later that Woody Allen had been there the day before, scouting locations for his next movie, now being filmed in Rome.) However, the menus were pricey and the listing of heavy pastas and meats didn't appeal. I headed back to Termini on another crowded bus, and crossed over to a pedestrian area on via Gioberti where many open-air trattorias were vying for hungry tourists to sample their fare. I stopped at one that had a musician, and ordered a meal of Bruschetta al pomodoro (toasted bread with tomatoes), Calamari arrostiti (roasted calamari), Fagolini con limone (green beans with lemon), and vino rosso, a glass of red wine. Simple, but squisito, exquisite. A British couple from Cambridge sat next to me and I spent the next 90 minutes lingering over lunch and conversation with them.
As they heard the story of my life and travels in Italy, they found it quite extraordinary. Living for free in Italy? How is that possible? Yet to me, it's simply MY LIFE: a way of being that has come about from taking risks and making choices that I feel drawn to. It's been a five-year process that has brought me to this point, and I'm fortunate in many respects to be able to live as I do, but it doesn't seem extraordinary. And now I'm curious to see what's ahead for me in the next five years. Chissa? (who knows) Anything is possible!
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Thursday, June 16, 2011
It was the perfect day, still cool, but sunny. If you'd like to know more about this charming village, I've written previously about it here:
When we got back to the house, I fixed gnudi again, and they pronounced my efforts Buonissimi! Squisiti! (= YUMMY) High praise coming from a great Roman cook and two Romans who are used to eating good food. After their comments, I feel more confident about my attempts to cook Italian for Italians.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
The stairs down to the cantina
Monday, June 13, 2011
We spent several hours walking through the vast complex, which covers 250 acres and includes some 30 buildings: palaces, terme (baths), a theatre, temples, libraries, state rooms and living quarters.
Hadrian was involved in creating the architecture of the estate from his own ideas, and the style of the statues, sculpture and mosaics were inspired by his travels to Greece and Egypt. The Villa still preserves the grandeur and splendor of the ancient Roman world. Hadrian was also responsible for building the Pantheon in Rome.
One of the most striking and best preserved parts of the Villa is a pool, named Canopus after an Egyptian city. There is a grotto at one end called the Serapeo. This was my favorite part of the complex: I found the green of the trees on either side, and the long expanse of green water to be both mesmermizing and relaxing.
After our long walk through the vast complex of the Villa, we stopped for pranzo (lunch) at a restaurant on the premises and had another delicious Roman meal. (I can feel the pounds creeping on!) Unfortunately, by this time we were weary, and still had a date to visit the Tufaio winery, so we didn't make it to another villa in Tivoli, Villa D'Este, famous for its fountains and flower gardens. It will have to wait until another day.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
This week I had visitors from Modena: Marco and Marvi came to spend a few days with me in Zagarolo. I met them in Rome at the Termini train station, and we headed down via Nazionale and over to the Scuderie del Quirinale to see an art exhibit by Lorenzo Lotto. (Across the piazza is Palazzo Quirinale, the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, currently Giorgio Napolitano.)
After the exhibit, we took a taxi over to the Pantheon, asking the taxi driver for suggestions as to where we could eat a good Roman meal. Bypassing the outdoor cafes catering to tourists, we had a wonderful lunch on a side street near the Pantheon. Then we walked over to the Trevi fountain and Piazza Navona before making our way back to the train station.
gnudi for la cena (dinner). It turned out quite well! And for dessert, a special Cherry-Olive Oil Polenta cake that I'd made in honor of Marco's upcoming birthday.
The History of Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar is today used in numerous recipes all over the world. The tangy sweet and sour flavor of balsamic vinegar gives a marvelous finish to gourmet delicacies. Having its origins in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, balsamic vinegar has found its way into the smallest of home-kitchens as well as the trendiest of restaurants. One finds the shelves of supermarkets stocked with various brands of balsamic vinegar each claiming their own superiority. An average customer is unaware of the fact that authentic balsamic vinegar is very difficult to come by. Most of the commercial varieties available in the markets are manipulated versions or imitations. It would therefore not be surprising if we say that most people have not even tasted authentic balsamic vinegar.
