Preci’s Curious Fame

July 27, 2012

A friend joined me for the adventure: we took a curvy wooded road into the Valnerina and then up into the Sibiliine mountains in southern Umbria, until we came to tiny Preci (population: about 200). Born as a medieval rural village near a Benedictine oratory (now the Abbey of Sant'Eutizio) time seems to have stood still in Preci. The serenity of this picturesque mountain village of warm Mediterranean colors belies its bellicose past: in the thirteenth century, feudal overlords battled Papal authority for dominance. After decades of conflict, the town was sacked in the early sixteenth century by nearby Norcia and then later rebuilt by Paul III. His mid-sixteenth century reign coincides with the diffusion of the fame of the medical skills of Preci doctors throughout Europe. Preci's sought-after surgeons constructed noble palaces and the town soon became an elegant fortified village. read more...

Still Owing an Ode to Alessandro

July 27, 2012

July 26th isn't my birthday but farm friends will be calling in any case to wish me "auguri, Anna" on my onomastico (name day): July 26th is the Festa di Sant'Anna, the mother of the Blessed Virgin and one of Italy's most venerated saints with over sixty churches dedicated to her throughout the peninsula. Due to diffuse infant mortality in the Middle Ages, devotion to Sant'Anna reached its peak and she became not only the saint of pregnant women but was also invoked by sterile women and nursing mothers (as mother's milk was linked to infant survival). read more...

Tasting Italy in Sirolo

July 25, 2012

As the July evening moves in on Adriatic coastal gem, Sirolo, sea-satiated vacationers head up from the turquoise waters to the main square for a stroll from stand-to-enticing-stand at the food festival, Capricci di Gola. The late July "Caprices of the Tastebuds" ( or literally, "of the throat") is a "culinary stroll" through Italy - just about - north-to-south. At one stand, you can taste savory Pugliese pizzas or the famed Altamura bread and not far away, another southern Italian stand entices with baba al rhum, arancini (large rice balls, shaped like oranges, hence the name) cannoli made on the spot, colorful almond paste frutta di martorana, formed into every imaginable fruit form. You aren't in Sicily here but you feel you are - and it's not just the accent of the smiling young woman handing you a cannolo which convinces you! Hot and thirsty? Pause at the nearby giant lemon for a granita. read more...

FOLIGNO, Where First Courses Take First Prizes

July 23, 2012

Hard to imagine we are coming up to the fourteenth edition of the wondrous food festival celebrating Italian first courses, I Primi d'Italia. I wrote this when there ten years ago and re-reading this piece makes me eager to head there once again, this coming September: "Tradizione e Innovazione" ("Tradition and Innovation") was the theme for the tenth anniversary celebration of one of Italy's most renowned food festivals, the 4-day I Primi d'Italia, which animates Foligno at the end of September. I Primi d'Italia ("First Courses of Italy") is Umbria's celebration of the most-beloved Italian first courses: pasta (and this year, gluten-free varieties, too!), risotto, gnocchi, polenta and soups. Though the primi are the core of the festivities - both the tastings of them and cooking lessons with world-renowned chefs who transform the first courses with innovative creative touches - wine-tastings, classical and jazz music, theater, films, art exhibits, cooking competitions, cookbook displays, and even fashion shows embellish the festival and draw the crowds. read more...

Zucchini Goodness, Zucchini Lore

July 19, 2012

Ragazza/ragazzina ("girl/little girl) - chiesa/chiesina ("church/little church) - stella/stellina ("star/little star") are logical pairings but zucca/zucchina ("squash/little squash") doesn't quite work out: La zucchina ("zucchini") is not related at all to the pumpkin or any other squash - and in fact, its closest vegetable "relative" is actually the potato, just one chromosome away, genetically. That one chromosome gives the potato its rounded form rather than the oblong form of the zucchini. read more...

Scheggino: Eating at “Kilometro Zero”

July 19, 2012

For a "menu a kilometro zero", head to Scheggino, Umbrian medieval hilltown gem on the Nera River. Follow the twisting stone-vaulted backstreets, leading up to the 11th-century S. Nicola church, and just past a narrow alleyway, you'll come to the huge wooden door of Osteria Baciafemmine, named after il Vicolo Baciafemmine ("Narrow Alleyway Kiss-the Girls"). According to an old village legend, young people would head in summer heat to the shady alleyway, so conveniently narrow that getting away without a kiss was improbable. read more...

Peppe, a Last Link to Treasured Rural Memories

July 18, 2012

"Giugno, la falce in pugno" ("June, the scythe in the fist"), says an old Italian proverb, re-echoing the days of scything hay manually. Times have changed: at Peppe and Gentile's farm two weeks ago, fifteen hundred bales of hay in the hayshed - with fifteen hundred to go, Peppe told me. He's haying all alone - his tractor, his only companion. With this heat, he's out in the fields before daylight. Amazingly, he's back on the tractor after a short post-lunch pennichella ("nap"). It's now July so the hay is in: time for the wheat, oats, barley. When we farmed in the late 70's, haying was a group venture, all of us rotating from farm to farm throughout June, til everyone's hay was in. There was some mechanization but in our hilly area, the smaller hand scythe, la falce, and the ominous looking grim-reaper type scythe, la falce fienaia (literally, "hay scythe") were used to cut that hay along ditches, on hillsides, and around trees which escaped the motorized falciatrice. read more...

Sonny Rollins and Perugia’s Umbria Jazz: Giving Back the Italian Passione

July 16, 2012

He could only hobble across the stage, head of fuzzy white hair bobbing, sax clutched in a strong gnarled fist. The knees and hips of Sonny Rollins - soon to be eighty-two - might be worn out, but not his lungs. He barely stopped for a breather - I saw him sip some water once - in nearly two hours on stage at Perugia's open air arena, Santa Giuliana. And the more the Umbria Jazz crowds deliriously shouted "Sony, Sony" (no, not a typo - but the Italian pronunciation of "Sonny"), the wilder, the more intricate, the more powerful those trills on the sax. read more...

Isola di Giannutri, “Fuori dal Mondo”

July 16, 2012

Fuori dal mondo - "out of this world" - is what you feel as you step off the ferry onto this tiny Mediterranean island. The turquoise/emerald water of the island coves is certainly "out of this world" but you are "out of this world" touching down on this island with 180 houses (hidden away - we only saw about six in our three days here), fewer than twenty permanent residents, only one small piazza with a single restaurant-bar (mostly empty), one meagerly-stocked grocery (never did find it open) and only dirt paths leading to the two or three coves of chrystalline water. At a fork in the footpaths, the only three signs on the island indicate the swimmable coves and the warning that no one may verge off the footpaths from early May until late October unless accompanied by an authorized naturalist guide. read more...

Italy’s Back to Campanilismo

July 3, 2012

Italy's recent loss to Spain in the European cup was "meritata" as countless Italian newscasters and fans all over the country admitted in interviews. But what a glorious show of Italian passione these weeks have been! And not only: taken up in the surge of excitement, passione, I read assiduously all soccer analyses in the Gazzetta dello Sport and other papers after the games, marveling over the finely-written articles, smiling over descriptions which could ONLY be written - and hungrily read - by Italians. This line, for example, written after Italy defeated England. to describe how Montolivo played: "his moves on the ball were like brushstrokes of Caravaggio." As Italy headed into the final match, one sports journalists wrote, "Abbiamo ridotto L'Inghliterra e la Germania a nature morte" ("we reduced England and Germany to still lifes"). That artistic bent again... read more...