Beyond the Romance

My husband is an Instagram junkie. If Instagram addicts had a 12-step program, he’d be the poster child. It’s not a bad thing. He’s good with a photo, quick with a caption, great at capturing that elusive “perfect moment.”  He brings people, places and things to life, gives them personality, makes them accessible. Truth be told, he’s a romantic, and he brings that sense of romance to his photos. He makes people envy what he sees and want to be a part of it. Who doesn’t want to fall a little in love, even for a moment?

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Problem is, they’re “snapshot” moments. My Italian houseguest, Livia, asked me to explain the concept of a “snapshot” recently. I told her a snapshot is an idealized moment in time, one second of an entire experience captured for posterity. It only seems representative of the whole. In reality, it’s deceptive, a sleight of hand. Like most of life, it’s contrived by the author to tell part of a story, the part he or she wants to share. An experienced person always knows there is more. Or should, in this day and age of constant social media manipulation of us mere mortals.

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Why am I on this harangue about romance versus reality? Well, my business is travel and half of providing travel that satisfies is capturing the romance of the moment. My work is to create unique, intimate, unforgettable experiences for my guests. To get to the unique, intimate and unforgettable part, I search out interesting people doing interesting things in the world of artisan food and wine production in Italy and Spain. The odd beekeeper in the center of Milan. The woman in the hills of the Roero keeping her grandmother’s confection, condiment and conserve recipes alive. The self-taught 21-year old high school drop-out successfully running his family’s vineyard, after nearly running away from winemaking altogether.

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My guests and I may be the travelers, but these folks are on the real journey. And while we’re seduced by the romance of these old-world, artisan-centric stories, beneath the surface, there’s an underlying reality that is bone-crushingly difficult.

Meetings take place after the business owners have spent a long day in the vineyard, are halfway out the door to a much-needed vacation following weeks and weeks of 18-hour days, in the middle of the olive harvest, or in a 100° kitchen as the chef wipes his hands clean at the close of service in a 5-star restaurant.

How do they do it? They’re fueled by passion, by heritage, by pride, by a love of sharing and by a refusal to fail. When I ask for their hashtag, they tell me they don’t have the time for social media. But they’re social media stars, nonetheless, having enviable lives, at least in a snapshot.

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My friends often tell me they are “taking a social media vacation.” They remark that there are times when they just can’t tolerate their own feelings of jealousy or envy (or loneliness? or isolation?) when they happen across a particularly emotionally engaging photo.

My advice is always the same: you, too, have lived similar moments. You, too, will live them again. It’s just your heart telling you it’s time to shut down your computer, take a risk, and make another memory. More than that, be happy for your social media friends reveling in their social media moments. Believe me, there is always more to the (back)story.

So the next time you feel a twinge of envy over a seemingly perfect snapshot moment, remember the words Earth, Wind + Fire sing so eloquently in Shining Star: “life ain’t always what it seems, oh yeah.” Instead find a little inspiration to go out and make your own memories. Or at least, take a new profile picture.

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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.

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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

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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