Archive | May, 2011

Wine Tasting on a Volcano

30 May

We were in a precarious position, according to our host; perched on the side of a legendarily destructive and still-live volcano.

Yet at 11 AM that morning, as we tasted wines on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, overlooking the Bay of Naples; the greatest threat we could perceive was that we would lose all motivation to leave for our engagement at the Canadian reception of the International Women’s Form later that afternoon in Rome.

Now, I have to say that by 10 AM, it had already been a busy day. We woke at 6:30 AM in Vietri Sul Mare on the Amalfi Coast (at this lovely B&B called La Soffitta sul Mare) and went for a walk around this gorgeous village stacked above the sea, before breakfast. As a lifetime chronic over-scheduler, I have developed a rule of not leaving one place for another, when you are enjoying yourself at location #1. And I was extremely reluctant to leave a place that looks like this:

Yet we had a 10 AM commitment scheduled with friends, and had no choice other than to move on. And fortunately, our next engagement by far surpassed the beauty of Amalfi!

Italy is justifiably famous for its many celebrated wine regions – Tuscany, Piemonte and Veneto to name just a few. But few people outside Italy have ever tried wine from the Mount Vesuvius region. Which hopefully, will not long be the case.

Personally, the region has long been embedded in my consciousness. No doubt, due to some National Geographic issue I read as a child, showing the mystical ruins of Pompeii after being simultaneously destroyed, and preserved by its massive eruption in 79 AD. But now the region has an additional, epicurean, association for me.

Alessandro represents Sannino Wines, a small family-owned winery in the area, with vineyards in Sorrento and Pompeii, as well as on the slopes of Vesuvius in Ercolano (Herculaneum). The charming and gracious Mr. Sannino himself kindly offered to give us, and 4 friends, a tour of the vineyard as well as a tasting of some of his wines and local delicacies.

In contrast to the endlessly pastoral landscape of Tuscany, many of the local vineyards here are somewhat urban. I’m not talking about vines in the downtown financial core, but a seemingly modern (but probably ancient) multi-use neighborhood with green vineyards tucked between homes and local businesses. The grapes here are defined by the Volcano, drawing up their high mineral content to produce wonderful and unique wines such as Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ – you can read the legend of the name here), Falanghina, Coda di Volpe and a personal new favourite, Gragnano. Many of these wines, especially the reds, actually have a remarkable bouquet of violets.

One of the most useful things I’ve learned about the potential complexities of pairing wine with food is simply this: look at the foods that are produced in the region of the vineyard, and pair wine with those for the best combination (this assumes the wine has a regional production representing the local terroir). In the Naples area, that meant we were in for a treat! Naples is the birthplace of some of the most iconic Italian flavours, including pizza, pasta, buffalo mozzarella, limoncello and espresso.

After guiding us on a tour of the Aglianico vineyard (an ancient vine dating to the 6th century BC), we retired to an enormous rooftop terrace to indulge in an unexpected midday feast of 4 different local wines plus mozzarella, prosciutto, pizza and bruschetta – the latter made with unusual local tomatoes that are unique in their ability to last for months after being picked (due to their high mineral content). One of the highlights was the Gragnano, a deep red but slightly effervescent wine with floral overtones. I could not imagine a more “perfetto” wine to sip on a warm & sunny morning; and whether it was the Gragnano or another wine, the sumptuous food, or the hospitality of Mr. Sannino (according to Alessandro, men from Naples are the most charming of all of Italy – a remarkable accomplishment); the huge smiles of our guests indicated that everyone was completely enraptured by the experience.

If you are thirsty for a taste of the unique wines from the Vesuvius region and live in Ontario, some of Mr. Sannino’s wonderful wines will be on the shelves of LCBO in August.

FYI – we did make it to the Canadian reception that afternoon, thanks to someone sober in our party who had to gently and repeatedly remind us of our previous engagement. And, like everything else this day, well worth it!

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The Life Experiment

22 May

Today’s article “The three-day weekend – a dream deferred” in the Globe and Mail inspired me to stop and write, even before my little stovetop espresso maker was steaming my morning caffe.  It resonated deeply; not only because it seemed a logical expansion of yesterday’s post (A Generous Gift); but also because it occurred to me that the article hints at an experiment that I have chosen to live.

