Category Archives: everyday life in Umbria

Ceci Neri

Things are pretty quiet around Umbertide this time of year. But we are moving slowly towards spring. The days are getting noticeably longer and the temperatures are no longer as cold.

I tried a new, for me, ingredient I found at the market. Ceci Neri, or black chickpeas. I guess it is popular in Indian cooking. I decided to make soup with them.

Dried ceci.

After soaking overnight.

Sofrito.

I wanted something green in the soup so I added Beatole.

The finished product. Pretty good.

I posted this picture on my FaceBook page but I thought it was worth a repeat here. A surprise guest. For dinner a couple of days ago, I was making roasted Cauliflower. I rinsed and trimmed it and when I returned I found this! His name is Stan and he’s on the terrace now. Good luck to him!

More experimental fireplace cooking

I bought a nice, plump chicken for dinner and decided not to use my usual roasting recipe by Thomas Keller. I wanted to challenge myself and warm up the kitchen at the same time. So, I decided to roast the chicken in the fireplace. Our fireplace obviously used to be the cooking fireplace as it comes with an iron hook that swings out over the fire. A while ago I had bought a piece of chain thinking I could make a cage in which to hang food from the hook.

Here is the trussed chicken before cooking.

I got the fire going well and suspended the chicken.

The advantage is that the fire kept me warm and cozy too! It was at this point I realized I had a design flaw. Uh oh. I could see the bird was only cooking on the bottom nearest the fire. Not good. So I carefully removed it and undid the chain, turning it so that it was hanging the other direction. Then I re-suspended it. Next time I need to come up with a detachable part with hooks or something so I can flip it more easily. After that all went fine.

Nearly finished. I used an instant read thermometer to check the internal temperature from time to time.

An finally…ta da! the finished product. It came out smokey and crispy.

I served it with egg noodles and roasted cauliflower. Just a way to have fun on a winters day with the added bonus of a meal at the end!

Drivers license…Patente di Guida…after two years, the saga is finished

If you haven’t been following our drivers license saga, I’ll give a quick synopsis.

More than two years ago we began the process to convert our valid German issued EU drivers licenses to Italian ones [We had gotten these when we lived in Germany 25 years ago. They don’t expire]. It is mandatory that you get an Italian License to live here. You can drive on a US license for only one year from your date of residency. Some people, erroneously, think a US issued international drivers permit will suffice. It will not. If you don’t get an Italian license you risk major fines, impoundment of your car and your insurance will be void if you’re in an accident. There is no reciprocity between the US states and Italy, so you have to take the tests, which are notoriously difficult.

So, to avoid this test, we enlisted the help of an Auto services firm in the next town, after first being turned down by ACI, the equivalent of the AAA here. The issue was that our names and places of birth differed slightly on our documents and they didn’t want to deal with it. This new agency, though, was very helpful and willing to work through every obstacle, and there were many. The lovely woman there, is named Sandra and we went back again and again, during the last two years, each time bringing new forms, trying to comply with the requests. We even had to go to Rome to get the Embassy to endorse our attestations.

Finally, last fall they asked for proof we had taken the driving test in Germany. We could not get this. I was loathe to give up but finally realized we’d hit a brick wall. I put it out of my mind and decided to drive on the VALID German one. I thought I could explain I’d tried to convert but it was not possible and since it is a EU license and still valid I figured I had a fighting chance with the cops. Luther, on the other hand, had decided to try to do the test. He was studying and was taking on-line sample tests.

Anyway, last Friday, completely out of the blue, we got a call from Sandra. She said…”your drivers licenses are ready to pick up!!” Luther made her repeat it two times to be sure he’d heard and understood correctly. Yes!! It was true!! I was speechless when he told me! I’m like “what!? But why? How?” Who knows. Someone could have been tired of having it on their desk. Or it could have been a new person doing the job and they found it and put it through. But I’m not asking! I’m just so happy! I am TICKLED PINK! Amazing and without a doubt the weirdest thing to happen to us here yet. Today we picked them up. I guess perseverance pays off! Time for a celebration tonight !🍾🥂🎊 (and we took Sandra flowers 🙂 )

And, by the way, I don’t have hair that short anymore. That tells you how long it’s been since we started!

