Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Food and Wine in Umbria, Italy Blogging Roundtable, Life in Umbria
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My Local: The Last Woman Standing

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “My local…”! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

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Sometimes I feel like I have lived through the 1970’s twice.

I did my first turn around the block in the US, growing up in the Midwest. The 1970’s was a time when there were still small neighborhood shops and locally owned grocery and department stores. Our day-to-day shopping was broken down into a number of stops: the butcher’s downtown, the bakery on the corner (watching our loaf go though the bread slicer was the highlight of the trip), and even – if I plumb the depths of my toddler memory – the dairy. (Side note: the Weber Dairy building had a big cement milk bottle out front, which was huge when I was three years old. It towered at least 2 stories above my head. Two years ago, I happened to pass the building, now an office complex called The Dairy Center. The milk bottle is still there, but I had to laugh at how small it had become over 40 years.)

Even the larger stores were local chains. Our grocery store of choice was Honiotis Bros. because, you know, Greeks. (The Xoniotis family, who became the Honiotis family, was from Mykonos like our Theodosis and Vardoulakis – now Vardal – families, so we bought our carrots and toilet paper from Honiotis’ out of national pride.) But sometimes we would make a big trip to Dominick’s, which was a local chain. If we had to stock up on school clothes, it was off to to Wieboldt’s or Goldblatt’s (Wieboldt’s was better, because they gave out S&H Green Stamps), but a family wedding merited an excursion to Kline’s or The Boston Store. We loved The Boston Store, because the name conjured up that sophisticated and exotic city on the East Coast.

And then things started to change, and we all know how. First it was large supermarket chains that offered unbeatable prices during the recession, then it was newfangled malls that replaced the main streets for teenagers and adults alike. Not long after, the first big-box stores appeared, funneling business from the locally owned shops, and the vacant storefronts were replaced by national franchises.

None of the businesses I remember from my elementary school years are still around. Honiotis went first in 1985, then Dominick’s began to falter. Wieboldt’s, Goldblatt’s, Kline’s, and The Boston Store (not to be confused with Boston Store)…all gone. Now it’s chains as far as the eye can see, and everything from the suburbs to the downtowns look pretty much the same across great swathes of the US.

When I first came to Umbria in the mid-1980’s, in many ways it resembled the US a decade or two before. Franchises and big-box superstores were virtually unknown, and the retail sector was almost exclusively small, family-run businesses. Grocery shopping was divided between the local outdoor market for produce, the dry goods store, the butcher, and the bread shop. Buying a pair of black pants meant stopping in at one or two central emporiums, announcing that you needed black pants, and trying on whatever they brought you from the shelves. It was more time consuming and less efficient, but also more human and kept residents living in the otherwise inconvenient confines of the town centers.

Unfortunately, the same process that tore the fabric of American downtowns twenty years before began taking hold in Italy shortly after my first trip. The convenience and competitive pricing of supermarkets began to squeeze out the tiny markets and food shops, the novelty of the mall trumped the fustiness of historic clothing stores for younger customers, and the powerhouse marketing of national and international franchises crushed local shops. I have watched in dismay over the past two decades as more and more local businesses struggle while Foot Locker, H&M, and even the Italian chain Intimissimi seem to multiply overnight like mushrooms.

Though, in my heart of hearts, I long for an Ikea, I also have seen (twice!) the damage this modern franchise culture can do to communities and their local economies. I try to limit my excursions to the mall and the sprawling grocery stores along the highway to dire emergencies, and spend my time and money in the admittedly more expensive but also charmingly timeless shops in the center of Assisi.

Piazzetta dell'Erba, Assisi, Italy

This vintage photo is from the menu of Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi

Case in point: the Piazzetta delle Erbe. This tiny square just steps from Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune has been the local produce market for decades, if not centuries. Certainly long enough that the spot was officially dubbed “Greens Square” at some point and is now home to an excellent restaurant of the same name.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

The home I stayed at on my second trip to Assisi in the late 1980’s had rooms overlooking this square, including my bedroom. I would wake to the friendly squawking of the local ladies bargaining for everything from potatoes and tulips each morning, mixed in with local gossip and good natured ribbing. The Piazzetta delle Erbe was both market and meeting place, and the small space was crammed with makeshift stands and tables, three-wheeled Apes, or simply stacked crates holding towers of seasonal fruit, vegetables, fresh eggs, ricotta, honey, and anything else these farmwives from the surrounding countryside had to sell that morning.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

