I’m pretty sure it should be Eataly. We’ve been in this country for nearly a month and the most amazingly wonderful part that I’ve found about Italy is the food. Maybe it’s because the fall here is like everywhere else and there is so much harvesting going on, but there’s also no doubt that Italians know what to do with what they harvest.
Mushrooms of all sorts abound this time of year, the porcini being the most abundant, but beautiful chanterelles and some others I can’t identify are in all the markets and in recipes on the dinner table. And of course there is the truffle harvest that was in full swing until recently. The olive harvest is in full swing also and we’ve been roaming the groves with owners as the trees get stripped of olives and sent off to processing for the first press. This is not cooking oil, no way! It’s meant for dredging across meals as a tangy finish or on some bruschetta with a bit of salt as an appetizer. It’s sharp, with a surprising bite if you’re used to the olive oil in the US. Unfiltered and cloudy, a whole variety of tastes explode from it. Stunning in the first taste, it’s now a favorite that I will dearly miss when the tins we purchased are gone.
We stopped in and had a tour of the modern Marfuga olive oil facility that processes for such expensive outlets as “Willie Sonoma”, but then toured the groves of Azienda Olivicola with Roberto Venturini and his dad and that’s the oil we’re packing for home.
We also toured a private olive oil museum at Il Mandorli with Mama Wanda where she had these old wooden presses designed by none other than Michelango. This photo shows two of four pressing in a row, which may be the largest ancient processing plant of its kind. The presses would screw down and press the olive mash that was crushed by the huge stones further on down the room. The mash would be filtered out through reed mats and the oil drained into urns set under the spout holes you see at the bottom of the wood structure.
What a gal Mama Wanda was, dropping the preparation of a big birthday celebration to give is a tour of her entire property with a never ending monolog about everything from making marmalade from the famous local black celery to the ancient methods of olive oil processing.
Not that that sort of drop everything hospitality isn’t typical in Italy. When we first arrived at our place in Umbria, we drove the VERY short distance to Bruno to find the bakery. Louise rolled down the window and asked an old gal where it was and she signaled to follow her as she walked over a small bridge with us in our Fiat following close behind, stopped traffic by standing in the middle of the road, and pointed down a side street to the best bakery ever. Not a second thought about inconvenience or hauling her quite ancient bones around to help a couple of strangers find some good bread. Italy at its finest.
Meanwhile, back to the mushrooms and truffle hunting. Although the Lagotto Romagnolo dog is a breed that has only recently (100 years!) been specifically bred for truffle hunting, even chihuahuas are used to sniff out the valuable delicacy that can sell for as much as $3000/pound!
The Lagotto is a VERY cool dog in many respects though and makes a great and very loyal companion. In Italy, as with most of europe, dogs are welcome anywhere, and the Lagotto is a pro at hanging out. They weigh about 30 pounds and have a fuzzy tail and a face that can’t help but draw a smile.
They were originally bred to hunt waterfowl, so their coat is “waterproof” and they don’t shed. They do like to dig a bit though, so any owner better give them a designated sand box or some such if you like your flower garden.
It’s a great pleasure to be in such a dog friendly culture that inevitably results in such well behaved dogs. They’re everywhere. A family walked into the restaurant last night with their dog and the hostess didn’t miss a beat in taking a chair from the table so the dog had a space to lay. The owner unfolded a small blanket and the dog settled in like the part of the family that he was. As natural as could be. At fairs dogs are everywhere, all on leash and for the most part extremely well behaved. When they get a bit excited and bark, no one gets excited and everything calms back down.
Back to the food though, and of course the wine. For much of the trip we’ve stayed at Il Casale Grande, an agriturismo, in a small apartment with kitchen for $350/week. There’s a winery down the lane that fills our jug for $1.50/liter, a bakery even closer that opens every morning at 6 with warm breads, focaccia, and a hugh rack of sweet stuff, and a locals’ restaurant with a wood fired oven that easily fits 10 pizzas at at time, and they need it! Those guys can crank out some pizzas! Plus there is a wood fired grill there roasting up lamb and the huge kilo sized Florentine steaks. Yup, you can’t get a Florentine T-bone that weighs much less than a kilo and they cook them only about a half step past raw. They cut like butter though and taste scrumptious.
