Friday, November 30, 2007

Please Don't Give Me Your Germs!

Another round of company has come and gone, another round of raffreddore has hit our house. I don't know what it is about taking my family around central Italy, but this is the third time that we've become sick when relations came a'calling! Bryan is threatening to leave my family on the curb next time.

But seriously. I know they are not bringing the germs because none of them have been sick on arrival, but it's still a little strange, don't you think?

It raises an issue, though. We've noted that Italians do not stay home when they are ill. Being a sociable bunch, they don't want to be cooped up inside. They go into the piazza as usual, hack at me when they pass in the street, and - worse - go to work in the bars and restaurants with their drippy noses and caffe-ruining sneezes. Two of our favorite baristas have been seen in such a state, and while they *try* to not cough on the food, well, you know darn well that their hands are at least mildly germy and it's being transferred to us. I've also heard earth-rumbling sneezes emitting from a neighborhood restaurant when I walked by their kitchen door (you can bet I won't be eating there for a while).

"Why don't you stay home and get better?" Bryan asked one such acquaintance involved in food and beverage service. Beh. What am I going to do at home? I'd be bored, he responded. Besides, I don't want to pay someone to come in and run the bar. I feel for them; I realize most bars are a mom-and-pop shop, but still. I really dislike getting sick. Really. Dislike.

So here I am with a crimson nose and mildly-throbbing head, trying to write while feeling foggy. Words don't enter my brain when I want them to. I struggle for cohesive thought. And I keep thinking, I really need to get myself un-addicted to cappuccino. This wouldn't happen if I didn't need my daily fix.

Another thought came up, too. We never caught colds so frequently at home. I think the germs here must be tougher. They've had millennia to adapt and mutate, after all. Our wimpy American immune systems aren't equipped. We lacked the antibodies to resist the different European germs. Or maybe that's just the fog speaking.

I'm off to make a hot toddy. My mom's cure-all for all ailments will surely help break up the congestion if not clear up the fog.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Priest Who Led Me To Strong Drink

My sister departed a few weeks ago and I was sad to see her go. However, my brother arrived yesterday with his daughter, both severely jetlagged but ready for a week-long whirlwind tour of Central Italy. Today we visited the pretty town of Acquaviva Picena, known for the well-preserved Medieval fortezza dominating the hilltop. There was a numbing breeze blowing, like when we visited with Cara.

On that particular visit, it was also a cold day, so we stopped into one of the town’s coffee bars for a warm-me-up before heading on our way.

Inside, standing at the counter was the town priest. I was deliberating on what to order and, as he had just received his hot beverage, recommended I give the punch a try. “E molto buono,” he assured me. Punch is an alcoholic sweet drink that is warmed up by the barista using the espresso steamer wand and served in a tall shot glass. It comes in a variety of fruit flavors as well as chocolate. The priest advised that I try the more local Punch Abruzzese, concocted from a mixture of mountain herbs. “It is very good on a cold, wet day like today,” he said. I had my doubts about this whole affair. I have previously tried another Abruzzese drink called Cento Erbe, also made from wild weeds and it was the strongest brew I’ve ever put into my mouth. We’re talking sugared, herbal moonshine here. But, heck. If the priest tells me to do something, why not? He told me it wasn’t too strong, so I ordered it and went downstairs to the loo.

I came back just in time to find my neatly-warmed punch being set on the counter…and to find my counselor-priest stirring a sugar packet into his own beverage while quietly asking the barista to add hot water to it. I caught wisps of his fervent request with the distinct words, “e troppo forte.” Dude! You just told me “no, it’s not too strong.” Not three minutes ago! I raised the glass to my lips and inhaled herbal fumes. My eyes began to water slightly and I’d not yet imbibed. This would be a drink for flu-sufferers; something to break up chest congestion. I sipped and swallowed. Heat emanated down my throat and into my stomach. I assure you, I felt its path all the way along. He was right about one thing…it was a good drink for a cold day.

My nose started dripping. Each small sip took a little bit of breath away. While breathing fire I glanced at the priest who smiled at me sheepishly before departing. He left half his punch unfinished. Two more sips and I started feeling queasy. My glass remained next to his on the counter, a little more of the strong drink left in mine. The barista gave me some cookies to munch on to override the alcohol, snickering as she removed our glasses. “The priest never drinks anything but communion wine,” she laughed.

