Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mother Nature thinks she's funny

It's snowing.

Now, this isn't earth shaking (earthquake puns are hard to stop) news for me, but in Liguria, this is enough to stop trains.  What started as mild, damp flurries, has now started sticking and is about an inch deep.  Our neighbor even yelled from the terrace for us to come out and see the train tracks below dusted in snow, and we joined several other people from our condo on the balcony, shivering and discussing how incredible this is.  Literally.  Manuel just yelled, for the 8th time tonight "This is incredible!", while looking out the window.

I started the day totally jaded to this, and then quickly remembered the last time that happened was the day of the flood, where I brushed off everyone's astonishment at the amount of rain early in the day, only to have the afternoon prove me incredibly, seriously wrong, so this time I stayed quiet.  In addition to the fact that I bragged a few days ago about how fantastic it was to have a whole year of not shoveling snow or scraping off my car.  I clearly spoke way too soon.

However, it was hard to stifle a laugh when our architect for the Cantina, who drove here from La Spezia, looked at the sky and lamented in a horrified voice, pacing and wringing his hands, that he had no idea how he'd be able to drive home in this weather and he might have to stay here.  They are quite obviously not used to this, and aside from transit fears, the sort of adorable enthusiasm about the snow is actually quite catching.  Manuel might have been serious when he suggested we could go sledding tomorrow, and though I'm inclined to doubt him, with the insane weather we've had this year, I'm not ruling out anything.

Yes, Monterosso still has it's Christmas tree up
They had a few flurries in Monterosso two years ago, but the last time it snowed and stuck was in 1985, and then before that was in the 60's.  It's quite rare, and the combination of snowflakes melting into the sea is incredibly magical.  In all honesty, I've dreamed about seeing snow at the beach my whole life.  When I was little, I assumed the waves would just freeze as the were, as though a snowy pause button had been hit, and snow would accumulate and icicles would hang off them.  Now, knowing better, it's still something I want to see, even without frozen waves.  To New York and New Jersey standards, it's really nothing, but nevertheless, I'm joining in happily in periodically popping out on the balcony and snapping pictures.  Tomorrow, like a happy kid who lived in the sun their whole life, I'm waking up early like all the snow enchanted Monterossini around me, and going to the beach.
These cacti are as confused as we are with the snow

Only this time, to take pictures of the perfect meeting of summer and winter.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Uva Fragola

Manuel's Uncle Diego, who makes his own wines and sciacchetrà, brought something amazing to Sunday lunch today.  He handed me a glass of what looked like your standard red wine, but the first waft of fresh, juicy berries from the glass shocked me.  "What is this?", I queried, sipping and savoring the flavor of sweet, fresh fruit in the glass.  "Uva fragola", he explained.  Strawberry Grapes?  I never heard of such a thing, but the wine produced proudly by Zio Diego was like a sweetly alcoholic fruit juice.  Light and delicious, but a ruby red color and with a normal alcohol content - it's a bit disconcerting, when your eyes and taste buds find themselves going in two different directions, but I was intrigued and now I'm entranced.  It's not at all like the fake, alcohol-pop-cooler variety of "mango falvored wine" or something of the like.  The flavor of real strawberries just hits you over the head - and it's easy drinking in spite of it's alcohol content does quite the same.
Strawberry grapes taste, obviously, exactly like strawberries, and can be used in all the same applications as grapes normally are.  Big, heavy, dark fruit layering vines that grow easily in Tuscany and, apparently, Liguria, these grapes are prized by European wine makers.  Even so, they are difficult to find, and because of this, strawberry grape wine is normally very expensive and not something you can easily hunt down in the liquor store.  Not only used for wine, but tarts, jams and other desserts are the normal uses for the fruit.  There is a traditional type of foccacia or flat bread in Tuscany that is laced with these grapes, giving it the unique distinction of being a sort of dessert foccacia.
It's quite tricky to track these grapes down in the United States.  I found a vendor in the UK who sells them for an insanely expensive price for grapes,  and most other websites I find substitute concord grapes for uva fragola.  However, having eaten concord grapes, I can attest to the fact that the two types are quite different.  It's been tricky to track down information on strawberry grape wine beyond the fact that "Strawberry wine" seems to be an incredibly popular song name.
I'm not surprised, because it's quite a "romantic" and delicious drink, and if you happen to stumble upon it, buy it as fast as you can.  Though it's a bit of a trick on your taste buds, it tastes so good it's quite easy to overcome the sensory confusion.

