|I'm noticing I have LOTS of photos of Nancy on lounge chairs!|
|No better way to start the day. Along with a caffe latte, of course.|
We sat back recalling a few of the highlights; the green, rolling hills of the scenery that surrounded us each day. The warm and friendly people of the country, the day we hiked without uttering a word out of respect for the spirituality of our location, the immense churches, the classic art and of course, the food of Italy.
Nancy and I had arrived in Rome after taking a red-eye from Vegas then hung out in the Newark airport for over twelve hours. The following morning, after a restful sleep in a Marriott hotel, we met up with the other members of our group on the Spanish Steps. Bogged with luggage, backpacks, hiking poles and the heaviest of hiking boots, Nancy and I were the last ones. Late, not a good first impression.
|Someone was having too much fun shopping for her hiking gear.|
After profusely apologizing we all clamored onto the travel bus, one far too large for the small narrow, twisting streets of Rome. We were excited. This trip was one focused on nature, spirit, art, history and food with, for Nancy and I, the added fold of promoting awareness for Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing we were about to engage in three weeks of five to twelve mile hikes, daily, with elevations exceeding 1,500 feet (Mount Cucco) we figured worrying about calories, was soon to be a distant memory.
As Nancy and I reminisced about our trip, she asked me, which of the many meals we enjoyed, I considered the most memorable. Without hesitation to Nancy’s question I brought up our very first meal in Italy. The ravioli and spaghetti we enthusiastically ordered, looking forward to dining al fresco outside the Vatican. That, we agreed was our absolute worst meal! We even sent the wine back!
The next day’s meal was far
better. “You mean that antipasti plate
we ate at the end of our first day in Orvieto?” Nancy asked. “Definitely an artistic presentation of
melon, prosciutto, crackers and cheeses, among the best I’ve ever tasted, but
that wasn’t it,” I replied.
|Well, we were hungry, and we were in Rome, so we ate it anyway.|
The home cooked meal we were so graciously served in the ancient stone abode of a generous and talented family consisted of wild boar stew, fried eggplant, pickled vegetables and perfectly seasoned pork is right up there. But Nancy concurred, good as it was, that was not our most favourite.
While in Gubbio we dedicated ourselves to finding the ultimate in Gelato. So for lunch, over a three day period, that was all we ate. In my opinion, the pistachio was the best ever! But I’m not sure we can count Gelato as one of our best meals. Bucovina is where we toured a small and quaint but truly incredible, egg museum and where Nancy witnessed me eating not just one, not two, but three slices of pizza! Was she ever impressed. Authentic Italian pizza is far different from the cheese-stuffed crust, sauce-soggy, heavy-duty pizza we are accustomed to here in the States. In Italy; so simple and so good.
|Just a small sample of the incredible Egg Art from all over the world.|
|I was thrilled eating pizza w/knife & fork is how it's done.|
A day or two later, I was in Chef Heaven as we made our way through a typical Italian grocery store. The produce was a parade of robust and colourful fruits and vegetables. And the eggs, not refrigerated, but stored at room temperature, and displayed as an end-cap. The meats in the deli section were trimmed and sliced by the most professional and experienced butchers on the planet! Slicing meats so fast and with such precision, I swore they were Italian Ninjas. And no preservatives in the breads! I could’ve stayed in that market the entire day. But we gathered our supplies for our week-long stay at a hostel and made our way back to the van after only two hours.
|This is how it's done in the typical Italian market.|
The following day, we made our way further north, where we consumed a lunch prepared and served to us by one of the best looking Italian men my eyes have ever feasted on. This combination chef, restaurant owner, hunter, fisherman and husband (sad face) offered his guests freshly caught fish resting on a bed of freshly harvested greens. The sensuous risotto was topped with shavings of freshly, hand-picked black truffles! And we weren’t charged by the gram rather they were heartily applied as though they are part of everyone’s mid-day meal! The abundance of those unctuous fungi resting on our bowls of steaming creamy rice was brightened with just a hint of lemon zest. This meal is a close second due to the expertise of the hands that prepared it for and my zeal regarding the truffle hunting expedition we went on with that big, strong Italian and his faithful dog.
|The dog hard at work sniffing out Black Truffles|
|The man with his back to us is my Italian Hero.|
Then there’s the day of the Cheri Festival. Where, after mingling among the thousands of Italian families that participate or observe amid cheers, shouts and church bells we finally hit a wall of fatigue. Many in our group were tired. Nancy and I among them opted to stay in for the evening at our bungalow along with a few of our new friends. Opening a bottle of wine I’d purchased while at the Festival we prepared our own meal of leftovers along with a few items purchased at the local market the day before. Nancy stated she really enjoyed this make-shift feast, but wasn’t sure we could declare it our very best food experience in Italy.
