Umbria

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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Fascinating Olive Oil Pt. 2

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I realize it has taken far too long to return to finish the Part 2 information on olive oil, but there have been good reasons.  Mostly my traveling back from Italy (bringing along  Mauro Berardi’s spices, porcini and all that wonderful Olio Nuovo from Farfa).  Then the holidays seem to move in more quickly every year.  Or, perhaps it is that I am slowing down somewhat?  Nope, that cannot be.
Looking back, it seems unbelievable that I am renewing my EU passport already.  While my husband and I managed to spend time in Italy (He mentored young film technicians for Technicolor Rome years ago) before we decided to move there for a couple years on his retirement.  After our return it was just too painful to think about not being able to frequently return to Italy (and especially visiting all our friends there), so Expressly Italian was born.  While I regret not beginning Expressly Italian’s journey much earlier,  my life as an art dealer/ consultant was fulfilling and good preparation for Expressly Italian.

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Our View in Belevedere di Riaino
 While in Italy we were living outside Rome (about 9 miles north of the center) in the country and made great efforts to see as much of the country as we could.  We traveled mostly throughout Tuscany and Umbria and I asked questions always.  I shopped every street market in every village because I was fascinated to find how different each was in personality as well as goods.   I learned to ask lots of questions even when you think you understand what you are being told.  There is not an Italian who is not very happy to have a conversation about food at any time, and if you express any interest they will tell you how their mother prepared their favorite dish, which week is the best to buy whatever product is in season and who is best vendor to buy from.
Living in Lazio I had the chance to watch the seasons change with pruning, cleaning, harvesting and of course, tasting.  Tasting is an art.   To properly taste olive oil (which many of the frantoio insist you do); first you put a little in the bottom of the glass (the glass is blue so you don’t get swayed by the color the oil, which doesn’t really indicate quality, but more about the variety of olives used).   You hold the glass in your palm (to warm it a little and bring out the flavor more), while covering it with the other hand.  Hold it and swirl it for a moment or two.  This traps the aroma in the glass.  The aroma is a very important part of the oil.  Now take a good whiff.  Do you smell grass, artichokes, berries, cinnamon or olives?  The word “fruity” in the context of olive oil can refer to vegetable notes, like green olive fruit, as well as ripe fruit notes. So think of artichokes, grass and herbs as “fruit” when you taste olive oil.  I still haven’t found those little blueglasses they officially use in the tastings, but one day I will.   images
Now, take a sip of the oil (a decent size sip).  You want enough to swirl around your mouth.  Think of the way they taste wine.  It’s the same. Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then—this is important—close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This “retronasal” perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavor notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back.  Now swallow some, or all of the oil.  Think about the after-taste, the pungency of the oil as it goes down your throat.  This peppery sensation is what gives great olive oil it’s little after-kick.  It’s a pretty addictive impact that can be quite quiet or enough to make you cough.  Everyone has their own preferences.
After you’ve done all this, then you should taste the oil with food.  Usually just a piece of bread is enough to tell you if this oil is for you.  Or potatoes, some mild food that will complement the oil, but still allow you to experience it.    So, now you know the ins and outs of tasting and can taste oil with any aficionado with confidence.

Taste

The Sabine hills are about 50 minutes from Rome, and have been producing olive oil for more than 2,500 years.  In fact, in Fara Sabina there is a tree called Ulivone Canneto which has been carbon dated to more than 2,000 years old that still produces enough olives to make about 150 kilo of olive oil a year today!  This tree made olive oil for the Romans, to Byzantines and modern-day Italians.
An archaeological discovery of the small flask of Poggio Sommavilla traced back to the seventh century BC is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is the oldest example of writings from pre-Roman times. It is a testimony of the olive culture of this area because in it are the remains of olive oil.
Claudius Galen (129 AD – 216 AD), the father of modern pharmacopoeia, called oil of Sabina “the world’s best known.”   And, although Sabina oil is not as universally known today, it is revered by those who have tasted it and experienced its quality.
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Sabina is slightly cooler than Tuscany and the hills make it ideal for cultivation of olives. The trees here are some of the largest in Europe and the distinct delicate flavor may be created by the warm winds whipping in directly from the south. There are various strains including Carboncella, Pendolfino, Moraiolo and Rosciola.  All are a golden yellow/green and harvested just before turning brown.
Sabina has a consortium of small growers and cooperatives, but my personal preference and practice is to purchase the oil directly from the frantoio of the grower.  Rosario presses his own olives from his own groves.   He also contributes to the consortium, but I love knowing exactly what I am getting and feeling like I can watch the olives be delivered and watch them be pressed and put into the lattine (tins).  It is really exciting and moves really quickly.  Sabina DOP  is available in many places, but I love knowing exactly how and when the oil is processed and how it is handled.  The drive to Farfa is beautiful and serene, although I have to admit I always seem to get lost in the hills on the way there.   I am confident that what I offer is as fresh, and high in antioxidants and flavor as possible.

