Monthly Archives: March 2012

Espresso at Sant’ Eustachio, Rome

This post might seem a tad trite, but after living in Italy for the past 2 months I believe it is time to talk about good coffee.

Rome for a day

A little group of us from the school were traveling to Rome for a Baroque Tour, led by our trusty (and lovely) Art Historian Danielle. We were going to be visiting eight churches, the Pantheon, an important statue (The Pasquino statue) and Palazzo Barberini ( to see the breathtaking ceiling, and some important Caravaggio paintings), in a record 5 hours. This would also include lunch, (which I will write about soon).

The beautiful ellipsed dome of San'Ivo alla Sapienza, designed by geometric architectural master Francesco Borromini in the mid 17th century.

Our itinerary for the day was planned down to when we would get a bathroom break, but, part of the schedule included an apparently all important stop at the best coffee place in the world (yes, I said, the world). At least that’s what Mario told me. And, why shouldn’t I believe him? He is currently writing a book on Rome (Strolling through Rome; The Definitive Walking Guide to the Eternal City), so his opinion was golden as far as I was concerned.

our destination; Sant'Eustachio, Rome

I must admit before I left for Italy, I loved coffee, but after trying coffee in countless places I have come to the realization that only Italians can make a good cup of espresso. I have been drinking mediocre coffee for the whole of my adult life (I never drank coffee growing up in Ireland; only black tea with milk), and only realized this a few months ago.

the stock room at Sant'Eustachio, Rome

That realization didn’t come to me when I stepped off the plane in Rome and got a cup of coffee to get me through the gruelling wait at the airport for a lift to the hotel. I had to be educated about this crazy coffee culture. Italians take food and drink so very seriously, and I love them for that. There are specific methods and ingredients for everything, and digressing from tradition is not very well tolerated.

The Barista at work (on the left). I was told by Mario that the coffee maker is shielded by a wall of metal to keep his technique a secret; intriguing.

I was so unaware that this obsession with all things gastronomic extended into every single establishment a cup of coffee is served. I found out that the person who makes your humble cup of coffee is a professional with a specifically honed craft. It is not the busboy or an idle waiter. The barista who brews your cup of espresso is trained to make that 1 oz of liquid you drink, an ultra satisfying and pleasurable experience. And Italians wouldn’t have it any other way. The standard is high because it is demanded.

waiting for that perfect cup of coffee

Why is the coffee so good? There are so many considerations, and if one of these things is off, the coffee falls short of the required perfection in every cup. The water, and the temperature of that water is an important factor. It has to be heated to between 194 and 203 degrees fahrenheit, before being forced at 135 pounds of pressure per cubic inch through a quarter ounce of precisely ground coffee for about 30 seconds. For this action to happen smoothly, the espresso machine has to be well maintained and the gentleman (or woman) manning the handle of said machine, has to know what he is doing.

the ultimate coffee moment

Is all of this really important? We are talking about a minuscule amount of correctly warmed liquid, served in a not much bigger, perfectly warmed white ceramic cup. My answer is a resounding “yes,” and my theory goes something like this; If everyone in this world took this much care in every single thing they did on a daily basis, we would have a better quality of life. It is quality we are talking about, and this word quality represents the degree of excellence of a thing. A thing of excellence is a mighty thing indeed, and when we bandy about this word quality of life, are we talking about some sort of enlightened living, or the pleasure of drinking a cup of coffee made with care and attention. I think the coffee and the “enlightened thing” are pretty similar.

I did break down and buy a coffee pot. It will remind me of my lovely day every single morning when I have left this wonderful place.

I know when I was dragged to the place touted to serve the best cup of coffee in Rome, I became instantly enlightened and happy when the froth on my spoon grazed my tongue!

