I was very happy to contribute a nuts-n-bolts “how to” article for planning a trip in Umbria for Pauline Kenny at Slow Europe.
If you are thinking about your next visit, you can get some tips here!
I was very happy to contribute a nuts-n-bolts “how to” article for planning a trip in Umbria for Pauline Kenny at Slow Europe.
If you are thinking about your next visit, you can get some tips here!
I never used to cry. I mean, first I never used to cry in that slightly unhealthy maybe-you-need-a-little-therapy-and-some-getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings way. Then I never used to cry in that hipster I’m-your-sassy-best-girlfriend way. Then I never used to cry in that pragmatic it’s-just-how-I-am way.
Now I cry at the drop of a hat. I have the frustration tolerance of an overtired two-year old who had Cocoa Pebbles for both breakfast and lunch and Wants. Them. For. Dinner. I cry about my dry cleaning getting lost, my telephone bill being exorbitant, and my dentist running 40 minutes late. I tear up at PTA meetings, at the car mechanic, and the police station.
Last week I was on the phone with a vendor negotiating some details of a contract and we disagreed about the conditions in one of the clauses. The conversation was getting heated, though remained—I thought—cordial, until out of the blue the vendor announced he felt under attack, wasn’t used to clients treating him this way, and that I should take my business elsewhere. At which point I very professionally began to sob. With him on the phone. Mortifying, wracking, nose-blowing sobbing.
And I remembered a scene that once when down when my son was a toddler and we were driving home late from a birthday party. He piped up from the backseat, “Mamma, what’s a thaw?” And I said, “A what, sweetie?” “A thaw.” “A thaw?” “No, a THAW!” And I kept asking him to repeat himself and telling him I couldn’t understand his question, and he kept repeating the same word and getting increasingly agitated until I finally said, “Hey, mister, no yelling at Mamma, please. I don’t like getting yelled at.” At which point he began to sob. Desperate, pathetic, heart-breaking sobbing. So awful that I had to pull over, climb into the backseat with him, and figure out what the question was to calm him down. (“Is it a toy? Is it something we eat? Is it an animal?” “No, Mamma! It’s the little light that does twinkle, twinkle in the sky!”).
I recently got an email from a fellow expat here in Italy who stumbled upon my blog. She wrote, to summarize, “You seem so upbeat about expat life. I am having a really hard time. What’s the matter with me?” And I felt terribly guilty, because I recall those months after having my first child when I was reading all the books and magazines about how wonderful motherhood was while I spent my days alternately crying and raging and felt like somehow I was doing something wrong was being denied boarding on the Happy Mom Express. So, I’m going to step away from the sunny schtick for just a second and talk honestly about the dark side of expat life.
And to PL: There’s nothing the matter with you. It’s tough sometimes. Keep the faith, kiddo.
Remember that adage about Ginger doing everything Fred did, but backwards and in heels? Well, that’s what my days are like. All the craziness that being a working mother who is active in the community and full of social commitments entails–but in a second language. And I’m not bilingual, so expressing myself in Italian still requires concentration, lucidity, and energy. It’s exhausting, frankly. There are times when I get to end of the day mentally devastated, which means that any tiny glitch seems like A Big Effing Deal.
Sometimes I just simply don’t have the linguistic and cultural finesse to express myself how I’d like. I accidentally step on toes, I offend, I come off as too aggressive or too indifferent, or I can’t get my message across. Or, on the flip side, I sense that I am losing in translation a subtle shading that I just can’t manage to put into focus, like a flickering shadow right outside my field of vision. And the harder I try, the more elusive it seems until I am so discouraged and overwhelmed I go into nuclear meltdown.
There is much existential solitude in being an expat, even when I spend my day surrounded by people. I certainly have dear friends who are Italian, there will always be some cultural gaps that no amount of affection or familiarity can bridge. I also have dear friends who are fellow foreigners, but the expat diaspora is varied and saying that the mere fact of being two Americans living in Italy is enough foundation to build a friendship is like saying that the mere fact of possessing double X chromosomes means that women world-over are united in loving sisterhood (whereas there are, honestly, many bitches out there I would love to slap. Coulter, watch your back.) or the mere fact of holding a passport from the same nation should have kept the Serbs and Croats from going at each other’s throats. When you feel like you are von Trier in a nation of Spielbergs, the tears can sometimes come easily.
