Return to the Motherland: The “Modern” Italia

It is with distance that you begin to see the larger picture. Sometimes all it takes is one step back to realize. Up close, a mosaic is just a plethora of colored tiles, the true image is hiding at a larger perspective.

This was the emotional sensation I had upon my temporary stint in Italy this past September. After almost 2 years away from the country that has defined my 20s, the experience going back felt a bit different this time. Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel called “You Can’t Go Home Again.” In it, he describes unfair passing of time which prevents one from ever being able to return “home again”. The emotions, the memories, your thoughts, once upon a time can only be revisited in hindsight.

Upon arrival in Rome, I was overwhelmed with a displaced feeling of nostalgia. As if I had woken up in a dream and got stuck for 2 weeks.  The most poignant part of the experience this time around, was the overwhelming lack of progress that holds Italy back from achieving stability. Back in 2008, when I was a young 20 year old punch-drunk  by Italy’s beauty, I mistook this part of the society as an endearing reason to love Italy.  I never noticed how unfortunate the economic situation in Italy had become.

Speaking to friends who are Phd holding professionals about a typical salary in Italy was an extreme reality check. While the cost of life for an average italian living in a city center is by no means bargain, many educated Italians are being paid less than 2000 Euros a month! And they’re lucky for even having a steady job! Over 20% of the italian population of people aged 18-28 can’t find work, regardless of having a solid education. In Parma, the affluent Northern Italian city I used to call home, over 85 stores in the city center were closed due to bankruptcy.

This is why I describe the return this time around as bittersweet. Everything I remembered is crumbling under a weak economy. You can see it everywhere, in the eyes of every Italian there is a certain sadness they carry with them about the state of their country. An overwhelming sense of apathy that weighs everyone down from progress. The happy go lucky self I was when I lived there, had just learnt comparatively speaking that there is no Santa Claus. Now I finally understand the famous ex pat Italian mantra, “Italy is a beautiful place to visit, and an impossible place to live.”

Here are a few photos I took along the way:

Play me a tune
Play me a tune
Amalfi Coast
Amalfi Coast
Lecce, Commercio
Lecce, Commercio
Ravello, Campania
Ravello, Campania
Piazza Duomo, Lecce
Piazza Duomo, Lecce
Me in Piazza Sant'Oronzo, Lecce
Me in Piazza Sant’Oronzo, Lecce
Quante storie per un caffè
Quante storie per un caffè
Capri
Capri

When Wine Takes Over

Lambrusco Grapes

In Italy’s designated land of pork and Parmigiano, there’s always room for a vineyard.While Emilia-Romagna might not be particularly well-known for having an extensive or flourishing viticulture, the region produces a large amount of Lambrusco and even some international grapes including Chardonnay and Cabernet-Sauvignon.

Working for Ferrarini S.p.A., a company with a lot of land producing a large variety of Italian specialty products (Prosciutto, Parmigiano, Balsamic Vinegar, Wine, etc.) I get the opportunity to follow the entire production process of these things on a first hand basis. Yes, I even get to taste the grapes from Ferrarini’s vineyards. I can’t exactly say my life sucks.

During the month of September into the beginning of October, the grape-vine reaches the height of excitement in its life. Kind of like graduating from high school, the grapes that have been in the process of growing the entire year, are now being picked and transformed in to bigger, better, and more alcoholic things.

Being an American, I have always romanticized the picking and crushing of wine grapes. Having seen that infamous “I Love Lucy” episode far too many times, I expected to see a group of ageless women in checkered dresses with handkerchiefs on their head, picking and stomping grapes to the beat of a distant accordion. Instead, I saw that the people harvesting grapes were actually students, round together every year to make a quick buck during the harvesting season.The harvest is 100% manual, which is surprising considering that Ferrarini has over 20 acres of their land designated for viticulture.

Because this area of Italy is not particularly famous for its wine culture, the general approach for wines from this area is quantity above quality. Lambrusco being the regional wine, is a simple table wine that pairs well with fattier foods, with a light carbonation and acidity that helps cut the heaviness of what’s being eaten.

Running around with Ferrarini’s enologist, Luca Torreggiani, I was filling pages and pages of my notebook with wine facts that any wine-dork/food-freak would find fascinating. A conversation with Luca, my comprehension degenerating with each sip of fermented grape elixir, I pushed myself to understand the intricacies of it all..

