The Tuscan Maremma in Spring
I love the Maremma. So many people visit Tuscany and think they’ve seen it all after Sienna, Florence, Orvieto and maybe a few hill towns. Nope. The western part of Tuscany by the sea is so special, it deserves much more attention than it receives. On the other hand, it’s nice not to be over run with tourists. While the whole of the Maremma covers a large area, I know the area near Grosseto and south best.
The Maremma area has almost timeless roots. The Etuscans long before the Romans lived in this area. They built cities and developed agriculture in the midst of beautiful landscapes. Many of the people still living in this area are descendants of the Etuscans, a people who lived in this part of Italy long before the Romans. While much is unknown about their civilization, the Etruscan people were known to be intelligent, gentle people with many advances in their culture and few wars. They were easily made extinct by the Romans. There are many both Etruscan and Roman ruins in this area to be explored.
Pitigliano, Manciano and Montiano are only a few of the spectacular hill towns. But it’s the sea and the towns of Porto Santo Stefano, Orbetello, Albinia and Capalbio that keep my heart in the Maremma. Orbetello is on a thin strip of land that crosses in the middle of a coastal lagoon. The isthmus joins the Argentario to the Tuscan mainland. Although Orbetello is surrounded by lagoons it is also connected to the Mediterranean.
There has been a settlement in Orbetello since the 8th century BC! Being on the sea means fishing has always been important to it’s livelihood and culture.
Orbetello is one of the few areas in Italy still producing bottarga, which is flaked and served simply with olive oil on warm bread or grated over vegetables and salads. It is finely grated and served over spaghetti to make their most famous dish ‘spaghetti alla bottarga’.
Covitto fish market has been in Orbetello since 1940. Domenico moved from the Amalfi Coast to Orbetello and brought his idea and process for making bottarga. His was the first Botarga made in this part of Italy. It is still made the same way. Bottarga di Muggine is famously used in Sicilian dishes. Buying the whole roe sack is quite expensive, but this grated bottarga is much easier to use and less expensive. It is wonderful over salads and vegetables, but the best known use is in Spaghetti alla Bottarga. You simply add a little olive oil to a pan, heat it and add a little red pepper flakes and add cooked pasta. Take it off the heat and sprinkle the Bottarga over the pasta and a good handful of fresh chopped parsley. So simple and yet so special. It takes only a little for very rich flavor. The 40 gram jar I have will last well past the end of this year if kept in the refrigerator. Bottarga is very rich in protein and Omega 3’s with a delicate and wonderful flavor.
Domenico also brought with him from Cetara, the process to make Colatura di alici. Anchovy Sauce. It’s definitely part of the slow food movement.
His famous amber condiment is delicate and available only in Italy. While they use it for pastas, it is a wonderful flavor for anything that needs a little depth of flavor. This amber magic is made by taking fresh caught anchovies with salt and laying them in a wooden container called a “terzigni”. After four or five months the liquid that comes out of the bottom hole in the container is harvested. It’s quite different than the Asian fish sauces. Delicate and uniquely flavored, it adds that indefinable extra to many dishes.
For an easy Pasta dish, use a simple pasta and cook it as directed on the package. When it’s about done, heat about 4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a pan, add a clove of garlic, being sure not to brown it, along with some red pepper flakes to taste, and about 3 Tablesppons of COLATURA DI ALICI with a little pasta water. Add the drained pasta and sprinkle fresh chopped parsley over and serve. Keep the COLATURA DI ALICI handy to add additional over the top of your pasta to taste. This should generously serve 4 people.
This area of Tuscany is full of regional typical products not generally seen outside the area. The Maremma is a mixture of farm lands, cattle ranches and seaside fishing villages. It’s well worth spending some time in this area and exploring the beaches as well as the ancient ruins all around you.
From Albinia I brought back Conserve to be used with cheese or bruschetta. One I love is called Conserva del Buttero. The Tuscan cowboys, horses and the Maremma sheepdog are all parts of this interesting area. The Conserva del Buttero’s ingredients include: peppers, peaches, apples, pepperoncino, apple vinegar, lemon juice and sugar. Wow is it great. It would be fabulous with meat as well as served with pears or apples. So many uses for these conserve. I hope you’ll try some of these magnificent specialties.
Please feel free to email me at ExpresslyItalian@aol.com if you have any questions or want any additional information. I do hope you have the chance to explore this part of Italy. I ended my week with a fabulous dinner made by a long time resident of Montiano who fixed a fantastic cinghiale, with juniper berries and raspberry agrodolce sauce. Thanks Penelope, it was better than any I’ve ever had.
