100th Rave Reviews on TripAdvisor!

I'm proud to announce that we have just received our 100th outstanding review on TripAdvisor!  Thanks to my partners and travellers to Umbria for making each experience unique and fun! Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 16.02.26


Farmers' Markets in Umbria: Back to the Future!

Bruschettina-1One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced when I moved to Umbria from Seattle was something completely unexpected  - there were no farmers' markets!  Now, whilst living in Seattle, I was a central part of the booming farmers' market industry there - I had a very popular stand called Bruschettina, lines down the block, I even had an employee - the farmers' markets were my life.... So imagine my shock (and dismay and horror) when I moved to a place where, honestly, in America we think we are modelling our markets after, that is barren, so to speak. 

Understand that other than bananas and citrus, I had not bought a piece of produce in a supermarket in years.  I was dying on the inside...  The 'markets' here were what I oh-so- lovingly deemed Socks and Underwear Markets.  Basically a bunch of stalls selling knock off clothing and plastic crap.  Deep within the rows of socks and underwear, there might be a fruit/veg stand, but you know if they are selling bananas (and they always are) that most likely nothing is local and forget about organic.

When I moved from Foligno to Cannara I had the absolute fortune of discovering Ada.  Ada is mentioned frequently on my blog as she was my 'savior.'  She and her family have a small farm here and she sells her produce 2 days a week in our town.  So that solved my produce predicament, but I was still driving all over the hinterlands to buy meat, cheese, grains etc...

Now, I always joke that Italy follows in the footsteps of the United States (right or wrong), only 20 years later.  When the American style big box stores and supermarkets came in, small farmers in the area went out, as did the markets.  Slowly but surely, Italy is again following the fashion (better late than never) and catching on to the Farmers' Market trend.  What really kills me is when I see Farmers' Market written in English - I just want to scream - don't you know this is your lost tradition?!?!  Anyway....

In the past few years, a national group called Campagna Amica has been introducing markets showcasing local products all over Italy... and I am so happy!  The first time I went to one I felt all the memories of the Seattle markets rush back because many of the producers in these Campagna Amica markets are already my friends/ trusted producers - now finally all together!

If you are visiting Umbria, please take the time to visit and support one of these local markets, granted they are not the immense banquets of Provence, but it's a start in getting back to our future.

Weekly (not socks & underwear) Markets in Umbria

  • Santa Maria degli Angeli (Assisi) - Monday
  • Todi - Monday
  • Spoleto - Tuesday 
  • Città di Castello - Tuesday
  • Perugia (Pian di Massiano) - Thursday
  • Foligno - Friday
  • Gubbio - Saturday
  • Umbertide - Saturday

Most of the markets run from 8:00 - 12:00/13:00.  Perugia also holds an organic market once a month and of course, Ada is in Cannara on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

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The Seven Year Itch (?)

Photo courtesy of Click Art di Paolo D'Antonio, Cannara (PG)

Last week I celebrated 7 years of living in Italy.  So what do I have to show for it?  Well, here are some of the good things/accomplishments:

  • Learned to speak Italian pretty fluently - I'm saving the complex verb tenses and vocabulary for when my kids start to learn them in school.
  • Got married twice (to the same person) - one courthouse wedding, and one church wedding - just to make sure I hit all the bases.
  • Adopted 2 cats (one of which is sadly in the clouds now).
  • Moved only once - a record for me as before moving to Italy I had moved 7 times between the years 1995-2005.
  • Opened a restaurant (which I later sold - see below for probable reason).
  • Popped out 2 kids (a girl and a boy).
  • Started a successful tourism business.
  • Got my Italian drivers' license, which involves memorizing a 342 page technical manual (in Italian) and understanding that you will fail if you don't open the car door with two hands (a gust of wind could blow the door open and humans are not strong enough to control a car door with one arm).
  • Have traveled to 16 of the 20 regions in Italy.