The Q&A’s with Mr. Toreggiani

  • Q: What is organic wine?
  • A: I am convinced that it can’t actually exist 100%. Sure grapes can be grown in an organic environment, without using pesticides, etc. But once they leave the vineyard, Sulphites almost absolutely have to be used in order to create the right fermentation environment for the wine. Sulphites are fundamental for extending the longevity of wine, as well as conserving it’s color and flavor. Organic wine? I’m not convinced.
  • Q: Why are grapes always grown on a slope?
  • A: Slopes are very important in viticulture. Especially for white wines. By growing the white wine grapes on a slope facing east, they are never exposed to the direct heat of the sun, and the flavors are not burnt or compromised. Red wines on the other hand need heat, so they are grown facing West on a hill to have the best sun exposure.
  • Q: How come drinking a sip of Champagne or other sparkling white wine makes me feel immediately drunk?
  • A: Well, it’s actually not the alcohol content of the wine that makes your head spin immediately like that, it’s actually because sparkling white wines or “Spumanti” have a higher level of sulphites that have that side effect.

Making wine is not a simple endeavor. It requires an extensive knowledge not only of climate (Ferrarini uses specialized technology to specifically monitor weather patterns), but also a good background in science, and a passion for the product itself. I have a passion for drinking the product, but something tells me that’s not enough to open my own vineyard. As far as a Grassroots Gourmet wine production goes, for now all we have to rely on is the moonshine eating away the plastic of my bathtub. I should probably just stick to drinking and enjoying wine, leaving the rest to the pros.

London Overture

As my Californian summer comes to a close, I am packing and getting ready to embark for my birthday excursion in London, England. Strangely enough I spent my birthday in London last year as well. I will be the ripe age of 23… better start looking into Medicare. Ah, the life of a jet setter!

Luckily, though my birthday happens to be on a Monday, it also happens to fall on a Bank Holiday, as well as the Notting Hill Carnival. I’m not quite sure what to expect for the carnival but my boyfriend informed me that it’s bound to be a good time. I remember I wanted to go last year when I was in London with my mother, but the news reports of deaths and riots kind of deterred her desires… hmm this should be interesting!

I am anxiously anticipating my return to the motherland (Italia) on September 1st where I will start my internship at Ferrarini and eat all the cured meats and Parmigiano Reggiano that my heart desires. How I miss the readily available delicacies of the land I call home.

As soon as my crazy summer ends, I will get back into the swing of things and revamp this website. Until then, Cheerio! I am off to London!


Guglielmo Wonka and the Chocolate Factory



The past week has been a rough one on my stomach, eating and drinking in Piedmont, an region in the North-West of Italia. Obviously I can’t complain because I am living quite the hedonistic lifestyle out here.. eating fine meats and drinking fine wines to my liver’s and stomach’s capacity…

Piedmont, home of the city of Turin (Torino in Italian) is famous for its sweet delicacies, specifically chocolates, candies, and pastries. Home of the Gianduja (the original Nutella), we were taken to the birth of it all, Guido Gubino’s chocolate factory.

Upon walking into the small workshop off a hidden side street in the center of Turin, the smell of freshly crushed cacao beans and hazelnut puree overwhelmed my senses. My mouth started to water as I took a self guided tour around the merch counters at the front of the factory. Towers of perfectly constructed chocolates, bon bons, truffles, hazelnut delights, each one more tempting than the next. Just as I was getting ready to rip open a box of the treats, we were asked to put on the protective garbs and take a trip into the heart of the factory.

Expecting to see oompa loompas prancing around and singing to the beat of the production line, I was not too far off in my prejudgments. The factory was dominated by what seemed to be over caffeinated women, extremely enthusiastic about the product, and eager to give us a taste. The rest of the factory workers were extremely flamboyant Italian men who expressed the same level of enthusiasm for their tea-infused truffles as a night at an Elton John concert… you get the idea.

At the end of the tour, we were offered a tasting of various chocolate delights freshly produced by the happy go lucky people downstairs, including: chocolate truffle infused with sea-salt and extra virgin olive oil (an award winner), chocolate covered ginger, 80% extra bitter dark chocolate buttons, Gianduja hazelnut bits, and crema di cioccolato.

If that wasn’t enough, right after the factory tour at Guido Gobino we were bussed off like slaughterhouse cows to the Pastiglie Leone candy factory on the other side of town….will write about that experience later because all this talking about candy is making my teeth hurt. For more info on the Guido Gobino chocolate company, click here

Needless to say, after all the candy, heavy meats (typical to Piemontese cuisine) and typical wines (Barolo, Nebbiolo, Barbera, etc) I am on a serious detox diet, only fruits and vegetables for me this week. My liver needs a break.

Dos Cañas, Por Favor

Back to reality, I have had time to reflect on the amazing world that is southern Spain. I was blown away by the extensive world of food and drinks that Alicante had to offer, sunburnt and content I return to Parma wanting more.

My boyfriend, Andrea, having lived abroad in Spain, knew the ways of the land I and let him do most of the talking. After arriving at the airport at 9:30pm, I was worried we had missed the dinner hour, but Andrea reassured me that the Spanish don’t start eating dinner until at least 10pm. I was relieved and highly curious.