I have always been passionate about whatever I am doing for a living. For me, that’s a requirement. And I’ve been fortunate to work in industries and for companies that have been inspiring – international education, interactive advertising, intercultural training, environment, and wellness.  But too often in the past I’ve found myself pathologically overcommitted to professional obligations; unable to balance my desire to achieve and perform professionally with my desire to have a full, rich life. Does that resonate with anyone else?

In 2005, as my marriage was collapsing for the final time, I determined that I would seek to learn how I had contributed to its failure.  It dawned on me that by allocating 60 – 70 hours a week to an (albeit challenging and rewarding) job was a superb way to abdicate my responsibilities in the marriage. At work, I always received accolades, and my ever-Herculean efforts were duly appreciated. My job, no matter how stressful or grinding, was my stable fortress – as opposed to my unpredictable situation at home.  But in reality, the office was my escape from taking responsibility for my own happiness and joy in my personal life. Endless deadlines and demands and accountabilities provided the Novocain that let me put my emotional and physical health on a back burner.

Flash forward to now. I’ve just packed my bags and moved to Rome. I’ve chosen to walk away from logical and predictable business and career options in Canada to a (career-wise) uncertain future in economically-depressed Italy. People that I meet always assume that I’ve moved to Rome for work, and are shocked and then perhaps delighted when I tell them the real reason why I’ve moved – “per amore.” Who does that?  Who moves, without a safety net, to the other side of the world, for love? I did, so I could be with my soulmate Alessandro, and so we could both stay close to his children.  We have come to realize that this is what matters, to us.

Via Dell Amore

Some people are driven by a need for security – both in their financial situation, and in their relationships.  I can understand and honour that, but security is not what inspires my life.  Many people tell me they are jealous of my new life in Italy.  Trust me, I don’t have a monopoly on the ability to follow my dreams – we can all do it, if we are willing to let go of the limitations that prevent us living a life that is truly inspiring.  It takes courage and an immeasurable degree of trust in the outcome. And, importantly, the ability to weather the vocal opinions of those in your life who are terrified when you reject the status quo.

Over the last 5 years I’ve uncovered a rich and joyful personal life that continues to deepen and grow. So my experiment is this: how to live this adventurous life, and this beautiful love in Italy; to learn to speak Italian, to become a close friend in Alessandro’s children’s live, and explore the magic of Italy.  At the same time, engaging in meaningful and rewarding work that doesn’t become a cancer, swallowing what is truly precious in my life. I suppose that this is what this blog is really about – to reflect upon, and share the outcome of that experiment.

Bravo Michael Posner, for such an audacious idea.

A Generous Gift

21 May

In the novel, “Eat, Pray, Love,” the characters establish the idea that every place’s essence can be summarized with a single word.  Rome’s word, they assert, is “sex.”  I’m not going to elaborate my opinion on that, other than to say I’ve moved to Rome to be with the love of my life, and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

However, after spending 3 days in the countryside around Siena, Tuscany; I propose “generosity” as the word that most aptly captures the essence of this beautiful region.

Perhaps it is the embarrassment of riches this region possesses: undulating hills overflowing with healthy produce; a dizzying succession of towns with musical names like Montepulciano and Pienza, each more captivating than the last; rustic tables laden with pecorino cheese, pastries, and sumptuous Brunello wines; or skies alternating between golden sun and fresh clouds…

But surely it is more than gorgeous scenery and exquisite food that creates an atmosphere of generosity, and here in a little town called Cuna I discovered the secret from a cheerful older man working at an unassuming roadside car wash.  While I got out of the car to investigate how to pay for and operate the wash, he came over; not only to patiently help me, but to chat.  Where was I from, where was I going, why did my boyfriend leave me alone in Italy while he was in the UK, and why don’t I move to Toscana instead of Rome.

