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Your Basic Bread

■ 17 days ago by James Martin

crusty bread picture
When you allow big industry to provide your food, the evolution of that food always follows the same lines. A humungous company will introduce something cheap yet relatively tasty. People buy it. The company that makes the food cranks it out in as cheap a way as possible because the CEO gets paid an unimaginable amount of money and politicians don’t come cheap these day. The company is publicly traded, so it has to make ever more money or risk getting bought out for cheap, even when the product becomes, well, shall we say stale? So the product is redone, not so that it tastes better, but so that it offends fewer and fewer people and thus reaches into the furthest cracks of over-fracked America. That’s why people like the “Italian” food at Olive Garden. It doesn’t offend you with that green color of pesto or the “unexpected” taste of capers. It is Italian in name only.

The same has happened to bread. It no longer offends people with a crust that is actually crust-like. A slice can be used to sop up unsightly kitchen spills. It is light enough that a truckload of loaves uses hardly any fuel. It has a list of ingredients a mile long. You never knew it took so much chemical mining to make bread, so you give up trying because you don’t own a mine—which means you buy more non-offensive bread @ 50 cents a loaf which equates to 59 dollars a pound.

Artisan bread follows a more traditional evolution, the one we used to associate with a free market. It finds its market, it creates a better mousetrap so to speak, and serves that market by changing only when tastes change.

So if you actually like crusty bread with flavor and an interior that isn’t blindingly white and soft as a baby’s bottom you might pay through the nose in the good ol’ US of A because the artisan baker isn’t getting the tax breaks the big boys with their paid political clout are getting—but your nose knows, and your well-being benefits.

Then again, you can make bread at home for very little money. Yes, generous people sick of crap bread are working tirelessly to show you how you don’t need a wood burning oven or a steam-pressurized professional oven to make fantastic bread (but you can, as I do, lust after one). You need a push. You need a mentor. You can do this.

If you travel, you know the rest of the world has great bread and a great many bakeries. (I know, America has decent bread too, but it’s a specialty item, not an everyday thing.) You can go to Germany and be amazed at the bread on your breakfast table. Southern Italy bakes what I think is Italy’s best bread. Thus, what I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter what country your mentor comes from. It’s all good if the bread is made of yeast, flour, water, a touch of salt and love.

So, here’s the deal. Why not learn bread in Piemonte from a Dutch master? You can. I’m telling you, it’s cheap, you will enjoy being in a place where Italy’s best wine comes from, and you’ll be hosted by people I guarantee you will enjoy.

I’m talking about Marla and Fabrizio over at beautiful Bella Baita and their collaboration with “Dutch Baker Extraordinaire, Ralph Nieboer.”

Artisan Bread Making Workshop May 22 through 24

This hands on 2 day three night hands on workshop will feature Ralph Nieboer sharing his secrets for making and maintaining a wild yeast starter and making various types of lean and enriched breads with wild yeast and poolish varieties of dough. You will also be learning various decoration techniques including his very intriguing mesh covered loaves. We are still working out all the finer details which will follow. Fabrizio and I will be cooking and making dough as well.

The workshop is small and personal, so contact Marla and she’ll set you up.

If you’d like to research further, here are some links I’ve come up with in my research:

Ralph Nieboer’s Facebook page

Bella Baita Facebook

Bella Baita Bed and Breakfast
Italian Alps Retreat
Borgata SerreMarchetto 1
10060 Pinasca (TO) Italia
Bella Baita GPS Coordinates
N° 44.96050 E° 007.24000

The Breadlab

Do You Knead Bread?

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Your Basic Bread originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 13, 2015, © James Martin.

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Eyeless in Frisco

■ 63 days ago by James Martin

I am currently listening to the audio version of Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.

I am not reading it. Reading, you see, sloshes the vitreous of the eye as the animated eyeball scoots back and forth over the words, a vitreous martini shaker of sorts.

