Gorgeous Saturday

We are just back from a three night trip to Torino (Turin). I will post about it soon. But today we are just enjoying this beautiful spring weather. Everyone is out and about and Umbertide is coming alive after the long hibernation. I bought some more asparagus today. This time it is wild asparagus that people around here go out in the fields and woods and forage. I am looking forward to trying it tonight.  I am now using my new Canon EOS 100D camera. Takes nice pictures! Click to see larger versions.

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I also got a tip from a friend about a butcher I had never tried. I don’t know why I hadn’t as it is very close to us. Perhaps because there is a large butcher just before you get to it that I always went to to buy our meat. This butcher shop is quite small. The selection is different too. They always stock Pork Belly or Pancetta in big slabs. I got to try it recently and it was melt in your mouth good with great cracklin’ skin. They also always have lamb and of course beef and chicken. I decided on a pork leg and first seared in the oven, then slow cooked it. We will eat it tonight.

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This time of year is artichoke season. I do love them. But I don’t buy them like the Italians do! they get dozens at a time! Goodness knows what they do to them. I’d like to know!artichokes

And these are the beautiful “famous onions of Canarra”. They are very sweet. Two people come with their van every week. A very old man and a young man who must be his grandson. They are very nice and I always tell them buongiorno even if I’m not buying that day. The onions are beautifully braided. I buy whole ropes of them. They are perfect on salads and roasted. They also caramelize like a dream.onions

This is the old man. I’m sorry his face is in shadow. It was a very sunny day. His grandson is in the van behind him braiding more onions.

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We made it!

Well it’s here…March. Meteorological spring. And it shows. The winter wheat is brilliant green. The forsythia is blooming. And I found some new things in the Wednesday market.

First, a picture from my kitchen door. Still wintery mountains but blue skies and the temperatures are reaching the 60s sometimes.
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I’ve seen agretti, or monks beard, always the first spring vegetable we see. Since Luther is not fond I don’t buy it but it’s a real delicacy only found in central Italy. This week I found asparagus! The first of the season. I asked the lady selling it where it came from and she said Spoleto which is here in Umbria. So I bought some!
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I also found these small cartons of tomatoes. They were grown in Sicily and reminded me of the Cherokee Purple variety. It also says on the carton I can see who grew my tomatoes on their website!
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I bought a new camera so I need to come up to speed on it so I can again post good pictures. We’ve also been doing our beginning of the year chores. Signing up for our health care this year was a royal pain. Normally we just take our social security statements in and pay our money. This year they told us they needed our paper to have a stamp on it from our American embassy in Rome. All of the stranieri were scuttling about trying to figure out how to do this but finally, after a phone call we managed to get it sorted. The Social Security section of our embassy has all our records…a surprise to me…so they were able to stamp it and send it to us via the Poste Italiane. So that’s done.

We also are starting to go through the process of getting our Permessi di Sogiorno renewed for the coming year. The fees have actually dropped this year to about 60 Euro each down from about 130 Euro last year. There also  seems to be another thing or two changed so we will have to wait and see.

Next week we again are trying to get our Italian driving licenses. This has been an ongoing saga. Stay tuned!

 

Pranzo

Last Sunday we were happy to join Alberto the chef at Calagrana, the nearby Agriturismo, for Sunday lunch. Ely is in England tending to her Mom. We missed her. But we enjoyed Alberto’s “old fashioned lunch”. It consisted of a starter of lasagna bolognese (no picture – ate it before I thought!). He said it was his grandmothers recipe. Next we had steak Diane. It brought back memories of my sister making this for my mother. It is traditionally made tableside.