The entryway at Sant'Eustachio,Rome

I will lump in with everyone else, and say out loud that my caffe macchiato achieved a high degree of excellence, and in doing so, that little ounce of coffee improved the quality of my life.

the color of Rome (at least one of them)

 Mario and Danielle, both gave me that look of satisfaction when one discovers how right they are! Danielle related a story to me, how when, newly in Rome years ago, her friends asked if she would like to go for coffee after dinner. She thought they just meant nip to the nearest bar (and there is one at every turn in Rome), have a coffee, and then off to bed. Not so, they kept walking and walking, passing at least twenty perfectly good establishments, until they reached Sant’Eustachio Cafe. Now here she was, standing with me, drinking coffee, and relishing the fact that she was the one who introduced me to yet another excellent cup of coffee.

Thanks for the wonderful day you two.



Last Dinner at Colle Puccioli – Part 3

This is Part 3 of my post on the Colle Puccioli visit (read the two previous posts if you want to know more).

Dinner Table

It was now time to discuss dinner at the farm. We had only arrived the night before, but when people are lumped together as we were, dynamism can happen fast. And so it was with this group. Everyone was probably drawn to the place for the same reason (Tom, cool stuff & food!), so discussing dinner felt familiar.

The kitchen fireplace (and future barbecue spot)

At this point we had figured out what everyone’s forte was, and so we all decided to help each other to bring the meal together, but have different cooking stations. Shawn decided to use the open fireplace to grill all of the meat (which Ninfa and I would marinate). This was a big undertaking for a few reasons.

getting chicken on the grill

The open flame was certainly an ideal place to maximize the flavor of the meat, but setting it up was a little tricky. He had to get a nice steady fire going, keeping the flame relatively low, and, had to build a little platform to set the meat rack on. He did this with bricks he found lying about outside. With a bit of maneuvering (which was difficult since the fire was hot) he managed to build a decent makeshift shelf for the sandwich-like rack which would house the meat.

The grill in action

While this was going on Ninfa and I sorted through all of the meat that each of us had brought. I commented earlier (part 1) on how Shawn warned me not to bring too much food, and I did restrain myself somewhat. We had decided the easiest ingredients would be quick-cooking meat like chops, and chicken. Armed with that information I bought pork chops, chicken fillets, and about a dozen pork sausages.

Pork chops marinated in garlic, oil and rosemary

When I told Shawn what I ended up with, he laughed and told me that Tom had called to tell him he had just purchased pork chops, chicken, and sausages for our visit! Also, Ninfa had brought chicken and some hefty pork ribs. It was going to be a gluttonous meat-fest!

Beautifully cooked Shawn

We hummed and hawed over what to cook and what to put away for another day. We couldn’t make a decision, so we opted to cook it all, (I know; obscene!)

on the hunt for rosemary (dead ahead!)

I went out to the garden and snagged big bunches of rosemary from one of Tom’s unruly plants. I love how rosemary grows into giant hedgerows in Italy. It puts the little pot of rosemary I have to nurture like a baby through the cold North American winters to pathetic shame. Cutting the thick-stalked rosemary reminded me of my mother’s beautiful rosemary plant at the back door, and, at how it’s perfume-y sweetness permeated the backyard when the days were warm.

Marinating pork chops

The kitchen bustled with culinary activity, but the highlight was very much Shawn’s station. It was a fabulous process to watch the meat being placed in the big rack, which had to be done by three people; my daughter to hold the rack open, someone to put the meat on the rack, and Shawn to make sure the meat was evenly placed with one hand, while holding the rack open with the other. He then had to close the top rack over the meat (like a sandwich) and place it on his rickety brick structure.

This is something Ninfa made. I think she called it a salted Quiche. It was quiche-like with lots of delicious veggies and cheese.

He was brilliant. Switching out meat as it cooked, barking at whoever was close for help with holding something while he blew the embers, encouraging heat. There is no way in hell I could have manned his station. As it turned out, each batch of meat was cooked to perfection, and in a timely manner.

Pork Ribs with Fennel,Rosemary and White wine

I tackled the pork ribs. They were way too thick to cook on the fire (and Shawn had enough to cook). I seared them, drown them in white wine, sautéed fennel and rosemary, and let a hot oven do the rest of the work.

Sausages with sautéed zucchini and onions

There were still the sausages to deal with. Ninfa split them and told me to fry them on the pan just to get them cooked. I did this, but then lay them on top of a big pan of zucchini and onions I had just finished sauteing.