Friday, January 27, 2012


As I wrote earlier, the area felt the tremors of a small earthquake Wednesday, but it was small enough that most people, myself included, felt nothing.  It was enough to (pardon the pun) rattle the nerves of locals who are a little wary of Mother Nature after the events of the past few months.
La Repubblica graphic -
Monterosso is to the left, on the ocean,
by the "S" in Spezia.
More or less.
However, at around 4 (3:53 to be exact, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica), the earth shook for the second time this week, and it would have been hard NOT to feel it.  I looked over at our kitchen table, which was shaking, and I was confused as I wasn't standing anywhere near it.  I was worried, thinking, "did I run into it and not remember?  What's wrong with me?", but as it kept shaking, it finally registered and I yelled and ran into the doorway.  Also worth noting, Italians need a refresher in earthquake safety, as everyone else ran down the stairs and outside.  Doorframe is where it's at, then, as we ironically noted later on, reading an earthquake safety article, a "sporting field" is also recommended as a place to hide out.  Manuel's sister, Sara, laughed, "And what if your 'sport field' is, literally, on the ocean?"
Point, Sara.
It registered a 5.4, which is enough to (again, pun) shake things up, but not enough to cause significant damage.  However, an already nervous region is again unnerved, as some scientists are warning that this is a reminder that the area does have a good amount of seismic activity, and that even stronger quakes are certainly possible.  The epicenter was not far away, in between Parma and Liguria, and tremors were felt as far north as Switzerland.
I learned the phrase, "Ci manca anche questo", which means, more or less, "Yeah, we REALLY needed this too", sarcastically.  It's an appropriate idiom for these past few months.
And the Ligurian children are lucky they don't have a system where you have to "make up" days of school you missed, like we do in the U.S., because they don't have school again tomorrow (yes, there is school on Saturday mornings in Italy) due to seismic activity.  Regardless, twice in a week, and more then that in 3 months since the flood.

I present the earthquake damage at my apartment: my banana nutella loaf fell over, ha.
Thank goodness that's it.
Ci manca anche questo.

When life hands you lemons, make limoncino.

And when it hands you oranges, make spremute.  Fresh squeezed orange juice, or a spremuta, is a great part (and arguable one of the only parts) of breakfast in Italy, as well as a nice refreshment in the afternoon.  When you have 4 pounds of oranges, there is not much else you can do.


peeling away
Winter citrus in Monterosso is abundant and beautiful, and when our neighbor or Manuel shows up with huge bags of oranges and lemons, in odd but endearing shapes, there are only so many things that can be done.  Manuel's uncle from Tuscany makes crema di limoncino from the lemons we bring him whenever we visit, and after acquiring his incredibly simple recipe, I got to work.  Limoncino, or limoncello in the South of the country (they're exactly the same, it's just a north/south language distinction) is a sweet, intensely yellow, lemon flavored liquor that is found in the freezer of every Italian family I know in New Jersey.  It's obviously the same here, and making it at home is easy and costs a fraction of buying a bottle.  Especially with all these beautiful Monterosso lemons.

soaking in alcohol

Crema di limoncino is even better.  Milk is added and when the liqueur is pulled from the freezer, it's creamy, half frozen, rich and sweet, and full of bright, intense lemon flavor.

adding everything together
milk and sugar cooling
I halved the recipe Manuel's Uncle gave me, as 3 liters of limoncino seemed a bit much, so I started with 4  large Monterosso lemons.  I removed the skins (be careful not to take too much of the white pith and just use the skin!) and then added a half-liter of 95 proof alcohol, covered, and let the skins submerge and infuse the alcohol for one week.

Then, the bright yellow alcohol is strained to remove the skins.  In a pot, heat a liter of good quality milk with a kilo of sugar until the milk is hot but not boiling, and the sugar is completely dissolved.  Let it cool, then combine the lemon alcohol with the milk/sugar, and funnel into bottles.  Leave in the freezer, and once it's ice cold, enjoy - but watch out.  It's sweet, icy, creamy and addictive - but also really, really strong.

Lo sciopero and school

I've written about the importance of the word sciopero in the Italian language before, and now it has another reason to make an appearance in my life.  In the United States, we miss school in the winter months due to snow, brutal cold, and other equally horrible things I'm happy to not have to deal with.
In Italy, we miss school because of the all-powerful sciopero.  There is a strike of what seems to be everything today, and for the past few days.  Trains, buses, and trucks are not running or working fully today.  In cities, where they are more dependent on public transport, it's much worse.  I couldn't imagine New York with all subways, buses, ferries and cabs simply not running.  It's an nightmare for anyone who needs to be somewhere, even someplace as normal as school.  This means that, even with our car, we can't actually go anywhere because the nearest gas station, in Levanto, is out of gas as the trucks aren't coming to deliver more.  We rushed to Ricco, about 45 minutes away, after learning about the strike to fill up our tank, unsure if there was still gas there.  The irony of driving 45 minutes to get gas- only to face the possibility that there wasn't, in fact, any gas there, then drive home, now with an empty tank- was not lost on me.  We were actually able to get gas, but, regardless, not enough to go to school.  So, in a nutshell, I have a "sciopero" day from school, and the school kids in the region really have it made.  There was a small earthquake by Milan (4.9), and many nervous schools even here cancelled class Wednesday.  Considering the nightmare weather events Liguria has been subject to recently, they aren't taking any chances.

