Category Archives: Italian life

CeramicArte — Deruta ceramics in Umbertide

On a street nearby, Via Cibo, is a shop called CeramicArte. The lovely young woman, Laura Tomassini is the proprietor and the artisan who creates these beautiful ceramics. She is affiliated with one of the ceramics workshops in the town of Deruta and she paints traditional Deruta patterns, using traditional pigments.

First a little history of Deruta and it’s famous ceramics. Deruta is a medieval hilltown in Umbria and is mainly known as a major center for the production of painted earthenware since Renaissance times. Production of pottery is documented in the early Middle Ages but there are no surviving pieces until about 1490. It reached its artistic peak in the 15th and early 16th century. It was the first Italian center to use lusterware pigments, usually yellow, ruby or olive-green.

Laura is following in the footsteps of centuries of artisans. A noble endeavor. I walk past this shop often. Always, there she is, creating beautiful works.

Laura at work
The shop

She’s been busy with Christmas things. Ornaments, jewelry. Take a look at these! Bellissimo!

All white cutout ornaments
Gold leaf
These are pendants…they come with a chain. She also makes tiny earrings like these. Nice gifts.

Our recent guests ordered some of her ceramics. She makes things to order. You pick the design and what you’d like. Two years ago, I commissioned a bowl for my niece Rachel and her soon-to-be husband Alex. Here’s the bowl. Peacock design. I picked the red and black. Laura will inscribe the back for a special present. Like the back of the bowl below.

When they were here they commissioned a plaque with their house number for outside their front door with the same pattern. That will be a unique addition to their house!

Mike and Anne chose some salt and pepper shakers. Mike, once he was here for a while, got very into our Italian coffee. Yay for him. When he got home Rachel and Alex gifted him an espresso maker. Of COURSE he needed espresso cups which he ordered after he went home… Pretty!

These are on their way to the US. As I posted in my last post I bought a luminary. And I also have a couple of pretty lamps the same type of design. If you come to Umbertide, be sure to visit this unique artisan, and her shop. And if you like, you can also commission things using her email below and she will ship to you.

CeramicArte is a treasure in our town. I’m happy they are here and if you come visit, you can commission some for yourself!

Buona Domenica a tutti!

Before and after the storm

Saturday morning. It was sunny and no fog. Always a good start. But it is chilly. And windy. We are headed to our first freeze on Monday. During the night the wind had come up and it was rattling the shutters, which I had to partially close to stop the banging. When I looked out our big picture window I saw, across the horizon to our north, a large cloud bank. I thought nothing of it. I looked out at the piazza to check the mercato. Half of the vendors didn’t have their tents erected because of the strong winds.

I did some chores and returned some time later … the cloud bank had crept closer. I checked the weather report. Sure enough, Città di Castello was getting a storm. In a short time the cloud was looming ominously. I took a picture. Such blue sky ahead of the storm.

Suddenly, the rain came lashing down. I could hear it pounding on the high, terra cotta ceiling in the living room. I worried about the vendors. But they had figured it out and had gotten their tents up in time! The rains lasted only a short, but violent, time.

I was cooking a pot of black beans on the stove but as soon as they were done I headed out to the market with my big camera to shoot some photos. I also visited the stalls and purchased some nice produce. I dropped in on Books for Dogs. They weren’t busy so I chatted for a bit. Next I visited CeramicArte, the Deruta ceramics shop here in town. Laura Tomassini is the proprietor and incredible artist. I had purchased a small luminary which I wanted to pick up, and I also wanted to take some pictures of her beautiful works for sale. I plan a blog in the next day or two about Laura and her shop. Here is a picture of my luminary. A candle goes inside.

So without further ado…enjoy the photos. First, the clearing after the storm…

Just some of the veggies in the market.

The extremely huge green vegetable below is not a big celery, although it looks somewhat like it. It is called gobbo in Italian and cardoon in English. I made it once but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.