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Some of the characteristics of Sabina DOP oil are:     Color:  yellow gold with nuances of green, Perfume:  fruity, notes of fresh herbs and artichoke;  Flavor: velvety, aromatic, peppery finish.

Olives of Italy

This map is from Eataly.
Each region, even village has different types of olives grown, so the oils are different.  In Italy there are 350 different cultivars of olives grown.   When you travel in Italy try to taste as many types as you can to give you an idea of which varieties you prefer which may give you an idea of what oils you might like.  And, taste oils as often as possible.  During harvest times there are often tastings available as well as sagre (festivals) for olive oils which are wonderful opportunities to try different oils.
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The Abbazia at Farfa
I hope this explains a little more of my fascination with Italian olive oils, and Sabina olive oil in particular.  It is so full of antioxidants, great taste and bright flavor, add a little zip to your life by drizzling it on everything you can.

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.

A Word (or two) about Olive Oils This Year.

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Having recently, about two days ago, returned from an extensive trip in Italy, I’ve been reluctant to discuss olive oil production in Italy this year.  It was a little depressing, so I put it off.  Many of my blog and newsletter followers were eagerly awaiting my return for their olio nuovo and I hated to disappoint them.

But, here I am, back in California, and without their olio nuovo.  The sad fact is, there is little to no olio nuovo in Italy this year.  What little there is in most regions is being hoarded by families there.  Maybe Liguria has some, or Campania, (which is never mentioned without the comment “that’s a whole different thing”), but wherever I asked I was told with a sad shake of the head, ‘none this year’.  In fact, in Lazio, around Sabina, where I often get most of the oil I bring, they didn’t bother to harvest at all.  Neither did most of Umbria, nor much of Tuscany.  Everywhere I asked it was the same response.  The terrible rains that were all over Italy this year ruined their crops, which were likely to have had a light crop anyway due to a really heavy crop last year, but no one suspected this.

The rains caused immense damage, so the olives were tiny, malformed and became infested with a fruit fly.  According to an a news article I read just before leaving in Sabina a group of growers is trying to assess the amount of damages to ask for assistance from the government for their losses.

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The price of olive oil is set to soar after a widespread failure of the annual harvest in large parts of Italy.  A wet summer in combination with a fruit fly blight has led to some producers not harvesting at all this year. Production fell by up to 80 per cent in some areas of Italy, a farmers’ cooperative said.

Bad crop: The olive fly lays its egg in a hollow in the olive and when hatched the larvae tunnels its way out gnawing at the flesh destroying the fruit   Many farmers felt it was not worth the money or time to harvest at all.   The newspapers in England have projected increases in olive oil topping an additional 2 pounds per bottle before summer.

Paolo Calosi owner of a farm in in Sesto Fiorentino, Tuscany, where 1000 trees were hit by the fly, said: ‘Unfortunately this year we will not produce extra virgin oil because the fly has damaged all the trees.

This will produce a very acidic oil which cannot be sold as extra virgin.  ‘It will in any case have a nasty aftertaste with a marked woody flavour.’     This is truly a disaster.20131116_161648

So, what I bought was year old very good extra virgin oil that still has a life span of another year that it will retain it’s flavor.  But it was much more expensive that it would have been last year.  And, I know in my heart that by next summer, the oils will be 4 to 8 euro more per bottle than now.  There will be no more olive oil until next harvest in the fall of 2015.  And, I also have little faith in those importers being honest about the value and taste of what they’ll be delivering to the U.S. as extra virgin oil from Italy.  BEWARE!

Be prepared to pay more.  The oil I have is almost double what it was last year.  If it is not expensive, ask lots of questions.  If it is not due to expire in 2015, ask when it was harvested and where.  The only good harvests I found were in Livorno.  They had a bumper crop this year.  I’ve learned so much about the varieties and tastes of olive oils and I still have so much more to learn.   It is an elixer of health and should be used as a fresh drizzle on almost any dish.  Use the less expensive oil for frying, save the cold pressed, and olio nuovo type delicate oils for that fresh, fruity or peppery taste as you serve your food.  It’s worth whatever the money, just know what you are getting.