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Then we had a Lemon Padlova which was unfamiliar to me but was excellent.
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Archie is the resident terrier and happy to visit.
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Last week, I was craving banana pudding but realized I could never make it here without Nilla Vanilla wafers. BUT! I remembered a resource I had not tried called My American Market based in Europe to provide Expats with ingredients they are craving. Once I got on their site I couldn’t resist the other items and figured it was worth it to buy them all at once! Sure!
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Here’s my haul. Pam is something I’ve been wanting for ages. You cannot bring aerosol cans on airplanes so there was no way to get it here.
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Mid-winter trip

To break up our cold, dreary winter we decided to go on a little 3 night trip to Venice. I have been five times before but never in the winter. Everyone says it’s better in winter because it doesn’t smell. I say, balderdash! I have been in hot June and never ever picked up any odor from the canals. A bum wrap for sure.

We took the regional train from nearby Terontola to Florence. There we got the fast Frecciarosa train. It has 4 classes of travel. We opted for Business, one step down from top. It was a lovely quiet trip as no one was in our entire car but us! Arrived in 3.5 hours. Low stress.

We arrived in Venice around 3:30 PM and took the Vaporetto number 1 which goes all the way down the Grand Canal. Here’s the bustling Grand Canal at the train station.
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We got off at Ca’ Rezzonico. This we were told to do by the people we rented our flat from. Julia, a nice college student, met us there and showed us the way. And then she showed us around the apartment. It was a one bedroom, living room, kitchen and bath. Nice enough if a bit dark. There were only two windows and the Living Room had no window at all. Kind of cave-like. It was, however, in our neighborhood of choice, the Dorsoduro.

Vegetable boat.
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Our neighborhood. Loved this yellow building.
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During our trip we visited the Peggy Guggenheim museum mainly to see the Tancredi Parmegiani exhibit. He was an abstract artist from about 1946-1964. Amazing works and very diverse. He became a protege of Peggy Guggenheim. She probably made his career. He was very talented…and troubled. He committed suicide in 1964. We also visited the Accademia Museo. It was full of many religious paintings plus some non-secular works to include a small exhibit of Hieronymous Bosch. Here are some of the sights along the way.
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Our efforts to find good food were thwarted several times. The first dinner, we tried to go to a place advertised as open…but they were on winter vacation. A hazard when traveling in the winter I guess. We settled on a place nearby which was average at best. Next day we tried to go the Ennotecca San Marco and they were closed for renovation. Drat. We ended up near La Fenice at a place called Vino Vino. We figured it would be bad but it was quite nice with nice servers and decent food and wine. Here’s the interior. Early brothel decor.
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That evening we got lucky and got in one of our choices, Estro Vino e Cucina. Quite good wine bar with food. And on the last day we had a wonderful time meeting with our friend Jed and his husband Simone who live in nearby Treviso. We had a lovely dinner at Anice Stellato, their recommendation. Fun to see them.

Our weather was sunny all the way through. It was pretty cold though. Blustery sometimes, but in the sun it was pleasant. Some cold, looking tourists on a Gondola ride.
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Sunday Pranzo!

Yesterday we went out for Sunday lunch, an important part of an Italian week. We have been trying a few new restaurants that I read about in a magazine article in a Perugia magazine. Yesterday we tried one called La Forchetta Bistro in the small town of Ponte San Giovanni south of us. There are scores of little towns between Umbertide and Perugia but we always just go speeding past on the E45 heading to somewhere else.

The little town is on the main TrenItalia train line and has an old covered type bridge over the Tiber. It was our first visit to La Forchetta Bistro. We opted to try out the tasting menu at 40€ a person. This included four courses plus dessert. The dining room is bright and sunny with very high ceilings partly divided by a high brick arch. The two people serving us were perfect. Friendly, helpful and the pacing was perfect. Here are some pictures of our amazing food.

Bacala mousse with fried polenta and carmelized tomato coulis. Bacala is a local specialty made from dried salt cod.
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Scallops with fried “hats” and mashed potato which had some spice
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Gnocchi over broccoli purée, with mussels and bits of steamed broccoli. This was the most filling dish.
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Marinated trout served like a Picasso painting with schmears of puréed red cabbage, something orange and dots of green and olive oil. Oh and crunchy fried spinach.
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Finally there were five desserts. We got pears poached in red wine surrounded by chantilly cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup. Divine.

