Italy in an Instant – Extra Virgin Olive Oil

olive-oil-drip.jpgNothing can transport you to Italy quicker than opening a good bottle of Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The aroma, flavor and taste reflect the character of the land. From the delicate, fruity oils of the Ligurian Riviera to the pungent, peppery oils of Tuscany to the soft buttery flavors of the Umbria hills, the oils of the Italian peninsula are like a travelogue of flavor.

Yet less than 30 years ago olive oil was relatively unheard of in the US. It was barely mentioned in the early editions of the Betty Crocker Cookbook and wasn’t looked at as an ingredient in cooking until 1973 when Marcella Hazan published her classic book on Italian cooking. Today almost every kitchen on the planet has a bottle of olive oil in their pantry and every grocery store and market an array of oils on their shelves so much so that we may take it for granted.

Oils from CosituttiMarketPlace are sourced from small producers and generational families who are committed to preserving and protecting the culinary and cultural history of regional Italian food.  

Here are 5 of our favorite ways to create an Italy in an Instant moment using extra virgin olive oil.

Spaghetti with Garlic, Olive Oil and Red Pepper Flakes

Goat Cheese in Olive Oil                                                                             burrata

Cerignola Olives with Hot Pepper and Rosemary Oil

Sweet Olive Oil Quick Bread

Lemon and Olive Oil Marinated Fennel with Burrata and Fresh Mint

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Crema Paradiso

8 km from the marble quarries of Carrara is the town of Colonnata, situated among the Apuane Alps of Northern Tuscany. For thousands of years quarrymen have eaten seasoned lard (lardo) aged in marble tubs (conca) excavated from the work site. The work was hard and the Lardo di Colonnata would provide them with the calories needed to carve and transport the marble blocks that would be used for many of Italy’s most famous monuments and sculptures (Carrara was the source of the marble used by Michelangelo). Today the cured lard of the quarryman’s sandwich is an artisanal delicacy and a favored antipasto in Italy.

lardoThe technique used for making Lardo di Colonnata remains unchanged since ancient times although today there is a regulatory board that guarantees that the ingredients are prepared and processed according to strict guidelines to ensure an authentic and safe product typical of the region. The lardo is made from the pigs of Parma, San Daniele or a native Tuscan breed of pigs known as the Cinta Senese. The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt pig (a white band surrounds the pig’s chest like a sash, cinta in Italian) has an ancient ancestry that dates back to the middle ages. A cinta pig is depicted in the 14th century fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti called the “Buon Governo” that hangs in the Palazzo Comunale in Siena’s Piazza del Campo.

The pork fat is rubbed with garlic and layered with salt, fresh herbs and spices such as rosemary, oregano, sage, cloves, peppercorns, anise, nutmeg or cinnamon before it is placed in the large tub-like conca excavated from the marble. After 6 months of aging in cool dry cellars surrounded by mountain air the lardo emerges as an aromatic, glistening white block to be thinly sliced and served over warm toast to slowly melt in your mouth.

My first tasting of what surely must have been Michelangelo’s sandwich was at my friend Luca’s house on a warm September afternoon under the pergola, surrounded by a garden that looked out over the valley below. At the table Luca cut a thin slice of the Lardo di Colonnata and served it over warm crostini. It melted in my mouth, full of spices and herbs with an incensual aroma and flavor that was intoxicating. The color was gleaming white and the texture smooth and creamy. I’m glad I tasted it but my elevated LDL and triglycerides could not have stood much more unless I went back to work in the quarries.

You can travel to Colonnata to visit the quarries and taste this unique delicacy or you can find it in many of the shops and restaurants in the area and in the nearby region. I do not have a recipe for Lardo di Colonnata as it is an artisanal delicacy with a proprietary blend that is unique to the specific maker. There is a recipe for Tuscan creamed bacon in  Italy known as Crema Paradiso  and what follows is from that book.

Crema Paradiso

2 lbs. firm back bacon, 2 T sea salt, crushed black peppercorns, wine vinegar, 5-6 cloves of crushed garlic and a few sprigs of chopped fresh rosemary. Grind the bacon in a food processor.  Add the salt, peppercorns and a few drops of the wine vinegar, the garlic and the rosemary.  Knead the bacon on a marble slab (if it’s from Carrara all the better), until a light, delicate crema is formed.  Spread on hot toast and serve with a glass of the local wine

Salame, Salumi, Salsiccia . . . Oh My!

salami_finocchionaTraveling down the road in Italy tasting the varieties of sausages and salami is a little like following the yellow brick road to the Oz. Like the Italian version of Dorothy you will be tempted to try just about everything and end up saying . . .oh my! Every region of Italy has its own distinctive types of salame (salami), salumi (cured meats) and salsiccia (sausage) that reflect the character of the region. These regional variations in meat, seasonings, aging and preparation account for endless permutations of  flavors and textures and all are monumentally good. Seeing and savoring Italy under the culinary tutelage of our Italian family and friends we were able to try some of Italy’s finest sausages and cured meats. On a recent trip we had dinner at a friend’s house in Parma, considered to be one of Italy’s culinary capitals. He is a university professor and was very happy to further our “Italian education” on the art and science of the Salame of Felino.  

