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The BEST things ever – Country by Country

30 Jan

My tweet last week about the merits of French croissants versus Italian cornetti (“the crappiest train stations croissants are better than the best Italian cornetti”) and the ensuing flurry of comments and opinions made me start thinking about the foods that you can count on in each country – cheap, delicious, and you have to go out of your way to find a bad version.

So, tell me what are your opinions?

Italy – Coffee

Italy converted me. A lifelong tea drinker, coffee literally made me nauseous. Until my first trip to Italy. An epic journey including a Honolulu – Houston – Newark – Rome flight, then a 6-hour train to Venice where I was to meet a long lost friend at noon for a day of exploring and catching up. I needed more than mere tea and dared for a cafe on the train. Shocked by its diminutive size, I was instantly hooked by the mellow intensity of my first Italian espresso and have never looked back (Starbucks: puhleeez).

No matter where you go in Italy; from the chicest cafes to the lowliest bars (the place in Italy to get a coffee, not a beer) you’d be hard pressed not to find an exquisite espresso. Order one al vietro (in glass) to go Roman style. It can set you back 5 euros to sit at a table in a touristy piazza, but generally you’ll find the delicious nectar for 80 centesimi. Stand at the bar and admire the Italians posing with their brew.

France – Croissants

Flaky, buttery, light….I’ve never managed in France to have anything less than extraordinary pastries. I don’t know why this sacred knowledge can’t be infused somehow in Italian cornetti.

Turkey – Pomegranate Juice

I feel my body tingling with antioxidant goodness just to think of this. On every street corner in Istanbul anyway, you’ll find juice sellers ready to squeeze the juice of your choice. Save the orange juice for back home. I practically swim in pomegranate juice every chance I get.

Hawaii – Raw Fish

Raw fish is one of those things that you need to be careful how and where you buy it. But in Hawaii, you can buy it from the back of a pickup truck parked by the side of a country road and you’ll fantasize about it for months. My favorite haunt for raw fish? Fort Rugers Market in Honolulu looks like the kind of place where you’d wipe of the top of beer cans before drinking them, but has the most divine Maui Onion Poke – raw ahi tuna mixed with sesame oil, sea salt, sweet maui onions and shoyu.

Taiwan – Dumplings

Boiled, steamed, or pan fried….a fancy restaurant is no better than street food and the latter is much cheaper.

Nepal – Chai
It was one of those travel circumstances where I trusted a stranger, and everyone else later thought I deserved to have been kidnapped. In the end, I was right. A polite teenage boy offered to show me around the monuments of Kathmandu so he could practice his English. I tried to pay him money but he refused. Instead, he invited me to the inner courtyard of his family compound for chai, a place few tourists ever see in Nepal. This was the first place I ever experienced chai – spicy, milky and sweet. I sat and drank it while neighbors did their laundry and placed saucers of milk out for roaming cows. From the rooftop cafes of Kathmandu to the trailside guesthouses in Annapurna, chai in Nepal was always a comforting friend, and I’ve never tasted its equal since I left.

Portugal – Bread
My love affair started while at university in London, Canada. The was a hole-in-the-wall Portuguese bakery that sold bread, for about an hour a day. Only bread, 2 sizes, and when it was gone, it’s gone. Heavenly bread – warm from the oven, a satisfyingly crunchy crust with a dense spongey texture in the middle. Swoon….my later travels to Portugal had me forsaking regular meals to just indulge in the bread basket and olives brought to the table.

The most evocative Italian words, according to me

14 Jan

Personally, I have no doubt that Italian is the most beautiful & affectionate language in the world.  I’ve heard, and actually maybe just read this in “Eat, Pray, Love” (which may or may not be a definitive source), that the evolution of Italian into the national language was no accident.  While many countries had competing regional dialects, the “lingua franca” of most countries was naturally shaped by the language of the primary financial center. So, “Paris-ian” overtook all regional dialects to become the language of France, “London-ian” became the language of England, and so on.