Fine by me, though I do enjoy Chiavari and my lessons there.  Even the frequently-late-and-now-not-running train is fine by me, as the views more then make up for it.  Chiavari, like the rest of the region, has been having an unseasonably warm and sunny January.  Like Monterosso, the mild weather (in the sun, high 50's F) has meant people are walking the promenade, arm in arm, laughing in sweaters on the beach, and eating happily outside in the sun.  From the pictures, it seems like summer.  It's wonderful, though disconcerting.  The feeling in the air is that of a New York March.  That period when the snow has melted and there is a taste of spring in the air, accompanied by warm sun melting away the winter frost.  The fact that it's still January confuses me, though I'm not complaing.  Sciopero or not, I'll take a sunny January day and lunch outside.  And even though I'm 28, having a day off from school still has that same joyful feeling.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dramatic Flood Video

This video was made by Franz, the partner of Manuel's Aunt and Uncle at the pottery shop in the Old Town of Monterosso.  It's the best video I've seen in the sense of giving an idea of what we was seeing that day, and what we were all going through.  It's very dramatic, and gives you an idea of how staggering the damage was to Monterosso.

But you can also see how incredibly far we have come.

You can access the YouTube video here.

Back to school

Veggie-centric dinner
Today was the return to my life as a commuter.  After my many years fighting with New Jersey Transit, the MTA, and several assorted bus companies, you would think I'd be incredibly thrilled to never have to commute to anything again.  My walk from my house to the Cantina is 4 minutes, and a beautiful 4 minutes at that.  However, I was ecstatic to get up early, buy a weekly ticket, and start my first day of language school in Chiavari.  The 30-40 minute ride is right next to the ocean, cutting through mountain tunnels here and there, but otherwise beautiful, and much more preferable to the Northeast Corridor or the A train.

Braised beef with red wine
This nerdy excitement is due to a few things, first being that I'm really eager to improve my Italian.  I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and it makes me cringe inwardly when I hear myself say something wrong, or when I can't make myself understood, so I'm very happy to have this time to practice.  Every morning this week I'm going to the Nel Blu language school in Chiavari, which was highly recommended by several people I met - even Manuel took an english course there several years ago.  With my fresh new notebook and pens, I showed up early and grinning.  I may have scared them.
Ravioli from Chiavari with Tuscan
jarred tomatoes from Manuel's Uncle

Second, I was just excited to get out of Monterosso.  It's been a heavy time here, emotionally, as we try and rebuild everything that was lost in the flood, and I'm of little use.  The design negotiations and insurance company mess can't be handled by someone with baby-level Italian, and the knocking down drywall and lifting refrigerators is best left to someone with more upper body strength.  I've been spending the majority of my time cleaning and cooking.  I've made braised beef and red wine stew.  Bought every vegetable I could find and spent a week cooking them in various ways (broccoli rabe is awfully difficult to cook in 7 different ways), started the makings of some homemade limoncino with Monterosso lemons, and cleaned the whole apartment.  Several times.  As I was swiffer-ing for the third time one day, I saw Manuel quietly eyeing me.

"What?" I asked, slightly embarrassed to be caught in this incredible display of obsessive cleaning.

"We really need to get you out of this house," he laughed in response.

Finally, I like Chiavari a lot.  It's a town I visited on one of my summer field trips, and I initially was a little annoyed by the fact that it was a little city of about 27,000.  Nothing compared to New York, but about 27 times bigger then Monterosso.  I wanted more quaint fishing villages.  Stretches of rocky coastline.  I wasn't ready for horn honking and serious shopping.  Now, with a clear head and no expectations of what a town should or should not be, I find the long archways that cover the seemingly hundreds of small shops really beautiful.  There are bakeries, bread shops, butchers and open air markets.  Genovese style palaces stand amidst the typical Ligurian pastel buildings, alternating between charming and ornate, showing the incredible history of the region.  The beach here is know for it's crystal clean water, and the town has a long boardwalk and several gardens and lovingly tended public spaces.  There is a yoga school, which was another huge plus in my book.  I found a little shop selling homemade, fresh pasta that I can pick up and bring back to Monterosso for lunch.  Also, Chiavari is heavy on the Italians, light on the tourists.  Unlike the nearby Cinque Terre, where for several months out of the year, English is arguably as spoken as Italian, Chiavari is a city with a small amount of tourists, especially in January.  English will not get you far here, and I'm really happy that especially on my own, I get to speak Italian more in situations with strangers, and the Chiavaresi are very friendly.  At the bookstore, the pasta shop and the office supply store, I struck up small conversations with people who were naturally curious what I was doing here.  After telling them my story, they immediately asked about Monterosso, with sympathetic faces.  Today, again stopping at the same bar for coffee, the woman again inquired about the situation after the flood, getting a co-worker, and explaining that everyone's thoughts were with us.  More then their thoughts, as well, as the Lion's Club and other civic organizations in Chiavari have donated time and money, bands came to play, and some Chiavaresi even organized Christmas gifts for the children in Monterosso.

