The Sweet Life

Last week we visited family in Vida, Oregon.  My parents grow hazelnuts in the McKenzie Valley.  Together with my aunts and uncles’ orchards next door, they cultivate over 100 acres of trees.  We figured that a short stay on the farm could serve as a reunion with what we love about Italy: local, fresh food, family crowded in every direction and, of course,  il dolce far niente (the Italians’ poetic motto meaning “pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness,” literally “the sweetness of doing nothing”).

It was a week of inspiration and creation.  It was a tribute to the food and lifestyle and culture of the Italians.  It was a canvas for remembering our favorite parts of the year abroad.

When we arrived, we took a sunny passeggiata around my parents’ place.  Then next door, my Aunt Heidi and Uncle Tom brought us to their Italian inspired terrace which they named, the Piazza. Later, we toured the gardens before settling into the kitchen where we made many of our favorite Umbrian (and Oregon) recipes including six different gelatos, daily pasta dishes and a tribute to roasted Umbrian wild boar.

The terrace with a thousand details (all made by hand).

The new Piazza with a hundred Italian details.

Our favorite corner of the piazza was the copper griffin that Tom made in honor of his experience in Perugia.

Our favorite corner of the Piazza is the copper griffin which my uncle made by hand in honor of his experience in Perugia with us last winter.

A crop of fagioline, the prized legume from Lake Trasimeno.  (Tom and Heidi snuck home a handful for their garden.  I was amazed with the result!)

Out in the garden: A crop of fagioline, the prized legume from Lake Trasimeno. (Tom and Heidi snuck home a handful to plant in their garden. I was amazed with the result!)

Similar to our Sunday excursions in Italy, this trip to my parents’ provided opportunities to practice the concept of farm-to-table:

Similar to our Sunday trips in Italy, this excursion provided for many lessons in practicing the concept of farm to table. Aunt Paula taught Ray to fish.  He caught a trout for dinner.

The McKenzie River flows through their backyard.  Aunt Paula took Ray fishing, and he caught a trout for dinner.

After knocking apples off the trees, we pressed and canned 42 quarts of apple cider and left one large jug to ferment.

Fruit trees line the driveway.  After gathering apples, we pressed and canned 42 quarts of cider and left one large jug to ferment for a breakfast buzz.

Heidi fills jars after the guys press the fruit.

Heidi fills the jars while the guys press a wheelbarrow full of fruit.

My mom picked blackberries and made many pies with the boys.

My mom picked blackberries and made many pies with the boys.

When the temperature drove us out of the kitchen, my dad took the boys to his orchard for golf lessons, archery and paint ball.  Later,  Tom and Heidi led rafting trips down the river.

 

We concluded the week with another late dinner on the Piazza.  Additional family members joined us.  In remembrance of Luke, we illuminated the table with candles which we brought from some of our favorite churches throughout Italy.

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The “Year in Perugia” was really over in June.  These lingering articles are just my arms reaching back for a little more.  But honestly, it’s time to sign off.

Thanks for following.  Thanks for checking in.  And thanks for being a part of it.  It was exhilarating to have so many readers.  I loved the comments and emails and all the appreciation.  I savored each compliment and treasured each word of encouragement.  Without feedback, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.

With a bittersweet sigh and a thousand memories of la dolce vita . . .

Arrivederci,

Jill

 

Fish

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Umbria is the only landlocked region on the peninsula of Italy.  It’s safe to say that Umbrians are not famous for their fish.

As an American, I’m used to eating fish or any other food that traveled many miles.  I’ve had Dungeness crab in Chicago, sushi in Idaho, and Rhoda Island oysters (in Seattle).  A few extra miles don’t bother me, so I was curious to try the fish offerings in Perugia.  Every day, we passed a beautiful fish market on the way to the fruit stand.  Clearly, they were Umbrian and didn’t seem to have a problem with the seafood.   So this spring, after nine months, I finally stopped by.

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La Perla Nera is a family business.  Signora Patrizia, Signor Franco and their son Michael are open four days a week.  I loved them immediately.  They were funny, confident and always generous.  They prepared my order with great care, always gutting, skinning, filleting and slicing it to perfection before tossing in a handful of parsley.  And they never let me leave without a detailed recipe.  I decided right away that I would try every fish dish they could teach me.  I started with spaghetti and clams.  Then I made fried calamari, salmon rolls, fish coquettes, swordfish sandwiches, fried filets, marinated squid with olives, fish with cognac, and fish soup.  I kept a list of the greats and politely forgot the not-so-greats.  The more I tried, the more recipes Signora Patrizia gave me.

calamari

calamari

a sword fish and zucchini sandwich

a swordfish and zucchini sandwich

I’m getting close to unpacking the last of our belongings.  The other day I found the stack of La Perla Nera recipes, and so tonight, with very, very, very fond memories of this awesome family and their fish market, I am going to make my favorite dish: fish balls (I promise, they taste way better than they sound.)

