Posts tagged ‘italy’
Figgy pudding. Fig Newtons. That used to be my only understanding of figs. And I was not a fan. That all changed when I ate my first fresh fig this summer in Bosnia. Azra had green figs, and Melissa and I were weary of them at first because you could pretty much just grab one and eat everything but the tiny stem at the top. Inside, the pink fruit was unique and like nothing I had ever seen before. There, I learned to love figs. They are sweet, not to juicy, and easy to eat. I definitely ate my fill while I was gone, in everything from sandwiches to gelato!
I thought my fig season was over when I returned, since they are usually quite expensive in the States when you can find them, not to mention that I had never even seen them at my grocery store. Costco, however, was selling figs when my mom went shopping for Amanda’s rehearsal dinner. Remembering how much I loved them, she bought a case of them and split them between us. Now my fridge is was filled with figs! I ate probably about half of them plain, but had fun finding other flavor combinations. Some good breakfasts:
Question: Have you tried fresh figs before? What is your favorite way to eat them?
Fig, Goat Cheese, Cucumber and Hazelnut Salad with Balsamic Viniagrette
for 2 lunch salads
small head of lettuce
2 oz goat cheese
4 figs, quartered
2 pickling cucumbers, sliced and quartered
2 tbsp hazelnuts, toasted and slightly chopped
4 tbsp balsamic viniagrette
Toast the hazelnuts in a toaster oven for 5-7 minutes until warm. Rip lettuce into bite sized pieces. Top each bowl with half the cucumbers, goat cheese, figs and hazelnuts.Drizzle each salad with 2 tbsp balsamic viniagrette, or simply dress with oil and vinegar.
What could be better than spending a week relaxing in the Italian countryside? You wake up in the mid-morning, with fresh bread and homemade jam awaiting you in the kitchen, and all of the sweetest apricots and plums your heart could desire. You head out for a morning tour, come back for an afternoon nap, and enjoy a gourmet dinner in a beautiful garden in the evening. Pretty much idyllic, right? My friend and her parents were the most gracious hosts. They treated us to the most relaxing and indulgent Italian vacation I could have hoped for, and it was exactly what I needed to recover from a stressful year.
To make this all even better, Miriam’s parents are cyclists! They met while on a cycling trip through Italy, and continue to go on short and long rides through the countryside. Their household is well stocked with bikes, both for around-town use as well as for distance cycling. Miriam’s dad, Sergio, was particularly excited to learn that I, too, was a novice cyclist. He proposed a 60-km bike adventure, which Miriam feared would counteract all of the relaxing and indulging we had been partaking in. She warned me, “Don’t feel bad if you want to say no…” How could I say no? My own guided tour of the Italian countryside, on a bike? Is it possible that this trip keeps getting better?!
Sergio pulled out the map to briefly explain to me our destination: Nonantola, a small town half way between Bologna and Modena. It would be approximately a 30-km ride in each direction, and we could stop for a coffee break once in town. He did not need to plan out a route, as he has ridden to and from this town many, many times. It is his regular route for a nice, long ride through the countryside. He then brought me out to the garage to find the bike that would best suit me. After adjusting the seat and making sure everything was in working order, I got the rest of my borrowed gear in order: a helmet, bike shorts from Miriam’s mom, a water bottle and a handlebar bag for essentials.
We awoke early the next morning, wanting to set out early to avoid the notorious July heat. We had a quick breakfast of bread and jam, and were off. The beginning of the ride was through fields I was already familiar with, as Miriam had shown us the area directly surrounding her house on more relaxed evening rides. We used this time to get used to each other’s pace – I surprised him with how fast I could manage, and I recounted my survival stories of biking in Boston and my recent triathlon training. He told me stories from the trip when he met Linda, and various other cycling trips they have taken throughout Italy. On small back roads, we could ride side-by-side to enjoy conversation. Whenever cars would come or we would hit an intersection, he would graciously slow down to let me go in front. This is the first lesson that my bike ride with Sergio taught me: chivalry is not dead, so ladies go first. (Unless you sneak up behind them to take a picture, that is!)
