Italian food

Artistry in Olive Wood

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As often happens a client is the catalyst for new discoveries.  This time a client requested olive wood utensils.  Having seen many I assumed it would be a quick easy request.  As usual, it became something much more.  While there are obviously thousands upon thousands of olive trees in Italy, there are not so many available to make olive wood good from.  And, while there are commercially made spoons, cutting boards and rolling pins, there are not so many crafted bowls, boards and utensils (that are actually made in Italy).

With the internet it seems easy to find online anything you want.  However, like many products, there is often a large difference between the lovely photos and catalogs you find and the quality of the finished pieces.   And, the location of manufacturing can be far from where olive trees are grown.

Olives have been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean throughout history.  The Romans cultivated olives throughout Italy and olive oil became so valuable they even used it as collected taxes.   Ancient olive wood is beautiful and a real sustainable source.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, olives produce for  hundreds of years, but eventually they stop producing and are classed as ancient.  Usually it is this wood that is gathered and used for crafting the larger pieces of olive wood you see.  The large cutting or carving boards, the table tops or large salad bowls.   Every tree has its own unique pattern in the grain.  You will never see two pieces created of olive wood that look exactly the same.

Olive wood is very hard, strong, durable and has natural anti-bacterial properties which make it ideal for production of items used for food.  If cared for properly, olive wood items will last hundreds of years.  So an ancient piece of wood becomes an antique long after it is harvested.  Olive wood bowls, and utensils of the highest craftsmanship are not as ubiquitous  as you might think given how many trees there are here.

Because the olives are a most important crop healthy trees are never felled for use of the wood.   The limited availability is part of the reason for the high cost of quality olive wood articles.  Although there are artisans in almost every region with high olive oil production, there are not as many craftsmen who work with olive wood.  In Tuscany, I understand there are only a handful of artisans who work with olive wood. And, they tend to specialize in the types of pieces they like to make.  There is one craftsman in a small town near Sienna that makes only small to large pots with lids, another near Florence that works only bowls.  It seems that each artisan has their specialty.  That is why I tried to find someone who has worked with these artists and could inform me how to determine the best pieces.

Luckily I found Ricardo Amoruso.  He is from Tuscany and has resources throughout the region for artisans in a number of categories (his wife is a ceramicist) including the few who specialize in olive wood.  Ricardo explained to me that there is always a shortage of olive wood.  If the spring weather is below normal for too many days I believe he said 15) in a row the tree can be damaged and not just lose the crop of olives, the tree can be damaged beyond survival, but the wood also can be unusable from the stress of the cold.   He explained that there are numerous makers of kitchen utensils because those do not require the whole tree to be used.  In spring when they must prune the branches, they are collected and many are thick enough to be able to form spoons, spatulas and rolling pins.    They are the most affordable of pieces in olive wood.

Once I saw some of the fine works he handles I knew that this quality was superiorto most of the other pieces I have seen.  The prices will always be high so it is important to get the best quality wood that is formed by the best artisans.

 

His advice on how to  make             20180413_190744                                                                                             your wood pieces last forever… Do not soak them, or put in a dishwasher.  Use only water to clean them.  About once every month or so, brush or wipe on a light oil like coconut or sunflower oil and let it sit on some newsapers several hours or overnight.  Afterward wipe any left oil with a paper towel.It is important to keep the wood from over drying.  This prevents cracking or warping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are some really spectacular pieces that I am now sure I must have.  The bowl below is from the works I purchased for another client.

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This totally unique flat salad bowl is so stunning I start to drool every time I look at it.

Every trip to Italy introduces me to new places, people and products.  It seems a never-ending journey.  I have introduced my Sardinia honey source to olio nuovo from Farfa, I have been able to learn about the different grades of cashmere from my scarf vendor in Florence (who uses only Italian materials and workers and produces all she sells right outside of Florence).  There are so many fine olive oils available from every region but my clients are spoiled by the consistently fabulous taste of Il Saporito’s olive oil from Farfa.

It is always a challenge to get everything done in the short time I have in Italy (a month is hardly enough time to get your breathing slowed down).   And, I always end the trip with my stop at Campo dei Fiori to fill up on the “Spezie Famose nel Mondo” and meet up with Mauro Berardi for his amazing spice mixes that have people all over the world addicted.

If you are not already on my mailing list, just send your email to:  expresslyitalian@aol.com and I will add you to my product availability lists.

There is never enough time here, never enough space to bring all I would like and always too much weight.   But I love it and hope to continue to introduce products and people from Italy to as many as I can.

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Visiting Mauro Berardi and Campo dei Fiori in May

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It’s time to make a springtime visit to Rome again.  I love visiting Mauro and wandering through the market early in the day looking at all the spring vegetables.  I love  those lovely little roman artichokes, watching them being cleaned and dropped into the acidified water.  The women cleaning the puntarelle spend all day cleaning and dropping the puntarelle into buckets of water

Campo Dei Fiori
Spring markets

 

But of course, the main treat for me is meeting with Mauro, Marco and Maurizio at Spezie Famose nel Mondo the most famous and largest seller of spices in the market.  I am contacted by people from all over the world looking to replace the spice mixes they purchase from Mauro.  Fortunately I almost always have a good supply of the most popular mixes available.  Contact me to find out if I have the ones you are looking for.

I am off to Rome for the month of May so if you are looking for anything in particular don’t wait, send me a request by email to be sure I bring back what you are looking for.