Thirty years ago true balsamic vinegar, (or in Italian) “aceto balsamico tradizionale,” was relatively unknown outside of villas of Italy. Till this time, its production was restricted to the wealthy families in the small towns of Modena and Reggio in the Emilia-Romagna region, just west of Bologna. They had been making the condiment for nearly a thousand years but catering only to the requirements within the family. They would stock supplies for several years and pass on to the next generation as heirlooms. It was also a prestigious gift given in small vessels to close friends or bequeathed to daughters as a portion of their wedding dowry.
Grazie a Marvi! Now if I can only get the bottle home to Kansas without breaking it!
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Life is going well, and with all that's been happening, I'm getting behind in writing about it. This week I went to Gallicano del Lazio, another village built on a hill, to visit Ken and Maria, a British couple who are friends of Deborah.
Actually, Maria is Italian, but she moved to England thirty years ago and has the British accent to prove it. Three years ago she and Ken moved to Gallicano to care for her ailing mother, who died last year. Their main passion is gardening, and they've created a lovely patch of paradise in their expansive garden.
I enjoyed seeing the fruits of their labors, which included a flower and herb garden, complete with a stone pathway created by their two sons, and a variety of benches, fences and pergolas they have fashioned out of branches. One large pergola is shaded by kiwi vines.
We spent several hours perusing the garden, and then drove to see the family olive grove. It was an impressive display of their passion for making the most of the natural world.
Monday, June 6, 2011
Today I went across the road to la vigna (vineyard) and cantina (wine cellar), called Cantina del Tufaio, to learn something about the grape-growing process. Claudio and Mariela were working on the vino rosso (red wine) vines under the hot morning sun, trimming away leaves that were shading the baby grape clusters, and tucking the long tendrils of vine up under the overhanging wire. They were explaining things quickly to me in Italian, so I wasn't able to follow everything they said, but I got the gist of it.
After a wind and rain storm yesterday, they were working hard to "clean" the vines before another storm that is predicted for this afternoon. Only the vino rosso vines need to be cleaned in such a way. The vino bianco (white wine) vines are treated differently: the vines are cut at the top, and the leaves are left to shade the grape clusters.
They were working in the newer vineyard, planted ten years ago, which contains one section of grapes for red wine (cabernet sauvignon) and another for white wine (chardonnay).
Their older vineyard, down the street, was planted in the early 90's. Mariela took me on a tour of this more expansive tract, which curved downwards along the hill and up the other side. The views were simply breathtaking. This tract contains a variety of grapes for other types of wine, spumanti, and merlot. These grapes were much larger, and will be harvested in mid-August. Beyond the merlot vines is an olive orchard, and beyond that is a walnut orchard.
Mariela told me that most of the houses in this area are relatively new, meaning about 50 years old. But the house where the cantina is located predates all the newer construction, as it was built in 1936. Houses that are older have often been refurbished with stucco on the outside, and small patches of the original stoneware are visible to show their more ''antique" origins.
I'm wishing I could be here in the fall to see the vendemia (grape harvest). Chissa? Forse posse ritornare...
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Though today was a holiday in Italy, as Italians celebrated the 65th anniversary of their independence day, it was just another day for me. I'd been to Rome earlier this week, so decided not to hassle with the city scene. Instead, I spent much of the day picking, pitting and cooking cherries.
After four glorious but hectic days in Firenze, I was ready to come back to the tranquil setting in Zagarolo. I'm enjoying my time here more and more. One of my routines is to take an hour-long walk down a country road, with views of vineyards and hills in every direction. I can watch the changes in the vegetation, and was surprised this week to see how much everything had grown while I was in Florence. Wildflowers of all types, colors and sizes had popped out, including orange poppies, blue chickory, white Queen Anne's lace, and pink primrose. In the yard, other varieties of wildflowers are blooming, along with the oleander and pomegranate bushes. (yes, a pomegranate! It has bright orange flowers. Who knew?)