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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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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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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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Scorzone Estivo: Summer Truffles, Tuscany Style

■ 1 November 2013 by James Martin

summer truffles scorzone picture

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.venelia piccione picture

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.

lamb artichokes pictureBut then there was Martha’s favorite, the lamb with artichokes. Typical cucina povera “presentation” a heap composed of almost half a rack of lamb under all those artichokes and sauce.

We are full. There is unlikely to be a late meal on this all saints day.

Ristorante Venelia – Facebook Page

Scorzone Estivo: Summer Truffles, Tuscany Style originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Nov 01, 2013, © James Martin.

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The Lunigiana Egg Market

■ 23 October 2013 by James Martin

lunigiana eggs

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.

The Lunigiana Egg Market originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 23, 2013, © James Martin.

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Sagra delle Focaccette di Vaccareccia

■ 15 September 2013 by James Martin

Anatomy of a Lunigiana Feast

A Sagra is a celebration of food. It’s not an ancient thing, it’s a relatively modern word and concept. These feasts happen most every weekend. You learn to read the sagra posters tacked everywhere and decide upon which to attend.

When you move to Italy, you come to understand that some sagre are more important than others in your area. We’ve learned that some of our neighbor’s more lofty accolades go to the Sagra delle focaccette di Vaccareccia.

Vaccareccia is a tiny village in the Lunigiana whose whole reason for being seems to be this once-a-year festival. 2013 was no exception, despite the drizzle.

Everyone is here. The neighbor without eggs because her chickens were eaten by a wolf was there. The almost toothless woman who wins prizes at Karaoke competitions was there, as was her almost blind husband, who insists on driving the car, albeit so slowly hardly anyone notices unless they have the misfortune of being behind him.

How They Make Focaccette

It’s simple. You build a fire to warm up the teste, little terracotta plates. They get quite warm. Then you get one of those those nifty stacking devices you see in the picture below and put down the first testa. You put a ball of dough in the testa, then cover it with another testa, more dough, etc., etc.

When it’s up to the top, you squish it all down, let it cook for a short period of time, then disassemble the whole deal, throwing the resulting focaccette in a basket to be sliced open and stuffed with pancetta, stracchino, Gorgonzola, or sausage. 2 euros are charged for each at the festival.

making focaccette

You’d think with all the food worship that seems to go on around here, the “kitchen” for making these things would be a palace of stainless steel that would be the envy of Mario Batalli or something, but no, what we have is a Focaccette Shack. There are no cats on the hot tin roof, but then again, it was raining.

I’m sorry you missed it. Man, was it good.

focaccette shack vaccareccia

Sagra delle Focaccette di Vaccareccia originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Sep 15, 2013, © James Martin.

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Fivizzano Sapori

■ 4 June 2013 by James Martin

fivizzano sapori flag throwing pictureIf you missed the Sapori festival in Fivizzano this weekend, you missed a great festival. Good enough to make Fivizzano the capitale della Festa dei Piccoli Comuni.

It was a chance to buy wine made just up the trail from us along with cheese of the region, to chow down on our justly famous Zeri lamb with friends Mike and Martha of A Path to Lunch, and to taste “coffee” made of toasted grain.

On Sunday night the place was hoppin’, flags were being thrown in all the big piazzas, and many were actually caught. Even the little kids participated. Royalty danced in a stately manner and peasants danced with spirit and joy.

We couldn’t miss giving you a minute and a half glimpse of the medieval part of the festival in a video made with my NEX-7, which didn’t do too badly for a still camera that also does video.

All this got us to update our page on Fivizzano, where we’ve also included an old engraving showing the walled city and a picture from the same angle today, so you can compare how Fivizzano has/hasn’t changed over the years: Fivizzano Map and Guide.

Fivizzano Sapori originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jun 04, 2013, © James Martin.

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Lunigiana Drone

■ 2 June 2013 by James Martin

Dammit, now I want a drone of my own.

Sure, drones are getting a lot of bad press these days. Mostly it’s because the government uses them to kill people—or to spy on people to be killed later.

But put a camera on a little drone with helicopter wings designed for seeing things from a new angle and you have something great. I mean, if you’re sunbathing nude in your backyard with the maid you might not want to see a drone with a camera overhead. I understand that. But if you were a castle and borgo you would be proud to be seen from overhead, I should think.

We have something like 160 castles and castle ruins in our little corner of Tuscany, called La Lunigiana. That’s a lot, a high density we would say. It would be perfect for someone with a drone and a lot of time to fly it.

Here’s what makes me giddy with desire for a drone of my own:

This is just one of our little mountain hill towns with castle. Purty, ain’t she? Wouldn’t you want someone to document each little town like this?

Lunigiana Drone originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jun 02, 2013, © James Martin.

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