Morso Soggiorno’s annotated year in review: 2013

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.

bombed out baroque in palermo

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?

costume sundays in scannoWe 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.

dovesAn 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.

ducal splendorIn 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.

Farmers taking crops

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.

funky fabulous cars

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.

lentil harvester

Paparazza, Italian style. They start ‘em young. And cute.

paparazzi

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.

pasta maker with calendar The salt flats in Trapani, Sicily. Don Quixote, eat your heart out. Sprinkle on a little salt. We’ve got plenty.

salt flats don quixote style

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.

sicilian puppet shows

The juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient, both in the service of a sustainable life.

sustainability, modern and age old

“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.the biscsotti man in scanno“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.

the road to scanno 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.

there is nothing like virgin olive oil

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.

three generations

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.

trickle down economics 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.

wild spinach pasta

Cacio e Uova, the anti-pasta.

Here are the words I never thought I’d utter: I think I will die if I eat another plate of pasta.

Shocking and sacrilegious? Sure is. Heretical, really, since I consider pasta a religious experience. All those old adages about too much of a good thing? Well, they’re true. Just how much pasta must one consume to pass the “good thing” threshold? My marker came midway through the second week of Morso Soggiorno’s Abruzzo Tours this fall. Perhaps you felt it, the moment the Earth briefly stopped spinning on its axis.

So many pastas

Continue reading

Beat that, Bourdain.

No, I’m not fool enough to go toe to toe with Anthony Bourdain.

First off, he’s my culinary travel hero. He’s real, raw and adventurous. Second off, he’s a snarky fuck, and I doubt even I could hold my own against him in a competition, verbal or otherwise. (Although, it might be close.) And third off, well, he’s Anthony Bourdain. And I’m Linda Plazonja. That pretty much says it all.

But in the spirit of channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain, I did invoke the “What Would Tony Do?” mantra more than once when planning my culinary anthropology expeditions to deepest, darkest Italy. I took a liberal page from his books, and his TV shows. Anthony Bourdain is the king of no-holds-barred, complete immersion. He’ll go anywhere, meet anyone, eat anything. Me, I like to think I live by the same code. But truth be told, tripe will stop me dead in my tracks and expose me as a wimp. I’d be shaking my head in the universal language of “not on your life,” while between bites, my hero would be asking “Which part of the cow’s four stomachs is this particular dish from?”

So, I’m the first to admit, I’m a poor imitation. But I’m also the first to admit that the travel I plan is not the norm. It is out-of-the-way without being over-the-top. The local folks I meet passionately and joyfully immerse me in their culinary and agricultural traditions. I can enjoy the experience without requiring a lawyer, production crew or a hospital visit. And best of all, the food I eat sates my curiosity as well as my appetite without qualifying me for an episode of Extreme Eating Disgusting Edition.

More than once over the last three weeks, my groups and I experienced many “Bourdain moments.” So, for the next few weeks, or for as long as they last, I’ll serve you up one a day.

La Bettola di Geppetto

In the the hilltop town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, we’re the only folks in the small, homey restaurant cum butcher shop, La Bettola di Geppetto, Geppetto’s Tavern. Geppetto, whose real name is Francesco (don’t ask) seats us, serves us a local Pecorino wine, and, without our saying a word, brings out steaming bowls of lentil soup. Like magic, saffron and ricotta ravioli and tagliatelle with funghi porcini and guanciale, both homemade, appear on giant platters on both ends of the table.

Presidium lentil soup in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo.

Saffron and Ricotta Ravioli in Santo Stefano di Sessanio.Tagliatelle with Porcini and Guanciale at La Bettola di Gepetto.Curious about the origins of this lavish feast, I pretend to use the bathroom and peek into the kitchen. A small, grey-haired lady in a pink housecoat is at a four burner stove, calmly preparing a five course meal for our group of 10. This is Lena, Francesco’s wife and partner of 60 years. After additional courses of house-made grilled sausages, veal chops, arrosticini, formaggio in padella, cicoria and tiramisu, Lena appears from the kitchen, no worse for the wear, to join us in a glass of of genciana, a local digestif made from gentian root. It ain’t called the Devil’s Taint for nothing. Continue reading

Care. In a package.

