Thursday, September 29, 2011

Food glamour shots/What I've been up to

So, since the weather here is still fantastic, the beaches empty, and the tourists well behaved, I've had a lot of time to just relax in the afternoons before work. I've cooked Indian (a success might I add, even though I couldn't find spinach and substituted arugula and our house smelled like downtown Bangladesh for four days), improvised a few chicken dishes (here, it's the "other" white meat - no one eats it!), brought a bit of Calabria to Liguria, and taken baby steps into Jewish cuisine (latkes!). This takes time and groceries. The stores here, as I've mentioned, close from 12:30 to 4:30, and that can be a bit of an obstacle planning wise since we usually don't eat lunch until 2. So, Manuel had the idea to call his mother and have her send up some groceries for us one afternoon.
Being a girl seemingly constantly worried about bothering other people or inconveniencing them in any way, I'm next to him as he's on the phone waving "NOOOO!" as he's asking his mom for all sorts of stuff - salami, cheeses, meats, bottled water. Worried, he gets off the phone and I start to ask, obsessively, if she is mad at us, if she thinks I'm lazy for not shopping, and so forth.
Boy did I read that wrong. Italian mom's in Italy are exactly as they are in the U.S.
Her concern was not that I was lazy or we didn't want to go shopping, but,
She sent up enough food for a family of four for a week. No joke. An our tiny Euro-Fridge is now a dangerous death trap of eggplant and peppers. Whenever you open the door, you have to jump back from the assault of falling vegetables.
This attitude of his family carries over to their restaurant as
well. Last night was Wednesday, and the Cantina is closed while the Restaurant is open. We went there at about 9:30, I again worrying we were inconveniencing his family by taking up a table or making
his mom take our order. After the fifth course, we begged his parents (his dad in the kitchen, his mother graciously checking in on tables in the packed restaurant) to stop sending food. It was all delicious, but even 5 small tasting plates make up a pretty hearty meal with wine. Local trill Ligurian style with tomatoes, potatoes, pine nuts and olives, followed by sole stuffed with an eggplant puree and then swordfish with a mint and
basil pesto, fresh plums and arugula. Next came another local white fish with capers and a broccoli cream sauce, then finally, breaded, lightly fried Ligurian swordfish with a red pepper cream
and wilted radicchio reduced with red wine and aged balsamic. I was absolutely stuffed.
Here I am, worried that we're eating when they could be concentrating on other actual
guests, when his father comes out of the kitchen in his chef outfit, annoyed.
"Why don't you want more food?"
His mom, "You hardly ate anything!"
"Have some tiramisu!"
"No?? Ok, then you have to have the homemade frutti di bosco sorbetto - caldo - it's for digestion. What do you mean no? Just a little, just a little. No, no, take it. I'm just going to put it down, eat what you want". (Note: the homemade sorbetto was in a parfait form with some warm, local berry compote, hence the "hot" sorbet).
A scene similar to every dinner I had growing up. It's nice to know that parents, are, well - parents. No matter where you go in the world.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Il primo giorno d'Autunno

