The Shallots of Rome

shallotsThe 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.

Francis Francis

The drive from Rome to Assisi in Umbria is a short day trip (185 km or 115 miles) along dramatic mountain scenery and countless medieval hill towns where the region’s volcanic soil, wet winters and sun-drenched summers grow grapes that produce some of the finest wines in the world.

assisi in fogFor pilgrim travelers entering Italy’s Green Heart, it was a metaphor for a spiritual journey from the ecclesiastical Church of Rome to a land of religious fervor where saints walked the hillsides and forests and lived lives that changed the world. The gentle spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi continues to influence all who are open to the teachings of Francis who first heard God’s calling in a small church outside the city walls while praying at the Byzantine cross of San Damiano directing him to “Rebuild My Church”.

Today the link between Rome and Assisi is renewed with the 2013 inauguration of Pope Francis whose papacy continues to be marked by acts of simplicity and openness common and consistent with the teachings of St. Francis. I was reminded of this on a recent trip that began in Rome and ended in Umbria. popes ticketI did get my “golden ticket” to see the Pope along with thousands of others in St. Peter’s Square that October morning.  All that was going on now connected Rome to Assisi by more than an ancient pilgrim road. The name Francis echoed a spiritual reconnection between two men reminding those who listened to be “protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment”.

A Different Type of Stay in Rome

vintage-gucci luggageRome, Florence and Venice are the “holy trinity” of Italian travel – an iconic itinerary that almost every tour operator suggests as part of the Grand Tour of Europe. Rome, the historical godhead, Florence the inspirational daughter and Venice the spiritual muse. There are few cities in the world that create such a mystical union of travel experiences. But seeing and savoring the hyperbolic landscape of Rome requires a different philosphy of travel, one with a less is more point of view.

We’re beginning with accommodations outside the tourist flow at an home on Via Gregorio VII near Vatican City. We’ve been to Rome before and following our paradigm that the quality of travel is far more important than quantity we decided to look into an different type of stay this time around, a private residence listed by a community of global “hosts” who rent out an entire home, flat, apartment or even an extra bedroom to travelers looking to get off the tourist radar. We stayed at properties like this before and we find it an interesting alternative to the standard type of travel accommodations. It allows us to live like a local, can oftentimes be more economical and less constrained than a standard hotel room.

Internet sites like Airbnb, Vrbo, HomeAway and FlipKey by Trip Advisor connect host individuals to travelers who desire to rent short-term lodging in “homes and apartments, private rooms, castles, boats, manors, tree houses, tipis, igloos, private islands and other properties” to create a more personalized travel experience where the how and why of travel is just as important as the sites you see. And if you’re wondering as to whether there’s a lot to pick from, in only five years  Airbnb has created a “shared marketplace” that offers 300,000 listings in 35,000 cities in 192 countries.

Past properties we stayed at included an apartamento in Milano a few blocks from Piazza Duomo and a residence apartment in Portogruaro near Venice. Our host in Rome offered a flat with 3 bedrooms and 3 baths, linens, internet access, furnished kitchen and terrace. When renting a property through an agency like Airbnb remember to inquire about whether heat is included which can be expensive in European countries and information about deposits and cleaning fees and whether bathrooms will be shared and if you will have full or limited access to a kitchen.  Also map the destination on an expanded view and street level to make sure of the location, surroundings, walking distances to sites you want to see and proximity to public transportation. Read property reviews on multiple sites for what others are saying about their experience. Don’t just rely on pictures.

Depending on your travel goals and the number in your group (in our case 8) you may find that seeing and savoring Italy from the comfort of your own private space is the ideal way to travel and the home-away-from-home atmosphere these types of accommodations provide just what you need.

Our Airbnb “host” confirmed our stay in Rome with the promise that “Rome is waiting for you”. We’ll return at the end of October to let you know how we were welcomed!

Benedict’s Bees

Some consider Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to be the “thinking man’s Pope”. A theologian and scholar by training he wrote three encyclicals, many apostolic letters, two popular books about the historical Jesus and numerous other publications; a Pope as industrious and prolific as his bees.

In September 2011 eight beehives containing more than 500,000 bees were given to then Pope Benedict by the Italian agricultural organization ‘Coldiretti’ to celebrate the Day for the Protection of Creation. The group promotes agricultural education and lobbies to protect agricultural land and encourage farm-friendly policies. Tbee closeuphe half million bees were transported to the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and were expected to produce more than 600 pounds of organic wildflower honey each year pollinating the orchards and flowers of the pontifical farm that is also the home to 25 dairy cows and an assortment of hens and roosters.Baldacchino-bees


Bees have always found favor with the fathers of the Church. St. John Chrysostom explains that the bee is more honored than other animals, “not because it labors, but because it labors for others”. Pope Pius XII called them “fascinating little creatures of God” writing that there can be many lessons drawn from the “holy wisdom in these tiny humming insects”. Urban VIII, a 17th century Pope whose family coat of arms featured three bees, was particularly partial to l’ape. We might go so far as to designate him their papal patron. Bees seem to have found so much favor with him that there are architectural monuments all over Rome  swarming with bees including St. Peter’s Basilica where bees can be found decorating the baldachin altar.

Ciao Patrick

Although Italy cannot claim St. Patrick as their favorite son, Patrick’s parents were citizens of Rome so it’s easy for Italians to translate the green in their flag to the “wearin of the green” on St. Patrick’s Day. There are many Irish pubs in Italy and you can be sure they will be serving Guinness on draught and Irish whiskey on March 17th along with pasta and pizza and Irish Espresso.  Take a St. Patrick’s Day tour of Italy beginning with Italy’s Celtic roots and then travel to Rome to visit its Irish churches.  St.  Isidore, San Clemente near the Roman Colosseum (known for its frescoes and twelfth-century mosaics), San Silvestro and St. Patrick with its Celtic design cathedral windows. A burial plaque commemorating Brian Boru’s son, King Donnchadh of Munster, can be found among the Roman columns of the 4th century basilica of St. Stefano Rotondo .  He died during a pilgrimage to Rome and was buried here in 1064.

bagpipeAnd if you listen closely you might hear the sound of bagpipes. Italy has a small but rich bagpipe tradition. The zampogna (Italian bagpipe) is part of a vibrant folk tradition in  Abruzzo, Molise and Southern Italy where the zampognari (bagpipe players) appear in open air markets and in the streets during the Christmas season as shepherds that came down from the hills to celebrate and entertain the people.