Decoding Italy: Cheese!

This is the first in a new blog series that I am starting, Decoding Italy - I hope to demistify some daily aspects of Italian life (food, wine, cultural) for future visitors to Italy!

IMG_0008Hunting for cheese in Italy is usually on the top of everyone's bucket list.  Here are some helpful tips to help you whey(d) your way through the Italian curds!

The Italian for cheese is formaggio, from the Latin formaticum, meaning 'form' and (according to legend) the month of May, maggio, when milk is at is best.  Another word we see often in Italy is cacio, from the Latin caseus.  Cacio is just a generic word for formaggio, but we see it frequently:  pasta Cacio Pepe (pasta with cheese & black pepper), Caseficio (a place where cheese is made/sold), and caciotta (a form of typical local cheese - we see this everywhere in Umbria).

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An Italian Recipe...

This week some students of mine asked me to teach them how to make a certain type of cookie that they had been eating in nearby Spello.  Now remember, here in Umbria (as well as pretty much all of Italy) recipes and typical dishes can vary greatly from town to town - even villages just 10 km apart, like Spello and Cannara.

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Wine Soaked Memories

....oh, where to begin?!  We are wrapping up the main season of 2014 (of course, we are always here to continure to welcome our off-season guests as well!) and what better way than to give a little recap of our 4th annual Food & Wine Tour of Umbria with Ciao Thyme of Bellingham, WA.

Every year we try to do the seemingly impossible and out-do the previous trip, and yes, we achieved this goal yet again!  More food!  More wine!  More Umbria!

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Ciao Thyme Umbrian Food & Wine Tour!


We are welcoming back our good friends Matiao and Jessica from Ciao Thyme in Bellingham, WA, for our 4th annual culinary tour of Umbria!

As always, I have a lot of great experiences planned for the group, including rustic cooking classes, saffron picking, the olive harvest & pressing of the new oil, farm tours, winery visits and tasting, cheesemaking and more!


Follow along with our adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+, hashtag  #CTumbria.  

Then, come join us in 2015 for our May and October tours - A presto!


Back to Blogging!

IMG_4065You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged in a while…well, May thru October is my busy season, so other than quick photos or a blurb on my social media sites, you won’t hear much from me.  But I have a lot of ideas rolling around and have been furiously scribbling notes in my daughter's various Hello Kitty writing pads. ;-)
Here’s what you can look forward to reading this winter:

Decoding Italy:  a new series that I am starting!  I actually got the idea from a client in one of my cooking classes.  I will be going through the basics of learning how to decipher things once you reach the motherland:  everything from types of cheese & salumi, wine labels, and pasta to basic restaurant and coffee etiquette…. because it’s a different country and they just do it… differently!

News:  Two Onions Collide:  The Walla Walla and Cannara Sister City Association

and What happened when I attended my first ever soccer/football game in Italy.

The Infiorata of Cannara - Flower Power!

IMG_0517For anyone in Umbria on June 21-22, there is a wonderful festival called L'Infiorata going on.  Some of you may have heard of the more well-known version held in nieghboring Spello, but in my opinion, the Cannara version is a must!

The Infiorata is a 17th century Baroque celebration of the religious feast of Corpus Christi (known as Corpus Domini here in Italy).  It is one of those "moving holy days" so every year it falls on a different Sunday.  What happens is that local townspeople get together to line the streets with beautiful carpets of flowers, intricately laid to create stunning works of art, mostly with religious and cultural themes.

While in Spello the Inforata is created mostly by professionals, in our village of Cannara it is a local affair... which means a party!  For weeks before the event, flowers are harvested from the area.  Then on Saturday, which this year will be June 21st, all of the flowers are "prepared", meaning that they are all de-petalled, de-stemmed, and put through grinders to make sure that they are uniform.  After sunset, all of the townsfolk begin to lay the flowers down onto their respective designs along the streets to create their masterpieces.  The process continues throughout the night (until dawn) with a break around midnight for the Spaghettata, when some of the local women bring out pasta in the piazza for everyone to enjoy - then it's back to work!

The next morning, there is a Mass to celebrate Corpus Domini followed by a procession, during which the priest walks over the the flower carpets.  Don't worry, he usually treads lightly!  The carpets are left on display for the entire day and then are washed away until next year...

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The Infiorata has an extra special meaning for me because the very first Infiorata that I participated in was back in 2008, when I was still living in Foligno and no intentions of moving to this sleepy onion town... but when I looked back at the photos, I realized that I did the infiorata in front the house that we eventually bought!  It was kismet to say the least!

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That's me unknowingly "infiorat-ing" in front of my future home back in '08.

I will be live tweeting, instagramming and facebooking the Infiorata of Cannara June 21-22, with the hashtag #CannaraFlowerPower - follow along virtually if you can't be here!

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Checking out the Competition in Pienza

So... yesterday I went to the forbidden land... you know that neighbor to the north of ours that begins with a T.... and yes, if you are wondering, my husband (good Umbrian that he is) did threaten to change the locks on the doors. 

That's right.  I went to Tuscany (gasp!).  The lovely town of Pienza to be exact (double gasp!).  I had been hearing a lot about Pienza from passing tourists and since some friends of mine wanted to check it out, I thought I would tag-along. 