To make fish balls, you need an assortment of fish.  I can’t find the Italian fish that La Perla Nera sells, so I’m using ling cod, Alaskan rock fish, and Petrale sole.  Combined, the fish should total a pound.  To prepare, lightly sauté them in oil and garlic.  Gently break apart with a fork as they cook.  Then add about 4 or 5 gulf prawns that have been whirled in a food processor.   Add salt to taste.  Remove the cooked fish and prawns from heat and allow it to cool.  Then add a tablespoon or two of chopped parsley, an egg and bread crumbs until the mixture just starts to hold together.  Mix with your hands and then form into rounds the size of golf balls.  Fry the balls in oil and then add to a pot of marinara sauce.  Cook for a few minutes.   Serve as is or toss with spaghetti.

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La Bottega

The physical year in Perugia is over.  The inspiration to write and photograph has taken a monumental dip, but I’m not quite ready to end the blog . . . almost, but not quite.  There are a couple places I especially miss and a few corners of the city that I’d still like to post. Like this:
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La Bottega is one of our favorite spots in Perugia.  It’s a tiny four seat sandwich counter that serves the best selection of cured meats and cheese we ever had.  The selections are titled in Perugian dialect with Italian translations.  The offerings are simple and pure.  The menu includes 16 sandwiches and two combinations of meat and cheese boards.  The only variation was on Thursday when Signor Geraldo added slices of seasoned, roasted pork to the menu.

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We ate here more than any other place in town.  Matt and I stopped by at noon way before most self-respecting Italians would consider eating lunch.  There would be a couple stools available where we could watch the meat being sliced and assembled between a nice Umbrian bun.  We would order a glass of wine or a local beer and feel outrageously lucky for this perfect Italian hour before the kids came home from school.

Translation:  happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

Translation: happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

It became a special occasion place too. On November 22, when every American we knew was waking up to Thanksgiving (and not a soul in Perugia recognized its significance) Matt and I walked down to La Bottega and ordered a plate of dried sausage, prosciutto, capocollo, ciauscolo, coppa, mortadella and pecorino cheese. We felt very thankful.

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During the last week in Italy, when our bags were packed and we were preparing to close the door on our year in Perugia, we took the kids to La Bottega for their first time and then ate there three lunches in a row.

And now that we are back, La Bottega’s menu sits in our kitchen inspiring me to search out the best available ingredients and begin to assemble a repertoire of sandwiches that I can recreate at home.  So far, I’ve found one product that makes the cut, salamis from Olli Salumeria.

INTERVIEWS by guest blogger Tom

written by Tom

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

In two days we’ll be flying back to the USA.  I am super excited, but there was still one more thing I wanted to do in Italy.  I decided to ask four different Italians several questions about their lifestyle, interests, and dislikes.  Then I would ask the four people in my family the same questions.  Below are eight paragraphs containing each person’s answers.

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Alessandro is 11 years old and was my classmate this year.  His favorite thing about Italy is the food.  He really likes cheese pizza and pasta Norcina (sausage and cream).  His preferred gelato flavor is milk chocolate.  His favorite region is Lazio, mainly because of Rome.  The thing he dislikes the most about living in Italy is the amount of homework.  The most difficult English word for him to say is “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Giovanni is 17 years old.  He is going to America next month as a foreign exchange student for his senior year in high school.  He chose America because he thinks it’s the strongest country in the world and he wants to learn English.  The thing he likes most about Italy is the pizza.  His favorite kind is sausage and mushroom.  His preferred gelato combination is pistachio and pine nut.  He really likes Rome, but his favorite region is Tuscany.  He said the worst part about living in Italy is the bureaucracy.  The hardest American word for him is “rubber” (not because of the pronunciation, but because he learned in English class that it means “eraser”, when in fact, in America, it means something else…)

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Christiano is 45 years old.  He works at a pasta shop near our apartment.  He really likes Italy, especially the weather, the people, and the quality of life.  The only thing he doesn’t like is the lack of ability to get things done.  He will eat any food (pasta, meat, dessert, pizza, etc.).  His favorite gelato, by far, is chocolate chip.  He likes Rome and Perugia, but he doesn’t like Milan.  His preferred regions are Sicily and Sardinia.  His favorite word is sole (sun).  He has gone to America three times.  He likes how unique each city is.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “teeth”.

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Paola turns 50 today.  She tutored Ray and me during the school year.  Her favorite thing about Italy is the history and the food.  She really likes pasta, mushroom pizza, and coconut ice cream.  Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Lazio.  The thing that she dislikes most about Italy is the politics.  Her favorite Italian word is amore (love).  The hardest word in English for her to say is “literature.”

Ray’s favorite thing about this year has been meeting new people and eating Italian food.  His really likes chocolate ice cream, sausage pizza, and pasta Norcina.  His preferred cities are Rome and Perugia, but he also likes the region Sardinia.  Ray’s favorite word is buffone (buffoon).  The one thing he dislikes about Italy is that so many stores go out of business.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “world”.  His favorite thing about the U.S. is the way the schools work.

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My mom said the best thing about Italy is the evening walks before dinner with all the people.  Her favorite phrase in Italian is ci mancarebbe, meaning “don’t mention it.”  She likes any pizza with ricotta cheese.  When we go out for gelato, she usually gets blueberry, mango and chocolate with whipped cream. Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Sardinia.  The English words that she has the most trouble with are “epitaph” and “potable.”  She said the best thing about America is the movies.

