Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Second Winter: Musings about living here for more than a year

I've now been living in Italy for about 14 months... and I have to say that the reality of living here is different than I expected.  Some things are better, some are worse.  Some just, well, different.  I'm finding that I am much more homesick that I expected.  I have lived all over the place, in various parts of the world, but until now there was always an end point, like living in Asheville until I went to college, or living in Greensboro until I graduated college, living in Ireland until my visa expired, or living in Kentucky until I finished grad school.  Now that I am living in Italy and married, there is no 'end point', which I find to be fairly unsettling.  I love my husband and I love Italy, but I still get 'itchy feet'. 

I think I never got very homesick before because in the various places I have lived (or traveled to for extended periods), I always knew that I'd return to my family between each adventure.  Now, home is in the snowy Alps, and I am (probably) permanently on the other side of the globe from my family and lifelong friends.  To cope with this, I'm clinging to my Appalachian roots a lot more than I expected.  I play more Old Time music now than I ever did in the US, I'm always cooking southern food (pies, biscuits, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, roasted squash, etc), just made a patchwork quilt for a friend's baby, we are learning to brew beer at home because Italian beer generally tastes like poo, and I sometimes talk to myself in an empty house in a strong southern accent to keep myself company. 

That's not so say I haven't embraced the local culture, because I have.  I have a much deeper appreciation for wine than I ever did before, am enamored with the local cheeses (and am having some success making them myself), my favorite place in the world is inside the 2000 year old aqueduct up the road from here, and I can chat pretty well in Italian now.  I don't stand out as obviously as I did a year ago, and am learning how to maneuver my way through the Italian way of life. 

Things I like here
-Socializing generally revolves around food and cooking
-There are GIANT snow-capped mountains poking up everywhere.  Seriously, it is crazy.
-I can see glaciers from my kitchen
-Just about everyone can cook and they (nearly) all appreciate good, well made food
-Roman ruins absolutely everywhere, and the 2000 year old town I live outside of has 2000 year old walls surrounding it. 
-The pace of life is slower.  Things happen eventually, and people aren't rushing around like headless chickens
-There are still the small specialty shops.  Bread shops, pastry shops, meat shops, pasta shops, cheese shops, wine shops, chocolate shops...even shops that ONLY carry socks. 
-I can walk 5 minutes to get raw milk from the dairy vending machine.
-I can walk 2 minutes past to a great produce market where they grow much of what they sell. 
-The Italian language is beautiful
-The 'aperitivo'.  It translates as 'appetizer'... but it is so much better. Before dinner, when you go to a bar and get a glass of wine, they have a spread of tasty little appetizers that are included with your drink.  In the US, folks go out for a cup of joe.  Here, folks go out for an aperitivo. 
-FREE (or cheap, in some cases) medical care and medications!
-cheap public transportation exists in multiple forms, even if it isn't always reliable because the drivers are on strike what seems like half the time
-cobblestone pedestrian-only streets
-My giant rabbit, Genepy, who was saved from being cooked in a polenta sauce.  She weighs 6 kilos, and snores very loudly when she's not following me around like an imprinted duckling.

Things I don't like
-The Italian language is hard, especially when people talk fast, in dialect, strange accents, and use funny expressions
- If you have a prescription medicine, you must go every two weeks to the doctor to get a new prescription.  Even if it something you have to take for your whole life.  And then the Pharmacy probably doesn't have it because everyone is always on strike
-Bureaucracy.  I know it sucks everywhere, but here the laws change so often that no one (seriously! no one!) knows them even if it is their job.  Which means nothing ever gets done, and they end up doing funny things.  Like, I couldn't start working until my house was measured. 
-I don't know where to go to buy random things... like stickers, for example. 
-Ingredients are different.  If I want to make foreign food, like Mexican, I need to bring the ingredients from the US.  So I have a freezer full of masa harina, grits, cornmeal, and biscuit flour I hauled over since those things don't exist here. 
-Traveling ain't so easy when you live in a snowy, narrow valley in the middle of no where in the Alps
-I really, really miss my family... thank goodness for Skype, though.
-Most people want to eat my pet rabbit
-I feel like a baby because I don't have an innate knowledge of how to get anything done here, as I would in the US.  I want to sell jam and homemade cosmetics.  What offices do I need to go to so that I can start the process? Who knows!