We also spent time on the rough and remote Cinque Terre coast where seafood rules. There are five small towns literally glued to the cliff sides of this rough coastline, with tiny harbors if any at all where the boats tend to be hauled up into the town square when the weather gets rough, which is does in a big way during the winter.
During the summer months these little towns get crammed with travelers, but in the fall we pretty well had them to ourselves with our choice of restaurants and easy strolling along the coastal paths. It’s a wonderfully relaxing setting and yet again, food ruled the day as this photo of a little snack we had for dinner attests!
Octopus, lobster, scampi, fish, mussels, clams, and squid, all in a broth I wanted to take home with me but instead soaked up with a whole loaf of hot bread and topped with yet another great house wine. The dish is cooked and delivered to the table in a terra cotta urn that is then dumped out into the bowl. Yummmmm!
It was only slightly embarrassing when the two of us polished the whole bowl off as a table of 6 ordered the same dish. Light weights!
What a feast! And of course with the standard dog attendees. This time it was a huge Cane Corso. What a dog! Mellow and enormously confident. Nothing fazed him in the slightest.
It’s said they are the original mastiffs and this one certainly looked the part. Stocky like a fullback and obviously quick and intelligent. I was just thankful that he didn’t want to join us in our feast because I’m not sure I could have said no.
Again though, as with so many of the dogs we have been around on this Italian vacation, he was a perfect gentleman.
I need to come back to that section of coastline. It’s ripe for exploring in the very capable, small offshore boats that the fisherman use to ply the waters there. The boats are like huge lifeboats, double enders with lots of working area for barrels of nets and line. The anchovy fleet goes out every evening with lights as they circle tighter and tighter and then set nets under the lights to haul in the anchovies. By morning the boats and their catch are clean and secure back at the harbor, the fishermen in bed, insulated from the tourism of the day, and ready for another night on the water.
The only thing missing is the bocce court and they seem oddly to be missing all over Italy. It’s like they forgot that bocce was such an important element in learning how to argue successfully. So far the only court I’ve found has been at our agriturismo. Other than that I get nothing but semi-blank looks as I ask Bocce? Strange but true and it sounds like a mission that needs accepting by a bocce aficionado such as myself. As I watched the Monterosso fisherman huddled around a tin table playing cards amongst their hauled out boats, I couldn’t help but think about what a good addition a bocce court would be. Perhaps it’s time for a bocce renaissance.
I’m not sure I can make a thorough list of all the towns we’ve visited, most of them small walled hill towns in the Umbrain valley, but here’s an attempt. Rome to Florence, then Monterroso and Vernazza on the Cinque Terre coast, then a train to beautiful Siena to pick up the Fiat, and on to musical Spoleto, Norcia (great deer and wild boar salami!), Montefalco (deep, flavorful dry Sagratino reds), Pissignano, Bastardo, Bruno, Assisi, Trevi (locavore food fest), Orvieto, Civitta, Spello, and a wonderful birthday 5 course meal that Louise had arranged as a surprise with Paulo, a Michenlin starred chef, at his wonderful Locanda Cacio Re restaurant set in the remote mountain village of Vallo di Nera overlooking those amazing mountains on the way to Norcia.
Paulo has agreed to join us in Florida sometime soon to teach a small group some of his talent and tricks, so you’ll be hearing more about him soon.
Today we’re off to a hillside castle a friend has for sale, so who knows what the future might bring.
But first, the weather here is starting to turn towards winter and I’m getting a bit anxious to get back to the Bungalow and that great, sunny beach.
Be well and enjoy.
I had a fellow tell me to live life like it’s a movie you’d like to watch. So far, so good.