I took a little stroll and noticed the oak tree in the parking lot was loaded with acorns. Too bad there are no squirrels to eat them. These oaks do not lose their leaves in the winter, unlike the ones I am used to on the US east coast.

Our new path behind our house and down to the river is finally finished. New cobblestones and lighting the whole way. It WAS awfully dark back there. So nice!

I went to the Egyptian vegetable stand for avocados. They have consistently the best. I am making chilli and wanted them to go with it. I stopped into Angelo’s Alimentari downstairs from our casa as my final stop to grab some cans of tomatoes, they are also for the chilli. I love a good chilli on a cold night. I told Angelo about it. He and I like to exchange recipes. Like all Italians, he loves to cook, eat, and talk about food. And he speaks no English…so I get to practice my Italian 🙂

Thanksgiving 2021

Thanksgiving 2021 was a far cry from Thanksgiving 2020. Then, we were headed into a long, strict lockdown. No gatherings were allowed. So it was especially joyful today, to spend a day with friends having a scrumptious pranzo, and giving thanks. Calagrana had sent out a Thanksgiving menu invitation for Pranzo today. Susan and Gary decided to host a table of nine, of which we were two. There were six Americans and three Italians. A nice mix of the two languages.

In the restaurant there were several other tables. A table of seven Americans who we didn’t know next to us. A table of six, four which were friends. Two Americans and two British. Then another table of four which we knew, some Americans and some British. And finally a table of two British who we didn’t know. On the way out I wished the table of seven next to us happy Thanksgiving. They were visiting here and had rented a villa. There were the matriarch and four daughters and two spouses. They were from Portland Oregon, Sacramento and New Jersey. I think they said they were here for a couple months until January. Our meal started with appetizers, four types, an egg roll with dates inside, cheese, sausage rolls, and fried shrimp. Then we had spiced pumpkin soup. Yummy.

Then the main course. Of course Turkey! And a whopper, a 38.4 pound Tom turkey. Here, there are female turkeys which weigh minimum 15 pounds. And male turkeys which start at about 33 pounds.

Sides and sauces. A really good cold green bean salad in a slightly vinegary sauce and toasted sesame seeds and sunflower seeds. Cranberry sauce is not possible here so we had a sauce of sweeter berries. Brussels sprouts.

Dessert was a apple plum tart. Everything was scrumptious. The company was fun and warm and it was such a pleasure to be, once again, sharing a holiday with friends. Two years is a long time to be bereft of friends and family. Speaking of which, I called my sister when I got home. I miss being with her a lot. Especially on holidays like this one. FaceTime is nice but not quite the same 🥺.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Autumnal Umbria & Rocco Ragni Cashmere

I cannot tell you how beautiful Umbria is in the fall. Breathtaking. These two were taken by Barbara Roy Chawk Skinner a virtual friend of mine who recently visited Umbria. They were taken from the Montefalco wine region. Exquisite.

Looks like it is not real. But it is!
Sagrantino grape vines turn bright red in the fall.

On Monday my friend Susan and I went to the Rocco Ragni outlet shop. Did you know Umbria is well known for the manufacture of quality Cashmere? Well it is. There are many high-end, as well as lesser known, manufacturers here.

I’ve always been curious as to why it is produced here in such quantity. The raw material comes from goats in Kashmir. It is the undercoat they produce to survive the very harsh winters there. Super fine stands with air pockets for insulation. I read it is called duvet! Hence the name of our warm covers!

At the end of the eighteenth century this material – thanks to the English and French trading companies and then to the subsequent textile revolution in the following century – took on an ever-increasing value. These were the times when cashmere shawls cost more than a horse carriage, when queens and empresses would confirm the noble qualities of this material by wearing large and rich cashmere capes and cloaks. So it became very profitable to produce. I still don’t know how Umbria started to produce this material.

