Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Buona Festa del Ringraziamento!

Thanksgiving is upon us.  The day when the country comes together as one nation indivisible for unbridled eating, the one holiday that truly revolves around food and comes closest to typifying an Italian festa in the volume of food and length of meal.  Each year, friends and family inevitably, innocently ask us, “What do Italians do for Thanksgiving?”

The answer is, nothing. Thanksgiving is not a holiday there. (But no Thansgiving also means there is none of the lunacy known as Black Friday, either.)  Italians know about Thanksgiving, of course.  Our Italian friends, upon hearing the words “festa del ringraziamento,” immediately respond with, “Ah, si. Tacchino!” They’ve all seen enough film and TV images of enormous turkeys roasted to perfection and carved tableside to know our national fondness for fowl.  They are always happy to learn first-hand that it is, indeed, our official holiday food.

Then they usually shrivel their noses and say, “Mah! Wouldn’t it be better to have a nice porchetta, or something with...flavor?” They don’t generally think of turkey as being very tasty, but that, I tell them, is because they’ve never had the pleasure of a succulently roasted bird. Finding a whole turkey in Italy is about as hard as finding a decent caffĂ© in America.

We always debated about inviting friends and throwing an American Thanksgiving shin-dig, but since it’s not a holiday for them the party would have to be held on the weekend; for us it just didn't feel right to not celebrate it on the correct calendar day. I mean, part of the fun is in knowing that the entire nation is celebrating together.

Thanksgiving may not be celebrated in Italy but don’t feel too bad; Italy is certainly not lacking in holidays. In fact, according to their national calendar they have twelve public holidays compared to our eight in America. Throw in a few local festas and a couple of saints’ days, and you can garner yourself even more days away from the office. Italians also receive an average of 33 vacation days, compared to our depressing national average of 13.

And that is before they start building bridges. It is common to fare un ponte by tacking on a day or two before or after a holiday to “bridge” it to the weekend and thus turn an ordinary one-day celebration into a three or four day affair. Many of our friends take advantage of the opportunity to pass a long weekend in a neighboring region while also crossing off a few extra days from their work calendar. Clever, actually.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving is the one holiday in America that usually comes with a built-in 'bridge'. We are going to enjoy the four-day weekend, while being careful to avoid all streets that lead to malls or shopping centers.  We will enjoy our first full-on Thanksgiving meal in three years and stuff ourselves in the company of friends and in the national, gluttonous unity of the whole country, and give thanks for the blessings, opportunities, and joys of the past year.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Raise a Glass to San Martino

After what seemed like an endless week of dreary grayness and relentless rain, the sun found its way back and the weekend turned into a beautiful display of blue skies and brilliant autumn leaves.  A classic Indian Summer, or as they say in Italy, l'estate di San Martino (Saint Martin's Summer).

What does a return of sunny warmth in late autumn have to do with Saint Martin, you ask?  His feast day is November 11, when it is quite common to see this welcome weather phenomenon take place.  A folk saying goes, "l'estate di San Martino dura tre giorni e un pochino."  (St. Martin's Summer last three days, maybe more.) 

San Martino was one of the Church's first non-martyred saints to be beatified.  He was born in a Roman province in what is modern-day Hungary, a Roman citizen whose father was an army officer in the Imperial guard.  Martino himself was pressed into service and was attached to a cermonial cavalry unit assigned to guard the Emperor, before giving up his commission as an officer and its certain wealth to become a monk.  He is the patron saint of soldiers and wine makers.

The wine-maker part is why San Martino is so widely revered in Italy.  You see, the feast of San Martino is the traditional day to open the casks of newly-made wine for a first taste of the year's vintage.  The grapes were picked and pressed in August and September so they've been in the vats and undergoing the fermentation process for about two months.  Everyone likes to get some of the fruity, juicy immature wine, just because it's a temporary taste treat. 

My friend Serafino, a sommelier who has worked in the Italian wine industry for more than 50 years, says that the tasting opportunity on San Martino gives them an indication of the quality and characteristics of the year's vintage, a preview of what is to come.  That may be, but it is also a good excuse for an autumnal party.

"A San Martino tutto il mosto e` gia` vino," our landlord Guerino told us as a way of inviting us to his cantina for a festa di San Martino.  By November 11 all the grape must has already become wine, albeit "new wine".  Vino nuovo differs from vino Novello although the lines seem to have blurred in recent years as Novello (or French nouveau) has gained in popularity.  According to Serafino, vino nuovo is just that, new wine that is siphoned directly out of the vat.  Novello, on the other hand, is produced by a method known as carbonic maceration, a process initiated by Louis Pasteur, whereby carbon dioxide is pumped into a tank of grapes to ferment them.  "Vino Novello," he said, "is produced as a novelty.  It is bottled and distributed, and must be drunk young, no later than the end of the year."  It has the same grapey, juice-like flavors but is produced specifically as Novello.  It is a consumer short-run wine. 