The first day of fall is usually marked by that snap in the air - that looking forward to halloween, drinking pumpkin beer, and the unloading of boxes of warmer clothes from the attic (or, for many people with small apartments, from the other part of the closet). Here, I embraced my old life and my new one by making an "American" apple pie, then going to the beach. The weather here is still about 80 F and sunny, and though the water is a little cold, it's crystal clear and empty, which makes for perfect, lazy days at the beach soaking up the last of the summer sun. Beautiful sunsets, like this one, are seen every day during my "commute" to work, which is a 7 minute, 147 step descent with some beautiful views. Corniglia, in this photo, can be seen in the distance. Perhaps the most "picturesque" town in the region, up some 390 steps from the sea, it sits snugly perched precariously in the cliffs like a beautiful woman leaning over to get a better look at the crashing aqua waves below. At night, the temperature drops significantly and the smell of wood burning fires wafting out of neighboring chimneys brings me back to the correct season - it is, in fact, fall.
The business at the Cantina is in an American rhythm. It's busy during normal American dinner times, say 7:30-9, then most tables leave by 10:30-11, which means I can sit peacefully and do my Italian homework, something I have mixed emotions about. I am at the point where I really just need to start speaking more, and though I am trying, it's frustrating having someone interrupt me every two words to correct my pronunciation. I know I need it, but it makes telling a story difficult. Also, I'm beyond learning simple past tenses and now onto learning the "fun" stuff, like "I would have gone to the party if they had it". It's as annoying in Italian as it is in English. My textbook, however (which I bought off Amazon before coming here) is of endless amusement to my friends, and they all want ones in English. It's probably pretty easy to find, but when I informed a few of them there wasn't a lesson on American curse words, they lost interest.
Curse words are used more here than in the U.S., and it's really amusing to me when a parent freely throws around phrases like these in front of children. They have varying degrees, however, some as mild as "crap" and some like the "f" word with all sorts of references to god mixed in (those are the REALLY bad ones, not for children and of course, women). The milder ones are kind of funny, especially considering their actual meanings. Cavolo means literally, cabbage, and is used to mean, "like hell" or "like heck", or any sort of mild curse exclamation. For example, "Col cavolo io vado al cinema con lui" is "Like heck I'll go to the movies with him", but literally means "Cabbage, I'll go to the movies with him". Moms, grandpas and children all throw it around, though children more often then not get a nasty look from their elders. Fantastic, isn't it?
Also, "porca" attached to anything is bad, and the worst is when it comes before "vacca". So, in essence, it's not odd to see angry men shaking their fists and yelling "pig cow" at each other on the street. It makes me crack up every time, which is even worse. Someone, in all their misery, cursing, and a strange American girl laughing with tears in her eyes muttering "pig cow! He said pig cow!" on the sidelines is not what one would expect to see. I'm trying to control myself.
One thing I could not control myself about was a recent post on Tripadvisor that left me shaking with rage, and Manuel just as annoyed as I. When we told other friends, they also felt the same. Someone wrote how "her" Vernazza, one of the other towns of the Cinque Terre (and seen far in the right of the above photo from the beach at the Stella Marina), had become commercialized, over-touristy, over-populated and disgusting after her first and only visit there 15 years ago. What followed in that message board thread was a small rant by other tourists about how there were too many tourists (ironic) that ruined the region. The same woman said the locals were annoyed about the visitors, and lamented that their children were no longer fishermen or working in the vineyards.
The message was a long one, but those were some of the points that annoyed me to no end. I hate when I read things encouraging people not to make the Cinque Terre a stop in Italy. Though I agree, the tour buses and the hoards of groups trying to do it all in a day are too much, people making this place a stop for a few days are making a great decision. There is a certain kind of charm here that is only matched by the incredible, rugged beauty of the region, and the locals here are doing everything they can to balance the tourism and the protection of what Manuel calls "their gift from God". It's an undeveloped coastline that will remain so - a UNESCO world heritage site, and a beloved Italian national park. There is no reason I'd tell someone to stay away, save for August, but that can be said for many places not just in Italy. The woman, writing about "her" beloved Vernazza, had that same connection with the Cinque Terre that many people, including myself, have felt. What she ignored was the fact that this region has historically been a poor one. Anchovies weren't salted because they liked them that way. It's simply all they had to eat here. They had anchovies and they had salt, and not much else to ensure they could eat through a cold winter if the sea wasn't providing and the stubborn mountains wouldn't grow food. This land is hard to farm from and the ocean can be cruel, and before roads or trains, women - like Manuel's grandmother- had to walk days to the next city over these sloping mountains to sell homemade sea salt so they could have some sort of income. The rocky paths are not for a scenic exercise route, but created out of a need for these poor, tiny villages, to be able to interact with each other. More then that, this woman is ignoring the reality of life here. Tourism is how these people make their money - families just scraping by are now sending their children to university to study interior design. Living with chickens in the backyard might be the same, but now you have a fridge. Though being a fisherman might be a romantic idea, it's a very hard life, and one that most parents wouldn't want their children to have to do if they had other options. While it's true that only 2 out of every 10 fishermen here have children following in their footsteps, it's by no means a dying profession, no more then making wine is. As long as their are people to drink and eat, there are people to produce these products to satisfy that need, in the same ways they have for centuries. Tourists might like to picture Italy's small towns as full of charming, comical local fishermen and nonna's in front of churches, men sipping espresso in the piazza and well worn clothes hanging out in the ocean breeze. These things still happen, but Italy doesn't exist in a vacuum. The only people who want it to stay like this are tourists who don't see the hard part of a life like this in a tiny beach town. It makes for a beautiful story, like for this woman, and a romantic vacation memory, but Italy isn't entirely "Under the Tuscan Sun" and the residents here are grateful for an easier life. The world is changing, we all know, but Italy has a long and stubborn memory, and is doing its best to preserve the old and embrace the new. Keeping practices like Anchovy Festivals and Bescantà alive ensures that this region will stay as special and unique as it's always been regardless of the tourists. Cavolo, that woman who missed "her" Vernazza shouldn't have come in August.