During those three weeks we hiked, ate and drank, I’d say pretty much every meal exceeded my expectations and was sublime, except that first one in Rome. But it was the afternoon we toured the small family run olive oil production facility where Nancy and I agree, we indulged in the very best meal of all. That day, our morning was spent taking a small boat out to some huge national park and wild life refuge. It was quite warm and a bit humid following several days of rain. The hike, though flatter and more level than most we’d experienced during our travels, was dusty and lengthy. After the boat ride back to shore, we continued our hike up streets much like those in San Francisco with just as many twists and turns. Finally we staggered up a few more stone steps until we reached the olive oil distillery. Here we learned the art of pressing and extracting olive oil. We watched as the huge millstones pressed the olives into paste. Then the paste was spread onto over-sized discs that are sprayed with water as they extract the oil. There is so much more to the process but the video I took of the gentlemen who gave us the tour is completely in Italian. Our translator was there, but you can barely hear her over the presses.
|What did you say? I can't hear you!|
After the tour of the machinery was complete we were guided back downstairs where the other family members had set up a veritable feast! Lots of wine, of course, and an array of meats, cheeses and fruits that boggled the American mind. Homemade breads sliced and set out for us to either prepare our own sandwiches or simply slather with what looked to me like home-churned butter.
|Loved the San Diego shirt on the Italian.|
The star attraction of this meal was the Cannellini bean soup. Simple and straight-forward in true Italian tradition. Nothing on that long, wooden farm table was over-done or over-dressed. You could actually taste the love this family put into everything they do, be it olive oil making, gardening or cooking. I was not alone in my return trips to the table for seconds. The soup consisted of creamy white beans with a few kidney beans stirred in. Rosemary, with salt and pepper, cooked low and slow, created a depth of flavors I dare say have yet to be duplicated in any other bean soup I’ve tasted before or since. For the finish, the soup was lightly drizzled with the olive oil produced upstairs.
Nancy, the others and I, gathered our paper plates and (real) glasses of wine (I love how they would never serve wine in plastic) and sought out make-shift seats on the stone steps we had moments before climbed. No longer feeling hot, sweaty and weary, we were now energized by the sights and smells of our meal. Every one of us was abuzz with hunger and by now well practiced in the Italian way of savoring our meals. We ate and drank then ate and drank some more. Two and a half hours later, we thanked our hosts, purchased a few bottles of their home-made olive oil and made our way back to the shuttle bus.
The balanced seasoning, the complementary flavors, salty, zesty and warm, this was by far, Nancy’s and my best meal in Italy!
(Also known as Navy Bean, White Kidney, Great Northern or Tuscan Beans)
With so few ingredients, those ones used must be of the very best quality. So the best of dried or canned beans? For dried; Rancho Gordo’s Classic Cassoulet Beans rank the highest. Their dried beans leave many scratching their heads as to why these are so sub-par while their canned are among the most rich and flavorful. For canned I recommend Goya Cannellini Beans. Bush’s are close second, they also offering a rich, creamy yet firm bean.
If using dried beans be sure to pick through and toss out stones then soak overnight. Canned, should be drained and rinsed.
INGREDIENTS Serves 8-10
1 ½ Tblsp olive oil 1 cup diced Spanish onion
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes 6 cloves garlic – minced
1 bay leaf (Turkish) ½ cup fresh sage, chopped
4 cups chicken broth ( low sodium) + 3 cups water
2 16-oz. cans Cannellini beans(drained & rinsed) or 2 ½ cups dried beans (soaked)
1 can 8-oz. kidney beans (drained & rinsed) or 1 cup dried (soaked)
2 tsp white wine salt/pepper to taste
Heat oil in large heavy pot or Dutch oven, over medium heat.
Add chopped onion and cook until translucent and soft, about 3-5 minutes.
Still in red pepper flakes, garlic and bay leaf.
Stir in beans and broth, cook about 30 minutes.
Add wine, ¼ cup of the chopped sage, continue cooking on simmer another 2-2 ½ hours or until beans are soft, but not mushy.
Remove from heat when ready. Season to taste with salt and pepper, uncovered.
To serve; ladle cooked beans into individual bowls and garnish with remaining sage and a drizzle of oil.