Eating, Italian style

autogrill_1000Italian truck stop

Like the number of paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican, the culinary delights of Italy have been presented to us so abundantly and so often that we are overwhelmed. They just keep coming, one piled on top of the other until my senses are no longer reacting properly to the opportunities before them. Food in Tuscany was just not like food in America. To put things in perspective, our original itinerary called for a stop in Orvieto to eat on the way from Rome to Cortona. Schedule constraints apparently didn’t allow for the four course meal referenced in our trip planner, and we pulled off to take a quick break at AutoGrill, an Italian roadside rest area. Since by this time we had grown pretty accustomed to four course meals, we were pretty disappointed that we weren’t getting into Orvieto for lunch. So we trooped into the Gas Station to see what we could find. Rather than the Subway or McDonald’s or day-old sandwiches one might find in the US, Autogrill had an espresso bar, a panini station with fresh-made sandwiches pressed to perfection, a salad bar with fresh fruits and vegetables, a pasta bar with several types of homemade pasta, and a grill to serve up beef or veal, cooked on the spot however you like it…there are grilled patatas and carrots, and all manner of other items to complete our lunch. The fragrance of light garlic, sweet grilled onions, and coffee waft over the racks of chips and gum and candy, beckoning us to try one food station or another. We make our selections, with members of our group getting everything from wine and cheese to prime rib to fresh pasta and ravioli. The grilled carrots and the potatoes are excellent. As we eat, our disappointment over not stopping in Orvieto dissipates, and as we compare our menu selections, sampling from others’ plates, it’s official: food at a truck stop in Italy is better than a lot of Italian restaurants in America. In Rome, we fell in love with gelato and began adjusting to the Italian tempo for eating, getting acquainted with not peas, but with the “p’s” of culinary Italy: Prosciutto, peccorino, paninis, pasta, parmesan, pairings, panna cotta, and patience. Meals are savored, not in the wham-bam American way, but more like a time spent lingering over your lover with sweet kisses and conversation. Our time in Rome, more restaurant oriented, less familial than our stay in Tuscany, only prepared us for our time in the country. Although we didn’t realize it, we needed some transition time to prepare us for Tuscan food, much the way divers need to decompress on their way to the surface. Had we jumped right into the food at our villa, there might have been some sensory overload that would have actually limited what we could eat there. As it was, we were able to ease towards gastronomic excess like finely tuned Olympians coming to the games. The Villa Laura schedule and meals have not only surpassed my expectations but have pushed back the boundaries of my food fantasies. I have been on cruises where I could order 3 appetizers and 3 entrees if I wished, but I have never eaten this quality of food, this much, this often before. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of cooking have so many cooked so much that was eaten by so few. The Villa Laura brought in two sets of chefs to prepare our meals, probably because of the sheer impossibility of one set being able to perform the pure physical labor of cooking for our group alone. There is Francesco and Christiano, two young Italian chefs who learned to cook from their grandmothers. They don’t look like chefs in the sense that they are buff and seem very young to have so much experience in their profession. But man, can they cook! Francesco has most of the English, and he tells us on request about how they watched their grandmothers and mothers cook, then worked in the family olive business (so of course they grow and press their own olive oil, which they claim is absolutely the best in the world), and who learned their craft in restaurants before starting their own business, catering and cooking. I’d say they are no less than world-class Tuscan chefs. Then there is Terracina, who we all call Mama, a pleasant, happy woman who has brought her daughter and her daughter’s friend to staff our kitchen. Mama is, if possible, probably an even better cook than Francesco and Christiano. She doesn’t speak much English, but we all fall in love with her instantly, enjoying her sunny disposition, her hard work, and her luscious culinary delights. Her bread salad and panna cotta were some of the best things I have ever tasted. So it is a Tuscan tag-team of chefs gone wild, each presenting us with dishes made from local produce and ingredients in “typical” Tuscan fashion. For breakfast, there is always coffee, homemade bread, various kinds of cheese, eaten with homemade jam or preserves, yogurt, fresh granola, fruit, juice, and breakfast pastries. At dinner we feast on bruschetta, artichokes blessed with parmesan, zucchini soup, fava beans made several ways, several kinds of cheese, and all sorts of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth homemade pasta and ravioli. There is bread salad, balsamic glaze, roast and grilled meat (beef, chicken, pork medallions–rumored to be perfect for late night snacks, 28 seconds in the microwave–and one night even a little rabbit!). We had wood-oven pizza, spelt, stuffed zucchini, and a souffle or two. There is creamy, delicious panna cotta, and a couple of kinds of tiramisu. We had the reknowned Chianina beef, which is presented with a certificate detailing the cow’s birth date and date of death. I really didn’t want to know that my cow’s name had been Matilda, but she still tasted very good. The famed bistecca alla Fiorentina, a big T-bone cooked rare, was delicious, although I’d have to be honest and say that Texas beef is pretty dang good by comparison. Buddy might say that the pork medallions in Italy are superior to ours, but the beef–while good– did not just blow our doors off. There is a bit of wine partaken with every meal, usually a local vintage in red AND white(and of course, I am only describing our average LUNCH here). We had biscotti dipped in Vin Santo. We tried grappa. We drank prosecco(ha! another “p”!). Sadly, I was not a wine connoisseur before going to Italy, but I can honestly say that I now know far more about how wine can complement a meal than I did before. I can also honestly say I probably drank more wine over the last two weeks than the rest of my life put together. I did NOT, however, drink enough to diminish the memory of the amazing tastes of our Tuscan vacation. I wish that my words could do justice to the cuisine of Tuscany, because the local, natural culinary delights we experienced there were a huge part of our immersion into the culture and flavor of the region. I can only describe the pure impact of Villa Laura’s gourmet meals by reverting to a final “p”, which succinctly provides a summary of the fact that Italy has stayed with us, how we have brought home delicious memories of Tuscany, how we are reminded daily of all the wonderful things we got to eat there. That “p” word: pants. I can’t get in ’em anymore.