Rocco Ragni is a famous producer. We happen to have one of his three boutiques in Umbertide. He also has an outlet store in Compresso. A little Borgo of 1,500 people. It is in an impressive old stone building and this is also where they produce these fine products. The family lives in Compresso, and the Headquarters is there. They also have a showroom in Milan. I will say, although their sweaters are not cheap, the prices here are not exorbitant like some of the more famous houses. This is where the outlet store is. Would you have guessed? Sometimes things are hard to find here!

After I bought three sweaters….😁…then I took some pictures of the outside scenery. This place is up in the Umbrian hills and quite remote, hard to find, but amidst very beautiful, perfectly Umbrian, landscapes.

Enjoy the season!

Colatura di Alici

Tonight I made Spaghetti con la Colatura di Alici. Mainly because I was pressed for time to produce a dinner. It is fast, easy, and very delicious.

Colatura di Alici is translated as “anchovy drippings”. It is a sauce or condiment, made from anchovies. Don’t let that scare you away!! It is Umami to the max! Friends told me they stayed in the little town where it is made, Cetara, in Campana, a small fishing village on the Amalfi coast. The fish are harvested just off the coast. They are only harvested between March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation and July 22, the Feast of Mary Magdalene. This is typical of the traditions here where dates and moon phases still tell people when they can plant or harvest. The sauce is a transparent, amber colored liquid, produced by fermenting anchovies in brine. Here’s mine.

I did some research and found that something similar was produced in Ancient Rome. The recipe was recovered by monks in medieval times. They made Colatura di Alici in a primitive manner letting the brined fish drip through from wooden barrels. Now wool sheets are used to filter the brine.

My Spaghetti con la Colatura di Alici. It has just five ingredients in the sauce plus spaghetti, and lemon zest and parsley to serve. Comfort food, Italian style!

Lago Trasimeno

I love our big lake called Lago Trasimeno. It is the biggest lake on the peninsula, with a surface area of 49.4 sq miles, it is just slightly smaller than Lake Como. The lake’s water quality is very good. This is because of the small population living in its watershed, and a lack of large farms in the area. Trasimeno is shallow, muddy, and rich in fish, including pike, carp, and tench. During the last 10 years it has been 5 meters deep, on average. It has no outlets and only two minor streams feeding it. It is mostly reliant on rainfall, and fluctuates in depth because of that.

There are three islands in the lake — Isola Polvese, the largest — Isola Maggiore, the only island with year round residents (population 35) — and Isola Minore, a private island which once had a town with a population of 500. It was abandoned due to malaria.

Isola Polvese just off the coast of San Feliciano

I’ve always been fascinated with the fishing culture and history of the lake. Fishing is done only with nets, and many of the families on the lake have been fishing for generations. A fisherman’s life on this lake depends on the catch. If the morning catch is plentiful, they will sell their fish to the co-operative. Then they will clean their nets and go out again the next morning. If the morning catch is small, they will often go back out in the afternoon to try again.

Photo credit Cooperative Pescatore del Trasimeno

The inhabitants of the communes around Trasimeno and the Umbrian people have successfully protected their lake, whose waters are fit for swimming and whose surrounding valleys and islands are protected. In 1995 a natural park was established over the entire surface and the shores. A 50 km (31 mile) bicycle path was opened in 2003 around the lake that allows tourists to explore. There are also cross-country paths, especially over the hills on the eastern side. Inside these limits no motorized boats are allowed. They limit the length to 9 meters at the waterline, and they can be propelled only by oars or sails. This keeps loud, disruptive jet skis and motor boats away. For this reason Trasimeno is calm and beautiful. Perfect for enjoying nature and meditation.

The Trasimeno Fishermen Cooperative located in San Feliciano, was established on 23 September 1928 with the aim of improving the economic conditions and quality of life of the fishermen.

Photo credit Graham Hoffman

It is made up of a workforce of at least fifty people, it defines itself as the guardian of the natural environment of Lake Trasimeno; a fragile ecosystem in which the fishers live in harmony with their catch, protecting their balance through fully sustainable fishing.

