Saturday, July 16, 2011

Rome and Around

I was reluctant to leave the comfort, quiet, and good food of the Tuscan farm, but it was time to keep heading south. Although I would rather be in the countryside than a huge city, I was excited for all the history in Rome. I saw the highlights, such as...

the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel (such a long wait to get inside! the Sistine Chapel is surprisingly small but astoundingly intricate and beautiful),
the Pantheon,
Trevi fountain,
the Roman Forum,
and the Colosseum.
Rome is crazy because so much is, well, Roman. Everything is like 2,000 years old. That's just normal. I could have easily spent more time there, as there is so much to see, but for now I'm satisfied. I saw the main sights, ate plenty of gelato, made friends, and still had time to spend the weekend with Italian family. What, I didn't mention visiting Italian family??!! That's the main reason I've always wanted to go to Italy!

I knew I had Italian family still in the motherland on my dad's dad's side of the family. I got some random names and addresses from a great-aunt on my dad's side, and contacted them via snail mail. I wrote in English, saying how we were related, and mentioned I didn't speak Italian but I spoke Spanish. Shortly after, I received and email in Spanish from a cousin, saying they were happy to get my letter and I should come visit when I was in the area!

My great-grandfather Giuseppe was from a city called Ferentino, about 45 minutes south of Rome by train. I headed down and was met at the train station by my cousin Ugo. He was a middle-aged single man who was really nice, and luckily spoke great Spanish. He had studied the language on his own for years, then lived in the Dominican Republic for a year working for a non-profit.
He took me to his house where he lived with his father, a widower in his 80's with bright eyes and a quick smile. We were able to greet each other, but then he continued speaking in rapid Italian, and I shrugged and shook my head. "Capito?" he asked me. "No!" I replied, and we both laughed. He shrugged back, smiling, and I asked him to show me the garden. This old farmhouse was just outside Ferentino on a fairly large property, and there were a bunch of olive trees and grape vines. I found out that they grew all their own olives for a year's supply of olive oil, and made their own wine. There were a few other fruit trees, such as apricot and fig. They also had a huge veggie garden with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, pole beans, lettuce, zucchini, cucumber, and herbs. Needless to say, I was in old-world local food heaven.

Besides hanging out at the house, Ugo was a great tour guide who showed me around the area. This part of the state of Lazio is fairly hilly, with various walled cities perched defensively on the hilltops. These cities, like Ferentino, pre-date the Romans, and there are pretty views from the top. He also took me to an 800 year-old monastery nestled dramatically on a hillside.

I met more cousins- Ugo's sister Maria Teresa and her teenage kids, who live in Ferentino. We would eat every lunch and dinner with them, either going to their house, or them coming to the farmhouse. Maria Teresa would usually bring her mother-in-law, and sometimes other relatives of her husbands. It was standard that meals were large, yet informal family affairs every time. They made me feel welcome, but didn't fuss over me or seem that surprised by a random American relative at the table, and my presence would get comfortably swallowed up in the familial atmosphere. I literally could not have been any happier or more grateful and finding these relatives and being embraced so easily as family.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Under My Own Tuscan Sun

After Firenze, I went about 50 minutes east by train to my next WWOOF farm. This one was a fruit farm, producing raspberries, blueberries, black and red currant, apricots, plums, and figs, and processing them into juices and jams. It is an agroturismo that alternates hosting guests and volunteers. It is owned and operated by an Italian couple in their early 50's who have been living on that property for over 25 years. The WWOOFers stayed in the guest house with our own bedrooms and bathroom which was really nice. There were 2 other volunteers around my age- a woman from Quebec and one from Florida.
Like the farm in Piedmont, I had an absolutely wonderful time here too. This one was a bit more mellow though. One the first farm there were more volunteers, plus a 4 year-old boy, and 5 Brazilian cousins that came to visit, so it was very lively, and we worked more (with a mid-day siesta). But here the days were quieter and more meditative. We did a lot of raspberry weeding and helping in the laboratory where the fruit is processed. We canned juices and helped put labels on jars and fill orders.
We also harvested currants, which I know I've tried in the past but had never eaten much of. They mostly grow red currant, but some black and white currant as well. The black currant makes a really good juice that we would often have at breakfast along with homemade bread and lots of fruit spreads.
Sometimes we worked after lunch, but more often than not they gave us the afternoon off. They said it was too hot to work and we should just relax. This gave plenty of time for reading, sunbathing, and hiking around the area.

