Thursday, September 27, 2007

On The Road

We are in the Motherland enjoying the hospitality, food, and laughter of la famiglia. Since I've been too busy to write any blog posts, I'll leave you with this lovely scene of Matera until we return home.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A House in the Country

Come on, admit it. You’ve dreamed of owning an Italian country house. Plaster walls, a big kitchen, and a vine-draped courtyard where you can enjoy aperitivi while admiring the view and enjoying the tranquility, and where you can step out your door and walk amidst the ordered rows of vines of your very own vineyard. Anyone who has read the colorful memoirs of moving to Italy has implanted this kind of idyllic vision in their minds.

What’s that you say? Can’t justify buying a vineyard estate in a foreign country? The dream can still be yours, right at home in the good ol’ U.S. of A. My dear friends, Maria and Bob, are selling their beautiful home in the quaint village of Corrales, New Mexico. Maria is the daughter of an Italian immigrant and has infused so much Old World charm into the place that, I swear, it could be in southern Italy.

To reach the property you drive along a rambling road that skirts the Rio Grande through the historic adobe-constructed core of Corrales, where you find cafes and eateries, funky art galleries and a general store that carries the likes of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and pesto sauce, not to mention some seasonal, locally-grown produce. You pass small family-owned farms and estates with horses and llamas in the pastures. Stress melts away as you drive under the canopy of time-weathered cottonwood trees.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this house really feels like home. We spent our last few nights in New Mexico here while enjoying the hospitality of our friends (who cooked up big Italian feasts in the sizeable kitchen lit by Venetian glass pendant lights). It is a fabulous house, comfortable and warm and unpretentious. It blends Italian-style appeal with typically-New Mexican adobe and charm, along with big-sky views. It is the kind of place we would have liked to own if we’d not chosen to move here.

So if you are looking to satisfying your dream for a lovely house surrounded by vineyards, take a look at Bob and Maria’s place. Can’t you just smell the sauce cooking?

More About Corrales:

Corrales Village Site

Money Magazine Article

Corrales Winery

A Vendemmia at Bob and Maria's

Fourth of July in Corrales

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Whole Lot of Wining Going On

When I was a kid, my hometown had a large annual festival that was well-attended and much-anticipated. The Cherry Festival was a grand event for the entire 4-county area. Parades the likes of which one rarely sees, carnival rides, food booths, and bands for entertainment marked the week-long celebrations. We could eat junk food with abandon, munch fresh cherries and spit the seeds right out onto the sidewalk, and enjoy the rides until we made ourselves dizzy (or sick). For my sister and me, though, the highlight was always one particular booth that sold…da da dum…wine snowcones. The syrup was cooked down and sugared, so it’s not like there was any alcohol in the things and they were mighty tasty of grape flavor. We ordered the Lambrusco. Now, how many kids can pronounce Lambrusco, much less order it up on their shaved ice? We even connived our mom once to buy a bottle of the real Lambrusco for the family to taste during a Christmas dinner. (We got little dainty shot-glasses of water with a few drops of wine in it.)

Aside from cappuccino, wine, it must be said, is my beverage of choice when I order something out. Mixed drinks and beer don’t hold a lot of appeal for me. Bryan is a bit of a wine aficionado, or at least his family has long held that belief, simply because they always ask him to choose the wine in restaurants, knowing they like his choices. His secret: he scans the list for an Italian vintage and orders it. Simple as that.

So when we heard that the lovely hill town of Offida plays host to a grand wine festa each year, we naturally wanted to see what manner of hoopla would be offered up. This places oozes charm, and they have turned the old Franciscan monastery into a regional enoteca, to promote the area’s excellent vintages. In this historic setting, they set up tables where at least 40 wineries were represented, handing out brochures and informative descriptions of the wines along with the obligatory tastings. I know. The lengths I go to for the sake of blogging.

With so many wineries present, we knew we’d need to formulate a plan; while we like to taste il vino, we know we have a threshold and can’t overdo it. We wandered on a reconnaissance mission through the facility and then staked out the booths outside which were scattered around the former cloister, in order to prioritize which wineries we’d hit. We decided to go with the smaller vineyards from the province. We are so glad we did! We made some great contacts for future tours and tasted some downright fantastic wines. Many of these vineyards do not distribute their goods beyond the doors of their cantina, not even in stores here in Ascoli. We’ll enjoy taking outings to go into the countryside to procure our new favorites.

This area has a very long tradition in wine-making, dating back to the ancient Piceni tribes, even; yet hardly anyone knows about the “wine roads” or about the unique heritage grapes that produce such good vino. Offida Pecorino, Rosso Piceno Superiore, Passerina…all wonderful! We rounded out our tasting session with the very unique vino cotto, which was much touted by the wine connoisseurs as being an “excellent tasting dessert wine”. It’s cooked to concentrate the sugars, then fermented, creating a sweet, strong wine with an almost syrupy consistency. Makes me wonder how the vino cotto would taste swirled over a snow cone.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Dining On Water

(A little note: we had so many activities going on through the summer that I'm still trying to get caught up on posting about them. This one is from July. Summer in Italy is jam-packed with fun stuff to do!)

