■ 5 days ago by James Martin
You’ve all heard: Italy is in financial distress. There are no jobs, especially for young people. Italy provides Italian citizens with excellent educations, but these days the educated vanish, heading for where the jobs are. The situation is hopeless.
I’d like you to meet a very interesting man. His name is Luciano Bandinelli. When he stands in front of his shop on the edge of the little town with the strange name you wish you have visited in Tuscany, Colle Val d’Elsa, he nearly bangs his head on the sign.
Yes, Luciano in a way joined the exodus, forsaking the family business in favor of working for a technology company that sent him all over the world. His father wasn’t so pleased. Then one fateful day, on an airplane coming home from a trip to smog-shrouded China, he thought, “What am I doing in this smoggy hell? I live in a place everyone wants to live in. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
And so he came home again. He joined his father in the business of making glass all it can be. He is a Crystal Master Craftsman. His motto is “passion, tradition, emotion.” Neither he nor I found those attributes in modern technology.
He applies each of those qualities in the crystal he produces, however. I know cut crystal has gone out of fashion. Wine glasses are factory molded and cheap. You make a toast with friends and you “clink” your glasses together, but they no longer ring happy tidings, they don’t even clink—they clunk. You know why?
Because they’re not leaded crystal, that’s why. Touch two crystal glasses together and they ring like a bell—and almost forever (or at least until you give up and take a drink).
What about the lead in the crystal? You’ve heard bad things about it. Let’s tackle that. Italy has a limit to how much lead can be put in the crystal. While lead can leach into acidic liquids that have remained in containers for an extended period of time, the use of crystal wine glasses is quite safe:
For everyday use, no liquid stays in the glass long enough during any meal to leak lead that exceeds EPA standards. This is good news for consumers who can safely use lovely crystal stemware to serve wine, water, and other beverages. ~ Is It Safe to Use Crystal Glasses?
Of course, Luciano makes more than crystal wine glasses. The shop is full of plates, light fixtures, ornaments and other shimmering, hand-crafted and cut crystal items:
La Grotta del Cristallo is a unique Atelier creating original crystal pieces; gifts for special occasions; table decorations; customized engravings made to order.
If you go to the grotta, you can see how all this is done. Luciano has a video that shows the hand cutting of the glass, and he’ll show you how the glass is polished and cut. It’s an amazing thing to see.
I want to tell you to buy things. Lots of things. I want to tell you to support this exodus back to what Italy does best: handmade things that last nearly forever and are well worth a premium price. Why support minimum wage slave production of cheap crap? But I won’t. Just see for yourself. And, you know, I am directing you to a very interesting town.
Find out more on Luciano’s web site: La Grotta dei Cristallo
Colle di Val d’Elsa, literally the hill of the valley of the Elsa river, is spread out on three geographical levels. The top level, the castle, is the oldest. Tourists don’t plan to come here, they see the massive gate and towers and they stop because they are surprised by the sight. There is plenty of parking outside the walls.
If you’re coming to San Gimignano or Volterra by car, Colle di Val d’Elsa makes a fine day or half-day trip. The town lies along the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which gave it an early market boost. There are only two long roads, a compelling little passageway/tunnel, fine restaurants, a great hotel and apartments, and some interesting little museums, including, in the lower town, one dedicated to crystal. Why? Because 15% of the world’s crystal and 95 percent of Italy’s crystal is produced here, in little Colle di Val d’Elsa! Glass production was introduced in the 17th century by the nobel Usimbardi family. Before that, Colle was known for paper production.
Where to Eat? Cooking Guru Divina Cucina recommends Officina Della Cucina Popolare, just inside the gate you see below called “Porta Nova”. Michelin (and Luciano) recommends Arnolfo, definitely a splurge, also popular (and more affordable) is Il Cardinale inside the Relais Della Rovere.