In addition to shopping for spices with Mauro, I will be locating Olive oil.  I know there is oil available in Vetralla and hopefully I can acquire some additional oil from Farfa, where I brought back the fabulous olio nuovo in November last year.  I won’t know until I get there what there might be available.  I have read the articles about the weather problems, but since I deal directly with growers sometimes it can be misleading and my sources availability is quite different.  I also will have to wait until I arrive to find out if there is any honey from Sardinia left.  I know those harvests were also short this year.  I continue to bring back what is available –  sometimes it is mostly Girasole (sunflower) and millefiore (wildflower) but if you have a particular type you want, please let me know, since sometimes Stefano can locate it for me in his hidden places.

Do not hesitate to email me with any special requests.  I will be checking emails often.  I will shop Milan, Tuscany (Orbetello, Florence and a few small villages)  scarves from a few sources that are reliable with their italian fabrics and italian employees that are still priced affordably.  And, if there are any new items that are interesting.  It looks like the exchange rate will hover around $1.09 to $1.00 while I am there.  If you are not on my mailing list please drop me an email and I will be happy to add you to my newsletter so you know what it available.  Enjoy shopping Italy from home.

Eating well without being in Italy

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All the New Year’s resolutions are in place.  Now to implement them.  There is a world of difference between intent and accomplishment isn’t there?   Oñe of my personal goals is to become an even more aware eater this year.  That means not just thinking before stuffing a biscotti in my mouth, but to question ingredients even more.

Frankly, it is pretty disheartening to realize how compromised our food system is.   Price is no guarantee of quality.  Reputable stores do not assure you products are really as advertised.    It has become a major job and time eater just to grocery shop.  And it is not all that much better in Italy these days.  So what do we do?

pizzoccheri
Pizzoccheri – made with buckwheat noodles

Keeping it simple helps a little.  Eat mostly fresh foods,  the closer I can stay to traditional Italian cooking, especially cucina povera, (cooking of the poor) the better.  It is not difficult to find good pasta in the U.S.  Look for good quality, especially bronze cut pastas.  Always check the dates.  It should be about year ahead for dried pasta.  I find that Berilla is one of the best selling dried pastas in Italy.  Good enough for me.  The artisanal pastas are great ( I often see them at TJ Maxx or World Market), and the different shapes are always fun, but I do not find them necessary for normal cooking.  (And, again, check dates.  Sometimes those are the oldest pastas).

With a well stocked pantry (in an upcoming post I will give a serious list to help) you can always cook a great, healthy dinner in less than 30 minutes.  Winter weather always makes me feel like Ribollita – the Tuscan bread soup.  It makes a huge pot that tastes better every day.   And, it makes me feel healthy.

Here’s a recipe I adapted to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix, and you can use Mauro’s Mix as well.

Ribollita  – Tuscan Bread Soup

This is a traditional Tuscan soup that stays good till you finish it. Days or even a week and it holds up perfectly. Supposedly it should be thick enough for a spoon to stand straight if you put it in the pot. I adjusted the recipe to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix or Mauro’s Mix  to ‘kick’ up the flavor a little more.   

1 onion finely chopped
1 leek sliced
2 quarts chicken broth
1 head kale or nappa cabbage or regular cabbage
2 stalks celery sliced
1/2 cup parsley leaves chopped
2 carrots sliced
2 zucchini sliced
1 small bunch basil leaves torn
1 10-ounce can cannellini beans or kidney or borlotti
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tsp Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix (to taste – you might start out with only 1 tsp and adjust)
1 teaspoon salt preferably sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil extra virgin
1/2 pound stale Italian bread
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Sautè onion and leek in 1/4 cup olive oil several minutes until translucent.
Add a cup of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add the kale, other vegetables, and basil to the onions and broth.
Cook for 20 min., covered. Add the beans and the rest of the broth. Add tomato paste, oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook for 90 minutes. At this point it should not be thick. It is best to let the soup rest a day in the refrigerator. It does deepen the flavor a lot.
Put the soup in a pot and layer the soup with thin slices of day old bread. It doesn’t make any difference how stale, or whether it’s torn or sliced, or what kind (although a good Italian or French is best). Heat while stirring until the bread breaks up and thickens the soup. You can add more broth or water if needed (but I haven’t ever needed any).

When the soup is done, turn off the heat and stir in 1/4 cup olive oil. Taste for salt. Serve with fresh grated cheese on top. It just gets better and better. This is the typical cucina povera of Italy.  

Ribollita

It is unfortunate that we have to spend so much energy to decide what is good for us, but it is worth the time to protect your health.

I hate to continue to nag about olive oil, but it seems every week there is more evidence that so much of what is available is either mislabeled, overpriced or not even real olive oil.   If you did not see the expose on “CBS 60 Minutes” recently, look for the video online.  I know that much of the oils imported are not good, but I really didn’t think about the extent of mafia involvement.  I do know they send containers of oil to the U.S. which is then bottled here.  It can have sat waiting for customs in the heat for a month, which destroys most of the value of the extra virgin oil, but they still label and sell it as premium oil.   I used to hear that Europeans did not send their best oils because Americans did not know the difference.  Unfortunately, most Americans have still not tasted good olive oil.