But... life here in Italy isn't all about flitting around in the countryside and drinking wine... well, we do drink our fair share of wine, but lately it's to drown our sorrows.... Italy is crashing.  Crashing hard.  It is in probably one of its worst financial crises since the Fall of the Roman Empire.  I've owned businesses in both the United States and Italy and I can tell you that it is much much much much harder to be an entrenpeneur here.  The politics of this country manuveur against its citizens and residents in every way possible (especially those who are working to bring tourism (€€) to the region).  The young people who are educated and have the potential to actually change something are all defecting to countries who embrace hardwork and ingenuity.  And the people who are left feel as they are being dug deeper and deeper into a hole, and the current political system has no interest, or intention, of rescuing them.

But... for better or worse, I am choosing to stay and raise my family here.  I have found a wonderful community of people who have become my family and my inspiration for this time and place of my life. 

And literally, as I finish writing this post, on the eve of the Epiphany, or Befana, as it is know locally here in Italy, a woman dressed up as the Befana (an ugly old woman who passes in the night to bring either candy or coal to the children...) just knocked on our door and left 2 giant stockings full of candy for my kids.  These are the little things that happen in my town, that in reality, are big things for me right now.  The true sense of community and small town life (which is really what draws us all to Italy) is a flame that is still flickering... it just needs a few puffs of air to turn it back into a bright, roaring fire.

Thanks + Giving

Well, I've said it before and I will say it again:  Thanksgiving is actually more fun in Italy than it is in the states.  I think it is because Italians get even more excited than we do about the thought of a giant roasted, stuffed turkey (as a rule, turkeys do not get roasted whole here).  In the past I've done all or most of the cooking (especially when I held our annual Thanksgiving at my ex-restaurant Basiliko'). This year I had a pot-luck  at Palazzo delle Signorine in Cannara with a mix of American and Italian guests - and it turned out to be the best Thanksgiving yet! (I even convinced an Italian friend to take a stab at making Green Bean Casserole - which was a hit, of course, and made Hot Turkey Sandwiches for the post-party stragglers... I will conceal the identity of the person who ate THREE!)


(more photos on the Life Italian Style Facebook page - like it!)

So in the spirit of the holiday season, I just wanted to take a moment to THANK all of the people who GAVE support to Life Italian Style this year:  tourists and travellers, tour operators, my partners, friends old and new, and especially the writers and bloggers who have been so kind as to mention me in their contributions.  I hope I was able to GIVE back to all of you a memorable (and delicious) experience in Umbria!

GRAZIE MILLE! to the following writers:

Adventurous Kate: The Ultimate Umbrian Feast

Legal Nomads: Photoessay - Umbria in Three Days

Landing Standing: Tradition: The Secret to Umbrian Cuisine

Solo Traveler: Solo Travelers Celebrate - and think Umbria

Hipmunk: Terre Margaritelli in Umbria: Food, Wine & Romance

The Looptail/Gadventures: 5 Lesser-Known Places to Visit in Umbria

Come for the Wine: Wines of Italy Series - Terre Margaritelli

Brigolante: Italy Roundtable: Zen and the Art of Making Gnocchi

Vindulge: Makin' Gnocchi - The Recipe

Vindulge & IWINETC: Terre Margaritelli Winery - Umbrian Hospitality

Messina Hof: Terre Margaritelli Winery


International Wine Tourism Conference Roundup

IwinetcBannerThis year's International Wine Tourism Conference took place in Perugia and it was a really great event!  I was thrilled to be involved and taught a few cooking classes at the Terre Margaritelli Winery in Torgiano for various expert Wine Bloggers and Tour Operators.  Check out these articles to read all of the great things they had to say about us!:

From Terry Sullivan of Destinations Travel Magazine: Umbrian Wine & Food Beckons Travelers

From Mary Cressler of Vindulge Wine Blog"Terre Margaritelli Winery - Umbrian Hospitality" (posted on the IWINETC official site)

From Paul & Merrill Bonarrigo of Messina Hof Winery & Resort: "Terre Margaritelli Winery"

From Puy Trigueos (in Spanish) of Turista Compulsiva:  "Umbria: Maridaje de vino, pasta, chocolate y emociones" - some great food photos at the end of this article as well.

From Terry & Kathy Sullivan of Wine Trail Traveler:  "Making Flatbread and Gnocchi at Margaritelli Winery in Umbria"

Thanks everyone and we look foward to seeing you all in Umbria again soon!

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.

Interview in UmbriaCity.it

Here's an interview with me (in Italian) from our local happenings website UmbriaCity.it.

di Gian Marco Tosti

intervista a Jennifer McIlvaine.