Today, just Novella remains. With enough energy and warmth to fill a piazza, but with just one lone stand of goodies she and her sweet husband Bruno bring in from their farm plot outside of town each morning, Novella holds court from dawn to lunchtime each day. She is almost never alone, as the local ladies take turns resting on her guest stool to swap news while she tirelessly rearranges buckets of fresh flowers, piles of greens, and crates of fruit. She holds the scales in her hand to weigh purchases, and then always throws in something extra after declaring an (often seemingly arbitrary) price.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

It makes be both sad and joyful to see Novella still out there every morning. “Bongiorno, core!” she calls out as I pass. She knows what each of my sons prefer, and will spend a good five minutes picking the radicchio leaves out of my mixed greens to please them. She will scoff at my selection of tomatoes, tossing them back into the pile and choosing others. “Those are for salad, cocca. You want the sugo ones,” she explains after placing what look like identical ones on the scales. She will pick out a melon with all the gravity of a Antwerp diamantaire, after inquiring about the exact time I plan on serving it.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

I know it takes me twice as long to buy from Novella, but I love the familiarity of it. I love being grilled by a group of housewives about my menu for the day, and then standing back as they argue amongst themselves about recipes and ingredients. I nod and smile, often feigning exaggerated ignorance just to revel in their animated conversation. The vast Coop supermarket will be there for years into the future, but one morning soon Novella will be gone, and with her the Piazzetta delle Erbe market. And until that day comes, she’s my local go-to vegetable lady.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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For the Birds: The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable takes on the theme of “sweet” this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

I have, of late, discovered the small nugget of joy that is birdwatching. To be honest, what I do can hardly be called by that name. I rarely correctly identify a species—indeed, I rarely see a bird if it’s not pointed out to me by a companion. I have a hard time maneuvering binoculars, and forget about photography. By the time I’ve chosen the right exposure and focus, the flock has long migrated to Africa.

 

Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis

But the silence and pace are a welcome respite from my loud, fast life, so I find myself more and more frequently retreating for a few hours to one of the number of natural bird sanctuaries around Umbria. My favorite, the WWF Oasis of Alviano in the southern part of Umbria, was hit hard by a devastating flood two years ago and my heart broke when I heard about the incredible damage to the park and its infrastructure. So when they put out the call for volunteers to come and lend a hand rebuilding, I signed right up.

Lake Alviano Umbria Italy

Photo by Il Cantore via Wikimedia Commons

The Alviano Oasis is one of the WWF’s largest, extending 900 hectares along the manmade Alviano Lake, formed with the 1960 damming of the Tiber River for a hydroelectric plant. The area had already been an established stop for thousands of migratory birds each year, but with the formation of the vast lake and surrounding wetland, the importance of the resulting ecosystem became such that in 1978 the area became a natural reserve and in 1990 was taken over by the WWF.

Lago di Alviano Umbria Italy

Photo by Ziegler175 via Wikimedia Commons

There are four kilometers of walkways and hiking paths circling the lake and marsh, broken up by bird blinds and towers. Here skilled (and, ahem, lucky) birders can spot over a hundred species, including brightly plumed kingfishers, great crested grebes, herons, cormorants, bitterns, and falcons. The area is also lush with aquatic plants and the amphibians that call them home.

Birdwatching Umbria Italy

Photo by Marco Ilari via Wikimedia Commons

Repairing the Damage

When I went to lend a hand on the first gorgeously sunny Sunday of spring last year, I was expecting scenes of destruction and despair. Instead, I found that though much of the park infrastructure had been badly damaged (the oasis also lost two of their three horses in the flood), reconstruction efforts were going well and spirits were high with both the staff there directing the work and the hearty group of volunteers.

Alviano Umbria Italy

We worked on clearing the paths, rebuilding walkways, cleaning out the blinds and towers, and repairing fencing. Ours was just one in months of volunteer weekends, and it was so heartening to see the mixed group of locals and lovers of the oasis from further afield working together to get this unique area in shape to be reopened for the 2013 season. Indeed, just a few weeks later the Alviano Oasis was able to open its gates to birding enthusiasts again (though there is still work to be done), just in time for the first spring migration.

Birdwatching in Umbria Italy

Photo by Mediamenta via Wikimedia Commons

Visiting the Oasis

The Alviano Oasis is open to the public 10 am to sunset from September 1st to May 31st (best times for birding are October/November and April/May). The entrance to the Oasis is at Madonna del Porto (Guardea) along the Alviano Scalo-Baschi road. For more information, email lagodialviano@wwf.it or call 333/7576283.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Holiday Munchies: Addormentasuocere

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable takes on the theme of “sweet” this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Paolo is a bit of a modern Renaissance man, if by “Renaissance” one intends beer-brewing aerospace engineers with a talent for photography, a passion for grunge, and a mouth that would shame an Irish sailor. He’s also a man-about-the-kitchen, and when I stopped by his darkroom the other day to irritate him with my amateur questions, wildly off exposure times, and tendency to drip caustic liquids pretty much everywhere, I rediscovered one of the simple pleasures of snacking that had slipped my mind: addormentasuocere.