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As you can see all of the presentations were beautiful. It was a surprise in such a small little village and well worth a special trip.

Winter snow

Winter here in Italy has been brutal so far. Friend in Abruzzo, next region to us, had 3 feet of snow! Other friends way down south in Basilicata and Campagna are also slammed with frozen water pipes and lots of snow. Yesterday earthquakes south of us triggered a tragic avalanche in Abruzzo which completely buried a hotel. 4 dead and 27 missing so far. We felt the quakes here but they were not strong. There were 10 quakes in the last 24 hours.

We have had our first snow. It was only a dusting but probably the most I’ve seen here since we came. I heard it was much worse up in the hills surrounding us. Still it was pretty.

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Montone is the hill town nearby. This is the mountain upon which it sits. It was snowing so the view is softened.DSC06612

Luther wanted a steak yesterday. Cuts here are very different from the US but this one is familiar. Here it is called a Contrafiletto. In the US it is a ribeye. Ready to grill!DSC06615

The fire was welcome in more ways that one. It warmed my frigid kitchen up and I sat close by to enjoy the warmth. It also cooked our dinner of steak and two potatoes wrapped in foil and embedded in the coals.
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Finished product. It was pretty good. They don’t finish beef on grain here so it is not as marbled. Hence it is not as tender. Good flavor though.DSC06618

Buona Epifania!

Today is Epifania or Epiphany in English. I looked this up…”On January 6 the Catholic Church celebrates the solemnity of the Epiphany. This religious feast brings a fulfillment of all the purposes of Advent. Epiphany, therefore, marks the end of the Advent-Christmas season. Three mysteries are encompassed in this solemnity: the adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi, the Baptism of Christ and the wedding feast at Cana. Epiphany is also known as Three Kings’ Day, in other branches of Christianity. A Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God in his Son as human in Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles.”

Here in Umbertide we also celebrate Befana, the Christmas witch. Amusingly, she arrives in an Ape, a three wheel truck-type vehicle. She distributes candy! I took her photo and she gave me candy! I must have been good this year. Here she is!

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And there she goes…
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In Italian folklore she is thought to have originated in central Italy near where we live. Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas or Santa Claus. Since before Babbo Natale arrived on the scene, Italian children have been celebrating the annual visit of La Befana.

Befana is said to visit all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana. She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney.

According to legend Befana was approached by the biblical magi, also known as the Three Wise Men (or the three kings) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Christ child was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she said no, that she was too busy with her housework and sweeping up. Later, la Befana had a change of heart, and she tried to search out the location of the baby Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so forever after, la Befana has been flying over the grapevines and olive trees searching for the little baby and leaving children candy in hopes the Christ child is there.

There are many different versions of this legend to this day, some darker than the above. One tells that la Befana was mother to a child that died, and she went mad with grief. When Jesus was born, she sought him out. She thought that he was her child. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave la Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Now la Befana is celebrated throughout all of Italy, and she has become a national icon. In the regions of the Marches, Umbria and Latium, her figure is associated with the Papal States, where the Epiphany held the most importance.

You can find images of la Befana all through Italy. She is not romanticized, she is an ugly hag with missing teeth and a torn dress holding a broom with a crazy grin on her face. I guess Italians don’t want to make their hag a prettier, more acceptable figure. They like her just as she is. A very Italian attitude!
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And the Italian children love playing the la Befana game. The words of this song vary in different areas, but what I read is that children gather in a seated circle with a shoe behind each of them. The designated witch walks behind them while the children sing:

Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana

The English translation is:

Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!

Prettier in Italian!

Once the song is over, all the children open their eyes, and check their shoes. Whoever finds the candy that the “Befana” has hidden there wins!