Invecce (instead), Italian was the dialect chosen by a panel from a region of Tuscany to be the official language of Italy, because it was the most beautiful dialect.

Actually this whimsical story makes sense. I am continually surprised at how vitally important “beauty” is to Italians.  It’s part of the fabric of society – you can see how the aesthetic of style is infused into even children (I am still not as style conscious as the average 8 year old here). A speech is not referred to as good or bad, but bella (beautiful) or brutta (ugly). It’s part of what makes Italy as charming as it is, although sometimes you wish less emphasis were put on superficial beauty and more on actual substance.  If you live here you know what I mean, yes? 😉

Anyway, on to a few of my favourite Italian words:

“La Zanzara” – it sounds like it would be an exotic beauty treatment involving spices and asses milk that Cleopatra would indulge in before greeting Mark Anthony.  Instead, it means “mosquito”!

“Lamentare” – this to me is the perfect word to sum up the Italian cultural identity.  In English it just means “to complain”.  But to simply complain is tedious, unimaginative, uninspired.  Not Lamentare! We are talking about a tragedy of epic proportions.  There is love, passion, angst and fire all wrapped up in how you can express your opposition even to, say, someone choosing the wrong combination of gelato flavours or using an inappropriate shape of pasta with any given sauce.

“Fastidioso” – In English this means someone who is slavishly particular to standards, or having a meticulous attitude.  In Italian, it means to bother the hell out of someone, i.e. “David, stop fastidioso-ing your sister while I am driving!” It implies the kind of action when you pinch someone’s triceps repeatedly until they punch you in the face. Which is kind of what fastidiousness makes me want to do. 🙂

“Il Culetto” – What do we call the end of a loaf of bread in English?  The “heel.”  Ho-hum.  In Italian, it’s the “little bum,” proving once and for all that everything in Italy is just so damn sexy.

“Fango” – It’s not a dance, or new style of stilettos. It’s “mud.” What else do I need to say?

So. What are your favorite Italian words, and why?

Enrico and Michel want to know why you aren’t drinking wines from Orvieto

5 Jun

Enrico is a man with a mission. Years ago he purchased 22 acres of prime vineyard, just outside the ancient city of Orvieto, Umbria; overlooking Lake Corbara (about an hour north of Rome). With Freddano‘s elevation, softly sloping incline, fertile earth and sunny exposure, it was the ideal place for producing not just wine, but magnificent wine.

But he had a problem.

In the somewhat limited perspective of wine drinkers around the world, Orvieto doesn’t signify magnificent wines. Sure, everyone knows Tuscany = great wines, a mere 30 kilometers away. The fame of the Tuscan region means even that its less stellar wines command the highest demand and good wines can draw impressive prices. However, if a wine drinker in America or Canada or The UK deigns to try an Orvietan wine, they usually expect it to just be cheap.

So Enrico and and his oeneologist Michel had an important decision to make. They could take their lovely vineyard, cut corners, crowd the grapes, spray the land with chemicals and create cheap, non descript plonk; or, truly honor the potential of the land and create a magnificent wine to convince the world that Orvieto wines are contenders.

Fortunately for us, and for the earth; these winemakers chose not only to make gorgeous wines, but  upped the ante and committed to make them organic too (certified by Accredia)

Starting our visit standing in the vineyard, Enrico explained that it’s simply not possible for all vineyards to be organic. If the terrain lacks wind, is situated at a low altitude, or otherwise has damp conditions, it’s difficult to avoid mold and rot with anything but chemicals. But here at Freddano, the conditions are perfect for sustaining organic growth.

Freddano

What can possibly taste better than wine sipped while standing in the soil of origin poured by its creators?

