Basketmaking

I have been a basketmaker for forty years. It is a hobby that I took up because baskets please me. I like to look at them and to touch them. My first basket was an egg basket. I took a one day course. Once I had made one, I just kept on making them. It is soothing. Really. I love the making of each basket. I use each and every one that I haven’t given away to friends.

Especially, when winter reigns, I enjoy that it gives me something to do and also a nice basket when I’m done. I don’t make that many because I cannot buy the reed I need here. I bit the bullet and ordered some from Amazon in the US. That is SO SO expensive. But it makes me happy, so I bought some. I used to order it in the US and then bring it back when I went for a visit. Because of Covid it’s been nearly three years since we have gone home. Anyway, here is a picture of my present project. This is the basic framework.

Here is the finished product…

…and, as it’s name says…the egg basket – in it’s intended use. Fresh eggs aren’t sold in boxes here. They put them in a bag so you’ve got to be very careful when carrying them. The egg basket, with its curved bottom, is perfect to cradle the eggs.

Birthday party!

Yesterday, we went to Calagrana to help a friend celebrate his birthday. It was lovely, if a bit scary, to be with a big group all having fun together. Poor Calagrana had suffered a power surge on the line and it blew out much of their power. I have to hand it to them for going forward with the lunch even with such huge problems. None of us really noticed anything much awry. That’s a credit to the team there.

We started out, outside for drinks. The day wasn’t warm, but in front of Calagrana is what is called a “sun trap”. So it was quite nice. Not cold at all.

We were around twenty five people all together at one long table.

Below…Birthday boy! We also are probably distant cousins. Scottish, his last name is Gilmore, mine is Gilmer. Anyway, we are happy to pretend we are!

Obligatory food pictures 😁

No, party is complete without toasts! To your health and long life, Tom!

Finally, a small tribute to Archibald – Archie for short. One of the two restaurant dogs.

What I’m reading…

I am re-reading a book. This will be my third reading. There are only one or two books I have re-read in my life. This one is entitled “The Tuscan Year – life and food in an Italian valley” by Elizabeth Romer. It was written in 1984. It is still in print. I first read it a number of years before we even thought of moving here. I brought my copy along when we moved and re-read it after moving. It was only then that I realized I now live within just a few miles of where this takes place. The book is divided into the months of the year and chronicles the lives of a family of land owners in Tuscany. This farm was just near the border with Umbria. The way of life would have been the same in both regions. They were self sufficient. They grew all they needed, cured their own prosciutto, made their own pecorino cheese, raised wheat and milled it, and made bread in a communal oven, once a week. The life fascinates me.

“The only animal whose death the old Tuscan people really mourned was the ox, the beautiful white beast that drew the plough; they were mourned almost as if they were human because they too need nine months in the womb before they are ready to be born.” from the book.

Photo credit Agricultura.it

The author was an Egyptologist, British, and wanted a place between England and Egypt. She rented a house on the farm of the Cerottis. She made friends with Silvana, the wife and matriarch. By doing so she could sit and observe their way of life. There are recipes at the end of each chapter. For a cook and Italianophile it is a wonderful read.
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The first chapter, January, is all about the dead of winter; the chores that are done in this month – the butchering of the pigs and the making of prosciutti, salami and sausages. It is about how they cooked and were nourished when there was no garden to speak of. These were the bitter months when they didn’t work in the fields. The book says during this time their lives were very like their ancestors. These forbears would have spent the time making and repairing baskets for collection of olives and grapes. They would have made wooden sleds and carts to be drawn by the oxen. The women would have spun woolen cloth and embroidered their trousseaus. They decorated all their linen sheets and nightgowns with lace and embroidery. Nowadays the men repair farm equipment and tools. Silvana knits socks and shawls, using wool from their sheep. The book said she used two intertwined wools, one light, one dark so she could see in the firelight.

As I said there are many recipes in each chapter. This particular passage I loved:
“The Scottiglia is made with a mixture of meats and cooked with the odori, carrot, celery, and onion, then served on a slice of bread that has been toasted and rubbed with garlic. The dish originated in harder times when there was not much meat to be eaten and all the neighbors would crowd into one house for the evening, bringing with them whatever piece of meat they could obtain: a piece of rabbit or prosciutto, some chicken, a little veal or maybe some tripe, very often game of some description. Then the meat would all be cooked up together in the large cauldron and flavored with the usual vegetables and wine. The oldest recipes for this dish specify that absolutely no oil was to be used in the preparation of the stew, maybe because the meat was fattier in those times. While the meat was cooking what is known as the veglia would take place: the people, usually all from a small hamlet…would sit around the fire and give recitations of Dante and verses that the men had made up themselves. These would very often contain veiled references to the girl who had caught their eye, and in this way the cold evenings passed in a pleasant manner.”

