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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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Madrevite: A Winery for Italy's Future

■ 28 March 2014 by James Martin

We visit lots of wineries. We see lots of freshly-built wine storage and aging facilities. We see barrels and stainless steel tanks. After a while, it all begins looking the same. In fact, some times the wine all tastes the same. There are times I wish I wasn’t going to visit yet another winery.

madrevite sign pictureYou see, there’s no history in these places, no story. These are mere factories for spewing out the juices of the grape.

But Madrevite, we were to find out, was quite different. There was always wine on the estate. But it wasn’t the kind you bottle and sell with the big boys. It was local wine, vino sfuso, fuel for the workers.

Nestled between two lakes, the Umbrian Lake Trasimeno and the Tuscan Lake Chiusi, Madrevite isn’t so easy to find. But we managed to show up on the doorstep just a little later than our appointment. We were met by Nicola, who led us outside to see the olive grove and vineyards that make up the estate.

madrevite barrels pictureThe winter’s rains made it too muddy to wander amongst the vines, but Nicola pointed down the road, where yet another Etruscan tomb had been found just off the property. “We’ve made a visit to it a part of our tours,” Nicola told us.

But the best part of the tour was the winery itself. The old stables and the big, concrete, wine storage facilities had been transformed from “grandpa’s winery” to a modern operation. The total area was indeed small and it was easy to see that production was limited.

vino sfuso pictureIt was obvious that the winery’s past was not going to be forgotten any time soon. About 2/3 of the winery production, Nicola told us, was still slated to become vino sfuso for the locals. If you’re not familiar with this way of selling wine, a hose and spigot like you’d find on a gas pump is attached to a big vat of wine like you see in the picture on the left, and when the locals come to buy wine (at 1.90 Euro per liter!) Nicola just sticks the hose into the bottle and it’s “fill ‘er up” time.

“This way it keeps us in touch with our local friends” he said. It’s also a way to keep the fine wine at a very high quality. Every harvest the wine is broken into thirds by geography or vineyard. The best third goes into the bottles, the rest into vino sfuso. And believe me, we tasted it and it was by far the best sfuso we’ve ever tasted. And we purchase it this way a lot.

By the time we came to taste Madrevite’s bottled wine, we spotted other signs that this wasn’t a big, commercial winery just trying to sell us the latest vintages. There were bags of beans all around. These are Fagiolina del Trasimeno, ancient beans used by the Etruscans that were not so easy to grow, so when imports came from the new world, they almost entirely replaced the local stock. Today Madrevite grows these fagioline and sells packages of them at the winery. They don’t need to be soaked; they cook in about 45 minutes, Nicola told us.

While we tasted the three reds bottled at the winery, Nicola laid out some local cheeses and salume, explaining that the local production of pecorino cheese had Sardinian origins, since the territory wasn’t traditionally devoted to sheep. On the table were bottles of estate bottled olive oil as well.

Last night at home we poured one of Madrevite’s three reds: Glanio, a dark and tasty DOC blend of 70% Sangiovese, 20% Gamay del Trasimeno and 10% Merlot.

I’m no wine writer, and Sangiovese has never been my favorite wine grape—but all I can say is “wow.” The nose was vanilla and spice, a bit peppery. It was an international style, meaning a bit more oak than traditional Italian reds, but it was powerful and delicious.

Why am I exited about this winery? It’s not just that they sell great wines, but it’s the community involvement, the “back to local food” education, and the tours and organized picnics in the vineyards designed to make an outing fun for the whole family and to show off the area and its history.

It is my belief that Italy will return from its economic doldrums through Janus, the two-faced god of transitions. By peering into Italy’s future with an eye to the past, it’s not hard to see that the way back to economic sanity from the industrial crap food “revolution” that spewed barely edibles while employing few will depend upon smart, connected folks re-building on the roots of an almost lost traditional culture.

Madrevite’s website is in English. Note the tours and special events. Then be sure to visit. There’s lots to see and do in the area if you have a car, as you can see from the map below.

We stayed at Fontanaro, where one can take cooking classes, find out about the organic farm and its products or just relax. The nearby towns of Panicale, Paciano, Castiglione del Lago, and Chiusi are all worth a visit.

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

Madrevite: A Winery for Italy's Future originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 28, 2014, © James Martin.

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The Sardinia Cookbook

■ 10 March 2014 by James Martin

the sardinia cookbook pictureYou have to be bold to label your work The Sardinia Cookbook. Bold like a Sardinian, Viktorija Todorosvska takes on the difficult work of making sense out of the cuisine of the enigmatic island—and does a very good job of it.

I’ve spent five seasons doing archaeological work on the island, and I’ve read a lot of utter nonsense about the food. Combing the introduction finely as a man looking for lice in the hair of a wild man hugging a ticking time bomb, I have to say the woman has done her homework.

But that’s probably not enough, so we went ahead and tested a recipe. Chicken with capers. Delicious, even with the industrial crap American chicken we had to put up with. There are a lot of capers sticking out of those stone walls and towers that dot the Sardinian lanscape—and they add zap to lots of things. So we’re talking local food here.

Oh, and the cooking times were spot on.

So, yeah, it’s a short review because I really can’t find anything to bitch about. The only thing wrong (with any authentic cookbook, really) is that you can’t get some of the things you want to eat most, like the suckling pig so you can have myrtle-flavored porcheddu. Or the Sardinian lamb, or the bue rosso, the red bull. But you can go to Sardinia and have them. And if you go with our Sardinia Inside Out app (iOS | Android) , you can eat them in the best places.

To buy the cookbook from Amazon:
The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and Culture of a Mediterranean Island

The Sardinia Cookbook originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 10, 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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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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The Last Pizza on the Terrace 2013

■ 12 November 2013 by James Martin

pizza pictureToday 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!

ponte statue pictureThe 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.

bridge walkway picture

The Last Pizza on the Terrace 2013 originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Nov 12, 2013, © James Martin.

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