A friend forwarded a newsletter from Brenda Watson, an author and expert on digestive health care.   She had lists of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ olives oil.    This was apparently originally from a Consumer Reports study.  I won’t drag on about the ‘good’ list.  The bottom line is always, read the label.  It should have the per cent of acid in the oil, the date of harvest and best use by.  And, it is important to know exactly where it comes from.  In Italy, the city is always on the label, usually the type of olives and to qualify as extra virgin the acidity level must be below  0.8%.  Don’t pay for any extra virgin not labeled as such.

The bad oils are a real disappointment.  Those are most of the best known oils available in our stores.  Do not think you are getting the health benefits of olive oil if you are using these:

Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Star, Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Mazzola, Mezzetta, Newman’s Own, Safeway and some of the Whole Foods oils (other than their 365).

I bring back only olive oil that I can find at the frantoio (olive mill), where they follow the very stringent laws of Italy to produce their extra virgin oil.  As often as possible I bring the olio nuovo (which is the first pressing of the beginning of the harvest).  It is rarely sold in stores.  And, the on-line sales run into the same problems of temperature variations and delays.  And, their prices are higher than mine.   I still have this season’s harvest oils so if you want to experience the true liquid gold of Italian Olive oil, get in touch with me at expresslyitalian@aol.com, or leave a note here.

In addition to olive oil, I still have honey from Sardinia and dried Porcini from my last trip.  I am constantly searching out the finest, freshest products.  My last stop on every trip is Campo dei Fiori in Rome to meet with Mauro Berardi.  Mauro is generous with his time and they always pack me the freshest spice mixes.   If you are out, get in touch.  I usually have on hand his primary mixes.  I can always shop for you when I am there for some of the more unusual products from him, just let me know what you want and I’ll get it for you.

I know that having to spend so much energy reading labels is a drag.  I am finding that it makes such a difference in the flavor of what you cook though, it is well worth the extra time.  Be healthy!   Eat Italian.

 

 

 

BEING HERE. IN ROME NOW

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Rome is my favorite city in the world.  I love being here.  Although sometimes the graffiti and dirt dismay me, and admittedly my stomach often reaches my throat when I see how close cars come to one another or worse to the buses,  While I am far too old to consider driving a motorino in this city, or maybe I never had that kind of courage, I do admire all those lovely women on their way to work looking worldly and chic.  And I wish I had found myself in Rome much sooner.

Streets of Rome
Streets of Rome

I remind myself often that I am not a tourist on vacation.  My schedules are full but have nothing to do with tour groups or monuments.  My friendships in Rome run very deep and anchor me solidly to this country.  I am welcomed into the home of a dear friend no matter the duration of my stay or how frequently I “visit”. I have parts of myself stuck in Florence, Milan and a few other cities as well.   But, Rome . . . .  Being here is more about reconnecting to the people and places so dear to my heart than just visiting.  I am in Rome, but not of Rome.  Too many people have passed over her streets and vicoli for me to ever really be a part of all this history.  Sometimes  I regret not having found myself in Rome earlier in life, but I do not really believe it would be different.   I have not given up on speaking Italian well, but I have been re-thinking my aspirations of fluency.  Yet each conversational attempt is met with affection and patient correction. from strangers as well as my friends.  My days are crushed with the same things anyone returning home has;  setting up meetings, making phone calls to friends planning lunches and dinners, and for me shopping.   And, getting here is the beginning I need arrangements for travel to shop in Milan, Florence, and on this trip Bari.  Expressly Italian was born to help cover the costs of my travel.  No plans for expansions, or growth, only my desire to continue striving to afford my need to be in Italy.

Catania Sicily

It is exciting since every trip brings new people into my life, new products to share with Americans.  Today, I was introduced to a lovely woman living south of Rome.  She has lived in Italy fifty years, although she was born in India.  She is intelligent, well spoken and thoughtful.  And her name is Ushabella.  Is that not a lovely name? She had worked many years for an airline when she was laid off.  Then she began to think of ways to utilize her talents and connections.  She is currently representing a cable and wiring company from Delhi.  She also has pashmina from India nicer than I have seen in years to sell.

Ushabella

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They are luscious colors and really fine quality.  Unfortunately for both of us, Expressly Italian specializes in only Italian products produced by Italians.  But I will certainly see if I  find anyone to connect her with.  There is synergy wherever you look and more understanding of how much different and the same we all are if you are interested.

I am grateful that Expressly Italian is offering me the challenge of getting real Italian tastes into mouths outside of Italy.   Each trip I seem to find new beauty unseen by me before.  I know that will never end.  At heart, Italy is really all about beauty; in words, art, mountains or sea coasts.

I hope if you have been here or not visited recently that you will see for yourself how life changing Italy can be for you.  In  the meantime you can allow Expressly Italian to introduce you to the many items never sent outside Italy.  You can try some of the special olive oils produced in small batches, some of the famous Mauro Berardi spic3 mixes from Campo dei Fiori or some of Sardinia’s purest, healthiest honeys Stefano cultivates and soooo much more.  Email or comment but do send your questions or requests.

Real Italian Cooking

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Stefania Barzini is a widely known and respected food journalist, blogger, cook book author (she’s written seven!) and teacher.  She has wonderful classes she teaches (in English) outside Rome where she lives.  Her warmth and generous spirit are energizing for any cook, and her knowledge of Italian food from all regions of the country is truly impressive.fo at her fingertips.  And varied information it is.  Stefania lived in Los Angeles for a few years and gave cooking classes there.  She was integral to the beginnings of Gambero Rosso, the cooking channel in Italy as well as writing for their magazine.  In addition, Stefania has authored at least seven books:

I was fortunately able not only to meet Stefania on my last trip, but to take a class with Stefania.  She is not a restaurant chef; she does not care about perfect presentation; she cares about the ingredients, the taste and preparing it with love.   Her objectives are to use the highest quality ingredients, sharing her love of food and cooking, and sharing her knowledge with others.  She particularly enjoys teaching english speaking students which is even better for me.

