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Ciociaria: A Land of Ancient Silences

■ 8 March 2014 by James Martin

Funny what you find out rummaging around in your old record collection.

Let me start again. I’m recording many of my old LPs onto CDs so I can bring them to Europe with me. A suitcase bulging with vinyl might be suspicious, if not a bad idea in general.

But while perusing my jazz discs, I came across a recording by Ettore de Carolis called Ciociaria, a Land of Ancient Silences. It is traditional festival music of a region in Central Italy—and it’s quite compelling.

After reading the liner notes, a bit of enthusiasm to discover where this Italian country folk music was coming started to seep in, leading me to discover other interesting stuff about this shadowy region. Ain’t it always the way?

I found that the name “Ciociaria” refers to an area around Frosinone with indistinct boundaries. It’s a territory in Lazio, south of Rome. It’s also a hotbed of traditional festivals.

“Part of the Ciociarian folklore are the songs, both sacred and profane, dances such as the saltarello, accompanied by music and cheered by the dishes of local cuisine,” Wikipedia tells us.

The word also has ties to a shoe worn by shepherds—a very interesting shoe. the Ciocia, sometimes called zampitto.

Wikipedia again:

In the traditional form, ciocie were made of large soles in leather and straps (strènghe or curiòle) with which the leg was tied from the ankle to the knee. Feet were covered by a large napkin (pèzza).

But who cares about shoes, right? Even when combined with napkins, which seems like a good idea in a culture that eats outside all the time. In any case, Ciociaria also happens to be near Montecassino, which caused another problem.

Before the Allies recaptured Montecassino, the Goums Marocains —Moroccan colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps commanded by General Augustin Guillaume—were fighting Germans against some long odds in difficult mountain territory. To spur them on they were evidently promised, “For fifty hours you will be the absolute masters of what you will find beyond the enemy. Nobody will punish you for what you will do, nobody will ask you about what you will get up to.”

When the Allies moved in and took Montecassino, the Goums Marocains took advantage of the promise.

The next night, thousands of Goumiers and other colonial troops scoured the slopes of the hills surrounding the town and the villages of Ciociaria (in South Latium). Over 60,000 women, ranging in age from 11 to 86, suffered from violence, when village after village came under control of the Goumiers. Civilian men who tried to protect their wives and daughters were murdered. The number of men killed has been estimated at 800. ~ Marocchinate

While the shivers work their way out of your system, let me tell you that Italian writer Alberto Moravia wrote the novel La Ciociara based on the mass rape and Vittorio de Sica made a movie of it starring Sophia Loren called Two Women.

In the little town of Castro dei Volsci you’ll find a monument called the “Mamma Ciociara” which serves as a reminder to us of the women who tried to defend themselves and their daughters.

Castro dei Volsci is also the setting of a fine B&B and cooking school called Casa Gregorio Bed and Breakfast and Cooking School

Yes, it’s amazing what an old record with an interesting name and premise can bring up 40 years after it was issued. As we reflect upon Italy’s current economic and political situation and wonder why they can’t be more like America, wouldn’t it be wise to also consider how Italians in the recent past have lived with things we Americans haven’t?

In any case, there’s one more thing. Ettore de Carolis has a web site. It hasn’t been updated since about 2008, but there’s some darned interesting music he plays there. It’s not like today’s background music, intentionally recorded to offer the part-time listener a complete lack of compelling sound so that workers and dreamers don’t take to actually paying attention to it. No, it brings me back to that exploratory wonder of my youth.

That’s a good thing, I think. Or a time suck. You decide.

Play Gocce in un sogno de Chetro by Ettore de Carolis. (Chetro is evidently the nickname of Ettore de Carolis, who founded a folk group called Chetro & Co.)

Ciociaria: A Land of Ancient Silences originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 08, 2014, © James Martin.