Observations on Italy

As you drive to Tuscany from Rome, you pass through lush green hillsides and rich farmland. The hills vary from gently rolling to steep-cliffed formations that hearken back to volcanic activity, visible in the abrupt formations of rock that later submitted to the almost tropical growth that flourishes in the temperate climes. As you look either west or east as you take A1 northward, there are scenic hillside retreats dotted with Olive trees and vineyards, and fields of grain or grass… These fields are almost all surveyed by a villa or some larger dwelling placed at the top of a hill, looking down upon them protectively. In the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union held “good ground”, or defensive positions that were elevated above the infantry that would try to dislodge them. Historically, having such a position, above would-be attackers, provides tactical advantages and makes defenders stronger and less vulnerable. Everywhere you look in rural Italy, villas, churches, monasteries, and forts are built on ‘good ground’, providing a haven for those who worked the farms and vineyards surrounding them. As we toured Tuscany, we often remarked on the cities on the hills, the beautiful scenic villas overlooking their domains, and the old towers that dotted the volcanic landscape. Their presence spoke of protection and defensive strength.
In Rome, there is an ancient city Wall that rises majestically around its antique center, protecting the ruins of the Forum, the Colisseum, and the parthenon. It is a marvel of engineering and construction, using techniques that would be considered brilliant by today’s standards, much less those in use 2000 years ago. The wall seems to be about 5 stories high (actually 8-10 meters) and is 4-5 meters thick. There are several different sections of the wall, some dating back to 378 b.c., some built well into the Christian era. Walls were built to defend the city from hordes of marauders who roamed Europe in those days, pillaging and plundering all who lay in their voracious path.
One of my strongest impressions from having toured Tuscany and Rome is that man has been a violent, brutish, greedy animal. The people who lived there in bygone eras really, really needed to defend themselves. They were invaded enough to know that they needed to live, sleep, and work on ‘good ground’. Violence could come upon them at any time, and it was worth the amazing amount of cost and labor it took to build protective walls, and to live within or around defensive positions that may have been hard to build, or inconvenient to get water to, or even to get to at night, but which might just save their lives if they were suddenly attacked. The beautiful Tuscan countryside, with old towers and ancient steeples dotting the tops of rocky aeries or balanced along the cliffs, is actually a fortress style testimony to the historic greed and violence of man. For much of our history, men have simply taken what they want by using violence or the abuse of power, without really caring who might be harmed in the taking. One might hope that today, in such an advanced age of social evolution, men are beyond such things, that we are not capable of this kind of evil anymore… but it is entirely possible that the human heart has not changed all that much in 2000 years. The holocaust was only 68 years ago. There may be different ways to try to take things today (such as picking pockets in Rome, or sending bogus emails trying to get suckers to fall for a scam, or stealing someone’s identity online), but men are still greedy, and there is still violence. While our modern weaponry has made good ground less effective, and has rendered large walls somewhat obsolete, the beautiful scenes of Tuscan villas and churches set upon the hills remind us of a long history of greedy violence. I know, it’s definitely a “glass half-empty” kind of observation, but seeing so many towers and villas and forts and churches occupying ‘good ground’ made it difficult for me to see the lovely pastoral landscape without acknowledging the grittier reality behind it. There were some mean people in the world back in the day; and although methods have changed, and those villas and churches are now safe from imminent attack by marauding hordes, there are still mean, greedy people in the world today. Evil is not limited to to the past, and protection will not come from position. Until we begin some kind of construction within the human heart, all the forts and walls in Tuscany will not protect what we value most.

