|Necessitites - Passport, Adhesive For Any Unforeseen Dental Issues, My Little Brother|
I’ve been out of commission since the several weeks of our return from Italy. I’ll explain in upcoming blogs why but for now as I snuggle down and get comfy, cozy at my desk, the memories of our hike along the Franciscan Trail are as clear as the water in Lake Tresamino, in the Province of Perugia. Now, while it’s true, Nancy and I have each traveled rather extensively during our lifetimes; few trips had as great an impact as this one. Everyday was an experience steeped in spirituality and reverence. We climbed to elevations that gave us glimpses of nature so vibrant and moving, it was as though we were walking through an artist’s dream. But it was all real. And the food. For someone who works in that great soup bowl known as the culinary arts, I have always replied in a sheepish manner and an awkward “no” when answering the question, “have you ever been to Italy?” This was even more embarrassing considering Italian is my most favourite cuisine to cook and to eat.
As you may have gleaned from previous blogs on our Food, Faith & Alzheimer’s site, Nancy and I did our homework and beefed up our workouts in preparation for this trip. We showed up to our Saturday morning walks wearing hiking boots. Our friends faces indicating perhaps the boots were a bit of over-kill considering we hike only 3 miles in a well groomed and manicured park. We outfitted ourselves with everything from walking poles, to rain ponchos to mole skin pads. We researched the history of Saint Francis of Assisi, The Poor Clares, and of course, I reviewed some of the wines, ingredients and dishes indigenous to Central Italy.
Now I have always known meatballs are not standard fare atop a plate of spaghetti in Italy; they’re usually a stand-alone food item (on the side). I’ve also known typical Italians do not allow pasta to swim, certainly there are no near drownings in any kind of sauce, as we do in here in the U.S. Nor did I know so much beef, pork, duck, sausage and bison (yes bison) were consumed in Italy, at lunch and dinner. Both Nancy and I were aware of the fact that true Italian pizza is much lighter than the stuffed crusts, or 5-meats or better yet, the ever-popular hamburger and fries topped pizzas currently sweeping our nation. But I didn’t know the crust would be thin and light yet not so crispy as make me feel as though I’m eating pizza on a matzo cracker. And Alfredo sauce? Should Nancy and I had entered a restaurant in Italy and innocently ordered Pasta Alfredo, our server would’ve worn a puzzled look on his or her face. A reply of “Who’s Alfredo? Or, “He does work here,” would have been politely uttered. So, if we had a real hankering for Pasta Alfredo, and nothing else would suffice, we would’ve had to ask for “Pasta di Bianco.” We have since learned, Pasta Alfredo is an American-Italian restaurant dish. In Italy Pasta di Bianco is typically prepared at home and reserved for when a loved one needs to eat something simple and easy on the stomach.
|No Speecy, Spicy Meatballs here!|
We certainly didn’t know all the details of farming and food production practices in Italy. Most of my research confirmed Nancy and I wouldn’t have to worry about gluten free, GMO’s or other food additives. They just don’t modify their crops, soil and produce the way we do here in America. Upon learning that tidbit, Nancy grew as excited about The Food as I was. Even better, while hiking through Spello, we learned about the engineering triumphs of the Romans regarding the building of the many aquifers that to this day, bring the Italians and their visitors the crispest, clear and clean tasting water ever! We were surprised to discover it was the Etruscans who taught the Romans many of the engineering feats the Romans went on to improve and perfect.
So it was, after a 20+ hour flight and the loss of an American day, Nancy and I finally arrived in Rome. Following everyone’s advice and pulling on our own travel experiences, we knew giving in to fatigue and going to sleep was not allowed. So we quickly dropped off our luggage at our hotel and took a cab into Vatican City. It was packed!! I felt as though we were standing in Times Square on a Saturday night after the shows let out.
|We found an opening!|
We stopped at the second restaurant we found. Deciding to dine al fresco, sitting under the veranda we ordered our first meal in Italy. The anticipation was palpable as we fanned ourselves with our menus. My heart was pumping as I waited for my ravioli and Nancy her spaghetti. I leisurely took a sip of my red wine and watched Nancy as she did the same. We were in public so I couldn’t spit it out. Nancy’s face scrunched into such a twist; if I didn’t know better I would’ve sworn she had just bitten into a rotting lemon. We sent it back. The second wine selection was only slightly better. But we were soon distracted as lunch arrived. I’ll put it this way, when you’ve been sitting in airports and economy seating for a day and a half and you’re dead tired, eyes so dry they feel like sandpaper and you’re trying to quiet a grumbling stomach, you’ll eat almost anything. Which we did. As we shuffled our back to the bus stop we saw many more restaurants and found where we should have eaten! Oh well, next time.
|The first of many slurps to come.|
That lack luster meal is now a distant memory. Every pasta dish, cut of beef, braised bison, sweet pastry, rich deli meat, ripe cheese, GMO free vegetable and lustrous gelato from that day forward was a transformative experience in gastronomy. The Region of Central Italy is known for its velvety olive oils, the “king of chesses,” Parmigiano-Reggiano and Mortadella, the deli meat I ate until I was saw stars in this Hog Heaven of cured and seasoned pork.
