Yes, my bags are packed again. This time, we’ll be bookending the best of Italy in October as we explore western Sicily, and then venture north to Turin and Barolo country and truffles! What could be better? You joining us, of course!
Before each of my Morso Soggiorno tours, I travel to Italy to take a “dry run” of my own trip. Makes sense, right? I research my trips intensively, write long emails and anxiously await replies, read reviews, get references from trusted sources. I make phone calls at all hours of the day and night in Italian so broken it could make your ears bleed. But none of that considerable effort stands in for a little face time. My in-person meetings are beyond fruitful and serve a couple of purposes, aside from getting me to Italy, which, it goes without saying, is an amazing benefit.
Nailing down all important and elusive commitments from my Italian colleagues is a challenge, especially when I’m reserving limited and exclusive accommodations and events. It’s even more difficult when I’m trying to convince an artisan or craft business to open its doors to my groups. Imagine asking the fine gentleman below “Can you please demonstrate your 200 year-old, ultra-secret ricotta-making technique for my group and me?” Even the most scrupulous and hardworking farmers, vendors, cheese makers, vintners and restauranteurs are way too comfortable with open-ended plans that they are sure can be confirmed domani (tomorrow). Me, not so much. I’m all about signing on the dotted line, and inking my name on a specific date on a calendar that preferably remains in their direct line of sight.
2013. Morso Soggiorno’s inaugural year.
We visited Abruzzo, Lazio, Umbria, Le Marche, Sicily, Basilicata and Puglia. We ate, we drank, we laughed. We strolled, foraged, hiked, shopped, rolled pasta, hunted truffles, pressed olive oil, picked grapes, cooked with a duchess, picked purple potatoes with a farmer in a fog shrouded field, made more cultural faux pas and grammar mistakes than even Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State could save us from, and still, we were welcomed warmly, with the love, care and attention usually offered only to family.
The only thing we didn’t conquer was the Italian postal service, who still has all the goodies we shipped home. Hope you’re enjoying them, guys.
Here are a bunch of my impressions, visual and verbal, in no certain order, of the first year living my dream. Intrigued? Hope you can join us next year. Keep an eye out for our 2014 itinerary, including Turin, Sicily and Abruzzo, coming in early January.
Bombed out Baroque palazzi and churches on just about every corner in Palermo, Sicily, each more hauntingly beautiful and staggeringly dramatic than the next.
For the Sunday afternoon passegiata in Scanno, the older women do their best to bring the guidebooks to life by dressing in the traditional style: long full skirts, black sweaters and heads covered in a dark fazzoletti. Then, they scowl at us when we take pictures. Huh?
We walked around a remote farm in the mountains of Le Marche, cameras in hand, while we waited for the sheep’s milk to heat in a giant copper pot, first to make the pecorino, and then to make the ricotta. Behind the barn, we found doves in cages, bees in hives and baby chicks hiding under a bush with their mother.
An enchanting day spent with Nicoletta Polo Lanza at Palazzo Butera in Palermo, Sicily. We cooked, learned more than a bit of the history of her husband’s family, and lived for a little while like the royalty of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily.
In the chill fields beneath the medieval hilltop village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo, three farmers compared notes. Two Italian, one American, six hands, many seeds and a meeting of the minds over farming grains in harsh conditions. Like Massachusetts. And the mountains of Abruzzo.
Everywhere in Italy, you see them. Great cars. Little cars, big cars, fast cars, slow cars, old cars, new cars. Horns blasting, engines revving, ignoring signals, speed limits, and every parking regulation ever invented. But always doing it with style.
In an old barn in Ofena, Abruzzo, we’re treated to a demonstration of the only “modern” machine available in the region that can separate the lentils from their unwelcome casings. Part winnower, part thresher, very high maintenance but lovingly cosseted, it processes every Slow Food Presidia lentil for miles around.
Paparazza, Italian style. They start ’em young. And cute.
The chef of Sapori di Campagna, Ofena, Italy. A woman of many talents, Gabriela taught us to how to make six kinds of pasta, among other regional specialities, then she prepared us a delectable six course dinner. But by far, the best thing Gabriela shared was her 2013 calendar, hanging in a place of honor and inspiration on the back of her kitchen door. Does it feature picturesque photos of the region, you ask? Speciality foods? No. Just beautiful, and scantily clad, Italian soccer stars in all their glory.
Whimsical, colorful Opera dei Pupi, the traveling marionette caravans rest in alleys in between performances, a homage to families who travelled from town to town performing, beginning in the 13th century.
The juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient, both in the service of a sustainable life.
“Hello,” he said, a disembodied voice originating high above us. “Do you want to buy biscotti? I can come down, it’s just too cold to sit there all day.” Our answer was a resounding si! si!, yes! to the best chocolate biscotti, and incredible mostacciolo cookies, made with grape must and chocolate. My favorite part? Lifesize photos adorning the walls and doorways, all of his late wife, in her youth, dressed in the typical Scannese costume.“Take a Dramamine if you get queasy on switchbacks or have a problem with heights,” I warned my intrepid traveling companions. The drive from Sulmona to Scanno is fraught with both, but the vistas are worth the effort. Like hanging on the edge of Heaven.
When I was 12, my parents took us to Spain. There, we watched a donkey walk in a circle, his movement turning a giant stone wheel that crushed olives for olive oil. It was a sensory delight, but the smell was what I most vividly remember. Fresh cut hay, green grass, both deep, rich, and verdant. Modernization makes the process simpler, but I was transported to another time and place as the vivid green, freshly pressed oil poured from the press in Marsala, Sicily.
The men in Italy. Need I say more? When they meet, they kiss each other on the cheeks. Twice. They carry babies, push strollers, walk slowly with aging nonnas, and have been known to make an appreciative comment to a random woman passing by. At this, the feminist in me shrugs her shoulders. Italian men are demonstrative, and they demonstrate their love for their families, and the fairer sex loudly and often.
These two women gave us a simple lesson in trickle down economics and caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. We bought garlic, the lady on the left “neglected” to make us our change as she deposited our coins into a well worn leather coin purse. Later, we saw her take the same coins and trade them at another vendor for grapes, and cheese. And so it goes.
Pasta alla guitarra in a simple sauce of wild spinach foraged from the mountainside behind Il Vecchio Ristoro in Rocca Pia. Sweet, tender, deeply hued matte velvet green leaves, almost triangular in shape, have a slight mineral, earthy taste.
Sunday morning. For me, another city, another hotel. What’s constant is that everyone, in every culture, has their Sunday morning ritual. Here, at the Ace Hotel in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, pork-pie hatted hipsters and their bleary-eyed companions, some with very telling shades perched on their noses, sip cappuccinos while trying very hard not to seem to try too hard.
Makes me miss Sicily. If I were in Salemi, in the mountains outside of Marsala, I’d be hanging out at the Azienda Cucchiara, feigning nonchalance while near bursting with excitement, in a group of authentically breezy middle-aged men. They stand in small circles, comparing notes on Serie A, or the family, or the olive harvest, or, in a particularly loud moment, the state of Italian politics. Now and again, they turn to look at a young man in knee-high rubber boots patiently stirring a simmering creamy liquid in a giant pot. They know he’s backed by three generations of cheese-makers. In fact, his nonno is supervising from a nearby chair. They know what’s coming will be worth the wait. Continue reading