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What Are All These Herbs Doing on My Trout?

■ 29 May 2014 by James Martin

trout picture

Getting to the Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is not easy. From the town of Gallicano in the Garfagnana you follow a freakishly twisty, narrow little road uphill towards the Eremo di Calomini. It is the Italian custom to beep your little horn before you brave each blind hairpin, but here you might as well lean on the thing the whole darn way.

We eventually reached the parking lot at the Eremo and strolled over to Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita. It’s just down a little strada bianca, a white road of more or less one lane. Our friends parked below, and walked up the steep stairs.

We meet at the top. “Dori and I were thinking that this looks just lake someplace in Hawaii,” Robert said upon greeting us.

Yes, lush, green and fragrant in a drizzle, the place had that Shangri-La thing going on.

But let’s talk about that roasted trout up there, shall we? It didn’t seem very Italian, covered with all those herbs. You wouldn’t be surprised to see such a thing in Provence, but this is a tiny corner of unknown Tuscany, not Provence.

The more you learn about “Italian” food, the more things on a plate rise up and slap you in the face, demanding further research.

Monastic outposts relied on herbs for medicinal purposes. There was a reason the Eremo was placed where it was, including the abundance of water that gushed from the rocks all around. This water has, they say, curative powers as well.

So, on with research. More herbs:

Today I went to the Sagra della Minestrella di Gallicano. Minestrella is a soup of wild herbs and beans made only in Gallicano, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. Today it is the southernmost town in the Garfagnana. ~ Why the Garfagnana?

So there is a cultural reason for so many herbs, even though it seems to break the cucina povera tradition of simple preparations with few ingredients.

Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is your chance to see what this whole thing is all about. You can eat the special bread of Gallicano called focaccia leva, a thick flat bread cooked between two iron plates to be eaten with cold cuts and the restaurant’s smoked trout (they raise their own trout here!). They also raise farro, which appears in the farro soup. You can taste or buy eggs from their free range chickens. You can buy packets of the dried herbs they collect from along the little white road. Then, when you’re totally stuffed, you can go visit the Eremo. When you do, note the chapel carved out of the hillside.

Then you hit the road. Don’t forget the horn. Blow for all it’s worth.

chapel carved from rock picture

Map

What Are All These Herbs Doing on My Trout? originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 29, 2014, © James Martin.

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On the Lowly Onion

■ 27 May 2014 by James Martin

On Sunday, Italy’s National Day of Stuffing Yourself with Friends and Family, we ate at one of those restaurants tourists always say they seek out but never find, the unlabeled eatery full of Italians.

I didn’t find it. That honor goes to Mike of A Path to Lunch. He had the good sense to know that if a place has one of those old signs announcing a public telephone (remember them?) that there was a story there somewhere. And thus he found his path to lunch and was the first American they’d ever seen sticking a fork in their spaghetti. Bravo.

But another thing I like about Italy other than unlabeled and unsigned restaurants is the variety of things to eat that are common, even lowly, like the onion mentioned in the title. We Americans think, “an onion is white, brown, or red and they all taste pretty much the same” as if the color was merely painted on. But in Italy, we have so many different kinds of onions with different flavors, I’m wondering if anyone has ever cataloged them all. Sometimes you go to a food festival (a sagra) and it’s an entire weekend celebration of a particular kind of onion and you don’t even know it because the name of the onion is disguised by being written in dialect, like our experience in the village of Moncigoli at the Sagra di Cigola.

So six of us are eating our antipasti and my friend Roberto leans over after tasting this amazing onion tart-like thing and says, “this is rich, like French onion soup. Do you think they make it like that?”

It would be a stretch to think of a country Italian trying to mimic something French. Anything French. So I answered in the negative. There was no evidence of having been cooked in beef broth, no thyme, No stringy cheese—nothing like that.

So time passes. Then this:

paglia e fieno pasta picture

It’s a simple pasta, paglia e fieno, straw and hay, spinach and normal pasta. It’s sauced with…sausage. Tiny bits of sausage. You can hardly see them. It looks like the dish isn’t sauced at all.

But then you taste. The onions you can’t see rise to make the dish triumph, the sausage playing a decent second fiddle.

Man it was good. And onions made it that way.

So I take my hat off to the onions of Il Borgo di Canossa. I should say the secret onions of Canossa. You see, I asked our waitress about them. Were they special? “Yes.” Where do I get some, where do they come from?