Please check out her wonderful website http://www.follecasseruola.com.   This fantastic site is not just great looking,  it also has so much information you will have a difficult time deciding on which course to take.  I was interested in meeting her and did not care what class was available.   She not only teaches cooking for many regions of Italy, but also teaches some American cooking –  she’s got a class on barbeque and one on Louisiana (with Jambalaya and Cajun shrimp)and even a class on American breakfast!

Casa Barzini -  Cooking in the country
Casa Barzini – Cooking in the country

Stefania has so much knowledge at her fingertips.  And varied information it is.  Stefania lived in Los Angeles for a few years and gave cooking classes there.  She was integral to the beginnings of Gambero Rosa (the cooking channel in Italy) as well as writing for their magazine, among many others.   In addition, Stefania has authored at least seven books: A Housewife in Hollywood, the Splendors and miseries of American eating;  Dining with the GodsaditionsAnd, last year, she had published, “ One Hundred Fifty Years of our Country’s History told by Great and Small , Memories and recipes from the Aeolian IslandsSo we ate, Fifty years of Italian history between the table and custom and TraditionsAnd, last year, she had published, “ One Hundred Fifty Years of our Country’s History told by Great and Small Cooks”.  

Stefania has stories of  famous chefs of Italy and all about the regional cooking of Italy. It is truly an honor to have the chance just to chat with her.  She’s charming, kind, a great cook and a wonderful writer.

Stefania Aphel Barzini in her kitchen
Stefania Aphel Barzini in her kitchen

We are very fortunate that next year she plans on a teaching tour of the United States. I don’t know exact dates yet, or even the full itinerary, but New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles are definite. I’ve invited her to teach here and she is very happy to do that. I already have a number of people interested in signing up for the class. If you are interested, drop me an email and I’ll add your name to the list.

Normally her classes do not have more than eight people. I think we can get enough people for her to teach at least three or four classes, in the spring of next year.

The only class I could attend was a class on pasta.  You can never have enough practice with pasta making, so I was quite happy to be able to attend this class “Le Mani in Pasta” (hands on Pasta).   We cooked a Lasagna with Zucchini and cheese, Tagliatelle with Pine Nuts, anchovies and raisins and Gnocchi ala Romana (which is nothing like the traditional gnocchi.

It was especially exciting for me since the others in the class were an English woman and her parents.  Rachel eats is a blog I’ve followed a long time.  I never really thought about how she would sound in person.  In my head she had no accent, but in person . . .  I had to pay close attention to her speaking to understand her.  She’s also an amazing writer.  She’s lived in Rome for more than ten years and traveled writing about places and food, cooking and recipes.   Her just published book is titled “Five Quarters; Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome”.   I adore her writing and her blog got her enough attention to have a publisher approach her about writing a cookbook.  Check out her blog at https://racheleats.wordpress.com/

Stefania’s class was so interesting, I learned new techniques; more reasons to keep cooking Italian and how to enjoy the process from beginning to end.  Eating all that wonderful food is exciting as well as filling.

She uses all parts of the zucchini - blossoms and stems included.
She uses all parts of the zucchini – blossoms and stems included.
Lasagna with Stracchino cheese.  Another cheese I miss.
Lasagna with Stracchino
cheese. Another cheese I miss.

I cannot wait for Stefania to visit Los Angeles to join classes here.

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Gnocchi alla Romana is a semolina pasta that gets baked.  Really good!

Taking a class while traveling can be a disaster or an amazing experience. Please do try to check out the person giving the class, the class sizes and costs. Some are ridiculously expensive.   Stefania teaches and generously sprinkles the instructions with stories of her travels, the origin of the recipes and regional specialties.  And, hers are some of the most reasonably priced classes I’ve taken anywhere.  Please check out Stefania’s  website:  http://www.follecasseruola.com. It is both in Italian and English.  If you plan on being in Italy, check out her schedule and  take a class.  It is a memorable experience.

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Eating the prepared food is half the fun

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I love Gnocchi alla Romana and it is easy to make.
I love Gnocchi alla Romana and it is easy to make.

Expo Milano 2015 is close – Make a trip to see a World’s Fair

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This is an exciting time –  spring is bound to be hitting the whole country soon, Easter is almost here and the 2015 Expo Milano is almost ready to open!   This Universal Exposition which takes place every five years, each time in a different country.  This year, from  May 1  to  October 31, the 272 acres the Expo is on will be available for the world to enjoy.

Expo 2015 is themed “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” with a focus on sustainability and innovation. All 140 participating countries will showcase their unique cultural and culinary traditions, within self-built lots, to the 20 million expected visitors from around the globe.   Whew!  That’s a lot of people, but it is a great amount of space to cover. And that’s without considering that there is also all of Milan to see.  And, the Milanese have so many planned events in the city to entertain all the visitors it is a cannot miss trip.

expo map Milan

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The layout of the Expo grounds are inspired by a Roman city of ancient times.  The city has allocated over 60 pavilions in this ‘village’ to participating countries which will line either side of the long central division. Italy’s exhibition area intersects to form a global meeting place called Piazza Italia. The space has also provisioned for event areas like the open-air theatre, Lake Arena and children’s park, as well as clusters for other official industry participants.