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A Tuscan Culinary Blasphemy: Catfish Tuscany

■ 3 March 2014 by James Martin

Why do we always do it? Why do we come up with a weird recipe and then attribute it to people who wouldn’t cook such a thing in a million years even if you bribed them with fist-loads of almost worthless US dollars? Italian salad dressing always comes to mind. After you read all the chemical crap and odd seasonings listed on the side of the bottle it’s darn easy to say, “no Italian would ever put this crap into his or her mouth.”

catfishing pictureBut then, how about “Catfish Tuscany?” Doesn’t the thought stick in the side of your noggin like a stone thrown by an idiot? Here it is in pixels: Catfish Tuscany Recipe

It’s like a bunch of Cajun Tuscans went down to the “pond” where the catfish lie in the shadows reading Dante and the good ol’ ragazzi reach in and grab a pesce gatto or two. Then they cook them up. In a “Parmesan crust.”

“It looks and tastes like heaven and takes just 20 minutes to prepare.”

You tasted heaven lately? “Tastes like catfish,” said nobody ever.

It turns out that many people slather that Italian dressing crap I was speaking of earlier on their farmed bottom feeders and call it something clever like “Catfish Italian Style.” That’s precious. Italy is turning over in its economic grave, I’m sure.

I mean, why not just make up a dish and call it something like “Anne Marie Sweden’s Catfish” or the like? Then we don’t have to make fun of you inventing a dish with fish and cheese and calling it after people who are loath to combine fish and cheese. Yes, occasionally, in a Chianti-induced haze, Italians will combine the two, but you have to know the culinary arts to deviate from the norm with any chance of success—and while a really rank catfish may stand up to a Parmesan crust, I’d not bet money on Tuscans liking it one bit.

But go ahead and have your fun deceiving people by tagging everything Tuscan. Soon we will recognize when we see the word “Tuscany” we are being deceived. I realized it 20 years ago. Go to a Tuscan restaurant in the US? Not a chance.

A Tuscan Culinary Blasphemy: Catfish Tuscany originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 03, 2014, © James Martin.

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Travel Light, Computerwise

■ 28 February 2014 by James Martin

I am past the age when a 13 inch laptop screen is readable. Luckily, large screens are relatively cheap. But what’s an expat to do about the computer end of the deal?

intel nuc pictureI have a computer that measures 4” by 4” by 2”. It’s NUC. It’s over there on the right. I5 processor, 8GB Ram, 120 mb solid state drive. Ubuntu Studio, which has all the editing I need for photos, sound and video—and it’s all free software.

I’m having fun with a computer that takes about 5 seconds to boot, is easy to update, and is relatively sturdy. I tested this sturdiness thing on our drive to Palm Springs recently. I was unpacking the car when the original box, which I used to store the NUC for travel, decided to open in my hands and the unit dropped about 3 feet onto the asphalt of the parking lot. Ooops.

Didn’t even ding the case.

Expats who travel between countries take note. For about $500 I have a darned powerful computer loaded with software I can travel with easier than carrying a laptop. As long as there’s a monitor, as there is at my Lunigiana love nest, I can just plug and play. Any television with HDMI input will do as well.


Travel Light, Computerwise originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Feb 28, 2014, © James Martin.

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Twisted Streets

■ 11 January 2014 by James Martin

pistoia twisted streets map

langhe enclosed streetI have always wondered why I feel compelled to take pictures like you see on the right. Houses stuck together, a gentle curve, a bit of sky.

What I was really trying to get at, of course, was the fundamental question: “Why in heaven’s name do we think of Medieval towns as romantic?

I thought, “It has to do with that picture, somehow.”

I think I was right. What you see is, in every sense, romantic. When you are in the street it is enclosed. It embraces you. There is still light, of course. Not harsh, “you look like a ghoul” kind of light, but light that is gently filtered and plays itself out in gentle gradients with the curvature of the buildings.

Enclosure. Think about that word. The town embraces you. The pathways are organic; they come about as a response to the earth as it stands, not the earth as we can wrestle it into a preconceived form so we can feel safer or drive faster.

enclosed street pistoiaConsider:

I believe that the informal, irregular street arrangements often arose when paths turned into streets as people began to erect buildings along them. In hilly country, paths that have been beaten by humans and animals usually hold the maximum grade to near its lowest practical value. In so doing, they follow the contours of the site. In flat terrain, drainage features and soft soils similarly constrain the location of paths and usually favor firmer soils and drier sites.

Beaten paths usually take interesting and pleasant shapes. The course of a beaten path is almost never straight but is by no means random. Many things come into play, and even among humans the mechanisms are mainly unconscious.