First thing I saw this morning from the apartment
Granted, at the end of my unpleasant subway rides, or stand-still traffic M8 bus headaches, or NJTransit  induced migraines, New York was on the other side.  7 minutes to eat lunch, 13 minutes to make it to yoga, then the run down Broadway to make it to class on time, with 22 seconds exactly to stop and get a coconut water from the man on the street.  Here, I'll take a short, seaside train ride to a town with great shopping and food to learn Italian and maybe throw in a yoga class.  It's interesting how dramatically one's life can change in just a few months, and even more so when you realize that you are getting incredibly accustomed to it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"All creatures, great and small..."

On my little walk around town today, I met my friend Lorenzo at his enoteca that he is hard at work repairing, across the street from his family's restaurant, Ciak.  As we were chatting, I lamented that there was nothing for me to do today.  The work at the Cantina hadn't started, and the bed and breakfast consists of manual labor that I would cause more harm trying to do then good.  He was stumped for a moment, then remembered something.

"Ah! There is the benedizione of the animals at five o'clock!"
Look at the woman in the upper left window, with the best seat in the house

Sold.  Animal blessing in the piazza in front of the Chiesa in the old town it was.

Lorenzo explained, "You bring your pet, your animal - cat, dog, cow to the church and..." I interrupted, "Cow?  You bring a cow?"  "No," he laughed, then backtracked, "I mean, yes, you can, but you have to bring it here".

"The priest won't come to my cow?"

"No, no, you have to bring the cow here."

"Do you bring a cow?" I pressed, laughing.

"NO, I don't have a cow," he responded, amused but a exasperated.

"How would you even get a cow here?  In a truck?"

"Criiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.  I bring my cat.  My dad brings it.  You need to ask Manuel to find you a cat.  See you at 5".  He went back to work, fixing a window in the enoteca that is, by the way, coming along beautifully.

I call Manuel.

"Love, I need a cat".


"What?" Manuel asked, slowly, confused.

"There is the animal blessing today and we need an animal, do you have one?"

"Ah, yeah, I forgot that.  A cat? Nooooo", he answered, thinking.  "We have the turtle at my parents house, but I don't think it's a good idea to bring it."

Now, I was obviously kidding, but now I was the one amused that he was taking this request so seriously.

"Come here when you are done.  See you at 5.  Don't bring the turtle."

Lorenzo's dad, aka "Mr. Ciak" with their remarkable well-behaved cat
And so, I waited on a bench by the tunnel until 5, watching something similar to Noah's arc, as the animals and their owners started trickling into town for their blessing.  At 5, amidst some mild dog barking, birds, cats nestled safely in arms, and an array of dogs crowded in the piazza.  There were prayers, songs, treats, and laughs, as the town priest blessed the animals.  Like children at a baptism, dogs whimpered, confused at the sudden water droplets sprinkled on their noses.  Cats, well behaved, stayed silent and warm in the arms of their owners.  Birds chirped on, oblivious.  We were interrupted by dump trucks in the active re-construction of the Old Town several times before the procession moved inside and the crowd dispersed.  Everyone was smiling, and used to the interruptions.  Construction means there is work going on.  Work going on means things are getting done.
The day ended, again, with another beautiful sunset over Punta Mesco

Monterosso, amidst all this dust, mud, construction and hard work, can still come to a smiling stop as everyone takes a moment to remember their little friends who have suffered through this, as we all have.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


View to Old Monterosso - the mudslide to the right of center is the one that destroyed the school and it's gym, the pink and orange buildings in the center, at the top...
Sunrise tower and Vernazza in the distance
Yesterday, a cloudy, overcast day that showed just how many shades of blue grey exist, we went up to the Church of San Francesco, which overlooks the town and the "Pirate Tower" (which, as a side note, has a much more beautiful name - the Torre Aurora, or "tower of sunrise" - though it was built by the Republic of Genoa as a lookout for those pesky pirates who kept popping up in the 15-1600's).  The Church also includes a convent of an order of Cappucin Monks, lead by Padre Renato, and is the most breathtaking Church out of the several in Monterosso.  It's up the hill, above the tower - either a long, winding, crumbing staircase of stone laced with moss, or a twisty, narrow road that weaves off the main street out of town, wiggling across the mountain.  Either way, it's a beautiful sight once you arrive, and one that many Monterossini make frequently, as next to the Church is the town cemetery, where people come to pay their respects to their beloved friends and relatives.