I have so much more to tell you about this special area, I’ll have to make another blog entry sometime in the near future to tell you about Albinia, the fantastic Alimentari un Mare di Sapori and explain some of the other local products.
ROME TO PERUGIA IN A DAY
Mamma Mia! Even in Rome there are days best spent in bed under the covers. It was a simple trip from Rome to Perugia. It started off by taking the bus/metro to Termini to rent a car. I know, any trip through Termini is not likely to be pleasant, but it actually was a lovely morning and easy to walk from Piazza della Republica to the car rental office. Unfortunately, I found I had my Italian passaporto, my American drivers license and credit card.
While the agent was quite pleasant, she said ‘you have too many names’. You must have the passport that matches the other documents. I know a pointless argument when I see one. So, after a 40 euro cab ride back to get my passport and return to the rental agency we were off to Perugia.
Even with a delayed start a drive to Perugia is not a big thing. It’s a little over two hours from Centro Rome to Perugia. I had my GPS just in case. I have relied on my GPS in Italy since 2004. I would never be in Rome without it. Even though Rome can test any GPS, it will definitely find your way out of whatever mess you find yourself in. , I believed that since it was fully charged and plugged into the lighter, we’d have no problems. We were fine on the A1 (a main toll road in Italy that is a breeze).
Then we received a text message from a friend who had arranged a tour of the Perugina factory for us at 3:15. So suddenly, the wandering drive was a little annoying. We had passed all those lovely Autogrills on the A-1 not worrying about lunch assuming we’d be shortly in Perugia. With a little additional pressure, we started off onto the road to Perugia a winding, wandering road through the beautiful Umbrian countryside.
Shortly we realized we were on a country road that had no restaurants, no towns, nothing but beautiful green scenery and rolling hills. Lovely most of the time, not so much when you are hungry and thirsty and suddenly on a timed schedule. About this time, we realized the GPS was no longer working. After a short examination, we realized it had not been charging at all. It was dead. Completely dead. For some reason the plug was not connecting with the cigarette lighter. No options to re-power it. We were on our own.
While I normally confidently know that eventually all roads will lead you to somewhere lovely in Italy, I was not so happy to be wandering around the countryside without water or food. Feeling a little like a refugee. I kept looking for signs we were actually approaching Perugia. Oddly they were far an few between. When we arrived in Perugia, I discovered that although many signs said Centro ⇒ it was not that easy. It would lead you up towards the center, then down out of the center. Finally we arrived at our hotel, La Rosetta, just in time to check into the hotel, drop our bags and head out to the bus to take us to the Perugina factory tour.
They directed us to the Linea A bus. “Take the moving sidewalkall the way to the bottom.They didn’t mention you must then go through the tunnel and down a lot of steps to get to the bus terminal. Yep, about 8 minutes to get there. Then We found our bus was 20 minutes late. This made us likely to arrive about 2 minutes after our tour was to begin. With hurried texting our tour was re-scheduled for 4:15. Whew!
My friend said you get off the bus and the Perugina factory is directly across the street from the bus stop. I saw a large Perugina sign on what looked like a large factory and we got off the bus only to discover that there was a much smaller sign saying ferrovia (A train station). We asked which bus would actually take us to San Sisto where the factory is. (Of course it’s not actually in Perugia, it’s in San Sisto). Ohhhh. We could take Linea A, B, or R. We took the first that came along. The R. It was supposed to be a 5 km drive from Perugia. About 15 minutes later I asked the driver where the heck San Sisto was and she said soon. Finally she said here it is, but there was no factory, no buildings, only a residential area and a small town. When I asked where the Perugina factory was and she said “straight ahead then to the right”. Well, it was, about ½ mile straight ahead. We finally got to the factory (where there was a bus stop, but on the same side of the street) . We were anow bout 15 minutes late, tired, a little sweaty and still hungry.
When we tried to check in and see if we could catch up with the tour, The lovely young lady said, “Why are you here? There is no production line working on Fridays in March, April or May. And, the film is only in Italian. If you want, you can look at the museum and watch part of the film, but I don’t think it is worth it”.
So after all that we were faced with the return trip to Perugia. We noticed there was no bus stop across the street. Finally asking someone they suggested that we would have to cross several roads to get to where the bus would pick us up. Linea A. After another hike of about 10 minutes and a 20 minute wait, we saw a bus approaching that said Piazza Italia. Yahoo! Our hotel was in Piazza Italia. We jumped on.
