A Rite of Passage for the Taste Traveler in Italy

cow chianinaThe white cattle Vacca Chianina (kya-NEE-na) of the Val di Chiana may be one of the oldest breeds of cattle. They were used as models for Roman sculptures. I have  seen them grazing in pastures outside the town of Citta’ di Castello in Umbria and the hillsides of Tuscany near Abazzia San’Antimo. They are very impressive for their stature (over 6 feet tall) and light pale color. The young animals can weigh up to 1540 pounds and provide the large cuts of meat needed for the legendary bistecca alla fiorentina. 

Italy’s bistecca may be one of the truest interpretations of wood-grilled meats and the rustic cuisine of the region. The notoriety of the Florentine steak dates back to the 1200’s, when the appetites of  English merchants visiting Florence were whetted by the meat being cooked in the town squares. Anointed with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and coarsely ground pepper and grilled rare, it is a rite of passage for the taste traveler in Italy and should not be missed.bistecca Fondly referred to as the Tuscan T-bone, a bistecca fiorentina will be cut 1-3 inches thick (3 fingers wide) so when grilled a nice crust forms on the outside of the steak while the inside remains succulently rare or as they say in Italy sanguinoso. The meat is then thinly sliced, tagliata style, and as the steak is large (over 2 lbs.) and costly, meant to be shared.

chianina pasture

 

 

The strength, size and prized meat of the Vacca Chianina had me wondering how they are raised and cared for. As I mentioned I have seen the porcelain white cattle grazing in the fields of Italy and their visual presence is astonishing. Formerly a draught breed their growth rate can exceed 4 lbs. a day.  So how are Italy’s animal version of Japan’s Sumo wrestlers nurtured and cared for to produce such memorable meat?  Meat that is was so valued that the Etruscans sacrificed the Chianina’s ancestors to their gods and the Romans immortalized the breed in monumental sculptures. Like much of what Italians eat and drink the explanation for the goodness and flavor of the Chianina relates to local history and culture. Generational producers and a pastured landscape allows the cattle to graze and create the great muscles needed to produce this quality of meat. The philosophies that hold true to the Italian way of valuing the food they eat are translated into the way they raise and source their food.  For no country is more perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of food than Italy.

The Rovigo Ermine Turkey – An Italian Inspired Thanksgiving

turkey-featherPart of our Italian family is from the Veneto and although Thanksgiving is not an Italian holiday I can imagine that, if it was, the Rovigno Ermine turkey would be at the center of the table. Tacchino, turkey in Italian, is eaten in Italy but it’s not prepared nor sold the same as in the US. I did have an excellent turkey dish in Emilia at a cooking lesson with my friend Rita made with a rolled turkey breast but a traditional Thanksgivingesque turkey is most likely only to be found on an American expat November holiday table.

rovigoThe Rovigo Ermine turkey (Ermellinato di Rovigo) came into being in 1958, a result of a cross of local birds to the American Narraganset. It differs from the Italian Common Bronze turkey (Comune Bronzato) by its flesh-colored legs, white skin, and ermine color. Although very rustic, the color and design of the bird make it more stately and unique. Well-imagined as stuffed, displayed, feathers and all at a a medieval banquet. Our intention would be little less dramatic and our presentation more in keeping with the traditional Thanksgiving bird. Trussed, stuffed, dressed and served with the usual side dishes but with a decidedly Italian twist.

Sweet potatoes and pumpkin replaced with Marina di Chioggia, chioggia-sea-pumpkinthe sea pumpkin of Chioggia near Venice, a bumpy, misshapen Italian heritage cultivare of pumpkin with yellow orange flesh and a fantastic taste that lends itself to many preparations. Cranberry sauce morphed into an Italian mostarda (recipe below) and brussel sprouts roasted with prosciutto and balsamic. Parmigiano Reggiano mashed potatoes piped Duchesse style, in homage to Caterina de’Medici, the great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent whose marriage to King Henry ll brought Tuscan food customs to the tables of France.

All brought together with family and friends and the belief that preparing a well-laid table to share and enjoy with your family and friends in a relaxed and tranquil manner is a lost pleasure that must be found again and a reason to be thankful.

