The shallot (Allium ascalonicum) was once considered sacred. Said to have been discovered by Marcus Aurelius in ancient Cannan (now Palestine) in the second century AD, shallots were widely grown in Greek and Roman gardens. Italian cooks today use shallots to create a strong but subtle flavor reminiscent of both onions and garlic. I know a lot of you like Veal Marsala, a classic Italian-American dish that makes use of finely chopped shallots and sweet Marsala wine but if you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone try preparing shallots with a recipe from Mario Batali (Roasted Shallots in a Vinegar-Thyme Bath) or a Shallot, Gorgonzola and Rocket Risotto. If you favor the sweet sour palate of the Venetians, here is a shallot saor (a traditional agrodolce method used by Venetian sailors to preserve food when out at sea) with a twist.
Every once in a while it’s a good idea to re-interpret a traditional skill set of ingredients in new and different ways.
There are many ways to see and savor Italy. To experience the noble vineyards, pilgrim paths, iconic art and architecture and like the proverbial onion or tip of the iceberg you need to dig deeper and peel away the layers of “show and tell” travel to discover Italy beyond the beltway.
Travelers can follow itineraries along the Roads of Wines and Taste (le strade dei vini e dei sapori) in and around Italy to immerse themselves in the traditions, territories and tastes of a particular region. A behind the scenes, back road tour of the gastro-history of Italy to visit artisan producers and generational families committed to preserving the culinary culture shaped by the region in its geography and traditions. I have followed many of these routes over the years and highly recommend them.
One of the best ways to see and savor regional Italy is in the provence of Siena. Siena’s Duomo, Il Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall) have made Siena of the most popular places to visit when traveling in Tuscany. But if you’re looking to travel beyond the obligatory wine and dine sites of Siena there are a series of local itineraries that are worth “getting off the bus” or better yet taking the time to explore on a road trip through the region.
One little known itinerary consists of eight destinations that cross the lands of Siena into the “traces of transhumance”, a fascinating course of travel designed to express the value and worth of the paths once crossed by shepherds during the seasonal movement of their livestock. This time-honored tradition of mobile pastoralism gives you a true sense of the connection between the land and the artisan’s hand. Along the rural paths there are often rest areas, shelters, chapels, taverns and inns, hiking trails and scheduled festivals that create a historical itinerary of the food and cultural traditions of the region.
There are other trails of transhumance to discover throughout Italy including the Royal Shepherd’s Track, in Molise (considered for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and in Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania and Basilicata.
In the heart of the Casentino valley of eastern Tuscany, a valley famous for being the birthplace of Michelangelo, the countryside is covered with a thick forest of pine, cypress and chestnuts and the bottom of the valley is full of wild herbs and flowers. Italians are known to scout the countryside carefully observing the plants, gauging the maturity of the blossoms and determining the right time to pick the edible plants and flowers they use at the table. In the case of the fennel plant this is when green flowers produce a fine dust of pollen that blows on the warm summer breezes toward the end of July.
A tall perennial herb native to the Mediterranean region, Italians have a classical authority for using fennel (finocchio). Well known since ancient times, fennel was cultivated by the Romans for its aromatic fruit and edible shoots. Like many culinary herbs it has an herbal pharmacopeia with a pharmaceutical lore that is impressive. 12th century writer, composer, philosopher and visionary Hildegard Von Bingen mentions the benefits of fennel in her Causae et Curae, writing “However fennel is eaten, it makes men merry, and gives them a pleasant warmth, and makes them sweat well, and causes good digestion.“ Culinarily this Italian pantry staple is most widely known for its seeds. Finocchiona made of finely ground pork shoulder seasoned with wild fennel, is a classic Tuscan salame and a signature item in a Tuscan antipasto. I particularly enjoy rings of fennel thinly sliced from the bulb, sprinkled with coarse sea salt, drizzled with fresh harvested extra virgin olive oil as part of a pinzimonio platter. Our cousins from the Veneto braise fennel for a perfect side dish.
The pollen of the fennel plant is so highly regarded in the cuisine of Northern Italy that some have been known to say that it is carried on angel’s wings. With an intoxicating aroma (licorice-like, curry) and notes of toasty-sweet hay and honey, it adds an intense flavor and complexity to any dish. Used as a dry rub on meats or sprinkled on fish or vegetables, fennel pollen is often added to rice, pasta and risotto dishes in place of saffron. Each fennel flower contains less than one-quarter teaspoon of pollen (making it expensive and limited) so gauging the maturity of the blossoms and the right time for harvesting the fine dust of the pollen can definitely benefit from some heavenly intervention.