 

Ethnic food and ingredients

As you all probably know, I miss the diversity of foods in the US. Having come from the Washington DC area where you can find a restaurant or foods from every nation on earth due to the diplomatic community. It’s hard to transition to a place like Umbria. Here people are super set in their ways and foods are Umbrian and that’s all.

So if we want something different it’s on me to figure out how to make it here. My top go to foods to make are from the Southwestern US. Chili is one that, in winter, we really enjoy. Everything that goes into it comes from here except the chili powder and Chipotle peppers in adobo. Both of those must be imported from the US when we go.

We also love Chicken Fajitas. Grilled peppers and onions and chicken breast meat from here. I can find flour and (sometimes) corn tortillas here.

I add the marinade of chili powder, cumin, garlic etc. I only need to import the chili powder. Black bean chili and soup is also another favorite. Black beans are found in cans here but not dried, commonly. I buy the dried from Amazon in Germany (really). Or I ask my friends who are coming to bring them 🙂.

Amazon in German had these. I’ve asked many friends to schlep these but now that I’ve found a source I’m all set.

These I find here. I prefer the dried because cans hold such small amounts.

Other favorites are an Egyptian spiced chicken on skewers which uses African spice I bring from the US. There are African, Chinese, and Moroccan shops around if you search and they have many hard-to-find ingredients. The whole thing takes a lot of time. If I find something I’ve not seen before, I buy it.

Here are many of my ingredients that I’ve scrounged here and there as I find them.

I found a bourbon BBQ sauce recently. Really!

We also love Thai food with coconut milk. Interestingly that’s something I’ve found here and there and snatch up when I see it. Of course there are the really obscure ingredients like Kafir lime leaves and lemon grass that I have to forgo. My friend Ely grew lemon grass in her garden this past year. She gave me some 🙂

In summer I make slow grilled BBQ ribs which are popular with the Italians. I do rub them with chili and spices. I grill them on my Weber kettle grill (which we bought here) and I use soaked mesquite chips, which I found here in one, not convenient, place. But they last a while.

I also make Mexican foods. Mole is a favorite and I have to import the dried peppers, like Anaheims and Poblanos that I use as well as the chili powder. The chocolate is from here, of course. I can find avocados, papayas, etc in some stores but not reliably. Cilantro is super scarce here. People say, grow your own, but it is hard to grow. Our Moroccan store occasionally has it but you have to go in and ask.

We love Indian foods. I did a lunch for our friends of Tandoori chicken, lamb curry, eggplant, rice, cucumber salad which was fun. Another one was Lamb, scampi, eggplant, salad, Naan, rice pudding. I had to make the Naan. Not terribly difficult, and yummy.

Just a few of my spices.

Speaking of that, many things you can make yourself. You can make sour cream and buttermilk, which are hard to find. Vanilla extract is practically non-existent. When we first came I made it by steeping vanilla beans in vodka. Now I have an ample stash from friends. When in doubt I google how to make something. Or for substitutes. Cheddar is hard to find here so we bring it back from the US or Britain. Sometimes specialty grocers will have it. I’ve not been lucky enough to find any though.

Last week we bought a duck. Luther really likes duck any way. I thought it might be fun to try to make Peking duck. It came out pretty good. I found a recipe to slow cook the duck at low heat in the oven for 7 hours. Nothing to do but let it cook, and the house smelled fantastic! When it’s done you can shred it. I also made the pancakes to wrap the meat in. That was a bit tedious but with the duck and cucumbers and onions (spring onions are not common here so used red) it was tasty. Next time I’ll try more spices and will make the plum sauce.

Most recently I did a Cajun lunch for an adventurous Italian family. Gumbo, deviled eggs, quiche, bread pudding. I had to bring the file powder from the US. Also, vanilla extract in the pudding. It was a hit.

Gumbo.

So, we make do here, with the ethnic foods we can recreate at home. And, as you can see, it is not easy to pull it off. My pantry is full of imported dried chili peppers like Anaheims and Poblanos, spicy hot sauces (I made an order from Amazon in the US, last trip, for $76 worth of hot sauces!), dried Pozole or hominy, dried black beans, dried black eyed peas, canned chipotle chilis in adobo, chili powders of various heats, file for gumbos, grits (yep for low country cooking), etc.

Just some of the hot sauces!

The only spicy thing the Umbrians use regularly is the spice Peperoncino. You can buy them whole and dried or powdered or in flakes like pepper flakes. It is super spicy and is added to things like Pasta Arribbiata or angry pasta.