My love for these simple-yet-addictive candied hazelnuts has two roots: 1. the fabulous name (addormentasuocere can be loosely translated as “mother-in-law tranquilizers”, one assumes because the act of popping them in the mother-in-law mouth prevents the mother-in-law tongue from wreaking its usual havoc) and 2. the most amazing gelato EVER that I tasted a couple of years ago on the Adriatic, that was addormentasuocere flavored. I still fantasize about it.

Paolo had a plate of his homemade addormentasuocere on hand in his darkroom, which paired well with our ice-cold Peronis and steady stream of banter. I was still thinking about them the next morning, and decided to try my hand at mixing up a batch myself for our traditional Family Christmas Movie Extravaganza. They also work well for munching during holiday card games and tombola (a bingo-like game played in Italy for New Year’s).

Here’s what you need:

  • 100 grams of peeled, toasted hazelnuts
  • 50 grams of sugar
  • 5 T of water

I couldn’t find toasted hazelnuts, so I had to toss them in the oven on a cookie sheet for a few minutes until they turned slightly golden. Then I had to keep myself from eating them immediately, which may have been the hardest step of the entire process. Have you ever smelled freshly toasted hazelnuts? They’re pretty tempting.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper where you’ll cool the candied nuts.
  • Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for about 6-7 minutes, until it just starts to thicken into a syrup.
  • Add the nuts, stirring constantly so they don’t clump.

  • Continue stirring over medium heat until the sugar coating starts to carmelize (turning a slightly darker color).
  • Pour the nuts onto the prepared baking sheet and separate any that have stuck together with a fork (or, if you’re a fan of burnt fingertips, your hands).
  • Let cool completely (or, if you’re a fan of burnt tongues, sample them constantly while still roughly the temperature of the sun.)
  • Enjoy, with or without a Renaissance man.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Christmas Markets in Umbria: A New Tradition

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about traditions this month! Take a look at posts by Jessica Spiegel, Gloria, and Alexandra Korey. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

 

I have to admit that I’m not completely sold on the whole Christmas market thing. An import from northern Italy—which, one presumes, imported it from the Alpine villages across its borders—these picturesque seasonal markets, composed of a number of small booths where artisans and artists hawk their wares, are starting to pop up more and more during the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays in piazzas across Umbria.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

Unfortunately, a number I’ve visited have been disappointments…just a handful of booths, or poorly organized, or largely forgettable items for sale: Umbria is obviously still in the embryonic phase of its holiday market tradition.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

 

There are two exceptions to this largely insipid pool: Assisi’s pretty market the first weekend of December and Perugia’s large market which takes over the whole of the Rocca Paolina for the month of December.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

The Rocca is a fascinating place to wander through anytime—the remains of the medieval cityscape perfectly conserved beneath the modern streets of Perugia above—but is particularly suited to a meandering market, with booths tucked away in the various alleyways and niches which make up the brick and stone underground warren. The booths ranged from ceramics and leather goods, to handmade toys and accessories. There were a number of vintage clothing and jewelry sellers and a great selection of fun items for kids.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

The biggest selling point—aside from the dramatic setting and number of sellers—was the range of prices. You can easily find a number of unique stocking stuffers for under €20, up to more expensive leather bags and coats. I’m especially heartened each year by the number of local artisans with handmade crafts and food, always something I am happy to spend my (limited) Christmas budget on.

Christmas Market Perugia Umbria

 

Unfortunately I’ve never snapped pictures when visiting the market, so a big thanks to Gigi Bettin from Via di Francesco for pinch hitting for me and loaning me some shots!

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Digging for Umbria’s Black Gold: Truffles

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about harvest this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

There are some firsts you never forget. Your first kiss (Bubba, fifth grade) and your first heartbreak (same kid). Your first hiring (Gino’s Italian Deli) and your first firing (same job). Your first drive (1982 Dodge Colt) and your first accident (same car). And, in my case, the first time I ever tasted truffles (June, 1986).

I was a high school exchange student staying with a marvelous family in Assisi and during my first week there my “host sister” told me, “Mamma has prepared something special for lunch!” We all sat down at the table, where steaming plates of perfectly cooked spaghetti dressed with just a few drops of golden-green Umbrian olive oil waited. I watched as the family’s mother reverently pulled out what looked to my midwestern American eyes like a clump of dirt and began to grate it over each individual dish. I started to panic. (I had just recovered the previous day from the shock upon hearing that Umbrians regularly ate mice. Only after much elaborate gesticulating and explaining did I realize that what I had understood from the heavily accented English to be the small rodent was actually the word “maize”. Much to my relief.)