In Italia si parla tanto di fuga di cervelli e di giovani laureati che non avendo prospettive di carriera se ne vanno in altri paesi per affermare le proprie competenze e cercare un lavoro migliore. Lo fanno perché vedono un paese bloccato, segnato dal malaffare, da una politica allo sbando e dove la meritocrazia è affossata da clientele e raccomandazioni.

Noi italiani crediamo che gli StatiUniti siano molto differenti. E’ così?

Gli Stati Uniti sono la stessa cosa per quanto riguarda la politica… per noi cittadini americani è ancora più difficile vivere nel nostro paese perché non si dispone di un sistema sanitario nazionale, né di un sistema pensionistico come quelli che esistono in Italia . Per noi, l’università è anche molto più costosa, quindi più o meno tutti lasciano l’università per iniziare la loro carriera con un sacco di debiti. Penso che “l’erba del vicino è sempre più verde”, e che non importa dove vivi, ci vuole tanto duro lavoro per iniziare una carriera di successo, che sia in Italia, in America, o in qualsiasi altro paese.

Com’ è l’Italia vista da un’americana, che ha deciso di vivere qua?
Adoro vivere in Italia. Non è perfetto, anche perché il paese perfetto non esiste, ma dove vivo adesso in questo momento, è fantastico. Anche se mi mancano alcune comodità dell’America (come la spesa per generi alimentari dopo le ore 20:00 e la buona cucina asiatica), comunque credo che la qualità della vita qui in Italia sia migliore.

Tu sei una chef. In Italia siamo convinti che la nostra sia la cucina migliore del mondo. E’ vero secondo te?
Non credo che la cucina italiana sia la migliore del mondo. Penso che sia tra le più buone e abbia la possibilità di migliorare. Purtroppo, gli italiani stanno perdendo molto della loro cultura, anche perché sempre meno le persone che hanno il tempo o la voglia di cucinare piatti tradizionali. Anche i concetti di stagionalità e di mangiare locale sono morti e solo ora, che è diventato di moda negli Stati Uniti, alcuni ristoranti iniziano a riabbracciare le vecchie tradizioni.

Come mai hai scelto di vivere in Umbria?
Mio marito è umbro.

Cosa ti piace dell’Umbria?
Amo la tranquillità. Mi piace anche che posso camminare per 5 minuti fuori casa ed essere immersa nella splendida campagna umbra.

Vivresti in un altro posto in Italia?
Vorrei vivere da qualche parte vicino al mare (mi manca stare vicino all’acqua). Mi piace il sud Adriatico – Le Marche, l’Abruzzo e la Puglia.

Com’è lavorare in Italia, fare l’imprenditore, gestendo un ristorante, come hai fatto per anni?
È difficile essere un’americana e provare a cucinare per gli italiani, perché, anche se mi considero una buona cuoca, gli italiani pensano che gli americani mangiano solo hamburger, e che quindi è tutto quello che sanno cucinare. Sono rimasta anche sorpresa di scoprire che gli italiani tendono ad essere molto preoccupati nel provare nuovi cibi. Prima che potessi introdurre nuovi piatti nel mio ristorante, ho dovuto conquistare i miei primi clienti dimostrando che potevo cucinare piatti umbri di base.

Tu hai un blog. Di cosa scrivi?
Scrivo su diversi aspetti della mia vita da quando mi sono trasferita in Umbria. A volte scrivo cose da fare nell’ambito del turismo, altre volte cose strane che fanno gli italiani…

Un luogo dell’Umbria da non perdere.
Il Monte Subasio. Spesso guido da Spello fino a Collepino, oltre la sommità della montagna dove ci sono sempre un sacco di mucche e cavalli che si aggirano lì intorno, da lassù si può vedere tutto. Poi scendo giù dall’altra parte fino ad Assisi.

Un prodotto e un piatto umbro che consiglieresti?
Il mio prodotto preferito è la mucca Chianina locale. Inoltre raccomando a tutti di mangiare un piatto di minestra su una base dei meravigliosi legumi umbri, come la zuppa di lenticchie o la minestra di pasta e ceci.

Blog: www.lifeitalianstyle.com