My dad said the best thing about living in Italy is being surrounded by beauty.  His preferred food is pasta (sausage, carbonara, garbanzo beans, etc.) and his favorite Italian phrase is ho capito (I understand).  His favorite city is Rome, but he also likes the region Tuscany.  He usually gets strawberry, mango, and lemon flavored gelato.  The hardest part about Italy for him is not understanding the language.  He also misses the efficiency of America.  The hardest English word for him is “synonym”.

For me, the best part about living in Italy is the amount of time I get to spend with my family.  My favorite Italian food is sausage and cream pasta.  My favorite pizza toppings are sliced hot dogs and French fries.  The tastiest gelato flavors that I’ve had this year were peanut butter, lemon-mint, and bubble gum (all from a place called LatoG in Rome).  My favorites cities are Lucca and Taormina, and my preferred region is Sardinia.  My least favorite thing about Italy is the school.  My favorite Italian words are oplah (oops), and bimbo (little kid).  I am excited to get back to America because of my friends, the sports teams, the variety of food, and having a place to play outside.  The hardest English word for me is “abominable”.

Good Chicken

 

We try not to miss a single invitation to have dinner at an Italian’s home.  Despite the effort it takes to eat an ungodly amount of food, in the end, it’s worth it.  In the end, an invitation means we get to participate in one of Italy’s greatest rituals: surrounding a table with great people then completely covering it with platters of regional food cooked with family recipes.  By now we’ve learned the etiquette:  Ignore the hostess when she says “bring nothing” because “something” is expected whether it is a dessert, a bottle of wine, flowers (or all three.)  We also know to expect a late night.   Finally, there is no helping the hostess clean up.  I’ve never seen an Italian guest even make an offer.  And any attempt from us has been quickly refused.  The rest goes without saying:  eat a lot (always clean your plate) and accept seconds (say, “Bis, per favore!) if you want to compliment the cook.

Dinner at Giovanni and Maria Pia's.  This is just the appetizer course along with the pasta that Maria Pia made by hand that afternoon.

Dinner at Giovanni and Maria Pia’s. 

All of the courses were typical Pugia dishes since Maria Pia grew up in southern Italy.

All of the courses were typical Puglia dishes since Maria Pia grew up in southern Italy.

When we eat at Milena and Sergio P.'s, Milena's parents to the cooking.

When we eat at Milena and Sergio P.’s, Milena’s parents do the cooking. 

When we eat with Paola's family, we are served traditional Umbrian specialties like pasta with wild boar.

When we eat with Paola’s family, we are served traditional Umbrian specialties.

Dinner with Fabiola and Sergio.  Fabiola cooked Napolitano specialties.  And the kids were poured a glass of prosecco!

In-between courses at Fabiola and Sergio D.’s:  Fabiola cooked eggplant parmesan and pizza from her home town of Naples.  Sergio poured the kids a glass of wine.

Last week we had dinner with several friends at Chiara and Enrico's house.  Chiara made homemade tagliatelle that afternoon.

Last week we had dinner with several friends at Chiara and Emilio’s house. We could tell they had been cooking all day. Here’s the  homemade tagliatelle that Chiara rolled and cut that afternoon.

The meat course was a roasted chicken that was out of this world.  I also learned how to cut up a cooked chicken "Italian style".  Here is Emilio's brother-in-law with a chicken scissors.

The meat course was a roasted chicken that was out of this world. Chiara shared the recipe (see below).  I also learned how to cut up the cooked chicken “Italian style”. Here is Emilio’s brother-in-law with the “chicken scissors”.

We also had an onion pie, torta al testo, roasted potatoes, tomato sauce with sausage, zuppa inglese, strawberries with cream, and after dinner drinks.

We also had an onion pie, torta al testo, roasted potatoes, tomato sauce with sausage, salad, zuppa inglese and strawberries with cream,

Tonight we are having a guest for lunch.  My friend Stacia is taking a little R&R from her sailing job in Sardinia.  We want to show her some of the things we’ve learned to make.  I will try to replicate Chiara’s chicken.  She told me that the best way to add favor and keep the chicken moist is by making little incisions in the meet and stuffing it with lardo.  By the way, lardo is not lard (but it’s close).  It is not rendered or hydrogenated like the familiar lard from Grandma’s kitchen.  There are two kinds found in Italy.  The first is a Tuscan specialty: cured and seasoned fat from the back of a pig.  It’s common over here.  In fact, we’ve ordered it in a restaurant where it comes in thin slivers on top of bruschetta.  DE-licious.  The second kind of lardo  is what we use to stuff this chicken.  It is ground and seasoned pork fat.  It tastes like like the white part of bacon.  In fact, that might make a good substitute if you can’t find it in an Italian specialty store.

Umbrian Roasted Chicken.

Begin by combining chopped rosemary, salt, 1 clove of minced garlic and 2 tablespoons lardo

Generously sprinkle a chicken all over with a tablespoon of salt, a generous amount of pepper and two cloves of finely chopped garlic.