Then there are the things that you just plain miss or cannot get here…which I bring back when I go home. Or sometimes a friend will gift me some from the commissary in Germany! (thanks Joanne)

And it’s not that we don’t love the foods in the Umbrian restaurants too. It’s just that our American palates crave more variety now and then. I’ve seen many posts on forums that disparage a person for wanting the tastes of home. “Why move to Italy then?!” they say. But everyone craves the foods of home. And we can love both.😋

Magical

Just before Christmas we were happy to be invited to dinner with our Italian friends Simone and Simona. We were invited, along with Susan and Gary, to their house up in the nearby mountains. They are Milanese. Both technically educated. He inherited his family property here and moved away from the hubbub of Milan. It had been uninhabited for 40 years so it has needed much work. They are totally off the grid. Solar and wind plus batteries. Sheep, chickens, olives — all biodynamic. They rent a vacation apartment. Not a lot of cash flow but they make it work. Lovely people.

When we went into the house they had a tiny wood stove with sizzling polenta and sausages going and a lovely big fire in their large corner fireplace. Everything is do-it-yourself but it works. It was cozy. They had invited a woman from Merano, up near the alps. It is the German speaking part of Italy. She has a ruin she’s restoring nearby. Her name is Renate. The polenta was served unsalted but with the very salty sausage it was perfect. I’ve been craving it ever since! Then Simone made a lovely risotto with fungi. It was served with their amazing olive oil and bread and also a very special rosemary infused oil. Simone has a still and so he distilled it. Really good! Then we had cheeses — a Parmesan, a nice goat, and a Gorgonzola dolce. With fennel that was cooked tender. And finally, home made yogurt with cinnamon and sweet crumbly and lebkuchen cookies that Renate made. There were also shelled walnuts from their trees.

While I was there I pictured us in their warm, cozy house as though viewed from above, with nothing else nearby in the dark mountains. We were seven people, a pinpoint of light and camaraderie, who enjoyed a special meal and our own company in a warm cozy haven. It was magical.

The drive back was a bit difficult as it was dark and there were creatures in the road. Gary, bless his heart, drove. The roads are paved but narrow and winding and high on the mountainside. The moon, nearly full, illuminated the countryside.🌖 As I said, magical.✨

Whoo hooo!

A Christmas present. I just checked the Polizia di Stato website and our Permessi are ready!!! We applied to renew them in early February. And here it is, only TEN months later and they are ready! The old ones expired in June. So I told Luther, when we go to collect them we’ll thank them and say “OK, see you next month!” Which is about right to start the process all over again. 🙄

Good deeds for those in need

In Umbertide, like most of Italy, there are needy people. Mostly immigrants. They are forever begging, or trying to sell trinkets like tissues, lighters or socks. Many are black Africans or Muslim. There seems to be almost an organized quality to them. The sellers usually seem to have the same things to sell. Are they going to distribution centers? And every grocery store in town has what seems to be its “assigned” person. Usually an African man. They are cheerful and try to be helpful. Many speak English. People tolerate them. They ask to take your basket back so they can get your one Euro deposit.

There is a government support system for immigrants. A place to stay and a stipend is provided. They must adhere to Italian values like religious freedom and gender equality which may not be the case in their own societies. They must send their girls to school. They must learn Italian, integrate into the community, volunteer. They will be put on job lists. And housing lists.

I’ve noticed shopkeepers in town are regularly hit upon to give them something. The same people go into, for instance Angelo’s Alimentari downstairs from us. Once a week or so he gives them something. They seem to be amicable to one another. Today, I was in Angelo’s and a woman came in with a baby. She was drawn and wan looking. She asked Angelo for something for her baby to eat. Cheerfully, he asked her what sort of pizza bread she would like. Pomodoro she said. He took a piece of tomato pizza bread and wrapped it and gave it to her. I gave her 2 euro. She gratefully accepted. She didn’t ask for anything for herself, just her little one.

Unfortunately not a rare occurrence. And good deeds don’t just happen at Christmas time.

L’Immacolata

Today is L’immacolata, a national holiday. The immaculate conception. Not being very sure about this day because I’m not Catholic I looked it up and discovered I was wrong about what it meant. Turns out it is the day that Mary was conceived to her mother. I had thought it was Jesus’ conception but was confused as it is only two weeks before his birthday.