From what I've seen so far, the beginning of Autumn is clearly the time to be here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

After the rain

il temporale di ieri ha portato questo bel cielo (e mare) sta mattina....questa è la vista dal nostro terrazzo.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rainy Days and Anchovy Festivals

Manuel was right about a few things in the past 24 hours. First, it’s grey and rainy today, which he predicted from his aforementioned magical weather prediction system yesterday. I also used a magical, ancient American system (called Google) and confirmed it. More then a few tourists are miserable because of this – the weather here has been hot and sunny, more like mid-August then mid-September. Coupled with a train strike, those seeking a short weekend in the Cinque Terre at the beach are now stuck here until the strike ends tonight, and many of the tourists, as I discovered last night, had no idea the strike was even happening.

Hearing one table lament to their neighbors last night at the Cantina that they couldn’t drink too much wine since they had to catch an early train, I turned around, having overheard, prepared to be the bearer of bad news. “Um, you’re train won’t be coming – there is a strike until Sunday at 9pm”. This caused something of a chain reaction of our American diners last night as table after table nervously called me over – “What do you mean, a strike?”

An inconvenience like a sciopero wouldn’t have been a annoying if today was like yesterday, with a cloudless blue sky, a light breeze, and an anchovy festival I’d been looking forward to for months. Anchovies, as I’ve mentioned time and time again, are the humble stars of the diet of the Cinque Terre.

As I wrote in a paper for a Techniques of Regional Cuisine class for New York University, aptly entitled “Acciughe: The Unassuming Star of Ligurian Cuisine and the Cultural Importance of Anchovies in the Italian Riviera”:

The fish that thrive in these waters are the small silver and blue anchovies that made up a bulk of the Ligurian catch[1]. The shelf in the water that makes it difficult for other fish to inhabit is perfect for the anchovies, as any sort of continental shelf is their preferred environment, and it is what makes them the most important water column (as opposed to bottom dwelling) fish in the Ligurian Sea[2]. The area around the Cinque Terre as well as a few other Ligurian towns such as Portofino and Capo Mortola, is a relatively uninhabited, stable coastline, in sharp contrast to the development surrounding Genoa and La Spezia[3]. The mountains of the region that have made life difficult for Ligurians for centuries benefit the anchovies as they act as a deterrent against over development. These pesce azzuro (which translates to “blue fish” but means any of the small fish caught in the Ligurian sea) stand as a testament to the Ligurian resolve to, as food writer and Ligurian resident Fred Plotkin notes, “make the best with what they are given”[4]. The rocky mountains that make up the rest of the region mean that any land that could be farmed is built in terraced plots bordered by slate and also make it difficult to employ any new farming techniques[5]. Truly, as Italian food expert Elena Kostioukovitch notes in her book “Why Italians Love To Talk About Food”, the cuisine of Liguria is “first and foremost [that of] the seamen’s”[6]. Even as Genoa went through its heyday as the so-called “center of the universe”, it nevertheless remained the capital of a region with difficult terrain to farm and a sea difficult to harvest from, and a people who had an unwavering attachment to their coastal cuisine[7].

A variety of different cooking techniques and ingredients also made their mark in the preparation of these simple, peasant dishes of Liguria based on its importance as a region bordering the ocean, even as their agricultural techniques did not[8]. The ports of Genoa and even La Spezia ensured a variety of influences from other cultures whose products made their way off the docks onto the Ligurian table[9]. Tuscany may have gotten attention as Italy’s beacon of cuisine, and the canals of Venice are as enchanting as the history of Rome – but as journalist Phillipa Davenport writes, “Affections are reverting to the less tenderly rounded charms of Liguria, where the land plunges down to the sea and rises steeply into mountainscapes. On these precarious slopes, contained and transformed by stone terraces, nurtured by mild winters, clean air, bright light, salt breezes and generous Ligurian sun, fruits, vegetables and wild herbs thrive in profusion”. Fish, accompanied by a varied assortment of herbs and vegetables, stands out as the signature of Ligurian cookery.