Photo credit Cooperative Pescatore del Trasimeno

The Trasimeno Fishermen Cooperative has seen, in the last decade, an important generational change, which has reduced the average age of the fishermen from 75 to 40 years. This means the traditions will continue and prosper. It is one of the many things that I love about Umbria…Here, the traditions live on.

The Cooperative is helping preserve the profession of lake fishermen. The younger workers contribute to the income of the Cooperative by giving the fish to the Cooperative’s warehouse on a daily basis, guaranteeing the supply of fish, which is processed for the purposes of storage and distribution of the fresh and frozen lake fish to operators in the tourism-hospitality industry, and to individuals, in the two distribution points in San Feliciano and Sant’Arcangelo.

The Cooperative also offers fishing tourism activities: for instance, excursions on Lake Trasimeno — fishing trips with traditional techniques that allow you to discover the landscapes of the lake and to admire the pretty sunsets, accompanied on board by fishermen.

Photo credit Graham Hoffman.

Because we can, and because it is a gorgeous autumn day, we went to San Feliciano for lunch and some photo taking. Da Settimio and Osteria Rosso di Sera are our two favorite restaurants there. Both specialize in lake fish and seafood.

And now for the mandatory food pictures.

For another perspective on the lake, here is what it looks like from the mountains that ring it.

This is a spectacular view of the lake from a friends house up on the mountain above Tuoro. Incredible views.

In summertime it is a party place with lots of camp grounds, discos, restaurants, hiking, biking, boating and swimming. I think it is pretty much undiscovered except by Italians. It is a beautiful place.

Ciao, ciao, ciao.

US and European work

I am enormously interested in what is going on in the US job market. Having lived in Germany in the ‘90s I worked in a German bureau. I learned that the Germans work very hard when they are working. They are the most productive people outside maybe Japan. Yet they work only 37.5 hours a week with 6 weeks vacation a year. I also saw they worked when they worked, and when they didn’t, they had a life outside of work. They started at 9 and they left at 5. They took a 1.5 hour lunch with coffee breaks in the morning and snack breaks in the afternoon. They didn’t work weekends. They took all their vacation time. In other words, they worked to live their lives and enjoy themselves and their families. I thought this was brilliant. And when I returned to the States I refused to work ridiculously long hours. My bosses didn’t like it, and maybe I didn’t get promoted, but I was fine with that.

Now I read that people in the US are reassessing their work lives. After Covid allowed them more freedom to work from home and lose the long commute they have decided maybe there is a better way. Is this the silver lining from Covid? Maybe so.

I had a comment on this blog which prompted this post. She seemed to think people were being incentivized to stay home by the current administration. But those incentives have expired. I truly believe that corporate America is getting a wake-up call. They can’t continue to abuse and underpay their employees. And give them no benefits. Like the restaurants, retail and service industries routinely do. People have realized they have options. And power to them, I say! Corporate America can afford to pay their employees, (without which they cannot operate) fairly.

The restaurant workers are an excellent example. I hope the accepted system in America must be changed now, because restaurants cannot get staff to come back. The restaurants pay super low wages ($1.50 an hour sometimes) because they expect their customers (!) to pay the wages of their employees. How arrogant! And no wonder they can’t hire staff. They need to pay a living wage with benefits like any proper job should have. It works in Europe, it will work in the US. They need to bite the bullet and add a service charge to the menu, and raise prices to pay the wages of their employees. No tipping. People do not tip in Italy. You can round up the tab if you want but that’s about it. It is not expected. Increasing pay, benefits and compensation is what is needed.
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This is not to say the Italian system is better, because it is not. So many problems here. Unemployment among the young and very well educated population is awfully high. The young & educated are leaving Italy for other places where they are valued and hired. They don’t want to go, but they have no choices. The system does not encourage entrepreneurs. They actually penalize those with more than 50 workers. It has become a contract economy. The employees are contract workers. The taxes are very high. I am not an expert. But these are the things I have learned.