Photo credit Arezzonotizie.it

The Scottiglia is served in a bowl with a toasted piece of bread on the bottom, rubbed with garlic. Juice is ladled on the bread and then a helping of meat.
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I think I may include an excerpt now and then, in this journal. This January chapter is so evocative of times gone by and cold, dark winters which we still endure but I am reminded it is nothing like they had to endure back then. Then, death was very near and if you weren’t prepared, you could die.

Sunday Pranzo with la nostra famiglia Italiana

I like to think of Vera, Graziano, Desiree, and Maja as our Italian family. For a long year plus we weren’t able to socialize with them. Vera loves to invite her clients and friends for meals together. We missed this so much. Things are better and we feel relatively safe being vaccinated and boosted so we accepted an invite for Sunday lunch.

Over the years we have met, and made friends with, many other people through Vera at her meals. And did I say she’s a great cook? And adventurous like few Italians are. She loves trying new things, but also traditional ones too. Yesterday, it was clients of Graziano’s who had been invited. They are a British man, Phil, and his wife also named Vera who is Swiss. Graziano wanted other English speakers since they weren’t strong Italian speakers. The couple own a very large house up in the mountains not too far from Vera between Cortona and Mercatale. He had a stroke recently, I can’t imagine how they do the upkeep in the place. And why would just two people want such a huge house? But different strokes as they say.

We arrived at 12:30. Vera likes us to come a little early so we can have a drink and she can show me what she’s cooking. The menu started with a traditional ragu di cinghiale bianco. Wild boar ragu. If it is called bianco or bianca it is made without tomatoes. This one had some cream to finish and was served on pappardelle. Excellent. Then she served two secondi. A whole roast duck with roasted potatoes. She makes great patate arrosto. And the other one was roasted lamb shoulder with prunes and served with saffron rice. I got pictures of everything except the pasta primo. Darn. Anyway, here are the pictures.

Roast duck
Magnificent roasted potatoes
Lamb and saffron rice.

…and lastly, here is the gang. I’m taking the picture. From left, Luther, Vera (cook extraordinaire), Maja peeking out, Graziano, Desiree, Phil, and Swiss Vera.

A buona domenica and excellent lunch with friends. 💕

Musings…

We had snow this week. It was pretty. But as usual, it’s just cosmetic. It looks nice falling down but it melts soon enough, as in nearly immediately. It is still quite cold nonetheless.

Interestingly, I’ve got a friend with a nice Agriturismo over in Tuscany, near Montepulciano. She said that not a week goes by that an American client doesn’t ask them if their pool is open in January/February. I found this very amusing. All they have to do is see the above picture to know it is not all “Under the Tuscan Sun” here in wintertime. 😁
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Different subject. Our friend Vera has two daughters, Maja and Desiree. These two girls adore our two cats. But first…a little background. Many Italians think (their father among them) that animals belong outside…not inside. And that they should live their lives in a natural state. Another way to say they do not spay and neuter. Much to my surprise, Vera was persuaded to adopt a kitten (chiefly by Maja), now nearly a cat. A boy cat. For some reason Graziano, Vera’s husband, has allowed this kitten into their house.

Since they are not familiar with the ways of cats I felt I should explain the ways of Tom cats to Vera. And also that they don’t make good indoor pets if not neutered. They spray, and mark their territory. An unpleasant thing to have happen in your house. Graziano is, like many Italian men, against “cutting” males pets. But she managed to get it done. Her mother-in-law took the cat to the vet while the family was away on vacation and had him neutered.

But the odd thing is, Vera is keeping this all secret from her daughters. Maja was asking about the shaved spot on the cats tummy. So Vera made up some story. I asked why not tell them the truth, and she was all, well it’s not natural and they wouldn’t understand. I wish she’d tell them. It will maybe change their attitudes so future pets of theirs will be neutered. I tell you, I just don’t get Italian attitudes sometimes.
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Italy has issued new maps of the different new color coded regions. You will notice Umbria is an island of white in a sea of yellow.

The color coded zones don’t affect people who’ve been vaccinated but they do show where the virus is rising. Italy has mandated all people living in Italy, citizens or not, over 50 years of age, must be vaccinated. I read the Umbertide Notizie Facebook page and they said 429 people are testing positive here, all but two of which are isolating at home. The two are in the hospital.

Life here, if you’re vaccinated, feels pretty open now. But each of us has to follow our own hearts about what to do, what not to do, when to go, and when not, who to see, and where. We are staying home mostly. Discussions are on going about a winter trip. But to be honest, I feel it is prudent to wait.

