■ 13 March 2015 by James Martin
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:
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
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
■ 10 November 2014 by James Martin
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
The fountain has already been restored, thanks to a donation from Prada. While the architecture and frescoes await their turn at restoration.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
■ 9 November 2014 by James Martin
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.
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.
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.
(Thanks to Luisa Donati of Montestigliano for introducing me to Aquaflor.)
Popular These Days
■ 4 November 2014 by James Martin
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:
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.
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.
■ 17 October 2014 by James Martin
So we’re on the road to Gavoi in Sardinia for the Autunno in Barbagia festivities when the car screeches to a halt. I look over to Martha, thankfully in control of said car, who points up a hill to our right and says, “Do you want to see the church?”
I did. The church was of very dark Basalt. It stood at the crest of the hill ominously. A long staircase provided access.
We happened to be in the town of Ottana. The church of San Nicola we were now standing in front of was dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra and consecrated in 1160. Archaeologists sent in during the restoration of the church discovered an earlier church from the high medieval, possibly monastic, tangled in the foundations.
You’ll notice something interesting on the facade if you click the picture above to see it bigger. It’s got some ceramic plates stuck in it at the top. This practice is typical in Sardinia, as well as in northern Italy and Tuscany. You see, the church is built in the Pisan style. Pisa has 669 bacini on 26 buildings, a bacino being a basin or hollow circular vessel—the ceramics in a church facade which came from far and wide; some in Pisa had Egyptian origins.
Unfortunately the bacini embedded in San Nicola are replicas. But interesting none the less.
But the real treasure (for me) was still to be discovered. Inside the church was this:
It’s something I’ve seen before. Hand carved. Hand painted. The pedals give it away. It is of course an organ. You have to open up the doors to see the pipes and keyboard, of course.
Which, of course, would be forbidden to heathens, pagans, and journalists.
And, yes, I spotted a note on the door clasp. I read it. It nearly threw me for a loop. Instead of forbidding my sausage fingers from prising the door open, the note merely asked me to please respect the object.
How absolutely civilized!
So I took great care at opening up the handmade organ. And here it is:
If you like these sorts of things, we discovered another fine example in Portugal, in the incredibly amazing town of Tentugal, a place which I must advise you to go. See: The Treasures of Tentugal
Ottana, it turns out, has one of the top carnival celebrations in Sardinia.
Have fun on your vacations, and please, you planners-the-the-nth-degree, leave time for discovery.
For more about sardinia, see Wandering Sardinia
■ 7 October 2014 by James Martin
Cremona is one of those cities in which everything is focused on a single square—and it’s not the typical “Piazza Duomo” either. It’s the Piazza Comune, with all the religious architecture on one side, so that the cathedral, baptistry, and Torrazzo (tower, the tallest in pre-modern Europe @ 112.7 meters, and you can climb it for some fantastic views) are all facing the administration center, the Comune. It’s all about the contrast between gleaming white marble and the red bricks.
Then you turn around and see this:
In the daytime there’s a Commune bar where you can sit and stare at the cathedral all day long if you wish. At night it closes. Unfortunately.
Osteria La Sosta
The street that continues to the left in the picture above is a street of political symbolism, violin makers, and restaurants. We ate in one that was fantastic, just down the street. It was called “La Sosta” and it delivered.
For starters there was the wordy “Tiepido di Lingua salmistrata e Testina di Vitello con Salsa verde e Olio del Garda,” a warm plate of tongue and a bit of calf head with green sauce and lentils with olive oil. It was quite good but the snails! Oh, the snails! Not those French snails that have been cooked down to eraserness so that you have to douse them in all manner of butter, parseley and garlic to add forgiveness to the poor garden destroyer. No, they were succulent and tasty with just a little complimentary sauce.
I had to order the “Gnocchi Vecchia Cremona (antica ricetta del 600)” which came as three giant gnocchi stuffed with sausage and baked with Poppy seeds, Sesame and Parmesan. Don’t think the dish comes from 600 Ad, that’s 1600 AD in American. But still, old enough to be very traditional.
Martha’s Bigoli with sardines and parmigiano reggiano bread crumbs was also tasty.
And the good news on the wine front is that you can get many wines by the half bottle.
For me, La Sosta gets five stars, and you’re not far from the piazza where you can be immersed in the Medieval—during the day. At night you’ll have to find an open bar/restaurant on the back side and be content with a view of the cathedral’s big apse.
■ 13 July 2014 by James Martin
I like maps. Slap me with a heritage pig chop if I’m wrong, but I think modern technology has made maps more useful and interesting. (It gives you a good feeling to think that modern thought and technology isn’t all about crowd sourcing and driving down the incomes of trained and adept authors and artists.)
Take the map in the thumbnail. It’s a map of where tourists went in Italy in 2012. What they’ve done is taken the number of tourists who went to each region and map that region to the size it would be if geographical size was proportional to the number of tourists. So Tuscany is huge. Lazio is big but I’m thinking it’s only because throngs of people go to or land in Rome and then skedaddle, same with the enormous Veneto and Venice I suppose. And….the Abruzzo remains a dot the size of a pimple on a giraffe.