We continued our ride, making small talk about the surrounding agriculture and swapping stories of anything that crossed our minds. He told me bits of history about Bologna, and filled me in on the Berlusconi scandal and the current state of Italian politics. My favorite tidbits: the meanings of road names and town names, which often have funny back stories. Often times, I would just sit and listen to his narration of the scenery. Sometimes, we would enjoy the peaceful silence. When I would share a story, Sergio would gently prod me, “Can you say that again, more slowly?” Life lesson number two: speak slowly! I know that I speak way too quickly, and am always reminded of this when English is not someone’s first language. Sergio has an incredible mastery of English and is brilliant, and yet still could not always grasp what I was saying. Imagine how I might make someone feel, especially a future patient, if they cannot understand what I am saying when I am in a rush? So from now on, I will be more conscious to speak more slowly.
We finally arrived in Nonantola, our midway point. This is home of a beautiful medieval church, the entrance of which is surrounded by carvings that depict the life and death of Christ. The inside of the church remains simple and elegant, spared from the Baroque remodeling that is typical of many older Italian churches. I really enjoy the simplicity of such old churches, and appreciate that all of the decorations and altars are in place as a reminder of Christ’s life. As we walked around the church and its grounds, Sergio pulled out his camera. I knew that he was an amazing photographer based on all of the beautiful portraits of his family from around the house, but wasn’t so excited to have what I felt a unphotogenic moment documented! I mean, I had just rode 28 km, was sweaty and definitely had a case of helmet hair, and was in bike shorts… not so hot. But I did not protest, my desire for pictures from this adventure outweighing my vanity. This is where I learned another lesson: the value of a photograph. I snap away with my endless digital memory, capturing a few good shots out of many. With film, the value is in being slow and deliberate with your camera settings, and really taking time and effort to set up each picture. Now I know why their house is filled with so many excellent portraits – the man behind the camera has the patience to set up the shot and the skill to capture emotion.
We took a quick coffee break at the cafe overlooking the church, where I learned the brief history of what put Nonantola on the map. During World War II, the priest and the congregation began to give assistance to Jewish children fleeing the Nazis. They provided them with temporary food and shelter for a year, and then helped them escape the town as if they were school children going on a trip. The children eventually made it all the way to Yugoslavia, and were able to stay there safely until the end of the war. To this day, there is a charitable organization in honor of this priest and the Jewish children he saved. I listened attentively to this story while sipping espresso and watching the local residents mill about the town on a lazy Sunday. I learned yet another lesson: there is always time to stop and enjoy a coffee, even in the middle of a long ride!
We returned to our bikes and set out for home, taking a different set of countryside roads. We continued to chat, and passed through even more fields of sunflowers. Even though they had begun to whither the day before, they were standing tall on this day, as if affirming what an excellent morning it was to enjoy the Italian countryside. The 30-km return journey passed with no time at all, and soon we were at home, exhausted but exhilarated from our morning. I can only hope to be in such good shape when I am Sergio’s age! Another life lesson: long standing healthy habits of real food and regular exercise do make a difference in the long run. I mean, the man just biked his age in km… pretty impressive!
Not only was I lucky enough to go on this long bike ride, as well as a farming and cheese making tour (story recounted here), but I also got to see Sergio again in Boston. During their month in the states visiting family and friends, we met up for ice cream at J. P. Licks on Newbury. (We both agreed – good, but not as good as the gelato in Bazzano!) We talked about my trip to Prague, my triathlon, and our family vacations. We planned for a bike ride along the Boston Harbor next year, and said good-bye for now. He gave me prints of the pictures he took from the bike ride. This is where I learned the last lesson: there is nothing better than the gift of a photograph. Especially one that was taken with a film camera, with thought behind why the photo was taken, and in which the print is a precious commodity. These memories and pictures will be some of my most treasured, icons from a thoughtful and insightful bike ride through the Italian countryside.