It's a balance.  I love it here, but sometimes it annoys the living daylights out of me.  Overall, the balance is tipped in the direction of 'yippie, I love it here!', but it isn't always easy.  Life the past few months has been particularly crazy, as I stopped working as a medical physicist after only 6 months (contract issues... I was actually quite good at my job), and we are working towards running a B&B later this year.  It's one that someone we know already started years back, and needs someone to run it (me! me!).  I discovered that I have some kind of crazy natural born talent for jam and cosmetics (lotions, creams, etc) making that I will try to capitalize on.  My language skills are far better than a year ago; now I can talk to most people about most things, even if my grammar is...crappy.  It is dark and gloomy and snowy here, but I think we actually have far less snow than in the US at the moment, and snow is to be expected in the Alps, I suppose.  It's so strange... in the winter, the view literally looks like a black & white photo.  Everything is in shades of gray. 

Another thing...until a couple of years ago, dancing (lindy hop and contra dancing) were my life since about 2001.  I haven't hardly danced a step since I moved here, and it kind of feels like something has died inside of me as a result.  I still feel like a dancer, if though I don't really dance anymore.  However, upon realizing that, I bought myself a ticket to Barcelona for the New Year, so I am rocketing off tomorrow morning to dance for a few days! I also bought a pass for the European Swing Dance Championships in June (also in Barcelona), so that is another thing to look forward to. 

Oh, one thing I didn't mention above, but since it is Italy, it must be said.  The shoes here are gorgeous. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Homemade Veggie Burgers! mmm....

There are a good few things I want to write about, but since a number of people have been asking me about this particular topic lately, I'll go with it!

A bit of background: I've been a vegetarian for 18 or 19 years now, and I take care to make sure that I have enough protein in my diet, as it can be easy for a veg to overlook.  A lot of vegetarians just grab for their jar of peanut butter (if they live in the US), a block of cheese, or a can of beans and call it a day.

But... why do that when you can make something that is more balanced, tasty, AND easy?  Veggie burgers are the staple of many veggie diets, but generally they are the type that are in a box in the frozen food isle.  Even if you go to a nice restaurant and order a veggie burger, it is...well, always from my experience....from a box in the freezer.  It never occurred to me that veggie burgers were something that normal people could make at home, until my husband got me a really great book, Veggie Burgers Every Which Way, by Lukas Volger. I have to admit, I am terrible about following recipes.  I generally just look at one to get inspiration, and then go my own way.  I followed some recipes in this book the first few times, but now that I just make 'em up as I go, and they turn out great.  I really do recommend this book, though.

A note on beans: Yeah, you can used canned beans, but they are generally loaded with preservatives and just aren't as tasty as the real thing.  The 'real thing' is easy, you just have to think of it in advance.  Before you go to bed, put some dried beans in a bowl, cover with water, and leave them there for 12 hours, plus or minus whatever time is convenient to you.  Rinse and then put in a pot and cover with fresh water and simmer til done.  Time will depend on the bean.  They are so much tastier this way.  And cheaper. 

Ok, so here is the 'Easy Bean Burger' recipe at the beginning of his book, slightly adapted.  It really is easy! And tasty! And versatile! You can also make them into tiny patties to put on a salad, which is fun.  And you can wrap up uncooked burgers and stick them in the freezer for up to 2 months. 

Easy Bean Burger
1 1/2 cups cooked beans
2 beaten eggs
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1/4 grated parmesan
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoons salt
14 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup tasted bread crumbs (plus more if needed)
2 Tbs olive oil
(Optional tasty things to add in: chopped fresh sage, pesto, chopped sun dried tomatoes, chopped walnuts, etc)
**if you don't have all of these ingredients, don't worry.  The necessary ingredients are the beans, eggs, salt & pepper, bread crumbs, oil... but it is better with the other things.

-Preheat oven to 375 F
-Mash the beans in a bowl, and fold in all ingredients except for bread crumbs.  Then add bread crumbs, and add more if it is too loose.  It should be nice and wet.  Let sit for 5 minutes or so for the crumbs to soak up extra moisture.  Shape into 4 patties (or more, if you want mini burgers).
-In an oven safe skillet (like cast iron pan), heat oil over medium-high heat.  Add patties and cook until browned on each side, which should take 5-10 minutes total.  Transfer the pan to the oven and bake 12-15 minutes more until the burgers are firm and cooked through.  (if you don't have an oven safe skillet, cook over heat in whatever you have, and then cook in the oven on something that can go in the oven, like a cookie sheet or aluminum foil.

Serve however you want! I like to make my own buns (so easy! Get that book I told you about for the recipe.  Or just make normal bread, using half whole wheat, and form into balls, and use an eggwash to make seeds or whatever you want on top to stick) and also to make my own baked french fries and pickled red onions. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Operation: Cheese Making Part III

In addition to making those other tasty cheeses in previous posts (especially queso fresco...mmmm!), I've been working on two new cheeses!