I hope my friend Michelle Damaini of il Bel Centro won’t mind my quoting her here…she wrote, “Because I love celebrating La Befana. Not just for the very Italian-ness that connects me back to the curling fog and hastening twilight of January in Spello. No, you see La Befana as a reminder. A reminder to stop sweeping, look up, and listen. Magic is all around, we just need to be open to it. We just need to listen.” Nice…
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Yesterday it snowed…
Just to document it, we had snow squalls here yesterday. South and east of us they actually got a lot of snow. Here it is very cold and blue skies today. See our snow squalls…
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Cinghale Stew on New Years Day

OKAY for all you folks waiting with bated breath for the results of my Cinghale stew (wild boar stew) here are two pictures. First is the boar after marinating for 2 days in red wine plus other stuff.
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This is the final product which we ate last night.
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It was surprisingly yummy. I don’t own a crockpot but I looked up how to emulate it. It said to cook in an 200F oven for 6 hours, covered tightly. This worked well. The meat was tender and falling apart.

I got this recipe from the internet but modified it some. Here it is:

Wild boar – cinghiale – Stew

2 pounds wild boar meat, cut into stew-sized pieces

Marinade:
1 bottle red wine minus 1 glass
2 Tbsp. vinegar
1 carrot, 1 stalk celery, 1 onion, chopped into big pieces
2 garlic cloves, peeled
4 bay leaves
Juniper berries, whole (to taste); approx. 1 Tbsp.
Sprig rosemary
Sage if desired
Red chili pepper flakes (to taste); approx. 1-2 tsp.

To finish:
Olive oil, 5 Tbsp.
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups (12 oz.) passata, plain tomato sauce, or tomato puree

Prepare the marinade with the wine, vinegar, chopped vegetables, garlic, bay leaves, juniper berries and chili flakes. Pour marinade over the boar meat, stir to coat, and marinate, covered, for at least 8 hours or overnight. (I marinated it two days. You can’t really over-marinate)

Drain the meat and vegetables, reserving the liquid. Chop the vegetables into smaller pieces and sauté them in 5 Tbsp. olive oil for several minutes, preferably in an enameled, cast iron casserole or any heavy stew pot. Remove.

Now add the wild boar meat to the pot, salt and pepper it, and brown the meat in the oil in batches. Return the vegetables to the pot. Add one soup spoon of the wine; let it evaporate at high flame. Now add the reserved marinade liquid, the tomato sauce or puree and bring to a boil; Cover tightly with a lid and foil to keep in the moisture. Put in a 100C/200F oven for six hours. This emulates a crockpot. If you have a crockpot then you can use that. The meat should be melt-in-your-mouth tender when done.

Delicious with roast potatoes and cannellini beans (white beans).

Buon Appetito!

New Years Eve

Yesterday I took a lovely walk along the Tiber. Cold but super clear. Here are a couple of pictures.
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Today is New Years Eve. We decided to take a ride over to Lago Trasimeno for a lake fish lunch. Really pretty, cold and clear day. All our days are very cold now. Nights even colder. My little lemon tree is safe in the kitchen. Anyway, we visited San Feliciano. A pretty town on the lake. Not much happening there in the winter other than people strolling in the lakeside park. We found a new restaurant called I Bonci. I had the zuppa di anguilla or eel soup. It is the traditional New Year dish. It was good. Served over bread. Luther had the warm seafood salad and lake perch. The views were pretty. Here is from our table through the window to the outside.
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And here are a couple of lake photos from the park and also over the mountain on the way home.
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Tonight there is a band on the piazza and all the citizens will party. Fireworks at midnight. It will be below freezing at midnight. We will watch from the window if we stay up long enough. I had meant to cook my Cinghale stew today but I decided, since we had lunch, to save it for tomorrow. I’ll take pictures.

‘Tis the season of the Cinghiale hunt – wild boar

Our friend Vera gave us a good amount of wild boar meat for a Christmas present. I must say, there’s a first time for everything! Her father-in-law is an avid boar hunter and always has a freezer full. I plan to make it for our New Years Eve dinner. She even brought a good bundle of herbs to cook it with, juniper, sage, rosemary and thyme. I will stew it until it falls off the bone and make it into a ragu or I will just make a stew. Mm mmmm good! I will report back. I plan to cook it on New Years Eve.