We began with Cañas, the Spanish term for a little glass of beer and a little plate of nuts and dried fava beans. Costing a small price of 2 Euros each, we enjoyed this world of Cañas a bit too much, having drunk about 6 liters of beer in the duration of the trip…my ass will thank me later.

Cañas

After an entire day of sitting on the beach and baking in the hot Spanish sun, we enjoyed an aperitivo. I of course wanting to drink the culture, ordered the typical drink Tinto de Verano which was red wine mixed with lemon Fanta… I know this sounds really weird and kind of disgusting but it was one of the most refreshing beverages I have ever had… perhaps this is because I was on the verge of sunstroke but who cares?

Tinto de Verano and a Mojito

Tapas, Paella Valenciana, and all the like, I fell absolutely in love with this strange world that we had flown into. In Spain, you eat little portions, and often, there are no rules. In Italy, if you curl your pasta the wrong way around your fork you might offend the waiter, but here people were relaxed, vivacious, and happy in the summer sun.

Fried Sardines con Limon
Tapas!
Andrea and I after some Tapas

Now that I am back in the world of wine and carbohydrates, I can truly see the contrast of lifestyles between Spain and Italy that I had never before experienced first hand. I can’t wait to go back.

Ocean view from the castle in Alicante
Traditionally dressed Seville girls

Dos Cañas, Por Favor.

Caliente Alicante: Escape to Southern Spain

Alicante Harbor

Taking advantage of the European bank holiday on June 2nd, my boyfriend and I will be enjoying a short getaway to the beach side Valencian city of Alicante. Though my experience may be slightly lost in a sea of mojitos and late-night clubbing, I hope to learn a little bit more about the specialties of southern Spanish cuisine.

Not that I don’t love Italian food, but 8 months of overdosing on carbohydrates has got me yearning for something a little different. The area is famous for specialties such as Paella Valenciana and Gazpacho and the cuisine includes a lot of fresh vegetables, citrus fruits, and seafood.

Paella Valenciana:

Paella Valenciana

A traditional rice based dish including: short grain rice, chicken, rabbit, butter beans, great northern beans, runner beans, artichoke, tomatoes, fresh rosemary, saffron, paprika, salt, garlic, and olive oil.

Gazpacho

A cold, tomato based Spanish soup, using all raw vegetable ingredients.

Hungry?

I will be gone from Saturday to Wednesday the 2nd… and hope to come back philosophically, alcoholically, and gastronomically enlightened. Details to come….

Off to Campania: Eating like a Mob Boss

Bay of Naples at Sunset

It’s that time of the month again….No, not THAT one.. I mean it’s off for another gastronomic tour to one of Italy’s most beautiful and notorious regions: Campania. Campania, found on Italy’s southwest side, is home to a plethora of famous tourist destinations such as Amalfi, Sorrento, Positano, Capri, and last but definitely most notorious, Naples.

Naples Street View, Via Toledo

Travelers coming to this part of Italy are surely in for an eyeful of beauty, and a mouthful of food, but must definitely be cautious of their surroundings because despite the romantic landscapes, Naples and its surrounding cities are ‘littered’ (pun intended) with mafia violence and professional thieves. In Amalfi and other coastal tourist destinations in the area, the corruption in this region is hidden a bit more than it is in Naples; however, as a foreigner in Naples one must be incredibly aware of his surroundings and his personal belongings. Even Italians themselves recognize Naples (Napoli in Italian) as being at the crux of Italy’s mafia corruption. The Camorra (as is known the mafia in this region) is incredibly strong and while they probably could care less about a tourist, be sure not to get caught in the middle of a shoot out! (I kind of wish I was kidding.)

Nonetheless, aside from the professional pick-pocketing and potential stray bullets, Campania is home to some of Italy’s most famous food masterpieces, and thus the motivation for my arrival to the Heart of Darkness (to extend my hyperbolic attitude today).

What is the most internationally famous element of Italian cuisine? Pizza. Created in Naples in the late 18th century for King Ferdinand and his wife Margherita (hence the Pizza Margherita).

Traditional Margherita Pizza: Buffalo Mozzarella, Fresh Tomatoes, and Basil

Buffalo Mozzarella is also a key staple product in this region, despite recent tainting issues this sensually rich and flavorful cheese remains the pride of every Neopolitan. Here in Campania it is freshly made and enjoyed by all.

Mozzarella di Bufala

I will be gone until next Friday (May  14th), and will be leaving my computer at home because bringing it to Naples equivalent to having MUG ME tattooed onto my forehead. This should be true Grassroots Gourmet adventure.

The Amalfi Coast