I could see no way of diplomatically refusing to eat the soil-covered pasta, and while all eyes around the table were fixed on me, I took my first bite. It was an epiphany.

Nothing can describe the penetrating, earthy (no, it’s not dirt, but its flavor suggests loamy woods and wild mushrooms and crisp autumn days and burning leaves all rolled into one) taste of the world’s most precious tuber. Grated over pasta, mixed in sauces and patès, simply wrapped overnight in a soft towel along with fresh farm eggs for a truffle-infused frittata the next day…these divine delicacies–the Romans believed that truffles were the fruit of the sacred thunderbolt of Jove—are one of the staples of Umbrian cuisine.
Their ubiquitous presence on menus across this central Italian region belies the fact that they are not that easy to come by. They require a precise microclimate at medium-high altitudes, calcareous soil, stony and rich in clay, sunny yet damp spots near oaks, hornbeams, hazelnuts and holm oaks.

They also require a nose—a good nose. These elusive fungi usually grow covered by leaf litter or under the forest floor and eyes aren’t good enough to roust them out. You need the nose of a dog, and I don’t mean in the figurative sense: a real truffle dog. Dogs are trained as pups to sniff out truffles (pigs were once used, but had the bad habit of eating what they found) and used by professional and amateur truffle hunters across the region to locate their woodland treasures. After years of passively eating truffles, I was ready to switch to the active side of the equation and participate in a truffle hunt myself.

When pondering truffles in Umbria, the town of Norcia in the far southeast corner of the region, bordering on The Marches, inevitably comes to mind. Truffles are to Norcia what bicycles are to Beijing and sin is to Vegas, so much so that the common name of the dark Tuber Melanosporum Vitt is Norcia Nero or Norcia’s Black Gold and the town holds an important truffle fair and festival every year in late February. But to participate in an actual hunt, I crossed to the opposite corner of the region and ended up on the upper northwest border with Tuscany among the picturesque wooded rolling hills of the Upper Tiber Valley.

I met up with the delightful couple, Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi, of Tartufi Bianconi located in the small town of Città di Castello. In the truffle business since 1990, for the past decade the Bianconis have opened their doors to travellers and gourmands from all over the world to share their love of the local history, culture, and cuisine—all of which are closely intertwined with this delicacy. I immediately headed out with the affable Saverio, whose knowledge of the Upper Tiber Valley was exhaustive and enthusiasm infective, to a nearby truffle reserve where we met up with two local foragers and their professional canine colleagues: Asia and Sandy.

The dogs were literally trembling with excitement as I got kitted out with my “bisaccia”, or traditional leather truffle bag, and headed into the woods. As soon as they were let free and given the command, they began zigzagging through undergrowth, nose to ground, sniffing for buried treasure. Not three minutes had passed when Asia began circling a spot, and delicately pawing her way through the dried leaf cover and damp humus underneath. Score! A pair of lovely black truffles, about as big as walnuts, were about two inches underground, and I was as proud of her hunting prowess as if she had been by my own. Less than an hour later, with a warm thank you and goodbye to our two “tartufai” truffle hunters and their dogs, I set off with Saverio to his home and business to have our booty weighed and sorted.

Once at Tartufi Bianconi, I discovered Saverio’s tiny private truffle museum–floor to ceiling packed with charming and quirky truffle hunting tools, memorabilia, and an educational display with various samples of local and foreign tuber varieties and curiosities. His lighthearted explanation included wily tricks local foragers use to sell their finds at the highest price (including packing the truffles’ warty skin with pebbles and dirt to make them heavier, thus more valuable, and passing off truffle-shaped stones as the real thing) and to keep the best foraging areas a secret (one local “tartufaio” regularly goes out in drag, so he won’t be recognized and followed to the woods by competitors). Afterwards, I had a peek in their processing rooms, where they weigh, sort, clean and prepare the truffles—drying, deep freezing, or chopping them for patè, sauces, and infused olive oil.

Saverio’s wife, Gabriella, then welcomed me into her homey kitchen and led me through a tasting of the four main truffle varieties found locally: the delicate white truffle (I was there just as the white truffle season opened, and was lucky to be able to sample this rare treat fresh from the woods) sliced paper thin and served raw with lightly salted butter, the stronger summer white truffle, or Bianchetto, which was stored minced and frozen and now served with just a drop of olive oil, the local black truffle (Gabriella had me first taste it raw, then gently warmed in olive oil to demonstrate how this brings out the aroma), and the strong Norcia black truffle, again warmed in olive oil to accentuate the flavor. After 25 years of enjoying truffles, I felt I had finally discovered how to distinguish between them and use each variety to its best advantage—knowledge I will be using to my best advantage at future dinner parties!