“My mother is sending you some of the special foods of our region. The package should arrive today.”

So said our houseguest, Flavia, a lovely, engaging young woman who is visiting from Abruzzo, Italy, while she interns as a researcher in a lab at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

From the dispensa. products from abruzzo.

Flavia arrived one Sunday in July, sight unseen. Meaning, literally, we had never set eyes on her, nor spoken to her. As I waited for her outside of Customs at Logan Airport, I held up a handwritten sign that screamed ‘FLAVIA’ in giant red letters. Needless to say, she didn’t miss me. Continue reading

Feeding Teens. Portable, practical, perfect.

Teenage boys eat a lot.

Sometimes, they eat even more than usual. Swim season is one of those times. Three hours a day of laps and sprints and dry land. Even before I get the memo, clues appear that pre-season training is underway.

When I kamikazi in for a quick peck on the cheek and a stealth scalp sniff (what mother can resist that?) I smell chlorine, and stiff hair bristles scrape against my invasive nose.

The portable laundry rack in the basement, usually utilized solely for drying my unmentionables or the occasional fresh linguine, now hangs with a Speedo and Quik-dri towel.

Free periods at school are transformed from a sanctuary of adolescent angst to a quick walk home to raid the refrigerator. Leftovers are a thing of the past. The microwave hums endlessly.

Onion, sausage, black olive and ricotta sfincione“Ma,” my sixteen year old says, his back to me, arm draped over the open refrigerator door as he leans into the $300 worth of groceries I bought yesterday. “You going shopping today? There’s nothing to eat. What time is dinner?” It’s only 10 o’clock in the morning. The check hasn’t even cleared yet. Continue reading

Days 7 and 8: Fossacesia + Sfincione

I would rather be immersed in boiling oil (extra virgin, of course) than rent a car in Italy. Unfortunately, my itinerary is so far-flung in central and southern Italy that a car is a necessity. And that doesn’t even count my guest appearance at Justin and Jessica’s wedding in Puglia.

Jonathan, my car freak husband, carefully arranges the rental of a VW Golf with GPS for pick up on October 13 at the airport in Pescara. Fearing that the GPS wouldn’t materialize, he has it pre-shipped to us in Brookline, a wonderful option, we think, and I carry it over.

Here’s what I get in Pescara:  A Lancia Muso (essentially a minivan) in which the charger for my GPS does not fit, that, according to the agent, Stefania, was reserved for October 15, which is two days from now.

Stefania, by the way, is all of five feet tall and 90 pounds. Dressed in a camouflage-colored uniform that could pass for combat fatiques, she has the attitude of an army sergeant. She is just returning from a 2½-hour lunch break, and is besieged by a phalanx of angry car renters even before she unlocks her kiosk. Given my present circumstances, it is not difficult to understand their frustration. One side-ways glance through squinted eyes from Stefania quiets us all into a semblance of order.

I overhear the story of one poor American woman, who has accidentally knocked off her driver’s side mirror navigating the narrow streets. She is instructed to find her own replacement car at one of the sister car agencies, or she can just continue driving the damaged car and take her chances at being stopped by the Carabinieri. Suddenly, my administrative difficulties seem inconsequential in comparison.

One hour and several hundred Euros later, I am off. I now have an English-speaking travel companion, my new British friend, Kate, the voice that comes preloaded in my TomTom.

For the price of the TomTom rental, I should have Kate Winslet riding shotgun. Or Cate Blanchett. Or Kate Moss. Or, for that matter, Duchess Kate. Better yet, why not all of them? It would be a great time and we could split the cost.

Forget Thelma and Louise. How about Linda and the Kates? Or is it that I just want to drive this d$%# car off a cliff?

I travel south along the seaside from Pescara through the town of Ortona keeping an eye out for the trabocchi, giant fishing rigs that extend far out into the startlingly turquoise water. From a distance, spindly and lean, they appear like enormous daddy-long-leg spiders perched atop the barely rippling waves.