This deep respect for the sea and their heavy reliance on what they can harvest from it played in many aspects of the Ligurians life beyond gastronomy. The season for anchovies migrating through the strait of Gibraltar and east from France peaks in late June and July[10]. It is no coincidence that the patron saint of Monterosso al Mare, one of the coastal towns of the UNESCO world heritage site the Cinque Terre, is the same day as the annual anchovy festival, not to be confused with the annual salted anchovy festival[11]. Saint John the Baptist Day is celebrated by local school children sending off candle lit paper boats into the sea at night, in the tradition of the local anchovy fishermen who catch their silver prizes by lantern and net during these summer nights. Though this day, June 23rd, is celebrated by commemorating the catching of the anchovies, a later holiday celebrating the patron saint of the second church in the town celebrates salted anchovies[12]. The first festival, held over the days from June 23-35 celebrates the catching of the actual fish[13]. The later festival in September (held on the third Sunday of the month) celebrates “la Sagra dell’Acciuga Salata”, or the celebration of the few months the anchovies have been lying in salt, preserving in dark caves in the town, now ready to eat[14]. It is the addition of this salt that prevents harmful bacteria from growing in the fish as it lies out, and it is the specific fat content and the freshness of the anchovy that aids in its “ripening”[15]. As a nod to both God and the sea, the Ligurians celebrate both the catching of the fish and the preserving of a good harvest at the beginning and the end of the anchovy “season”.

So, as you can gather, anchovies are more then just a little fish to nibble on. They’re linked to Ligurian culture and religion in several ways, and I have been looking forward to the Sagra dell’Acciuga Salata for months. Years. Much longer then anyone should ever look forward to an anchovy party.

Manuel warned me that my expectations were too high. I shrugged off his knowing face reasoning he was probably just jaded to a lifetime of anchovy festivals. I walked to the old town, armed with my camera and expecting to return stuffed with my favorite food yesterday afternoon.

Manuel, for the second time this weekend, was right. I was wholeheartedly disappointed. There were tents and stands lining the streets on this gorgeous Ligurian day, but selling handcrafts, jewelry, linens and the like – no anchovies. I made my way to the main church, happy that behind it I found a long table set up with a few picnic tables, selling a few types of anchovy dishes, but the tables were empty of diners and this was in no way the plethora of anchovies I had dreamed of. I walked up Via Roma to my friend Lorenzo’s enoteca, and found him faithfully giving demonstrations of the traditional method of salting the fish, nautical shirt, fisherman hat and all. He informed me that this was the last anchovy festival of the year, and maybe the people were tired. I responded, resigned to my little festival consisting of 2 tables, that I thought there would be people dressed as anchovies, that the streets would be full, etc, and he informed me if I wished, I could dress as an anchovy next year.

Regardless, the anchovies were great, and even if no one was eating them, oh well. More for me.

So, today, lamenting about the anchovies and the rain, I had a stroke of genius that was the perfect solution for a rainy day. I ran it by Manuel, and he confirmed it – we were both right in this case – banana nutella bread. Baking on a rainy day is fantastic, and our tiny apartment filled with sweet smells of the cake. It was so easy to make, and delicious. Ok, I don’t have a beach, a train or an anchovy festival this weekend. But a loaf of this gorgeous bread more then makes up for it.

Banana Nutella Bread (adapted from a recipe from

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour


2 ripe bananas, smashed

1/4 cup melted butter

2/3 cup sugar

1 egg, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

Pinch of nutmeg

Pinch of cinnamon

3/4 cup plain yogurt

2 heaping spoonfuls Nutella

2 cups of all-purpose flour


No need for a mixer for this recipe. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). With a wooden spoon, mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the sugar, egg, and vanilla. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the flour, mix, then as much yogurt as needed to keep the mixture rather moist (about ½ a cup). Pour almost all of the mixture into a buttered 4x8 inch loaf pan, reserving about ½ a cup. Mix with the Nutella and the remainder of the yogurt, and swirl into the rest of the loaf with a knife. Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and slice to serve.

Yield: Makes one loaf.

[1]Fred Plotkin. Recipes from Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1997, p. 323

[2]Nikolaos Nikolioudakis and Stylianos Somarakis. Oceanographic habitat, growth and mortality of larval anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) in the northern Aegean Sea (eastern Mediterranean)”. Marine Biology: International Journal on Life in Oceans and Coastal Waters. Vol. 152 (2007) p. 1143. Accessed via Google Scholar, Internet.

[3]R. Cattaneo Vietti, et al. “The Ligurian Sea: Present Status, Problems and Perspectives”. Chemistry and Ecology. Vol. 26, S.1 (2010) p.319. Accessed online via New York University.