And in Covid news…as of yesterday all workers must show the Green Pass as proof of vaccination or they will be laid off. Alternatively, they can pay and have the Covid test every 48 hours but this would take a lot of time and they have to pay for the tests themselves. It has come down to, do you want a normal life?
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So this past week we have been readying for our first guests in a long time. I don’t remember when we had our last guests. It is fun anticipating them and getting ready and planning their time here. It is Luther’s brother and wife who live in Virginia, and their daughter and her husband. Of course, I’ll be taking pictures and doing posts.

Ciao, ciao, ciao.

Whoo hoo!

Yesterday, Italy hit the goal of 80% of people over 12 years old fully vaccinated. It is a BIG DEAL. I will say, life is pretty much normal here now. The latest proclamation has opened sporting events to 100% capacity. Gyms, theaters, swimming pools are all open. Of course, one must show the EU Green Pass (or equivalent proof of vaccination from another country) to enter any of these places, plus restaurants. Also, one must still wear the mask inside. Not a problem for Italians, who are not normally rule followers, but are doing it in this case. They, and us interlopers, all wear masks with no drama. Sad to say, a friend who came over from being in Florence, said he witnessed an American woman tourist in a clothing store there who jumped the line to buy something. She had no mask on. The clerk asked her to put on her mask and she said “no”. The security guards ejected her. Why come over here to visit and be so rude? These are the rules of the country who is your host. I sincerely hope this was an anomaly. She was that one bad apple…

Yes, there have been riots in Rome about the Vaccine mandate here. They are organized by a neo-fascist group and definitely not main stream. I read they may be banned. We don’t need this sort of dissent in the middle of a global pandemic.
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Otherwise it is definitely autumn in Umbria. The tobacco is being harvested, the sunflowers have dried and been harvested, the grapes have been mostly harvested. The fall vegetables are now in the market. If I go to the local Saturday market here in town, no one needs to tell me what month it is. All I need to do is look at the available produce and I know. 🙂

Wednesday mercato today, as usual. My market buy today was these beauties!

Porcini mushrooms only fresh in the fall. Many people go mushroom hunting around here. These are plentiful. I’ll be making tagliatelle con porcini – mmm.

Then I bought this…

Salame al Cinghiale. Wild boar salami. It will be for our Sunday Stuzzicheria to welcome our first guests!

Ciao for now!

Bells…near and far

Since my friend, Jennifer and I visited the bell foundry in Molise I have been thinking about bells a lot. I’ve always liked them…been fascinated by them. When we lived in Germany, in the small villages they were always evident, telling the time so no need of a watch…as a matter of fact, until 50 years ago, most people didn’t own a watch so the bells served an important purpose. When we returned home to the US I really missed hearing them.

The foundry was super interesting, and in my investigation for this post I found this nice little video about the Campane Marinelli – Pontificia Fonderia di Campane.

Marinelli foundry.

Before we moved here, and after our return from Germany, we lived in Alexandria, VA, outside of Washington DC. It was founded in the 1600s. There are still many of the original churches in town and they all have their bells. Usually just the one to call to service.

In Arlington, near the Iwo Jima memorial, there is the Netherlands Carillon with it’s 53 bells. A gift, in thanks, from the Netherlands to the US for the liberation of their country from the Nazis. It rings the Westminster Quarter everyday and visiting musicians play it as well. It is played like an organ, with pedals and keyboard.

Then there is the National Cathedral in Washington. It has a full 53 bell carillon too. But to me the best thing is that it has a full set of Peal Bells. I have always been fascinated by this tradition. The Cathedral has ten peal bells. These are rung by a group of Ringers by pulling ropes. Each person has a rope attached to one bell. They are rung in mathematical sequence and are not melodic. This is because each bell can only be rung once every two seconds due to the swing of the bell, the hit of the clapper, and the return of the bell to a position to be pulled again. I won’t go into all the interesting things about “change ringing” it is quite the feat, and art. You can google it if you’re interested, and the National Cathedral site has a nice write up. The tradition originated in the cathedrals in England. So, there are some bells in the US, but not the really personal village church bells like in Europe.

