The Gift of Becoming Italian

December 29th will mark my 5 year anniversary of moving to Italy. As I was thinking about this milestone, I noticed the Italy Blogging Roundtable subject this month was “gifts.”   So what is my gift this year?  It’s a gift to myself:  finally starting to become Italian.  Wait, don’t you always make fun of Italians, you ask?  Well, yes, but I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t secretly want to be  like them (some of them).  It starts with the little things like not drinking that beverage that begins with a C after 11:00am or not going out ever with wet hair… and before you know it, you are ironing your t-shirt before going to the gym and singing along to eccentric ‘80s Italian pop stars like Matia Bazar.  But the little idiosyncracies are not the gifts.  The real gifts are what living the Italian life give back to me.

 

Time:  Yes, Italy is a sloooow country.  I spend a lot of my time waiting.  Waiting in lines, waiting for stores to open, waiting for clothes to dry…  Patience, something I lack, is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity of living here.  Instead of being the OCD American who is always 5-10 minutes early for every appointment, I now know that it is perfectly acceptable for me to stop and get a coffee on a whim as I have a golden 15 minute window of lateness. When I first moved to Italy, I thought that the pausa, the hours that the stores and businesses are closed every afternoon was some kind of cruel joke.  But I have learned to appreciate this time.  Quiet time.  Think about it – almost being forced to take it easy for 3 hours a day (naturally I am ironing t-shirts in this period, but I’m not running aournd trying to cram more into my day).

 

 

Food:  Obvious.  I know.  But I am talking about simplifying life through food.  It takes a few years for the Chinese food cravings to go away, but when they do, you can settle into your new uncomplicated, unpretentious food world.  Let’s be honest, creativity in food is not big here in Umbria.  Obviously it was once upon a time or else we would not have all the wonderful food that we do… but now people tend to stick to traditional recipes and flavors.  Just walk around any town on a Sunday afternoon and the scent of roasted chicken and potatoes will come wafting out of everyone’s windows….because that is what you eat on Sunday, every Sunday!  In fact our local bakery still keeps up the old tradition of  opening their big ovens to the town so that on Sunday morning before Mass families can bring their chicken and potatoes (the bakery happenes to be next to the church), and an hour later, lunch is ready!  This may seem boring on the outside,  but that is the point - when you get on the inside of Italian life, you start to understand – maybe 3 ingredients and tradition is really all you need.

 

Chiacchiere:  means a few different things:  chitchat, gossip, a yummy fried dough treat.

In our twitterfied lives, the art of real conversation has gotten a little bit lost.  I consider myself very fortunate that I live where I do.  Many foreigners who come here choose to live out in the middle of nowhere far, far away from others.  Sure, I want the dream house with the big yard eventually, but I would never give up the experience that I have had living in a little village in Italy.  It’s hilarious.  I love getting wrapped up in all the small town drama.  Most recently – the holiday lights were put up December 10 (and not lit until the 12th) instead of the scheduled, traditional December 8 – scandalous!  Now, without traffic, it takes approximately 4 minutes to walk across my town.  But when a situation erupts like it did with the lights, those same 4 minutes can easily turn into an hour, as the scandal needs to be discussed, not resolved, mind you, just discussed.  By everyone. And everyone seems to like to get my take on things because then the conversation can easily be turned in another direction by asking me if such things like Christmas lights exist in America….and that is a real question that was asked, by the way.  Living in big cities, you know your friends and maybe a few neighbors.  If a stranger starts talking to you, you probably ignore them.  Here I know all of my neighbors, at least by sight, and if someone I don’t know stops to talk to me on the street, it’s surely because they know someone who knows someone who knows me.  If I need something, I just walk out the door and ask the first person I see – if they can’t help me, they know someone who can.  Because we talk.

 

So my gifts, delivered straight to me from the heart of Italy:  learning how to slow down life a little, taking the pretension out of food (that’s a big one for me, I’m a cook), and basically just opening myself up to the simple life.

Read more about "gifts" this year on these Italy Blogging Roundtable Blogs:

Arttrav

At Home in Tuscany

Italylogue

Italofile

Brigolante


Umbria on the Blog - My Guest Post!

It was my pleasure to write an "experimental" Torta al Testo post for the good folks over at Umbria on the Blog - check it out below!!!

