Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in Arezzo

One of the things we love most about living in the historic center of Arezzo is that here almost everyone is on foot or on bike.  There are cars (which the Italians navigate with expert precision - the other day we watched dumbstruck as a construction worker maneuvered his truck into an impossibly tight space with the dexterity most people have with a shopping cart!), but for the most part the centro storico is devoted to pedestrians.  There is nothing more charming for us than seeing couples, families, and groups of friends strolling along the street arm-in-arm stopping to speak with people they know. 

This experience is at its peak at Christmas.  The streets are adorned with strands of twinkling white lights; the shops windows are filled with tantalizing displays; and the streets are teeming with people bustling about with their packages.  Honestly there are times when there are so many people out and about it’s difficult to make one’s way through the throng.  This doesn’t happen just at Christmas however, the evening passagieta (stroll) is a fundamental daily ritual.

It’s clear that the city is not a collection of unrelated individuals, it’s a community.  The piazzas and streets are not thoroughfares, they are the central gathering places of the community.  People come outside to be together.  They come to meet, eat, share news, gossip, see and be seen.  As we stroll among them we feel as though we’re walking through their living rooms.  We experience the same kind of feeling in Seattle when we go to the farmer’s markets.  It’s not really possible to just pop in and out of a farmers’ market.  You run into people you know there.  You’ve got to actually stop and talk to people.   You’ve got to slow down.  Picture this happening EVERY DAY and you get a sense of what it is to live here.

We have noticed that displays of crèches are popular here.  As we passed by the window of someone’s home recently we saw the following crèche:

The doorway.  The blue fabric suspended above is printed with glittering stars.

A close up.

We were delighted not only by the display itself, but perhaps more so by the fact that it was set up to face the street – an offering to passersby.

Another of our favorite sights was a small Christmas tree on display outside a woodworkers’ studio.  The tree itself and its decorations were made entirely out of scraps of wood that would have otherwise been thrown away.  As we stood admiring it, one of the people from the studio arrived.  In her characteristic way, Gabriella enthused with delight about the tree (picture lots of exclamation marks!!!) and explained that we were so delighted by it that we had stopped to take a photo. 

On Christmas day we will be having dinner with our dear friend Federica and her family.  Federica
(who is originally from Arezzo) was our Italian teacher in Seattle for over three years.  We’re very honored and excited to have been invited to spend Christmas with her, and being with her will help make up for how much we are missing everyone we love back home.  We hope that all of you will be spending time with close friends and family during this holiday season.

      Buone Feste e Felice Capodanno!

Thursday, December 15, 2011


We love Italy.  We love almost everything about Italy, except for the cigarette smoke and quite frankly the bread.  It’s the lack of salt.  The Italians in Tuscany and Umbria don’t use salt in their bread.  The pane fatto al legno, when it’s fresh, is pretty good, but all the breads here have a distinct lack of flavor. 

Legend has it that once upon a time in Tuscany the Pope got mad at the people and punished them by taking away their salt trade, hoping to bring the Tuscan people to their knees.  But the Tuscans were made of tougher stuff and simply started baking without salt. When the Pope finally gave up on them and let them have their salt trade back, the Tuscans continued to make their bread without salt.  We learned at our school that the lack of salt was actually more a matter of economics - salt was simply too expensive.  Whichever story is true, the Tuscans now see no reason to change their ways.

Food-oriented festivals are common in Italy.  In and around Arezzo there is some kind of food festival about once a week, year-round.  Some are huge and some have only one or two booths. This past weekend there were three different festivals here– one devoted to honey, one devoted to truffles, and one devoted to the foods of France.  When we heard about the festival of French foods, we thought this was like bringing coals to Newcastle, or ice to Eskimos.  To some extent it was, as far as the wine, cheese and salami were concerned, but when it comes to the bread and pastries…the French are in a whole other league.  We began having mouth-watering images of baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat. 

We showed up just a couple of hours after the festival opened.  It was smaller than we had anticipated, but we could smell the bread baking as we entered the piazza and that was all we needed.  Henry, Mister Baked Goods himself, quickly located the pastry tent and went to check it out.  He bought a plain croissant for himself and a pain au chocolat for Gabriella. They were still warm from the oven and we consumed them savoring every bite.  It took some willpower to refrain from going back for more.  We could still taste them hours later.  In the afternoon we returned for some baguettes which were warm, moist and full of flavor (i.e. salt), with a nice crunchy crust.  We quickly devoured those as well.  