[4]Fred Plotkin. Recipes from Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1997, p323

[5]Elena Kostioukovitch. Why Italians Love to Talk About Food. Appel, Anne Milano, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2006, p.106

[6] Elena Kostioukovitch. Why Italians Love to Talk About Food. Appel, Anne Milano, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2006, p.106

[7]Philippa Davenport. “The Best Pesto Is Made in Paradise”. Financial Times (London). 16 Oct 1999. pg. 13. ProQuest, New York University. 12 Feb 2011.

[8]Laura Rangoni. Profumi e Sapori di Liguria. Genova, Italy: Liguriapress, 2004. P. 7.

[9]Laura Rangoni. Profumi e Sapori di Liguria. Genova, Italy: Liguriapress, 2004. p.7.

[10]Enrico Pocopagni. Cinque Terre. “Gastronomy: Cinque Terre, Riviera and Vara Valley Food”, “Cinque Terre Trails”, and “Liguria Wine: Cinque Terre”. 28 Jan 2011.< >

[11]Francesco Bravin. Monterosso: fra turismo e tradizione. Universita Degli Studi di Milano, Bicocca: Facolta di Scienze della Formazione Corso di Laurea Specialistica in Scienze Antropologiche ed Etnologiche. Dottoressa Silvia Barberiani, relatore. Professor Ugo Fabietti, corealitore. Academic Year 2006-2007.

[12] “Italian Riviera Sights: Monterosso al Mare Review”. Fodors Online. 13 April 2011.

[13] Italian Riviera Sights: Monterosso al Mare Review”. Fodors Online. 13 April 2011.

[14]Francesco Bravin. Monterosso: fra turismo e tradizione. Universita Degli Studi di Milano, Bicocca: Facolta di Scienze della Formazione Corso di Laurea Specialistica in Scienze Antropologiche ed Etnologiche. Dottoressa Silvia Barberiani, relatore. Professor Ugo Fabietti, corealitore. Academic Year 2006-2007.

[15] M. M. Hernández-Herrero, A. X. Roig-Sagués, E. I. López-Sabater; J. J. Rodríguez-Jerez, and M. T. Mora-Ventura. Total Volatile Basic Nitrogen and other Physico- chemical and Microbiological Characteristics as Related to Ripening of Salted Anchovies”. Journal of Food Science. 1999. Vol. 64, No. 2, p. 344.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mi piace, non mi piace

Words I hate in Italian (to say or write)

5. conchiglia - sea shell

4. sto piangendo - I'm crying. I don't know why I have a mental block in remembering this verb. And no worries, I'm not spending my days crying - it was part of my homework.

3. trenta tre - thirty three. Those rolling "r"s get me every time.

2. ciliegia - Cherry, and an undesirable combination of sounds foreign to American vocal cords.

1. Sciacchetrà - pronounced "shah-keh-traH", it's the local dessert wine of the Cinque Terre, made of grapes that have naturally aged on the vine (think raisins) and then are made into this rare and expensive after dinner drink. A blend of local Vermentino, Bosco and Albarola, Sciacchetrà is a dialect word for to "crush and take off", which is what is done to the grapes and the skins in the process of making it. Some research into this nightmare word revealed to me that a double "c" is not that common in dialect, and it is thought that it was influenced by Tuscan mispronunciation of Ligurian dialect, but, really, I don't need to point a finger at a specific region for inventing such a tongue twister.

My favorite words (primarily because I can pronounce them and I think they sound beautiful):

5. piuma: feather

4. zenzero: ginger root. It sounds zippy and spicy just like ginger with all those "z"'s

3. sirenetta: mermaid

2. figurati: a phrase that you can use for, literally, 1,000 things. It's not like the direct translation, but is used to say "you're welcome" or as a response to an "expression of gratitude". Sort of like a "oh, it was my pleasure, no worries". Here is a good list of some of the uses for it:
"Figurati" -
"You're welcome"

"Posso prendere un'altro biscotto?""Ma figurati..."
"Can I have another biscuit?""But of course..."

"Figurati se viene..."
"As if he's going to show up..." -

"Se io ho problemi di soldi, figurati per i disoccupati..."
"If I have money problems, what more for the unemployed..."