Note: Most of these pictures are photographs of prints, since I do not have access to a scanner. If/when I have time to make digital copies, I will update them, but for now they are merely an image that doesn’t do full justice to the print or the beauty I experienced.
As I share about my trip with all of my friends back in Boston, I keep hearing the same question: “How was the food in Italy?” Obvious answer, here! Amazing! Everything I ate was incredible, and so 90% of the time I forgot to take a picture. I am sorry, but I was too immersed in the moment. The overarching theme of every meal, however, was the quality of the ingredients. We were lucky enough to be staying in the countryside that surrounds Bologna, the food capital of
Italy the world. Not only are they known for their excellent Bolognese sauce, rich lasagna, and amazing wine and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but they also have so many great local fruits and veggies! Every field is planted with a different crop: soy beans, corn, sugar beets, wheat, plums, pears, apples, apricots… so many different kinds of cool produce. My favorite were the fields of sunflowers, grown as crop for seed to make oil. We hit at the perfect time to see them in full glory! In just one day, they had begun to wilt and dry up, on their way to a seed crop’s dry fate.
The small-scale production and freshness really made a difference. We snacked on plain tomatoes, enjoyed fresh salads and green beans with dinner, were satisfied by sweet fruit for breakfast and dessert. I fell in love with tiny apricots and amazing figs, and have never enjoyed tomatoes more.
Although we got to see beautiful churches, fancy monuments, and tons of cool historical sites, it is possible that my favorite place in Bologna was the market that Miriam took us to. It is only open in the mornings, so we braved the morning heat to see what they had to offer.
We paused at the fish market outside to look at all of the cool (and, to me, exotic) seafood you could find for reasonable prices! We window shopped for a bit, and then Miriam took us to her favorite market. This wasn’t any old salumeria, even though legs of cured prosciutto hung from every rafter. Every shelf and corner was piled high with gigantic wheels of gourmet cheese, fresh and dried pastas, unique jellies, specialty oils and vinegars, and amazing Italian wines. I was in food gawking heaven. I literally circled the shop twice trying to take it all in. We sampled a few cheeses and brought a few more home, pulling ourselves away before compulsively buying everything that caught our eye.
Too bad I have an exam coming up on Friday or I would hop on my bike now to get to the North End, the Italian section of Boston with great specialty grocers. Too bad the prices are so high there because of the import tariffs and I probably couldn’t afford much anyway! Oh to dream of times past and times to come.
Question: What is your favorite food item to splurge on?
Year 2 of med school started Monday, and all I really want to do is whine about how much reading there already is. Well, honestly, it would be manageable if I could motivate myself to do a little bit each day! But instead three days have already piled up, leaving me a whining, complaining mess. (I’ll break out the world’s smallest violin for myself, thanks!) End of my venting… I’ll cheer up thinking about all of the goodies up for grabs in CCK’s amazing give away, and remembering some awesome stories from my vacation!
My new favorite indulgence is wine and cheese. That’s not completely true. I loved wine and I loved cheese before I left, but my love was renewed as I sampled some of the best cheese I have ever tried. I have already taken you on my tour through the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese making process, but that is not the only cheese I got to indulge in in Italy. Especially during the summer, it is too hot to eat dinner much earlier than dusk, which doesn’t happen until 8:30 or 9pm. With lunch at 1pm, that is a long time between meals! It is common instead to enjoy an apertivo, usually a glass of white wine with a platter of meats and cheeses. We biked to the neighboring town one evening, where there is a great cafe on the town square that Miriam’s family favors for a pre-dinner drink. For just a few euro, we got a refreshing glass of local white wine, and a platter of some of the best cheese I have ever tasted. My favorite was the drunken cheese, a cow’s milk cheese aged in red wine. Not hearing the description of what everything was, I just happily munched away. I reached for a piece of the purple-y pink cheese, thinking it was actually a bit of cured ham. I exclaimed, “This is so good… it almost tastes like cheese!” A little bit of a blonde moment…
My cheese indulgences didn’t end in Italy! Before we left for Dresden, our host told us of a dairy that we simply had to visit. It was a little bit off the beaten path, but well worth the trip.