“Just ask if we have them when you make your next reservation.”

I guess if you don’t put labels on your restaurant you don’t put them on your ingredients either. Fair enough.

So, I’m going to do something I am inclined not to do. I am going to come clean with all I know about this restaurant. There is parking in front, but it is on a road that will require you to back your car all the way to the main road if someone decides to come down off the hill (experience speaking). I am going to show you a map of this secret place and tell you the name, which will do no good because not many people will know it. I will trust you not to tell anyone else. Ok?

Ristorante Bar Capetta di Luciani Maria Paola. TEL: 0187.850.063

And whatever you do, ask about the onions. Eat anything that has them as an ingredient.

On the Lowly Onion originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 27, 2014, © James Martin.

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Lari, a Castle Town in Tuscany, Revisited

■ 24 May 2014 by James Martin

lari law courts torture

Lari has all you can ask for in a small, Tuscan hill town. Good pasta is manufactured right in the town center. A short walk away is a great restaurant. Climb a little hill and you’re in the courtyard of Lari Castle. It’s a pretty little place. People are friendly and generally happy.

Then there’s the past. The 16th century past. You can see it in the photo above—a picture only Dick Cheney could love. I know, I know, tourists like torture, and will pay big bucks to see how the medieval folks did it and I will exploit that fact to bring this weirdness to you. Yes, what you see it is a bit of Tuscan torture. But, according to the recording, it was quite a “humane” torture. You see, when you strung someone up like this, the alleged miscreant didn’t often die. The worse that could happen would be something small, a little shoulder separation perhaps.

And this is not, the little voice out of the yellow plastic box told us, a torture session. The miscreant was merely being interrogated. If he confessed while his shoulder was being wrenched from its moorings, it didn’t matter—as long as he didn’t confess in court, which was across the hall. At least this is how I understand it. It’s not like waterboarding, when they get what they want out of you and then they’re done with you. No, you got a second chance in the actual courtroom. Bully for justice—or something.

The little prison in Lari castle was used until well after the Nazi era. The more things change, the more they stay the same, evidently.

But on a brighter note, we went back to Lari’s little gem of a restaurant, Antica Osteria al Castello and had lunch outside in the piazza. Lari is called “the cherry city.” Signs pointing the way into town inform you of this fact, except, of course, in Italian rather than English. I know, it confuses me, too.

The town hosts a cherry festival the first week of June.

It’s almost June, so one of us was bound to order the duck with cherries and Marsala. It was quite good. Here’s the food porn part:

lari cherry duck

This, some pasta, a couple of new friends to pranzare with and air clean as a bell really made a special day. If you’ve never heard of Lari, well look at the map and it will show you how the little hill is configured and show you where the restaurant is.

And whatever you do, don’t get in trouble with the law or you won’t get to see this view from your cell in Lari Castle. They’ve cleverly put the windows very high up on the wall.

lari view picture

Lari, a Castle Town in Tuscany, Revisited originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 24, 2014, © James Martin.

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The Cinque Terre Wines of Walter De Battè

■ 9 May 2014 by James Martin

walter de batte picture

I’ve had the privilege of tasting some of Chianti’s “best” wines. Some of them cost more than 8 worker’s lunches here in the Lunigiana, just for a single bottle. People whose job it is to “present” this wine to the public usually extol their handling of the grapes and speak glowingly of the care they take with their little babies, all moist and ripe as they slide slowly down the chute on their way to becoming expensive libation. When their juices age a very long time these grapes become a wine that will undoubtedly be called “refined.”

But when it comes time to taste, your pourer may flick an imaginary piece of dust from an impeccably tailored sleeve, allow a precious dribble to fall into a glass, then stand back, smile and say something like, “good, eh?” when you touch the glass to your lips.

Yes, good. But not 7 times better than a decent bottle, I usually think.

But I’m not a wine writer, really. I look to other people to extol whatever virtues justify the cost. They say the same thing. “Good,” or “Mmmm,” then nod knowingly. I am thinking they are thinking the same thing I am thinking, something like “somebody please say something intelligent about this wine.”