So here’s the gate that compels passing tourists to enter:
Map of Colle Val d’Elsa and Location of La Grotta del Cristallo
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ 7 days ago by James Martin
They’ve recently announced the stages in the Giro d’Italia for 2014, and I couldn’t help pick my faves for creamy tourist goodness. Stage 4 caught my eye. It starts in my favorite fishing village, Giovinazzo and ends in Bari. Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished an article on the food of Puglia, but this is the stage I’d pick if I could will myself down the Italian peninsula to watch.
From a tourist perspective, there’s a lot to see on this 121 km stage. Maybe you should grab a bike and do the route before the boys in spandex rip through.
Giovinazzo is a historic town on the sea, a fishing village most of the year that becomes a bloated excuse for party-all-night bedlam in the season. Don’t go in August. In the way-off season, if you’re up early and trundle on down to the shore, it’s likely you’ll hear the plaintive song of the Octopus slappers. Otherwise, the port is quite idyllic in the morning. Watching the fishers of Giovinazzo will lower your blood pressure enough to make you want coffee, which is found in any of the many bars around the little port.
From here you can watch the racers zip along the road to a town called Bitonto. Ever heard of it? It’s on the ancient Via Triana ending up in Bari, where the racers will also end up. Visiting the towns along the Via Triana makes for a very interesting historic itinerary.
Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, Bitonto makes a very nice destination for the day. Allow me to quote myself:
The Romanesque cathedral is built over a paleochristian church which you can visit. The ambo, or pulpit and lectern, is a masterpiece of stonecarving made in 1229 (shown on the right). A good virtual tour of the city of Bitonto is found here. Museums to visit include: Galleria Nazionale, Galleria di Arte Contemporanea, Teatro Traetta, and the Museo Archeologico.
After Bitonto, the boys go on to Bari, which used to be a mere stopover for ferries to Greece, but where the slow tourist will find abundant charm among the little streets and alleyways in the old city, where women still make pasta by hand to sell in front of their houses. The port is the site of a lively fish market across from the castle, and the Cathedral of Bari, consecrated in 1292, is a Romanesque marvel that gets exceedingly high marks from folks who review such things—but is overshadowed by the Basilica of St. Nicholas:
Built in 1087 to house the saint’s remains, the church features several different architectural styles and houses a number of art works. The crypt, where the saint’s tomb is kept, has good mosaics.
If Saint Nick isn’t enough for you, you can always go back to watching the Giro. The boys circle the city 8 times—and they haven’t climbed any significant hills so they should be flying. Getting to see them more than once doesn’t happen very often, so take advantage.
The Puglia stage in the Giro should be quite something to see. For a large route map, click here.
■ 9 days ago by James Martin
It was a gloriously sunny morning when we walked into the olive grove on the edge of Montestigliano. Our eyes fell upon a the riot of color a bumper year for wildflowers brings to these parts.
Marta’s father, a “cowboy” from the Maremma they call a buttero, collected herbs and mushrooms while he worked, and her grandmother taught her how to cook them. But they get only minor billing, according to Marta.
“Mother Nature is the real teacher,” she admitted.
We strolled through the thick undergrowth behind Marta as she pointed out the edibles in the biomass that we hadn’t clumsily trampled over. Chickweed, poppy leaves, daisies, dandelions, chicory, crepis, wild onion, spring garlic, wild sage, ciccerbitta, and even malva jumped out at her. “Malva” means “bad, go away” in Italian, but fake-named plants can’t fool Marta, who encouraged us to eat the small, tender leaves and flowers.
There was also a good sized clump of stinging nettles. Ortica in Italian, which I like very much. To eat I mean. I’ve worked around nettles a lot, but Marta told me something I didn’t know about them—the sting only comes from the upper, or sun side, of the leaves. You can touch the back of the leaves with impunity—or even with your fingers—and you won’t feel the sting.
When it came time to prepare our haul for lunch, Marta combined the nettles with eggs from the chickens raised at home and made it into the delicious concoction you see on top of the page, a nettle frittata. Other “weed” leaves were sauteed and got stuffed inside simple pastry, and still others, along with flowers, became a salad.
Add a little pasta to the mix flavored with our found herbs and we sat down to another abundant Italian meal.