View to Via Fegina and the New Town
The Church itself was built in the early 1600's, and the hill that it is built on has great significance to the town.  The earliest settlement of Monterosso can be traced to this hill of San Cristiforo, where the ruins of a castle or fortress atop this hill make up the walls of the town cemetery, and the rust colored dirt is said to give the town it's name of "red mountains by the sea".  Sensible.  The Church building is quite small, with wooded pews and a few notable pieces of art, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who though Flemish painted a great deal in Italy, especially Genoa.  The order of monks was expelled by Napoleon in the early 1800's, and the buildings were used as everything ranging from a hospital to a warehouse, until a priest from Monterosso, Don Giuseppe Policardi, bought the structure in 1894, spruced it up, and gave it back to the monks.
Note the gate in the wall, that opens up to nothing - just the sea
Now, it's a Church and convent again, with sweeping views of the town, the hills in the distance, and on a clear day, the whole Cinque Terre and the still as glass Ligurian sea, as far as Corsica.  They have a garden that is full and thriving in the summer, now lovingly tended by the monks and full of lemons, oranges, and some curious guard cats in the winter.  Old stone walls, in shades of sharp, dark grey, cut a stark contrast to the soft blue of the water that is in every direction you look.  As we were invited back into the convent after mass by Padre Renato, I was awestruck by the beauty of this convent, perched on the hill, overlooking everything.  "The best views in Monterosso", Manuel's Uncle laughed, though it wasn't a joke.

We all stood, overlooking the railing, and gazing into the broad distance dreamily, and alternately surveying the hills around the town with a watchful, critical eye.  Just a few months ago, they gave way and caused us so much pain (ironically, there was only one landslide we could see, behind the school) as we were reminded of the bitter and the sweet that life can give us.  Manuel's father leaned over and told me that the locals call this spot "paradiso".
I couldn't think of a better description.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We got a fork!

The 2012 Michelin guidebook has come out, and the 2 restaurants recommended in Monterosso al Mare are Ristorante Miky and La Cantina Di Miky, for the first time.  We got our very first "fork" :)

"Man does not live by bread alone..."

We all know that Italians are born carbohydrate addicts.  Pasta, pizza, and more kinds of bread then you can count.  Bread salad.  Bread soup.  It's common knowledge, and unlike many Americans, I'm not opposed to that.  I'm a carbohydrate believer too, and not the whole grain kind, but that doesn't help me much with my biggest shopping problem and Manuel's biggest issue with my shopping.

I forget to buy bread every day.  Not that I forget per se, but more that I go down to Franca or Gianni (the two shops open in town) around 6, and there are just empty bread baskets behind the counter, mocking my tardiness with crumbs.  Franca sees me eyeing the baskets, desperate, and shakes her head sympathetically.

"Non c'è più".  No more bread.  Again.  Shoot.

My bright, shiny new scale
This is the fifth time in a row, and I'm starting to think Manuel feels I'm forgetting bread to torture him.  I've tried every bread free meal I can - stir-fry, pho, tacos (WITH tortilla) - the man needs bread.  And since after the flood, there are only 2 shops open, it's a bread draught in the afternoon.  The early bird catches the ciabatta, so to speak.  I wasn't alone yesterday, as another one of my friends rushed in, brushing past me with a hurried "Ciao" then gazed at the empty cases.   "Noooooo!" he yelled, as though he had been shot.  He threatened to call the mayor, half-kidding.  We locked eyes as he noticed my dejected face and bread-less hands.  He ran down the street to the other store, beating me as I paid for the rest of my groceries, nervous that I'd see him parting with the last piece.

I hurried there and saw him leaving with a packaged bag of crostini.  Whew.  But my catty happiness about his lack of bread soon sank into my realization that I had failed again.  I ran into an employee of the restaurant, who asked me what was wrong.  I explained I needed bread.  He looked at me like I said I just killed a unicorn.

"Non hai comprato pane oggi?" he queried, confused.  You didn't buy bread today?

I forgot, I lied, stammering, ignoring the fact that I forget more then I remember.  Then a short lecture ensued as I was again reminded that we only have 2 stores open, the flood, everyone needs bread, Italians need bread...and so forth.  My American bread failure loomed in the air between us.  He looked at his watch.
Before the oven...

"Hai tempo da farlo".  You have time to make it.