But maybe not. Maybe we are just letting the wine speak for itself. It is refined. It speaks softly.

altrove wine pictureWalter De Battè is serious about the wines he makes out of vineyards that cling to the slopes above the five little villages given the name Le Cinque Terre. These wines are not “refined.” They speak boldly of things refined people don’t speak of in public. We tasted Walter’s wine with foods prepared by Cappun Magru restaurant in little Groppo, a bump on the winding road to the top of a ridge from which you get excellent views of the five little villages and the terraced hillsides the rain keeps washing away. Food expert, guide, B&B owner (Poggio Etrusco) and cookbook author (Cucina Povera) Pamela Sheldon Johns has invited us, and man, are we glad she did.

The first wine we taste is brilliantly colored, a deep gold with signs of murkiness. Walter thrusts his nose deep into the glass and describes the smell of rocks drying on the beach in the noonday sun. He talks of lichens and moss. It is the opposite of refined; we are shrouded heavily in the nature we desire to be engulfed in, at least in our dreams.

The wine he’s named Carlaz is unfiltered and unfined. Hence the murkiness and, above all, the intense flavors of the sea and earth, the terroir, as the French say, from which the grapes have developed their unique character.

It paired nicely with the dish the restaurant was named after, the Cappun Magru, a fisherman’s dish of fish, shellfish, a mariner’s biscuit, green sauce and earthy vegetables.

We had three other courses—and three other wines. I’m not going to wax poetic over them. Each was significantly different, like a novel which comes alive when you realize that each personality is different and distinct and equally compelling.

sciacchetra pictureBut we ended with one of the last bottles of Walter De Battè’s Schiacchetrà that are currently in circulation. Schiacchetrà is the Cinque Terre’s famed dessert wine.

Why is Schiacchetrà wine so expense? Easy: It takes 45 pounds of fresh grapes to make 15 pounds of dried ones, from which the winemaker extracts a single bottle of Sciacchetrà. The wine should age for at least 6 years. Good vintages can age 10, 20, even 30 years. ~ David Downy – Wines of the Cinque Terre

I’ve put a picture of it over there to the right. Look at the color! This is no wall flower wine!

The perfect afternoon? A room that opens onto the vineyards of the Cinque Terre, letting in the light. A small group of good people unafraid of life, a man in jeans who knows wine. Good food. Wine that speaks volumes: of the air and the sea and the rocks and the hanging moss, earthy as all get out…

It’s almost pornographic, eh?

The Cinque Terre Wines of Walter De Battè originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 09, 2014, © James Martin.

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Dr. Sukkar and the Mediterranean Diet

■ 3 May 2014 by James Martin

sukkar pictureI am giddy. I’ve just attended a lecture on nutrition conducted by a medical doctor in Italian and came away with an almost complete understanding about what the man was saying. This makes me quite happy. The man is a genius. This is not mere hyperbole; anyone who can make me understand anything is a genius. It doesn’t happen that often. He’s in the center in the picture, just so you know.

But really, Dr. Samir Guiseppe Sukkar has his own website chock full of credentials, just in case you think he’s one of those fly-by-night, paid-by-Monsanto crackpots who dominate the American nutritional scene. His talk in front of the museum in La Spezia was titled “Vivere piu a lungo e sani grazie al modello alimentare della Lunigiana” which pretty much means, “live longer and healthier with the Lunigiana dietary model.”

I emphasize the word “model” because Dr. Sukkar wisely pointed out that, while the “Mediterranean diet” is widely held to be some sort of holy grail for those who want to live to be 120 years old, the UNESCO prize isn’t for the diet, it’s for the model of the diet, which includes lifestyle. That is, hard physical work in the fields, discussion during meals, as well as the food itself.

To quote Dr. Sukkar in a general way only a person who struggles with the language daily might, “Our model of eating comes from the Greek, the concept of the Agora, where ideas come together with daily tasks like eating. You eat less when you are interested in the discussion.”

An enormous part of the success of this diet is attributed to components in fresh olive oil. The big word is polyphenols, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage and has anti-inflammatory properties. The fat in Olive oil is monounsaturated, which can help lower your cholesterol and control insulin levels in the body.

But here’s the thing. While we Americans fetishize the precious olive oil on our shelves, we are kidding ourselves that we are benefiting from consuming it. Remember, I said “…the components in fresh olive oil.” The crap you buy in an American supermarket isn’t fresh, and besides, “highly refined or “light” olive oils, which use heat or chemicals in the refining process, have significantly lower polyphenol levels.” That’d be the stuff on the Safeway shelf. Green olives from older trees that have been handled very, very gently in the field and at the processor have the highest polyphenol levels. That’s not the junk in the American Grocery, that’s my neighbor Enrico’s olive oil. It’s the (demanding) lifestyle, silly. He works. He makes olive oil. He toils in a humongous garden. He cycles long distances on “vacation”.

