■ Dec 11, 03:55 PM by James Martin
One of the advantages of volunteering on vacation is the wealth of knowledge you’ll acquire of the local population and their clever use of raw materials on hand to make food and useful objects out of.
In the early 1980s we joined a project devoted to excavating Nuraghe Santa Barbara just outside of the little town of Bauladu. The excavation lasted several summers, and we made friends we still visit in Bauladu to this day—which, of course, means we are always making new friends like the Mayor of Bauladu, Davide Corriga Sanna, who today posted an interesting picture on his facebook page, a poster which seeks to promote the development and production of sapa di fico d’india, the concentrate of prickly pear pulp which the local women have been boiling down and selling for years. Witness the picture on the upper left. It’s from 1989. We happened to be prowling the streets when we spotted the wheelbarrow full of prickly pears in front of a magazzino and popped in for a chat with the women, whose iron fingers were expertly ripping the skin off the prickly pears like they weren’t prickly at all.
What’s nice about all this is that you see the circles of wastelessness in country life that you don’t see in America. The shepherd plants the cactus tightly together as a fence to keep his sheep from straying on their way to pasture. The fruit of the cactus provides sustenance to humans. Nothing is wasted; you eat the fence.
Sapa di fico d’india was sometimes a substitute for sapa di mosto d’uva, that is, concentrated grape must, also used in cooking by the poor. Sugar wasn’t always dirt cheap, you know.
Prickly pear juice can be used as a dye as it contains the Betalain pigment as does a beet root. And the juice of the prickly pear is quite healthy, as a matter of fact. It contains a lot of Vitamin C and minerals. There’s also:
Some preliminary evidence shows that prickly pear cactus can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that prickly pear cactus extract may lessen the unpleasant effects of a hangover. ~ Mayo Clinic
So good luck to the good women of Balaudu. You’ve got a winner there.
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
■ Dec 10, 06:38 PM by James Martin
I was hot on the trail of the news that Matera, one of my favorite cities in Italy, especially during the time of the Festa della Madonna Bruna, is on the short list of candidates for City of Culture in 2019. They’ve already started bulking up with culturally intriguing ideas in the city of the Sassi.
One of those ideas made my brain work overtime (it usually lopes along, exciting its synapses at random intervals, like firecrackers set off in a dark cave). I listened to Ben Vickers describe the UnMonastery in a provocative video.
One of those firecrackers went off in my cave/head when Mr. Vickers said they should have called their project the ReMonastery. I liked that idea quite a bit. When the unfettered financial overlords of doom compete their rape of Democracy there will be yet another of those dark ages. People with passion, people with a sense of the social contract, people with faith will gather in spiritually charged spaces abandoned by people who’ve gone to grovel for work in cities. They will represent a collective knowledge of what has gone before. They will be charged with codifying and saving it, and will return value to the community with what Monasteries have always done, making beer, providing health care for all with natural medicine, and feeding the poor, among other things.
The great migration from the rural to the cities has already occurred, leaving a mass of empty houses and unused land. It is time for such monasteries to be born from this financial scorched earth, a beam of light in the rural emptiness of the new Dark Age.
In any case, a skeleton crew has gathered to become the brain-unit of the UnMonastery, the think tank that is not like the think tanks who try to make you hate swarthy people by convoluted logic, or who try to convince you that you have not yet given all you can to the rich.
Here’s what they’re working on (a list stolen from the website linked above):
- Cristiano Siri: perfecting the interface between the city and its unMonastery.
- Marco mstn Stenico: a web-based system to display information about Basilicata’s public transport in real time.
- Francesco immaginoteca Cingolani: “a social database of unused spaces”.
- elf Pavlik: crafting together a community managed and owned wireless mesh network.
- Marc Schneider: an open-source system to drive solar panels.
- Rita Orlando: designing the objects needed for unMonastic life.
- Kathleen: The Living Well – Bringing generations together to learn, share, play, take action and be present.
- Francesco Pellegrino: re-engineering Matera’s water cycle for urban farming.
I’m excited about this project. It’s like religion used to be before it was decided that a short, selective misreading of the book of Leviticus was essence of Christianity.
Anyway, I sign off in giddiness. Check them out. Heck, go live there if you’re committed to such a project.