As Americans, we think of 'Tuscany' as one region, but what I quickly learned here is that there are many different regions within Tuscany. This region was Mugello, a hilly area that produces a lot of olive oil and wine. There were trails through the hills right from the property, so I would often go jogging or hiking in the later afternoon after it cooled off a bit.
Besides work and hiking, I also did, of course, a lot of eating. Both the farmers were great cooks, and aside from the simple continental breakfast, lunch and dinner were thoughtful, multi-course affairs. There was usually pasta, but as just one course, not the entree. It was sometimes fresh, sometimes dried, ranging from spaghetti to a regional potato-filled tortellini. There was usually always bread and local cheese which you could help yourself to at any point during the meal. At the end we usually ate salad, assembled to our individual liking with garden cucumbers, greens (often intense radicchio), tomatoes, basil, red onion, and olive oil and vinegar from just a few kilometers away. Some examples of other dishes we ate are baby octopus with tomato and onion; mini clams in butter, lemon, and parsley; rabbit stewed in rosemary; blanched green beans doused with olive oil; pasta with a capers, goat cheese, tomato, and basil sauce; spicy seafood rice; bell pepper caponata; grilled polenta squares; melted tomino per cuoche cheese; roasted chicken; lamb and potatoes; and this savory zucchini ricotta tart. What I was struck by over and over was how simple the food was, but how incredibly good. This tart for instance, was just a simple pastry crust with sauteed garden zucchini, onions, and local ricotta, but it was so insanely good.
We had one dish that was not simple at all, and was probably my favorite of my entire trip. It was bacala, which is cod in Italian, and the name of the dish was something like Stoccafisso alla Vicentina. You get a Norwegian wind-dried cod from Venice, which is supposedly the only city in Italy that imports it. Then you soak it in water for 2 days to rehydrate it, changing the water several times a day. Then you stuff it with butter, Parmesan, parsley, and a little salt and pepper and tie it closed. Then you brown each side in a garlic butter-oil, and add a bunch of milk and let it all simmer for 2 hours. It sounds weird, cooking fish in milk, but the result was something incredible unique and delicious. Served over polenta it was one of the most stop-you-in-your-tracks flavors I experienced... one of those meals where you spend the first half of all your bites in disbelief over how amazing it is.
One thing that stands out for me about this part of Tuscany was how many pollinators there were ALL the time. I've never been anywhere in the world that was so alive with bees, butterflies, moths, and insects. You could look out to any bush at any time and see dozens of winged creatures buzzing about. It felt abundant and vital.
The other thing that I really treasure about this farm was that it was the place where I learned the most Italian. Both the farmers spoke French as a second language, but virtually no English. My Spanish was mostly understandable to them, so in the beginning I spoke in Spanish and they answered in Italian. As I picked up more and more words (you learn quick when you have to!) I could speak a very rudimentary Italian with the gaps filled in in Spanish. This worked well for most of the days activities, though occasionally the conversations got a little too complicated for my Italian level, especially around the dinner table. Then the farmers would say it in French to the French Canadian woman, and she would translate for me into English, and I would confirm my understanding in Spanish. So four languages around the table was not uncommon! It was so nice to have this time to wade through language, and to work hard to get little ideas across. We would often break out the huge Italian-English dictionary at the end of the night, remembering words we wanted to look up during the day, and sharing an earnestness and joy to come to an understanding.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Firenze is the Italian name for Florence, the capitol and largest city of the region of Tuscany. It's known for its beautiful architecture and art museums. A friend from Bellingham, Alanna, is here for a few months visiting her boyfriend, so the timing worked out that I could visit them. We met at the stunning Duomo (cathedral) in the heart of the city.

The other thing to know about Firenze in the summer: it's hot. But it's not just the air, it's the buildings. The collect the heat from the sun all day, and even after the sun goes down, you can feel the radiant heat smoldering off the stone, so you always have this vague feeling that you are being cooked alive in an oven. It's very important to eat a lot of gelato, necessary even. I thought the gelato was fantastic, and I was really particular about trying new flavors. Some of my favorites: ricotta with fig (fichi), peach (pesca) with amaretto, and panna del pastore, which is mascarpone and honey.
Alanna borrowed a friend's bike for me to use, so we rode around the city, ever vigilant about cars, zippy scooters, masses of pedestrians, and rickety cobblestones. Actually the streets are so bumpy that the bike I used was a pregnant woman's, whose doctor forbade her from riding until after the baby was born!

We climbed a million stairs up to the cupola (dome) of the cathedral for an amazing view of the city. Then we rode across the river to a cute outdoor bar for drinks and a roasted eggplant and brie panino.

One Tuesday a month, all the major art museums are free, and it happened to be the Tuesday I was in town! We went to the Accademia Gallery, which houses the David. It was definitely one of those times where the 2-D pictures you've seen of something don't do justice to the real thing. It was stunning. We also went to Uffizi, which has one of the largest collections of Renaissance paintings in Italy. There are a ton of masterpieces there, by Michaelangelo, Rafael, DaVinci, Botticelli, and many others. It was awesome having Alanna's boyfriend with us, who happens to be an Art History professor! His English is excellent and he was so knowledgeable. No photos are allowed inside, but one of my favorites was The Birth of Venus (La Nascita di Venere).

Another day, Alanna and I took bikes on the train and did a day trip to Cortona. This walled city on a hill is now fairly touristy after Frances Mayes' book Under the Tuscan Sun. The property she bought was outside of Cortona. What drew me there though, is that it is supposedly where my Italian family is originally from! Indeed, I found Casali street and Palazzo Casali (Casali Palace) which now houses an Etruscan museum.

A big thanks to Alanna and Alberto for being awesome hosts while I was in Florence!