You see, a couple of weeks ago my right eye abruptly began ignoring the scene before me. The contents pouring into my brain burst into an array of spinning color, half-moons of yellow fringed in red, followed by a milkiness flooded with black swirls like the escape path of a squid.

The doctor peered in, reciting the gruesome details in a sort of code, a rat-a-tat of words to her assistant. One of the words was “hemorrhage.”

Finally, she turned off her searing light and spoke softly to me. “When one passes the age of 60, it is common for the vitreous of the eye to dry up, tugging at the tiny veins and the edges of the retina. The veins break, causing the floaters you see.”

Then surgery. As you age, things slowly begin to shut down. This was my first catastrophic failure. The surgeon would go in, vacuum up the dried bits of blood and tack the retina back on with a laser. Then a gas bubble would be injected to hold the retina in place while it healed.

Thus I am a prisoner in San Francisco. I cannot go up a hill or the bubble would get too big. I cannot fly until the bubble dissipates completely. Thus the lack of updates here.

If you are squeamish, I’m going to assume you’ve stopped reading already, because the surgery, for which I was awake, was quite something.

I could see with amazing clarity what was going on inside my eye. No longer was light being shaped by an imperfect lens, passed through a bit of cataract before passing through to the retina for processing. I was seeing directly inside my body, inside the very organ the surgeon was saving. I saw her vacuum up the black swirls, the squid in reverse, I heard the hum of the laser tacking down the retina, the amplified twitter of my pulsing heart always in the background. A fantastic voyage, one you couldn’t take just a few years ago, when eventual blindness was the lone prognosis.

Today is the first day I can raise my head after four days of bowing down, paying homage to the gods of good health and trying to keep that blasted bubble backed into the retina, helping to hold it in place while it heals. It feels good.

The bubble prevents me from seeing much more than blobs of light; it’s like looking through the frosted glass of a dirty martini.

Martha puts drops in my eye every few hours. Marcella provides the entertainment that keeps the hours flowing. I can’t wait to get cooking again. I can’t wait to tell you of a different adventure.

Eyeless in Frisco originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jan 26, 2015, © James Martin.

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Herculaneum: When Archaeology Was A Gentleman's Game

■ 70 days ago by James Martin

It makes quite the romantic picture, the swarthy gentleman in pith helmet and immaculately pressed desert garb shouting commands to muscular and sweaty natives as they move boulders, wedge massive pickaxes between giant stones and dust little oil lamps with tiny brushes.

At the time, rich and powerful folk had like Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples, liked to have rooms and rooms of the more impressive loot from older times (stuff they hadn’t pickaxed to dust), so they had yet another group of muscular workers revamp ordinary rooms in their royal palaces to display it.

So, if you happen to be one of the three tourists brave enough to make a trip south of Naples, you can be rewarded not only by seeing the ancient site of Herculaneum and its associated artifact museums, but you can now visit the palace and see where Charles kept the good stuff, which was all moved to Naples long ago, but still.

“Obviously you can’t see any of the antiquities from Herculaneum any more, since these were moved to Naples in the 18th century, but nevertheless it is extremely evocative to visit the original rooms of the Herculanense Museum. In particular, one room contains back-lit copies of all the ancient paintings that used to adorn it (apparently all in their original places). Also on display are original 18th century books about the excavated antiquities, including Winkelmann and Cochin, and what look like original plans of buildings like the Villa of the Papyri, and the Villa of Diomedes and the amphitheatre at Pompeii (but I don’t know if they are actually the originals – but they do look old!). There are lots of plans illustrating where some of the most well-known artefacts from Herculaneum were displayed, and panels about the early excavations and some of the characters who directed them, such as Paderni, and about early restorations of statues, and the early attempts at unrolling papyri (including a replica of Piaggio’s machine). You then get to walk through the king’s apartments, which are next door to the museum, and which were redecorated by the Murats.” ~ Visit to the Herculanenses Museum

It’s a short walk from the archaeological site, which makes your visit a long day, but I’m excited; it sounds very interesting. Besides, you can visit two towns the way, three if you separate ancient and modern Herculaneum. And there’s a train station nearby.