I am sorry to see the cases elsewhere, to include the UK and the US are soaring. They said there could be 300,000 people in the hospital in the US by next month. We can only hope it will peak quickly without too much death.

Ho hum

Beginning of the year. After Epifania in January 6 all festivities stop. Then we all hunker down for the doldrums of winter. And we have to do some mandatory chores of everyday life.

In January every year we have to renew our Tessera Sanitaria. Our access to the Italian Health care system. We have to visit our ASL – Azienda Sanitaria Locale. We are required to bring copies of our “certified by the American Embassy in Rome”, Social Security statements. Only Umbria requires this, as far as we know. Then we pay 7.5% of that amount at the post and return to the ASL for our new cards. But first, we needed appointments, which we have for next week. An annual ritual.

Now is also the time to pay our auto Bollo, or our tax on the Volkswagen. And also, this year, the inspection which is bi-annual. The Bollo can be paid online but only after you get a SPID which is a secure email address. It took Luther a good deal of time to get that all worked out. The inspection will be week after next.

The poor old Volkswagen gets very little love. She hardly ever gets washed, and gets the minimum of maintenance. She is our workhorse, a really a decent, everyday car. So anyway, we took her to Happy Car for a much needed bath.

It was our first time here. There were maybe six workers? All hustling like their lives depended on it. Maybe they did? First, you park outside and they vacuum the car. Then, they drive into the building for the wash, two guys. High powered spray but wash all by hand. Then outside for drying and interior washing, floor mats are returned, wheels are cleaned, tires blacked. I don’t know how the money is split. The rent on the building and the water etc must be paid. Maybe the rest is split? Or maybe they are just hired by some Fat Cat who runs the show? Don’t know. The workers aren’t Italians, but they hustle like they get a piece of the action. Bottom line. This hand wash, interior vac and cleaning cost €10 or about $11. A bargain.

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Covid cases are up here, like everywhere. I read a tip about the self tests. The instructions say swab inside your nose. But i heard Omacron starts in the throat so it doesn’t show up in just a nasal swab. So, do your throat first, then your nose. Because it doesn’t show up in nasal swabs, a person is contagious for around 3 days even if testing negative (in the nose). Stay safe everyone. Andrà tutto bene 🌈

Brodetto alla Termolese – The Dish!

Such fun to make something new. Our lunch was not formal nor fancy. But it was good, and fun! It was especially fun to share with friends.

First thing I had to do this morning was de-head, de-shell and de-vein the shrimp. I wanted to use the heads and shells for my shellfish stock. Once done I browned the shells in olive oil. Then I added tomato paste for a couple of minutes and the vegetables (carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaves, spices) and finally, I deglazed the pain with white wine. It smelled great. I added the canocchia. Thanks to Phil, one of my readers, I now know the name of the unknown crustacean🙂. I simmered for about an hour and then strained it all through cheesecloth. I ended up with a beautiful rich stock for the brodetto.

I used my big cast iron pot for the final product. I sliced the pepper and sautéed it, I added garlic and tomatoes and simmered it all for fifteen minutes.

I scrubbed the clams and mussels. Then I soaked them in salt water so they could expel their grit. After their soaking, I cooked them separately in a big pan in wine.

I added the whole fish to the pepper/tomato mixture and then some broth. I cooked it a bit. Then I added the shrimp.

At the end I strained the cooking liquid from the mussels and clams. Then I added them and some of the broth to the pot. Finally it was all ready go!

It is served with toasted bread to soak up the juice. I will say it was a feast!

Seafood

Big project tomorrow. Il Brodetto alla Termolese on the menu for Pranzo. Two friends will join us. you might remember my friend Jen and I had this special fish soup in the town of Termoli in Molise on our trip together (see post about the trip). We have been craving it ever since.

I went out to the big Wednesday market to see if my normal fish truck was there. It was missing last week and, alas, it was missing again today. Probably because of the holidays. So I decided to visit the other fish truck. I don’t know why I don’t normally go to him. Maybe because the lines are always so long. Today, I was out early, even before some of the stands were set up. So there was no line at all. As I looked over the large amount of very fresh seafood, I noticed about 40% of it was still moving. Now, THAT’S what I call fresh! It was really beautiful stuff. He even had oysters. I wanted to buy some, but I didn’t.

I bought all the food for our feast tomorrow. Two whole spigole, which are sea bass in English, shrimp, mussels (cozze), tiny clams (vongole) and the funny crustaceans they have here to make stock…not much meat and a pain to eat but for stock they should work well. I forget their name.

Cozze
Vongole
Shrimp
The mystery crustacean.

