■ 29 May 2014 by James Martin
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.
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
■ 15 April 2014 by James Martin
You’ve all heard: Italy is in financial distress. There are no jobs, especially for young people. Italy provides Italian citizens with excellent educations, but these days the educated vanish, heading for where the jobs are. The situation is hopeless.
I’d like you to meet a very interesting man. His name is Luciano Bandinelli. When he stands in front of his shop on the edge of the little town with the strange name you wish you have visited in Tuscany, Colle Val d’Elsa, he nearly bangs his head on the sign.
Yes, Luciano in a way joined the exodus, forsaking the family business in favor of working for a technology company that sent him all over the world. His father wasn’t so pleased. Then one fateful day, on an airplane coming home from a trip to smog-shrouded China, he thought, “What am I doing in this smoggy hell? I live in a place everyone wants to live in. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
And so he came home again. He joined his father in the business of making glass all it can be. He is a Crystal Master Craftsman. His motto is “passion, tradition, emotion.” Neither he nor I found those attributes in modern technology.
He applies each of those qualities in the crystal he produces, however. I know cut crystal has gone out of fashion. Wine glasses are factory molded and cheap. You make a toast with friends and you “clink” your glasses together, but they no longer ring happy tidings, they don’t even clink—they clunk. You know why?
Because they’re not leaded crystal, that’s why. Touch two crystal glasses together and they ring like a bell—and almost forever (or at least until you give up and take a drink).
What about the lead in the crystal? You’ve heard bad things about it. Let’s tackle that. Italy has a limit to how much lead can be put in the crystal. While lead can leach into acidic liquids that have remained in containers for an extended period of time, the use of crystal wine glasses is quite safe:
For everyday use, no liquid stays in the glass long enough during any meal to leak lead that exceeds EPA standards. This is good news for consumers who can safely use lovely crystal stemware to serve wine, water, and other beverages. ~ Is It Safe to Use Crystal Glasses?
Of course, Luciano makes more than crystal wine glasses. The shop is full of plates, light fixtures, ornaments and other shimmering, hand-crafted and cut crystal items:
La Grotta del Cristallo is a unique Atelier creating original crystal pieces; gifts for special occasions; table decorations; customized engravings made to order.
If you go to the grotta, you can see how all this is done. Luciano has a video that shows the hand cutting of the glass, and he’ll show you how the glass is polished and cut. It’s an amazing thing to see.
I want to tell you to buy things. Lots of things. I want to tell you to support this exodus back to what Italy does best: handmade things that last nearly forever and are well worth a premium price. Why support minimum wage slave production of cheap crap? But I won’t. Just see for yourself. And, you know, I am directing you to a very interesting town.
Find out more on Luciano’s web site: La Grotta dei Cristallo
Colle di Val d’Elsa, literally the hill of the valley of the Elsa river, is spread out on three geographical levels. The top level, the castle, is the oldest. Tourists don’t plan to come here, they see the massive gate and towers and they stop because they are surprised by the sight. There is plenty of parking outside the walls.
If you’re coming to San Gimignano or Volterra by car, Colle di Val d’Elsa makes a fine day or half-day trip. The town lies along the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which gave it an early market boost. There are only two long roads, a compelling little passageway/tunnel, fine restaurants, a great hotel and apartments, and some interesting little museums, including, in the lower town, one dedicated to crystal. Why? Because 15% of the world’s crystal and 95 percent of Italy’s crystal is produced here, in little Colle di Val d’Elsa! Glass production was introduced in the 17th century by the nobel Usimbardi family. Before that, Colle was known for paper production.
Where to Eat? Cooking Guru Divina Cucina recommends Officina Della Cucina Popolare, just inside the gate you see below called “Porta Nova”. Michelin (and Luciano) recommends Arnolfo, definitely a splurge, also popular (and more affordable) is Il Cardinale inside the Relais Della Rovere.
So here’s the gate that compels passing tourists to enter:
Map of Colle Val d’Elsa and Location of La Grotta del Cristallo
■ 6 April 2014 by James Martin
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.
That 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.
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.
Popular These Days
■ 13 October 2013 by James Martin
“Make my food look pretty,” she said, excitedly grasping her pigtails and flinging them behind her back, her freckled cheeks pinking slightly.
“Close your eyes.”
“Mmmm. Arty baby gonna make surprise of my chops?”
“No. I mean close your eyes and eat.”
New research out of BYU finds that looking at too many pictures of food can actually make it less enjoyable to eat.
Let’s face it: the web is clogged with food that does not look like food. Food porn they call it. Underage veal lies pretty in garter belts of truffled cracklings, while mamma bangs pots in the kitchen.