 

There is even a Google interactive map you can watch what is happening in real time. Check it out. Google Earth – Expo 2015 the EU pavillion – interactive map http://europa.eu/expo2015/node/115

I did not see that the U.S. Pavilion has a google map dedicated to it, but it is moving along quickly to completion.  The US Pavilion – Designed by award-winning architect, James Biber, the USA Pavilion pays homage to our rich agricultural history with an open design delimited by a large vertical farm that will be harvested daily. An homage to the barn is reflected in the design of the pavilion.

Located in central Milan for the duration of the Expo, the James Beard American Restaurant will showcase American cuisine, ingredients, and beverages with a rotating roster of American culinary talent. Thanksgiving dinner will be served every Thursday and Jazz or Gospel brunch every Sunday.

Leading up to Expo Milano and throughout the six months of the fair, the USA Pavilion will be programming daily activities, on the topics encompassed by our theme American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet. From conferences on global food security to cooking demonstrations, panels on technological innovation in the food system to conversations with top farmers and chefs, we’ll explore various aspects of food, food culture, and the future of our food system. Topics will cover a broad and diverse spectrum, including how to manage water resources, the importance of food labeling, healthy school lunch, traditional American cooking, and how can we create a burger that’s better for our health and better for our environment.

If you are planning on travel in Europe this year, be sure to put this on your itinerary.  It’s really a unique experience that cannot be repeated.  Being Milan, the city has really gone all out to provide an Expo experience throughout the entire city while the fair is happening.  There are art events, fashion events, tours, and so much has been already completed to make the entire city ready for the spotlight.

Among the most important events already on schedule, Milan will feature the biggest exhibition ever organized in Italy of Leonardo da Vinci with works of the Renaissance icon borrowed from Italian and international museums.

Another exhibition will be dedicated to Giotto, the Florentine painter who revolutionized the depiction of figure in the 1300s, with three of his masterpieces on loan.

International artists from avant-garde to today will represent the theme of motherhood that most of all embodies the idea of nutrition, central theme of Expo Milano 2015, in an exhibition, “The Great Mother,” gathering over 80 works of the 20th century.

Music will be central, Del Corno added, with extraordinary programs at Teatro alla Scala, that for the first time will stay open in August with a total of 140 spectacles during the six-month expo, and Piccolo Teatro, which will perform in many languages including English, Chinese and Greek.

“Milan will be a stage open to everybody,” the assessor went on saying. Duomo Square, in the heart of Milan, will host classic and pop concerts free of charge, while public spaces in the city from parks to trams will be animated by countless music performances, book fairs, street markets and thematic events including many dedicated to water.

The architecture of the fair is wildly impressive.   Here’s a photo of the entry gate proposal, I saw in Milan a couple years ago.   This is the only structure that will remain after the fair.  It’s by Nemesi & Partners and is a smog eating, almost zero energy building.  It is exciting and I cannot wait to see this in person.


Entry Gate Milan Expo
Nemesi entry Italy

 

 

If I sound excited, I am.  I have already purchased tickets for my upcoming trip in April (they have a ‘soft’ opening starting this month), but also for my fall trip, in September.

I’m leaving on my spring buying trip in late March! In addition to touring the Expo Milan, I’ll be shopping for all kinds of goodies to bring my shoppers.

Fresh Sardinian honey and propolis as well as some of his propolis soap and beauty cream is high on my list.    Honey from Sardinia is extra special since it is harvesting from one of the few pollutant free environs in the world.  No wonder it tastes so good.   Stefano has honey from a variety of locations on the island, since there are over 200 species of nectar producing plants, I get everything from Acacia and Ailanto to Malata and even Corbezzolo.  From the Maremma I will bring  some of their unique items like Colatura di alici da Cetara, and the purest fennel pollen available anywhere and some of the products from the organic small growers in the area like La Parrina and Terra Etrusco in Capalbio and near Il Poderino in Montiano.

And, of course, the important stop at Campo dei Fiori for spices from Mauro Berardi’s Spezie famose nel mondo (world famous spices).  Anyone who has visited that market seems to have purchased some of his spice mixes.  And, they are not available anywhere else.  He does not ship outside of Italy, but he is happy to supply me to bring them home and make them available to everyone.   The most popular are the Campo dei Fiori Mix and Mauro’s Pasta Mix.  Both of these have the same ingredients, except Mauro’s mix has no salt or pepper.  This mix enhances everything it touches.  Whether cooked or fresh, it adds a depth of flavor well beyond the ingredients listed.  I use it in almost anything I cook from salads (where I sprinkle a small bit on the lettuces) to soups, meat marinades, and any pasta.  If you’ve tried it, you are a fan, no doubt.

Every trip brings special requests and new finds.  If you are already on my newsletter mailing list, you’ll be kept up-to-date on my trip.  If you are not receiving the newsletter, please send me an email and I’ll be happy to add you to the list.

Don’t forget this is a great year to travel to Europe.  The euro exchange rate is lower than in many years, currently about 1.10 euro to a dollar.  And, Expo Milan is a unique experience never to be repeated.

 

A New Year – Moving towards Spring

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Well the New Year has started and it has taken me till mid-January to get my feet beneath me to settle in to this new year.  It has been a very busy time and I am looking forward to a very dull and boring February to allow myself some breathing space and the chance to feel like I am really here.   Of course, I could be in Italy.