I speak Italian like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. So, inevitably, I tend to get treated like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. Which is galling, because I consider myself pretty sharp (in an obtuse sort of way), rather articulate (in a bad speller sort of way), and relatively capable (in a screw-up sort of way). It puts my teeth on edge to have people—with kind intentions, make no mistake—explain the obvious to me slowly and using simple words. Because it’s humiliating. And humiliated people are often not the most even-keeled. See: long world history of social uprisings.
Sometimes I look at my life and wonder what it is exactly I’ve been doing over the past 17 years while all of my friends back in the States seem to have been busy building fabulous careers in amazing places using the latest electronic gadgets. My only solace is the knowledge that they look at me and wonder what they’ve been doing over the past 17 years while I’ve been busy building a fabulous career in an amazing place while not slave to the latest electronic gadgets. Seriously, Italy can be a tough place to have a rewarding career even if you are Italian, fluent, well-connected, and big time lucky (even Pier Luigi Celli (the former director of the RAI) advised his son to leave Italy in an open letter citing nepotism and lack of prospects for young professionals. If Celli Jr. can’t land a decent job here, the rest of us truly are chopped liver.). It’s hard to feel like you are spending your time spinning your wheels and perhaps Italy isn’t all you dreamed it would be, even if the food is fabulous.
So why am I still here? The truth is that my experience has been, despite all the whining and crabbing above, ultimately rewarding. It’s a challenge, but so are most gratifying things in life–from building a lasting relationship to being a good parent to making a difference as a volunteer to having a successful professional or creative life. There are days when the fatigue and frustration and loneliness wash over me in pounding waves and I find myself coughing and sputtering for air, but those days are rarer. Most days my glass is half full and I’m able to look back at everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve accomplished since I moved here in 1993 and think, “Damn, girl.”
And then I get a parking ticket. Sob.
There is how the Big Boys do it, and there is how we do it. Wine, that is.
The Big Boys carefully plan their vineyard and select grape varieties appropriate for the soil, sun exposure, and altitude. They take great care in cultivating the delicate vines: pruning the shoots, selecting the stronger plants, replanting old or weak vines. They consult with botanists, agronomists, viticulturists, and agricultural historians. They monitor and treat for mold and insect damage.
We just go with whatever my husband’s grandfather planted together with his brother 40 years ago on a piece of land near the house that they chose because they eyeballed it figured it looked sunny enough, given that we are on the north side of Mount Subasio. We occasionally fill in the gaps left where vines have died, but only when it gets to be a couple in a row. If you ask my father-in-law what grape varieties he has, he will respond: Red and White. When pressed, he will concede with a nonchalant shrug that there are probably Sangiovese, Merlot, and Sagrantino vines planted, and white Malvasia grapes and “Boh, something else but I can’t remember” grapes. Mold and insect damage get noticed and commented on at the dinner table.
The Big Boys organize their grape harvest using white lab-jacketed professionals who begin to pick after monitoring the level of sugar, acid, and pH of the grapes. Clusters of grapes are selected according to their stage of ripeness over a period of days, and overripe or damaged fruit is attentively weeded out. The grapes get carefully placed in small crates which are sorted by variety and loaded on flatbed trailers to be transported to the winery with minimum damage and bruising.
Our grape harvest includes Zio Gino, Zia Viola, our neighbors, my inlaws, my nine and six year old sons, and occasionally sporting guests at Brigolante and is begun after tasting a couple of grapes to see if they are sweet and monitoring the weather report on Rai Uno. The vineyard is stripped of every cluster of grape over an afternoon regardless of ripeness, lest it begin to rain or run into dinner time. The grapes are chucked indiscriminately into big 50 gallon plastic garbage pails (which we use only for this purpose), and then loaded onto the back of the tractor where they make the bouncing and bumping trip back to the garage.
The Big Boys then proceed to destem, crush, ferment, and press the grapes, sorted by variety, in gleaming modern cantine with stainless steel mechanical equipment and small chemistry laboratories used to monitor and adjust sugar, yeast, and alcohol. The rooms are temperature controlled to calibrate the speed of fermentation, and after the must is pressed the wine is stored in massive stainless steel vessels or new oak barrels for the remainer of the secondary fermentation and aging…under careful watch by the vitner’s enologist who runs periodic tests checking the status of the wine: pH, titratable acidity, residual sugar, free or available sulfur, total sulfur, volatile acidity and percent alcohol.