You see, lazy researchers are recycling the old, tired, and generally untrue porn research and inserting food where the pulsing sex organs used to be. “Porn desensitizes you.” You get big bucks for this sorta thing.
So let me cure you.
Welcome to your 1 step anti food porn program, a free feature of Wandering Italy
Now close your eyes for real. Open them when I say open.
Think of long simmered pork. On the bone. Salty, but then think of the essence of sweet chestnuts. Together, a marriage made in heaven. A balance, salty/sweet. Try to keep from swooning.
Now open. Look:
Ok, before you retch, I didn’t say this was gonna be easy.
What you’re looking at, if your head isn’t face down in a toilet bowl, is Polenta di Neccio and Ossi di Maiale. You can say Polenta con ossi and the good folks of the Garfagnana section of Tuscany will understand. Polenta with bones.
What you have is a polenta made from chestnut flower, plopped unceremoniously beside a heaping helping of long-simmered pork bones. True cucina povera, except for the heaping helping part.
And it’s one of the great things in the world to eat devised by people who valued flavor and nutrition over pretty.
Let me tell you about the bones.
When my neighbor Armando slaughters his pig in December, he uses a great deal of it to make various cured meats like his prize winning salami. Then the butcher cuts the prime cuts for the family to eat right away. Then the bones and feet go in a big barrel with lots of salt and are stored under the house with the vino he’s made. When they want something for a winter meal, they just go under the house and get out a foot or two and some bones, wash off the salt, and boil them up until you can suck the meat off the bone.
Ok, the whole dish is very primal. Under the house dirty. Ugly.
A bit like the best sex, no?
But not to worry, the chestnut trees in Tuscany are dying. Chestnut blight. Endothia parasitica, first seen in 1938, is ravaging the countryside.
And pork is going industrial. The odd bits will go in your wieners.
So, don’t worry, there will be pretty food that won’t challenge your sensibilities. It will be around for a long time. You will be happy. I will be sad. That’s the way the world spins (if you let it).
■ 15 May 2013 by James Martin
The magic corner of Tuscany they call Versilia isn’t just endless beach with geometric arrangements of vividly colored umbrellas standing staunchly against the ever-blasting rays of sun; tourist posters don’t reveal all. Not even as much as a thong reveals, really. Not for those of us who get all tingly over rural villages anyway.
All you have to do, even if you’re a beach person, is to put on some decent clothing and point your little Fiat towards the hills and you’ll find little towns like Corsanico, houses peeking out from verdant vineyards and scraggy olive trees, the bell tower recalling the endlessly repeating hours in a somber tone.
The town you’ve never heard of has a pedigree, like many of the others. The built-up town starts with the Romans in 150 AD with the construction of the Via Aurelia, then the passes thought he Longobards on the way to its “timeless” present. Corsanico’s church is called S. Michele Arcangelo, the dragon slayer who took from Hercules the task of protecting the shepherds in early Christian times.
The church is famous. You are probably unaware of its fame. But let’s say you push open the door, step inside, let your eyes adjust to the dimness, then stare for a while at the rococò excess of it all.
You will wonder why there is fame in this large church tucked into a little piazza in this Tuscan backwater of a town. You will shrug your shoulders. Perhaps they ache from driving the curvy little road you had to take to get to Corsanico.
But turn around. Yes, there appears to be the facade of a small building emerging from the organ loft! It is painted with a fine hand.
Well, that, at least, is quite nice.
There, in front of you in all its glory, would appear the pipes Of Vincenzo Colonna’s “Monumental” organ, which he built between 1602 and 1606.
But…what’s it doing in a church that succumbed to fire and was rebuilt and enlarged in 1848? Don’t organs burn?
Well, that’s where the story gets interesting. After a period of religious and monastic suppression, the organ, once the property of the church of San Francesco of Lucca, was auctioned off. Annibale Ceregioli of Corsanico, representing a local committee, bought the thing for a whopping sum of 1015.10 lire. (If you remember the lira in 1980 or so, Ms Ceregioli’s purchase would have come to just over $0.50. Inflation is grand, isn’t it?)
In any case, they wedged it into the organ loft, tuned it up, and everyone loved the “new” organ. Even Giacomo Puccini played it.
Let’s have a look:
She’s a beaut, no?
The Organo Monumentale, as they call it, is the only surviving example of Colonna’s work, so it’s historically quite important. For you organ lovers, here are some specs: The organ has one manual and an octave of pedals including a 16ft Bombarde. All manual stops split near middle C to allow for ‘solo and accompaniment’ playing.