Cooked to perfection!
And so I rushed home and my foccacia adventure began.  Though man cannot live by bread alone, foccacia is another story.  One of the most identifiable Italian foods for Americans, the bread ranges from flat and crispy to soft, oily and tall, and is a specialty of the region.  In fact, in Recco, they make a foccacia paper thin and stuffed with cheese, that is so famous it's up for the same European recognition as products like prosciutto di Parma and acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure.  This status, called IGP in Italian (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or Protected Geographical Indication in English), recognizes gastronomic specialties of the utmost cultural importance.  Foccacia is serious business, and in addition to that, one of my absolute favorite things about life in Liguria.  I can eat foccacia all day.  It's addictive and wonderful, and even when I fly back to the U.S., I bring a huge piece with me on the plane.  First, it gets through security, and second I'm happily chomping away, and aware of many envious stares of my Italian plane-mates as they choke down the microwaved chicken.  A fan of bread I am, but foccacia is tenfold.

Foccacia with herbs and sale grosso
Italian yeast, much different from what I'm used to

My American bread purchasing uselessness was now translated into my American bread making willpower.  I found a recipe and got to work until Manuel got home, laughed at me, and helped out.  It's actually easier then I thought, and Italian yeast, though strange to me, works just as well as our packaged yeast in the U.S.  Beer yeast (bread yeast) comes in a squishy cube, and that plus my concession of buying a scale to weigh ingredients made me feel very adventurous.  My cups and teaspoons had been working just fine, and I stubbornly cluing to them as long as I could, but it's tedious to translate recipes this way.  The measurements get strange - i.e. 1 3/7 of a table spoon.  Just odd.  So, the scale was bought the other day and christened as I weighed out 300 grams of flour, 6 grams of large grain salt, a pinch of sugar, and then mixed some yeast, tepid water and olive oil in a bowl.  I let it sit for an hour, spread it out on some round pans, and baked it at 190 C for 20 minutes (my oven is also European).  We scattered more salt and oil across one, and a mixture of salt and dried herbs across another - rosemary, thyme, marjoram.

The foccacia was a success, and now I have a wonderful and quick excuse the next time I forget.  IGP, DOC - it's none of these.  However, it's delicious, easy and fast way to make everyone happy at dinner time - Italian or not.

Poignant banking adventures

Back in Monterosso, we've gotten right back into the swing of things and working as hard (and quickly) as we can to get the bed and breakfast as well as the Cantina ready by April.  It's really anxiety inducing and staggering to think that in only a few short months, we need to be set for another season, and it's not that I doubt we can do it, it's just any other year the off-season is spent relaxing and gearing up for another year.  For us, after the Cantina ironically closed Sunday, October 23, we spent that Monday, the 24th, taking the expensive bottles down, putting them on the floor, and cleaning every inch of the restaurant, not knowing that the next day our lives would change.  We wouldn't have to discuss work schedules for the staff the next year - we'd be discussing if there would be a next year.

Now that we've gotten our act together and everyone has had a chance to reflect on their losses and celebrate a different feeling of holiday gratitude and thankfulness, Monterosso is as ready as we are to continue climbing out of the mud.  For example, today we had to go to the bank, meeting his parents there.  The "bank" as I knew it, was destroyed in the flood.  You might remember the pictures of it, completely covered, and as Manu and I started walking, we stopped after a few steps.

"Um...where did they put the bank?"

A phone call later and we found the adorable little blue structure next to the train station.  A bank robbery could easily consist of simply hitching the trailer to your car and tearing off, with the whole bank in tow.  In an effort to intimidate, metal bars protect the windows, though I saw a host of other problems at hand.  However, it serves it's purpose well, and now we don't have to go to Levanto to sort this mess out.  Our laughter continued as we imagined bank teepees, tents and igloos, and we stood in the bright sun outside, next to a squealing train grinding to a stop on the tracks behind us.  As I turned to look, I remembered another think.  Next to the bank-hut, right before the train tunnel is the building the town volunteer workers named in Sandro Usai's honor.

It caused my chuckling at the bank-hut to stop, as I was again reminded at what this flood had cost Monterosso.  Much more then we can recover from a bank, walls or no walls.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tales from Tuscany

I'm currently hiding out in the Tuscan town of Pomerance, visiting a sick relative of Manuel's, his great-Aunt, who is a wonderful woman.  We're about 20 minutes outside of the town of Volterra, which should be familiar to anyone who is a "Twilight" fan, and this incredibly typical Tuscan town of almost 7,000 people is also atop a hill, overlooking rolling green valleys and olive trees that dot the hillside like even little pinpricks.  Tuscan people are smart.  You build your city as high as you can, and you can see for hundreds of miles.  If your enemy is coming, they certainly have lost the element of surprise. It's a three hour drive, and Italy still amazes me that in the time I could have gotten to Boston in the United States, I'm instead sitting in Tuscany, which seems like a totally different world then Liguria.