■ Dec 9, 04:29 PM by James Martin
Did you know there was a special Carabinieri force that deals with lost and stolen art and archaeological artifacts in Rome? Il Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale can be found in Piazza Sant’Ignazio, 152. I mention the address because you might want to visit around Christmas, because they have a fine presepe on display at Christmas time.
When they were looking for someone to head up “an ambitious project to restore and redevelop the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii” they chose Giovanni Nistri, a general in the paramilitary Carabinieri police who led Italy’s cultural asset-protection division from 2007 to 2010. (Ex art cop named head of Pompeii project)
The management of Pompeii’s treasures have come under fire lately, as building after building slouches toward the pavement. The Carabinieri Art Squad is highly respected and regarded, and have found many lost and stolen artifacts over the years. I’m hopeful that he’ll come through. After all, there’s plenty of money for preservation at the moment.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the site of Paestum is becoming unmanageable. You see, it’s on private land. You can’t really manage and develop a site like that on private land.
But here’s where you can help. You see, they need money to buy the site. Very little money, actually, and you can help by contributing a tiny share of very little money to the project.
Paestumanità is an enviromental shareholding project by Legambiente, aimed to acquire private lands of Paestum archaeological area and return to humanity
Interested? See the Indigogo page: SavePaestum
Popular These Days
■ Nov 12, 11:14 AM by James Martin
Today we are preparing to leave the Lunigiana for our other home in California. We took our last Tuscan pizza napoletana out onto the terrace so we could overlook Enrico’s sorry orto or vegetable garden. It’s a soggy mess. The orto I mean. We were glad when he planted plenty of leeks, but now they’ve rotted from the constant, heavy rains.
But with death comes resurrection—of a sort. The year’s good news came when the bridge over the river in nearby Serricciolo, the Ponte di Serriciolo was finally replaced by a brand new bridge—with walkways!
The bridge was open a couple of months ago. The walkways? Well, that took a couple of months. It was hard to figure. They were out there every day, puttering around with big equipment. But the walkways were always closed.
The thing is, the walkways go nowhere. Yes, you can walk across the bridge but on the other side the road narrows. A reasonably sane person can go no further. I define a sane person as one who would think it crazy to share a lane with Italian drivers. I think I might not be alone in this. You see, on the other side, the road continues and the shoulder disappears. Completely.
But still, nice guesture. And there is something to see. Yes, it’s that statue on the left. The base of the statue is a hunk of the old bridge. Thanks to you, Madre della Lunigiana, we are now protected. It’s all in its own little platform on the far side of the bridge. It’s as if they said, “geez, there’s no reason for a walkway, but it’s in the contract. We’ll get the priest to bless a statue and we’ll put it here so you have to use the walkway to get to it.”
Pretty smart, don’t you think?
And those clouds hugging the far mountains! Purty, no? Gonna miss it.
■ Nov 3, 08:29 AM by James Martin
We were learning art with Irma Fiorentini. It happened that we were learning it at the right time. On Friday Irma’s main squeeze Roberto would be coming from the big city as he usually does on weekends. He would cook us a meal. That’s Roberto over there on the left, squeezing the passatelli into the brodo. Note that he is smiling.
To say that Roberto had a passion for cooking would be a severe understatement. Roberto cooked with a head-on giddiness you might see in a child upon receiving the best Christmas present there ever was. He was in his element—and his element made him very happy indeed. And if you don’t believe happiness rubs off on nearby onlookers clinging to a wine glass in one hand and a cell phone camera in the other you’re sadly mistaken.
Food is unlikely to be cooked well without a cook’s joy to sauce it. Drudge makes sludge.
So there is Roberto, squeezing little breadcrumb and cheese earthworms out of his ancient press into broth while we sip and egg him on. Passatelli in brodo, another peasant dish of the Emilia Romagna. Simple, tasty, life affirming. Bread crumbs, parmigiano, eggs, nutmeg, lemon zest. Squeeze. Done.
Like a good story, the meal had structure. Courses, from the Passatelli in Brodo to the salmon with three sauces, to the dessert flowed and cavorted with Robert’s wine selections. And the story, as so many of them do, had a twist, it looped back upon itself at the exciting conclusion, when Roberto constructed the Mont Blanc, or, um, Monte Bianco.