We sipped glasses of VIgna del Sole (“vine of the sun”) standing between rows of grapes; admiring the wildflowers growing at the base of the vines. All maintenance of the vineyard is done by hand, from the pruning of the vines to the cutting of the grass. We could imagine the wildflowers imparting a delicate hint to this delightful white.

And of course the ubiquitous rose bushes placed at the end of each row, the “canary in the mine.” roses are even more susceptible to diseases that affect the grapes. So by monitoring the health of the roses, a wine makers can monitor the health of their vines before a problem takes hold.

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Enrico, with fans.

We moved onto the bottling facility where Enrico explained how not only the their agricultural production is organic, but also their fermentation process. This means there are no additives, and most importantly no flavorings added to the wines at any point. Again, more spectacular wine was poured, this time right from the casks, as we tried a grand, unnamed white which will be released in only limited quantities in magnum bottles – this was a true celebration wine! We bandied about inspired names, our enthusiasm whetted by our liquid creativity.

Freddano’s wines blend familiar with new – blending grapes you know, with ones you’ve never heard of – like Trebbiano & Grechetto with Chardonnay & Sangiovese – and modernizing ancient growing and processing techniques to achieve organic status. And constantly there is strong appreciation for the sense of place.  We are proud to make and drink Orvietan wines!  Right down to the bottles – which designs feature tiles from the stunning duomo (cathedral) in nearby Orvieto.

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We wrapped up our “wine tasting and vineyard tour” with a 5-hour lunch in the stone farmhouse with 3 generations of family and friends. A perfect time to enjoy a “celebration wine” from Orvieto!  And we were convinced – Orvieto wines are magnificent (psssst…pass it on!)

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Freddano is represented by Dialuce Wines in Canada and internationally.  Please contact Alex Dialuce to order.

A farmer’s market, and more! discovered in Northern Rome

20 May

One of the most pleasurable ways to develop an intimate relationship with a place is to explore a farmer’s market and meet the people who grow our nourishment with their own hands. So imagine my joy when I stumbled across this hidden & unique gem in the northern outskirts of Rome as I was cycling in Parco Regionale Urbano di Aguzzano.

Actually in Rome

It had all the features of the most innovative farmer’s markets.  Indigenous wildflower garden, check.  Solar panels, check. Wonderful local produce and products. Dogs and bikes. Check, check and check. And something you don’t get to see at farmer’s markets in Canada – local, organic wine!

Wildflower garden

Organic wines

But there’s even more to this bucolic oasis on the outskirts of Rome, which to my surprise was mainly populated by students.

I stopped to talk with Lucia, a friendly vendor selling wonderful local honey and whimsical beeswax candles scented with, of course, 100% organic essential oils.

Lucia & her Mom

Originally from Romania, she now shares her talents and passion for natural health and wellness with the lucky residents of Rome. Lucia graciously told me the history of this unique place.

It used to be a farm over a hundred years ago, and the building that dominates the site still features the feeding troughs for cattle.  Over time, the farm was abandoned and became the haunt of rebellious teenagers and outcasts.  Bad things happened here, Lucia remarked darkly.

But eventually the mayor of Rome stepped in and injected new life, creating Il Centro di Cultura Ecologica (the Centre of Ecological Culture).  The mission?  To “achieve a high level cultural center dedicated to issues relevant to environment and ecological culture,” engaging the local community, educators, farmers, artists and environmentalists. The barn was transformed into a library filled with donated books.  Its restored, bright interior was full of students on this Saturday, dedicating their energy to the study of sustainability & ecology.

All these Italian students learning how to create a sustainable future. Cool.

It’s easy to get discouraged sometimes pondering the local attitude toward the environment in Rome.  That a place like this exists in Rome makes me happy and gives me hope; especially as I contemplate my little bounty of beeswax candles.

Lucia’s beeswax candles

The organic farmer’s market (il MercatoBIO di Aguzzano) runs every 3rd Saturday of the month. It’s probably a little out of your way, but bring your bike or picnic blanket and make a day of enjoy this gorgeous environment. Just follow this path between the pines! Or, bring your bike on the Metro B to the Rebibbia station and find Via Fermo Corni.