Sausage ragu

I also made a ragu the day before to serve as a sort of sauce to flavor some of the other dishes. When Monica and Ninfa asked to taste my ragu, I gulped. An Irish woman supposing to make a typical Italian sauce was a dangerous thing. This dish was all very well to make for people not-in-the-know, but now here were two very strong-minded Italian ladies with spoons in my sauce! Okay, so I wouldn’t be including this little anecdote if the reaction was not a positive one. They loved it, and I think were a little surprised. (Hmmm, maybe she could cook after all?). Ninfa started to list my ingredients…tomatoes (yes), onions (yes), carrots (yes), ground beef, to which I replied, “no, ground sausage”. Ah, that was it! It wasn’t that I could make a great ragu, it was that sausage makes “everything taste good” said Ninfa.

Ninfa, nimbly peeling an orange

Then there was the Sicilian Orange Salad being prepared by Ninfa. She sliced the oranges like she had done this a million times before, shaved some fennel, scattering it on the plate, along with a few tomatoes and olives, finishing it all off with extra-virgin olive oil. It was one of the prettiest dishes on the table.

Sicilian Orange Salad

The kitchen hummed along like this for about 2 hours, with lots of tasting from other people’s pots, in-between sips of wine. It was the perfect day as far as I was concerned. All the answers to those “what is the meaning of life” questions lay right here in this kitchen. It was just up to us to recognize it. I tried to be aware, and to remind myself where I was, and how I came to be in this house with these people on this day, and then there was that human mixture of appreciation for the moment, but regret for its passing. We’re never happy (but hey, I recognize that fact!)

Salami di Cioccolato

I have to talk about dessert. It was made by Monica and Ninfa, and is supposedly a common sweet Italian cake that can be whipped together quickly. They called it Salame di Cioccolato, (chocolate salami). I didn’t believe them at first, but they were quite serious, so I stifled my incredulous guffaw. 

orange slices balanced the heavy chocolate

It is made with cocoa, eggs, dry cookie bits, sugar and a few other things I can’t remember off-hand. I was surprised at how good it tasted, and even asked Ninfa to recount the recipe (which I will post separately). I had mine with some orange slices, and it is definitely something I will make in the future.

Our beautiful table of food

Eating dinner together was such an amazing couple of hours. It was hard not to laugh at the ridiculous amounts of food prepared for nine people, but I was so happy to get a taste of so many wonderful things. The kitchen with its old world charm, full to the brim with interesting things to catch your eye at every turn, the beautiful vase of flowers Tom had so kindly picked for the table (he had to do something besides order us skivvies about!), the colorfully laden table, and the happy faces around it, will be imprinted on my memory for my lifetime.

This post is a thank you to all the people who gave me thirty-six hours of bliss. X



Late Breakfast at Colle Puccioli – Part 2

This post is a continuation of a story from the previous post (Late Dinner at Colle Puccioli – Part 1).

When I arose the next morning, all I could think about was getting myself outside to see where we were. I was now glad we arrived in the dark, and the gift of glorious view awaited.

One of Colle Puccioli's guest houses.

I stepped out the door of our lovely little guest house and was greeted by lots of stone walls, brick paths, rambling gardens, tons of ancient pots atop gnarly wooden shelves, and a misty morning view of Chiusdino. Not bad.

The Etruscan city of Chiusdino in the early morning light.

No one was up and about yet, so I did a little wandering before going into the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee. I am an eternal early riser. I relish the morning, and the quietude it brings with it. There is time to wake up slowly, and in a way, find happiness before the onslaught of the day. It is hard to have this moment of reflection and calm at any other point. Once something happens, your brain is immediately engaged, and there is no stopping thoughts from flooding in. In the morning, I actually feel empty, (in the best possible sense), and thoughts about anything other than soaking in the morning, can contaminate this moment. This my simple way of explaining a more complex thought. However to discuss it further, I would need to be sitting with you over a good bottle of wine!