Statistically, Pomerance is small, but more then that - it feels small.  There is less to do here then Monterosso after a flood, and much of that is due to the fact that here they have their own tourist season - of the agro-tour variety - and we are in the middle of their off season and at that awkward "post-holiday" period.  Agrotourism is huge here, and farms make up everything the eye can see.  It's evident in the food we eat.  Most everything is homemade or locally grown or hunted, which really gives insight to what "eating local" and "slow food" is in it's original form.  Like I mused in the last post, it's interesting to see a food movement and practice just simply as a normal, unquestioned way of eating.    Hearty polenta with wild boar, rustic salumi laced with big chunks of fat, crookedly hand stuffed sausages, pigeon ragu (jokes ensued about my bringing back New York pigeons and selling them here as imported American pigeon) and homemade jams.  "What do you make the jam with?", I queried Manuel's Uncle.  He laughed - "Fruit?  What else do you put in jam?".  Zio Uccio, Manuel's Uncle and one of the sweetest people in the world, used to own a bar and gelato shop in town for decades, and in his time made hundreds of flavors of gelato.  All from fresh ingredients, 16 every day, and his curious nature sometimes got the best of him.  He named potato as his strangest concoction, softly chuckling at the memory.  His retirement from the gelato business and life as a barman means that his kitchen scientist nature and native Tuscan sensibility is channeled into canning and making homemade jams, which we serve at the Cantina, the Ristorante as well as the B&B.  I don't know why we don't tell more people this or publicize it in some way.  He proudly makes hundreds of bottles at the end of the summer with the fresh fruit picked here, and I happily smear flavors like wild plum and sour cherry on everything I can get my hands on.
Crema di limoncino (again, homemade, and yes, I got the recipe mom) and vin santo poured after dinner.  Water from the nearby spring.  Wine, in unlabeled jugs from down the road - deep red and higher in alcohol then you'd think.  On our ride in, a wild pheasant scooted across the road quickly in front of the car, as Manuel's Uncle urged us to get out and catch it.  He may have only been half-kidding.

It's a hearty, happy way to eat, and it reminds me of when I spent time in Tuscany a few years ago.  Everything is filling and meals are fueling events.  Tuscan food does it's job well.  You're full of energy and calories to go work in the hills under the scorching summer sun, but in January, for an American girl who has been doing a whole lot of sitting, this isn't a way of eating I can sustain for too long.

Another interesting Pomerance fact - in the distance, the hills give off looping, etherial wisps of smoke.  The whole area is laced with geothermal, underground springs, and this steam and water provides the heat for the homes in the area.  It's not electric, and it's always incredibly warm inside with a sometimes comical smell of sulphur that wafts by.  The tap water here doesn't need to be heated, it needs to be cooled down.

It's just as "removed" as Monterosso is, but in the opposite way.  We look out at a great big sea and think how big this world is, but here, you look out at lazy, rolling hills with tops speckled with far off villages and towns, and a blue sky that stretches forever, and think the same.  Tuscany isn't the Ligurian Riviera, but beauty is beauty, even if the view is different.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Taking seasonal eating to a new level

I know about food.

I don't know how to change a flat tire.  I'm horrible at sports.  I can't sing.  I have a knack for saying the wrong thing at the absolute wrong time.

But I know about food.  It's my thing.  I have a degree to prove it.

Having been a New York-New Jersey-er for all my life, I feel like this qualifies me even more to enter into any discourse on food, culture and gastronomy.  I never had to really search for an ingredient.  Sometimes, I had to google an ethnic market, sometimes it took me a few stores to find kaffir lime leaves, sometimes I had to haggle in Chinatown, but there was little I wanted that I couldn't access.  In Italy, that's a different story, as I've said many (many) times before.

Today was no exception, as Manuel and I went into nearby-ish Sarzana to go shopping for food, swiffer pieces and slippers (still looking for the slippers, but that's for another time).  As he was waiting on line to order our assorted salumi, I set off in the supermarket to hunt down the ethnic isle - which is a phrase that gives this small section of the store more credit then it deserves.  In most places, it's a shelf or two, but here it's a whole end stand.  I found soy sauce, tortillas, salsa, soba noodles, and an incredible amount of Cup-O-Noodle rip off's loaded with MSG (which is used more frequently then I'd like in packaged products here).  I'd been here before, but I was still annoyed at the incredible lack of "ethnic" ingredients here.  "Ethnic" means something from Southern Italy.  Those products from Calabria and Naples are displayed in rustic looking jars - not too foreign, but far enough from the norm to be considered something diverse.  Something different.