The entire inside of the shop was decorated with blue-and-white tile and porcelain statues. I found out after sneaking a few pictures that cameras weren’t allowed… oops! After exploring the beautiful store for a few minutes, we made our way to the cheese counter to pick out a few cheeses for dinner.
The woman spoke little English, and we spoke little German, but we relied on key distinctions like sharp or mild, Saxon, small or big, try or buy. We sampled several, but only purchases three small pieces. One was half a round of French Camembert, the second a piece of smoked Saxon Gouda, and the last an aged, herbed Saxon cheese whose real name I didn’t recognize. Each was unique and excellent, and made a perfect train picnic with a few rolls picked up from the bakery down the street! I particularly enjoyed the smoked cheese with the seedy rye bread as the beautiful German countryside rolled past the train window. A great splurge!
As you can tell by now, I am jumping around my trip’s timeline. Instead of progressing between places, I decided to share snapshots and stories of my favorite part of each place that I visited. Back to Italy, where I split my time between my friend’s house in Bologna and our adorable rented room in Vernazza, one of the five towns of Cinque Terre. My friend picked Vernazza because it is the only town with a harbor, which we figured would make for the best beach destination. As soon as we arrived, we changed into our bathing suits and headed to enjoy the waters of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. While we were swimming, we were surrounded by tiny fish, likely the small anchovy that the region is famous for, and the rocks were covered in tiny mussels. While soaking up some sun on the rocks, we were passed by a baby crab, and harassed by the biggest sea gulls I have seen in my entire life. It was so cool to be surrounded by such amazing wildlife!
After a day in the sun and heat, there is nothing better than a great dinner to end the night. We asked around for a recommendation of where to go for dinner, and the apartment owner’s husband recommended his favorite place for seafood. He obviously has great taste! This restaurant had some of the best food I have ever eaten. We started off with a sample of five small seafood dishes, the highlights of which were lemon anchovies and a warm octopus salad.
Anchovies, usually very salty and definitely not something I am prone to eat
often ever, are actually an amazing and delicate fish when not so heavily salted. They are so fresh in this region, most likely straight from the ocean to the table in the same day. That makes all of the difference! The sample contained the classic salted version, which were still quite tasty and so much less salty than what I expected. However, the unexpected highlight for me were fresh anchovies in a light lemon sauce with bits of fresh tomato. The lemon was so fresh and really let you appreciate how flavorful the anchovy itself is! What a great surprise.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the warm octopus salad, which honestly freaked me out when they first presented the plate. The tentacle still had the suction cups on it, and it was bright purple and looked like it was straight out of the ocean. But that was what made it so great! The octopus was really tender, which can only be accomplished if it is really fresh and cooked perfectly. It was served with potato wedges, olives and fresh herbs, giving it incredible fresh flavor. This alone made the whole appetizer worthwhile!
For dinner, I stuck with the seafood theme and ordered a pasta dish with mussels and tiny clams in a red sauce. Not always a fan of shellfish, I was a little nervous about if I would like my dinner or not. However, I had heard rave reviews about the region’s shellfish, and figured that they would be incredibly fresh since I had seen them coating the rocks earlier in the afternoon! All I have to say is best shellfish ever. The clams were tiny and really tender, and the mussels were perfect with a twirl of fresh pasta and a bit of red sauce. I was in food heaven. My plate was literally clean by the end of dinner, both because of how good the food was and because of our waiter’s insistence that we clear our plates. His games got us a free round of drinks by the end of dinner, so we weren’t complaining!
The food continued to be amazing in Cinque Terre. Other highlights of food that I enjoyed in my time there were a sandwich with prosciutto and fig, fresh foccacia, and a bowl of pasta with real pesto. Did you know: Pesto originated in the Liguria region and is traditionally made in a mortar and pestle (hence pesto!)? Fun fact! I brought home some trofie pasta, the regional specialty, and hope to make my own pesto to go with it sometime this week!
