Ancient Nomadic Warriors Inspire Designer Luggage

I wish I had a designer suitcase. You know the ones by the likes of Jeremy Hackett that open to reveal the British Union Jack. Or the Jelly Bean trolleys of Japanese designer Hideo Wakamatsu, the Frank Lloyd Wright of luggage design blending form and function with quirky colors that pop the luggage carousel. I do have a 16 year old Tumi backpack that I’ve stuffed wine, cheese, laptops and travel ephemera into on numerous trips to Italy and a Mandarina Duck carry on that has kept me sane on more than one layover or overnight flight but if I want to make a statement at Malpensa I need something with a little more star power making the circuit at the baggage pickup.

suitcase black moncriefSo I consulted the style sites on the web and found various lists of “best luxury travel luggage” but none really caught my eye until I saw a black travel trolley by Moncrief, a British luxury brand created by designer Caroline Evans. Described as a handcrafted glossed-leather suitcase it comes with a soft charcoal cashmere blanket and a detachable compartment that fits an iPad and stores all your in-flight essentials. My interest piqued as it was shown next to a model wearing an Aminaka Wilmont  jacket and  Bottega Veneta top and besides I’ve always been intrigued by the Moncrief story. The Moncrief (the ancestral name of the founders of the company) were part of the Picts Clan, a mysterious warrior people of ancient Britain, a group of early nomadic travelers that migrated from France in the 15th Century, settling in the northeastern part of the island where the Pictish King married an Irish Princess; a romantic story that suited my sense of the unexpected adventure and outcome of traveling.

But with a price tag of $7,150.00 I think I‘ll keep saving my USD to spend on a first class ticket to Milan and invest in a designer luggage tag like these by Tepper Jackson.

The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy – Experience Italy to Another Degree

-i-borghi-piu-belli-ditaliaThere are many ways to see and savor Italy.  Food itineraries, themed tours, adventure travel but here is a travel guide based on one simple premise – beauty. Not the beauty of a singular painting, architectural monument or design but rather the rare historical beauty of an entire city.  A living portrait that captures a spirit of place with evocative sights, sounds, flavors and aromas where the air you breathe creates a “memory of mankind”. Cities and village that over the centuries encapsulate all that is good and beautiful about Italy.

 I Borghi Più Belli D’Italia  is the official website of the National Association of Italian Municipalities that lists the most beautiful villages of Italy including two of our favorites, Castell’Arquato in Emilia Romagna and Montefalco in Umbria. You can go to the  I Borghi Più Belli D’Italia web site and click on a region of Italy for an online guide that will take you off the tourist flow to experience Italy to another degree. There are over 200 villages (borghi) listed to be discovered through

  • Access – information on each village (population, elevation, tourist information, Internet sites, patron saint, distances from major towns, and how to get there)
  • Spirit of the Village – a portrait of the village, taken from its most deeply rooted and characteristic features: a description of its name and an illustration of its coat of arms, its origins and the most significant dates in its history, local personages, curiosities, the cultural and environmental heritage
  • Sights – a brief description of the most important architectural structures in the village and surrounding area: churches, fortresses, public buildings, residences, streets, squares, views
  • Pleasures and Flavors – typical dishes, shopping, museums, galleries, artisan workshops, accommodations, restaurants, things to be appreciated

Take an out of the ordinary approach and travel off the tourist radar to see and savor Italy in a unique and personal way. Chosen not only for their standard tourist merit but for their ability to heighten your experience of traveling in Italy,  I Borghi Più Belli D’Italia are points of departure that allow you to see and savor Italy to another degree.

A Snack in the Reggio Emilia Style

centovini spuntino reggianoI’ve been anxiously awaiting my first harvest of Swiss Chard so I can make a snack from one of my favorite parts of Italy – Emilia Romagna. Known as Spuntino Reggiano (a “snack in the Reggio Emilia style”) it is a good munch or light meal that takes its name from the city of  Reggio Emilia between Parma and Modena. The region is populated with some of Italy’s most famous foods and tastious salami and cheeses including a savory cake made with spinach and chards called erbazzone.