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It’s Mother’s day again

I was born on Mother’s Day, 1954. People always say “how sweet”, and I know in some ways it was, but I imagine it was something of an ordeal for my Mama. When I was born in Wilford Hall at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, my dad was off training to fly jets, and my mother told me numerous times how close to death I was at birth, how I had been saved for a reason. Today, as I enjoy a morning in Tuscany, I am still sorting out what that reason might be. But I was an RH baby, which is something relatively minor and treatable before babies who have it are delivered today, but which apparently was pretty major 59 years ago. They had to transfuse her blood into me, and she always said that they told her I wasn’t going to make it more than once, but that I pulled through only by a miracle. I also had a double hernia, along with some other issues, and what it added up to was a long, long Mother’s Day for Myrl. She was energetic and spunky, though, and we made it. Myrl Jean Zuercher was born in 1932, and was adopted by Fay and Emmett Zuercher. She was cute and vivacious, a cheerleader who was named Football Sweetheart for the Alamo Heights mules. Years later she could still get into her cheerleading uniform. She was nick-named “Speedy” in high school because she drove fast or liked to party. She was artistic and funny. Perhaps because Mama struggled with alcoholism, particularly later in life (she died from liver failure/psirrhosis in 1984), I have probably focused too much on her demons and issues, and I used to think that she perhaps didn’t love me because there were times I couldn’t depend on her. But I know now that she loved me the very best that she could. I have never really given her credit for the many wonderful things she brought to my life– love and family, laughter and personality. She was almost 53 when she died, not long after holding my first daughter, and she left us too soon. I used to resent having to share my birthday with Mother’s Day every few years, but now I know it’s an honor. This year I am sharing my birthday with Italy, and not Mother’s Day, but I am thinking of you, Mama, and will raise a glass of wine not just in your memory but in your honor. Back in the day, when my dad was off flying jets and you were in the military hospital alone, you went through a lot of stress for me and because of me, and I am thankful. May you rest as peacefully as the scenic Tuscan countryside, where birds sing, gentle breezes blow, and the pace is soothingly slow.

