I hope everyone will be as excited as I am about the wonders I’ve found to bring home. Please recognize Expressly Italian is still a work in progress. I need to know the things people are most interested in, what the costs are and how to fit enough into suitcases! Any feedback is really appreciated. And, I will investigate any special requests to the fullest. Every trip I find new sources and undiscovered “prodotti tipici” (typical products) from every region. All that said, there are some exciting and unique products for you to try right now.
The Italian honey bee is a gentler bee. A little smaller than the western version, it is a good producer of ripened honey. All this explains why Italian honey is so famous and treasured. Stefano, a Sardinian bee keeper says his honeys are the best in the world and he has broods that are collecting from flowers, trees and even some from the macchia (the Sardinian scrub that covers much of the island). Stefano assures me that not only do they produce the purest honey and most flavorful you can find. I know that his Girasole (sunflower) honey will be on my morning toast for sure. But, of course the bee keepers from Florence make the same claims as do the bee keepers in Umbria. Truthfully, they are all so rich in flavor it is hard to choose. I do know they are all harvested from the wild and they are pure and so much more flavorful than mass produced, over filtered honey. You owe it to yourself to taste as many as you can to find your personal favorite. I also acquired a few propolis (bee pollen) products from Sardinia.
I have some olive oils from Umbria and Tuscany and Tivoli. Only the freshest, purest virgin oils, of course. There’s white truffle oil too.
Black truffles! I found some wonderful preserved black truffle. These special little goodies are preserved in olive oil and have good till dates that guarantee they will last into next year. So think about a special dish and it will only improve with a bit of shaved truffle on it. And, I also found a thinly sliced white truffle preserved in oil as well.
Then there are the condomenti (which really translates as flavors). There is everything from the wine jellies, to preserves from frutti di bosco, and some special cherry marmellata that will make wonderful tarts. And mostarda, the sweet spicy condiment which is great on meats, or cheese or almost anything. These condiments add some interesting tastes to many dishes and that extra layering of flavor that separates a good meal from a great dish.
Then there’s some fantastic agrodolce – with either raspberries or figs. The agrodolce can be used like a hot sauce, just a little makes a big flavor difference.
From the Maremma (southern Tuscany) there is bottarga (the fish roe that is sprinkled onto pasta for a unique taste) as well as Colatura, the anchovy essence that is made only in a few places; it is impossible to find even in most of Italy. I’m getting these products directly from the farms and families that produce them so you know the quality and flavor is unmatched.
This time I am also bringing some Tuscan beans, including cicerchia, which is the oldest cultivated legume. I’ve been told that the traveling Roman army survived on cicerchia and grain (mostly corn and wheat). The cicerchia provided the protein, the grains the carbohydrates. Cicerchia is an extremely healthy food gaining in popularity here in Italy High in protein, phosphorus, , B1 and B2 and, of course, lots of fiber it’s very healthy. Usually it is used in soups, or in pasta dishes (Italians often use beans with pasta — garbanzo beans, or savona or other cannellini types). The Cicerchia that I’m bringing is split, so the cooking time is much less and doesn’t require soaking. I’ve also got lentils, some tiny white Tuscan beans that are like a small version of a cannellini bean (they also do not require soaking). And, there’s the occhiali bean, which looks a little like (but isn’t) our black eyed pea. Any or all of the type beans make excellent Ribollita or vegetable soup,
Or, you can try a very Tuscan way to eat the beans. Cook them till they are creamy, mash them a little, add salt and pepper to taste, put onto a toasted piece of bread and drizzle with a high quality olive oil. Really yummy. You too can become a “bean eater” as the Tuscans are called.
Chocolate was one of the most requested items and I brought a number of artisanal chocolates made in Perugia as well as a few other small towns in Umbria. There is a lot of chocolate and hopefully in October, when we return, we’ll be going to the international Chocolate festival in Torino and I can really overdose. In the meantime I’ve got plenty of choices for all tastes. Including packages of Ciobar, the hot chocolate that seems more like a pudding to me.
I’ll be sending out a newsletter with all the products available and their prices shortly. Remember, the quantities are limited, so don’t hesitate to order if you want something. And, you can place your request for the fall shipment at any time. If you are not already on my mailing list, please send a note to ExpresslyItalian@aol.com and I’ll be sure you receive updates and product listings.
The dried porcini are incredibly fragrant and so are the sun dried tomatoes. Both are unlike anything I’ve found in the U.S. They have so much flavor you use less of them, so they are quite reasonably priced. And, I have a great new selection of herbs and spices from Mauro Berardi, from Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
Come share the journey as I explore all that Italy has to offer.
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.
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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.
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. 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)