Weathered harvest table for summer dining

Suffice is to say I had a chance to walk around Tom’s place at my leisure and soak it all in. There was a fabulous outdoor oven built into a wall, complete with arbor and lovely little terraced area. The winding pathways always led to something interesting, like a stairs through a wall that landed you in a little courtyard next to the kitchen, complete with long harvest table and a view that captured the valley through two narrow entryways in the wall facing Chiusdino.

A common happenchance moment while walking Colle Puccioli

I’m trying to describe a place that is almost indescribable. Imagining walking into a courtyard on the edge of a hillside in Tuscany is idyllic enough in itself, but add to it Tom’s passion for “things” which are visible in every nook and cranny of the place, inside and out. His love of ancient pots is apparent at every turn. The shelves that flank his awesome wine cellar are filled with pots that are museum worthy.

frothy mimosas

So my first impressions of Colle Puccioli was one of downright admiration for the man who saved this lovely farm-house from the ravages of time. Of course there is also that moment of thinking”I could live here!” but then the thoughts of the mountains of stuff in the house that would need cleaning dispelled any more daydreaming.

Detail of Tom's kitchen table (can you guess what it was before it was a table?)

It was time for that cup of coffee, and upon entering the kitchen I found my friend John already up, and seated very happily at the kitchen table. Speaking of which, the night before, it was so full of food I quite overlooked the fact that the actually tabletop was a wooden door; another triumph!

something to get us started

Not long after coffee was brewed, the rest of the house began to appear one by one. It was time to think about breakfast. Tom strolled in and suggested that we could grab some baby leeks from his garden to go with the eggs Shawn was deftly scrambling. Myself and Ninfa tagged behind him and watched as he dug leeks out of what appeared to be a patch of weeds. This place really needed a good weeding!

sautéed tomatoes (and leeks from Tom's garden)

This thought was also in Tom’s head, because as we were walking back to the house he pointed to a patch of what looked like young carrot tops and looked at the two of us saying, “get out there and weed after breakfast ladies!”

not a bad breakfast

Back in the kitchen things were well underway as Monica sliced cheese and put a lovely antipasti together. Tom told me we needed mimosas and told me where to find a bottle of prosecco. We squeezed lovely fresh oranges and toasted to a good day. It was certainly going in the right direction as far as I was concerned.

We ate scrambled eggs with a side of sautéed leeks and tomatoes, some lovely farm bread fried in olive oil, cold meat and cheese, all washed down with coffee and mimosas; yum.

Monica & Ninfa working for food!

After breakfast, I asked Ninfa if she would give me a little Italian lesson. She was only too delighted. It was intense, but very fun to be sitting in the kitchen with her, beside the roaring fire. She was adamant that I learn the precise pronunciation of the vowels. She would spell words using the Italian alphabet (of course!) and I would have to write them down. She was very strict, and I felt a twinge of fear every time I got a letter wrong.

There was a funny moment when she was spelling the word Treno (train). When she said the letter “e” which is pronounced more like the letter “a” in english I wrote down “e” When she said “no” I thought she meant it was not an “e” and crossed it out confused. She repeated the spelling and again responded “no” to my “e” What the hell was I doing wrong? When we both realized she was saying “no” referring to the end of the word, and not “No!” that is incorrect, we both laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

Lisa (Tom's friendly dog) supervising the work from the top of the path leading to the vegetable garden.

Then it was time to weed those carrots! Ninfa was anxious that we go out there and do a good job, also commenting that no matter how good it was ,Tom would complain about how City Girls can’t weed! Surly we could weed carrots? Well, it was like doing surgery. Tom planted the carrots as one would drop seed to feed chickens; all over the place! It was so hard to pull big strong weeds without compromising the tiny little carrot plants. Of course we did pull carrots, but Ninfa quickly replanted saying they needed to be “relocated” anyway. We toiled away for about an hour, Monica and I weeding, while Ninfa busied herself with “relocations”

One of Colle Puccioli's many scenic little walkways.

A little bit after we got inside and washed all that lovely dirt from our hands, Tom complimented me on our beautiful weeding job. Reflecting on the moment, I think he was just charming me into giving him a thank you hug.