Gold Among the Ruins

“Look at me. LOOK AT ME!” our guide Carmine is standing before us, holding up the book on Pompeii, which illustrates the city’s charm and beauty and provides a dramatic counterpoint to the ruins in which we stand. I get the feeling that Carmine could have easily stepped into its pages and been right at home in its cosmopolitan atmosphere. He is a wiry, sensual man, about 5’6″ and deeply tanned, with a mostly silver mane of longish hair that is swept comfortably back. He glides before us like a bullfighter in the ring, easily engaging our puny tourist comments or questions, dispatching them with graceful parries. His somewhat raspy voice speaks in low melodious tones. His accent carries a bit of French, but perhaps that is just his imperious nature and sophistication peeking through his discourse. “Before we go in, there are the restrooms if you need to make the quick peepee.” If you crossed Mick Jagger with Al Pacino, you would have a tour guide very much like Carmine. Somehow he seems Italian to the core. With his pastel striped sweater, chic sunglasses, and his European man-purse, he is utterly at home in his own skin. He wears a dark blue bandanna tied jauntily as a neckerchief, completing his devil-may-care look, and he struts more than walks. There is a bit of ennui in his delivery, (after all, how many times has he led tourists on this same path?) but he still has traces of his passion that redeem his presentation and give it personality. He is a bit disgusted with us because, like Gilligan, we have only signed up for a three hour tour. It is not adequate, but he is not responsible for our limited time and resources. He can only make the best of our plight. “If you had a week to see Pompeii, it would not be enough. Perhaps it would take a month.” Since we will not be there a month, his attitude suggests that there is only so much he can do with us. “Everything you see is original”, he tells us, which does not preclude us from asking several times, as we see some detail of ancient life or construction, “is that original”? After a couple such inquiries, the diminutive Carmine turns to our 6’2″ friend Buddy and says, “if you ask me one-a more time-a, is that original, imma have to kill you.” Carmine does a very good job explaining what we see before us, enlarging our perspective and helping us to visualize the sophistication and beauty of life in Pompeii. We are dazzled by the amazing public baths, and by the house of the Faun. Carmine gives us details about customs which we did not know. He describes how people would socialize while sitting on one of the holes set in the common bench of the public toilet, and how rich people would have servants go sit on the cold bench for them in the winter before they would go use it– which prompted Buddy to say, “that must be where the term, ‘bench warmer’ came from”. Makes sense. As he leads us through the ruins, there are some not-so-subtle clues to Carmine’s sexual orientation. He helps women over steps, but says, “I am allergic” to men, who must navigate rough spots on their own. He cannot help but react to the youth and prettiness of a young Russian woman who asks him a question in passing, and the Italian in him appraises her with the confidence of a man who believes that, given the opportunity, she would want him. He is proudly heterosexual, and it is natural for him to be available. He takes pleasure in showing us some of the things they DIDN’T tell us about Pompeii in elementary school– the erotica of Pompeii…There are paintings or pieces of pottery for sale that illustrate passionate embraces and Kama sutra-like positions. But the one he enjoys pointing out the most (pun intended) is the picture of the man (or is it Bacchus?) whose extremely large phallus, which extends to his knee, is balanced on a scale. In the opposite side of the scale is a large amount of precious metal. Carmine tells us this is where the phrase “worth its weight in gold” came from… He is enthusiastic as he tries to get my wife to buy this artwork, but he remains professional. While he is suggestive, he never really crosses the line to crude, and although he is open to flirting, he never openly flirts. We are customers, after all. But he enjoyed our reaction to the gold on the scale, and traversed the line between tour guide and rake without being too naughty. And this is what I found noteworthy about our tour: Carmine was professional and informative, and he was doing a job for us that he does all the time. He was, yes, perhaps a bit bored, and yes, perhaps a bit disappointed that we were not giving Pompeii the time and attention it truly deserved, but when all was said and done, two things stood out to me about him: first, he was thoroughly professional, and he delivered scholarly content with ease and authenticity. He never spoke down to us, and guided us without being too condescending or, on the other hand, too familiar. Second, there was something a bit more subtle. Even though he was a bit of a true Italian ladies’ man, I noticed a couple of times his taking time to assist a couple of our group members who encountered difficulty navigating Pompeii’s rough streets or steps, and he cautioned us a couple of times about going too fast for some to keep up. As I heard his gentle reprimand about going too far ahead, and as I watched him gently assist a couple of our ladies to negotiate a high step, I thought, “the precious metal on the scales is not the only gold in these ruins.” There is a little in Carmine’s heart as well.

From Pompeii to Cortona

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect evening. We have arrived at Cortona after our whirlwind Roman Holiday, and the change of pace from Rome is astonishing. There are birds singing, and the pale azure sky is accented by wisps of cotton scattered lazily across its vast, comfortable canopy. The temperature is utterly appropriate, and makes it possible to feel completely at home by the pool on grounds that are lovely as any I have ever walked upon. Flowers are celebrating the Italian Spring, and the smell of rosemary and jasmine resound like a nasal aria wafting over us in the very gentle breeze. Francesco and Christian are in the kitchen cooking our evening meal, which we will eat on the terrace in the courtyard, listening to the soothing, cheerful melodies that baptize us with pure joy. Good wine and good company make this a wonderful day to be alive.
I’m sure there were days like this in Pompeii before Vesuvius erupted and buried the city under tons of ash. There were beautiful days of sunshine and blessing. People were laughing, talking, eating, playing, and then– sudden disaster. They were caught and trapped in their homes, buried while attempting to escape, frozen in hot ash and a moment in time. On our tour of Pompeii the other day, there were molded images of their distress on display, bodies outlined from having been smothered under the falling volcanic debris. The bodies are people of all ages, shapes and sizes, grandparents and children, frozen now for centuries in their ashen state. The terror of sudden demise is expressed in their body language, and relentless time has turned them into morbid statues that we tourists gawk at with sympathy and relief.
So, what does Pompeii have to do with Cortona? Or more accurately, why am I sitting in this perfect evening at Villa Laura, thinking about death and destruction in Pompeii? Well, first of all, I think I appreciate this day more, having seen the unfortunate results visited upon those poor, ashen forms… And I should not only appreciate this day, but every day as a blessing and a reason to celebrate. The contrast between Pompeii and Cortona is a reminder that life is short, and we need to embrace the day at hand. Don’t waste it. Finally, we should be grateful for the life we have, because it is a blessing to be savored and appreciated. I shouldn’t need a perfect Cortona evening to inspire such gratitude, but I do intend to carry this evening forward with me as a permanent reminder that today counts. I hope you will too.