The mussels, clams, and the mystery crustaceans are all still alive. I remember once, long ago, I bought mussels at Whole Foods. They are always sold alive so you must let them breath. When I got to the checkout counter, the checker, a young girl, tried to tie the plastic bag, which held the mussels, closed. I told her not to do that since they were still alive and must breath. The shock on her face was priceless! She obviously didn’t know!

Tomorrow, the Brodetto. I will post the finished product after we make it. And hopefully I remember to take pictures before we eat it!

What I cooked during the holiday … so far

For the festive season I made several things. We went to the local Coop grocery store for what I call a “big buy”. I keep lists and we stock up on all the things we have run out of. But on that same trip we were surprised that they had an itty bitty turkey! It was only 2.7 kilos. I have never seen anything like this here so I couldn’t resist buying it. On the same shopping trip Luther also pointed out his favorite — anatra/duck. So I decided that would be our Christmas dinner.

We also had friends over for dinner one night so we took a trip to our favorite, amazing Etrusco butcher and ordered a prime rib…called costeletto here.

Anyway, the turkey turned out great and we indulged ourselves with turkey sandwiches for a few days! The costeletto was also very good and we had it as leftovers the next day. Finally the duck was our Christmas dinner.

I have an amazing way to cook duck. I saved the recipe and I’ve used it many times. It is not your usual method of cooking duck. It is simplicity in itself. The recipe is from The Omnivore’s Cookbook. The duck is stuffed with citrus fruit, heavily salted, and the breast skin is scored with a knife but not into the meat. Once this is done you pop it, uncovered into a very low temperature oven, 95 to 120 C / 200 to 250 F for 6 hours. Yes, I said six hours…you don’t touch it. You leave it be. It smells amazing as it cooks. When it comes out the skin is crisp and the meat pulls apart and is very tender. Try this! It is incredible. And, if you set your temperature low, it is fool-proof. If you like Peking duck you can buy or make the little pancakes and serve with hoisin sauce. The meat works perfectly for this.

I’m afraid I didn’t take any pictures of any of these meals…my bad!
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Today, I was craving pasta. So I made Spaghetti con le Sarde. I have made this before from different sources and the ingredients are the same. This recipe is traditional. You can google it. It comes from Palermo, Sicilia. It is the typical moorish inspired Sicilian recipe that is both savory and sweet. Picture. Recipe is below.

Spaghetti con le Sarde – 2 servings

About 3 tablespoons raisins – soaked in warm water
1 tablespoon bread crumbs toasted, or panko
3 tablespoons olive oil
Handful of pine nuts
2 tablespoons onions
1/2 cup diced fennel
anchovy filets – 2 or 3
one 4 ounce can tinned sardines or 250 grams fresh – cleaned and boned
Pinch of saffron
spaghetti or bucatini for 2
Lemon
if you’ve got fennel fronds use them as garnish

Boil water, add fennel and cook 5 minutes. Drain, save water for pasta. In large sauté pan add oil. Cook onions until soft, and the fresh sardines if using. Add drained raisins, pine nuts, anchovies, fennel, tinned sardines if using, saffron, pepper. Cook 15 minutes. While cooking boil spaghetti or bucatini until al dente. Add to sauce and toss, adding a little pasta water if dry. To serve, sprinkle with crumbs and fennel fronds, if using.
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As for news on the Covid front, Italy extended the state of emergency until 31 March. They also came out with a new decree on Christmas Eve. From 25 December, there are new restrictions. The Green pass showing vaccination or recovery in the last six months is required to do just about anything. Even workers who had been doing work-arounds by being tested every two days can no longer go to their workplace. It is mandatory to wear a mask inside and outside. One must wear an FFP2 mask when attending concerts or events or on public transport. No food allowed at indoor events.It is mandatory to wear a mask inside and outside. You must have the pass to go to inside a restaurant or bar. People cannot take a train, plane, bus or underground, use a gym or swimming pool or attend any concerts or sporting events. All nightclubs and discos are closed until 31 January. All New Years celebrations are canceled. The numbers are jumping here by around 5,000 new cases a day. Last number I saw was 55,000 new daily cases. I have a feeling after the holidays we will see even more restrictions.

Buon Natale

It was another unpredictable year. I hope in 2022 we can finally get ahead of the virus. I’m sure everyone is as tired as I am of the uncertainty and the stress of it all. I have heard from multiple people that they are resigned to catching it. I think this is not a good attitude, and we must remain vigilant. It is still dangerous, especially for older folks…

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for reading this journal. I realize at times it is not terribly exciting but life, even in Italy, just ISN’T all that exciting, all the time 😏 And this pandemic hasn’t helped much in that department for sure! We have some wishes and dreams for next year…let’s all make our plans and cross our fingers that our plans all work out! 🤞🤞

Have a happy holiday season everyone, and a very Happy and Healthy New Year! 🎉 🎊