Now it was time to discuss dinner….stayed tuned for part 3

Late Dinner at Colle Puccioli – Part 1

This was an absolute whirlwind of a visit, but I will never forget it. I am going to center my accounts around the meals, so there will be three posts.

Doorway to the courtyard by the kitchen door at Colle Puccioli

This wonderful trip into the Tuscan countryside came about because of that “six degrees of separation” theory.  The theory is that every person can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances with no more than five intermediaries.

A big beautiful pot on the mantle over the kitchen fire

In my case the degree of separation was only two, and that in itself is amazing considering I am from Ireland, married an american who went to college with a guy (Shawn), who in turn met another guy ( both potters), while on a summer course in North Carolina. This guy (Chris), went to Italy over a decade ago, and began living and working in Cortona.  He became passionately interested in ancient Italian pottery, and in 2009 had a pottery show in Rome exhibiting his pots and ancient pots side by side, ( Medieval Maiolica, Modern Interpretations, displayed medieval ceramics from the permanent collection of the Museo nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia in Rome, with contemporary interpretations by Chris). The show catalog in the museum was perused by a Mr. Tom Liepsner, who promptly called Chris hoping to gather more information about his vast collection of ancient pots, and they bonded instantly. 

By the fire

There is also the added observation that the craftsmen who made the pots in the 14th century were the true links in the chain. Now, here I was in Italy with Chris and Shawn, and Shawn called Tom and planned for us all to visit (unfortunately Chris was not here, but he was with us in spirit).

Just a glance (and that’s exaggerating) at Tom’s passion (well, one of them)

Shawn gave me a brief description of where we were going and who Tom was. He told me to pack ingredients for cooking ( and to try not to go overboard, as I always tend to do where food is concerned), and, to have my camera handy. I was very curious and waited for our saturday evening departure with impatience.

The kitchen fireplace; providing heat & cooking fuel

The trip happened directly after a beautiful, but exhausting day in Orvieto (read the post “lunch in Orvieto with John” if you’re curious). We jumped from the bus (which broke down, delaying our departure even further), and within 20 minutes (during which time I gathered our supplies at lightening speed) transferred to a monstrosity of a van, and down the hill we careened!

I was happy to see all of these pots stuffed with every utensil I would use while cooking!

The van took us from Cortona to about 30 miles southwest of Siena. The road was so convoluted and windy, it took all my powers of concentration to not play the role of Linda Blair in The Exorcist,(slightly corny analogy, but worth mentioning how nauseous I felt).

It was dark when we arrived and the only thing I could make out in the close distance was  the ancient Etruscan town of Chiusdino. It was strange arriving so late to cook dinner with someone I didn’t know, but I felt ready to meet new people, and be in a real Italian country house.

Various meats to nibble on.

The whole scene that unfolded before me upon entering the house, was akin to stepping onto a lavish movie set, or maybe more like I was in a dark movie theatre watching all of us up there on the screen, (have you ever seen The purple Rose of Cairo?). Yes, it did feel surreal, and I was happy to have entered this dream-like house, and get to mingle with the inhabitants.

One of the cooking stations in the kitchen

We all piled in and were introduced to our host Tom and two of his good friends Ninfa and Monica, who were visiting from Siena and Milano for the night. The introductions were all smiling, embracing and laughter. Ninfa knew I was interested in food and immediately drew me to the table to describe what they were nibbling on before we arrived.

She was passionate about absolutely everything, but was most interested in having me try the soft pecorino cheese.  Ninfa told me how she had lived in the United States with her american husband for 20 years and how eating seasonally was something she missed. This cheese was the perfect example. It could even be described as micro-seasonal, as it is only available in March.

Marzolino

It is made from the “first milk” of the ewe. Apparently, it was the brain-child of a shepherd who invented Marzolino; making a cheese from the season’s first milk that they could produce, while waiting for the other pecorino cheeses to mature. It has a soft rind, and takes on the flavors of the first grasses and herbs eaten by the sheep.  Truly a treat for me, and I sampled as much of it as I could throughout the evening.