Amalfi Coast

Start with beautiful clear gray water, sparkling with gentle accents from the sun running in diamond currents just beneath its surface… Marry that water to a rocky shore made up of cliffs dropping into the sea; put some random terraces on those cliffs, and line those terraces with lemon trees extending along the cliffs. Wait, that’s not quite enough– yes there are lots of blank rocky spaces on the cliffs, but on the ledges and terraces, add many more lemon trees, aligned like citrus-bearing soldiers laden with yellow ammunition! Put rows of them on every terrace, every available scrap of earth on the mountainsides, broken up only by residences perched precariously on the cliffs, just off the two lane highway that hairpins over and around from Positano to Amalfi. As you negotiate this road, winding along the coast, you will pass through small villages, clusters of homes, and businesses and hotels. See the colorful stucco walls, the various shades of tile, the cliffs rising not only above you, but falling beneath you as well, either covered in lush green vegetation or providing rock formations that make for interesting interpretations as they interrupt your view of the sea. Occasional boats dot the water, although traffic is light since it is very early in the season… Every so often there will be an extension of rock out from the shoreline, creating a small peninsula and an advantageous viewing position. On these such vantage points, very old castles or forts still stand, attempting now to look like a restaurant or a residence, but failing because their shape and scale and massive gray stonework will never permit them to be anything but a castle or fort. At one time, hundreds of years ago, they enabled someone to control this coastline with some well-placed artillery, but today they are part of the scenery. The road along the Amalfi coast connects them, but not always efficiently. Two narrow lanes, hairpin turns, Italian drivers, unconcerned pedestrians, and scores of different sized and shaped vehicles make this road an adventure to drive. Nothing is guaranteed, and tourist schedules are reconfigured to Italian time, tempered by the realities of Amalfi traffic. Cars (small cars, mini Coopers, Smart cars), motorcycles, scooters and trucks of every shape and size grind to a halt. We are on a downhill space, overlooking a “T” intersection coming into the hairpin turn below us.Nothing from our lane is moving, and a 20-something man is blocking our bus’s path with a legal-looking hand signal that must mean stop! His presence is the only indication that something might be amiss with traffic flow. The scooters and motorcycles all zip around us and head down towards Amalfi, as do several small cars. After they pass, numerous vehicles coming up hill are allowed to zoom on past us, and still we sit, waiting for a signal to go… Trucks come by, other busses rumble past, and still we sit. Cars coming into our lane from the “T” are getting stacked up. Cars behind us are also deadlocked now. Finally, after about 30-40 minutes, a female Carbinieri arrives on a scooter from around the downhill bend, and begins to talk to the easy going young construction worker. Their hands fly, mouths move, and he talks to someone on his radio. She gestures and talks on HER radio. Some others nearby them join in, adding to the discussion. There is a big empty flatbed truck wedged comfortably into a space very few people in the US would have even considered trying to park such a truck, and they point to it, then point back down the mountain. Everyone seems somewhat frustrated, perhaps confused, but mostly are wearing their “what-are-you-gonna-be-able-to-do-about-it? look…He shrugs, they disperse, and she putt-putts back downhill around the corner. In awhile (10 minutes? Who knows?) she returns, leading a large vehicle obviously designed for road grading or material sifting, which crawls up the road slowly, large extended conveyor out over its cab, treads bringing it laboriously uphill towards the truck. Two guys in hard hats ride in it, guiding its ponderous structure along the narrow, twisted turns. It parks in its lane, looking wide enough from where we sit to block everything. “Ahhh!” we think, they will load this vehicle onto the flatbed, and clear some space, and THEN we can resume our journey. But no, there is another discussion, more gestures, more pointing… If this were opera it could not be more confusing! The carabinieri directs some cars this way, clears some from the “T”, motorcycles opportunistically race forward, cutting in and around other vehicles, and MORE traffic is allowed to come past us again from down the hill, then we are held up while some smaller cars come around us from behind us? The big road machine stays parked, the flatbed semi stays parked, and finally, for no apparent reason, our bus is allowed to move. We squeeze by the machine with about 2 inches to spare, and continue around the corner. There we find the source of this hour and a half delay, the reason that dozens of cars, trucks and busses on the Amalfi road were dead-locked and brought to a stand-still. Around another turn we encounter construction signs, one lane is closed and there are 3-4 workers with a bucket of cement and some bricks, repairing the guard rail. That’s it. “Aaaah! we think, “this is Italy!”