We finished our day in the best possible way: cooking and eating our bounty. With Gabriella as instructor, and using all local ingredients and products prepared by the Bianconis, we prepared a pecorino flan with honey and truffles, egg tagliatelle dressed in fresh truffle, a juicy beef roast with truffle sauce, and finished with a wonderful traditional dessert–zuppa inglese–made with custard and sponge cake. We chatted, laughed, and swapped stories from the first bite of antipasto through the last sip of smoky-sweet vin santo made by a micro-vintner down the road. In this day of discoveries, the biggest one was this: truffles are not about food, but about people. The history of people who have foraged for them for millenia, the culture of people who keep this history alive, the passion of people who pass down this culture in the kitchen, the stories of people who are passionate about this breathtaking valley and its bounty.

A special thank you to Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi for a wonderful day!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Italy Roundtable: Partytime at Assisi’s Calendimaggio

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about community this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

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Assisi– with its iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, picturesque twisting stone alleyways, and breathtaking views over the surrounding olive grove-covered hills–is not known for its nightlife. The atmosphere of this beautiful and stately hilltown is staid and spiritual, lending itself more to contemplative walks and quiet cappuccinos than bacchanal excess and nocturnal partying.

That is, except for those three days (and nights) a year when Assisi really lets her hair down. For the past 50 plus years, Saint Francis’ hometown sheds its normal air of peace and brotherly love to spend the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of May locked in intense competition as the Parte de Sopra and the Parte de Sotto put on elaborate processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they compete for the Palio, judged by a panel of three experts, one specialized in history, one in theater and the arts, and one in music.

Virtually everyone who lives in Assisi – and many locals who have since moved away but make a yearly pilgrimage during the days leading up to Calendimaggio – participates in this community-run festival, from building sets and sewing costumes, to acting in the Medieval scenes, to singing in the choir, to going around town each evening to light the many torches illuminating the streets (yes, there is a special group of guys who are specialized in the torches). In a town in which only about 1,000 people currently live in the historic center, almost 2,000 routinely participate in some way in the festival, which brings the town together in both solidarity and rivalry like no other event.

The festival—currently shortlisted for UNESCO World Heritage recognition—is seen best from the bleacher seats in the main piazza (tickets available in the tourist information office); Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons are filled with processions (Thursday is marked by the keys to the city being ceremoniously handed over by the Mayor to the Master of Ceremonies for the three days of festivities; Friday the two Parti compete in crossbow and Medieval games; Saturday afternoon is the theatrical procession. Perhaps the most spectacular of the three days of festivities is Saturday night when fire and pyrotechnics play a large part of the show.). On Thursday and Friday nights the scenes of Medieval life which each Parte organize in their respective areas of the town are open only to the judges, but can be seen by the public projected on screens in the main piazza.

These are magical days when flags and banners hang from each window, a taverna (temporary restaurant) is bustling to serve hungry festival-goers under the Piazza del Comune, costumed theatrical processions, crossbow tournaments, feats of physical strength, Medieval choirs with historic instrumental accompaniment, and dancing go far into the night…indeed, on Saturday the rowdiness flows to dawn, when the verdict from the three judges is announced and the winning Parte literally dances in the streets (And piazzas. And fountains.).

These photos of past editions of Calendimaggio are courtesy of Via di Francesco.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is throwing a party this month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio, we’ve invited the folks from COSI (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy) to talk with us about this month’s theme of “authenticity”. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

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Late last year I reviewed the delightful “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in which author Elizabeth Wholey takes readers on an absorbing journey through the history and culture of the Upper Tiber Valley, passing by way of the area’s farms and their stocked pantries.

To illustrate and enliven her narrative, she includes a number of simple, traditional dishes taken from the well-worn recipe cards of country housewives from the four regions which meet in the Alta Valle del Tevere: Umbria, Le Marche, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna.

As a further homage to this excellent little book, I decided to try out one of these recipes for this month’s Italy Roundtable, as nothing can better illustrate authenticity in Umbria (or Italy as a whole) than its traditional cuisine. I immediately knew which to choose; I had just had a conversation with a visiting friend about one of our winter staples: fennel. Along with greens, cauliflower, and broccoli, this crisp, anise-flavoured, celery-like vegetable is omnipresent at our table during the colder months, but besides simply slicing it and dressing it with a bit of salt and olive oil or, if we are feeling posh, mixing it with thinly sliced oranges and either black olives or pomegranate seeds to form a colorful salad, I’m not particularly creative with how to serve it.