How to get to MercatoBIO di Aguzzano (the best way): turn left a the lotus pond, head up the hill and turn right at the umbrella pine.

Food Paradise in Northern Italy…oh yes, and there’s wine too…and single men!

1 Nov

It’s not that Italian women don’t care about food, but I never cease to be amazed by the passion and expertise that Italian men express regarding food.

A few weeks ago, we spent the weekend in one of the world’s elite wine regions, during the autumn wine crush.

Paradise? Yes, unless you are a vegetarian.

We were “helping” Aldo Marenco, a family-owned organic wine producer in la Langue of Piemonte Italy.  Having just hand-picked the harvest, it was urgent that the grapes be crushed before they started to ferment. I am sure they would have done just find without our complete lack of expertise, but they graciously allowed us to watch and participate in this ancient ritual first hand.

Claudio Marenco is the son who took over the wine production from his father, Aldo. Today they grow and make the classic wines of this region – the soft and easy drinking Dolcettos and Barberras,  as well as the region’s most prized vintage – Barolo.

The Bounty

It was Claudio’s idea when he took over the vineyard from his father to certify the wine production as organic.  As a small family-owned/operated vineyard, many of the processes were already done by hand with close attention to the natural and ancient methods of growth.  Grapes were hand-picked; not only because the uneven terrain demanded it, but also because machine-picking the grapes causes the delicate fruit to break prematurely, thus fermenting prematurely and not under the strict control of the vintner.

Me, working the farm, with Claudio’s help

As we “worked” alongside Claudio, Aldo and their neighbour, their hands coarse from working in the fields, the conversation more often than not turned to food.  We were in the process of shoveling the leftover grape skins (“must”) from the press to a truck (to be taken to a grappa production facility), when the neighbor started extolling the many culinary uses for the must.  First, he told us, you can wrap a local semi-soft cheese in the must – marrying the sharp tannins in the skin with the mellowness of the cheese.  Or you can layer the must, alternating with pepperoncino slices, for several layers, marinating in olive oil and salt.  I smiled as these men stopped their work in the field to exchange recipes and culinary tips.

The men, taking a break from their labors to chit chat about recipes

Forget a bowl of stale chips…this is what you get on the side when you order a glass of wine at an enoteca in Dogliani

Although the world knows Piemonte for its powerful wines, wine itself often seems like a backdrop to the extraordinary food here.  Interestingly enough, few Piemontese had ever heard of the Slow Food movement, even though it formally originated in the local town of Bra.  I think it’s because the slow food mentality is so ingrained in this region, that it’s simply taken for granted.

Our work on the press had to be completed by 2 PM, because that’s when lunch was served.  Claudio lives a kilometer away from the vineyard where his family’s home sits.  At 2 PM we were invited inside for a classic meal prepared by Claudio’s mother and joined by his 2 nieces.  It was one of those moments that you want to hold onto forever – after working outside in the sunshine surrounded by vineyards rippling away in every direction, to join 3 generations of a family to sit down for the midday meal – we stepped back to an idyllic place in time.

During the course of the weekend I developed a theory.  Although I know that Piemonte literally means the foot of the mountains, I think it must actually mean “carnivore” in Latin.  Each meal was layer upon layer of delicious meat.  And all the ways to prepare – and not prepare – meat!  Such as, I didn’t know that you’d want to eat raw pancetta, which is essentially bacon.  But in Piemonte, you do.

Claudio’s bread!

The multi-course lunch (even featuring bread baked by Claudio himself!) was delicious, although perhaps counter-productive?  We needed a nap afterwards.  In the meantime, Claudio went through his meticulous process of checking his wines, ensuring that the temperature in all vats and barriques would allow optimal fermentation.