I snort when I laugh really hard. I do. And there are only a couple of people in this world who can regularly make me laugh so hard I get to snorting. Jennifer McIlvaine, blogger, chef, and irreverent Philly girl, is one of those people. She’s a foodie with attitude, an ironic commentator on the quirks of living shoulder to shoulder with the Umbrians, and one of the most talented chefs I know. She is also the mother of lovely Baby Olivia (who has already stolen my sons’ hearts) and wife of Federico, one of the region’s experts on food and wine. I love her food-centric blog (her recent post on canning is one of my favorites) and I was so happy to have her stop by this week with a post about one of my favorite Umbrian staples.

Will the real Torta al Testo please step foward?

Umbrians are by definition, traditionalists. So I was floored the other day when, dining at one of my favorite local spots, I tried a piece of Torta al Testo (a traditional Umbrian flatbread) NOT made in the traditional way – its was spongy, and yeasty…different!

Torta al Testo is eaten throughout Umbria and its name comes from: Torta, meaning bread or pizza and Testo, the heavy disc on which the bread is cooked. In ancient times the testo was made from clay and placed over coals in the fireplace. Modern times have brought us the contemporary version made from iron and aluminum, and placed directly on the stovetop. Of course, Umbria being Umbria, full of small, walled medieval towns, it seems that everywhere you go, the torta is known by a different name: Torta al Testo in the central-north area, Crescia in Gubbio, Ciaccia on the border with Tuscany, and Pizza sotto il Fuoco in the South. So many names for such a simple bread in such a small region!

So, as I mentioned, I was very surprised to try a new version of this classic; as it was chewy and had a yeasty flavor, it inspired me to do a little experimentation…

I used 4 “rising agents” to test the different recipes:
#1: I used a very old recipe, just flour, baking soda, salt and water.
#2: I used a classic recipe with Lievito Pizzaiolo – which is kind of like a cross between baking powder and instant yeast
#3: I used brewer’s yeast
#4: I used a natural (sourdough) bread starter that I made from grape yeast.
In the 2nd-4th recipes, I also added a little milk, olive oil, and parmigiano to the mix, known here as condita, or flavoured.

(In doing my research, I did also find recipes that contained eggs, but these are widely considered heresy – no good Umbrian would add such rich ingredients – if you are going to go down that route, why don’t you just add some butter as well? Will never happen.)

My willing guinea pigs where comprised of 1 expert from Assisi, 2 from Todi, 1 from Foligno, 2 from Cannara, 1 from Puglia and 1 American, as well as my 19 month-old daughter – a certified bread afficianado.

My hypothesis was that torta #1 would most likely be chosen at the true torta visually, but I was hoping that torta #4 would be chosen for taste. Astonishingly, EVERYONE picked the torta made with the natural bread starter (#4) as the true torta al testo based on visuals – it was highest and most leavened. This surprised me, because, the tortas that I have eaten have always been relatively flat and compact without a lot of air bubbles.
However, when it came to taste, almost everyone chose #1, the most simple, made with just baking soda (also the most dense). Those who did not choose #1, chose #4, sticking with the natural starter. Tortas #3 & #4 were considered good but standard. Naturally, all of this experimentation sparked a lively debate on what the REAL traditional recipe is, some swearing up and down that a rising agent is unnecessary – just use flour, water and salt. I conducted a sub-experiment without the rising agent and the result was a little pasty. This recipe could be used if cooked in the antique way – in the fireplace, under the ash, but must be eaten immediately.
And the winner is… well, my results remain inconclusive, but I think we all agreed that simplicity is best. So my quest to create the perfect Torta al Testo continues… The goal is to get a good rise and a rich flavor from the most basic of ingredients.


The Torta al Testo dates back to Etruscan times as a simple quick flat bread that did not need a long rising time – should we just keep it that way? Maybe some of us will break with tradition, but only within our own private medieval walls…

The Recipes

Torta #1
500g flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 level teaspoon salt
about 350mL warm water

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until a ball of dough is formed. If the dough is sticky add a little bit more flour. Knead the dough with your hands for about 5 minutes until it becomes a smooth ball. Let the dough rest in a warm place covered with a towel for about 40 minutes. Roll dough into a disc. Place directly onto preheated testo or griddle pan (without oil!). Prick with a fork and let cook over a medium-low heat until brown on one side. Flip and continue to cook on the other side. Let rest for a few minutes off the heat. Cut into wedges and fill each with either prosciutto, cheese or greens and sausage. Buon Apetito!

Torta #2
500g flour
1 packet (15g) Lievito Pizzaiolo
220mL warm water (or one Nutella glass)
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Make a well with the flour and add the lievito and water mix well. Then add the rest of the ingredients, leaving the salt for the end and mix well. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes then, let rest for 40-60 minutes. Continue as above.