Fortunately the festival goes for three more days.  You’ll know where to find us.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Uovi con Pomodori e Peperoni

One of the meals we had when we were staying at Il Bellini was a simple dish that Rosanna prepared in about 45 minutes.  When we complimented her on the meal she was surprised we were so impressed because apparently it is quite common here.  For us it was an ingenious concept –a quick tomato sauce with eggs poached right in the sauce.

We tried it out when we got home, and while it did not turn out exactly the same as what Rosanna had prepared, we were sufficiently pleased with the result.  We therefore thought it would be worth sharing the recipe with you.  Keep in mind this is our version based on what we remember of Rosanna’s dish and what we had on hand at the time.  Feel free to experiment yourself.

 Uovi con Pomodori e Peperoni (Eggs with Tomatoes and Peppers)

Serves 4

8 ripe large tomatoes, chopped into bite-sized cubes
4 (or 6 or 8) eggs
3-4 large yellow bell peppers, chopped into bite-sized cubes
1 large onion, chopped into bite-sized cubes
3 cloves garlic, minced
Copious amounts of olive oil!
2 tsp. marjoram
2 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. basil
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

Bread, pasta and Parmesan are optional

Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat.  Use enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan.  Cook until the onion becomes soft and translucent (about 5 minutes – do not allow the onion to brown).  At this point add the tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper, and cook slowly for about 10 minutes.  Stir periodically to keep the tomatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pan. 

Add the peppers and continue cooking over a moderate heat until the tomatoes have completely lost their shape and the peppers are soft (about 20 minutes).  The sauce will become more flavorful the longer it cooks, so it’s best not to rush this part.  Cover the pan to keep too much liquid from evaporating during this phase of the cooking.  If the sauce becomes too dry, add a bit of water.

When the peppers are sufficiently soft, adjust seasoning as necessary.  Carefully crack each egg into the sauce and allow the eggs to poach on the surface of the sauce.  Once the eggs are thoroughly cooked, remove the pan from the heat and serve an egg with a generous spoonful of the sauce into individual bowls.  Lightly sprinkle salt and pepper on top of each egg, and drizzle with olive oil. 

This sauce is substantial enough to serve as a light meal on its own, or it can be used as a topping for pasta or bread.  Add freshly grated Parmesan if you like.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Books & Bookstores

In an earlier entry we talked about our cooking class with Lalla. At the end of that evening she told us that she was catering an event the next night for the grand opening of a new bookstore and invited us to come.  When we arrived we found throngs of people both outside and inside the store.  It was obviously a big social event, and there was free food and Prosecco for anyone who happened by.  Despite the fact that we were clearly not part of the “in” crowd, we mustered the courage to step into the throng and help ourselves to the food and drink, and then Henry pushed his way into the store.  (We all know what a pushy guy Henry is!) Inside he found a copy of a book we have been searching for since we arrived.  It’s a book we used in our Italian lessons before we left Seattle.  We really enjoyed it and wanted to have our own copy.  Finally finding it was a cause for celebration.

Panchine is the word for benches and the essays are about sitting on benches and enjoying the world as it goes by.  This is a practice we have yet to perfect on this Italian adventure.  Till now we’ve been too busy!

Henry has been amazed over the last three weeks to see how many bookstores there are here, at least 8, including two large outdoor used book stalls, in a town of 100,000 people.  Despite the fact that this new store is part of a chain of stores, seeing such excitement over the opening of a bookstore makes Henry more than a little sad and wistful about the closing of Fremont Place Books.

Only a couple of days later Henry’s passion for books was excited again when he found the local independent bookstore called Il Viaggiatore Immaginario (The Imaginary Traveller).

He’d looked in the window a few times and saw that the selection was a lot like what he had in Fremont.  When he finally went in to order a book, he met the owner and mentioned that he was a former bookstore owner himself.  This prompted the owner to start talking about his bookstore and the book business in Italy.  All the while Henry wished he knew the language better so that he could have a more fulfilling discussion and it reinforced his commitment to improving his Italian.  Now that Henry has visited the store several times and made several purchases, he’s decided to stop in to volunteer his help during the busy month of December.  For sure the prospect is bittersweet.