It’s idyllic here.  I started fantasizing that living here was a branch of my life that I had not followed yet…and the mind started to fabricate plans. But for Claudio there’s a problem with this life Piemonte. His home and his livelihood are intertwined with this land, and you can imagine that growing up here it would be impossible to leave for anywhere else.  But according to him, for a single guy in his early forties there is no chance to meet single women.  Although Claudio’s a catch – he grows organic wine! He makes his own bread! I assumed he was exaggerating.  But a Saturday night in Dogliani was remarkable.  At a chic and atmospheric enoteca that would be bursting with single women in Toronto, the men here outnumbered the women at no less than 10 to 1.

Paradise, but you have to work for it

At the end of the weekend I was disappointed to fly to Paris, as I suspected I couldn’t possibly maintain this level of luscious indulgence in such an idyllic environment…I was right.  Next time I’m bringing some of my single girl friends!

A little insight into how the Italian work ethic is different

6 Sep

As a Canadian living in Rome, you get several indications that the Italian work ethic is different. For example, just try to get something — anything — done between 12:30 and 3:30; every shop, post office, bank, gas station, tabacchi (to buy metro tickets), etc. will be closed. The markets pack up 15 minutes before closing time, or shopkeeper continues to shut his door as you are walking in.

I used to think it was because Italians in general seem to make much lower salaries than their western counterparts, and were simply unmotivated to be productive (it will forever be a mystery to me how Italians can afford their shoes).

But I think I’ve figured it out – and the secret lies in coffee usage! In North American offices, coffee is a ritual largely of the workplace. Of all the coffee you drink in a day, what percentage of it is consumed at work? For us, coffee is the fuel and lubricant that give us the energy and clarity to get through the work day.

But, I’ve just read in my Italian book that Italians drink 600 cups of espresso or cappuccino a year: 70% at home, 20% at cafes —

Cremina - the perfect sugar for coffee; it's sugar blended with a little coffee until smooth and creamy......

and only 10% at work.

Clearly the caffeine jolt of coffee is being used to fuel personal lives in Italy. Is coffee consumption the reason Italians have developed such a highly evolved “dolce vita?”

My quest for Rome’s Best Gelato serves up 3 contenders

26 Jun

It didn’t start out as a quest.  But when you find yourself having gelato more then once a day, it’s time perhaps to seek deeper meaning in the process.

Many will claim that gelato is better for you than ice cream.  Certainly gelato, whose origin dates back to the court of the Medici in Florence in the 16th century, has been around much longer, and ice cream is in fact a recent variation.  It has a lower fat content and less air, so its flavours are intense and concentrated.

Many will also claim that gelato is made of natural ingredients, a claim at which I am going to have to draw the line.  In fact, when we are trying an unknown gelateria, our test will be to examine the colour of the pistachio gelato.  A bright vivid green means we’ll walk away; it’s full of colorants, at the very least.

But many gelateria do make their own frozen deliciousness from natural ingredients. Mmmmm….heavenly!  Here are 3 gelateria that I have found to be the very best in Rome. In general, a small serving each is plenty for me and Alessandro, and sets us back about 2.50 Euros in the tourist areas.

Giolitti
Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40
(near the Pantheon and Piazza Navona)

Table service at Giolitti

This place is a pure old-school Italian salon.  Established in 1900, I love that Alessandro used to come here with his father when he was a child.  They win hands down in terms of the sheer variety of flavours – I haven’t counted but I imagine its over 50, including some unusual ones like chestnut (marrone), pear (pera) and pine nut (pina) – the latter a rich interesting flavour that I’ve developed a taste for. Even if you order a small (piccolino), you can choose 3 flavours (usually with a small at other locations you get 2).  The danger is that the amount of flavours can lead to some bad combinations.  Usually, I choose well by following a theory of either choosing a group of creamy flavours (crema, hazelnut, chocolate, espresso), or fruit flavours (limone, raspberry, strawberry, etc.) But the last time I chose mango, coconut and watermelon.  The watery-ness of the watermelon and the intense creaminess of the coconut clashed, and I ended up slicing the coconut off.  But the mango is my favourite here.