1. Right now, "certo" is probably my most said, but
it's hard to pick a favorite! Even the words I hate, when you start to say them correctly, they become words you love. It's such a beautiful language that I massacre every day. Sigh.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Festa dei Bescantà

My first bescantà went remarkably well, based on the fact that I now understand that I really need to just let go of what "a normal night out" consists of in the U.S., and embrace my "new normal". In this case, a normal Wednesday off consisted of dressing up like an old fisherman while wearing glasses made of lemon peel, drinking large amounts ofwhite wine, and eating lots of food while dancing along to dialect songs I don't understand.
The Festa dei Bescantà is an fantastic old Monterosso tradition which is recreated a few times a year as something of a benefit to raise money to restore the old oratory in the main square of town. Bescantà is a dialect word, which I thought, based on my required attire for the night, meant an old, rattily dressed, comical fisherman. Thanks to my handy Genovese dialects to Italian dictionary (see above) I learned otherwise. Bescantà is actually a dialect word for the Italian word biscantare, which thanks to another dictionary, I discovered was:

Bis (sometimes in the forms ber bre bar) a Romance particle used
in composition to denote that which is wrong , false, counter-  feit &c. ; 
It. biscantare to sing irregularly, trill, hum a tune,  
Pr. beslei bad faith , It. barlume weak light (twilight).

The festival consists of a buffet style supper with wine before the mass of people in the square begins winding their way through the old town, s
topping to drink, eat, and sing in dialect along the way. After follows a comedy play (again, in Monterossino dialect) then a makeshift disco with more wine and some silly dancing that grandmothers, teenagers and tourists swing along to until late at night. The tradition of the Bescantà was pretty hard for me to figure out - it took a good amount of research, as my friends only told me "Yes, we must dress like poor fishermen and drink a lot". This I could do, but was more curious why. This website explains it in Italian, which was a little bit of help.

I did some digging and found out that the Bescantà were old fishermen and pranksters from Monterosso who would go along the streets in the old town singing under
the windows of residents. If they came out and gave the ragtag group food or wine, they were crossed off their list and the Bescantà went on their way, singing under another window, drinking local wine and eating Ligurian treats (anchovies, foccacia) as they sang their way back through the town. Now the "singing, trilling, humming a tune" part makes a bit of sense. Everyone wears silly glasses made of lemon peel and wire, a tradition I'm still not clear on, but given the popularity of the local lemons, it wasn't too much of a stretch. Dressed like a fisherperson myself, I found out that the festa dei Bescantà involved, well, me. I was in fact a Bescantà, and had a role to play. A man came up with a wine cork, lit the end to char it and smudged my face. It was official. I was marked. I was dragged into the procession by laughing, singing friends of all ages as we went up Via Roma, stopping along the way as restaurants set out food and wine for the crowd, taking the role the residents used to fill in older times. We would sing and dance as we went, then an older guy from here would do the traditional "calling out" for food and drink at each stop. Lots of references were made to Ma Passu, the large rock jutting out of the sea on Via Fegina (all the rocks have dialect names). Tourists were amused, and I love how many stopped what they were doing, and simply joined the parade. By the end of the procession, even a long play in dialect didn't deter a crowd that understood nothing of it - I could only get two words myself, one of them a not-nice word for a woman, and one of them meaning "well then" in Monterossino. Lorenzo's family prepared some of the food for the festival, and handed me heaping plates of acciughe di Vernazza - anchovies baked with tomatoes, herbs, carmelized onions and potatoes, and huge plates of risotto con zucca.

Foccacia stuffed with local cheeses, and then stuffed with Nutella for a dessert. I was dancing like a fool in the middle of it all, which made me fit in more then standout. Italians are alleged to be great dancers, but I think it's more that they just enjoy it so much they don't care how you do it. It's like singing - if an old man with a bad voice wants to sing a song - loudly - you cheer him on just the same. It's an expression, and Italians love to laugh, cheer and have fun. By the end of the night, I'd lost half my fishermen accessories, but as we all made our way back home, I tookpride in the fact that maybe I wasn't the best Bescantà Monterosso has ever seen, but they didn't care if I didn't. Having fun is the most important part, and if you can rebuild a centuries old oratory while doing it, and preserve a language and culture largely unknown to the rest of the world, all the better.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Le Domande Del Giorno