As he cracked jokes and cheerfully chatted up my parents in Italian-style sign language, I thought that perhaps one of the most satisfying gifts of generosity comes in the form of someone’s time and attention.  Back in North America, the commodities of “time” and “attention” are at critically depleted supplies.  Every spare moment is full of another demand on our attention.  If not work and endless meetings, it’s a constant barrage of phone calls and text messages and emails. Not only to they consume our attention but the act of engaging with them serves as a barrier between here and how. As much as I adore my iphone, I recognize that it is engineered to seduce me to fill every moment with a temporary distraction.  

How rarely are we generous of our time, with others and ourselves! It’s a blessing to be in the Italian countryside where it doesn’t require 2 months and an advanced degree in logistics to connect with another human being.  Just putting aside the digital distractions, and meeting the eye of someone else.  Refusing to feel self-conscious of language barriers.  Trusting a smile to be a genuine invitation to share a moment. And why is it so easy to be reminded of this concept from a stranger? And for some reason, I feel that its no coincidence that the people of this area who have been so generous with their time and attention have managed to thrive in harmony with the natural beauty around them.

It’s a lesson to carry back and integrate with the people who share our lives every day: our lover, our parents, our siblings, and our communities.  Next: how to keep the lessons of the rolling hills of Tuscany when back in the chaos of Rome?  Stay tuned…

8 Rules about Italian food

17 May

We tend to think of Italians as carefree, sunny and full of a chaotic joie de vivre.  But there is at least one area where Italians are deadly serious – food.  Actually, others areas might be clothing, football and driving; but we’ll save those for another blog post!

For many who have traveled to Italy, the topic of food brings back many vivid recollections – of a 3-hour long lunch lingering in a sunny piazza, of a rustic wine served at the table of a local vineyard, of passionate grandma-chefs urging you to have just one more serving (which you happily oblige!).

I’ll never forget, when traveling solo in Rome 5 years ago, wandering into an empty little enoteca in the Jewish ghetto. I managed to order, with the only 3 words in my Italian vocabulary, a glass of red wine (and such a lush glass of wine it was!).  The proprietor, with his 3 words of English, inquired whether I’d like something to eat.  I declined, and yet he brought me a dish with massive chunks of aged Parmesan, drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar.  I had a momentary dread that this was one of those situations where you are charged for food that you never order, but is nonetheless brought to the table.  But I opted to trust my instincts, and go with the flow and what I sensed to be the genuine generosity of my host.

While the afternoon wore on, and I wrote increasingly incomprehensible entries in my journal, the proprietor noticed that I was in the sorry predicament of still having cheese, but no wine; and without a word he poured another glass.  And when some wine remained, but I had sadly finished my snacks, he brought another plate.  Finally after the 3rd glass of wine had disappeared I declined all further offers.  In the end, he brought the bill to me – for one glass of wine. Certainly, this generosity of spirit exemplifies the vision that we have of Italians and food.  Joyful, abundant and generous.  On a slight tangent, it saddens me to see so-called Italian restaurants in my native Toronto stand at the polar opposite.  While I am not an advocate of sheer quantity of quality, I despair of the trend of Italian tapas-style Toronto eateries.  Recently I visited the new Terroni’s on Yonge Street in Summerhill/Rosedale, and was unimpressed by its portions that would serve as amuse-bouches in other restaurants.  Their miserliness is an anathema to the spirit of Italian cooking.

But I digress.

Italians possess a unique relationship to food that seems to be unmatched by anyone in the world, with the exception of the Chinese. They are passionate – and serious.  Which can be seen in this news article out of Tuscany – where a scuffle involving 4 people and ending in the hospital ensues at a local market regarding the thickness of ham slices.

As someone who fully bought into the “Italians are carefree” myth, the many rules and seriousness that Italians assign to the preparation and consumption of food were news to me.  Were you aware of any of these Italian edicts?