I know you are all wondering what this has to do with Italy, right? Well, in our town we have, so far as I know, three active Catholic Churches, all of whom have bells. [The town seems to have at least eight Catholic churches when I googled but I’m not sure they are active with congregations etc.] We are between two of these churches so we are treated to the bells many times a day. I’ve been here seven years and I still don’t understand all of the ringings and why they are rung when they are rung.

One of the most historic buildings in Umbertide is the bell tower on the edge of the piazza which is all that’s left of San Giovanni Batista (Collegiata), an old church which was hit by bombs in 1944. It has four beautiful bells that now ring for the Chiesa della Madonna ‘della Reggia’, the town’s main church, which is associated with the Chiesa San Francesco in Piazza San Francesco. Construction of the Chiesa della Madonna ‘della Reggia’ began in 1559 and it is a unique round building. The four bells in the tower of San Giovanni ring simultaneously for Sunday Mass at 11 a.m. and for High holy days and Saints days. They make an amazing, and to me, joyous cacophony. One of these bells also rings the hours of the day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. …for those who forgot their watches. 😁 I tried to video the bells ringing but as usual, I was flummoxed by them. One never seems to know the schedules and they change for no apparent reason.

San Giovanni Batista – the bell tower is all that’s left.
Chiesa della Madonna ‘della Reggia’

The church behind us is called Chiesa Parrocchiale del Convento di Santa Maria della Pietà built in 1481. It also has four bells. Unfortunately the note that one of them has is very flat. To make it worse they play “tunes” on them. At noon and at six p.m. every day they “sing”. They also ring a different tune for masses etc.

Chiesa Parrocchiale del Convento di Santa Maria della Pietà

This church also rings the bells for funerals. Each of the four bells, starting from the highest (and flat) one, toll slowly one after another. Then pause and begin again. Over and over. It is mournful and sad. Someone told me they ring them longer, the older the person was, who died. I looked it up and did see this could be true… “ traditional ringing calls for the funeral bell to ring six times (twice three times) for a woman. The bell would toll nine times (three times three) for a man. Then, the bell would ring one time for each year of the deceased’s life.”

The church behind us also rings a bell precisely at 7:30 a.m. every day. For the last year or two, it has been one bell ringing 33 times, then pausing and ringing 33 more times. Yes, I counted. I’m usually still in bed at 7:30 🙂. No one could tell me why they rung this way. I did figure it could have been Jesus’ age. But why twice? On Saturday, October 3, the bell changed! It still rang at 7:30 but only 30 times, and only once. Please tell me why!?

I guess you all can see I am fascinated by the bells. I freely admit it and it is an ongoing fascination. There is much I don’t know, and much to learn.

This is a video I found while researching. It is of the bells in the church behind us.

Recent adventures

Well, maybe not “adventures”…but stuff we did 🙂. Mostly eating. What’s new?!

Anyway, we had lunch with new friends we had not met before last week. They bought a house in Gubbio and were visiting the first time since Covid. It was a pretty day. We sat outside. We were at Ristoro di Campagna. It is a very Umbrian place. No menu, they come and recite what they’ve got. And we dined with chickens! A first for that!

Our view.
Mr. Rooster
….and the little lady

Today we drove to Montepulciano. It’s about an hour and 10 or 15 minutes from our house. We were meeting up with an old friend, Rod, that we both worked with in Germany. Twenty six years ago!! 😳 We dined at La Grotta, one of our favorites. Been many times. It was pretty and we ate in the garden. It was great to catch up, and great to meet Ana, Rod’s wife. Yummy food and nice conversation. Here are my dishes…mmmm.

Hand made pici with almonds, olives and sun dried tomatoes
Perfect lamb chops
Semifreddo

Stay safe everyone!