Italy’s MUSE

museum MUSE trentinoThe unique scenic beauty and the impressive mountain landscape of the Dolomites is the setting for a new science museum called the MUSE ( MUseo delle ScienzE ). With a retractable shading system, solar panels, geothermal probes and a cistern system for rainwater recovery, architect Renzo Piano has created a futuristic blend of nature, science and technology. Built on the site of a former Michelin tire factory in Trento, Italy, the museum is part of a destination complex that includes shopping, residential and office spaces, a public park and cycling paths.renzo-piano-MUSE museum -trentino

The architectural foot print of the building follows the cathedral-like spires of the Dolomiti Alps and the glass panels reflect the crystalline mineral rocks that are the foundation of this mountain range. The pinnacles and peaks of the Dolomites, sculpted by glaciers and erosion, create sweeping panoramas through alpine meadows and the exceptional geology of their formation make the Dolomites one of the richest  mountain regions of Europe. Declared by UNESCO as one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes on Earth, the Dolomites were officially included in UNESCO’s 2009 list of world cultural and natural heritage sites. MUSE app

The breathtaking views and endless outdoor activities found in this region of Italy are enhanced by a visit to Italy’s MUSE where visitors can explore the formation of the Dolomites, the birth of the alps and a natural history of both the alpine region and the rest of the world .

In keeping with the futuristic blend of learning about the past in the context of the future, the museum is offering an Explora MUSE guide multi-touch app on the iPad Mini where visitors can create their own thematic experience.

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Italian Trash or Treasure

souvenirs-from-florence 2How does an object become a souvenir? A keepsake or a token with a symbolic meaning of an experience that holds special significance in our lives. We travel and want to take something back home. Moments we experience inspire memories we want to save. At first glance some souvenirs may seem trivial and insignificant to anyone but the holder like a stone I found on the beach in Caorle on the Adriatic or a paper chef’s hat from my cooking school days in Emilia Romagna. Some souvenirs are part of the mass-produced souvenir market found in tourist shops and open air markets throughout Italy. Like a magnet with a cartoon image of the Ponte Vecchio or a miniature statue of David.  Considered by some as kitschy they too create an emotional connection that cannot be denied.

Travel sites offer advice on the best souvenirs to bring home from Italy. Murano glass and masks from Venice, leather from Florence, soccer shirts and Forza AC Milan banners from street vendors in Milano. Some of my best souvenirs were collected this way.  A street souvenir shop in Venice, Italy 2009

I’ve also brought home silk ties from Como, linens from Montefalco and elixirs and scents from ancient farmacia. My advice is to buy what you like. Avoid impulse buying as you will want to bring a piece of Italy home from every town, village and borgo you visit.

Traveling in Italy is as much about how you feel as it is about what you see. So bring home souvenirs that create an emotional connection that is meaningful to you and if that happens to be a silk screened T shirt with a picture of you holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa so be it.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Beans Between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn

Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of CapricornMaking coffee in Italy is an art but growing coffee depends on a botanical landscape far removed from the coffee bars of Milan, Rome or Venice.  The life of every town, village or borgo in Italy begins with un caffé and while Italians have perfected the roasting and brewing of coffee they rely on latitudes far away to provide them with their magic beans.

According to Lavazza, Italy’s  number one coffee company, that spot is between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (known as Robusta) grow at altitudes ranging from about 650 to 6,500 feet.

These two imaginary lines that circle the planet are the roadmap to what many consider to be the perfect cup of coffee. A climate controlled chamber where the soil, humidity, and altitude coax the sensitive coffee plant to produce at its best.

A Feast in the Neighborhood

Sagra 2Although Italian street festivals (sagre) can be found throughout the year, summer is the perfect time for an open air party.

Always ready for a celebration, Italians gather in the countryside or the local piazza with several hundred like-minded party goers in the spirit of conviviality for a festa; a party or festival that celebrates or commemorates anything from the food and wine of the region to pine nuts, frogs, wild boar cinghiale.png  and noodles.

The word sagra comes from sagra festa (sacred feast) when the village celebrated the feast of their local patron saint. Today many sagra festivals still commemorate these ancient traditions but often are a cross between a country fair, open air market and block party that combines seasonal foods of the region, entertainment and traditional folklore. The food is authentic, fresh and cooked with pride and passion – a perfect opportunity to see and savor Italy. Look for posters advertising local sagre along the roadside. They are great for families and a casual, inexpensive way to taste regional Italian food in the company of everyday Italians.

Traveling in Italy this summer? Look for sagra festivals that celebrate everything from onions to eels to prosciutto and melons to mussels, spit-roasted veal (Sagra della vitella allo spiedo) and bruschetta. And at summer’s end, watch for a new host of sagras. ???????????????????????????????The season continues in Autumn with new oil and wine (olio nuovo and vino nuovo), white truffles (tartufo bianco), chestnuts (castagne) and more locally harvested foods that celebrate the gastro-history of Italy.