Amarena Cranberry Mostarda (Serves 6-8)

12 ounces fresh cranberries
1/4 cup yellow onion, minced
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup Morello Austera Wild Cherry Jam
1/2 cup Maletti aged balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup dried sour cherries
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely minced
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram, finely minced

Add all the ingredients, with the exception of the fresh thyme, to a heavy bottomed pan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to bring the mix to a simmer, and cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring occassionally, until thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the fresh marjoram and let cool slightly before serving.

from CosituttiMarketPlace

Six 10 Second Decisions That Can Change the Course of How You See and Savor Italy

The endless possibilities of the day ahead. Travel is exciting, invigorating and in the best possible way unpredictable. Here are six 10 split-second decisions that I would not hesitate to make on your next trip to Italy.

Should I Stay or Should I Go  . . . Off the Tourist Flow?

If your destination is one of Italy’s Big Three (Rome, Florence or Venice) and you have an opportunity to travel outside the tourist flow – go. As spectacular as these cities are, the personal charm of Italy lies just beyond. Here is where the real magic begins.

Should I Visit an Italian Terme?

Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtues of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena is a perfect place to “get your feet wet” when it comes to the terme experience. You can check in to the local term or just walk down to a trickling hot spring to sooth your tried feet. Popular termes in the same region include Montecatini and Saturnia. I prefer Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme which is very accessible and family oriented.

Should I Do Some Outlet Shopping?

There are many outlet malls within driving distance from most major Italian cities with high end designs at outlet prices. Why would you not go?

Should I Forgo One Large Museum to Visit a Small Lesser Known One?

When you think of Italy you think of world class museums with an archival wealth of art and history. The Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice,
Pinacoteca di Brera and Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Italy is an open air museum. But don’t forget to seek out some of the small, lesser known museums. A good local museum will add to your understanding of the region and as you won’t have to queue to view exhibits, you can be in and out in less than an hour.

Should I Include a UNESCO Italian World Heritage Site in My Travel Itinerary?

These have been identified by UNESCO as cultural and national heritage sites of significant importance and value to humanity that deserve the protection of our world community. A cultural endangered species that should not be missed.

Should I Order the Region’s Signature Dish?

There is nothing more evocative than eating the food or drinking the wine in its place of origin. Food immersion is the best way to experience the true Italian lifestyle. Eat locally to eat like an Italian. Be a little adventurous and try the speciality of the house, the advice of the chef consiglo dello chef.

Pappardelle con Lepre or a Ragu’ con cinghiale. Truffles in Tuscany or Piemonte. Sugo all’amatriciana in Rome. Spaghetti Bolgnese in Bologna and gelato everywhere.

Red Shrimp and Wine Glasses

Gambero Rosso Tre bicchieriIf you appreciate Italian food and wine then you have, at one time or another, encountered the Gambero Rosso (red shrimp). Not as a center of the plate entree but as a guide to the best food travel and wine in Italy. Unlike Pinocchio who wandered into the eponymous taverna where the villainous Fox and Cat trick him into paying for their supper, this Gambero Rosso won’t lead you astray when searching for the best restaurants and award winning wines when traveling in Italy.

Originally an 8-page insert about food and wine in a 1986 publication of Italy’s Communist Il Manifesto, Gambero Rosso, the “red prawn” has become the definitive guide to the tastes of Italy. Their annual 1,000-page guide to Italian wines, Vini d’Italia, is considered by many to be the Italian wine bible giving top wines, those considered extraordinary, a three glass (chalice) Tre Bicchieri rating. Gambero Rosso markers of good taste now include Three Forks for restaurants, Three Coffee Beans and Cups for coffee bars, and Three Leaves for producers of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Gambero Rosso has recently established Citte’ di Gusti, cities of taste,  where demonstrations, workshops, lessons and courses are offered for both professionals and amateurs with an interest and love of Italian food and wine. Gambero Rosso opened the first Citta’ di Gusto in Rome and now has centers in Naples, Salerno, Catania, Palermo, Torino and Lecce.

Chianti, Casks and Irises

iris florencePerfumes as offerings to the gods to create pleasing scents have been known since the time of ancient Egypt and Greece. Centuries later floral fragrances, flower parts and by products like orris root kept barrels of beer fresh in Germany and casks of wine aromatic in France. But no one took a greater interest in the qualities of the iris flower than Italy. In Tuscany large districts are given over to the cultivation of irises. So much so that the iris became the emblem of Florence and the practice of using dried iris rhizomes for perfumery and medicinal purposes became a major industry in 19th-century Italy.