Like the first course, brown earthworms of spiced chocolate and chestnut made up the flanks, and whipped cream capped the whole deal.
As in real life, as with the storms that brought the snow. a bit of unsettled weather accompanied the topping. The mixer sent puffy pellets of half-whipped cream through the air, interrupted only by Roberto’s sweater.
It was not a disaster. It was a cause for more laughter, a beautiful celebration of the food that had given joy to poor people for hundreds of years before ending up on our plates—and we found it when we weren’t expecting it, a juicy bonus.
It’s not just about the raw materials, in art as it is in cooking. Remember that if you remember nothing else.
■ Nov 1, 09:06 AM by James Martin
It smelled good at the Ristorante Venelia today. It was a holiday, All Saints day, and everyone was out and about with their children and most were having the tagliolini al tartufo. You see it in the picture. We smelled, we ordered without even hearing the waitress recite the menu.
Two plates of it came steaming to the table. I held back and took the picture you see above. Beautiful, eh? Then we stuck our heads in the steam, breathed deeply, and dug in.
At which time the diner at the next table over leaned toward us. He had a serious look on his face. He spoke to us in English, “They’re not real truffles, you know.”
Our forks, which had been twisting away at the ravishing tagliolini like little whirling dervishes, screeched to a halt. So, someone took the time to paint all those intricate lines on a radish or something? Were we going to die?
“These we call scorzone. Not the real truffle you get in Piemonte, the white one. This smells very, very good, but I don’t like it in the mouth.”
So we relaxed. I slid a sliver of truffle on to my fork. Yes, the taste—a little like you’d imagine cardboard to taste if it were infused with some truffle steam and you were in the habit of eating wood pulp.
“The owner found these this morning, he told me.”
The taste wasn’t sexy like a winter white truffle. Not even close. But it was a truffle, or at least people call it one, a summer truffle. Tuber Aestivum Vitt is the scientific name. It’s not the same as a summer black truffle, which is Tuber Melanosporum Vitt—but you probably know it as the Perigord truffle. It’s quite common in Tuscany, and it’s sometimes called “The Tuscany Truffle” because it grows well here.
And there was still that alluring smell…
So that was our primo. They didn’t charge an arm and a leg for it—and it was clearly specified on the menu exactly the type of truffle that was used, so nobody was trying to rip anyone off. For 12 euro the plate was quite an enjoyable one.
So look at the picture again. If you were searching out the winter white truffle, the best kind of truffle, you wouldn’t see the black on the outside. If it were the second-best black perigord truffle, it would be less yellow in the inside. This is the kind of truffle you get when you purchase those bottles of cheap, preserved truffles.
But let’s get back to the rest of the meal. Over on the right is what I ordered.
Piccione. Pigeon, called squab for the squeamish, stuffed with all manner of funghi or forest mushrooms. Oversalted, but a fantastic dish in spite of it. I ate fried squash flowers with it.
We are full. There is unlikely to be a late meal on this all saints day.
■ Oct 27, 07:45 AM by James Martin
I am sorry about the title. I should have saved it for Halloween.
And the picture? It’s pretty much the reason we spent two hours motionless on the autostrada tarmac between Monzuno and Florence. Yes, we skidded to a halt behind a whole bunch of stopped vehicles about ten minutes after the mayhem had occurred.
Let’s back up a bit. It was one of those fine, sunny mornings that makes you smile when you hit the road. Blue skies, sun, warmth, and when you look down from the side window of your leased car upon the lower valleys, thick fog like puffy lamb fleece fills them. It looks like you could just jump out the window of the speedy little diesel and the fluffiness of all that fog would wrap you up and let you down on the valley floor soft as a snowflake upon a mitten. Little fantasy islands pop up in the fog now and again, so as you ride along and you see a compelling one you tell the driver, “Stop! I gotta take a picture!”
And she does, finally finding a pull-off point in front of yapping dogs threatening to tear our necks to shreds if they were to escape the flimsy fence that separates our aortas from their menacing incisors.