Next, make six slits into the bird.  Try to cut where the legs and wings join the body as well as into the breast (see below).

Stuff the lardo mixture into the incisions.

Lay several rosemary branches alongside the chicken and tie with string.

Set into a pan and drizzle with a little olive oil and then pour a half bottle of white wine over the chicken.

Cook in a 425 degree oven (220 degree celsius) for two hours.  Flip the chicken every 45 minutes then spoon the liquid from the pan on top.  If you need more liquid, add more wine or water.

When it’s done, cool for a while.  Chiara cooked the chicken before we arrived and we ate it at room temperature.  She showed me how to cut it up with a scissors which was so much easier than using a knife.

To cut like Chiara, use a scissors strong enough to cut through bones.  Her’s look like garden pruners.  Begin by pulling the legs and wings away from the body and severing between the joints.  Then, cut through the breast bone until the chicken is in two halves.  From here, it’s very easy to cut away from the bone and serve it in pretty, small pieces.

the holes are stuffed with lardo

The holes are stuffed with lardo and the chicken is ready to cook.

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Four hours later . . . Our guest arrived.  We served prosciutto and melon, pasta carbonara, fava beans with artichokes and a platter of chicken.  Matt and Stacia are sipping limoncello as I write these final words.

Pasta ‘Ncasciata

Last week with my parents

My dad and mom during a day trip to Spoleto

The best vacations need some continuation, something to take away;

something to unpack when the missing of those good days is heavy;

something to connect the rhythm and pace of the trip with the patterns and predictability of home;

something more than a souvenir.

The best vacations need to come home.

Last weekend, my parents left Perugia.  The day before their flight, my dad made a request.  He wanted to learn how to cook pasta ‘ncasciata.  This was his favorite meal in Italy, and he wanted it to be his “take-away.”

Pasta ‘ncasciata is a Sicilian specialty given to me by my friend Giulia.  Her family is from the south where eggplants are reportedly the most delicious eggplants in the country.  The name “’ncasciata” is a Sicilian word that may translate to either “cheese” or “pan.”  (There is some disagreement among Sicilians.)  Guilia says that both translations make sense since the pasta is cooked with cheese and baked in a pan.

So on the evening of my parents’ last day, we shopped, chopped, fried, simmered and layered until we had made a beautiful pan of pasta.

Begin with the following ingredients.

To make four big servings, begin with the following ingredients:

1 tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan

250 grams (8 ½ ounces) of pasta (macaroni or short penne)

3 tablespoons olive oil plus 2/3  cup

1 clove of garlic, chopped

1/3 diced onion

150 grams (5 ½ ounces) of sausage (remove casing)

150 grams (5 ½  ounces) ground veal

125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of peas, fresh or frozen

½ cup of red wine

500 grams (18 ounces) of purred tomato

125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of fresh ricotta

2 hard boiled eggs, sliced

50 grams (2 ounces) of diced or grated provolone

10 basil leaves

1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1.  Grease an oven-proof pan with the butter

2.  Slice the eggplant lengthwise and sprinkle with salt.  Then let it sit in a colander for 20 minutes so it can release its bitter juices.

cutting the eggplant

3.  Sauté the garlic and onion in three tablespoons of olive oil until onions are translucent.

4.  Add the sausage and ground veal and cook. Then add peas. Then wine.  Cook until the wine reduces (about five minutes). Then add the tomato puree.  Simmer slowly for 15-20 minutes.

While I fry the eggplant,

5.  In the meantime, rinse the slices of eggplant and pat dry with a paper towel.  Then fry them in 2/3 cup of olive oil on medium high heat until  golden brown.  Set aside on a plate lined with paper towels.

6.  Cook the pasta for half the time it calls for.  (It will continue cooking later in the oven.)  Drain the pasta.  Add it to the tomato sauce.  Add ricotta and mix well.  Tear the basil into pieces and stir in.

7.  Layer:  Begin with a third of the pasta and tomato sauce.  Cover with half the eggplants.  Add half the provolone and one of the sliced hard-boiled eggs.  Then add a layer of everything one more time saving a third layer of pasta for the top.  Sprinkle with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.

layer the pasta

8.  Cook in a 350 degree oven for 1/2 hour or until hot, bubbly and slightly brown on top.  Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

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. . . I just got an email from my dad.  The trip home was long.  They are tired.  The transition isn’t easy.  However, the first dinner they made after unpacking their bags was pasta ‘ncasciata.

Perugia’s Pantry

Federico and Antonio at Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e drogheria

Federico and Antonio at “Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e Drogheria”

In five days, my parents will be here.  They are staying for three weeks in the apartment next door.  For months I’ve been looking forward to their visit.  Like all our friends who have come to Perugia, they want to see more than the Etruscan Arch or San Lorenzo Cathedral.  They want to see how local life is lived. They want to see where modern Perugians do their grocery shopping, take their evening walk and get a great espresso.  So we’ll visit Cristiano’s pasta store, Rinaldo’s butcher shop and Marcello’s vegetable stand.  We’ll walk down Corso Vannucci and Corso Cavour.  And of course we’ll stop by Bar Alessi or Café Oscar along the way.