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a hallmark of great Italian food. The real stuff is salty, fresh, and absolutely amazing on everything – pastas, vegetables, meats, fish, fruit, or even on its own with a bit of Balsamic vinegar. It is not fair to this ingredient at all that we have processed and mass-produced our Americanized version of powdered Parmesan cheese in the grocery store – the two are incomparable! Real Parmigiano cheese has to come from a small region in central Northern Italy, and I was lucky enough to be visiting this region! On my last afternoon in Bologna, I got to see all of the work that goes into making a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, from where the gas is grown to where the cows are milked to where the cheese is aged. Even better, I got to take a kilo of the real deal home with me!
The process begins with the grass, grown specifically for cows that make the milk for this cheese. All over this region you can see this low growing green grass, which is then dried and fed to cows. It is forbidden to feed cows any corn products, fermented foods, animal products or animal by-products if their milk is going to be used to make the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
The cows are then milked twice a day, after which the milk is stored in a big cooling vat for the cheese maker to pick up within two hours. Most places are much more industrialized, but I got to visit the one farm in Bazzano that still does it the old-fashioned way. The farmer is up early each morning to milk the cows, and then he transfers the milk by hand to an electric cooling vat. He repeats this process in the early evening as well. This way of life is not poetic, though. Each day is starts early and ends late, and is filled with hard, manual labor. There is also no such thing as a holiday in this farm lifestyle. The cows are milked twice a day every day, and the cheese maker picks up the fresh milk twice a day every day, even Christmas!
Next, there are 10 steps to the making of a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I didn’t get to see this part in action, but the cheese maker’s wife gave me a pamphlet on how the cheese is made. According to this booklet, it takes 600 L of milk to make one wheel of cheese (those are some pretty big wheels!) The milk from the evening milking is left to separate naturally overnight, and then is partially skimmed in the morning and mixed with the fresh whole milk. This is then warmed in a copper cauldron with a natural whey starter. Then rennet, an enzyme from a calve’s stomach, is added to curdle the milk. The curds are broken up and delicately and artfully cooked. This is then lifted from the cauldron, placed in a special mold and allowed to rest for 2 to 3 days. The cheese is then immersed in brine for about 20 minutes, which allows the cheese to absorb the salt needed for the flavor and preservation for aging. The cheese is then aged for 24 months or more, after which it is finally inspected and stamped with the trademark pattern. Only cheese that is produced in this exact way from this exact region can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
The cheese is then exported around the world, and can likely be found at the cheese counter of most good grocery stores. It will be on the pricey side because of the controlled manufacturing and exporting, but it is well worth it! I stocked up on a kilo straight from the source! The cheese maker and his wife have a small shop, which likely represents less than 5% of their cheese business (the rest of their product is exported around Italy and the rest of the world). She takes the giant wheel of cheese, uses a wire cutter to precisely slice off a block of your desired size, and then vacuum seals it for freshness. My cheese, purchased at the beginning of July, will stay fresh through February as long as it is refrigerated. After it is opened, my friend recommends storing the precious cheese in a sealed bag wrapped in a paper towel to help regulate the moisture and maintain its freshness.
I definitely ate my fair share of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese while staying in Bologna! Whether it was a slice straight off the block of cheese or freshly grated on top of pasta or salad, it was a perfect salty addition to everything. It is also good turned into a spread, for which the recipe is below, over crusty bread or on pizza crust. And did you know that Parmigiano-Reggiano is naturally the lowest in cholesterol of all cheeses? What could be better for a special treat!
from the booklet on the Production of Parmigiano-Reggiano
125 g ricotta cheese (or creme fraiche)
80 g Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
salt and pepper
1 tbsp unsweetened heavy cream, whipped
Whisk the fresh cheese until it is a soft and frothy consistency. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and whipped cream with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add nutmeg and chives to taste – adjust seasoning as needed. The creamy mixture can be used as a spread or as a savory filling.
And I’m off! I have been alluding to my big summer trip since the start of my blog, but have been vague about the details. Time for me to share a little bit about where I’m headed for the next three weeks!