How it’s done:
You have to pay first (at the cashier to the left of the entry) and then assertively make your way to the counter to get your gelato if you want a cone. The serving staff are elegantly dressed and patient with questions about the dizzying array of flavours, and can speak a little English.  You have to tell them all the flavours you want at once, as apparently there is an intelligence behind which flavour gets placed in which order on a cone. After your gelato is piled up, the server will ask you, “con panna?” which means “would you like whipped cream on top?” This is the only place I choose this option, as their panna is clearly homemade, thickly dolloped out of a bowl with flecks of vanilla (at most places it is an aerated version)

You can also upgrade your experience, and sit at a table in their salon or outside, although this will escalate your price considerably!

Grom
(also near the Pantheon and Piazza Novona, right down the street from Giolitti)

An organic cone at Grom, Rome

This is part of an international chain, and just opened up a couple weeks ago (so recently that I am not able to actually find an address for it).  But you can find it by starting in the piazza in front of the Pantheon.  Stand at the fountain in the middle of the square, with your back to both the Pantheon and the fountain.  Walk through the laneway in ahead of you (it will be slightly on the right) and keep walking essentially straight for about 8 minutes.  Although no lanes are truly straight in this central area of Rome, just avoid any major turns. Eventually you will encounter Grom on the left hand side, on a corner, when your alleyway ends in a T-intersection.  Incidentally, if you turn right at that corner, you will get to Giolitti, in case you want to really go deep into your research.

So, sleek and modern Grom uses all organic ingredients, sustainable production and compostable products.  The ice cream is rich, subtle and pure; here I tried their crema (sort of a custard-y vanilla) and cream di Grom (which has chocolate and biscuit in the crema).  Alessandro had a fruit combo with melon, strawberry and mango..  Although the flavours are great and I am always happy to support organic flavours and sustainable production, this IS a chain of 40 gelateria and it did have a “chain-y” feeling to it.  Also it has fewer flavours (about 12 when we were there) and the gelato is kept in covered containers. Perhaps there is a reason for this, but isn’t part of the fun of going to gelateria standing in front of the glass and marvelling over the mouth-watering display?

How it’s done: Line up and pay first at the counter. Try to get a peek at the flavours and ask the servers a million questions.  Get your cone or cup, and they won’t ask you if you want panna if you haven’t paid extra for it at the beginning.

Fior di Luna

A cup is your only option at Fior di Luna

(Fiordiluna Gelato E Cioccolato)
via della Lungaretta 96 (in Trasteve)

We just found this place the other night; recommended by an old friend of Alessandro’s.  Jim Porto is a world-renown Brazilian jazz musician who has been living in Trastevere for the last 30 years.

This tiny little hole in the wall was packed with people who seemed to be buying gelato by the kilo. The wait took a while and seemed to be made worse by the complete lack of a process to line up.  Romans, by the way, do not seem to buy into the concept of a line-up, so be warned!

Finally, I got my cup of gelato.  I chose strawberry and lemon.  They don’t serve cones, only cups; as they are committed to using only organic and natural ingredients and apparently serving cones goes against this philosophy.  This deducts marks from their final score, as I love the child-like feeling that eating gelato from a cone imparts.  Furthermore, I am quite certain a brief phone call to Whole Foods would produce a carton of organic cones.  However, this gelato was heavenly – the pure fruit flavours were gorgeous on a warm summer night – both light and rich at the same time, and completely refreshing.  It doesn’t have an enormous range of flavours but enough that you feel you have a good choice.

How it’s done: crowd in and play to competitive sport of getting served.  It’s worth the wait.

In a future post, I’ll share 2 other frozen Italian treats – granita and grattachecca….