From this map you can discern where you should go if you fall into one of the two prevailing tourist categories. The trophy tourists who demand to see the “best” will want to go to the regions that are big, especially to those whose regions have been bloated by the algorithm the most, like Tuscany, so they can relate with pride that they’ve done the things the guidebooks and the crowd tell them to do. I don’t mean to be totally negative about this; these are the places with the highest density of easily accessed things to do for tourists who don’t know the Italian language. The folks who say, “I wanna get way off the beaten tourist track” can, and should, pick the miniscule regions. Those are the ones in odd colors you can barely see, like ticks on your arm after a hike in the woods. Take the Marche for instance. It’s the pink tick.
It is in current vogue to label Le Marche as “the new Tuscany.” Both the New York Times and Wall Street International have fallen over each other to put out the word. Thank God the mantle has been lifted from Puglia. Puglia, like Le Marche, has its own charms. They might not be the charms of Renaissance-rich Tuscany, but who cares? “The New Tuscany” is a label used by lazy writers. Ignore them. They make a one-week trek to a place, consult a few enthusiastic guides, and then that place becomes the cat’s meow. Instantly.
That said, there is enough in the Metauro Valley to keep you busy for weeks. Real food. Cheese made by folks out in real barns. Stunning landscapes, unchanged since the times Piero della Francesca brought his easels and brushes into the countryside to paint them. It’s home to waterfalls you can swim near and picnic by—bring a hearty bread with cheese made by a real cheesemaker. The Cascata de Sasso is one of Italy’s ten largest waterfalls and you didn’t have a clue, did you? (Ok, I didn’t either and I’ve been to this area many times).
And this is just a third or less of Le Marche. Imagine. Not only can you get a taste of unspoiled Italy, you can expand the rich “pinkness” of the little region and pretty soon the trophy travelers can become interested in it. Perhaps if enough of you get entranced by the siren song of Le Marche, you can contribute to numbers that might sway the money-hungry powers that be to reconsider the paving of the balconies of Piero della Francesca —or making a hydroelectric plant at La Cascata del Sasso.
The Abruzzo isn’t a bad place to spend a couple of weeks either. The Abruzzese need you, too. Tourists might stay in a castle and eat more than their share of food and thus leave some money in the territory so the people can finally recover from that big trembler from years ago. And you can visit Le Grotte di Stiffe. C’mon, you’ve always wanted to do that, didn’t you?
Here’s the Link to a very big map like the thumbnail above from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: L’Italia vista dagli stranieri
■ 25 April 2014 by James Martin
For the last three days I’ve been rooting around in catacombs, I’ve eaten the best food in Trastevere, I’ve been driven over the cobbled streets of Rome in a golf cart—and I’ve stood virtually alone in the Sistine Chapel, with only the hum of the air conditioning to remind me I was in a building with some of the world’s greatest art.
These aren’t those same old tours you used to get 30-40 years ago. You see, after I studied archaeology I wanted to see some of Europe’s great ancient wonders, so I went to Rome and Athens like most people interested in the Classics. I paid for tours and listened to people who had no clue as to what was under their feet. I spent most of every tour rolling my eyes at the fantasies they tried to make me believe. In the end I could have flung a good sized elephant across the room using the ocular musculature I had built from this extreme exercise.
But that was then and this is now. By law, folks wanting to be a guide in Rome today have to be sharp as a tack on every aspect of the culture and civilization since Romulus and Remus. Even Nina, who led our Trastevere food tour, had a Ph.D. in Post Classical Archeology from La Sapienza and showed an abundance of energy that lit up our evening in Rome.
The fabulous Simona of Walks of Italy didn’t just lead us into a crypt and say, “this is what you’re seeing” but described the alternative theories that are popular so that we could understand exactly the path modern research was taking. I’ve visited lots of catacombs in my time, but never have I come away with an understanding of the culture and politics that shaped their evolution as I did after three hours on the Crypts, Bones & Catacombs Underground Tour of Rome with Simona.
Brandon, one of the Roman Guys, gave a fantastic narrative of Rome and the Vatican. Not only that, but he carefully guided us through the streets to all the big Roman sites while at the wheel of an 8 person golf cart. Think your health isn’t good enough for a three hour Rome walking tour? Try the Rome ECO Golf Cart Tour. The “econess” of the golf cart means it can go pretty much anywhere in Rome you can walk, so you miss nothing. You couldn’t do that thirty years ago.
And when an Italian kid points at you and says, “Mama, a golf cart!” you know you’ve arrived.
If you really want to experience the Vatican, nothing can compare to being almost alone inside the museums at dusk, when the windows are flung open for some fantastic slanting light and you’re there with a small group, the cleaning women and a few guards.
Yes, you can almost replicate our experience with the “Vatican Under the Stars Evening Tour on Friday evenings.
Have fun in Rome. We certainly did.
(Disclosure: We were guests of the tour companies mentioned in this article)