"I was hoping to get books."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Harvesting Olives, Part 2

View from Il Bellini

 As we mentioned in part 1, we had arranged as WWOOFers (as volunteers from this organization are affectionately known) to go to Il Bellini, a local farm/agritourismo to assist with the olive harvest.  We had no idea what we were in for.  In the email exchange between Gabriella and Rosanna (the daughter who essentially runs the business), Rosanna had asked us to come for a particular weekend in which she needed help both with the olive harvest and at a local fair where she would be selling olive oil.  Rosanna suggested that since we speak Italian (what, us?) one of us could help her at the fair.  Gabriella was quick to respond saying that we would be happy to help, but we weren’t at all sure our language ability was up to snuff.  Sure, we can write emails in Italian pretty well, but that’s because we have our trusty dictionary and verb book on hand.  Plus we have the time to review what we’ve written before we actually send the message.  Actually SPEAKING to people is a whole different story!   Via email we agreed we’d come for the weekend and once we got there we’d determine what made the most sense.

On a Friday afternoon we took the train to San Giovanni, about ½ hour north of Arezzo, where Rosanna met us at the station.  Apparently she determined that our Italian was just fine because on the drive to the farm she said she wanted Gabriella to help her at the fair the next day, and she asked Henry to stay on the farm and help the others with the harvest.  This was the first time the two of us were going to have our own independent adventures for an entire day.  We were just slightly trepidatious.
The road to the olives groves

Once we arrived at the farm we found the olive harvest in full swing so we changed our clothes and went right to work.  There were three other WWOOFers as well as several family members already hard at work.  You will no doubt be as confused as we initially were by who everyone is:  Anna and Mario, Rosanna’s parents; Maria, Mario’s sister; Maria’s husband, also named Mario; Paulo, brother-in-law to Anna; and Adelita, Anna’s sister.  Dino, a local handyman, was also there for a few days.

This is very much a family operation and very different than our experience before.  The family has over 1,300 trees. They also make their own wine and honey.  The process for harvesting olives was similar to what we had done with Lauro, but on a much grander scale.  The nets are huge, 20’-50’ long, and since the groves are terraced, laying them out properly so that no olives are lost is a lot of work.              

There are usually 2 people working simultaneously on a tree - one on the ground and the other on a ladder getting the higher branches.  Anna also uses the mechanized rake to reach the higher branches - that thing is heavy!  It’s hard to believe she uses it all day long without breaking a sweat.

Anna and her mechanical rake
 Because it is necessary to harvest the olives when they are dry the family has been taking advantage of the unusually sunny weather we’ve been having.  They have been working 7 days a week for nine hours a day since the end of October.  They take about an hour’s break for lunch (which, by the way the women have taken the time to prepare in advance, presumably the evening before – when DO they sleep?!?).  They will do this for 30+ days straight.  We were exhausted after working for 7½ days (we were there for two consecutive 4-day weekends).  We can’t imagine how tired they must be.  Oh yeah, Mario is 75 with emphysema.  Anna, Maria and Adelita are probably in their late 60s, and Paulo is in his 50s. These are no spring chickens.

One of the highlights of this whole experience was lunch, not just for the food but for the whole quintessential Italian experience.  Around 12:30 everyone headed back to the house and sat around a table outside in the courtyard.  There were jugs of olive oil and huge bottles of wine, which Mario brought out from his cantina in the garage.  We all sat together for a meal that always began with pasta followed by some kind of meat, usually pork, salami or pancetta, along with copious amounts of bread. The bread however was a merely a vehicle for consuming olive oil and salt.  None of us could get enough of it!  After the meal we each got a cup of espresso.  This was just the thing to kick us into gear for the afternoon’s work.  Though she is not a coffee drinker, Gabriella grew quite fond of this ritual, and eagerly anticipated her daily shot of espresso.

Mario presides over lunch
The main house and lunch table

Courtyard where lunch is served

Every night we had dinner together with Rosanna, her 4 year old son, and the other volunteers.  The other members of the family don’t actually live on the property – they’re probably sick and tired of it by now and are quite happy to retreat to their homes just a few kilometers away.  Rosanna, or her mother, or one of her aunts, always provided the meals.  Everything was delicious and there were several dishes that we especially liked.  As we try them out at home we’ll post the recipes here.

The bigger highlight of our time at Il Bellini, though, was the connection we made with the family. 
Anna and Rosanna immediately took to Gabriella and both formed a strong bond with her. Meanwhile Henry and Mario, the Babbo (the term for Dad in Tuscany), became very attached.  When we left after our second visit, Anna invited us to come back for a Sunday lunch, which basically means we’re part of the family now.  

The richness of our experience at Il Bellini is something we hoped we would have during our time in Italy, but didn’t really count on happening.  If all this has taken place in our first few weeks here, who knows what else will happen.  We feel immensely grateful, and we’ve already started thinking about making annual trips to come visit our new friends every year, just in time for the harvest.