That’s J.H. Crawford’s riff on the subject in A Brief History of Urban Form: Street Layout Through the Ages

Crawford points out that the ancient and modern rigid grid system can’t possibly be romantic:

Straight streets and the grid often express the power of a ruler and his will to impose his chosen order.

ragusa enclosed streetSo that explains it. Who wants to be skewered by the imposed will of a strong ruler, or taken for the ride on the hood of a car whose driver imposes his will at one of the many, many intersections one has to cross in a modern rigid-grid planned city?

We want to be embraced, coddled, lost in the soft, filtered light and gentle curves of the path made into a street. We want to explore the mystery of the tunnel without a glaring light at the end of it. We want, perhaps, for a place to move us.

I wonder what becomes of people who’ve never experienced a Medieval city? After all, grids (an ugly word, no?) have been imposed upon almost everyone since the Renaissance. Does one lose hope? Does one’s soul harden into hatefulness? Could it be enlightening to be surprised by the immensity and beauty of a Baroque church dome as you gently crest a rise in your beautifully enclosed street?

We all need to travel, don’t we? That and a little wine, I think.

Twisted Streets originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jan 11, 2014, © James Martin.

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E78: Paving the Balconies of Piero della Francesca

■ 5 January 2014 by James Martin

metauro valleyIf you’ve ever traveled through the Metauro valley in Le Marche you would recognize it as one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. An artist no less than Piero della Francesa must have thought the same thing; look to the background of his paintings and you’ll see the same landscapes you see today. From the little village of Pieve del Colle for example, you can stand almost exactly where Piero stood while brushing his famous Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino.

The rural tourist can bump along the current road, the E78, and see the historic treasures spread out over the valley that gently cradles the Metauro river: the winter white truffle town of Sant’Angelo in Vado, the Roman Villas, the market town of Mercatello sul Metauro, where the butcher shop keeps a chalkboard of the meats and where they come from and who herds them.

On the verge of discovery by foreigners, the valley over the years has slowly transformed itself from a small manufacturing economy to tourism. The 19th century road house and carriage stop in Borgo Pace for example is now a fantastic restaurant called La Diligenza. You can still rent a room or apartment there if you decide to stay a while and play some croquet.

You access all this creamy, rural goodness via a road known as the E78 which runs from coast to coast, Grosseto to Fano. It’s not a fast road. In fact, it doesn’t come close to meeting the European motorway standards.

Now here’s the thing. They have plans to run a ripping wide autostrada through this idyllic land. 6 lanes. It wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago the plans called for the road (superstrada) to be almost invisible, tucked into tunnels and skirting the edge of the valley where the cultural heritage of the land would have intersected with the traffic hell-bent on getting to the beaches.

The current proposal eliminates all of these costly plans. And because there is little money at all for the project these days, it is planned to be given to an Austrian company called Strabag, who will collect (meaning remove from Italy) all the autostrada tolls for 45 years, according to my sources.

There are people in place who oppose this new plan. Here is a translation of a recent article published in La Repubblica:

The committee “No scempio” (no havoc) aims to raise public awareness on this issue. They are not against the construction of a Superstrada, but they insist on the original project (with tunnels) which would not disfigure the precious landscape. They point also out that when the Superstrada was projected the valley was full of small and medium size industries which boomed and created welfare. Most of them have closed now because of the [economic] crisis and therefore the commercial importance of the project is almost zero. While other activities (rural, tourist, cultural) have started and they have some success. But they need to preserve the original landscape, what tourists expect to see when they come to this part of Italy: hills, gentle slopes , ancient “Borghi” on top of the hills, balconies on the valley that look at the blue sea. The renowned “Montefeltro”, the perfect Duchy of the great Federicus Dux.

Many Italians, even some in the tourist industry, welcome the Autostrada and the ability to jet past the rural landscapes. I, however, have come to see this land as special, and oppose the current project. I can only hope that the most egregious of bureaucratic blunders that expats constantly rave about causes this thing to be pushed into the back burner until hell freezes over, but maybe that’s just me. (Take note ye naysayers: sometimes bureaucratic inefficiency is a very, very good thing).