One of my English speaking blogs from Rome just sent a newsletter saying that Rome’s politicos are at it again.  They often bring a smile along with the news, even when the news is bad.  Rome’s tourists could be hit with new tax hike. Visitors to Rome may soon have to rethink their budget, if plans to increase hotel tourist tax go ahead.  Under these recent proposals, tourists could see up to €10 a night added to their bill, Italian media reported on Thursday.

The planned changes come just four months after city hall hiked the “accomodation tax” to between €3 and €7 a night depending on the type of hotel, while those pitching a tent have had to pay €2 for the privilege since September 1st.  I’m not sure where you can even pitch a tent in Rome.

The new €10 a night rate would apply to five-star hotels in the Italian capital, for a maximum of ten consecutive nights, a city hall spokesman said.  The measure needs to be discussed and voted on before it can implemented.  Tourist tax rates for lower-grade hotels will stay the same.  You have to laugh when the rest of the article states that “Rome is reeling from revelations of widespread corruption at city hall, allegedly led by a one-eyed former terrorist whose mafia group for years siphoned off vital funds for services.   You have to love the way the Italian government works.   The best news is that is will unlikely happen and if it does it will not be implemented effectively.   As it is the earlier raise to 3 euro a night disappeared into the city coffers and no one can tell where it went and certainly not whether it benefitted tourism in any way.

When I talked of catching my breath, I was referring to my return from my fall trip to Italy.  I returned to LA just in time for Thanksgiving.  Yes, it has taken me that long to get back to a normal schedule.  I arrived just in time to unpack all my goodies and begin packing gift basket orders before breaking briefly for Thanksgiving dinner (which I did not cook this year).  Then, back to work, for days doing the complicated calculations of converting weights, euros and ingredients from Italian to English.   While a dear friend had a end of season event for Cabi clothes at my home  we did a bit of an Expressly Italian tasting of the new products.  Then it was back to basket construction right up to Christmas week.  I did manage to factor in a little Christmas shopping before Christmas.   But, the baskets were delivered and received with great enthusiasm.  Every basket was unique and tailored to the receiver as much as possible, from the basket for the man who does not cook at all, to the cook who is so experienced she is impossible to impress.  Everyone seemed to be excited to try all their surprises.  And, it made me realize that baskets should not be just for Christmas, but are just as exciting to receive for Easter, or birthdays or anniversaries or any time gifts.  Keep that in mind.

It’s been pretty breakneck speed since Christmas as well.  Our family Christmas was after Christmas in Petaluma with about 75 of us, yes, 75.  Then back to work organizing the products and meeting my invaluable friend Carole who was nice enough to show up at LAX with the two suitcases of goods that were waaaaay over my maximum limit to return with when I came back in November.  So, fully loaded, I have been working on the latest newsletter / price list ever since, with only short breaks for a couple of birthdays.

The  newsletter just went out. Lots of Mauro Berardi’s World Famous Spices from Campo dei Fiori mixes are available. It always impresses me how far Mauro has reached with his spices. I’ve had contacts from all over the world looking to replace the spices bought from him in Rome. It is a great  to know that I can  bring them to people who can not make it back to Italy to get them in person. Mauro may sell spices to visitors from all over the world but he refuses to even use email.  And, he has enough difficulty shipping within Italy and will never attempt to ship outside the country.  I get contacted from people from Austria to Australia looking for His spice mixes. Often while the costs for shipping (and customs restrictions) make it impossible, I am able to work with ever Increasing numbers of people who revere his mixes. It is lucky for all the US and Canadian customers for sure.

I’m excited to get the honey, spices, and condiments that I have on hand sold so I can make another trip back in the spring. And, for the first time in a decade the exchange rate is not so bad.  I just checked my exchange rate for transferring funds and it is currently $1.19 through the foreign exchange.  which is fabulous.  It’s most often been closer to $1.40.  It’s exciting not to feel like you are paying a penalty for anything bought in Europe.

They put a banner at the Trevi fountain this week to commorate the passing of Anita Ekberg, the wonderful actress who waded into the Trevi Fountain in the movie “La Dolce Vita” this last week.      Ironically, the fountain she waded in is currently without water.  There is restoration work being done on the Trevi for the next year or so.  It’s quite a shock to see that huge fountain drained and shrouded while they work on it.   They have managed to make it interesting by putting a transparent walkway all the way at the back of the fountain allowing visitors to walk around the back of the fountain.  Strange, but interesting.  Oh, and they left a little opening at the very front so you can still toss a coin into a little water dish.