Torta #3
500g flour
25g brewer’s yeast (fresh or dry)
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Add to flour, add rest of ingredients and continue as above, letting the dough rest 1-1 ½ hours.

Torta #4
500g flour
100g natural bread starter
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Same as above, letting the dough rise for 6 hours.


Sagra-landia

Here's a copy of the guest post I did for Silvia Ceriegi of Trippando!

It’s that time of year again, when small towns in Umbria (and the rest of Italy) literally explode with festivals. Some are music festivals, some are art festivals, some are religious festivals, but my favorites are the food festivals, le sagre.

 So how do you find a sagra?

While you are taking a stroll through town, look around! Posters are usually plastered all over the walls of piazzas boasting the lastest party.

How do you know which ones are good?

I judge a sagra based on organizzation, activities, and general atmosphere, but the golden rule is this: I go “dove si mangia bene,” in other words, where you eat well. Now, there are hundreds of sagras around – some are obviously for kids, like the Sagra della Nutella, some have nothing to do with anything – like the Sagra della Tequila (I’m not making that up!) and some are just plain out of season – like the Sagra della Ciliegia (cherry) which tends to go on a month before cherries are in season (where are they getting their cherries, I wonder???).

So how do you choose? Let common sense be your guide: are you in Norcia in the fall/winter season? Then you can bet that if there is a mushroom or truffle sagra a) you’re in the right place, in the right season, and b) its a local product, so c) it must be good! Still not sure? Grab an older citizen of the town you are in, point to a poster and ask “si mangia bene?” If they nod yes, you are good to go… if they nod no, no worries, people here tend to be full of opinions about food, so they will surely point you in the right direction!

How do they work?

Every sagra is different, and sometimes it can be confusing even to Italians…but most work like this:

1. Bring a pen – you will need it

 2. Look for a long line in front of a booth with a sign Cassa – this is usually where you order and pay.

3. Get a menu – usually there is a table somewhere in front of the cassa with menus scattered around on it. Here is where your pen comes in – check the boxes next to each item that you want to order – its usually 1 menu per table so if you want more than one of something, just fill in the box with a number.

4. Find a table – after you’ve waited in line and ordered and paid, the real challenge awaits – finding a table! We usually split up, so while one person is ordering the food, the other goes hunting for a good spot.

Here’s a little tip: if you see a sweet little old lady sitting by herself at a long empty table, don’t even bother to ask if there is space available as she has been sent on a mission by the younger members of her family to guard their places (usually about 2 tables worth). If you even look twice at those empty seats, that sweet little old lady will practically jump on the table and shoot flames out of her eyes at you to defend her spot!… just keep looking…

5. Once you have a seat, look for a server. The servers are always local volunteers and tend to range in age from 5-15, and then 80+. They will then take your reciept and disappear until the food is ready. Don’t be surprised if dessert comes out with your antipasti, or they just bring everything all together – that’s just the way it is!

And then???

Just when you feel like you are about to explode from eating and drinking, the band starts up and everyone hits the dancefloor! This will explain some of the “outfits” you may have seen as the dress code tends to go from summer casual shorts and t-shirts to clubbing-all-night gear to elegant gala ensembles. Those better dressed individuals will be strutting there stuff all night long, dancing to everything from old italian folk tunes to YMCA – don’t be afraid to join in!

My personal favorites….

Here’s my shortlist of what I consider to be the best sagras in the central Umbrian Valley:

1. Sagra della Porchetta in Costano: this is a whole hog sagra – you can eat everything: roasted ear and foot, braised tripe, liver, salumi, the list goes on… 

2. Sagra della Lumaca in Cantalupo: this little snail sagra stays near and dear to my heart as it was the first sagra I ever went to in Italy and still continues to be my favorite – my husband and I even had them cook their famous roasted snails at our wedding!

3. Festa della Cipolla in Cannara: this is the big daddy of sagras, and all to celebrate the humble onion! This sagra has everthing: a market which winds through the town, art shows, multiple concerts every night, the onion disco pub, and 6 different stands where you can eat – my favorite is La Taverna del Castello – they make the best onion parmigiana around… and don’t forget the onion cream-filled doughnuts for dessert!


Umbria Lovers guest post

Please check out my guest post on the Umbria Lovers blog.  I wrote an article about what I would do if (the unthinkable happened) and I only had one day to spend in Umbria....