But there’s another place I can’t wait for them to see. It’s Bavicchi, the spice/bean/chocolate/and so much more store.  It started over a hundred years ago as a shop selling cleaning supplies and dried legumes. Bavicchi has maintained its roots while offering some of the most delicious standard and specialty ingredients in the historic center of Perugia.

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Owner Antonio Galli runs the small shop with his employee Federico Roselli.  The space is a mere 320 square feet, but it’s bursting with variety.  The walls are covered floor to ceiling in exquisite, colorful, aromatic, and even exotic goods.  Besides beans (over 80 kinds)  and spices (nearly 100), Antonio notes that many of his customers come in looking for nuts, dried fruit, and other ingredients for Italian desserts.  Wines, honey, and chocolate are some of the other big sellers.  Antonio also pointed out some of his more unusual offerings including maple syrup, tahini, powdered mustard, soy sauce, curry, and one jar of cranberry sauce (for the occasional American . . . in November).

vinegars, wines, and preserves.

vinegars, wines, honeys and preserves.

This is the house brand bitter. Like other amaro in Italy, this drink is served chilled and sipped after dinner. It's dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret.

This is the house brand bitter. It’s dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret. 

Bavicchi also has chocolates. The most popular brand  is Perugina chocolates which are made in Perugia’s oldest chocolate factory. Perugina began production 90 years ago and established the city as Italy’s chocolate capital.  Since then, the company has been bought by Nestle.  Vanucci is another brand on Bavicchi’s shelves.  This is a high quality artisan chocolatier that tries to create what Perugina once made.  They even have their own version of the famous Perugina Baci, only better.  Then there is Augusta Perusia Chocolate.  This is the smallest of the local companies.  Beyond these three, Bavicchi sells lots of other Italian and European brands.  With Easter just around the corner, a lot of the space in the store is used to display chocolate eggs.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good.  While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite, banana chocolate is popular too.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good. While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite in Perugia, banana chocolate is popular too.

Sometimes I come in not knowing what to buy and needing a suggestion.  When that happens, Antonio gets his red box of recipes off the shelf and hands me an idea.  Today he gave me a copy of crostini con fagiolina del Trasimeno, an appetizer of toasted bread topped with beans grown near Lake Trasimeno, just 20 minutes away.  We made it for lunch today and will make it again when my parents get here.

While the beans are probably impossible to find back in America, one could make a similar spread with a creative substitute.  Note that these beans from Lake Trasimeno do not need to soak before cooking while many other beans do.

Crostini with Bean Spread

250 grams of beans

1 carrot

2 stocks of celery

1 small onion

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons of tomato puree

hot pepper flakes

salt and pepper

fresh bread

Cook the dried beans in salted water with the carrot, celery and half the onion for 40 minutes.  While they cook, sauté the other half of the onion in the olive oil until it is soft and translucent.  Add the tomato puree, salt, pepper flakes and pepper to taste and continue cooking for 5 minutes.  When the beans have cooked, add them to the onion/tomato sauce mixture.   Add a cup of water and cook for another 20 minutes.  Spoon the beans on top of toasted bread and drizzle with olive oil and more salt. Serve as an appetizer.

Or as we did, eat it as the main course.

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Domenica

Corso Vanucci with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo just as mass ended.

Piazza IV Novembre with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (just as mass ended).

For most Italians, the weekend lasts a single day, Sunday.

Kids get a one-day break from school.

Stores are closed (except the cafes and bakeries).

Families go to church and then meet relatives for Sunday lunch, the biggest meal of the week.

There is an elegance and energy on the streets.  It feels like a holiday.  In fact, a common greeting in Italy is “Buona Domenica!” (Happy Sunday).

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By 11:00 this morning, Corso Vanucci was full of people.  Many stop by Sandri, one of the oldest cafes in Perugia, to buy pastries for dessert.  In Italian bakeries, trays of sweets are wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons. (I love seeing people carrying presents down the street.)

Pasticceria Sandri.  A popular spot on Sunday

Pasticceria Sandri

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Residents from the outskirts come into the city to take walks and meet friends in the piazzas.  Some go to church.  As usual, Italians know how to look good, even when they are all bundled up.

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Because no one has to work today, meals are a little more extravagant and take longer to prepare.  A traditional Sunday lunch may includes lasagna or another pasta al forno (oven baked pasta).  Because Ray was especially interested, I asked around and found a couple recipes.  Most of them require a ton of ingredients and take all afternoon to prepare, so we try to make enough to serve on Monday too.  One of our favorites is made with sausage meatballs, béchamel sauce, tomato sauce, hard boiled eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs, fresh penne, parmesan and provalone.

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The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

Ray adds a layer of sliced hard-boiled egg and cheese then I cover it all with the pasta.  Once it's assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

Ray adds sliced hard-boiled eggs and cheese, then I cover it all with béchamel sauce and tomato pasta with meatballs. Once it’s assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

While the four of us often spend Sunday visiting cities outside Perugia, the boys prefer to stay here where the pace is less dependent on train schedules and restaurant reservations.  There are times when I agree.  Cold winter days like today remind me how easy it would be to settle into the comfortable Italian pleasures of relaxing at home with the family while cooking lots of good food.