In Chianti iris flowers grow along stone walls and olive groves, filling the space between grape vines to scent the bouquets of Tuscan wine. In spring and early summer the handsome garden blooms of Iris florentina with its floppy cupped petals and pollen laden beard color the valley of the Arno and are spectacularly displayed in Florence’s Iris Garden near P. Michelangelo. Open for 19 days it is a spring sight in Italy not to be missed.iris

Hippocrates’ Method to Cure Jet Lag

jet lagI’m an end justifies the means flyer. Unlike my travel companions who relish in the rarified air of the wild blue yonder, I view flying as a necessity more than a pleasure. A way to get from point A to point B. One of the main in reasons for this is jet lag. I try to control it but the 9 hour+ trip to Milano always results in a major upset in my diurnal rhythm resulting in lack of alertness, poor sleep, irritability and stress. Not the way I want to hit the Via Montenapoleone. I’m in Italy and jet lag is part of it.

I’ve read about, heard or tried most of the conventional wisdom on avoiding jet lag. Adjusting your sleep patterns before departure, light therapy, aromatherapy, herbal remedies, vitamins, acupuncture, turning your watch to the time of destination as soon as you get on the plane and various other sleep aids, all claiming to cure jet lag. A recent delivery to my in-box by Afar Magazine seemed to imply that I was approaching it from the wrong way. Don’t fight it. Embrace it and they offered 6 ways on How To Make the Most of Jet Lag.  All focus on a reactive approach which may be the better tack to take than loading up with pills.

My cure for jet lag is proactive and involves turkey, pumpkin pie, football and the somnolentic coma that follows a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner.  You can read about it here as well as a reference to Dr. Charles F. Ehret, a biologist at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory, who developed a program that uses a series of planned foods (proteins and carbohydrates) to re-set nature’s internal clock to help your body adjust to a new time zone. His method and mine, as well as one of Afar’s suggestions, both involve the word “feast”/”food” and to paraphrase Hippocrates about curing what ails you – “Let food be thy flight medicine and flight medicine be thy food”.

A Well-Laid Picnic

cropped-picnic-fiat1.pngA picnic in the Italian countryside in your classic Fiat 500 or ______. Just fill in the blank and your picnic basket with salumi, salame and a crusty loaf  of bread. My choice would be a rustic Tuscan pane and a selection of Italian cold cuts like mortadella, capicola and finocchiona (if I could get it). Add a few bruschetta toppings, a selection of mostarda, some fruit and formaggi (a truffled pecorino would be very nice). For dessert, a melon with prosciutto and biscotti to dip into my flask of Vin Santo. Speaking of wine no self-respecting Italian meal would be complete without vino. So bring along a bottle of wine and to quench your thirst include a bottle of aqua minerale (San Pelligrino or Panna would be a good choice) and Italian soda.

Planning an Italian inspired picnic. Of course you’ll need a cutting board, corkscrew, cheese knife and a nice cloth and plates. Although there is no reliable etymological translation for the world picnic in Italian, an outdoor meal eaten al fuori (outdoors) in the countryside or a garden is widely described in Italian literature and a well-laid table was encouraged to heighten the experience.

Our Italian family were known for a well-laid table set in the Italian countryside.

Our Italian Family in the Veneto

Our Italian Family in the Veneto

Here is a picture of them circa 1919 relaxing in the countryside near Vicenza. To me it represents the idyllic Italian lifestyle and pleasures of “villegiatura”, leaving the life of the city for a villa in the country. Even though our Italian family did not have a villa along the Brenta Riviera they still enjoyed picnics in the Veneto. An Italian inspired picnic is my way of bringing Italy home and capturing a small slice of “la dolce vita”.

Here are a few ideas for your picnic panini –

Mortadella di bologna, emmental, rucola, senape
Bologna mortadella, emmenthal cheese, arugula, mustard

Parma Panini
Prosciutto from Parma, buffalo mozzarella, tomato, extra virgin olive oil

Salame, provolone, rucola, rafano, olio extra vergine d’oliva
Salami, provolone cheese, arugula, horseradish, extra virgin olive oil

Mozzarella di bufala, pomodoro, basilico, olio extra vergine d’oliva
Buffalo mozzarella, tomato, basil, extra virgin olive oil