After much swearing and searching for an adapter for the German plug, we fire up our little mechanical crusher/destemmer in the garage and set it on two wooden planks above a big plastic vat the size of a Jacuzzi. (We don’t have a Jacuzzi, of course, but I’ve seen them.) First the white grapes all get tossed in, and the must immediately passed to our old wooden basket press, which is cranked by hand either by my father-in-law or my older son, depending upon if it’s a school day. The white wine is immediately trasferred to the fiberglass vat to ferment and age, because none of us like white that much so if it doesn’t come out that great no one cares. Then the red grapes all get tossed in to be destemmed and crushed, and stay there fermenting in the vat with an old wool plaid blanket thrown over the top to try and keep the temperature warm enough in the cold garage. Every day or two my father-in-law tosses a saccharometer (which looks kind of like a floating candy thermometer and measures the sugar content) in there to see how things are going, but since his eyes aren’t that good and both my husband and I have grave doubts as to whether he actually knows how to read the calibration even if he could see the tiny markings, it’s pretty much a crap shoot. When we notice all the neighbors pressing, we figure we may as well. Then the wine gets stored in big old wooden barrels next to the washing machine and the tool bench for a couple of months.
The Big Boys polish their wines with blending and fining, and stabilize them with preservatives and filtration. Often, the results are—unsurprisingly–fabulous. Their wines are bottled in new glass wine bottles, labeled beautifully and informatively, and shipped all over the world.
We open up the taps at the bottom of our barrels and vat in the spring, and drink whatever comes out. Sometimes it’s suitable for nothing more than dressing a salad, together with olive oil and salt. Sometimes the results are—surprisingly–fabulous. We fill pitchers with our rough farmer’s red that we set on the table for mealtimes directly from the vats, or bottle some in bottles we’ve washed and put aside from store bought wines, which we then manually cork and stick a label on that I print off a Word document on my computer. Our wine is incredibly instable; just the altitude difference between our house and the valley under Assisi is enough to make it turn. Which means we drink it all here, just friends, family, guests, and the odd passer-by.
And I’d rather have that than be a Big Boy any day.
I love to get off the beaten path and discover things in Umbria that aren’t listed in every guide book under the sun.
I recently spent a day with the delightful Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi in Città di Castello.
Saverio took us along on a truffle hunt (with real truffle dogs and real truffle hunters) and showed us his fascinating private collection of truffle related memorabilia and curiosities. His wife, Gabriella, welcomed us into her kitchen for a tasting of the precious local tubers and a truffle-themed home-cooked lunch.
To read a more detailed article about truffles in Umbria and my day spent with the Bianconis, check out the November 2010 Destinations Travel Magazine–but in the meantime here are some outtakes from our absolutely perfect day.
A special thanks to photographer Carlo Franchi for his wonderful shots of our adventure.
The other night at the dinner table I noticed that my husband had picked out all the carrots from his Peas –n- Carrots and left them on his plate. When I asked him why, he told me he doesn’t like cooked carrots. Which gave me pause, because I’ve known him since 1986 and, though I haven’t kept a log or anything, my rough estimate is that I have prepared Peas-n-Carrots more or less four thousand times over the past 24 years (I like peas. And I like carrots. And I think the green and orange look pretty together on the plate. And I like any phrase that involves substituting ‘n’ for ‘and’, because it seems kind of anachronistic and Rockwellian, like E-Z and Quik.) and this little detail about him not liking cooked carrots has never, ever come out in casual conversation. Which just goes to show you…you think you know everything about something, and then it turns out you know nothing.
Which is the same earth-shattering—though somewhat uncatchy—conclusion I came to the other day when I discovered Citerna. Despite living in Umbria since 1993, this little button of a town—one of the villages listed with The Most Beautiful Villages in Umbria—was completely under my radar. Now, remember the high school analogy that served so well for Bevagna? Okay, Citerna is still in her Sophomore year. She is about to get her braces off, has taken up jogging, is mustering the courage to get her hair layered and highlighted, and has been trying to talk her cousin from LA into taking her shopping the next time she’s in Des Moines so she can get a little style makeover. Junior year is just around the corner and look out, because Sandra Dee is about to put on the disco pants.