So, after a very, very long day, we were too tired for dinner but glad to reach our hotel and ready for a nap. At least I got a few pictures before sunset.
Some days are best spent in bed enjoying the quiet comfort of home.
Spring is Happening – at least in Italy
Finally the rain has stopped and the temperature is warming some. There’s not much more than 20 degrees difference between the high and low temperatures the last couple of weeks and hopefully that will continue.
In Italy, Spring means vegetables. Primizie – first of the season. Around Lazio there are so many spring vegetables, many of them, most Americans have never experienced. The Italian way is to eat as much as you can of the produce as it comes into season and then it’s gone. Prepared as simply as possible, often with nothing more than olive oil and a few spices.
Most Italians, at least those over the age of 25, are foragers. No matter where you drive in the springtime you’ll see cars parked alongside the roads and there will be people hunting for the delicacies found in the fields everywhere. Whether it’s for wild asparagus, punarelli or another chicory or other wild greens, like biete or insalata campagnolo.
March and April still have carciofi (artichokes) available. They are smaller and much tastier than our globe artichokes. Outside of Rome, Ladispoli has it’s carciofi festival. Usually the second weekend in April, they
There are 50 different varieties of artichoke grown in Italy, but the romanesco variety is the most popular and has gained the EU designation of origin for produce, IGP.
Ladispoli is close enough to Rome that it draws tons of people and there are all manner of
presentation of artichokes. I plan on getting there this year on my next trip.
Artichokes Romana photo by G. Parisi
Ah and the fava beans. May 1st is a traditional day to have fava beans and they are at all the open air markets and along side the roads in trucks. Mostly they are bought and put on the table in bowls with a dish of Pecorino alongside. You sit around the table and split the long beans open and pop the beans out, eating them with the Pecforino. I believe the first time I had them like this was at our Italian family’s home on a Sunday. They must have been 12 inches long, bright green and quite plump. She plopped the hunk of Pecorino down and said “Mangia”. And we did!
I’d never seen or heard of puntarelle before moving to Italy. May brings these cute little green curls into the markets. Usually they are in a bucket of ice water. They are tender and usually served fresh with just a little lemon juice and olive oil or an anchovy vinaigrette. Fragile, fresh and delightful.
The perfect recipe for spring is vignarola. There are versions from almost every region, but I like the Roman Vignarola. Try this recipe.
2 halved lemons 5 large artichokes (about 12 oz. each) 1-1/2 bCups shelled fresh or frozen fava beans 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed 1 large thinly sliced onion 1 sprig oregano 2 oz. guanciale (hard to find here) or pancetta (I use Trader Joe’s) Salt 2 cups shelled fresh (or frozen) peas 1/4 cup parsley 2 Tablespoons chopped mint leaves a teaspoon or more lemon juice to taste Pepper
Prepare the artichokes:
Fill a large bowl halfway with cold water. Squeeze the lemons into the water and add the rinds to the bowl. Using a serrated knife, cut off the top third of an artichoke. Pull back and snap off the dark green, leafy blades, one by one, until only the pale yellow leaves remain. Using a paring knife, trim the artichoke bottom and stem to the pale green flesh, then cut it in half lengthwise.
Drop into the water (that keeps them from turning brown) and repeat with the remaining artichokes. Using a spoon, scoop out the prickly leaves and hairy choke. Cut each half into 4 wedges and return to the water until ready to use.
If using fresh fava beans, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl two-thirds full with ice water. When the water comes to a boil, add the beans and cook for 1 minute, tjen drain and immediately submerge the beans in the ice water. Peel the beans by gently tearing the pale skins and pinching at one end (it’s really easy). Discard the skins, reserving the dark green interior bean.
To cook the ragout: Heat a 12 inch non reactive pan over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup olive oil and when hot, add the onion, oregano and guanciale (or pancetta). Cook, stirring occasionally until the onion and pancetta are translucent, about 10 minutes. Drain artichokes and add to the pan, along with 2 cups water and 1-1/4 teaspoons salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until artichokes are just tender, about 25 minutes. If using frozen favas, add them and cook for 2 minutes. If using fresh favas or frozen edamame, add them, along with the peas and cook until warm and tender, about 5 minutes more. Remove the oregano sprig. Sprinkle in parsley and mint. Season with lemon juice, fresh ground black pepper and if desired, additional salt. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve. It’s really wonderful and makes you feel like life is starting over all fresh and new.