So when I spotted Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro—billed as “Angiolina’s Thrice Cooked Fennel with Tomato Sauce”—I knew that was the one.

Here it is:

Prep time:

10 minutes

Cooking time:

40 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 500 g ripe, flavorful tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or 350 g Ortobono pomarola, or canned Italian tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 250 ml water
  • 1 lt oil for frying
  • 400 g all-purpose flour for dredging
  • grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

To make the tomato sauce: in a 2 lt heavy pot with a close-fitting lid, heat the chopped garlic in the oil until its aroma is just released (do not overcook), the add the chopped tomatoes or pomarola sauce, water, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes; remove from heat and set aside.

Heat the frying oil to 180° in a deep, heavy saucepan. In a separate pot, bring to boil 2 lt of salted water. Prepare a large bowl with flour for dredging.

Thinly slice the fennel bulbs, wash, and add to the pot of boiling water. Cook for five minutes [I found that this was too long…I would cook just until fork-tender; about three minutes], then remove and dry them on a clean towel.

When they are cool, dredge them in the flour and carefully place in the hot oil. Fry, turning occasionally, until they are a golden color. Lift them out and place in the pot with the pre-prepared tomato sauce.


[We got into a little trouble here, having discovered that fried fennel is pretty darn good just all by itself. Mostly because pretty much any food is pretty darn good if deep-fried. But we managed to quit snacking on them and got most of the fried fennel slices in the pot of sauce.]

When all the fried fennel is in the pot of sauce, cover it and cook on the stovetop for about 10 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding additional water to prevent sticking. When the sauce has become thickened and creamy, transfer the fennel with the sauce to a warm serving dish and serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

A special thanks to Elizabeth Wholey for allowing me to reproduce her recipe here!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

And from our friends at COSI:

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Italy Roundtable: Lost at the Table

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable has grown over the past month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria, we welcome new member Michelle Fabio from the wonderful Bleeding Espresso blog to explore this month’s theme: lost in translation. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

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I’m not sure how it came up. We may have been talking about childhood memories, or maybe some American movie, or maybe just our favorite foods from growing up. But for whatever reason, I started describing to my children -bicultural but 90% Italian in matters concerning the palate – that perennial favorite: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

I watched as their expressions shifted from mild interest to disbelief to outright disgust as I described the bright orange powder which, when mixed with milk, butter, and slightly overcooked elbow pasta, would transform through some sort of gastronomic alchemy into what was, in the 1970s, our hands-down favorite meal and one of the pillars of our household cuisine.

“Wait, what? It was dried, powdered chemical cheese?!? And you ate it?” my children cried in horror. And then, “So if you ate that and you’re fine, why can’t we have Coke?”

It seems odd, but I had never really thought about some of my favorite and, admittedly, slightly disgusting favorite dishes from growing up during what was probably the lowest moment for American cuisine. They had gradually faded from my memory over the distance decades and oceans, and it was only during what quickly become one of my children’s favorite topics of dinnertime conversation that I revisited these dishes.

Over the next few weeks, a myriad of nostalgic favorites were discussed, to the growing incredulity of my children. What was served at home and school in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s and 80s was as odd and gastronomically untranslatable to two Italian children growing up in the Umbrian countryside in the 21st century as molecular cuisine or whatever tube worms eat in the depths of the ocean.

What were the foods – and I use the word “food” loosely – that left them most awed and amazed?

Chili Mac. This was the logical segue after Kraft Mac & Cheese (with a slight, longing detour past Hamburger Helper), and my kids were slightly less scandalized by this, as they have had chili with more or less success. Of course, the chili that they have had is my homemade black bean chili with chipotle and fresh lime which simmers on the stove for the better part of a day. The chili my mother used was made by Hormel and simmered on the stove for exactly 30 seconds before being tossed with overdone macaroni (was there any other pasta shape in the Midwest in 1981?) and served up to much enthusiasm. Had I had the audacity to bring up canned chili, I could have also mentioned Spaghettios and Chef Boyardee Ravioli, but they can’t handle the truth.

The whole genre of orange processed cheeses. Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Kraft Singles. America has invented many wonderful things, but I venture that our eponymous cheese is not one of them. I’ve never been a big fan of American cheese, so understood my sons’ perplexed looks while I described the disconcerting color, rubbery texture, and chemical aftertaste. Cheese is our family Esperanto, apparently. That said, one of my favorite childhood memories was going to the public library on Saturday and then afterwards stopping at the Peter Pan Diner for a grilled cheese sandwich…and you can bet your bottom dollar that it was made with Wonder Bread, American cheese, and fried up in margarine. Best lunch ever.