  1. Cappuccino is strictly a pre-noon drink, and is basically seen as a substitute for a solid meal. Italians would never order a cappuccino as an end to a meal. Oh, and by the way, a bar is a place where you order panini and coffee, not beer and nachos.  Every time Alessandro tells me that he is at a bar with his 6-year old daughter I still have to mentally adjust.
  2. Polenta is only for winter.
  3. Fish and dairy can never be served together. A violation of this will thoroughly disgust the most cosmopolitan of Italians.  So no parmesan on your seafood pasta.  Further investigation, however, reveals that there are exceptions to this, such as zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies.  Apparently there is some permissible exceptions if the dairy product in question is very mild.  I’m still learning this rule. But its OK to slop a raw egg on your pizza.  Go figure.
  4. Garlic matches with fish, and should be used sparingly in other cases.
  5. There is an elaborate system of rules that govern which sauce matches with which shape pasta.  This rule still vexes me. One night while discussing dinner, Alessandro informed me that he needed penne pasta to go with the kind of sauce he would be preparing. I suggested that we use rigatoni, which I had at home.  Besides, they are both small, tube shaped pasta; in my opinion, the only difference being that the ends of the penne are cut on an angle, and those of the rigatoni are cut perpendicular to the length of the pasta.  Alessandro’s response to my suggestion: sharp intake of breath, and a stern, “you must be joking,” as if I had made the most absurd suggestion ever in the history of food preparation.
  6. Food in Italy is strictly regional.  You might as well expect a grandmother in Rome to whip up a nice dish of green kaffir lime curry as expect that she would make pesto pasta (which is from the north).
  7. The word “trattoria” is pronounced TRAT-to-RI-a, not Trat-TOR-ia.
  8. Pasta must be consumed immediately after preparation or something bad will happen. I’m not entirely sure what.  This always causes a stressful moment at dinner parties featuring the pasta served by Alessandro’s hand.  We like to pause when the food is served at a dinner party, take a few beats to appreciate the spread, and to toast the chef and friends, while Alessandro waits in agony as the seconds pass by and his uneaten pasta dries, unappreciated in its truest moment of glory.  Personally, I think it still tastes great.

Let me know if you have any others to share!

Disaster…Averted

16 May

I couldn’t even write about this yesterday…I was still processing it in my mind.

On Saturday night we were looking forward to enjoying one of Rome’s versions of Nuit Blanche – La Notte dei Musei – where museums are free and open from 8 pm – 2 AM.  The plan was to explore a fairly new museum: Trajan’s Market which showcases not only Trajan’s Forum, but those of Caesar (yay Caesar!), Augustus and Nerva.

Unfortunately, we never made it…while we were waiting to order a pizza and for a little al fresco picnic, Alessandro suddenly froze, went pale & wild-eyed and whispered; “I forgot to blow out the candles.”

I froze too for a beat; and we both took off and ran without a word, despite knowing that there could be no possible prevention of a disaster.  Alessandro had already been away for 2 hours, and it would take us 45 minutes to rush back to the car, and then drive home.

I had always thought to comment on how he burned the candles; without a holder, sitting on a piece of paper, on a wood dresser. But he is always so conscientious, that I could not believe that he would ever forget them!

We flew home in sheer, silent terror; I couldn’t imagine how, if he indeed left them on, they wouldn’t burn down the entire flat.  There was nothing to say, just to silently whisper words of hope. It didn’t seem possible that our new life together in Rome could begin this way.  But if it did, we would have to cope with it.

Once we made it on to our street I was relieved to see no fire engines shrieking in the driveway; still, we rushed the stairs and opened the ridiculous multiple door locks with shaking hands.

On the dresser of our still-intact apartment, we found the burnt-out remains of 3 candles.  One had scorched a little circular mark in the dresser, the other 2 had extinguished themselves.  Everything else was untouched. We collapsed in tears & laughter – those that come from an overwhelming sense of disbelief, relief and gratitude.  We knew we had dodged what had seemed like an inevitable bullet.  When something like happens is it fate? Luck? Random?  I couldn’t help but feeling that we were watched over…protected in this new little life of ours.

Now I am solo for a few days.  Alessandro left this morning to for the International Wine Fair in London and will be gone until next Sunday. He is not allowed to light candles unsupervised!  Tomorrow I’ll board a bus for Siena to meet my parents on their European road trip and help celebrate my Mom’s 70 (!) birthday.  I trust this sense of feeling protected will continue – especially when I am out on the scooter dodging Roman drivers!