Americans are back in full swing for the remainder of the season, as I've mentioned, and along with them come the usual excellent questions.
Just a sampling of what was asked of me tonight, aside from the usual "Are you American? Why are you here?"
Which, not to be misunderstood, I certainly don't mid answering. I love to talk, and I know my story is unique and more then a little romantic. However, there are a few that are a little difficult, annoying, or perplexing to answer - and these are just from tonight:
1. Are you an illegal alien?
2. Are your parents busy businesspeople? Because I'm a stay at home mom and I'd never let my daughter move out of the U.S. - I'd miss her too much. Your parents must be too busy or else they wouldn't have let you leave. (Note: from this I inferred that they think my parents don't miss me. They do, for the record).
3. Is your boyfriend cute? Do you love him?
4. How do you live here with all these Italian people? (Note: why did you come on vacation here if you did not want to be around Italian people?)
5. What do you do without Target or Walmart?
6. Do they have doctors here?
7. Is Chilean Sea Bass your local fish? Me: No, that's probably the local fish of Chile. Man: Ohhhh. So you don't have it here then?

and, of course, my favorite:

7. Do they have November here? (This, I understood, was the woman's way of asking me if they have a fall weather change, but, honestly).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Amo settembre

September is an interesting month in the Cinque Terre. Since I’m now, finally, out of school, it doesn’t hold that same feeling that it did (even in grad school, oddly enough). In the United States, it seems like it snaps right to that autumn, “back to school” season as everyone bids a last Labor Day farewell to warmer, carefree days at the beach.

In Monterosso, September has a different feeling – not of a beginning, per se, but of an end. The busy tourist season is winding down, and as August fades away, the tourists come to a screeching halt, falling back into my favorite mix of Americans, Australians and Northern Europeans, all of whom speak English, making my life much easier. The weather is sunny and still warm, and the beaches are sparsely dotted with blankets. Manuel and I had our choice of lettini (beach chairs) at the Stella Marina beach today, and everyone lounged around eating ice pops and drinking espresso. The locals are tired, but talk turns to upcoming winter vacation negotiations instead of the usual complaints about the heat, humidity, and headaches of what is always a very busy August. My friends happily debate the merits of Corsica over Sardinia, Indonesia over Thailand, and laugh at my American misfortune for never being able to visit the beaches of Cuba. All in all, it’s a happy time, and a relief that in a few months, everyone has their lives back again.

What I love most about this time of year is the staggering amount religious festivals and other cultural events that happen every week – sometimes twice - just in Monterosso. Adding up all of the Italian Riviera, it seems everyone has a church with some sort of patron saint day this month- not a huge stretch considering the high church-to-resident ratio in Italy. We have 3 churches, 2 orario’s, a convent and 2 sanctuaries, but I really have no idea of the difference between them. Italian people, though Catholic through and through, are in a rhythm of being accustomed to the various religious structures and festivals, and aren’t great at explaining what each one is for.

Thursday, for example, was the Festa di Maria di Fegina – the holiday for Maria of the church of the new town on Via Fegina. Ignorant to the fact that there was a “Maria Di Fegina”, I know a religious parade when I see it. I later did some digging and found out the actually feast day was for Santa Maria Nascente, who the tiny church is named for. In contrast to the huge church for St. John the Baptist (the official patron saint of Monterosso al Mare) this church is endearing – one room, with just a few sculptures, and – always – older Italian women clustered in the back, lips silently moving in prayers recited from decades of practice.

For the festa, the streets were bathed in glowing light, by dozens of small flickering candles (ironically cased in thin paper cupcake wrappers, which I have been unable to find here). Like a silent alarm went off, after the vespers finished, people automatically started putting out candles. Hundreds of people, holding candles and wearing robes, followed a huge crucifix and a small statue of the Virgin Mary down Via Fegina, chanting prayers and occasionally stopping to greet a friend or grandmother. It was beautiful, ethereal and solemn, but I couldn’t help but giggle a little as I noticed after the procession, the huge crucifix was carried back to the old town in a pick-up truck, sticking out the top awkwardly as 5 men and children held it still. Then followed the usual spettacolo pirotecnico (fireworks) that everyone loves. Adults and children alike lined the railings to the beach, “oooooh-ing” and “ahhhhh-ing” appropriately. Yes, fireworks are fireworks, but flashing over an inky black Ligurian Sea with a cloudless, cool night they have a special feeling. Everyone stops to look, smiling up at the sky. Food stops coming out of the kitchen for a few minutes, and diners and waiters alike are on a pause, gazing up at the dripping colors into the sea.