I discovered Citerna by accident, in an serendipitous sort of way since I am on the Cs on my quest to visit all the villages listed in I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia. I went on a truffle hunt last week (Wait…hold the phone, you say. Truffle hunt?!? I want to hear about the truffle hunt. Well, pipe down. That blog post is coming.), and our meeting spot with the guide was Citerna’s pretty piazza which looks out over the Upper Tiber Valley. You can tell this town sits right on the border between Tuscany and Umbria, as the landscape is much more reminiscent of Tuscany’s soft, rolling hills than the more dramatic and rugged peaks you find further south into Umbria.
The piazza is also home to pretty much the only businesses in town: a bar, grocery store, restaurant, and—oddly—tiny silversmith. Grab an outdoor caffe table and enjoy the view across the piazza for awhile before you head off to explore the rest of town. Citerna is a one-street village, so once you leave the piazza head down the main Corso Garibaldi toward Porta Romana. You’ll pass the City Hall on your right in the recently restored former Franciscan convent, which sits above the medieval cisterns–currently under restoration (remember this phrase…you’ll be hearing it again. As I said, Citerna is going through a complete makeover.). The name of the town probably derives from the word cisterna, and the town sits above a complex network of channels, vaults, and tanks used for collecting and storing rainwater. Citerna’s claim to cultural fame is a prestigious annual collective photography exhibition each spring, and the warren of restored underground rooms will be used in the future as a unique exhibition space to house this show.
When you get to the city gate, pass through and make a sharp right. One of the most delightful details of the town is the vaulted passageway which circles much of the town at the base of the fortified city wall—part of which is known as the Via degli Innamorati, or Sweethearts’ Way. From these medieval walkways you can peer through the arched openings onto some of the prettiest views over the Tuscan (to the west) and Umbrian (to the east) countryside around. When you’ve had your eyeful, climb back up the gently sloping Corso Garibaldi, noticing the brick walkway which crosses the street about halfway up which was once used by the noble Vitelli family to access their private theater (Teatro Bontempelli –currently under restoration) from their family palazzo across the street without having to bother with socializing with the plebs. They must not have been so awful, however, as their Palazzo Prosperi-Vitelli is home to a fabulously carved 16th century fireplace, again dedicated to Innamorati.
When the folks from Citerna weren’t getting it on, they managed to find time to fill their main Chiesa di San Francesco (currently under restoration) with frescoes by Signorelli, paintings by Raffaellino del Colle, and a graceful terracotta Madonna and Child recently attributed to Donatello (currently under restoration). Continue on with a brief visit to Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, home to some della Robbia and lots of gloom.
Finish your visit by climbing to the highest point in town, at the far end of the Corso. Here stand the ghostly remains of Citerna’s castle, bombarded by the Germans during World War II: stark stone walls, a brick tower, and a large window suspended in space framing a romantic Tuscan landscape (innamorati, indeed). Citerna knows which of their monuments will become more attractive with restoration, and which are heartbreakingly poignant left just the way they are.
Many of these photos were taken by Assisi photographer Carlo Franchi, whom I thank for letting me use them here. To see more of his work, visit www.franchicarlo.net.
I talk about living in Assisi, but I’m lying. I live about 6 kilometers outside of town in a breathtakingly beautiful spot inside the Mount Subasio Park called Costa di Trex.
Federica and Gabriele from Umbria Lovers discovered this special place recently, and asked me to tell them all about it.
What fun I had researching Umbria’s chocolate scene, from the behemoth Eurochocolate festival in Perugia every October to the smallest local producers.
You can satisfy all your chocolate cravings virtually by reading the article in Italy Magazine here!
When summer begins to bleed into fall and the days alternate between earth-soaking downpours and warm, sunny skies you know it’s just a matter of hours before they appear. Brightly colored or camouflaged in browns and greys, in groups or by themselves, tall and thin or squat and round, behind every tree trunk, under every shrub, they cover the forest floor and leave no doubt as to what season is about to begin.
Yes, foraging for wild mushrooms is such a popular pastime in Umbria that at times it seems like the hunters outnumber the hunted. From late summer through fall until the first frosts draw the season to a close, the woods and meadows all across Umbria are invaded by basket-toting funghi devotees with their eyes fixed on the ground and their ears pricked for encroachers. It’s a competitive sport, and like all sports has its rules—written and unwritten.
Every mushroomer in Umbria has their special spot, and much cloak-ing and dagger-ing goes on to guard the exact coordinates as closely as if they were an Eye’s Only state secret. Lifelong mushroomers remain more faithful to their mushrooming location than to their spouse. My own father-in-law will leave the house with his basket in the crook of his elbow and, with a furtive look and rather transparent subterfuge, head off on foot in one direction only to double back once out of sight and disappear into a completely different wood. (I only know this because my husband, aka my father-in-law’s sole offspring and heir, watches him from the house through binoculars, hoping for clues as to where his father’s secret mushrooming spot is. Because he’s never been told.)