The problem is that the fog is not near the pull-off point. So as not to waste any more time and to save face, I point the camera toward some trees and click. Done. Hackle-raising yaps, signs of doggy blood lust, fade softly into the distance as we drive away. We’ve allowed maybe 15 glorious minutes to flutter by.
Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is about 5 minutes too long.
In any case, because of stupid light interaction with trees and fog, we are now survivors of one of those long, long waits after one of those humongous truck crashes on the Italian autostrade you might come across when you’re looking for the weather on the television but they break in to tell you of the big truck crash while you wait intently for the temperature in Rimini to appear on the screen.
But this is not the end of the story. In America we might break out the sandwiches while waiting for the emergency vehicles. Some people would lay on their horns and annoy everyone.
So what do Italians do? Well, they get out, scramble up the hill adjacent to the autostrada, and discover things. When one of them hollers down, “hey there’s a beautiful chestnut grove up here!” then Italians rush to action. Bags come out of parked cars. People scramble up the hill like the tsunami is chasing them down. Old men poke the ground with sticks. It’s bedlam in Chestnut land.
Soon an entire busload of Japanese tourists join in the fun. I’m thinking, “what the devil are people sleeping in hotels going to do with endless bags of chestnuts?”
As I’m thinking this, an Italian mumbles that someone ought to remind the fer’ners that you need to cook the darn things.
But hey, free chestnuts. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Folks uninterested in chestnuts head off in search of coffee and return with tales of the truck. Animal carcases are spread over two lanes. A smashed hubcap suggests the presence of another car which might have scraped the side of the tunnel and bounced into the truck lane.
Then, of course, there’s the delicate matter of the undersized human bladder.
So shifts are set up. I don’t mean people organize everything. No. Heck no. This is Italy. Women gather in a gaggle and yell at the peeing men to get the hell off the hill so the women can have a go. The men wrap things up and totter down the hill. Italian men know which side the tortellini are buttered and saged on. Soon there’s a sort of clockwork thing going. Men, women grasping tissue. Men…
Then the police remove the barrier between lanes and we all get to drive our cars backwards about 150 meters down the autostrada. It’s like a race run in reverse. We are a double row of cars trying desperately to escape our fate, reversing and lunging toward our opening in a rather serpentine manner while trying not to hit each other. They should set this kinda thing up and charge for it, so much fun was had.
Eventually we wiggle out the hole onto the fast lane that’s been taken away from people going in the opposite direction. Forward is not as fun as backwards, but is faster and straighter.
Once we’re out of trouble, we start to wonder if dinner will have to be vegetarian.
■ Oct 23, 09:48 AM by James Martin
The clouds were dark, the air was warm. After days of rain we decided to go for a walk to see if the streams that flow from the hills through the outskirts of our little village were swollen and nasty.
The streams were fine. We saw no fish frolicking trout-like in the shadows, however.
On the way home, the light and rhythmic crunch of gravel that accompanied us was joined by the clattering hum of a jeep.
The jeep stopped. We walked on a bit, thinking nobody stops for foreigners, then looked over.
“Would you like some eggs?” the driver asked.
“Si, si!” replied Martha, who is a connoisseur of unborn chickens still in the shell.
(I have switched the languages, of course, just for fun.)
The driver leaned out of his jeep and started laying egg after egg into Martha’s palms. He almost stopped at 4, but then remembered that his regalo had to be in odd numbers, so he gently laid the fifth egg in her hand.
“The chickens, you know, never stop laying. But nobody buys the eggs, so the price got so cheap I’d rather give them as a gift.” he said with a smile which would have brightened Broadway.
So we thanked him profusely and began walking up the hill toward our humble abode. On the way we said “buona sera” to our neighbor, the one with the yapping little dog. She asked to see the eggs. She noticed they were local.
“Where did you get them?” she inquired.
We were rather startled by the question. We didn’t steal them, dammit. But then again, we didn’t know the man who gave them to us either.
We yammered a bit while trying to think of the right Italian words and eventually told her some guy just up and gave them to us. I added, “nobody buys them, he said, so he gifted them to us.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course, we all have our own chickens.”
And that’s why I live here. Free eggs. And they’re not poison either, like they are in the states. And they taste like they’re supposed to taste.
Oh, and neighbors who quiz you. Just to keep you on your toes.