The following day we left Rome and Nancy I and embarked upon an epicurean adventure that rivaled expectations. Antipasto platters boasted riches in meats, cheeses and breads, olives and citrus fruits all served with wine, of course. high end grocers or our Farmers Markets, yet all regularly available in every corner market in Italy. And truffles!! Yes! ~ Those beautiful, dark and shriveled, umami gems. Truffles on pasta, truffles on pizza, truffles on Panini!! We even participated in a truffle hunt with one of the biggest, strongest, most handsome, outdoorsy Italian men (and his dog), I have ever met!! So much ,fun!
|I hold in my hand, an elusive gem - the black truffle|
|I fell in love. Twice.|
|This is the village where I ate 3 slices of pizza!|
And the pizza! So light, so soft, and so tasty. With only one or two toppings and just a smattering of sauce, if any. My new preference is just a bit of olive oil. The photo above is the village where I had 3 slices of pizza at lunch. Nancy's eyes popped out of her head when she saw eat like that!
|This was the most impressive deli counter I've ever encountered!|
And the Produce! Heirloom tomatoes, beans, peppers and squash that looks as though they were on steroids! But of course, we know they are not. We saw food wonders only found in our most high end or local farmers markets. I was drooling up and down every aisle of this particular market.
|One of our delightful meals in the medieval village of Gubbio|
Coffee, tea, espresso? For years I have been brewing my morning coffee in a French Press. I took a break for a short while as my last husband preferred drip coffee. When I’m not home brewing my own coffee, I enjoy going out for Starbucks and when in California, Peet’s. But no Starbucks or Peet’s in Italy, at least that we saw! The coffee, strong and hot, is as far from dirt-tasting, coffee flavored water I’ve had served to me from one of those drip pots. Nancy and I did our best to adhere to Italian coffee etiquette by having our macchiato or lattes in the morning only and keeping to espresso in the afternoon. One of the other things (now I have countless) I love about Italy, is everyone pretty much greets their day in the same way, a good, strong cup of coffee and a pastry!! I absolutely love pastries in the morning. Yes, yes, I know, a healthy breakfast sustains energy and jump starts my metabolism, but a sweet cinnamon roll, fruit tarts, or cheese croissant are my definition of how to best promise light and happiness to my day.
|Yes, we hiked 5 to 10 miles every day and still came home 5 pounds heavier. Obviously.|
We consumed our meals in people’s homes, Masonic temple dining rooms, old wine cellars, caves beneath homes, sidewalk cafes, and once, even outside on the sidewalk!! No standing over the kitchen sink or trash can while hurriedly eating a sandwich or slice of something. It is true, in Italy, meals really do last anywhere from two to three hours! A far cry from the hurry-up and go mentality we subject ourselves to. I recently found out school children here in Clark County School District are given 10 minutes to eat their lunch! No wonder their table manners are, in general, lacking. Who has time to chat and visit, let alone digest or even chew, when you have to be up and out of your dining chair in 10 minutes?
|An old and still active Monastery. This room was once the wine cellar and now functions as the dining room.|
As an official outsider of the Clean Your Plate Club, I finally gained admittance on the evening we were served our final meal in Arezzo. It was with great shock and surprise when Nancy witnessed my reaching for the robust bowl and serving spoon for a second helping of a tomato, red onion, cucumber and day-old bread concoction. For it was here we were served my favourite Tuscan dish, Panzanella. Hearty yet light, this industrious salad is ever so slightly dressed with olive oil and a drizzling of Modena Balsamic, and then topped with a few strands of basil. This old peasant dish is a veritable garden of delightful colors, flavors, and textures, I absolutely loved it. It is so simple to prepare and enjoyable to eat, here is my recipe for Panzanella.
Recipe for Panzanella
3 cups day old French bread cut into bite-sized cubes
¼ cup olive oil
salt/pepper to taste
1 tablespoons Italian seasoning or herbs de Provence
3 cloves fresh garlic – minced
Another ½ cup olive oil
½ cup good balsamic vinegar
1 small red onion – thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups each red and yellow cherry tomatoes – halved
1 English (Hothouse) cucumber - peeled and medium diced
7-10 leaves fresh basil – chiffonade
1) Arrange bread cubes in a single layer, onto a parchment-lined sheet pan and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle bread cubes evenly with Italian seasoning or herbs de Provence, salt and pepper. Using your hands mix bread cubes to ensure all sides are coated with oil and seasoning
2) Place in oven 350 degree, pre-heated oven. Toasting bread until light golden brown, about 20 minutes.
3) Meanwhile, in small mixing bowl, whisk together ½ olive oil, balsamic vinegar and 1 of the minced garlic cloves. Season to taste with salt and pepper then set aside.
4) When bread is done and has been allowed to cool, place in large serving bowl
5) Add halved tomatoes, diced cucumber, red onion slices, remaining 2 cloves minced garlic and 1/2 the basil leaves
6) Gently stir in olive oil and vinegar mixture to coat. You may not end up using all the olive oil and vinegar mixure. Garnish with remaining half of basil.
May be served cold or at room temperature
Makes 8 4-ounce Serv