Here’s a link to the official website called MUSA, Musei del Sito Reale (di Portici). There are several museums you can visit in the building and a botanical garden outside.

Map

It seems you have to zoom out the map and you’ll see the location of the site of ancient Herculaneum.

Herculaneum: When Archaeology Was A Gentleman's Game originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jan 19, 2015, © James Martin.

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Staggia Senese Castle

■ 89 days ago by James Martin

staggia senese castle pictureCastello di Staggia Senese

Staggia Senese castle is located near Poggibonsi. You’ve probably not been to either. If you need to fix your doorbell, Poggibonsi is the Tuscan town you should seek. If you need a castle fix with great tours and guides as well as the occasional falconry demonstration, then by all means point your car toward Staggia Senese castle.

The castle is on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route between Poggibonsi and Monteriggione, the walled city which gets more press, being along the autostrada and all. To the west is Colle di Val d’Elsa, a town known for the manufacture of leaded crystal.

The castle is found on the northeast corner of the town of Staggia Senese, nestled into the vegetation that borders the Staggia river. You can see it in the map below.

Why Go to Staggia Senese Castle?

It’s a pretty castle, but pretty castles are a lira a dozen in Italy. As in ancient times, what matters is how the castle is administrated. You can stare at ruins all day, trying to make sense of them out of the historic context that drove their construction. But this castle is involved in actively engaging the visitor. The tour is great. You’ll find out the castle’s secrets. You’ll even learn how the pilgrims got their water and meager rations without being allowed access into the inner sanctum. Then as now, minimalism in morality is in.

falconry pictureFalconry at Staggia Senese

Then there’s the falconry. Your kids will love the big birds.

Falconry takes years of training. It’s not like you take a falcon out of your purse or “man bag” and plug somebody and your problems are over. There’s an art to it.

And then you get to glove up and feel the weight of the owl. Whoa baby! Look at those eyes!

owl pictureHere's Lookin' at You, Kid: Owl at Staggia Senese Castle

You’ll want to visit the official web site to see all the events the castle people have planned for your enjoyment (in Italian). Every Sunday there’s a guided visit and an excursion on electric bicycle or food along the pilgrimage trail. You have to reserve by phone for this one: 366 4792092. The castle is open every day, with shorter hours during the winter months.

With towns like San Gimignano nearby, this is an area where one could spend a week or three and not get bored at tall. Staggia has a number of highly-rated places to stay.

Staggia Senese Castle originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 31, 2014, © James Martin.

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Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate in Puglia

■ 140 days ago by James Martin

abbey of santa maria di cerrate pictureRomanesque Church in l’Abbazia di Santa Maria di Cerrate

Within a patchwork of agricultural fields in the Lecce province of Puglia lies one of my favorite Romanesque abbeys, the Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate. The complex of buildings sprouted in the 12th century represents one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture you’ll find in Puglia today.

On a bright morning, the sun gleams from the limestone facade of the church and the camera renders the sky an impossibly deep blue. You can feel the calm. The church is typically simple, like the food of Puglia. It’s open—not cluttered with all those spiritual market-stall chapels that surround the nave as in modern churches.

Although the church is stunning—and contains 13th century frescoes you can see below—there is more:

The Church is complemented not only by an arcade but also by the Monks’ House, the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, and a building erected in the 16th century, which probably originally served as a cowshed and is now an exhibition space. The Abbey was not only a religious centre but also a productive hub: out of the close links between the Abbey and the surrounding countryside so rich in olive groves, fruit trees and crops, there arose a great deal of agricultural activity, and today we can see the remains of two ancient underground olive oil mills and wells for collecting the oil. ~ Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate

fountain pictureThe Fountain

The fountain has already been restored, thanks to a donation from Prada. While the architecture and frescoes await their turn at restoration.

fresco pictureFresco: Abbazia di Santa Maria di Cerrate

altar pictureAltar: l’Abbazia di Santa Maria di Cerrate

To Plan a Visit

The site is currently open on weekends.