Saffron risotto

Tom, our gracious host bustled around in his seemingly casual way talking to everyone, pouring wine, and giving orders. Yes, he didn’t seem to stand on ceremony, and gently told everyone what to do, or how a thing could be done. He also took the kids outside with a flashlight to explore his impressive playground, complete with giant trampoline, and swimming pond, complete with zip-line!

drawers full of silverware, napkins, big utensils, and all matter of kitchen equipment.

Tom’s place is an Agriturismo which is the word “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian smashed together. An Italian agriturismo generally serves food to guests prepared from food produced on the farm, or from ingredients grown or raised locally. At some locations guests can participate in the activities surrounding the farm, like weeding the garden (more about my experience in that department in one of the posts to follow).

A couple of new acquisitions

When small-scale farming in Italy became less profitable,(1950’s – 1970’s) farmers abandoned many farms to look for an income elsewhere. To save these farms (many were very neglected, with buildings in very bad disrepair) in 1985 a law defined Agriturismo, and many of these estates were restored, many for agritourismo. This helped to save these small farms, which started producing again, while also giving the vacationers a chance to fully experience Italian rural life.

Tom was Mr Agriturismo as far as I was concerned. He stumbled upon the property in 1982. It was literally falling down; no roof, no electricity, no anything in general. But, Tom saw the value in the place. It beckoned him to turn it into what it is today, an idyllic set of dwellings set on a Tuscan hillside with a view of the spectacular countryside, including an imposing view of the Etruscan town of Chiusdino.

coffee

We sat down to dinner after 10pm and the spread was obscene. My plate was filled with everything from saffron risotto to a meaty ragu. All of us strangers cooked together in Tom’s fantastical kitchen with the greatest of ease. The wine flowed (as it should) as easily as the conversation. I went to bed feeling like I couldn’t possibly have that much fun the next day; I was wrong.

The night sky

Stay tuned.

Lunch in Orvieto with my friend John

I went to Orvieto on Saturday with our lovely group from the school. I was excited to see yet another new Italian town, and to have lunch in the place where Orvieto wine comes from.

the awesome duomo in Orvieto

This ancient Etruscan town sits on the practically vertical faces of tuff cliffs that are completed by defensive walls built of the same stone called Tufa. Tuff is rock made up of volcanic ash, and Tufa (which is what the volcanic rock is called when used for construction) is a common material which was used to build some of the 2,000 caves underneath the city, as well as for buildings on the surface.

the twisting Solomonic columns (my favorite element of the facade)

The duomo took 270 years to complete, and is certainly situated in the most imposing site the town affords. When you turn from any street into it’s presence, it literally takes your breath away. It demands respect and fearful awe, which is the point I presume.

the creation of Eve (another glimpse of the facade)

My morning was all about taking in the giant cathedral with the outrageous Luca Signorelli frescos in the Cappella di San Brizio (one day you have to see them for yourself), and, the plan for the afternoon was to sample a bottle of local wine, along with lunch.

enoteca/sandwich shop

It is hard not to think of Orvieto and wine in the same instant. I am more of a red wine lover, but when I have a hankering for white wine, Orvieto is high on my list of choices. What makes it so good became more obvious after a quick glance at the topography of the town, and a further look at the geology.

Orvieto, set in the province of Umbria, is a little warmer than some other white wine-producing regions (the Piedmont and Veneto), and, this gives their wine a soft earthiness. That, along with the chalky, limestone nature of the volcanic soil adds to the unique dry, earthy (with a hint of sweetness) character which is typical of Orvieto Classico. The white wine is made from primarily Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes.

our table

A group of about 10 met to walk to a restaurant together and as we were about to head off, I quickly asked my friend John (who was visiting for 3 weeks) if we could sneak off and have lunch together. I was in the mood for a quiet lunch with quiet conversation. I think I read his mind, so we escaped, and headed in the opposite direction. This was a very brave thing for me to do, considering I always like to have a restaurant recommendation from someone in-the-know.

a fitting rustic lunch

We walked in whatever direction out feet took us and eventually ended up on a little street behind the duomo. The place couldn’t have been plainer, and I had a good feeling the moment I stepped in the door.