Trabocchi are something of a tourist attraction now, often fashioned into restaurants, bars or small lodgings. Some are still worked in the old style, their nets cast into the sea, scooping up thousands of small silvery fish. The spoils are used to make a fabulous fish stew called Brodetto di Pesce alla Vastese.

I am on my way to village of Fossacesia, where my friends Laura and Mario live. Laura and Mario are two of the amazing people who shared my enthusiasm for my epic Italian pilgrimage, and were introduced to me by my neighbor, Kristen. The itinerary for this trip materialized largely on the goodwill of my friends, their friends, and strangers who have now become friends.

Laura has reserved a small but welcoming agriturismo, the Casale di San Giovanni, for my stay. She accompanies me as I check in, introducing me to the owner, Nicoletta. I am incredibly late, due to Stefania’s lunch break, tired, and a little confused.

Nicoletta walks me to my room and asks in Italian, ‘At what time would you like breakfast?’ Not missing a beat, I respond, ‘I don’t eat a lot for breakfast, thank you, but I would love coffee at 7 am.’

Nicoletta’s eyes grow large, and, too late, I recognize my mistake. I have forgotten myself. I am not on a business trip in a big city, I am in a small village, in a small agriturismo, run by a family. And tomorrow is Sunday. The only day of rest in Italy. At once, despite my best efforts, I feel culturally incompetent.

Laura rescues me (as she often will over the next few days), saying ‘I think she’ll be ready around 8 am. She’s tired, she’s going to sleep in. Va bene, Linda?’ Is that okay, Linda?

Si, si, grazie,’ I say, relieved. By the time I arrive the next morning, a lovely plate of sweets and a hot, strong cup of caffe lungo await me. I have learned during this trip that everything is brighter, more welcoming, more pleasant in the light of day.

Mario and Laura host me for some incredible meals and local sight-seeing. Fossacesia will be my base for the next few days as I travel inland to meet with various local artisans.

Today, we take a walking tour of Lanciano, a village that has had multiple lives. Originally a Roman town, like many other places in Italy, as the years progressed, older environs were built upon, creating layers of civilizations.

Laura is an amazing cook. On our first night together, she prepared sfogliata di melanzane, crispy slices of eggplant layered with her own chickpea puree and topped with marinated red peppers and fresh basil.

The main course was gnocchi alla Romana, sliced rounds of polenta, set in a circular pattern in a baking dish and layered with butter and cheese, like a gratin. It is crunchy and has a nutty, rich flavor and luscious creamy texture. I have two servings. I am not shy about eating great food, although concern for the already stressed seams of my jeans makes me feel a little guilty. But just a little.

My favorite dish by far is a sweet and sour butternut squash Laura makes for our dinner on Sunday. Thin slices of orange-fleshed squash are lightly fried, patted dry, and layered with a mixture of minced garlic, mint, and breadcrumbs. A couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar are sprinkled on top, and the entire dish is left to sit for several hours for the flavors to cure. How can something so simple be so satisfying?

For our lunch, Mario makes sfincione, a stuffed Sicilian pizza. The bottom crust is layered with melted, gooey, cacciocavalo cheese. This is topped with another piece of dough, then layered with salty, flavorful chopped anchovies, tangy tomato sauce, fresh oregano, sweet onion, parmigiano and blessed with a little extra virgin olive oil. Breadcrumbs are sprinkled on top to absorb any flavor that might have the nerve to consider dripping off the side.

Too good for words, and lucky me, I get to take a slice for my lunch on the road to Termoli tomorrow.

Lucky you, all of the recipes will be shared once I get home an have a chance to convert them to American measurements. Stay tuned.

Ciao for now.

Note: Bear with me, Morso fans. The blog entries are chronologically out of order, as I have been without WiFi more often than I intended.

Even more importantly, I’ve been overwhelmed by the generous, intimate, sharing spirits of the people I’ve visited. I want to take the time to present their stories to you in the same spirit in which they were offered to me.

Not to worry, though, I’ll include every detail in blogs in the upcoming weeks.