Country 1: Bosnia
My friend, Azra, from college is originally from Bosnia. She and her family moved to Boston during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, and I have learned a lot about Bosnian culture over the past 5 years. Her mom is incredibly hospitable and loves to feed me. Her meat pies are incredible, her chicken and rice moist and tender, and her coffee ever flowing. It is impossible to decline a meal when visiting her: “Oh, you just ate? I’ll make something small.” She slaves away in the kitchen while Mr. B yells loudly on the phone in Bosnian about politics; 3 courses later and barely able to move, I can feel the love she pours into her family and guests through her hospitality. Now I have my chance to go and visit their home country! My roommate from college and I leave today for an overnight flight from Boston to Sarajevo. We have very loose plans and have left most things up to our native tour guide. Whatever Azra thinks is worth to show off in her home city is okay with me! Hasn’t stopped me from reading just a bit online though… some tourism websites say to look forward to beautiful mosques and cathedrals, wartime memorials, beautiful bridges, and an interesting fusion of architecture between the original Ottoman rule and the later Austrian influences. I can’t wait to see Azra again and get to finally explore where she and her family are from!
Country 2: Croatia
After exploring Sarajevo for a few days, we are heading with Azra to Croatia to stay at her family’s vacation home. Croatia sits like a cap on Bosnia and is a more well-known tourist destination. It is known for its hilly towns and beautiful beaches, so I am so excited to see this scenery in person! Again, we have left a lot of the planning up to our more well-known friend and guide. We will be visiting Orebic, Dubrovnik and Korcula, but will play most things by ear until we get there! I am beginning to explode with excitement as I type this… Those who have heard me talk about my trip in person know that I let out a little squeal of joy when sharing about our loose plans!
Country 3: Italy
At this point, my roommate and I will leave Azra and take an overnight ferry across the Adriatic Sea to Italy. Our ferry will land first in Ancona, and then we will take a train up to Bologna to meet our friend, Miriam. Her mom, originally from Boston, met her Italian husband on vacation years ago, and has been an American-Italian ex-pat ever since! Miriam grew up in Bologna, and has invited Melissa and I to visit her since our first year as housemates. We are finally taking her up on her offer! We have a little bit more planned out for what we will do/see in Italy since some reservations were involved, with some strong guidance from Miriam! We will spend a few nights in Bologna, as well as make day trips to Venice and Florence. We are also going to spend two nights in Cinque Terre, an incredible grouping of 5 seaside towns carved into the mountain. I am so looking forward to the food and wine, to the scenery, to the art and culture, and to meeting Miriam’s family! It is hard to choose which part of my adventure I am most excited for. The whole thing? :)
Country 4: Czech Republic
This last stop in Prague was totally spur of the moment. Azra was over for dinner way back in January and we were looking at airfare to Bosnia and back from Italy. We had a map open, and she remarked how she had family friends in Czech Republic, which was so close and yet she was unsure if she’d get to go because she had no one to go with. After a few clicks around Travelocity, we saw that it would be the same price for me to fly from Bologna to Prague to home as it would to go straight home from Bologna. A host in Prague plus no added cost for airfare? I’m in! Our plans are again quite loose, as Azra’s friend has told us she will let us know where are the best places to see. We will have 5 days in Prague, so may even take a day trip to visit Dresden, Germany. (It is only 2 hours away by train!) This will depend on funds and how much we have seen in Prague – keeping my mind and itinerary open!
I am excited to be a free-spirit for the next few weeks. I am packing my suitcase lightly, leaving my laptop at home, and immersing myself in the company of my friends and the culture of other countries. If I stumble into an Internet cafe or make an occasional email check on a friend’s computer, I will post brief updates about my adventures to let my friends and family know that I am alive and enjoying exploring! I also have some pre-scheduled posts (I have cooked more than I have posted in the past few weeks and have a few treats to share!) and will also have guest posts from my mom and my sister.
All of these pictures are from tourism sites, but I will share much more of my adventures through my own pictures when I am back!
Question: Do you have any vacations planned this summer?