There were about 4 tables dotted between shelves of wine, local meats and cheeses. They were adorned with lively plastic table clothes (definitely tacky) and I loved it all; the wine, the cheese, the smells, and the happy girl behind her delicatessen counter who beckoned us in.

up close to my sandwich

We bought a bottle of Orvieto Classico off of one of the shelves and ordered two fresh sandwiches. We both drooled over the fresh mozzarella and tomato, but decided to buy different things so we could share. Our kindly shopkeeper waxed on about the pork (porchetta) and we were easily won over. The best part was the whole meal cost 13 euros!

How small does this make you feel?

We sat and had my most special lunch to date. I was sitting with my old friend John, and we were eating sandwiches washed down by Orvieto wine, in the town of its namesake.

We touched on all of the most important topics of the day; life, love, happiness. John even managed to pull out an old notebook and write a poem, which he read to me after I pleaded.

I will miss you my friend

John came to visit for three weeks and I think he was stunned at how Italy took him over body and soul. I know the feeling.

A farewell to Nana (for Shawn)

The task I have given myself today is to write about someone I never met, but want to pay homage to. The main reason I feel deeply inclined is because she was my close friend Shawn’s, grandmother. He is here with me in Cortona, Italy, and we have been talking about her, and reflecting on her long and wonderful life since the sad news March 8th. Did I mention she was 102!

When Shawn visits his relatives (about twice yearly) he comes to our house for a few days on either end of his trip. We have always done this, and know that part of his “rounds” include lunch with his grandmother.

 Losing his grandmother broke the connection to part of his past. I know this sounds very morbid, but I am not trying to be.

Shawn

I am fascinated by family, and how they are linked to the past through blood. Shawn could talk to his grandmother about her grandfather, which would give him an oral history linking him to the mid 19th century. When that thread is physically lost, it can feel like you lost so much more than a grandmother.

When I talk to someone (especially when they have lived a long time) I feel I am talking to multiple members of their family. I can hear their ancestors echoing through the words, and it rounds out the person so to speak. We are part of all those people who went before us, and that is why I am hungry for anything anyone can tell me. It can go a long way to explaining who they are.

I had gotten to know Shawn’s grandmother because of Shawn himself.  There was such affection between them; what was he going to do with all of those feelings?

walking with Shawn

So, we began with a walk to the breathtaking San Franciscan convent of Le Celle which St. Francis founded in the first half of the 13th century. Religious or not, it was the place to be right at that moment. The walk from Cortona (we were six strong) was happy, with lots of quiet laughter and pats on the back. The sun followed us all the way there, and we were glad of its warmth on our backs as we marched along.

The distant Le Celle

As we walked, I chatted with Shawn and asked him to tell me some good food memories relating to his grandmother (this is after all a food blog!). There were so many things to tell. She was a 1940’s and 50’s housewife in the United States. The heyday of the gin martini, and cheese fondue. She was apparently an excellent cook and Shawn remembered lots of great meat dishes as well as a delicious dessert called an “ice-box cake” He also laughed when he remembered her going through an “aspic period” and recalled the worst one; a tomato aspic, (why was aspic such a craze? Probably something to do with Julia Child and her french culinary experience. Who didn’t want to be fancy and french in those days!).

He also told me if I wanted more details I should ask his mother Sharon, and when I did, to make sure she related the “cat story”  Sharon was only too pleased to be part of this memory gathering, and gave me lots of  jewels.

I have also known Sharon for many years (as you may have gathered, I need to know everyone’s whole clan!), and she went a long way to giving me more of a complete picture of Nana.  She thought her best dish was (among many) a sumptuous leg of lamb. (She also thinks she is the reason Shawn likes lamb so much).

She also mentioned that she made a “wicked” standing rib roast. She talked about the Ice-Box Cake, but added that it was rounded out with lady fingers and chocolate. Sharon still makes this cake on special occasions, and I am definitely getting the recipe and trying it for myself.