Curds and Whey, Making Cheese

Signor Marco with a wheel of pecorino cheese

I met a cheese maker this week.  His name is Marco Sotgia.  He lives on a 400 acre farm outside Perugia. He has an olive orchard, a vineyard, a cow, a horse, three pigs and 250 sheep.  For three generations, Marco Sotgia’s family has been raising sheep and making cheese.

The boys and I spent the entire afternoon at his farm with a group of students from my Italian class.  We witnessed the magical transformation of sheep milk into two of Umbria’s most traditional cheeses:  pecorino and ricotta.

Keeping the temperature under control.

When we arrived, Marco was just filling up a vat with the day’s milking.  We gathered around while he lit a flame underneath and scooped a spoonful of brown paste from a container to add to the milk.  This brown substance is rennet, an enzyme harvested from the stomach of a cow.  Rennet is the ingredient responsible for separating the solids from the liquid (thus creating the curds and the whey).  Not all sheep cheese is made from the insides of a cow’s stomach; there are vegetarian enzyme as well including lemon juice and cardoon extract.  Once the rennet had dissolved, the warm milk started to become thick and gelatinous.  Marco then broke up the solid substance with a long wooden stick all the while slowly increasing the temperature until it reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point he turned off the heat, and the solids settled to the bottom.

Then Marco rolled up his sleeves and reached deep down to collect the curds.  He packed them tightly into a cylinder shaped colander and pressed it all together so that any remaining liquids could drain.

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By the time he gathered all the curds, he had filled six colanders.  After a while,  the rounds of cheese were firm.  Then Marco removed them from the containers and added them to a salt water bath where they would bob around for the day.  The salt coats the cheese, adds flavor and most importantly, preserves it. Then the cheese rounds sit in a cool, dark room for a month aging slowly until they become pecorino cheese.

rounds of cheese floating in the tank of salt water

Back in the work room, Marco started production of second type of cheese.  Returning to the whey, Marco made ricotta.  For the second time, he turned on the flame and heated the liquid, this time to 169 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it thickened,  he spooned it into plastic mesh containers and let it cool.  Unlike pecorino, ricotta does not need to age.  This soft, mild cheese can be eaten immediately.

ri=again; cotta=cook

A steaming batch of ricotta cheese  (ri=again; cotta=cook)

Before leaving, Marco gave us samples of pecorino and sent us home with a fresh bowl of ricotta that we ate the next day in class.

Of course, both cheeses are great on their own, but we’ve learned that there are many alternative ways to enjoy each one.  Pecorino is found on nearly every menu in Umbria.  It is served at room temperature often with several accompaniments including honey, red onion compote, fruit preserves, spicy apple jelly, and green tomato jam.

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Ricotta is even more versatile.  Mixed with spinach, it’s the most common filling in ravioli. It’s also the main ingredient in many desserts.  It can be served as a snack with sugar, salt, or with sweetened coffee on top; or it can be spread on toast with jelly or honey.  Most often, we eat it for lunch with tomatoes, lettuce, salt and olive oil.

My favorite way to eat ricotta

Tagliatelle with Luca’s Mamma

ribbons of hand cut egg pasta

I haven’t taken an Italian class in over a month, but my teacher Luca and I still occasionally get together. It’s usually centered around food, culture or history, but mostly food.  Recently, Matt and I met him for dinner at Ristorante Nana.  This wasn’t your typical rustic Umbrian trattoria.  This was fancy-pants Italian:  raw fish layered and stacked with colorful, curly, green garnishes, black squid-ink pasta, vegetable foam, and a whole page devoted to creative dishes. For dessert we ordered “coffee and a cigarette” which was coffee gelato and tobacco-infused creme brûlée.

Several days later, Luca invited us to his parents’ home for dinner. He picked us up early so we could see how his mom makes fresh pasta.  His family lives outside Perugia in a charming, old farm house.  We entered through the kitchen which occupies the space where the previous owners (many years ago) housed livestock.  Now there is a fireplace on one wall, a wood-fired stove and oven against the other, a television in the corner, and most importantly, a work table used for rolling and cutting fresh pasta dough.  We met Luca’s parents, Mirella and Giulio, who gave us Italian kisses on the cheeks and then offered the boys chocolates.  It was all so warm and cozy, and I happily spent the next four hours dressed in an apron “helping” Mamma Mirella make dinner.

We started with tagliatelle.  This is a type of pasta that Mirella has been making by hand since she got married.  There are only two ingredients, eggs and flour.  We began by measuring.  For each egg, she uses 100 grams of flour.  She piled the flour on the table and made a well in the center.   Then she cracked open the orangest eggs I’ve ever seen.  “How in the world?!” I asked.  She said that the chickens eat really well over here.  Next, she beat them in a bowl then poured them into the flour.  Slowly with her fingers, she gently mixed it all together.

step one

Luca, Guilio and Ray watch the demonstration.