Anita Ekberg at the FountainTrevi-Fountain_4

If you have visited Rome and the Trevi fountain in the past seeing it now is a shock.  Having been at that spot so many times it is just such an odd feeling looking at that structure so unrecognizable.  With so many monuments and fountains in Rome there are always major projects going on to restore something and usually it takes a couple years to do the work  so even if a major monument is not fully visible, there are numerous others that are.  This month, they finish Quattro fountane –  the four fountains at the corner of XX Settembre and via delle Quattro Fontane.   Four beautiful late Renaissance fountains grace the corners of the intersection.  They were so filthy I was hoping they would get to them before they started falling apart. They are due to be finished by late February.  I understand the city refused to allow the new Bond movie to film a nightime car chase through that intersection fearing damage to the newly restored fountains and am relieved they decided to encourage them to use CGI.  I am excited to see those fountains cleaned and restored on my next trip.  I’ve always loved them.
In case you are not familiar with Expressly Italian’s mission; I act as a personal shopper for you in Italy.  I can bring back duty free products you’ve purchased and want again or suggest products I have found in my travels throughout the country. Even those that travel often have found that having me bring back items for them saves them much aggravation and weight in carrying luggage back with them.  I have established relationships with small sources that are helping me bring you the finest products available. Often these are not easily found even by residents and expats who live there, so it’s been a great treat to show up with things that even locals have not found.  It  has been thrilling to find every trip brings new friends who introduce me to different products and sources and experiences.  It has been an exciting learning experience and I’ve been so happy to have you along for the journey.  I hope you will continue to join me.
...  Italian Pavilion detail
This spring brings with it the Milan Expo 2015, which sounds so exciting and I am looking forward to visiting.  There are numerous feste and sagre that I will have to choose between including the South Tyrol Festival.  If you have not visited Bolzano, you should make the effort on your next trip to get to Bolzano and Brixton Bressanone.  So beautiful and the food is fabulous.  And, the history of the area is fascinating.
As the ‘Slow Food Movement’ makes faster progress, Italy becomes ever more important in teaching us how to eat and how to grow our foods.  And, hopefully, how to slow down and enjoy eating them for a more healthful and enjoyable life.
I know that is a goal for me this year.  Please do not hesitate to contact me with any comments or suggestions.   Follow along with me and we’ll explore together.

SUMMER 2014 MAY BE ENDING BUT HERE COMES EXCITING FALL!

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e girasole 1

Well, as August ends, Italians are returning to work from their vacations (vacanze). Most Italians do not travel outside the borders of their country. It may seem that has been happening more often with the poor economy, but honestly, it’s always been that way for most Italians. They love their country. Within it’s borders are almost any type of environment you could want for vacations; mountains, lakes, two seas to explore the beaches of, as well as more art, monuments and historical locations than almost anywhere else in the world.  Why would they leave?   

I recall my husband talking to a co-worker shortly after our arrival in Rome. He told the guy we were going to Venice and he was very excited. The older man shrugged his shoulders (it takes a couple of years to develop the Roman shrug) and said have a good time. Mike asked if there was anyplace special that we should make an effort to see. The man responded “how would I know, I’ve never been there”. When Mike asked why in 70 years he’d never visited there. His response was “Why?” Everything I want is here in Rome. And, there are quite a few Italians who never venture beyond their province or commune. For us American’s it is hard to fathom that thinking. We love to go whether it’s in the US or abroad. We’re adventurers.

Which brings me to something I’ve been waiting to share with you. Some of the names have been changed to protect this man’s identity. I admit when I first received this accounting I was rolling on the floor laughing. Not only is this entirely possible wherever you travel, but can be expected in some variation on any trip to Italy.

This man, a Californian, decided to take his adult daughters on a trip to Rome. He’d only been there many, many years ago for a short trip and one of them had never been there. The last I saw of him was on the via Veneto where outside his lovely hotel I was giving directions to the next stop on his trip – Tuscany. He’d rented a car, it had GPS, he was confident.

His travel agent had worked out the full itinerary with directions. And, he said he followed the directions exactly. When they arrived it was getting dark, but it appeared the location was not at all as promised. It had all the amenities as promised, BUT. The pool was covered, filled with leaves and had grown green water. The chairs around the pool and tables were plastic and overturned on the lawns. All of them.  He was a little concerned  that it had an entirely empty parking lot that would hold 60 cars. They found the restaurant was closed and there was not much activity anywhere nearby. His daughters were the ones who realized they were in a hotel with the same name as their reservations, but hours driving time away from where they were that evening. . This after lugging overweight luggage up several flights of stairs (no elevators). Nothing could be done until the next day anyway, but it was not a happy evening.

montepulciano_panorama_3 (1)

The next mornng they drove to the correct hotel, which was gorgeous. By then, things were a little tense between them since they had lost a whole day of our precious vacation.  He said they did spend lots of time investigating Montepulciano, which has become one of his favorite places.  A salvaged vacation after all the previous difficulties (yes they also had arrival problems in Rome, tour guide problems there, and more). Then came the last day of the trip.

One of his daughters became quite ill and had to go to the hospital in Florence. The other daughter returned to her home in New York on her scheduled flight. It turned out the hospital was quite helpful and kind. She was only really dehydrated and needed an IV for hours but was fine afterwards.

Of course, they missed their flight back to California though.  They were booked on Alitalia, on their   last day of their direct service to LA. There were no more direct flight from Rome to LA. (For the record I remain confounded that there is no direct flight from Los Angeles to Rome from late October until March !)   They had to leave the hotel in Florence with three overweight bags between the two of them. They still have no idea how they managed it, but they got the train, along with their luggage from Florence to Rome (near the airport for easier access). There were no available flights and he felt Alitalia was unhelpful.  It does seem like they could have arranged something with their partner airlines (Delta, Air France, or KLM).

They got rooms at the Best Western near the airport (where few other than travelers speak English) and it’s truly in a barren industrial area. He called on his cell phone every airline he could find (his cell bill was $1,800). His local Vodafone SIM had been used up and where he was there was no Vodafone place and he could not understand the texts he kept receiving from them instructing him what to do.