Now, it really bothers me when journalists treat Umbria as a sort of lowly step-sister to Tuscany, but I have to admit, after my visit yesterday, I kind of get their mentality.  I could compare Pienza to my favorite Umbrian town, Bevagna.  Both are medieval towns set in the idyllic Tuscan/Umbrian countryside.  They are similar in size, as well as aritistic and historic offerings.  But, there was one big difference:  Pienza was OPEN FOR BUSINESS.  Enotecas and restaurants started tastings at 11:30.  Shops were alive and inviting, not to mention open all day (a shock for someone like me who lives in the land of the never-ending pausa).  The sun was shining, the wine was flowing, it was a perfect Tuscan afternoon... but yet, something was amiss...

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Where were the Italians?  Ok, obviously the shopkeepers were Italian (all of whom, right down to the gas station attendent, spoke perfect English (and probably German as well)), but where were all of the old people sitting around on their plastic chairs, where were the men arguing about local politics in the piazza?  Where was the real Italian life?  Where was the bric-a-brac hardware store, and the alimentari?  Everything was just a little too slick and polished and the town seemed to be created for tourists.  This feeling was confirmed when, getting a coffee, I asked the barista where she liked to eat.  She couldn't tell me one place (as she neither lives in, nor frequents Pienza) and so referred me to the owner, who gave me a glazed over 'all of the restaurants are good' answer.  Hmmmmmm.

It seems to me that both regions have to work on their toursim a little bit.  Tuscany has certainly paved the way to greatness, but has gone off the rails and now seems to have a Disneyland type mania going on.  Tuscany is a brand.  I engaged in a conversation with a tourist from New York, and, when I told her that I lived in Umbria, the next region over, she said to me (as do many tourists) "Oh yes, I just love all of Tuscany!"  That kind of thing breaks my heart, while at the same time makes me happy that Umbria is not saturated with these hapless "UnderTheTuscanSunTourists".  Umbria, on the other hand, could learn some things about marketing and attracting tourists:  swinging wide open those doors and shaking off that closed 'member's only' feeling... and maybe cutting down the hours of the mid-afternoon pausa - we can't eat four hour lunches every day.  Time to throw your hat into the ring, Umbria!


On to the important stuff, here's where I ate:

La Bottega di Pienza:  we stopped in here for a tasting of local cheeses and Ercolani wines produced by this family.  At €5.50 for a jumbo size glass of wine and tons of cheese, this was a bargain - the wines, however, were unexceptional in my opinion.

La Buca di Enea:  Lunch.  Cute little trattoria with good local food - we had a Fonduta of Pecorino with porcini mushrooms and lardo di Colonnata, Pici (the local Tuscan pasta) with duck ragù, and Ribollita (Tuscan bread soup).  The food was decent, but rushed - I still had my pasta in front of me when the owner slammed down 3 bottles of digestivi on our table - nice touch, but we had been thinking about trying one of the meat courses, let alone dessert - I guess not!  That is something that will never happen in Umbria - they don't even think about turning tables, in fact they seem to get really annoyed if they have to reset a table during service!

La Bandita:  Not satisfied with the wines we had consumed so far, we decided to try one more place.  La Bandita is a modern restaurant/wine bar in a boutique hotel of the same name (owned by Americans).  It is worth the trip alone just to sit outside on their patio, sip wine, and watch the chef pick fresh herbs for your cheese plate.

May Day Fritelle!

IMG_0002_2It's the first of May, which means you are either reincarnating the ancient pagan festival of Beltane or celebrating International Workers' Day...  here in Italy we lean towards another excuse for a spring picnic.  But the weather was a litte iffy today, so instead of risking a wet picnic, I went out for a bike ride and came across some wonderful edible blossoms from  Acacia and Elderflower trees.  And since it is May 1st, which means we are just that much closer to bathing suit season... I thought, screw it! I'm gonna fry these blossoms up!

Fritelle di Fiori di Acacia & Sambuco (fried Acacia & Elderflower blossoms)

  • 100g flour
  • 50g sugar
  • 100mL cold milk
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 egg whites beaten until soft peaks barely form
  • acacia and elderflower blossoms
  • extra virgin olive oil or peanut oil
  • powdered sugar

In a bowl, mix together flour, sugar, milk and egg yolk.  Fold in beaten whites.  Dip blossoms into the batter and coat well.  Deep fry in oil over medium-low heat until golden brown (if the oil is too hot, the batter will not cook in the center).  Drain on paper towels.  Dust with powdered sugar.  Forget that bathing suit season is right around the corner.

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The Hunt for the Elusive Wild Aparagus!

Well, not so elusive this year... I'd say there was plenty of wild asparagus in Umbria to go around for everybody!  Below you will find a little photo blog post of my asparagus picking adventures, and to follow a recipe for my pickled wild asparagus.

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Pickled Wild Asparagus

Wild Asparagus - as much as you can find  IMG_0006_2
500mL white wine vinegar
250mL white wine
250mL water
40g salt
bay leaves, ripped into small pieces
hot pepper, cut into small slices
extra virgin olive oil
small sterilized jars

Wash the asparagus and break off the woody stem (where it breaks naturally).
Bring to a boil the vinegar, wine, water and salt.
Add the asparagus and boil until just tender.
Remove from liquid and let dry completely on a clean towel.
Place asparagus into jars with a piece of bay leaf and hot pepper.
Cover completely with olive oil.
Using a wooden skewer, press down the asparagus to make sure that there are no air bubbles and to ensure that they are completely covered with oil.
Screw on lids.
Wait at least one month before consuming.
Can be stored for up to 12 months, in a cool, dark place.

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