Once the flour and eggs were combined, the kneading began.  With the palms of her hands pushing the dough into itself over and over, the mixture became perfectly smooth and evenly yellow.  Once in a while, Mirella would add just a tiny bit of water if it felt dry.

The kneading took longer than I expected.  We took turns and after 15 minutes, it was ready to roll.

The next step was to roll the dough into a thin sheet.  Again, this took some patience.  With a long rolling pin, we eventually succeeded in spreading it all the way to the corners of the cutting block.

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When our arms were exhausted, and the pasta was stretched so thin that it draped over the table, Mirella let it sit and dry out a little.  In half an hour it was ready to cut.  The sheet of pasta was folded over and over until it was about 3 inches wide. Each layer had a little flour sprinkled on top so it wouldn’t stick.  Then she sliced it all into thin strips less than a centimeter wide.  After all the tagliatelle was cut, Mirella shook the long strands out to separate them from each other.  Then she set the pasta aside until it was time to add it to the boiling water.

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Next we walked outside to the cantina where Luca’s parents store their canned foods and home-cured meats.  Giulio brought a prosciutto inside the house so he could prepare a platter of charcuterie for an appetizer.

Touring the cantina

Giulio offered us slivers of proscuitto while he worked.

Several other guests arrived as Mirella and Giulio finished making dinner.  Earlier they had prepared a mixed grill including sausages, marinated pork ribs and pork livers wrapped in stomach lining.  We skewered them on iron stakes and set them in the fireplace where Giulio kept an eye on them while they cooked.  Finally, after Mirella boiled the pasta and tossed it with a tomato meat sauce, we sat down at the table for a feast.

The first course.

We sat around the table until after 10 pm eating plates of food and drinking wine from the neighbor’s grapes.  It was unreal.  The whole day was an Italian fantasy.  I was so happy to wake up the next morning with a bag full of provisions from Mirella and Giulio sitting on my kitchen table.  We already used one jar of sauce and a pound of tagliatelle.  I’ll save the second batch for a special dinner since I don’t know if I will be making pasta by myself away from the magic of Mirella’s kitchen.

The Crisis and other Conversations

There are four topics that come up with nearly every Perugian we meet.

First there is the saltless bread, which I’ve mentioned before. During the Middle Ages, the popes staged a long and repressive reign over Perugia.  One of the many injustices was the exorbitant tax on salt.  So the Perugians just stopped using it, and to this day they don’t salt their bread.  Friends talk about it, tour guides note it, language teachers discuss it, and every summer, Perugia stages a production of The Salt War, a play which reenacts the events of the mid 1500s.

The cheerless underground city which was buried after the Perugians refused to pay the salt tax.

Pope Paul III’s army destroyed the wealthy sector of Perugia as punishment for the town’s insubordination.  This broody corridor is part of what is now referred to as the underground city.

They also talk about how dramatically their city has changed in the last 10 years.  They speak nostalgically of the past:  “The streets use to be full every night.  And on Saturday, you could hardly walk because it was so crowded.  Back then, we all lived in the historic center, but now it’s practically empty; everyone has moved to the outskirts.”  Having little to compare it to, we are always enchanted with the beauty and vibrancy of Perugia.  It’s charming. There are lots of Italians.  To me, Perugia feels authentic and alive.  But every time I share my feelings, the Perugians shake their heads and insist that in its day, this was once a fabled city; one of Italy’s best.

Then of course, everyone talks about the infamous murder of 2009.

The courthouse is just around the corner from our apartment.

The courthouse where Amanda Knox’s trial was held is just around the corner from our apartment.

And finally, they talk about la crisi, (the crisis) . . . Italy’s financial situation.  Some say it started as early as the 1980s when Italian companies began outsourcing the production of their famously well-made, high quality goods to China, Bangladesh, and India.  The subsequent loss of Italian jobs and the obvious downward spiral of “having less money/needing cheaper goods” is just one factor.  Others say la crisi is a result of the mafia and the corrupt government.  They point to the lying, cheating, stealing, sneaky politicians who make headlines but should really just be in jail. Even though new elections are scheduled for the end of February, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for change. We heard someone say that what Italy needs is to be CONQUERED.  There’s also the problem of taxes.  These days, Italians pay half of their income to Uncle Spaghetti.

As visitors here in Perugia, we see (or hear about) the effects of la crisi.  Almost every family needs two incomes to support themselves.  Some teachers’ salaries have been frozen for seven years.  College graduates cannot find jobs. Family-run businesses are being replaced by sterile chain stores.  And two of our neighbors, both popular restaurants in the city, closed since we arrived.  It’s a challenge for guidebooks to keep current with what is recommended and what is still in business.

Gus:  This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

Gus: This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

But even amidst their troubling financial problems, Italians continue to dress spectacularly.  And compromises are never made when it comes to wine, food and coffee.

Two weeks ago we were taking a walk from our apartment down Via Alessi, and Matt pointed out a cafe that we had never noticed before.  We stopped in for an espresso and tried a little pastry.  We were impressed. This place was incredible. When we asked how long they’ve been here, they said the shop is brand new.  We commented on how rare it is to find a new cafe when so many are closing.  They agreed but are hoping to help revive this once busy part of town.  Since we first set foot inside, we’ve been here every day.  And each time, it fills up more and more.  It’s like a little celebration inside.