So I’ll ask what you think. Is this an issue to fight over? Leave a message on our facebook page.

Need a guide to this timeless land? See Le Marche: Travel Guide to the Metauro Valley

E78: Paving the Balconies of Piero della Francesca originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jan 05, 2014, © James Martin.

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Cucina Povera in Pompeii

■ 3 January 2014 by James Martin

It has always occurred to me that those of us in the US are quite likely to misinterpret the whole idea of the cooking of the poor—or at least the semi poor, and not just because writers tend to over-glorify the concept that basic food is better and only the poor had the time and the cleverness to deal with the offal and the tougher cuts.

After all, it’s not like marginally poor people of Italy always ate the cheapest and most icky food. There was a variety of foodstuffs that popped out of the rural countryside available for free. The most conniving, resourceful, and energetic of foraging family members were (are) often able to forage foodstuffs like truffles and porcini that aren’t considered cheap crap food at all. Sure, they likely sold some or all of their hauls in order to purchase a greater quantity of calories—survival food—but they had access to wonderful flavors that even the rural poor in the US can’t come close to procuring. The fifth quarter of the beast was cheap back then. Try buying tongue or tripe at Safeway these days. You might was well get filet mignon.

I had expected a recent article in Popular Archaeology to reinforce this idea that the marginal poor could fare decently—and it did. Sort of. After all, researches found that the “non-elites” were eating better than they expected, even eating exotic imported food like giraffe.

A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe.

“That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” says Ellis. “How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

Of course, calling everyone who isn’t filthy rich “non-elites” paints the scene with an extraordinarily wide brush. Given the data as presented it’s not likely that the homeless poor were bellying up to the bar and gnawing on a roasted giraffe washed down with Barolo.

That’s the problem with popular archaeology (not the magazine, but archaeology that captures the public imagination); funded study usually reflects the concerns of… us.

As government produces bad policy aimed at creating an endless supply of cheap labor and the industrial crap food industry labors to supply it with cheap and inoffensive (read tasteless) fuel, we immediately focus our looking glasses on the past. When toilets came inside the house, we looked for toilets in places like Knossos on the island of Crete. And we found them, of course. You always find what you want to find. Even if they were embalming drains.

Then space travel became possible and suddenly we’re all intently reading the pseudo-archaeology spewing from von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.

So, it’s always like that: è sempre così. So let’s just know that we’re grasping at straws here. The ancients ate quite well at times, maybe better than USians do today, and certainly, if bad governance continues, way better than we will be able to eat in the future.

Perhaps it is time to gather some knowledge of foraging. Then you can at least be useful when you join those preservers of knowledge that pop up in wanting times, that blast from the medieval past: the Monastery.

Cucina Povera in Pompeii originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jan 03, 2014, © James Martin.

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Making Pasta in the Gargano

■ 22 December 2013 by James Martin

I’ve always wondered why Americans with a plethora of specialized, mechanical monsters in their kitchens always seem to think cooking is such a difficult thing. Maybe it’s all the Cuisinarty, “labor saving” crap that’s the problem.

Simplicity. You make pasta with your hands, you squeeze a tiny ball of it between cutting board and thumb and you’ve got the perfect orecchiette. A straight piece of what looks like coat hanger is all you need for maccheroni.

And notice that in the poor south, you didn’t even need eggs for the pasta. This isn’t a rich cuisine; there is nowhere that rich egg pasta fits in.

Below is a video that shows a woman making simple pasta in less time than it would take to get into the SUV and go to the supermarket to buy a package.

Watch. Then get cooking right. Contribute the machines to someone who needs an anchor for a small boat. The kitchen curmudgeon has spoken.

(Thanks to our friends at Pizzicato Eco Bed & Breakfast for the video facevook)

Making Pasta in the Gargano originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 22, 2013, © James Martin.

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Prickly Pear Concentrate in Sardinia: Sapa di fico d’india

■ 11 December 2013 by James Martin

bauladu women pictureOne 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.

bauladu fico d'indiaAt the time, the women were selling the concentrate to bakeries that made traditional sweets from it. And what a place for gossip!

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.

Prickly Pear Concentrate in Sardinia: Sapa di fico d’india originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 11, 2013, © James Martin.

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