She told me about the infamous tomato aspic, but added that she LOVED it! (really Sharon; yuck!)

Tangy Tomato Aspic

She went on about her Macaroni and Cheese, and all sorts of other things, but, I wanted to know the Cat Story.

When she and their son would come to dinner, the table was always formally set; china, sterling silverware, crystal, the lot. One day while eating a soup appetizer, their Siamese cat jumped straight into her father-in-law’s soup. He was so horrified (and probably got the fright of his life), that he flung the cat from one end of the dining room table to the other! Sharon was way too intimidated by her surroundings to make an utterance. It is something she will never forget. Oh yes, and the cat survived the trauma (maybe with one less life).

The convent of Le Celle

Le Celle instills awe right from the beginning. One moment you are walking down a hill, the next you are standing by the outer wall, which literally hurdles you towards a deep valley on the slopes of Monte Sant’ Edigio. This valley is filled with the convent’s many very stark buildings, a gorge which has been manipulated to hone their water supply, and a lovely garden, outer gardens, and walkways that lead into the forest.

The moment you enter there is a sign asking you to respect the peace of the place by being quiet and reverent. There was no need for the sign, we became naturally silent as we wound our way down to the little chapel where St. Francis retreated.

When we walked by the church there was a mass being said, and we sat on the wall just outside and listened for a while.

As we walked back we stopped at a little place for warm coffee to give us energy to get up that last hill. It was a great day.

Since then Shawn has fondly read her obituary in her town’s paper to me, and I found out her funeral is this Friday. I suspect we will take our friend to a nice spot to remember her, and say a sweet goodbye.

We love you Shawn x

Little Fish Fry (serves 4 as appetizer)

When I say little fish fry, I am talking about the diminutive size of the silvery fish I fried to whet our appetite for the main course the other night.

good things in little packages

The other day as I was strolling through the streets of my new temporary home of Cortona, my friend Shawn called and asked if I would like to leave the grand Etruscan walls, and venture to the food Co-Op in Camucia. “Why not!” I said, and was picked up minutes later.

my big bag of little fish

I had been here for about a month now, and had never had an opportunity to go to the Co-Op everyone raved about. I was looking forward to perusing the vegetables and buying some fresh fish for dinner.

The space was enormous, and I was overwhelmed, considering the only places I had been buying my groceries was from the little specialty shops in my little hilltop town. Where to begin?

I only had 30 minutes to take it all in, so I decided to skip everything and concentrate on fresh produce, and fish.

Lattarino fish

The fish counter was pretty amazing with all sorts of fish doing their best to tempt me. I settled on the humblest of creatures;  a tiny silvery fish called a lattrino. It comes from Lake Bolsena in the province of Lazio, just outside of Rome. I also found out there is a big festival dedicated to this fish in May, and, after tasting handfuls of them the other night, I can see why!

Mimosa Flowers (given out to all the women in Cortona for National Women's day last Thursday)

I cooked them before I did any research as to how they are traditionally prepared in Italy. I was very pleased when I discovered that my method would have pleased any Italy Nonni.

*This recipe would work for any tiny little fish. All you need is lots of olive oil and lemon juice!

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You will need: 1 lb lattarino fish (or any small white fish), 1 or 2 lemons, quartered, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup (approx) extra-virgin olive oil.

1 – Rinse fish throughly in a colander with lots of running water (may be sandy and gritty). Let them drain, and transfer to a big plate with paper towels or tea cloth. Dry as best as you can.

Rinse fish throughly with running water.

2 – Put the flour into a big bowl with a little salt and pepper, and toss the fish into the mixture. Coat each fish with flour.

3 – Put big saute pan on high heat and add 1/2 of the oil when pan is hot. Let the oil get hot and add between 1/3 and 1/2 of the fish in an even layer (this depends on the size of your pan). Cook until crispy on both sides (about 4 minutes). Transfer to plate lined with a paper towel, and squeeze with tons of lemon juice.

fry fish

We ate the fish as they came off of the pan (the crispier the better). You can keep them warm in the oven until all of the fish are fried, and them serve in one grand flourish.

Ready to eat