Anyway, it is the day that ALLLL of Italy lights its Christmas trees. And St. Nicholas comes to the Piazza for the little kids. I actually managed to get pictures of the crowds outside before and after the tree was lit. And I heard the countdown and saw the tree lit for the first time. It is not my favorite tree so far, however. But as we all know from Charlie Browns tree that all trees are beautiful in their way.

We also visited Montone for lunch today. Tipico, our chosen restaurant was really crowded. Everyone was out for lunch on the holiday. A few pictures.

View from the walls. A beautiful, clear, and not too cold day.

Montone street dressed for Christmas. They are quite traditional there.

The Christmas tree. The Piazza was bright and the tree was not so the picture isn’t so good.

Tipico showcases two oils. One light and one stronger. The bread is always good there too.

Outside now, as I write this, the children are singing and the band is playing. There are little stands with things to sell. Happy Immaculata!

Olive Oil

I paid a visit to Ely at Calagrana to pick up the oil she was sharing with us after helping with the harvest. Brilliant green.

I visited the new lambs!

And we sat in a sunny spot with coffee and caught up a little.

I got to meet the newest addition to the family…Sparky…she arrived in the engine compartment of a workman’s car. Maybe she’s Sparky because of the spark plugs? Anyway she lives up to her name!

When I got home I put some of “our” oil on bruschetta. It was peppery and grassy…the way I love it, and why Umbrian oil is the BEST!

A dream come true! 🙂

On domenica I helped my friend Vera reach her dream!! Who would think I could ever do such a thing? But, when I tell you her dream it will be clearer. She told me her dream was to cook a whole turkey…tacchino in Italian. Last year I invited Vera and her family to a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Her two girls were spellbound by the whole turkey. Turkey is eaten here but only in pieces. Like a drumstick, or a breast, or slices. And Italians are notoriously unwelcoming to the unknown. Vera and her immediate family are different. They welcome different things. So, her dream was to cook and serve a turkey to her more extended family. And she needed my help. Ahem.

It was quite an experience. I got up at 5am and got ready and arrived by 6am. It was soooo foggy! I had a hard time driving there. We prepped the turkey (guessing it was 16-17 lbs) with butter and layered pancetta and stuffed it with orange and onion. Salted it and toted it down to the forno (outside wood oven) which Vera had been fueling all night. This was also a new thing for me and I was none too sure how hot it was nor how long to cook the turkey of unknown weight! Oy. So when we approached the forno it was smoking like mad. She said “uh oh”. When she opened the door a blast of flame came out and she ducked! Wowsers! So we decided it had to wait till the oven cooled for her to put it in. I left her with it. Of course the suocera (mother-in-law) had to get involved later, adding oil and wine to the pan. It was OK really.

So I returned about 11am and we went to check the bird. I had an instant read thermometer. It was a little overdone but not bad. We took it upstairs to rest. Then I made the gravy from the drippings and the broth Vera had made from the turkey bits. Malia and Desiree, her daughters were mesmerized. I had brought the stuffing I made from home. And frozen-from-last-year cranberry sauce. And Vera had boiled potatoes which I mashed with milk and butter. She also had spinach and kale for veggies. And, just in case someone wouldn’t eat the tacchino she made cinghale ragu. She served it as a first course with pasta. It was wonderful!

In attendance there were Vera, her husband Graziano, and the two girls, Vera’s dad, Graziano’s brother and his wife with tiny baby and their other daughter, and la Nonna (grandmother). Il Nonno (grandfather) was hunting boar. Vera had said the wife of the brother wouldn’t eat the turkey. But she was pretty enthusiastic. She loved the turkey, dressing and the cranberry sauce. La Nonna brought a scrumptious dessert. I’ve had two of her desserts now and she is amazing! Sooo good. I could have eaten several pieces!😋

Such a fun time with our Italian friends and an American feast. Always an adventure.

Stock makin’s. I don’t think we’d have the feet in the US !

Turkey with pancetta covering. Ready for the oven.

Oven!!! Hot!!!

Cinghiale ragu on fresh pasta.

The finished tacchino

La famiglia with our pasta.

Serving all the traditional thanksgiving foods.

I had fun! I think most everyone had fun. Happy Thanksgiving to all!