Marta’s guidance in gathering herbs and cooking with them was part of an experiential travel tour developed by the collaboration of Sharon and Walter of Simple Italy and Luisa and friends at the Agriturismo Montestigliano.
While this spring’s tour is coming to a close, you can plan now for the fall harvest tour.
Popular These Days
■ 15 days ago by James Martin
So, to begin: we’re a small group of “bloggers” on a little tour of the Val d’Elsa discussing blogging ethics in the restaurant of the Villa San Lucchese while waiting for our primi piatti.
There is a rumble. A big cheese on a little rolling table clatters across the ancient floor tiles, stopping at the head of table. A whole Grana Padana. It was like a new cheese except the top had appeared to be cut off of it and set back in place. Behind the big cheese stood a waiter, smiling broadly and probably sweating just a bit.
After a slight dramatic pause, he removed the top with a flourish. Steam poured out.
That got our attention. The younger giornalisti jumped up with cameras. The clever among us remained cool, nailed to our chairs by a wine-fed lack of will as well as reflexes about as quick as a stick wallowing in mud.
Besides, the light in our little corner was bad. I figure this is because a bunch of people shooting pictures of food in elegant yet public surroundings must be made to pay their pound of flesh.
Thus the clatter of slow shutters filled the air along with the steam emitting from our risotto with zucchini and saffron.
Who needs cucina povera when you can be wowed by your food presentation?
Finally everyone sat down and we could taste it. Smooth, creamy, and dense, perfumed with saffron, a local ingredient. And there were those cheese scrapings the texture of which resembled the surface of a scoop of ice cream, er, gelato.
And the Hotel Villa San Lucchese is a very real villa, except it isn’t serviced by nameless wage slaves. The family behind this spectacular property makes you feel as if you were a guest in their home. Marco is the quintessential host, manning the front desk, holding the umbrella for folks heading to the breakfast room in the rain, telling us of the history of their restoration of the place. Check out: Hotel Villa San Lucchese in the beautiful Chianti landscape outside Poggibonsi.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Villa San Lucchese as part of a blog tour of Val d’Elsa attractions and activities outlined in My Tusany Experience, a new idea and website.
■ 21 days ago by James Martin
It’s also got lots of historic cities, the best food in Italy (many claim)—and it’s got bike hotels.
Not only that, but it’s got CyclE-R, a site where you can plan your route and get pre-planned itineraries already mapped for you.
But we’re not done yet! The tourism people have started to offer contests like the current Instagram contest take a picture of scenic spots with your bike in it and you can win prizes. There’s one contest each month.
And all the info is in English! Imagine!
So heck, why not head over to the Emilia Romagna, rent a bike, and have a blast? It’s got some fine cities you’ve probably never heard of like Brisighella and seaside Cesenatico you will want to explore, as well as big boys like Parma and Italy’s Motor City Modena.
This little post was the result of a twitter conversation with someone who actually asked me a question that didn’t fall into the category I call, “How long is a piece of string?” These include, “Is Europe reasonable?” and “How much does an Italian train ticket cost?” Believe it or not, about 85% of questions I receive are unanswerable due to extreme vagueness; I have no idea what’s “reasonable” to you, nor can I guess where the train in your mind goes. I’m extremely grateful to get questions like asking for specific information a person can provide without hyperbole (don’t ever ask for the “best” town in Italy; I won’t answer). Try things like: where can I take my bike out for a spin in Italy where it’s flat? (Puglia). Where can I see a town whose economy was once based on Gypsum? (Brisighella). Where in Italy did Leonardo da Vinci design a canal? (Cesenatico). I might not be able to answer your question, but I like looking things up if the question is reasonable. Usually a question that involves food is reasonable—and there’s a good chance I can come up with an answer.
■ 24 days ago by James Martin
We visit lots of wineries. We see lots of freshly-built wine storage and aging facilities. We see barrels and stainless steel tanks. After a while, it all begins looking the same. In fact, some times the wine all tastes the same. There are times I wish I wasn’t going to visit yet another winery.