Alitalia told him he would have to change his reservations through his travel agent because that’s how he made them. (Of course, by this time he’d fired the agent.)  The agent was not returning his phone calls.

Finally, he truly panicked and just wanted to get home. There was literally no way to get out for days, unless they would take Air Nigeria to Turkey, then three stops in Germany, an overnight at Amsterdam, then New York and then LA.  Even panicked he knew he could not do that. So, like any good American, he “bought” his way out. He spent over $6,000 on airfare to take British Air to London and London to LA.  And, of course, that was not for first class flights. But, he had waited several days already and enough is enough. He missed four days of work and the vacation costs were much higher after his vacation was to have ended that it was for the rest of the trip.

Sometimes, it’s just that bad with traveling. Thank goodness it’s not often. And, much funnier when it happens to someone else. He said “Italy was beautiful but he was not ready to laugh about it yet”. Hopefully, enough time has gone by that when he reads this he’ll appreciate the experience a little more.Fall 2014 view

Being prepared is good. Knowing things will go wrong is even more important.

I’m readying for my fall trip –  think olio nuovo, fresh olive oil.  Honey, and new found products.  If you want to receive the newsletter on available products, please email me at:  expresslyitalian@aol.com.  

If you have any questions about how to use any products or suggestions about what I should try to find, let me know.    For sure I will be stopping at Campo dei Fiori for spices from Mauro Berardi and his”famous spices of the world” as well as Umbria and Tuscany for first pressing olive oils, the Maremma for Botarga and a few other specialties.    And I’ll also visit Torino for a chocolate festival and stopping to pick up some of that fabulous Sardinian honey and who knows what else.  I’m open to any suggestions.   Just let me know if you have any special requests.   I’ll be happy to do what I can to help.

The Tuscan Maremma in Spring

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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.  

Lagoon Orbetello 2
Lagoon at the edge of Orbetello
Orbetello lagoon
Orbetello and the lagoon surrounding it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

Colatura 1
Colatura di Alici
Botarga from Orbetello
Bottarga from Covitto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Covitto Catch
Colvitto’s fresh catch.  This fish market has been ‘the’ place buy your fish in the area  since WWII.

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.

Cinghiale
Penelope cooked a very special cinghiale – her own recipe.

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.

 

Buon Natale – Christmas in Italy

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Christmas In Italy is a magical experience everyone should enjoy at least once.

In Italy it’s always about the food, so naturally, Italians revel in the holiday season. There are many special dishes served only at this time of year. There are regional baked goods that are unique to each area, although now more are available throughout Italy and even in the United States.  Panettone seems pretty easy to find these days, although, the ones shipped here for US consumption are not nearly as tasty or varied as those available in Italy.

I especially love the holiday markets which are throughout Italy. Although some of the biggest are in the northern part of the country like Trentino-Alto Adige and Emilia Romagna. Florence, Rome and Naples are also filled with the holiday spirit. The most famous market in Rome is in Piazza Navona. There are fewer crafts people and more mass-produced items in the market than in years past, but the spirit is still contagious.  Christmas Market, Piazza Navona

There’s lots of music, singing and families enjoying the season wandering from booth to booth around the fountains. It’s magical at night to see the fountains lit and flowing amidst the crowds.

Rome’s holiday season stretches much longer than ours. Christmas eve is the traditional feast of the 7 fishes (in some parts of Italy it’s 5, 9 or more or just ‘feast of the fishes’). Many families still hold strongly to this tradition, whether it’s actually 7 dishes or less. Usually there will be some fish antipasto, then a seafood pasta and definitely baccalà and anguilla (eel) if you are in Lazio. Christmas Day is less prescribed. It’s just enjoying family and as many dishes as you can imagine. Our most enjoyable Christmas in Rome was spent with our Italian family. I think we were 24 or 25 people in all. We managed to fill the room with a few tables and everyone moved around to talk with everyone else, while more and more food was served. And, then, Santo Stefano Day, which is the 26th of December. It’s a national holiday and often families will tour the nativity scenes (presepe) in town. In the town of Putignano in the region of Apulia they celebrate with a big Carnival, which, incidentally, is the oldest in the world and has been held for 616 years.

Generally, Italians celebrate the holiday season until January 6th, the feast of the epiphany. It is also the day La Befana arrives. And, the story of La Befana is one of my favorites. Gifts arrive with La Befana (the witch) who preceded Santa Claus and possibly even Christianity in much of Italy. Especially around Rome the tradition of La Befana is still very strong. The tale of La Befana, who was an old crone who was famous for cleaning her house and working in her kitchen is this. On the first Christmas, the Magi stopped by her house, asking directions to Bethlehem. She made them dinner and they told her, “We’re going to see the Christ child, want to come along?” “Impossible,” she replied. “There’s all these dishes to wash and the kitchen to sweep!” So the kings went on their way. Then, as the old woman was sweeping, it hit her: Did I make a terrible mistake? Could they really be going to see Jesus? She ran out the door to try to catch them holding onto her broom. She kept running, until her broom lifted her off the ground and she was flying.

La Befana
La Befana
And, she’s been flying the night sky on the Eve of the Epiphany ever since. She delivers goodies to children, hoping one of them is the Christ child. She knows no child has been perfect all year, so she fills their stockings with a mix of treats – coal (actually a really delicious black rock candy) and all types of sweets. I’ve brought back flying Le Befane for many of my friends who love this tradition as much as I do.

Have a wonderful holiday season. Felice Anno Nuovo (Happy New Year)