Day Three: The Orto at Sapori di Campagna.

Is there a garden anywhere worth the trouble of a 7 am wake-up call? Before today, even an invitation to rendezvous at 7 am in the Garden of Eden would’ve gotten a big fat, no thanks, Adam, from me. Too many snakes, don’t like apples.

But today? Today the answer is yes.

If I had any doubt this whole Agriturismo thing, for all its romantic illusion of a simple return to a simpler time, is really incredibly hard work, it is put to rest when Louise drops me off at the Sapori for a farm tour.

Before the car door slams shut behind me, I feel like a sloth. By the time I arrive, the entire family is hard at work, checking guests out, cooking, cleaning. The same family I left last night at 10 pm, when they were clearing the dinner dishes from my table, the dining room still full, is back at it a scant few hours later.

After a boisterous ‘salve‘ and the welcome offer an espresso macchiato and a light-as-a-cloud slice of ricotta lemon cake, Livia introduces me to her father, the farmer of the operation. He and I pile into his car, and immediately go off-road into one of the many fields that create the velvety, tapestry-like landscape of Abruzzo. The car smells curiously of sheep’s milk cheese, a not unwelcome aroma to me.

‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I forgot to drop off the cheese.’ I turn around, and sure enough, a dozen wheels of sheep’s milk pecorino, the Cannestrato del Castel del Monte, are tucked into the trunk. He smiles sheepishly. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)

He’s all business. I don’t even learn his name. He’s very serious about his farm, and perhaps a little put out that he’s taking up valuable time showing me around. He reminds me that it’s late in the season, the fields are almost farmed out. Not much left to see. Don’t expect too much.

As we move deeper into the countryside, across wide, grassy expanses of early Fall fields, we talk about the Slow Food Movement, about the Presidi of his region. He is able to rattle them off in short order, and I learn he will represent the region at the Salone Del Gusto in Turin later this month, something he has done for the past several years. Hmmm. A farmer with the soul of an advocate and activist. Things are getting interesting.

The frostiness in the air abates. We’re finding common ground. He’s speaking slower, I’m understanding more. The fluency of food talk is again working it’s magic.

More than three hours later, after touring field after field, crop after crop, stables, animal pens, olive groves, fruit and nut trees, I am in awe. I am going to take a page from the Farmer’s book and set expectations. The pictures will not do this enterprise the justice it deserves. But I can try, and try, I will.

What you will see is evidence of the fall growing season. At this time of year, the Farmer and one helper work the land themselves. During high season, the season of tomatoes, zucchini, celery, lettuces, peppers, peas (I could go on and on) he hires up to five helpers.

In addition to what he cultivates, he is quick to forage for wild herbs and vegetables, including wild asparagus, thyme, mint, lettuces, persimmon, wild fennel, mushrooms, quince. Nothing will go to waste.

Enjoy. And think about your own garden. If you like to get dirty, this post’s for you. And my friend, the Farmer? His name is Signore Costantini, and I am in his debt.

Remember, you can click on any image to begin a slide-show tour.

Day Two: Rome to Capestrano

I awaken to the realization that the deadly triumvirate of age, jet-lag and a lousy night’s sleep have taken their toll on my globe-trotting self. Grrrrrr. I open my shutters. Ah, Rome. Yesterday, you were a sight for sore eyes. Today, my sore, puffy eyes are no sight for you. Or anybody else, for that matter.

The combination of Signora Laura’s breakfast caffe latte, served in a giant bowl, and her dramatic admonishments on the peril of going anywhere, let alone the bus station, during Monday morning Roman traffic, motivate me to jump headlong into my day. Frankly, I would rather jump back into bed. But my friend, Louise, awaits in Capestrano. So I tell myself, muoviti! Get moving.

Louise lives in Italy part of the year, in the region of Abruzzo, which, for you fans of the leg-model of Italian geography, is located on the lower back calf. Looks great on a woman in a high heel, and even better on Michelangelo’s David.