Now I see why everyone here loves September.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Casa Dolce Casa

Ecco mi!
After a few weeks in the United States, I’m finally back in Liguria, despite Delta’s best efforts to keep me out. Two cancelled flights and the usual sciopero later, Monterosso was waiting for me with an unusually cloudy sky. Sciopero (pronounced show-per-oh) means “strike” and in Italy, it’s a pretty common occurrence. Unlike in the U.S., however, the Italians are kind enough to let you know in advance the exact time their strike will start and end, which in my humble opinion defeats the purpose, but certainly makes something inconvenient a little less of a nightmare. My particular sciopero yesterday was unique in that it was an “everything” strike – not just train, or fishermen, or buses – everyone from highway toll collectors to train conductors took the day off. I reasoned that perhaps Italy was envious they didn’t get their own Labor Day, but Manuel didn’t exactly get my joke and informed me the workers just wanted more money. Meno male (“all the better”) we didn’t have to pay tolls on our drive back to Monterosso from Pisa, everyone informed us. Regardless, I was able to arrive back here after an annoying 22 hours of travel.
After some uneventful unpacking, organizing and the like, we went to a dinner in Levanto which was one of my favorite types of informal, friendly dinners that are so common here. A group of 15 people, some old friends, some strangers and one American, eating a potluck of sorts off paper plates with flimsy forks in a dimply lit alleyway off Piazza Cavour at a long picnic table. The food in situations like this is my favorite kind – filling, unfussy, and the sort of local treats you would never be able to find served on a fine dining menu. Most impressively, it was almost all cooked by the men, who have as strong opinions about the ratio of herbs in the gattafin as they do about their favorite calico (soccer) teams.
Levanto is the next town north of the Cinque Terre and, compared to my tiny little Monterosso, a bustling metropolis of almost 6,000 people and parts of its commune are included in the Cinque Terre National Park area. Though there is a challenging hour and a half hike one can make from Monterosso through the hills, car or train are the more popular ways of getting here, and depending on your tolerance for loopy, climbing roads without guardrails, train is -in some cases -preferred. What is most notable about Levanto, besides the vast stretches of crystal blue Ligurian Sea (not unusual) and the crashing waves dotted with surfers (definitely unusual) is the presence of one of my favorite things in the world – gattafin.
Gattafin is a treat from Levanto. The anchovies we feasted on last night, lightly breaded and fried, caused some argument among our mixed group of Monterossini and Levanto residents as to whose anchovies were whose, and, of course, whose were better. Though the edge might have been grudgingly given to the famous acciughe of Monterosso, the gattafin is, without any doubt, a Levanto specialty. In fact, if it were to be served in Monterosso, for example, my Levanto friend Siliva assured me that legally, they would have to write it as "Gattafin di Levanto" on the menu - a protected regional product, name and all.
From what I could best understand, gattafin is an ancient snack stuffed with herbs gathered by hand from the mountains as the women waited for their husbands to finish work (though no one really does that anymore – they buy their herbs at the store). From what I could taste, it was something of a fried spinach pie – only, without the spinach (instead, something like chard or beet greens), less cheese, and a touch of nutmeg. And from what I could Google, it also included a bit of egg and sweet onion, mixed with the bitter greens and then fried in a light dough pouch until golden brown. The women of Levanto, allegedly, used to gather these wild greens and herbs from the hills around the town quarry, nicknamed “la gatta”, giving the snack the dialect nickname of gattafin. I cannot confirm or deny this, but it’s a cute story and makes some sense. Coupled with the anchovies, some fresh grilled sausage, eggplant and braised, long, beautifully bitter radicchio, it made quite a filling supper. I reached for my third (or fourth) gattafin, as I tried to readjust my ears and head to the rapid fire Italian surrounding me from all angles. Everyone lifted their glass for a toast to the end of August – everyone here works in the hospitality industry, as this is a tourist area, and August is especially difficult as it is packed with foreigners and vacationing Italians. Though heavily dependent on the tourists and their money, it’s somewhat of a double edged sword for locals who love their profitable businesses, but miss their quiet piazza and pristine, empty beaches. As the glasses lifted, the group of Ligurians toasted the exit of the tourists – “see you next year foreigners!” – and without a giggle or a hint of irony, locked eyes with me as we clinked glasses.
I’m still not sure if leaving the U.S. felt more like leaving home or coming back here felt more like coming home, but it’s nice to know that you can have two places that have your heart – two places that you can start to feel like you belong too, even if it’s just a little. As I reached for what may very well have been my fifth gattafin, the man next to me joked that I really must be learning Italian, since I learned to eat like one.
In any case, it’s good to be home.