We happened on a boar hunt last week. There were probably fifty cars along the mountain road and hunters with guns everywhere. A fire burned to ward of the cold. Dogs were in cages in the backs of trucks. It was around 10 AM and the hunt was already finished.

After a hunt. (They can kill any number of boar. There is no limit. It is not unheard of to kill 100 at a time!)
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Not knowing much about it I looked it up. Also I borrowed the pictures herein. Here are some facts I learned. There are about 150,000 wild boar in Tuscany and Umbria. A female boar has two litters a year with 3 to 13 piglets in each. Even though 30,000 boar are killed a year it is impossible to keep up.

Mama and her piglets.
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70% of the hunters are from Sardinia, Tuscany and Umbria. And Italy being Italy, each region claims its boar is superior to another region’s. Tuscans will tell you that the fiercest boar lives in the Maremma. Tuscans will also tell you their boar tastes best because it feasts on the chestnuts that grow in the area’s forests. Sardinians will boast that theirs, being an island boar, is closest to the animals the Greeks first found on Capri and thus is the true Italian boar. They claim it’s tastiest because it feeds on the acorns that fall from the island’s groves of oaks. Umbrians contend that their boar is the most refined and the best tasting, for a reason that is hard to argue with: The countryside is rich in pungent black truffles, a favorite food of the boar’s throughout the winter.

Cinghiale hunts called cacciarella (“small hunt”) are highly choreographed and organized activities. The season begins 1 November and ends 31 January. Squadre (teams) for each territory need official registration, a boss and at least 50 members, all of whom must take a hunting course. They must re-register annually and renew their firearm licences every six years. If on the day of the hunt less than 20 hunters show up, the hunt cannot officially proceed.

Hunting days are specified by law with three days per week assigned to each locality during the season. The teams work year-round training their dogs, who have a high possibility of being killed during the hunt. And not in a pretty way.

On the day of the hunt, the team divides into canai (the men with the dogs), postaioli (the men in position with rifles) and tracciatori (the trackers).

A typical start to the hunt involves 20 tracciatori searching for fresh traces. Once done, they go back to the base to confer with the capocaccia (boss of the hunt), who decides on the best zone. The 30-50 postaioli form a horseshoe close to the fresh tracks, keep still and wait.

Next the 10 canai come along, each with seven or eight trained dogs. At the capocaccia’s command, they release their dogs in hopes of flushing out a cinghiale and directing it towards the horseshoe-shaped trap of the gun-wielding postaioli.

Hunters may shoot only straight ahead, so even if a hunter sees the boar first, but it is not directly in front of him, he must wait for his fellow postaiolo to shoot so as not to endanger the lives of others.

Once the boar has been shot, it is taken to the hunting headquarters, weighed, identified by its teeth for age, and written in the records; then it is hung and bled, skinned and left for two days at 0°C to frollare-develop flavor and relax the flesh. Then the team divides the boar, with each person on the hunt getting a piece.

In Italy no part of the cinghiale goes to waste. The meat, of course, gets eaten, either as hard salami, softer salsiccia, or ham, while the best boars are often cured and aged as that great delicacy, prosciutto di cinghiale. The white tusks are occasionally carved into buttons and knife handles or mounted in gold and worn by women as pendants. The thick hair is used for hairbrushes, toothbrushes, dartboards, and the little sprigs you see on traditional Tyrolean hats.

Male boar.
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I read this account of one hunt on an estate in Tuscany. “It is tradition in Italy that there be a feast provided by the lord or lady of the estate after the hunt. We were not disappointed. Roast pork, Tuscan steak, pappardelle, spaghetti, sausages, cured meats, hunks of cheese, countless bottles of wine, and more were spread out on a giant U-shaped table set for 40. The hunters traded tales from the morning. We finished lunch a couple of hours later and walked outside to have coffee.”