My next trip is approaching. I will be in Italy most of the month of April. Shopping for requested items as well as bringing back some really lovely little items for all of you. If you want anything specific, let me know by email. I’m excited to be in Italy again. This trip will take me to Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio. A presto e avere una fame da lupo (I’ll be back soon, stay hungry as a wolf).
Italian Winters – Sparkling, Exciting and Full of Great Food
Pizzoccheri is the perfect solution to cold and hungry after skiing or any winter day.
Pizzoccheri is a flat wide noodle (similar in size to tagliatelle) made with buckwheat. Buckwheat
is used in the north of Italy more because you cannot grow much wheat in mountainous regions. At least that’s my thoughts on why buckwheat is so prevalent. Pizzoccheri is a dish of the Alps – around Piemonte it’s always made with cabbage and Fontina cheese. While it’s not easy to find the Pizzoccheri noodles in the U.S. it is sometimes in the Italian deli’s at this time of year. Here’s a great recipe to try. It was originally published: December 29, 2008 in the NY Times by Mark Bittman Time: 30 minutes
1 stick butter ( 1/4 pound)
4 fresh sage leaves
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
1 medium potato, peeled and thinly sliced
1 small head Savoy cabbage, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 pound flat, broad buckwheat noodles (pizzoccheri) or whole wheat noodles
1 cup fontina Val d’Aosta (or other good semisoft) cheese grated
1 cup Parmesan, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade bread crumbs. * see note
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter with sage and garlic until butter turns nut-brown; be careful not to burn sage leaves. Set aside. 2. Cook potato and cabbage in boiling water until they begin to soften, just 5 minutes or so. Add pasta to same pot and continue to cook until pasta is about 1-1/2 minutes from done.Drain. 3. In a large oven-proof dish, spread a layer of vegetable-pasta combination, then a layer of grated fontina, then a layer of grated Parmesan; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Continue this layering until all ingredients are used, ending with a layer of Parmesan; ideally you will have four layers of each. Cover dish with bread crumbs and drizzle with melted butter and sage (discard garlic). Bake for about 15 minutes, or until top is golden-brown and cheese has melted. Serve hot or warm. Yield: 3 to 4 servings.
* this is one of the items I always bring back from Italy. They have a way of toasting and making the finest, driest and most tasty bread crumbs. I have not found anything locally that is as fine, toasty-colored and tasty.
A Turino Specialty to dream about: Bicerin
For all us chocolate lovers, Torino is the place to go. I know Perugia is a really well known for Perugina chocolates but the real history of Italian chocolate starts in Piemonte. Torino is the chocolate capital of Italy.The International Chocolate Fair is in November, but the chocolate flows all year in Torino. Although Christopher Columbus first brought Cocoa beans back from Mexico to Spain, they hoped to keep them all for themselves and did formany years. It wasn’t until 1606 that an Italian traveler, Antonio Carletti, brought the cocoa home to Italy. And he created the first chocolate mania. It spread throughout Europe continuing to move from medicinal to the treat it is today, although most of us still believe chocolate is medicinal.
Bicerin is a winter drink invented in Torino in the 18th century. It is still made only there. The word bicerin means little glass — and if you like it you’ll be joining august company: Alexandre Dumas, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso were all Bicerin fans. The caffè in Torino all keep their recipes secret, but I’ve found one close to the heavenly drink they make there.
Try this one:
1/3 cup high quality cocoa powder (like Venchi’s Cacao Due Vecchi cocoa), or
dark chocolate shavings
Sugar to taste
2/3 cup chilled heavy cream
Enough espresso for 2 long shots, about 2/3 cup
1. At least 15 minutes ahead, put a jar or shaker in the freezer. Fill 2 water goblets or Irish Coffee mugs with hot tap water. 2. In a small saucepan combine chocolate with about 2/3 cup water, and set over medium heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until chocolate coats the spoon, about 10 min. Add sugar to taste. (They make it really sweet). Shut off heat. 3. Empty glasses and wipe dry. Remove jar from freezer, add cream and shake vigorously 1 minute. Make the espresso. To each glass or mug add a shot of espresso and 1/3 cup chocolate and carefully spoon 1/3 cup cream over top. Do NOT stir. Serve immediately.
If you’ve ever had hot chocolate in Rome you know about the thick, really hot, sweet almost pudding-like drink they serve as hot chocolate. It’s another item I always bring home – Ciobar is a great mix that uses milk and can even be made in the microwave. So good. It certainly seems medicinal to me.
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