Erbazzone is a traditional contadino dish often baked in a wood-fired oven with a rich double crust eaten as a hearty mid-day meal of waste not want not. In certain dialects it was referred to as scarpazzone (scar-paz-zó-ne)  from the Italian word for shoe, scarpa meaning that peasant families would use the whole chard not just the tender green leaves but the white sides (the shoe) of the chard as well.

A flavorful herb sandwich or torta di verdura (savory green pie), erbazzone is made in the spring and summer as a snack or a picnic lunch to be enjoyed in the countryside with a bottle of Lambrusco wine. Cut in smaller pieces it makes a perfect appetizer or breakfast buffet dish especially when served with grilled mortadella wedges. Found throughout Northern Italy there are of course regional variations with different ingredients (ricotta* to replace parmigiano, sometimes raisins, nutmeg and sugar added to make it sweeter) sometimes Swiss Chard mixed with spinach leaves or beet greens, sometimes adding pine nuts or almonds. There is a mountain version made with rice originating in the Emilian Apennines near the commune of Carpineti, that follows the  historic  food itinerary of the land of Matilda of Canossa with a food festival dedicated to “hundred years of historic moments” celebrating the food culture of the region.

*a Tuscan version uses broccoli rabe and ricotta

The Scarlet Letter of Italy

scarletLetter and AFew letters may be as important as the letter A – the first letter of the alphabet, the first vowel, the alpha of omega, the grade we all strive for. Whether emblazoned in literary history as Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter or branded as Apple, Apollo or Abercrombie, the letter A stands out as something special. The evocative nature of the letter A in Italy’s gastro-history is most obvious and apparent when family cooks and chefs speak of aceto (vinegar). An incredible condiment that elevates the flavor of everything it touches.

As an ancient cooking ingredient, vinegar was appreciated for its ability to season and preserve food but nowadays it is most often underrated and misunderstood. There are people who consider vinegar simply a ‘wine gone bad,’ buying generic off the shelf brands to use as an ingredient in salad dressings. However, an artisan produced wine vinegar is a culinary asset with a palate personality that can add a touch of originality to many dishes. Like wine, a proper wine vinegar reflects the terroir of the region. The best wine vinegar is made from grapes that are used to make wine. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling are all used for vinegar production. All are deeply flavored and well worth seeking.

Producing a quality wine vinegar requires respect, tenacity, talent and a strong passion for the product. The scarlet letter A on the bottle label from the trend-setting cellars and vineyards of Pojer e Sandri  stands for an artisan aceto. Located in the Val di Cembra of Italy’s Sudtirol (TN) Pojer and Sandri  are known for producing highly acclaimed wines and notable wine vinegar.  P & S are part of a small group of Italian vinegar makers known as the Amici Acidi that have come together to save traditional vinegar production in Italy. Competing with mass-produced industrialized vinegar for the hearts and minds of consumers, small artisan producers like Pojer e Sandri continue to make an artisanal vinegar using barrels made from wood produced on their own land.  Pojersandri_RedandWhite

Lining the walls of the P & S acetaia* (ah-chay-tie-ah) barrel aging takes place over 12-18-24 months. Using a traditional slow percolating process, without mechanical intervention, the vinegars develop a depth of flavor reminiscent of a fine wine. Pojer e Sandri Aceto di Vino Rosso (red wine vinegar) from Dolomiti is made from grapes grown in the alpine valleys of the Dolomites (Negrara Trentina, Groppello, Lagrein, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir) and was listed as one of the 10 Best Wine Vinegars by Gambero Rosso, one of Italy’s most influential food and wine magazines. An aromatic and flavorful vinegar, it is ideal for making out-of-the-bottle salad dressings, marinades for grilled meats and vegetables, deglazing roasts and adding a bright tone to cured meats or stews.