But Madrevite, we were to find out, was quite different. There was always wine on the estate. But it wasn’t the kind you bottle and sell with the big boys. It was local wine, vino sfuso, fuel for the workers.
Nestled between two lakes, the Umbrian Lake Trasimeno and the Tuscan Lake Chiusi, Madrevite isn’t so easy to find. But we managed to show up on the doorstep just a little later than our appointment. We were met by Nicola, who led us outside to see the olive grove and vineyards that make up the estate.
The winter’s rains made it too muddy to wander amongst the vines, but Nicola pointed down the road, where yet another Etruscan tomb had been found just off the property. “We’ve made a visit to it a part of our tours,” Nicola told us.
But the best part of the tour was the winery itself. The old stables and the big, concrete, wine storage facilities had been transformed from “grandpa’s winery” to a modern operation. The total area was indeed small and it was easy to see that production was limited.
It was obvious that the winery’s past was not going to be forgotten any time soon. About 2/3 of the winery production, Nicola told us, was still slated to become vino sfuso for the locals. If you’re not familiar with this way of selling wine, a hose and spigot like you’d find on a gas pump is attached to a big vat of wine like you see in the picture on the left, and when the locals come to buy wine (at 1.90 Euro per liter!) Nicola just sticks the hose into the bottle and it’s “fill ‘er up” time.
“This way it keeps us in touch with our local friends” he said. It’s also a way to keep the fine wine at a very high quality. Every harvest the wine is broken into thirds by geography or vineyard. The best third goes into the bottles, the rest into vino sfuso. And believe me, we tasted it and it was by far the best sfuso we’ve ever tasted. And we purchase it this way a lot.
By the time we came to taste Madrevite’s bottled wine, we spotted other signs that this wasn’t a big, commercial winery just trying to sell us the latest vintages. There were bags of beans all around. These are Fagiolina del Trasimeno, ancient beans used by the Etruscans that were not so easy to grow, so when imports came from the new world, they almost entirely replaced the local stock. Today Madrevite grows these fagioline and sells packages of them at the winery. They don’t need to be soaked; they cook in about 45 minutes, Nicola told us.
While we tasted the three reds bottled at the winery, Nicola laid out some local cheeses and salume, explaining that the local production of pecorino cheese had Sardinian origins, since the territory wasn’t traditionally devoted to sheep. On the table were bottles of estate bottled olive oil as well.
Last night at home we poured one of Madrevite’s three reds: Glanio, a dark and tasty DOC blend of 70% Sangiovese, 20% Gamay del Trasimeno and 10% Merlot.
I’m no wine writer, and Sangiovese has never been my favorite wine grape—but all I can say is “wow.” The nose was vanilla and spice, a bit peppery. It was an international style, meaning a bit more oak than traditional Italian reds, but it was powerful and delicious.
Why am I exited about this winery? It’s not just that they sell great wines, but it’s the community involvement, the “back to local food” education, and the tours and organized picnics in the vineyards designed to make an outing fun for the whole family and to show off the area and its history.
It is my belief that Italy will return from its economic doldrums through Janus, the two-faced god of transitions. By peering into Italy’s future with an eye to the past, it’s not hard to see that the way back to economic sanity from the industrial crap food “revolution” that spewed barely edibles while employing few will depend upon smart, connected folks re-building on the roots of an almost lost traditional culture.
Madrevite’s website is in English. Note the tours and special events. Then be sure to visit. There’s lots to see and do in the area if you have a car, as you can see from the map below.
We stayed at Fontanaro, where one can take cooking classes, find out about the organic farm and its products or just relax. The nearby towns of Panicale, Paciano, Castiglione del Lago, and Chiusi are all worth a visit.
■ 26 days ago by James Martin
It used to be difficult. You invested a great deal of time and energy getting a degree in the humanities. You learned a few languages. Then you took off for Italy, equipped by notes and hand-drawn maps from intrepid travelers. You meandered your way through dusty little towns and ramshackle sections of cities. You spoke to young boys playing in the street, who looked at you in your odd clothes as if you were from another planet but were polite enough to point you in the right direction. Finally, you managed to track down the old man who kept the keys and understood enough of your odd mangling of his language to know what you wanted to see.