Extra virgin olive oil does not age well
Check the date on the bottle and make sure you are getting oil produced during the last harvest. Buy only the quantity you might need for the year to make sure you are not stuck with old olive oil when the new fresh one is out on the shelves.  The very best of the extra virgin olive oils retain their full flavor for only two years.  They are still usable for another year, just not as good.  In America, we are often using rancid oil without any idea it is too old.

Green colour does not automatically means top quality.  The most emphasized organoleptic characteristics of extra virgin olive oil is often the colour that should range between green and yellow. However, a deep green colour does not automatically indicates a better quality oil.  Professional olive oil tasters use blue or green coloured tasting glasses not to let the colour of the oil influence their final judgment. Focus on taste and acidity levels rather than colour when buying extra virgin olive oil.    And, remember, to each his own.  Everyone has their own taste preference.  Try several until you find just the type of olives you prefer.   When you think about it, it’s a very inexpensive way to improve your health, add flavor to your foods and experience new tastes.

FOOD HOPPING AROUND ITALIA

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It’s finally beginning to look like fall here in Italy.  This trip started, as always in Rome.  Then off to Perugia for some chocolate,  a great beginning for any shopping trip.

Perugia home of EuroChocolate festival.   Surrounded by all that chocolate is a great way to spend the day.  The EuroChocolate card (which was only 5 euro) got you a few free tastes of chocolate and a tazza (cup) of hot Ciobar chocolate!   I found some really delicious hand made chocolates from Piemonte region that are well worth the cost.  They are so heavenly you don’t care about cost or calories.  The good news is that it takes so much less to satisfy a chocolate craving.   And, the flavors . . . .  beyond the peperoncino, the pistachio and the frutta di boschi, there are rosse arancio,  some with hazelnuts,  caffe and all are so good!   I just put them all in a pile to consider what to eat first.  Then I remembered those waiting for some great Italian chocolate and used great restraint.  Mostly.

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OLIVE OILS MAY BE IN SHORT SUPPLY THIS YEAR.  

The impact of all the winter, spring and summer rains in Italy is being felt by the olive growers here.  The olive oils I love (mostly olio nuovo) are almost non-existant this year.   There was so much rain that the olives did not grow well, many too small to harvest and when that happens they get some kind of flies that make them unusable.  I’ve worked really hard to come up with some great oils to bring back with me.  There are some from Livorno, where they had a superb harvest this year.  Umbria has only a few small providers with oil, but I managed to get a few of several types (moraiolo, and leccino).  I’m off to the Maremma this week to see what is available there.  Sabina, one of my favorite places for oil, apparently had no harvest from most of the trees this year.  A disastro!  Many of us will be using year old oil this year (which is fine since olive oil is best at less than two years old), but still, I’ll miss that brightness of flavor of the olio nuovo (as well as the higher levels of antioxidants).

 

 

 

UMBRIA SHOPPING IS ALWAYS EXCITING.

I love shopping in Umbria. So many wonderful food products in addition to some great olive wood utensils and fine linens.

In Spello, I shopped with Luca Antonini again and was wooed with farro pastas, some of his famous condimenti.  The pasticcio of Fichi Umbriachi  (drunken figs) is to die for.  They take figs stuff them with hazel nuts and almonds, coat them in chocolate and age them in Sambuca.  For the pasticcio they mix it all together into a kind of paste that will change your life, if you serve it with cheese, or over ice cream, or mixed into ricotta cheese.  It’s so special, you need to try it to really appreciate it.  And, as with all his condimenti and preserves, it’s biological (organic), using only fruit, no water, so a little goes a very long way.  He’s always warning me to tell Americans you don’t need a large amount if the quality and purity is there.  A small amount will satisfy you and give you hours of energy

 

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Tomorrow, we’re off to Farfa.   I’ve been surprised that even some Romans don’t seem familiar withFarfa and it’s only an hour or so from Rome.  The Abbazia (abbey) supposedly has some nuns making an outrageous marmelate (jams) and then I’ll be off  to the Maremma for all those coastal specialties.

 

If you are not already on my newsletter list, please  send me a request to add your name to the list.    I’ll send you a listing of what’s available and keep you up-to-date on upcoming offers. Email me at ExpresslyItalian@aol.com.