Pojer e Sandri Red Wine Vinegar available at CosituttiMarketPlace

*an acetaia  (vinegar house) is a place where the vinegar is made and aged



Monochromatic Medici –the Church and Chapels of San Lorenzo

san_lorenzoThe Medici were living large from the 13th to the 17th century. This powerful Florentine family produced three popes (Leo X, Clement VII and Leo XI), numerous rulers of Florence (notably Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of some of the most famous works of Renaissance art) and later members of the French and English royalty. They ate, drank and made merry and some would say led Italy into the Renaissance. Through banking and commerce they achieved great wealth and political influence throughout Europe.

So I was very surprised when I first saw the unassuming Church of San Lorenzo ,the official church of the Medici where six of the Medici dukes are buried as well as other family members. Michelangelo was commissioned to create a chapel of tombs for the Medici family. His famous
sculptures of Dusk and Dawn, Night and Day are to be found here. The other part of the Medici Chapels is a domed octagonal room where the grand dukes themselves are buried. I like the gray and white interior and austere facade of San Lorenzo and I’m glad that Michelangelo left Florence without completing the exterior of the basilica. Work was abruptly cancelled by his financially-strapped patrons before any real progress had been made and the basilica lacks a facade to this day.

The Melons of Mantua

Mostarda (mostarda di frutta) is a classic Northern Italian fruit condiment with a healthy kick from mustard.  Not the yellow stuff in the squeeze bottle but fruit preserved in syrup spiced with powdered mustard seed or oil of mustard essence. Sometimes referred to as fruit mustard, the agrodolce flavor of mostarda has been a favorite of cooks since ancient times. The oldest recipe for Mostarda Mantovana was published in the 14th century and is still the basis for many modern recipes. Caterina de’ Medici carried a jar of mostarda in her dowry trunk when she left Italy to marry the king of France’s son in 1533. Pears and apples, grape must and figs, quinces, pears; almost any local seasonal fruit can be used to make mostarda.  Cremona and Mantua (Mantova) are known for their production of mostarda which enhances foods from tortelli to bollito misto.

The Viadana melons of Mantua, grown near the border with Parma, have particular characteristics of the land that create a melon that is fragrant, tender and sweet. The deep orange colored flesh, firm smooth skin and an intense aroma are perfect for the making of a mostarda.

white watermenlon
Anguria Bianca

Another typical product of Mantua is the Anguria Bianca (white watermelon), also known as the lemon verbena pumpkin, a melon with an herbal note that is truly unique. Grown on the fertile Padana plain, the white watermelon makes a sweet savory mostarda with a jewel like quality that the Renaissance court of the Gonzaga favored. Gonzaga documents testify to its presence at the table of the Lords of Mantua.  Made as a luxury by “speziali” (chemists) it was prepared as a delicacy and preserved in “albarelli“, earthenware or glass vases used for pharmacy preparations.

The Holy Trinity of Travel

rome florence veniceRome, Florence, Venice – the iconic itinerary for a trip to Italy. Almost every tour operator suggests one or more of these cities as part of the Grand Tour of European travel.  Rome, the historical godhead. Florence the inspirational daughter and Venice the spiritual muse. Each is distinct; together they are divine.

The mysticism and majesty of Rome is hard to explain. The antiquities of the city, the cinematic scope of the personalities and places, the Holy See of the Vatican and the landscape of the Seven Hills and Appian Way make saying Arrivederci Roma difficult.

According to statistics produced by UNESCO, 60% of the world’s most important works of art are in Italy and approximately half of those are in Florence.  This means that the sensory experience of visiting Florence is huge. On my first trip to Italy my cousin Lidia told me you cannot see all of Florence at one time, so you must choose to see what you can then you will return and see more and little by little you will discover the beauty of Florence. Dante called Florence “the beautiful and famous daughter of Rome” and as you know Rome wasn’t built in a day and Florence is meant to be savored.

And then there’s Venice, a city with such a lineage that it merits a vocabulary of its own to describe all the nuances of living in La Serenissima, beginning with the Italian word for house – casa, in Venetian ca‘. Her ruler was called the Doge and the influence of the East brought a certain exotic elegance to Venice that still remains.

There are few cities in the world that create such a mystical union of travel experiences with much more to discover.