I was a little unsettled in the stomach all the way home. I don’t think he meant to lead me astray, but I’ll not be quick to follow a priest’s advice on anything not relating to saints and feast days for some time to come.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Few of my Favorite Things

Sheps (otherwise known as sheep)

I don’t quite know why I'm so enamored of the animals, but I love the sight of sheep on the hillsides, especially when they are accompanied by their shepherds. The wooly things look cuddly when they’re young and just seem to lend a timeless aspect to the landscape. The sound of the bells tinkling as they roam and range provides a peculiar symphony in the otherwise hushed hills. The cheese made from their milk is pretty darn good, and their wool provides natural warmth, so I guess I am just a fan the creatures all the way around.

This little herd surrounded me as they munched their way through the Valle del Castelluccio. They completely ignored me as they tore and chew the grasses while moving along the valley. The dogs seemed way too friendly to be proper sheepdogs, as they came bounding up to me for some affection. The shepherd was a bit too modern for my taste, sitting in his truck up in the distance, then honking his horn as a signal to the dogs to round up the sheps and move them on their way.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Apples and Thyme in Grandma's Kitchen

The Passionate Palate, a scrumptious and inspiring cooking blog, is co-sponsoring a blogging event called Apples and Thyme, giving us a chance to pay homage to the mothers, grandmothers or others who inspired us in the kitchen. This is my contribution to honor my grandmother, Betty (isn't that such a great grandmotherly name?)

Whenever I conjure up a picture of my grandmother I see her in the kitchen. Always. She spent so much of her day in that one room that my mind always captures an image of her there.
She had a little television in the kitchen so she could watch her “program” while she cooked. We often sat at the table playing cards, Grams popping up and down to tend the stove or check on a pie in the oven. Her game of choice was rummy and she didn’t like to lose. I learned some choice words during these games, surprising my mom with them when I returned home. “Who taught you that word?” she would ask me. “Grandma!” I’d respond, knowing she couldn’t punish me for repeating something my grandmother had said.

Grandma and I drank tea and ate cookies and she frequently gave me little tasks to do, like rolling the little balls of bread dough for the rolls, or sprinkling the colored sugar on top of the cookies the instant they came out of the oven. I was able to get my hands dirty mixing up the meatloaf and learned that onion and garlic smells on your hands are best extinguished by wetting them and rubbing in salt. She made most of her mainstays from heart rather than by the book, so I observed how to add spices without measuring and learned how a “pinch” of salt felt in the fingers by dipping into the wooden salt box that hung next to the stove.

But I also learned some of life’s more important lessons, too. She cooked up a storm every day, preparing meals for her own family but also for many others, as well. She frequently delivered meals on our walks to the grocery store, leaving a casserole and a pie on a doorstep, or sometimes just walking straight in the back door to leave a meal in someone’s kitchen before heading on with her errands. Gratitude for such actions embarrassed her. I learned only a year ago that she prepared meals three times a week for one needy family – for six months! Grams never learned to drive, so she delivered her care packages on foot, logging countless miles around her town delivering goodies and good cheer. She would frequently sit and visit with a shut-in who had no other company or pick up books from the library for them, too. Her actions were so inherent she didn’t even realize how heroic they were, but diving in and helping people by providing home-cooked food is a beautiful thing. That she did it every single day of her life is, to me, the making of a great person.

Grams was no gourmet, but she was a good home cook and could make enough to feed the entire town if need be. She baked bread three times a week for 50 years. Her cute clover-leaf rolls were my favorite bread product for years. Roasted chickens, casseroles and soups, her signature potato salad by the gallon, and loads and loads of sweets. I tell you, Grams should have been a pastry chef. She *loved* to bake. The enormous cookie jar in the kitchen was always brimming with treats for the grandkids as well as herself; her sweet tooth was (and still is!) notorious. Pies and fruit crisps appeared weekly. Cupcakes that she carefully decorated were joyfully presented to us on holidays and birthdays. When she moved to assisted living I commandeered her recipe box; lurking inside I discovered 70% of the recipes were for sweets!

Of all those delectable treats I decided to share the recipe for her granola fudgies. She made them frequently, despite the fact that she didn’t much care for chocolate herself, telling us she prepared them just because she loved us. They are also a cinch. Brew yourself a cup of tea and enjoy them over a fine hand of rummy.

Grandma Betty's Granola Fudgies

1/4. cup cocoa
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar*
1/2 stick butter
1 1/2 cups granola
1/4 cup sliced almonds or chopped nuts
1/4 cup peanut butter

Place the cocoa in a saucepan and gradually add the milk, stirring well. Stir in the sugar and the butter and bring to a boil for one minute, stirring. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut butter, the granola and nuts. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto waxed paper. Refrigerate until firm.