As you can see from the picture on the right, the bloggers of the Versilia Blog Tour were taken to the loft to get a good feel for how the organ is played. It’s easy. There’s a keyboard, a plaque with all the “voices” so you can control how the organ sounds, and there’s a special little switch to the left of the keyboard to make the organ sound like a bird twittering. Don’t laugh, everyone twitters these days.
So, how do you get to hear the organ if you’re not on a blog tour? In July and August there’s a music festival. The Associazione Amici della Musica d’Organo Vincenzo Colonna has a website still announcing the Christmas music festival, but also has info on the yearly summer festival.
Or, you could just go to church on Sunday.
Endnote: There are also some fine hiking opportunities around Corsanico.
■ 10 May 2013 by James Martin
If you have landed upon this page, you are unlikely to be one of those people who is a first time visitor to Italy looking for everyone’s “best places to go in Italy” post. You won’t find one here. We are degenerates; we believe everyone can have their own best place; our purpose is to help people find it. In any case, we’re now going to assume you’ve been to Rome, Venice and Florence and have eaten in enough of those dismal tourist restaurants that you’re wondering what all the hype is about. You are looking to do your thing, and eat decently. Well, we’d suggest you get out into the countryside. Even Michelangelo did it.
If you are like me, you shun Mediterranean beaches. You like to do things. You like exploring art and culture. You like the (real) food of Tuscany, the food grandmothers make.
In fact, if you are (still) reading this particular post, perhaps you’d like to wade into the stream below Italy’s famous marble quarries—a stream loaded with water-washed white river cobbles of the precious stone—and dip your big hands into the stream in order to wrestle the perfect one out of the flowing waters and heft it onto he grassy shore. Is it your stone, the one that calls out to you? Does it say in a gravelly voice, “deep within me is the stuff of greatness, the expression of your oneness with me, all you have to do is remove all the crap that isn’t that stuff?”
Then, under the watchful eye of your teacher, you’d begin to skin your stone. Yes, that’s what she’s doing up there with the fashionable eye protection and the big hammer thingy.
Soon your stone is ready for you. You may sculpt.
Yes, you can do this on your vacation! You can do it on the grounds of a little house on the edge of a steep ravine with a view overlooking the mountains. Below you, way below, is that little stream from which your modest cobble was plucked.
Now, as a special treat for marble workers, you can eat the quarry-man’s favorite, lardo, without giving a thought to the fat content. You are working hard. Your stone is turning into your vision. You can pig out.
Isn’t that better than laying around on a beach? After all, you can do that in El Lay if you want. Sand is sand.
But marble is a different thing.
The picture on the left shows Peter Rosenzweig, the Director of Campo dell’ Altissimo tucked away in the small village of Azzano. If you take sculpting or painting courses at Campo dell’Altissimo, you can live near this place for cheap, donning your work clothes every morning and tromping off to work your hand-picked stone, chopping away at all the stuff that is not to your stone’s liking.
The picture shows Peter with a student’s work. I don’t know what it is either.
Does this sound good to you? Well, hop on it! The school was happening in May, and classes continue through summer, some as short as one week (just to see if it’s for you). The school can arrange local lodging. You don’t have to eat lardo if you don’t want to.
Check them out: Campo dell’Altissimo
If you are a wimp, and cannot lift a stone, you can still tour the quarries: Carrara Marble Tour Map and Guide
(Discovered thanks to the Versilia Blog Tour)
■ 11 March 2013 by James Martin
Certainly if you’re a fan of what Italy does really, really well you’ve heard of the new Ferrari, the most powerful ever, dubbed LaFerrari. Yes, Italian cars are feminine—as in, “she’s really, really fast.”
She’s also a hybrid. Hybrids are all the rage. I doubt Ferrari is worried about the gas mileage of a car that accelerates at the rate of 0-62 mph in less than 3 seconds, but I wonder if its as horrible as one might think.
The car will cost over a million euros, something that only the 1% might afford, which is sad. Disgusting, actually, that the only people who can afford such a piece of handmade perfection are CEOs of corporations such as those riding high on making animals in Petri dishes and putting them in Styrofoam at the Safeway without disclosing what’s under the plastic, the modern pig in a poke.
But I know what you’re thinking. It’s not difficult to see the wheels turning. You’re aghast at such monumental excess.
That’s because you think the demand for cars that use hybrid technology will force car manufacturers to buckle down and work something out so that our transportation gets something like 1000 miles to the gallon of gas.