Not only are you faithful to your spot because you know it to be a particularly fertile one, but also because the toxicity of many mushrooms can be very terroir specific. Meaning, to you novices out there, that a mushroom which is perfectly good to eat in one part of Umbria may be slightly toxic in another based on soil chemistry. So, not only is it good to know your ‘shroom, but it’s also good to know your dirt.
You gotta have a basket. Because it looks more folksy than a plastic shopping bag from the Eurospin Discount and because the Man says you have to have a basket so spores can fall out and re-seed the forest floor. You gotta have a little pocket knife. Because any excuse is a good one to have a cool little pocket knife and because the Man says you have to have a little knife so you can leave a small piece of mushroom on the ground when you pick it to keep the forest floor producing. You gotta have one of those vests with about 17 pockets commonly worn by fishermen and the homeless. Because that seems to be the uniform. I don’t think the Man has anything to do with it, but everyone seems to have gotten the memo. You gotta have a permit (if you’re not a resident). Because the Man needs his tax money. This I only found out because once my husband and I were surprised by a Forest Service jeep on one of the rare times we’ve strayed from our own special spot ( I acquired rights by marriage), and my husband hissed, “Hit the deck!” Which I did, and commenced to combat crawl to the nearest ditch, where I hissed, “Why are we hiding?” “Because we don’t have a permit for Valtopina!” “How expensive could the fine possibly be?” “Who cares about the fine?!? They’ll confiscate our mushrooms!”
There are mushrooms and then there are mushrooms. Based on their flavor, use, and how common they are, different mushrooms carry different street cred to a real connoisseur. One of the thrills of foraging is meeting back up at home with everyone else who has gone out hunting for the afternoon and dumping the contents of your basket with the air of a poker player showing his hand. As each basket is dumped, the contents are examined and there is inevitably an air of The Gambler as winners and losers are made around the table.
The pecking order also loosely follows the altitude at which they are found. Pinaroli, which grow in clumps under certain conifers, can be found even on the valley floor and are considered a last resort mushroom, to be picked solely in case of emergency—i.e. the shame of returning home with a completely empty basket. Working your way up the mountain, Manine (they carry this nickname because with a little squinting and a lot of creative imagination these vaguely coral-shaped mushrooms might resemble little hands) come next…relatively mild flavored and best used in pasta sauce. When you start coming home with a basket full of Lardelli, Carpinelli, Biscetti, Peperoni, and Biette, you can hold your head high. These are flavorful mushrooms which can be roasted over the coals or conserved in oil for antipasti during the winter. Gallinelli (chanterelles) and Porcini are, of course, the reigning kings of mushrooms and two nicely sized Porcini and a handful of Gallinelli will trump an entire basketful of mushrooms from a lower suit. These are wonderful in risotto or simply sauteéd with olive oil and garlic. But just one Turino, rare and found only at the highest points of the pre-Appenine hills, will shame all the rest. This tender, snowy-white mushroom is so flavorful (and digestible) that you can eat it raw, sliced paper-thin and dressed with nothing more than a few drops of olive oil.
The stakes are high when foraging, and I’m not talking about pride. Every mushroomer I know has a story that runs somewhere along the spectrum from death, to near death, to permanent liver damage, to seriously ill, to minor-ahem-plumbing problems. Only life-long foragers who are very familiar with the local terrain should be trusted to separate the edible from the lethal; even after all these years of mushrooming I have the contents of my basket carefully checked before eating them. I have had an entire basket of good mushrooms tossed because I had inadvertantly picked a mushroom so toxic that simply the contact of carrying it in the same basket put the others at risk of contamination. And the risk is never worth it. Believe me. When they’re good, they’re very, very good. But when they’re bad, their deadly.
One of my favorite cities in the world is Rome, and one of my favorite spots in Rome is the AcquaMadre Hammam.
I was thrilled to be able to contribute to the incredibly informative Dream of Italy Newsletter to share this special spot with readers this week. A few hours in this secret haven will have you relaxed and ready to throw yourself back in the hustle and bustle of the Eternal City.
A special thanks to Kathy McCabe for letting me contribute to her award-winning newsletter!