Vino nuovo is, instead, just the normal wine that the vintner is creating but it is being "previewed" and consumed while it is "new".  Most of the wine will be left in the vats to age properly, then placed in barrels for wood aging and refining, to be bottled next year (or a few years down the line, depending on the grape varietal and end goal of the vintner).  True vino nuovo is rarely bottled; it is sold sfuso, ("loose") to customers who bring their jugs to the winery for a fill-up.  Serafino splits hairs over this issue, though many people -even in Italy- use the term novello to indicate either type of new (young) wine.

Guerino invited us annually to his San Martino parties where the menu tradizionale was grilled homemade sausages, fire-roasted chestnuts, bruschetta doused in newly-pressed olive oil, and (of course!) his homemade vino nuovo.  This type of festa is common, and all over Italy there are sagras dedicated to chestnuts and new wine.  Some regions hold more formal Cantine Aperte events, where wineries open their doors for full-blown tasting parties, holding the glasses under the spigot and toasting the patron saint of wine makers, San Martino.

Related Posts:

La Sagra e i Soci

The Fruit of Autunno (Or, all about chestnuts)

Fairs and Festas

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bumping into Gladiators

I never really gave much thought to the iconic Roman fighters known as gladiators.  Sure, we skimmed over them in my ancient history classes in college, and I read a bit of background when I visited the Colosseum for the first time.  I have seen them talking on cell phones and getting bawdy in coffee bars while on break from their jobs as costumed kitsch performers offering photo ops to tourists for a price. 

I even watched as my step-father came close to losing, "manhood" when one such sword-wielding gladiator didn't like being videotaped on the steps leading out of the Forum.  He swung gracefully and aimed precisely, giving John quite a scare.  Then he laughed uproariously and patted him on the shoulder, saying "you should have seen the look on your face, my friend!"

However, I have never seen Spartacus - Bryan assures me I'm possibly one of only about ten people on the planet who hasn't- and I never bothered with the Russel Crowe movie about them, either.  Just not my genre, I guess.

So I don't know why, but it seems every time I turn around lately I'm running into gladiators, or some reminder of them anyway. 

First I ran headlong into their footware at Nordstrom's, where apparently gladiator sandals are all the rage.  Several styles and heights, including bizarre nearly knee-high brace-like contraptions are being sold. They have been popular in Italy for a few years now, but I didn't realize they had caught on here, as well. 

Then I read online about the Gladiator School, where you can learn about Imperial Rome by acting out the gladiatorial games first-hand.  For $75 you can get into the garb and play Spartacus for a day on the ancient Appian Way.  It's garnering good reviews, so I am guessing they don't fight to the death.

A few days after that I stumbled onto the ItalyGuides site and ended up a page that gives a  brief background about Gladiators (with a few macabre facts I'd never heard before).

And as if that weren't enough, a post on the message board of Slow Travel revealed that there are now yellow-jacketed "angels" on electric propelled chariots who will be riding the Roman roads to come to the assistance of lost travelers.  Much cuter and friendlier than the fierce warriors of old.

That's a lot of gladiator gab for one week, don't you think?  Maybe it's time for me to see Spartacus after all.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Happy Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday.  While I'm not particularly *thrilled* to admit that I've turned 43, I'm not one to lie about my age, either.  I figure I've lived, experienced, and earned all of the joys, tears, laughs, meals, chores, events, mistakes, excitement, monotony, pleasures, fears, decisions, and dreams of each of those years, and I wouldn't deny any of them. 

I don't mind the laugh lines that are starting to develop (hey, they just show I'm a fun-loving gal, right?)  The only thing I tinker with is my hair, because I've been the victim of genetics to inherit premature graying from an all-too-early age.  It's kind of fun to change the semi-permanent hues or hennas for different highlights or seasons.  (Looking for a bright side to pitiless genes.)

No, I don't mind birthdays.  They usually entail a nice dinner out and a decadent dessert, the likes of which I don't usually indulge in most of the time.  I received lots of cards, emails, and Facebook greetings (I could feel the love!)

Yesterday was special because I was able to spend my birthday with one of very best friends.  We have been buds since freshman year in high school, so a history of nearly 29 years ensures an ease and good time whenever we're together.  It was a wonderful surprise to learn that she and her husband would just happen to be in town for a convention.  We bopped around Georgetown, had lunch at an outdoor cafe, and watched the time zip by all too quickly.

I received another special gift, too.  This past summer I helped a family friend arrange a trip to Ascoli Piceno for her 65th birthday.  She took her entire family - 4 kids and their spouses, 7 grandkids, and her husband - to celebrate the big event.  I booked them in a wonderful villa, set up a personal chef, arranged for tickets to La Quintana, and reserved some very special restaurants, in addition to sending them to all our favorite spots.  She returned and raved about the trip and has continuously thanked me whenever I talk to her.

She visited this past week and presented me with a thank you/birthday gift that really touched me.   She had collected and pressed leaves and flowers from plants around Ascoli Piceno, and framed them in a pretty arrangement.  What a thoughtful thing to do!  (She also toted a delectable cake along with her from South Carolina.  Have cake, will travel.)  

The frame is on my desk and I think of my beautiful city and wonderful experiences whenever I look at it.

There's no denying...a happy birthday, indeed.