If you’ve been following our adventures and reading Bryan’s blog, too, you may remember that he wrote about our visit to the seaside area in Abruzzo known as the Costa dei Trabocchi. No? Hop on over and read about the unique, traditional fishing platforms found in that limited area.

Interesting, huh? That’s what we thought. The rickety-looking wooden structures lend a touch of rustic charm to the largely-undeveloped coastline. Small hills rise from the Adriatic, the water is shockingly blue, and the beaches remain mostly open and free. They are composed of small stones rather than sand, keeping the water clean and clear.

So, when we saw that Slow Food was organizing a dinner for a limited number of people on board the trabocchi, we quickly emailed foodie friends Giorgio and Francesca to invite them along and snapped up tickets for the event, which promised “a voyage into the scents and flavors of Abruzzo’s seafood and fishing traditions”. Italians like flowery, long-winded explanations for their brochures. After I weeded through five paragraphs like that, it all boiled down to a grand fish feast using traditional, regional recipes served up al fresco for us to enjoy while perched above the water enjoying the sea breezes. All that for the same price one would pay for the full-on fish dinner in a local restaurant. Who could resist that?

We arrived knowing we’d be experiencing another Seafood Lottery, but we had in tow Giorgio, a long-time chef who would instruct us in the best way to eat the dishes presented to us. He also had to describe what some of the fish were. Being desert dwellers for twenty years, we didn’t get a lot of seafood in our land of sagebrush and, beyond the basics (trout, salmon, etc.), we are not well-informed to know one fish from the next. I grew up just a short distance from fresh-water Lake Erie, but in those parts the sweet-flavored lake perch is served only one way – fried. And that dish is presented in one of two choices – on a plate or on a bun with tartar sauce. Clearly my fish background is lacking, even in English. In Italian, I have little hope of knowing what I’d be eating (again beyond the basics, such as trota and salmone).

The evening was perfect: clear with a cooling, light wind blowing off the water, we had a view of two other, distant trabocchi from our little rustic roost. The trabocchi resemble big, wooden, spider-like sea creatures rising up out of the water. The gangway to reach ours was longer than the neighboring ones, constructed of wooden slats tied firmly together. It swayed just enough to feel like we were walking on water. Arriving on board we were warmly greeted with the delectable aromas wafting from the make-shift kitchen and by the young staff. Local wine (my personal regional favorite, vino Pecorino, no less) began flowing. Other partakers began to arrive, coming from other Adriatic regions such as Emilia Romagna and Molise. We were the only foreigners signed up and word got around quickly as we heard “loro sono americani” being whispered around the tables, good naturedly.

Then, out came the Seafood Lottery, plate by plate. Eight servings of antipasti, all freshly caught. One little critter was some sort of shellfish that tasted like a cross between crab and shrimp, but looked like a marine version of a praying mantis. We had to have Giorgio explain how to crack that open and eat it. It was tasty, but I have to say, it’s a lot of work for one morsel of food. Blessedly, most of the dishes came out pre-cleaned. It’s an American’s nightmare eating seafood in Italy because we are accustomed to having the fish boned, filleted, beheaded and the whole nine yards. Italians, however, prefer to have their fish served up in its entirety. Then you must go to work, reducing it to edible portions. This night, though, the only plate that required such an operation was the famous local brodetto, which smelled heavenly but which I didn’t taste; I was so completely stuffed it was utterly impossible to put even a spoon of broth into my bloated stomach. Who knew that fish could be so filling? The rich broth was filled with large chunks of whole fish that had undergone only a whack with a cleaver. Lots of bones and skin sections took up residence on Giorgio’s plate as he devoured the stuff.

Five hours, many bottles of wine and many helpings of delicious foods later, we made the drive home, arriving back in Ascoli round about 2:00 a.m. with Giorgio and Francesca already discussing who they were going to call first to recount the evening’s menu and unique experience. They were also talking about coming back again next year if the gala is repeated. An “ordinary” fish experience made extraordinary, as only Italians can do, impressed even the resident chef among us. We’ll sign on for next year, too.

*A special thanks to my cousin, Celia, for giving me the SlowFood membership that allowed us to have access to this event!*

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Few Of My Favorite Things

Church Bells and Campanile

One of the great things about Italy is the sound of church bells echoing across the countryside and reverating throughout the cities. Some are tinny and almost tinkling sounding; others are full and resonant, like those of the Cathedral of Sant’Emidio, here in Ascoli. Bells can sound out celebrations and can announce sadness. One day, as we crossed the piazza, the bells started to toll, but not in a normal call-to-mass way. It was, instead, a very rhythmic one clang at a time ring, with a pause between each toll. It was eerie and truly mournful. I had goose bumps. We learned that it was a tribute to the Cardinal whose funeral would take place later in the day.

Pealing bells are a continuity across the peninsula which always make me stop and breathe in, knowing that the sound means, yes, I am in Italy. The towers which house the bells are remarkable and beautiful architectural highlights in many towns. Campanile rising above the piazza stand like sentinels, guardians and witnesses to the history and lives of those below.