Regardless of the attributes you find attractive in a shapely calf, Abruzzo is sure to deliver. Craggy, cloud shrouded mountains and lush, fertile valleys, book-ended on one side by the Adriatic sea provide an incredibly diverse geography and varied climate destined to produce a range of extraordinary food and wine.

Louise has generously offered to act as my own personal Julie McCoy, her little Hyundai our love boat, and we’re off to romance the heck out of a number of sustainable food businesses. If only I can find her.

I’m clearly not beyond my foibles with public transportation in Italy. The bus, unbeknownst to me, arrives at its final destination: the underground terminal at L’Aquila Station, where I am to meet Louise. I have misunderstood the elderly lady sharing my seat. I am sure she told me I have one more stop to go. Everyone piles off. I sit. I check my phone. I look around. I sit some more.

The driver, waiting outside by the door, throws his foot up onto the stair, looks me straight in the eye and says, ‘So, are you coming home with me?’ There is no mistaking the look in his eyes. It is not a come on, it is a get off. Now. Please.  After a second or two of comedic pause, he smiles, points at the elevator, and motions for me to go upstairs. I smile and climb down, as he wrestles my suitcase from the luggage compartment.

‘Is your entire family in this bag?’ he asks. ‘No,’ I say, ‘Just two of my kids.’ We laugh. I move toward the elevator, grateful, yet again, that Italians have a good sense of humor, Louise is a patient woman, and the coffin I call my luggage is on wheels.

Within hours, the reality of my adventure hits me. We’re sitting at a table at Sapori di Campagna, an Agriturismo in Ofena, and I’m about to interview Livia in Italian about her family’s business. I’m scared witless, but, as it turns out, for no reason at all. Food is our common language, our common bond. Conversation flows freely.

I learn that in the late 90’s, the family transformed their vacation home into the Sapori di Campagna. Conventional wisdom in the States and elsewhere holds that an Agriturismo is a bed and breakfast (and other meals) on a working farm. It’s that, and so much more. A true Agriturismo is mandated by Italian law to produce at least 75% of the products served guests eating or staying on their property. An additional 20% should be sourced locally.

My jaw drops. And yours would, too. Think about it: could you grow 95% of what your family eats?

‘So,’ I say, ‘What is it you don’t produce?’ Livia raises her hand to start ticking things off on her fingers. By the second finger, she’s stumped.

‘Oh,’ she says, with excitement, like she is providing the winning answer on a quiz show, ‘Wine, and cheese. And fruit. We grow fruit, but we don’t serve the fruit we grow. It’s not mature enough. We make it into marmalade. And local other businesses produce wonderful wine and cheese.’

Later that evening, we return for dinner, along with a lovely friend from Louise’s village, Serena. Talk turns to the terremoto, the earthquake that devastated Abruzzo in 2009, and it’s long-lasting physical and emotional consequences.

Serena and Louise order a pasta course. I will be served a tasting menu to experience the full breadth of the Sapori’s production. A basket of golden, lightly salted gnoccho fritto is a warm and welcome substitute for traditional bread. A selection of housemade salume, a prosciutto, a pancetta and salami L’Aquilano are outrageously delicious. Rich, creamy, brilliant white fat, peppery, aromatic meats, redolent of the pastures the animals have grazed on, have been cured in the family’s own cantina.

Next, a crostini of perfectly ripe pear, a soft, tangy cheese, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chopped nuts is simple but may end up being the star of the evening. A wedge of polenta di farro, gratinata con stracchino, funghi porcini and rucola. A fried zucchini flower stuffed with local mozzarella. A roll of pasta filled with sweet cabbage, potatoes and cheese. A small glass of white bean crema, with a hidden center of tomato essence, topped with crostini croutons.

Am I finished? Not by a long shot. The house specialty is a pasta with ceci and saffron, dotted with tomatoes.

As we prepare to leave, we arrange to meet Livia’s father at 8 the following morning for a tour of his orto, or garden. As it turns out, his garden is 35 hectares. Gabriella, the wonderful cook at Sapori, generously shares her recipe for the house pasta, and I will share it with you tomorrow.

Ci vediamo.