And finally, following his hobbling gait, you came upon the church blackened by centuries of grime, the door was opened for you and the damp, moldy air enveloped you.
Then you shuffled into the darkness to stand before the priceless masterpiece of art you sought. The one that moved you. The one that spoke volumes to your soul. The one recorded by that first, solitary traveler who suffered more hardship than you did to come upon such a treasure.
Today, the very possibility of such discoveries is lessened by our haste. The chances of it haven’t changed, our willingness to learn and sacrifice for a greater reward have dissipated. We have iPads. Time has taken a warp.
But no matter, for you seekers of the good life there is hope. It comes in the form of a rural revival. Country farms that have become the new repositories of local knowledge, the post-modern monastery.
I give you as an example the diffused living units of Fontanaro, an organic, family farm that produces olive oil, wine and saffron and welcomes you to learn how to work with ingredients as they were before clever industrial crap food specialists learned to take the flavor out of them and mass distribute them to unwary and uncaring customers for massive profit.
But there is more to Fontanaro than good food. Even more than the huge wine cellar full of the best Italy has to offer. Even more than the small library of art books in each living area. Lucia wants us to see the fresco. It’s a 3 minute drive away, in the town of Paciano. Heard of Paciano? I didn’t think so.
So we see the little museum. Just to warm up. Then we exit the museum and round the corner on a chilly night while a young man scurries by to open a door for us. We climb up the stairs. It is a dramatic scene, an entire wall looming over us as we climb the last of the steep stairs. And there it is:
Painted in 1452 by Niccolo Francesco di Bonifazio of Castel della Pieve, the same city that Perugino hailed from, the Crocifissione is no small achievement.
But now you’ve seen it. Well, no, you haven’t. In this tiny internet view, you can’t see the devil exiting the mouth of the bad thief crucified on the right. The bad boy has just checked out the interior, the soul, to figure out what to do with it. And you might have missed this:
No, you must stand in front of this monumental work to see it all. That’s why it’s monumental.
But our evening wasn’t done.
Usually open only for Venerdi Santo, good Friday, the doors of the “black church” were opened for us to reveal the dark side and the veiled Christ that would be carried in procession on the shoulders of believers. You may not have seen a church like this:
And for that, you will want to visit Lucia Verdacchi and Alina Pinelli at Fontanaro. They have the keys to the slow, contemplative life, the life of the modern monk, seekers of truth (and good, honest food and wine).
Find out all about them: Fontanaro
■ 42 days ago by James Martin
You have to be bold to label your work The Sardinia Cookbook. Bold like a Sardinian, Viktorija Todorosvska takes on the difficult work of making sense out of the cuisine of the enigmatic island—and does a very good job of it.
I’ve spent five seasons doing archaeological work on the island, and I’ve read a lot of utter nonsense about the food. Combing the introduction finely as a man looking for lice in the hair of a wild man hugging a ticking time bomb, I have to say the woman has done her homework.
But that’s probably not enough, so we went ahead and tested a recipe. Chicken with capers. Delicious, even with the industrial crap American chicken we had to put up with. There are a lot of capers sticking out of those stone walls and towers that dot the Sardinian lanscape—and they add zap to lots of things. So we’re talking local food here.
Oh, and the cooking times were spot on.
So, yeah, it’s a short review because I really can’t find anything to bitch about. The only thing wrong (with any authentic cookbook, really) is that you can’t get some of the things you want to eat most, like the suckling pig so you can have myrtle-flavored porcheddu. Or the Sardinian lamb, or the bue rosso, the red bull. But you can go to Sardinia and have them. And if you go with our Sardinia Inside Out app (iOS | Android) , you can eat them in the best places.
To buy the cookbook from Amazon:
The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and Culture of a Mediterranean Island