Il fuoco vivo – The Life of the Italian Fire

Pork tuscanAlthough Italians did not invent the grill they certainly are among the cultures of the world that have perfected its use. The life of the fire, il fuoco vivo, in the gastro-history of the early Italians and their contemporaries held a special attraction. The Etruscans, Greeks,  Romans and Byzantines were grilling spit roasted meats and small birds since ancient times. The tradition of grilling is still a significant part of regional Italian cuisine. Porchetta, a whole roasted pig, is one of the most common street foods in Central Italy and almost every family cook and chef has a recipe for arisoto seasoning (herbs and blended spices for grilled or roasted meat and poultry).

Lo Spiedo Bresciano, one of the city of Brescia’s signature dishes, follows an ancient tradition where small song birds (thrushes, meadowlarks, finches) were caught in nets in the countryside, plucked and cleaned then spitted, wrapped in lace fat or a bit of pork loin and grilled over an open fire. Our Nonna told us about doing this when she was a young girl in the Veneto. spiedo-bresciano_

In fact a word often associated with grilling (“marinade”) comes from the Italian marinare, a verb which means to put a food inside a fluid or sauce for some hours in order to let the liquid soak into the food. A traditional Italian marinade would be made using about a 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil to 1/4 cup lemon juice, red wine, balsamic or wine vinegar; adding herbs such as oregano, basil, fennel seeds, parsley, thyme or rosemary, ground black or crushed red pepper and several cloves of crushed garlic.

According to research by Kansas State University, soaking meat in a spiced marinade for an hour or more before grilling inhibits the formation of up to 87% of  HCA’s (harmful compounds formed during exposure to the high heat of the grill) due to the antioxidants in the spices and the higher water content in the meat (more moisture prevents many HCAs from forming).

So before you take up with the life of the fire visit the garden, open a bottle of wine and pour yourself a glass and use the rest to mix up an Italian marinade.

Wedding Planners of the Renaissance Create Una Stravaganza

It’s June, the traditional month for weddings. Historically, June has always been the most popular month for tying the knot. Nice summer weather, in-season flowers and the higher number of outdoor venues make it an attractive month for a party.  Wedding planners are busy with the details, dates and unexpected family drama that need to be handled to make sure the day of your dreams is a Romeo an Juliet event.

Planning a wedding for the royal courts of the Renaissance was a daunting task.  Bridzillas like Lucrezia Borgia, Caterina d’ Medici and the d’Este daugthers from the court of Ferrara demanded only the very best. These divas of the Renaissance and their families were the Kardashians of the day. In this case a Pope, a duke and lavish courts staged spectacular choreographed events to celebrate the occasion. Music, dance, masques, plays with elaborate sets were the stage for the wedding festa which could last for days.

Lucrezia Borgia (daughter of Pope Alexander VI)  had several weddings. Political alliances and strategic arrangements for power and money were often the reason for marriages in the Renaissance and Lucrezia was the poster child for matrimonial manipulations. Her first wedding was an opulent affair that took place in the Vatican with 500 ladies as her bridesmaids. Another more private, and yet another to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, was a event that resulted in the creation of Italy’s iconic pasta tagliatelle to celebrate the long, golden ribbon-like tresses of the bride’s hair.

Caterina d’Medici’s marriage to the future King Henry II of France was officiated by the Pope and commemorated by a wedding portrait   painted by Renaissance master Giorgio Vasari  who incorporated it into the décor of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The wedding was documented as being a grand affair with the bridegroom participating in a joust.  As Queen of France Caterina was known for lavish and spectacular entertainments at court, called “magnificences” where  leading artists and architects of the day created  dramas, dances, music and elaborate special effects. Banquets were held in meadows, entertainments lasted for several days and food influenced by the sauces and seasonings of Florentine Italy (the use of giblets, truffles, olive oil, artichokes, pasta, parsley, spinach, crepes, custards, ices, sweetbreads, truffles and zabaglione) became part of French cuisine due to the influence of Caterina.

Not to be outdone by their sister-in-law (Lucrezia Borgia), Beatrice and Isabella d’ Este had weddings worthy of a Renaissance InStyle feature article. Prior to a magnificent banquet which followed her wedding ceremony, Isabella rode through the streets of Ferrara on a horse draped in gems and gold and Beatrice received a painting of herself as a wedding gift from Leonardo da Vinci.

medici and flooding of pitti by orazio scarabelli ,ock sea battle naumachiaBut if you thought that elaborate Renaissance nuptuals only focused on the bride, think again. When former cardinal and Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando de’ Medici married the French princess Christine of Lorraine ten months of preparations culminated in an event that lasted for a month. The Medici wedding of 1589 included the flooding of the courtyard  of the Palazzo Pitti for mock naval battles against the Turks, a soccer match and comedies in the Medici Theater with splendid costumes and stage designs. Said to be  one of the greatest court weddings in all of history it was a landmark in Renaissance art and architecture, theatre, music and political ceremonies.