Jello. I have vague memories of opening up the kitchen cabinet and seeing a number of those small boxes neatly stacked in a variety of flavors. We were big jello fans at our house, and jiggly trays would be prepared and then cut into ice-cube sized squares to be popped into the mouth directly from the fridge all afternoon long. Try explaining to a 10 and 13 year old Italian kid that merenda was squares of acid-colored sweet gelatin flavored with artificial fruit flavors. Yeah, it doesn’t really translate that well. Throw in canned mandarin orange slices and marshmallows, and they were backing away from the table at just the thought. But boy did I love that when I was seven. (Also: Jello instant pudding in the similar little boxes. This did not gross the kids out as much, as there is instant budino here. Which they refuse to eat. But they’ve seen it.)

Sloppy Joes. I went into a long explanation of the singular delight that is the Sloppy Joe, and when I finished there was a long silence. Then, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s ragu served on a hamburger bun?” Yeah. Exactly. I’d never really thought of it like that, but yes. They were totally on board with the Sloppy Joe, and I have promised to make it for them some day. Because, you know, they’re two boys. And Sloppy Joes are, well, sloppy. Which is pretty much the attraction there, because otherwise it’s really nothing more than ragu sauce on a bun, you big dummy.

Corn dogs. No one is quibbling about the deliciousness that is the corn dog on a stick. Really, any food on a stick is pretty much the bomb, but the corn dog reigns supreme in pure State Fair joyousness. And yet. Try to explain the corn dog concept to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to actually taste one at an age too young to ask too many questions and you are bound to get Prince-at-the-2015-Grammys shade tossed your way. My kids are off and on about hot dogs (though hamburgers are always a win), and meh about cornbread. So the combination didn’t really sway them, though the concept of it being served on a stick gave them pause. Every once in awhile, just for laughs, they’ll randomly ask me to describe a corn dog again. And I have to admit, the more I talk about it the more I realize that it is kind of weird. But I hear that pretty much everything is battered and fried and served on a stick these days, so corn dogs have become the Atari of fair foods.

Tater tots. One bite of tater tots and they would burn their Italian passports. That is all. You think your favorite school lunch day was Sloppy Joe Day, but that’s because you forgot about Tater Tot Day. The day of the week we all lived for. I haven’t actually eaten a tater tot in probably 30 years, but I was able to perfectly describe the crunchy fried outer layer, lightly dusted in salt, which would be cracked open to reveal the steaming soft totness within. And, as a close cousin to the universally beloved french fry, (so deeply part of our cultural roots that when those rats in France had the audacity to justly question our invasion of Iraq after 9/11, we started calling them “freedom fries” because the alternative—boycotting french fries altogether—was unthinkable), my sons were easy converts.

Every so often, we open up the gastronomic Pandora’s Box and I’m able to exhume other more or less horrifying (to them)-slash-nostalgic (to me) examples (Tang.), much to our mutual enjoyment. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about highlighting the crazy differences that separate their experiences from mine, but about coming together and reveling in our shared life despite those crazy differences. Sure, food is sometimes lost in translation…but family is a something we all understand.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Italy Roundtable: The Hardest Thing

We tried. We did. We tried to quit, but we just couldn’t do it. We missed our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable date too much, so I’m back with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria to tackle this month’s theme: cha-cha-cha-changes. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

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The Hardest Thing

I used to be a bit more starry-eyed about human nature. I used to observe humanity and see only what unites us: our common basic needs, our social nature, our love of fried foods. I would hum John Lennon and feel at one with the universe.

Now, perhaps a bit more jaded or simply realistic, I tend to see what divides us. The world seems to be cracking down the middle lately in everything from politics to pop culture, and there are less and less fences to sit on. You are either left or right, trash or high culture, vegan or paleo.

One of the divisions in human nature that has come into focus for me lately is this: there are those who need stability and those who need change. I mean, I suppose like sexuality and love of Beyoncé, it’s a spectrum, but — just like sexuality and love of Beyoncé — the vast majority of us are pretty far on one side or the other. And I have discovered, after years of thinking that I was a starter for Team Stability, that I am actually the official mascot for Team Change.

My son recently started using a guitar pick, after two years of lessons playing with his fingers. He fretted and fussed and got frustrated, and then one day picked out the first iconic notes of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as if he had been doing it for years. And he said to me, with the frank wisdom that is found only in 10 year olds, “It wasn’t that it was hard. I was just scared it was going to be hard. The changing isn’t hard, it’s the thinking before the changing.”

And therein lies the truth, at least for me. The hardest thing isn’t the changing, contrary to what I thought for most of my life. The changing, I have discovered, is my lifeblood. It makes me feel vibrant and courageous and purposeful and, ultimately, triumphant. The hardest thing is the standing still and thinking before the changing.