Dream on. I didn’t mean to interrupt. You see, racing cars and high performance vehicles are the only hope for real trickle-down technology. People paying a couple million for a car that’s going to get a door ding the minute they park it in front of the Walmart are going to fund the real technology breakthroughs. Hybrids are going to have to become sexy through racing, street and otherwise, before things start trickling. Only then will we have access to cheap pocket-rockets that get 200 mpg.
Of course, that only makes the gas problem worse. In such a case, the oil companies get a reprieve against the devastating effects of the world being on the downside of the peak oil slope. They get to prolong the pain. They’ll get to sneak (sneak? that’s so 60s—so let’s use the words “openly cram”) money from their rapidly rising $200 a gallon gas price into the pockets of congressmen so that the endless wars for oil and rare earth minerals can go on, well, endlessly.
So I say, buy them darned fast Ferraris. Keep a heavy foot on the gas pedal, Bunky. Ignite the search for new technologies that only our fear of being static upon this sweltering, flu suffering, fracking-induced crumbling earth might bring about. And it might save the lives of countless soldiers fighting for oil, you never know.
And then, when the dust clears on the peaks, go to Tuscany, settle in a hill town, make your own food, eat the prosciutto (fat and all) and live life like it’s supposed to be lived. Don’t worry about gas, you’ll get enough from the beans.
(Just in case you’re thinking of that Ferrari, read about it here.)
■ 10 February 2013 by James Martin
Pistoia is a stunningly beautiful Tuscan city. It has a market square still populated by the little stalls that unfold into stores with marble counters, much like motorized vans are turned into market stalls today. Clever. For medieval people I mean. If you’re planning a Tuscan vacation, you should see Pistoia.
You might look at the title of this post and wonder what the hell has gotten into me that I’m talking about Pistoia. Well, I’m going to tell you, and you must promise to keep this secret, but Pistoia, for all its religious monuments, frescoes, and other artifacts of an age when immense beauty was part of building a city, has a butcher shop entirely devoted to selling you horse meat to eat. Imagine.
I am bringing this to your attention because of the current horse meat controversy. You’ve read about it I’m sure. Horse meat has turned up in EU hamburgers. People are outraged. They are seeing red over being deceived into eating poor Trigger, or whatever former Triple crown winner thus consumed turns their collective stomachs.
(Another tenuous connection: We [the people] are not nearly as concerned over eating scientist-rendered genetically modified frankenmeat as we are over eating horse, which even true blue Americans ate gleefully before the 1950s. Humongous corporations have spent millions to convince us that telling us what’s in our burgers is absolutely wrong, and the world economy will collapse from overly-expensive food if they were to be forced to honestly label their “food” and we didn’t buy the crap because of it.)
Ok, so here’s what we know of the controversy. Romanians, embarrassed about their medieval appearances, pass a law disallowing horse-drawn buggies on the highways. Horses become fairly useless to farmers and other people who use them for draft animals to transport their goods to the market, so the market value of a horse falls like a rock.
Romanians butcher and eat horses. With an oversupply of horse flesh, they willingly sell it to anyone who shows an interest. The French company who supplies the meat to other companies to make it into whatever ready-to-eat crap food the people in the UK will tolerate, happily supplies cheap meat, which happens to contain horse because horse meat makes it real cheap. They claim not to know how it got in there.
Ah, the realities of global food marketing! Provenience is nothing! Just eat it, you mangy piece-of-crap consumer!
You see, there is a connection here. When you rely on humongous corporations whose main concern is to make ever more money to satisfy their shareholders and pay their CEO millions and millions, you have to know that they will stop at nothing to sell you something cheap (because, ahem, you love cheap, admit it!). GMO modified to their (secret) specifications, horse standing in place for beef, it’s all part of the same thing. Those corporations are annoyed as hell that you want to know what you’re putting in your mouth, because it’s damn sure to cut into their profits. They’ll spend billions to increase your food ignorance, because that’s a drop in the enormous bucket labeled “profit” to them.
Now, I have to report that I have a horse in this race, so to speak. I like horse meat. I like asino too. I’ve even had puledro, colt. I bought it from a real butcher in Aulla. He knew the rancher. He described the chop like a horny man describes the leg of an outrageously sexy dancer. I ate it. It was good.
Go ahead and hate me. But with small butchers you have a choice. With Monsanto you’re gonna get it crammed down your throat. Perhaps it’s time to downsize. Perhaps it’s time to care for others around us, and care what we put in our mouths. And perhaps it’s time to consider a smaller but exquisite piece of perfect meat from a butcher who cares over paying the same price for an enormous slab of cheap mystery “meat”. Just sayin’.