How did olive oil get to the Lunigiana? Think Romans. Think energy crisis. They brought olive trees to provide fuel for oil lamps, the high tech lighting of the time. What was left over was eaten. By the medieval other oils and other means of lighting started to be used, freeing olive oil for consumption.

And finally, let’s consider the lowly, besmirched egg. It’s not lowly because of what it is, but what we’ve made it. The fats in the eggs produced by a real free range chicken that gets to prance around the barnyard eating bugs are significantly healthier than those produced by caged, pellet-fed chickens. Insects are huge providers of select amino acids that are found in sparse quantities in vegetables.

So, technology has alleviated seasonal starvation; we can give it that. But then, like the Roman god Janus, shouldn’t we have an eye toward the past so that we might avoid the ever-crappier food of the future? The truth is, happy chickens produce healthy eggs that taste better.

Until they get that straightened out, I’m happy to eat in the Lunigiana. I only have to walk down the driveway to see chickens pecking in the dirt on the hillside.

Dr. Sukkar and the Mediterranean Diet originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 03, 2014, © James Martin.

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Tastevere KmZero: A Rome Restaurant Without a Stove

■ 27 April 2014 by James Martin

tastevere kmzero food picture

The more you get immersed into the amazing food on the boot, the more you realize that you can exist in a high state of Foodie bliss for weeks without actually cooking anything. Italians are always preserving, conserving, packing good edibles in oil, and foraging for tasty weeds meant to be eaten just as they come from God’s green earth.

tastevere pictureSo our little food tour group wedges it’s way into the tiny room with the three tables and a little stand-up bar that makes up the entire interior of Tastevere KmZero. A couple of young guys run the place. There is no stove. They only use products from local farmers. Lazio has a lot of local farmers.

Lorenzo carefully unwrapped a tiny package and told me to take a single thread of saffron and lay it upon my tongue. “It’s to get your palate ready for the food,” he said in perfect English.

That did it. We then ate things like salami with wild herb flowers and DOP honey dripped over all. As you can see in the picture above, there’s a balanced meal in each plate, from your roughage to your protein, all local, all uncooked.

There are even locally produced artisan beer (and wine, of course).

While we munched in amazement at the variety of tastes hammering our palates, a regular named Giuseppe was introduced to us. A shepherd, he spoke of the transhumance, the seasonal movement of sheep from the mountains to the sea, and explained the benefits of the meandering lamb: the fat, compared to that of a penned sheep eating straw, has far less cholesterol. I always like finding out facts like this because it means we don’t have to rely on the moral argument entirely. You know, “The sheep like it so we should do it.” The fact is that animals raised right, doing what they’d do if there wasn’t a shepherd and his dog around, are tastier, healthier and offer significant health benefits up the food chain. It’s not due to a random draw that the good shepherd became a symbol of righteousness in early Christianity. Too bad we’ve forgotten. It’s in bad taste that we’ve done so.

tastevere kmzero pictureIn any case, I encourage you to try Tastevere KmZero on your next visit to Rome. Here are the facts and contact information:

Vicolo de’ cinque 30/A, Trastevere
email: tastevere@gmail.com
tel: 06 95584404

You should probably reserve. The place is a hit remember, and there’s only three tables.

You can also take the food tour we did: The Roman Foodie: Trastevere Locals Food Tour

Location Map for Tastevere KmZero

Tastevere KmZero: A Rome Restaurant Without a Stove originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 27, 2014, © James Martin.

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Eating Weeds

■ 12 April 2014 by James Martin

stinging nettles fritata

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.

tuscan wildflowers pictureWe the uninitiated were seeing yet another pleasant side of Tuscany. Marta, our guide, was seeing food.

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.

marta pictureWe 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.

weed saladWhen 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.

Eating Weeds originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 12, 2014, © James Martin.

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The Big Cheese

■ 6 April 2014 by James Martin

cheese risotto picture

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.

serving risotto pictureThat 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.

risotto picture
I rather liked it. Everyone should experience this kind of showmanship once or twice in a lifetime, an act that befits the romantic idea of staying in a real villa.

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.

The Big Cheese originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 06, 2014, © James Martin.

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