Which brings me to a Whole Bunch of Great News! Or, at least, great news for a newly-outed Change Poster Child. In our world of the Italy Roundtable, many of us have gone through big changes since we last sat down to chat – babies have been born, international moves have been made, careers have been formed – and I have some news of my own to toss into the ring.

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Brigolante Goes to Town

We are adding three new apartments on to Brigolante! We have recently taken on three pretty studio and one bedroom guest apartments in a historic palazzo right on the central Piazza del Comune in Assisi. Unfortunately, the Roundtable decided to launch before we are ready with our new website, but in the coming season we will be able to offer guests a choice between Brigolante Country here in the hills outside of Assisi and Brigolante Centro right in the heart of Assisi just steps from all the sights.

After a few years of languishing and feeling a little directionless, when the opportunity came to add new offerings and shake things up a bit, I jumped at it. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed a new challenge to stimulate me and get me excited about my business (my first “baby”, born before the real babies came along) again. I’ll be announcing our news with a big website launch, but I wanted to share it with my readers in the meantime.

These apartments have terraces with a view over the piazza, quiet inner courtyards with pizza ovens and ringing churchbells, and lots of space and light. The best part is that with more guests, there’s more of an opportunity to organize activities and events…so get ready for wine tastings and pizza parties and all sorts of fun stuff in the coming months!

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Rebecca Leaves Town

Another exciting change recently was my involvement in producing a fabulous new travel series for PBS with Dream of Italy, an Italy travel newsletter that I have contributed to a few times over the years. When the editor at Dream of Italy and producer of the PBS series, Kathy McCabe, contacted me about collaborating with the production logistics, I really had to think about it. The project involved traveling for five weeks, which was a logistical challenge both for my family and professional life, and I just wasn’t sure if it was feasible.

But, like the wise boy said, it’s the thinking before the changing. In just a few days, a number of things fell into place in a way that was both serendipitous and timely and I was able to participate in this amazing adventure which took us from Piemonte to Puglia, passing through Tuscany, Umbria (of course Umbria!), Rome, and Naples and the Amalfi Coast along the way.

Dream of Italy – 2015 Teaser from Trivium Films on Vimeo.

It was hard work, but also perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Not only did I meet some amazing people (and see old friends), but I was able to rediscover the passion and warmth that had made me fall in love with this country over 20 years ago which I had begun to lose sight of recently. The series is coming out this spring, so check your local PBS listings to watch!

Other changes? Yes, lots of them. With the fervor of the newly converted, I am giving a stiff beating to my rug of life to see what flies off into the ether and what sticks around and reveals itself to be woven into my essence. It’s taken me a long time to pull that rug up off the floor and take it into the sunshine, but once I did it I realized that it was, surprisingly, the easiest thing.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Italy Roundtable: Panzanella

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a bit sluggish…blame the August heat.  Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month),  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me have to say. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some popsicles, and join in on the conversation.

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August in Italy

August in Italy is hot. Hot hot. Too hot to work (which is why this post is late), too hot to sleep, and too hot to cook—much less eat–much of anything.

There is one dish that I can always stomach, no matter what the thermometer reads. No, it’s not gelato (there are days when even gelato seems a challenge) and it’s not pasta salad (though it’s a close runner-up). It’s panzanella.

Panzanella is both a quintessentially Umbrian and a quintessentially summer dish. Umbrian because it is a delicious way to use up stale bread, which appeals to the parsimonious Umbrians and their farming traditions of not letting anything go to waste, and because pretty much every cook has their own version of it, depending upon their tastes and vegetable garden. Summer because it is built around flavorful garden tomatoes, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and not much else–all ingredients that abound in these summer months—and involves not a lick of flame to make.

When the temperatures soar, make yourself a big ol’ plate of panzanella. And then take a nap in front of the fan.

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Panzanella

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Ingredients for four servings:

  • 200 grams traditional Umbrian bread (cooked in a wood oven is best), cubed
  • 3-4 ripe tomatoes (cherry tomatoes work fine, as well), chopped
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, sliced
  • (optional, according to taste: 1 cucumber and/or 1 carrot and/or a few leaves of romaine lettuce and/or capers and/or minced garlic and/or red or yellow sweet peppers)
  • a handful of green or black marinated olives (the good ones, people)
  • a bunch of fresh basil, chopped
  • red wine vinegar
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

Cut the vinegar with the same volume of water, making enough to soak the bread cubes. Soak for about five minutes, then press out the liquid well (the cubes get a little mushed up…it’s fine.).

Mix the bread with the chopped vegetables, olives, and basil in a large salad bowl. Dress with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Let the panzanella rest in the refrigerator for about two hours.

Yep, that’s it. Nap time.

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Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.