Coming to a supermarket near you? Mafia-Free Pasta

15 May

As North American consumers, we have become increasingly aware of ethical considerations of the food and products we consume,  and the impact they have – not only on our bodies when we consume them, but the communities that produce them.

More and more labels document this trend and support our desire to chose products with a more positive environmental, health and social impact – organic food; locally sourced produce; fair trade coffee & chocolate; biodynamic wines; chemical-free cosmetics (gratuitous plug for LAVISH Rose Creme); to name just a few.

Shopping in Rome last week I saw something new…

…That’s right: Mafia-Free Pasta.  It  seemed comical…it reminded me of Alessandro’s story about his father’s friend who raised beef cattle.  When it came time to sell the cattle, the farmer would give the cattle salt licks, and afterwards would allow the cattle to drink as much water as they could consume – increasing the weight, and sale price drastically.

But further research showed Mafia-Free Pasta was no laughing matter. There is an interesting story in the UK Guardian here on the topic. According to the article, “over 80% of Sicilian businesses pay pizzo (protection money) to the mafia including hotels, restaurants and cafes.” A growing number of small Italian producers are taking a stand against the pressure imposed by the mafia in agricultural regions of Italy, and the wheat for this pasta was actually grown on land seized from a jailed mafia kingpin.  In past years the local mafia has waged a reign of terror against any local business who did not pay the pizzo, or caused interference in illegal activities – so this is a remarkable stand for a group of courageous business owners.

In North America, we tend to have a somewhat romanticized vision of the mafia from movies like The Godfather; the truth is that the mafia has had a devastating impact on southern Italian families and communities. if you are traveling to Sicily, look out for businesses that are members of “Addiopizzo” literally “goodbye protection money” or “Libero Futuro” to put your money where your values are.  The later organization is named after Libero Grassi, “a local pyjama maker who publicly refused to pay pizzo and was gunned down in 1991.” Hopefully some of these Mafia-Free products will start to reach our supermarkets in Canada & the US, and we can support this Italian-grown ethical food movement.

La Mia Picola Casa

13 May

Those of you who know me in Toronto may have heard me saying some not-so-nice things about my new flat in Rome.  It is true that it’s small; and far, far away from the famous sights of the Enternal City. And Alessandro and I required a heart-to-heart to convince him to give up a fair share of his closet space (we are still negotiating on shoe space). However; returning this trip with the intention of moving in, I’ve developed a new perspective and fondness for my little oasis.  Sure, I’d still rather have a dishwasher in the kitchen than a bidet in the bathroom, but I’ve realized there are many ways in which my new home mi piace (pleases me).  Here are 8 things for a start:

1) It comes with a live-in Italian chef.

2) Sunsets from the neighborhood look like this:

3) The road I live along, Nomentana, was an important ancient Roman road that once led through the Colline Gate (Porta Collina). Porta Collina was allegedly built by # 6 of the 7 kings of Rome in about 550 BC, pre-dating the republic of Rome and centuries before the Roman Empire; and was the site of an important civil battle in 80 BC, just before the era of Julius Caesar. Although its possible that today’s road has not been widened in 2,500 years since its inception, it’s thrilling to imagine who walked along its path. There are actually ancient Roman ruins in a neighborhood park nearby, casually ignored. “Yeah, we know, MORE of these piles of stones from antiquity, yawn…” No plaque, no marking in a tour guide, they look like remnants of a guard post overlooking the countryside, protecting Rome from barbarian invaders like me.  I’ll get a picture up shortly.

4) Careening on the back of a speeding scooter swerving through traffic to get anywhere reminds me of my reckless youth in Taiwan.

5) There is a great place to hoop.  I’ve come to realize that open green space is quite rare in Rome and deeply appreciate that this is right at my doorstep.  Beyond having room to hoop, I require time in nature to calm and restore myself.  Besides, the neighbors appear to be curious, but not hostile, about the hooping antics.

6) I’m in Rome!

7) The wall of night-blooming jasmine that surrounds the building.  The fragrance precipitates an instant swoon walking in or out of the apartment, and wafts seductively up to our terrace on the 3rd floor. Mmmmmmm. All fences and walls should be made of jasmine flowers.

And #8: my love lives here: