Friday, March 30, 2007

Everything's Turning Up Chocolate

It’s as if someone flipped a switch. All of a sudden every store has swapped their merchandise focus to chocolate. Whatever else they might have sold, the shelves have been stripped to make room for the gigantic, colorfully-wrapped eggs that are the hallmark of Easter in Italia.

I’ve told you before that in Italy it’s always all about the food. Especially holidays. Every holiday – whether major or minor – has a particular specialty item that is associated with it, and which are consumed only during that ordained period. The mimosa cake for Women’s Day, for example. Sweet ravioli for carnevale. The tasteless panettone for Christmas. And, chocolate eggs for Easter.

Naturally, I’m all over anything that involves good-quality chocolate, so seeing the pretty packages made me smile. But these are no ordinary chocolates. Forget what you have seen in the US, those bland bunnies and mass-produced little sacks of eggs. These are dramatic confections, concocted to be dazzling as well as delicious. They are hollow, but contain una sorpressa (a surprise)– often more than one. Chocolatiers will custom-craft these beauties to your specifications and to include your own special sorpressa for your loved ones. I’m told engagement rings are frequently hidden inside.And the wrappings! They go all out to create paper flowers, colorful, curly ribbons, hand-painted ceramics to rest the eggs in, tied up with colorful, curly ribbons accompanied by pretty confetti or flowers. Gorgeous.

I love walking by our local cioccolateria to gaze in their windows any time, but particularly now. Their elaborate eggs are downright inspiring. I haven’t purchased ours yet, because I know full well that we’d devour them well before Easter Day, so I’m waiting a bit. But I have my eye on a couple. They’ll make our Pasqua feast that much more special this year.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Earth-Shaking Experiences

Remember last month when I told about the little terremoto at 2:30 in the morning? How Bryan snored his way right on through it and had no clue anything was amuck? Well, it happened again this morning. At about 6:30 the building starting shaking and the doors were lightly swaying. It felt kind of like being bounced on a ball for about five or six seconds. Then it stopped and I just laughed. Bryan, once again, missed it. In fact, he thought I was joking when I told him about it. He's obviously a deeper sleeper than I. Fortunately, I look around at the ancient buildings that have survived thus far despite being in an apparent earthquake zone and feel some sort of security that we'll not be in peril. It's just a little bit of an odd sensation to be awakened by the ground moving beneath me . I guess the terra firma isn't so firma after all.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Meaty Mail Call

After writing about how I cause immeasurable angst to my poor butcher who cannot figure out what it is I am doing with his carefully-selected and hand-cut meats, I received an email from Anna Noble, who directed me to the meat pages in the Silver Spoon Cookbook. This is the hard-hitting, heavy-weight Bible of Italian cookery that is now available in an English translation. The 1264 pages are packed full of 2000 recipes. I happen to own this book, but because we were already over the weight and luggage restrictions when we departed for the bel paese, we left the meaty tome tucked away safely in storage. Too bad, because Anna pointed out that there are illustrations providing Italian meat cuts diagrammed from the parts of the animal with corresponding diagrams of cuts in the English system. Would have been helpful to have, I thought. Anna to the rescue! She speedily copied the pages and mailed them to me posthaste, which is amazing given the Italian Postal System.

Thanks, Anna; what a gal! So, if anyone out there is looking for this important information, you can access it in that very helpful volume. Trust me, your butcher will be eternally grateful. I know mine is.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Lube and Wax

I know, I know. Returning to the massage therapist who creates an Exxon Valdez-worthy oil slick wasn’t the brightest idea. But I was in desperate need. Trudging around hilltowns is murderous on my legs. I ran into Maria on the street just when my aching muscles were crying out and told her to reserve me an hour time slot. Besides, she really is a nice lady and, copious greasing aside, gives a decent massage. Plus, I haven’t found anyone else. I caved.

All went well. With cooler weather she does permit a blanket of covering to keep my muscles from tensing up, and we chatted amiably. She mentioned that she is also an esthetician, the exact significance of which I was unsure, but she started telling me she could wax my eyebrows and upper lip. The curse of having Mediterranean blood coursing in my veins, but then every other woman around here suffers the same problems, apparently. I confess that I was a bit tuned-out as she was saying all this, but said “okay” to show that I was keeping up and understood that she could provide those services if I ever decided to take advantage of them.

Next thing I know she’s slathering wax on my face and attaching linen strips to yank the stuff off. Whoa! Whatsupwiththisnoise? Ah, the subtleties of language learning. I didn’t denote the up-turn at the end of her sentence, which I thought was a statement but turned out to be a question. I can wax your eyebrows and lip, a statement. Can I wax your eyebrows and lip? A question. Same exact sentence formation in Italian but an intonation is what is supposed to signal an inquiry. In my semi-zoned-out state I missed it and stupidly answered “okay,” which she took as an affirmative: sure, go ahead and wax me!

I have never had a professional waxing before and I now know I don’t want to experience one again. Having your flesh ripped off isn’t a fun experience. When she finished with the wax she went at my brows with a tweezers, which stung like a bee. When I winced in pain she kept on, saying, “ma sara` bellissima.” But you’ll be more beautiful. Thank you, but I'd rather stay ordinary, run of the mill bella than inflict that kind of pain upon myself in the name of beauty. And this was just a small taste of the hair-removal experience. All the way home I questioned the utter sanity of anyone who would submit to a bikini wax. WHY? Why would you do that? No, don’t go there. Just. Please. Don't go there.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Don’t let the charm and age fool you. The old folks at the vegetable market are a wiley lot.

One of my few disappointments with life in Ascoli is the mercato. We have two mornings set aside for the mobile market – Wednesdays and Saturdays – and while it is a large one, it consists mostly of cheap, made in China, synthetic-fabric clothing and other assorted goods. There are the requisite vendors selling porchetta, of course, but I think it may be unlawful to hold a mercato without at least three porchetta trucks selling their seasoned, roast pig. There are a handful of food vendors, mostly purveyors of salamis and cheeses. The vegetable market – which should be the central feature- is sadly lacking, though. I was perhaps a bit spoiled by the wonderful fresh market in Anzio where truck farm merchants set up long tables over-loaded with mounds of beautiful fruits and veggies procured from all points of the peninsula. I could shop inexpensively for bag-loads.

Here in Ascoli, on the other hand, we have the humbly-named mercato dell’erbe, which consists of very aged citizens selling smaller quantities of seasonal produce that is apparently grown in their little vegetable patches. Cute, huh? That’s what I thought at first. Then I tried buying from them. I soon found it was like a free trip to the infamous markets of Morocco. They start calling out to you as soon as you barely glance toward their produce. “Signora, signora…guarda signora, le belle patate” Those cries draw the attention of the other vendors nearby and they start yelling out, too. Over here! Come and look at these nice artichokes! How about a kilos of fresh spinach, bella signora? The questions blurt out rapid-fire if I try to move among the rows. And they can look so pitiful, too. One old man, who appears to be about 125 years old, is mostly toothless, and sits wrapped in a wool coat, points at his fresh eggs and looks at me pleadingly. When I took pity and decided to buy his eggs, he whacked me 25 centessimi per egg and then heckled me to buy his onions. When I said I didn’t have need of onions that day he waved me away so he could make better use of his time finding another victim.

That scenario has been repeated every time I’ve tried to shop there. Aggressive attempts to get me to buy, feigning to not hear the amount I’ve said I wanted so they load more weight into my bag, giving me a high price. It’s made me quite desolate for the Anzio market where the vendors recognized me, let me choose exactly what I wanted in what quantity I desired, and even threw in little extras for me, all for very low prices. I have to wonder why we are in the only city in Italy without a proper, weekly, heavy-laden, “normal” produce market. It was one of the first joys I experienced on my travels to Italy, those gorgeously enticing displays of veggies…and something I enjoyed the first several months of our residence. Now it’s rather soured; I am not assertive enough to yell back like the locals do when they are being taken for a ride, nor do I have the right vocabulary for such a task. Maybe I’ll try to get my landlady, a street-smart lady with all the right words, to take me along and show me the ropes. For now, though, I avoid Marrakech, as we call the mercato dell’erbe, and visit a little vegetable shop in the centro instead. Her selection is rather limited but she’s friendly and fair. I’m just not cut out for Morocco.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Girl Power!

I knew something important was coming along; I had started to notice the flyers around town advertising special dinners. Any time there is una cena speciale, you know it’s a holiday. This time all the announcements were for pre-reserving celebratory meals and parties to mark the Festa della Donna, Celebration of Women, or Woman’s Day if you will. The customs are basic and sweet – mimosa blossoms are presented to every woman along with happy thoughts, the ladies plan a night out with their friends, and the special treat to indulge in at the end of the meal is the Mimosa Cake. The closest approximation we have in the U.S. is Mother’s Day, but I say that while all mothers are women, not all women are mothers! This day’s celebrations includes those of us who cannot or otherwise choose not to bear children. It celebrates everyone of the female persuasion highlighting our abilities, importance in society, but also our femininity.

Despite the merry atmosphere surrounding Italians’ celebrations of the day, it began with a darker history and a more somber goal.

What started as a sort of grass-roots effort on March 8, 1908 to protest poor women’s working conditions and low wages, International Women’s Day also became a day to march for peace and to demand voting rights. In 1911 there was a tragic fire at a garment factory in New York where more than 140 women, working in a sweat-shop environment, were killed because the factory doors were locked, keeping them captive. This tragedy served to proclaim the atrocious working conditions women, particularly underpaid immigrant women, were forced to endure and became a focus of commemoration for International Women’s Day for many years.

Perhaps it is also no coincidence that March 8 is also the day that Susan B. Anthony testified before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives arguing for a Constitutional Amendment to grant women the right to vote.

So, oddly, while these two important occasions occurred in the United States, the day passes largely unobserved and unknown in my homeland. Of course, for all the festivities in Italy, few people really commemorate the reason for the day so much as the spirit of the thing. But hopefully while the mimosa blossoms are blazing forth their yellow puffs, they will serve as a reminder to us to express solidarity with our worldwide sisters who are still struggling for freedom -personal, political or social- and who lack basic rights. This International Women’s Day, let’s commemorate not only those women who came before us allowing us the freedoms we have, but also our power to effect change and make a difference in other women’s lives.

Read more about International Women's Day.

Visit Amnesty International to learn about some of the pressing needs of women in the world.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of those who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Proverbs 31:8-9

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ma Che Cosa Fai?

A trip to the butcher is much more than a simple point-and-take operation around here. First of all, I’m still learning the names of meat cuts in Italian. In Albuquerque I’d go to my butcher shop and all would be arranged artfully in the glass coolers, clearly marked by cut. I knew a loin from a rib roast from a tip roast. I’ve yet to find a clear explanation of what I should look for in Italian if I want a specific chop. I’ve looked, believe me. I even wrote to Kyle Phillips, one of my Italian cooking heros, who apologetically offered a brief and somewhat vague website as the best he’s found.

I plug along and the butcher thinks me an imbecile every time I step in the door and stammer. This is partly due to the fact that he doesn’t put all the meats out in the case, and I must sometimes ask if I’m looking for something specific that day. There is no ground meat ready, for instance. This was the case in Anzio as well, and at first I wondered what was up that no one seemed to buy the stuff. Then I learned that I had to ask for it explicitly and they would grind it to order. Pretty cool, actually.

At my butcher here in Ascoli, asking for a piece of meat always results in the question, “ma che cosa fai?” But what are you making? At first I thought the guy was just a little nosy, or maybe really liked to talk about food. Then I realized that he was trying to determine for me – in absence of any obvious intelligence on my part – exactly what cut would be best for the dish I would be preparing. Usually he’s very agreeable and gives me the right thing, even when I don’t know what it is I need (in Italian).

Sometimes though he gives me a look indicating, what on earth is she cooking? I promise him that his meat will be going to a good home but he often seems dubious. Last week, for example, when I ordered some ground lamb he was dumbfounded and stared at me like I’d asked for a head on a platter (which he probably would have provided). Heart, tripe, other innards I consider unedible I can readily have without a sideward glance, but apparently ordinary lamb meat that is ground up is too much for him to bear. He squinted and asked the question I have now come to expect, this time with a bit of an attitude. I told him I would be preparing a Greek dish that involved stuffing artichoke hearts with seasoned ground lamb and that it was very delicious. He shrugged, obviously not buying the delicious part, but said he could cut some meat off a lamb bone and grind it for me anyway, being sure to mention that I was the first person who had ever made such a strange request. (The dish in question was very delicious, by the way, and the recipe is on my food blog.)

He really is quite accommodating though and he carries good-quality meats. I think he’s getting used to me as he’ll even say hi when he sees me on the street. I’m sure he’d not be accepting any possible invitations for dinner at my house anytime soon, however.