The owners, Benito and Pietro d'Andrea, are originally from Salerno.  They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

The owners, brothers Benito and Pietro d’Andrea, are originally from Salerno. They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

We’ve heard it said that despite the problems, Italy enjoys a high standards of living.  It’s evident.  Even with debt, unemployment and a bleak political future, Italians know how to create a beautiful, if brief, moment.  This is inspiring.  They take time for pleasure.  They respect daily traditions. Changing the system might be overwhelming, but they still exert control over the finer points of life.  And while they tolerate corruption, they don’t tolerate bad coffee.

Learning to Host

DSC_0116If I were home, I would not write a post on what I ate for dinner.  But somehow here, it seems interesting.  There’s subtle magic in our Italian kitchen.  Cooking isn’t a chore.  It doesn’t tire me out.  The ingredients are more compelling and everything tastes better.  I know it’s not me.  I’m not a chef or even close to one.  I’m not especially intuitive in the kitchen.  I don’t even know why certain ingredients go together.  However, we eat really well here.  I think one explanation for the elevated quality is due to the contagious passion of the Italians.  They believe in their food.  They talk about it like a sports fan talks about the playoffs.  This week I listened to a grocer describe the nuances of a tiny green legume that grows 15 miles outside the city.  He went on and on.  By the end of his speech, I was heading home with several bags of beans and a single-minded enthusiasm to cook them all.   I had never succeeded in properly cooking a dried bean at home.  Never.  (The long soaking, the slow simmering and the seasoning were too tricky.) Yet here, beans come out just right.

The beans feel good.  I'd like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

The beans feel good. I’d like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

My favorite is the local borlotti.  When Antonio the bean seller sold me a bag, he looked to the sky and gesticulated as if to say, “There are no words for this!”  But then he finally added, “This bean is so exceptional; it isn’t even a bean.  It’s . . . meat.”

Later, we tried it in soup. It gave us the confidence needed to make it for company, and that’s saying a lot, because it is so intimidating to cook for Italians.  They each have conflicting opinions about what ingredients should go in what dish.  They fiercely believe in their own family recipes.    And culturally, the whole set-up is different.

To begin with, guests arrive no earlier than 8:00 at which point the host has finished preparing the meal.  Appetizers are served while seated at the dinner table.  Wine is drunk during dinner, but the drinking isn’t as heavy.  The speed at which one eats is greater.  The servings are bigger.  But the biggest difference is the quantity of courses.

I tried to follow these guidelines when Cristiano, the Pasta Man, came to our house last night.

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He arrived at 8:00.  Of course, the bean soup wasn’t the only thing we served.  It was one of 10 plates of food we ate throughout the night including Umbrian cheeses, Umbrian meats, grilled eggplant, pasta and bean soup, a lemon caper chicken, three sides of vegetables and a tray of oranges with olive oil.  The prettiest course was the cake we bought from across the street for dessert.  The inside was chocolate.  The berries were covered in a sugar glaze.

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Eating only took a couple hours.  Then we poured grappa, vin santo and herbal digestivi while sitting around talking.  The Italian election is coming up; politics was one of the topics, as was Star Wars, Clint Eastwood, the new marajuana laws in Washington State and the Mafia in Perugia.  By midnight Cristiano left and we started cleaning up.  We had a huge mess.  The leftovers barely fit in the fridge.  We will be eating soup for a couple days, but that’s okay, because, like I said, I’m really into it right now.  In case anyone wants to try it, I’ll leave the recipe below.  God, I hope it turns out tasting good even outside of Italy.

Here's what you'll need.  Plus several cups of short pasta

Here’s what you’ll need. Plus about 1/2 lb. of short pasta

Pasta e Fagioli serves 6

2 cups dried cranberry beans

4 oz guanciale

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 onion (plus and optional 1/2 onion for the beans)

2 medium carrots

2 medium stalks of celery

4 oz. smoked, diced pancetta

8 cups or more of vegetable, chicken or meat broth

salt and pepper

Begin the day before by covering the beans in water and soaking them for at least 24 hours.  Two hours before you start the soup, begin simmering the beans in a pot of water.  You can add a little flavor by adding half an onion or some garlic to the pot.  Cook for a couple hours or until the beans taste done.

When you are ready to cook the soup, cut the guanciale into small pieces.  Fry it in a pan over low heat with a tablespoon of olive oil for 5-10 minutes.  Before it browns, add the finally chopped onion, celery and carrots.  Cook together until the vegetables are very soft.  Then add a cup of broth and cook until the liquid has evaporated.  Meanwhile, in a second pot over low heat, cook the pancetta in a tablespoon of olive oil.  After about 10 minutes, but before the pancetta crisps, add the cooked, drained beans.  Mix them together and then add the broth.  Let the beans absorb the broth for a bit then add the guanciale/vegetable mixture and cook together for 5 minutes.  In a separate pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta for half the recommended time.  Then drain and add the pasta to the beans and cook until the pasta is al dente.  Add salt and pepper if you need.