Salame di Felino comes from the hill town of Felino, near Parma, and is highly regarded for its delicate flavor.  It is thought to be the oldest salame linked to a specific region. Salame di Felino is made from lean ground pork (75% lean) seasoned  with sea salt , black pepper, garlic and white wine. The salame is aged under the same climatic conditions that create the world famous Prosciutto di Parma.

On to Milano, our cousins schooled us on the local pale, rosy colored Milanese salame made from meat that is finely ground with a close grained texture and a fat that’s ground to grains the size of rice. In Tuscany there is finocchiona, a salami that according to local legend owes its origins to a thief near the town of Prato, who stole a fresh salami and hid it in a stand of wild fennel that perfumed the meat. And sbriciolona, a salame so fresh it crumbles to the touch. Paired with a slice of pecorino from Pienza it is a great treat.  In Bolzano there is the Alto Adige speck, a Sud Tyrolean pork product very similar to prosciutto.  In Norcia in Umbria where butchers are king and salumeria are found on every corner the number and variety of salame, salumi and salsiccia is staggering including a particular type of prosciutto, Prosciutto di Norcia known as “mountain” ham because it matures slowly in the thin, dry mountain air.

A point on terminology – prosciutto, pancetta, bresaola and speck are referred to as Salumi, whole cured cuts of meat vs. Salame (salami) which is encased (insaccati) ground meats.

Our Italian friends and family specify that Salame di Felino “should be cut at a 60° angle no thicker than a grain of pepper contained in the salame itself”.  According to them this keeps the salame intact and makes for a nice presentation as an antipasto.

Traveler vs. Tourist

“a tourist arrives confused and leaves confused”

The age of the tourist is over. Anthony Bourdain’s now infamous challenge to”be a traveler not a tourist” resonates with a new generation of travelers who want to remove the word “vacant” from vacation. Time and money well spent on a trip requires it to be more than a “show and tell” tour. Travelers look for the backstory, walking into a postcard rather than buying a postcard, taking time to see and savor the country and its people. A tourist often looks at the scene, a traveler wants to be in the scene. Travel need not be far and wide, nor expensive, nor complicated but it should be imaginative. Don’t settle for the trip du jour or boxed set. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see the Coliseum in Rome or the Milan Duomo. It just means that travelers move slightly outside the box up on the roof of the Duomo or eating at a ristorante like Da Pancrazio built over the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey where Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March 44 B.C.

It may be time to re-think your travel goals and invest in a travel experience. Italy is Europe’s everyman with something for everyone. There shouldn’t be any reason to come back from a trip to Italy boasting about the most wonderful food you ate, wine you drank and what you saw.

Here are 5 ways to convert yourself from tourist to traveler to see and savor Italy.

1. Define your travel goals. An attainable travel goal can be sometimes difficult to find. We suggest choosing a main them such as food, wine, art, design with subordinate activities such as history, architecture, hiking, biking, adventure travel, horse trekking, cooking, shopping/fashion etc. You may not be able to do everything you want but that’s perfectly fine. A traveler is destined to return again with a series of reasons on what more to see and do.

2. Design your own travel playlist. It’s easier than ever to plan a customized trip to Italy. The internet is awash with posts, blogs, sites, suggestions and travel reviews (Trip Advisor). Get a feel for what you want see and do and then seek a reliable consultant who can set you in the right direction. Do your homework to find out what’s best for you and research any suggestions. The best consultants have your travel goals in mind not theirs.

3. Be realistic about your travel goals but add a dream. You cannot possibly travel through the Tuscany of Leonardo, the Florence of the Medici or the canals of Venice without being drawn into the fatal charm of Italy that can be found nowhere else. Choose a secondary travel goal that may be a little out of reach but may also be attainable and build it into your schedule. View this goal as icing on the cake; as something that heightens your travel experience.

4. Choose your travel companions wisely. Tourists most always are part of a non-specific group. Meaning they may have very little in common with each other except for the fact that they are on the same bus. This can be an opening for making new travel friends or it can prove to be stressful and distracting in both time and effort.  Travelers share a conviviality with like-minded people who share their travel personality. A certain diversity among travelers is important because everyone’s background and knowledge can enrich the total experience (think about planning the guest list for a dinner party). It’s your party decide who you want to travel with rather than just showing up.

5. Start reading about Italy. The style of a Seeing and Savoring Italy trip begins with a desire to enjoy traveling in Italy on all levels and pre-departure information shouldn’t be limited to operational activities only. It’s important to get travel tips on what type of clothes to bring and how to exchange your money but it’s also important to have a general knowledge of the history, geography, language and people. Knowing this will help you sort through all the tourist babble.