*At home I used Sucanat, which is a whole-cane sugar product, not refining out the essential vitamins and minerals like white sugar does. It's easier on blood sugar level and has a richer taste. You can use regular sugar if you prefer, but if you can find Sucanat or Rapadura you should give them a try. They are a "whole food" rather than a refined, naked "food". Unfortunately, I haven't seen it anywhere in Italy.

Read more about Grams:

Cookies and Lemonade

A Daily Life

Friday, November 02, 2007

...and Misinformed

I’m back, folks! Following two wonderful weeks in the company of my sister, I returned home and promptly came down with a nasty cold. Then Bryan, despite my pleadings to not get sick, couldn’t stand to see me suffer alone and succumbed to the illness himself. A week of hacking and blowing and…well, I’ll spare you the details.

But where were we? Ah yes. Cadogan and their slighting of my Motherland. The opening sentence in their sparse section about Basilicata makes the statement: “The Basilicata has never been one of the more welcoming regions of Italy.”

Really? As with any region that isn’t heavily-touristed, you’ll meet with people or communities who do not seem to be overly pleasant. We’ve encountered that here in Marche in towns like Castorano, where our friendly greetings were left to fall to the ground like dead leaves. People didn’t respond with a smile nor a buongiorno. So be it. We met with a similar experience in Narni (Umbria), which, despite being a well-preserved medieval city with gorgeous landscapes and architecture, does not seem to attract the numbers of visitors as nearby cities; the local people weren’t unfriendly per se, but seemed wary of outsiders wandering their narrow alleyways and gawking around.

So I wonder what town in Basilicata the authors happened into that formed their judgement of the entire region. Or did they even visit (my suspicion from reading their measly morsels of “insight,” is that they did not). Because, in our experience, while the Lucani may not be used to tourists, most of them would sooner sever their arms than appear inhospitable.

We have some travels under our belt and speak conversational Italian which helps, I’m sure. But even on our early trips to these little hamlets we met with curious smiles and a desire to assist. Our forays into the Motherland garner us outright stares. Let’s face it, a little town of 2,000 souls that is perched on top of a mountainside at 1,000 meters surrounded by rural farms and sheep in southern Italy does not draw many Italian tourists, much less foreigners. We are evident outsiders and people stop in their tracks to look us over and determine who we are. For many, this can be disconcerting and may seem unwelcoming. On the other hand, I think it’s just simple curiosity; an out of the ordinary occurrence in their daily lives. Almost every time we smile and speak we are met with grins and torrents of words and questions.

Some of these encounters lead to friendship. Take Belli Cappelli. Otherwise known as Michele, he is so-dubbed because of his long, curly locks. My cousin’s wife says, “he’s the ugliest guy in town but has the most beautiful hair!” He stood in the piazza chatting with us after a simple “ciao” and before we know it, he’s ushering us to the bar and buying us caffe. And this is before he knows that his friend, Michele, is my cousin. Afterwards, when talking about the peperoni cruschi, he promised to dry a string of the peppers just for me, and would set aside some of his home-made wine for us, as well. Other strangers have paid for our drinks, some of whom we had only exchanged greetings with. Unwelcoming? I think not.

When I went into a restaurant in Matera to ask about dinner reservations I was informed they were closed at dinner that evening, but the owner picked up the phone and called a few other restaurants in the area to see who would be open on a Sunday night. I didn’t ask him; he certainly didn’t have to do it, but didn’t want us to go hungry or waste time tramping around town searching. The B&B owner invited us to his newly-opened art gallery, opening it up for a private tour and pointing out finer details we’d have missed on our own. Another B&B owner in Genzano advised us on which restaurant would offer us the best sampling of local fare, calling to make reservations and asking the chef to have a particular wine on our table for us when we arrived.

While these are not uncommon experiences for travelers in Italy, it shows that the Basilicatans are no less hospitable than, say, Tuscans. Closer acquaintances, however, quickly display their true hearts as the Lucani are proud of their roots and their land and enjoy sharing it with others. Meals are long and enormous; no less than 3 pasta dishes would be considered right. Feeding you until you cannot possibly swallow another bite is their way of showing hospitality and affection. We have frequently been greeted with “ciao, are you hungry?” They do not want you to feel even a weak hunger pain.

We have been invited, fed, and made to feel accepted. We have found the Lucani to be among the most welcoming people in Italy. I guess it depends on your attitude and your willingness to overcome their initial wariness with smiles and conversation. The very act of traveling to that remote locale makes them want to like you. Interest in their culture, cuisine and history guarantees they will. But what do I know? The guidebook says it’s not a very welcoming place so it must be true. Right?