I was in a fog of annoyance, and, thinking very much like an American, was marching around in a huff, until I caught myself staring at a very impressive display of cabbages and dark, leafy greens.  It was staggering.  I looked around more, and noted at least 8 varieties of greens, 4 of cauliflower and broccoli, and what could only be described as a pear mountain.  There was a serious leek situation.  I stopped my bratty, sesame oil induced fit and realized finally what I'd been missing.  It's January.  That's when these vegetables grow.

I pride myself on knowing more about what I'm eating then most people, but in the Tri-State Area, that isn't something very hard to do.  You're 30 minutes or less from a Whole Foods.  There you can grab all the prickly pears you want.  The regular supermarket would face a riot if strawberries weren't displayed all year long.  If I had to live off what was grown in a 30 mile radius of NYC in January, I would try to choke myself to death on a bowl of potatoes and root vegetables in desperation.  Here, yes, we can find certain things if we look hard enough (I did manage to find a few sad looking, expensive berries but passed them over after my revelation), but what's more impressive to me is the normalcy of seasonality, and the reality of having to face it full on.  It's one thing to sit around a "green" restaurant in the East Village, talking about how brussels sprouts are great this time of year, sipping our organic beer, and it's another to realize that at the end of the day, that Chinese Hot Pot place around the corner doesn't exist.  There is no guy on the corner selling mangoes all year.

In the summer, at the Cantina, we wouldn't have bellinis after a certain point because, as it was explained to me like I was obtuse, "It's not peach season".  Porcini mushroom season means mushrooms everywhere.  Figs?  Come at the right time and you're a kid in a candy store.  This summer, I had my pick of varieties, heaped in piles at the front of the local market, and for a fraction of the price - even with the Euro to Dollar exchange rate.  When the weather gets crisp, apples start to show their pretty red and green selves.  Seasonality might be easier to appreciate in the summer, when everything seems sweet, ripe and fresh, especially in the Northeastern U.S.  Winter, however, is when you really see seasonal eating shine here.  I grabbed my black cabbage, my leeks.  Broccoli in 3 colors.  Bags of nuts.  Greens of the beet variety and some of it's tall, stalky cousins.  With full bags (and Manuel shaking his head, laughing) we headed home.  Sesame oil forgotten, lesson learned.

When in Italy it's always better to shop, think, and eat like the Italians do.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Beauty all around

After what's happened in the past few months, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the intensity of the situation. We couldn't sleep. We didn't know what to do. Life was far from la bella vita...
it, in fact, for a few bleak moments seemed ugly.

I've never made a New Year's resolution. Not a serious one anyway. This year, I'm not calling it a "New Year's Resolution" (because I just made it today), but I've decided that regardless of what I get handed, I'm going to try and appreciate every situation and remain as optimistic as possible about the outcome. I'm going to try and see the beauty all around, the "silver lining", if you will. I came to this conclusion as I walked down Via 4 Novembre today, dodging some construction equipment, waiting impatiently for the drilling in the street to stop so I could safely cross without getting slammed in the head by a backhoe. As I waited, I looked towards the statue of the Giant that leans into the rock towards the far end of town towards Punta Mesco.

The Giant has always had a fascination to me, besides it's obvious sculptural
beauty. Manuel told me in the olden days the top of it was actually a dance floor, and since then, I'm entranced by visions of swirling skirts and romantic music as beautiful Italian couples dreamily sweep across a dance floor held up by a Giant's heavy shoulders, perched over a vast blue sea. I don't know if that is true or not, but the statue of Neptune, damaged by World War 2 bombings as well as stormy seas, still stands stubbornly in the rock - like the people here. He won't let go, no matter what man or nature throws his way. I wouldn't either. He's got a great view.

However, in the construction after the flood, I had thought it was far from romantic now, as I've just been walking quickly by - not even bothering to make that left and stop for a minute. The jackhammer rattles in the background reminding you to move, and the huge pile of debris from the town looms to the left, but today I didn't see any of that. I took a minute to walk down to the Giant, this afternoon surrounded by crashing waves, and then again strolled down at sunset. Even with what is going on around Monterosso, there is still so much beauty here, even if it might seem like an ugly or bleak situation at the moment. Like Cinderella dressed in rags, or a beautiful painting covered
in mud - nothing, truly, can diminish the beauty and magic of a place like this.

We just have to remember to stop and actually see it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Help us rebuild, literally and figuratively

Thanks to residents, artists, the town hall and a lot of determined and creative people, Monterosso has decided to build a stone wall that you can donate money and get a hand carved, personalized stone representing your business, family or own name engraved in it. The stones are crafted by local artists and each unique piece of art will be made to recreate the stone walls found lacing the hillsides of the Cinque Terre. The wall is a way to really contribute and literally, leave your mark on Monterosso as we rebuild, as the funds go directly to the Comune and the reconstruction of our village.

You can find more information here, or by emailing Rebuild Monterosso at info@rebuildmonterosso.com