According to the FIA site linked above, “The Abbey is on restoration. Please call (0039) 02 467615325 or write to faicerrate@fondoambiente.it to verify the opening hours and/or to reserve a guided tour. The Abbey is closed on December,25th and 26th, January 1st.”

We just drove in and had a look around. It’s a pretty amazing place to wander in.

Staying: we recommend Masseria Provenzani near the Abbey, a very fine and very affordable Masseria reworked into rooms and suites, highly recommended. Cooking schools are offered.

Location Map

More Puglia: Puglia Guide | Lecce Weather | Puglia Hotels | Puglia Vacation Rentals

Puglia Travel Guide App: For iPhone and iPod Touch and iPad | For Android

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate in Puglia originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Nov 10, 2014, © James Martin.

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Florence: Exotic Scents for Discerning Tourists

■ 141 days ago by James Martin

aqua flor signAqua Flor, the Sign Above the Door

Florence is all about Renaissance art and architecture, right? The happy tourist wallows in it gleefully. But Florence is also home to artisans like Sileno Cheloni, the Master Perfumer at Aquaflor Firenze. When you wander into his lair, you get to feast your eyes on a bit of fine architecture and an inner courtyard of great beauty—all while your other senses are lightly jack-hammered with swirling and ever-changing exotic scents.

perfumes pictureSileno is the guy who made these scents, the guy who travels the world to fill his carry-on with things like unique rose petals and Ambergris.

You may have heard of Ambergris in grade school. You snickered at the very thought of it. Who wouldn’t laugh nervously at the idea of whale vomit at truffle prices?

Ambergris, you see, forms the basis of Aquaflor’s most expensive perfume. It’s in that case to the right. It’s called Duende. If you happen to have €1,800 burning a hole in your pocket as a result of spending your entire vacation eating shared portions of pizza by the slice and drinking water from Italian fountains like the guidebooks recommend for cheapskate tourists, you can purchase a 100ml bottle of it.

(I’ve smelled it. You can too. Ask. It probably costs them €6 in evaporation every time they open the bottle.)

Besides smelling exotic things at Aquaflor, can also take classes on perfumery or have them make you up a scent tailored to who you are and how you smell normally.

Below is a picture of the Parlor of Essences taken from the courtyard. Those bottles are of every scent they have in stock, ready to be mixed into a custom scent.

View of Aquaflor Parlor of Essences from the courtyard

Remember this is not a chain. You want this stuff you come to the store. There is more than expensive perfumes in the store. You can buy soaps and Christmas scents, for example.

Acquaflor
Map and Contact Information

(Thanks to Luisa Donati of Montestigliano for introducing me to Aquaflor.)

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Florence: Exotic Scents for Discerning Tourists originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Nov 09, 2014, © James Martin.

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Florence: Art in Odd Places

■ 146 days ago by James Martin

florence savings bank pictureCassa Centrale di Risparmio di Depositi di Firenze

Florence. It’s about art. It’s everywhere. Even where you don’t expect it.

It was this beguiling Liberty style entrance to the venerable Cassa Centrale di Risparmio di Depositi di Firenze that invited us to explore. We found a whole floor of art exhibits behind the mask.

And history. The savings bank was formed to help the poor save. This one started in 1829, when 100 citizens formed the “Company of the Savings Bank” in order to encourage the formation of savings and pensions in the lower classes at a time when the percentage of poor was around 90.

The Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze was unique in that it combined the ancient tradition of Monte di Pietà of Florence, which was created in 1495 with the function of extending loans secured by pledges for the less affluent classes, investing the profits that accumulated in charitable works for the benefit of the poor. This cultural heritage was formally endorsed in 1935, when the Azienda dei Presti, which took over from the Monte di Pietà in 1782 with respect to issuing small loans secured by pledges – merged with the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze. The spirit behind the activities of Monte di Pietà was very important for the bank’s development, and for many years it was to retain the spirit of patronage and philanthropy which had characterised the institution. ~ 9th European Symposium on Savings Banks History – EUROPEAN SAVINGS BANKS: FROM SOCIAL COMMITMENT TO CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

While banks have become gigantic gambling houses in recent times, it’s interesting to note that for many years the system in Europe evolved such that “parallel activities would co-exist: the philanthropic business and actual banking business.”

In any case, throw upon those doors the next time you’re in Florence and check it out. The art exhibits are upstairs.

Not so far from the bank is Florence’s oldest active hospital. The Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova has been around since 1288. It started as a hospice for pilgrims and later for victims of the plague.

Over the years it amassed a great deal of art as well. Today, much of it is in museums, but you can still enter the hospital and see not only works like this:

hospital art pictureOspedale Santa Maria Nuova - Hospital Art

But you can also see folks working on art. You don’t have to visit a castle or a monastery to see restoration, you can just have your gall bladder checked out.

art restoration pictureOspedale Santa Maria Nuova - Art Restoration

The background of the painting shows the front of the hospital.

Even here, in a hospital, there’s a connection to banking. At one time there was an office inside where one could get mail and store money. According to Fodors, Michelangelo did his banking here.

In the middle of the complex is Sant’Egidio church that you can also visit.

So, after you’ve taken that Secret Passages Tour of the Palazzo Vecchio, just wander the streets and explore Florence and its art. Go where other tourists fear to tread. Have a real experience. Your gall bladder might thank you for it.

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Florence: Art in Odd Places originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Nov 04, 2014, © James Martin.

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Florence and the Selfie Generation

■ 153 days ago by James Martin

selfie helper pictureSelfie Helpers in Florence, Italy

When I arrived in Florence a few days ago I immediately noticed people with their little cameras floating away from the photographer’s outstretched arm by means of a flimsy bit of kit. One of many sellers of this amazing re-use of the antiquated car antenna is captured above. (The device you see is being mis-used as a tripod that would send your camera crashing to the ground in the slightest wisp of wind, but it’s really designed to be a clever arm extension, trust me.)

You see, when God invented arms He made an obvious mistake. They were not long enough for a proper selfie. Women of questionable morals were often unable to compose a photo that would encompass all their charms. People in front of statues had to spend hours trying to cram their faces and a famous statue reproduction into the frame. Enter what I call the Selfie Helper. “You buy the smart phone, we make the camera and your arm work together correctly.”

It’s a lot like Hamburger Helper, isn’t it? “Thy (camera) rod, like thy onion powder, they comfort thee.”

This isn’t the first time creation was found wanting. Ancient people found it necessary to extend their spear-tossing arms by use of the atlatyl. Look it up.

In any case, once I had noticed the Selfie Helper phenomenon, the rest of the excursion’s conversation seemed to gravitate towards tourist cameras.

A Florence guide sipping the thick chocolate drink Florence is famous for lamented, “The superintendent decided to allow photography in the museums. So now, nobody listens. They’re all clicking and beeping away while you talk into a vacuum.”

But later on, as we dipped our cantucci into tiny glasses of vin santo in an overpriced cafe bordering the Piazza Repubica while being mesmerized by the constant flow of drunken students trying to stay on the bucking horses of the carousel the municipality had plunked down in the middle of the piazza, Author Susan Van Allen brought the social effects of the Selfie Helper into sharp focus.

“Yet another thing to disconnect us from the social ritual of handing our valuable camera to a total stranger in order that we might have a single, thus valuable, memento of our experience.”

Yes, we are now complete. Free of the anxiety over the possibility that the stranger might run off with our prized possession—oh delicious terror!—we can pass the time of our vacation entirely isolated from the pasta-eaters and other tourists who surround us.

Good for us.

Florence and the Selfie Generation originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 28, 2014, © James Martin.

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