Cheese #7: Molded Cheese Rounds

This is basically a farmer-style cheese, made into to little rounds.  Before trying them, I thought 'TOMINI!', but alas they were only tomini in form, although they were still tasty.  Tomini are a common cheese fresh around here, and I'm trying to find a recipe so I can make them, too.

Anyhow, this was my first cheese made using cultures.  For how much cheese is made around here, no one seems to have a clue as to where I can get cultures.  I think that the local cheese makers probably have their own cultures that they propagate, and most folks just don't make cheese at home anymore.  So, although I live in the land of cheese, I ordered my cheese making cultures from the UK. 

For this cheese, the ingredients were milk, a mesophilic (low temp) culture or buttermilk (which doesn't exist here), rennet, and salt.  The molds were made out of paper cups with holes punched in them, and it was pressed with other paper cups filled with water. 

 I was supposed to gradually heat the milk in a simmering double boiler removed from heat, but as I pasteurized the raw milk first and was too impatient to cool it and then reheat it, I just let it cool down to the right temperature. 
 I added the mesophilic starter, and had to let it sit for an hour.  It started smelling nice and cheesy after that! Then, I added the rennet and let it sit for another hour.  Then, the miracle happened.  So, SO cool.  The milk turned into a gel-like solid.  As if the whole thing turned to jell-o.  It was pretty darn awesome.  I cut the curd with a whisk, heated them back up, drained, salted, and then divided the curds up between the cups. I pressed the cheeses, turned them (hard to get those darn things out!!!), keeped pressing, turned, and left the little cheesy suckers overnight.

  Then I took them out, let them dry off a bit, and VOILA! Cheese! They are really tasty, especially with a little bit of just pressed olive oil mixed with a little bit of pesto drizzled on top.

 Cheese #8: Ricotta Salata

Ricotta Salata is basically pressed, molded, salted, and slightly aged ricotta.  There are different ways to make ricotta... directly from the whey after making mozzarella, milk added to whey, or just from milk.  Add acid, and you have ricotta curd, and strain in a cheesecloth.  Then you pack it all into a mold (I was lucky! I finally found one... the last one for sale! a farm shop at the bottom of my driveway), and press it.  I don't have real cheese presses yet, so I had to improvise.

See? Lovely cheese in it's mold.  I made the mistake of not sticking in in with some cheesecloth the first time, and it got stuck, so I learned my lesson and it's now living in cheesecloth in the mold.  As with the other molded cheese, it needs to be flipped in the mold a few times that first day.

 Out of the mold! Isn't is beautiful?  This is before it's salted every day for a week, and then aged for a month.  I just finished the last salt rub (I see why it is called salata, as it will be SALTY) yesterday, and need to wait for 1 to 3 weeks more before diggin' in.  I'll let you know how it turns out!

In  other, very VERY exciting news... I spoke with Reuben the Cheesemaker yesterday at the Mistletoe Festival.  He makes fantastic goat cheese.  I've been to his place at the top of the mountain a couple of times before, and actually was there when a goat went into labor and gave birth, which was incredible.  He said that not only can I buy goat milk from him, come February when the goats give birth again, but he'll teach me to make cheese!  They are only making cheese for 10 more days until spring, so I will be going up there soon, to apprentice with a fantastic cheese maker.  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

No-Knead Bread

I know that this is so 2006, and it's been written about probably ten thousand times, but it's so good and simple that I must also contribute to the plethora of blog posts about this magnificent bread.

No-knead bread hit the mainstream audience in November 2006 with this article in the NY Times.  It was a baking sensation that overtook the nation, as much as home baked goods can.  Foodies everywhere were talking about it.  I heard about it, and was curious, but never  tried it or made it until this past week.  To put it simply, it blew me away and I'm obsessed with it.  I'm also in the process of making my third loaf in one week!  I'm not someone who is generally a 'bread eater', as most bread isn't worth eating in my opinion.  I am in love with the wonderful fermented breads made in France, but that's about it.  My bread's got to be fermented, take multiple days to make, have a chewy crumb and rustic thick crust,  or I generally won't touch it.  However, I usually don't take the time to make this sort of bread at home, so I usually go breadless.  Unfortunately, in this part of Italy, the bread generally...well, sucks.  Italians, at least around here, treat bread simply as a utensil to mop up the juice on their plates and to push food on their forks. 

I think the no-knead revolution has just hit Italy, though.  It's similar to a ciabatta, but possibly tastier.  It is also easier to make.  Last night we had a small dinner party at our house, and the three guests gobbled up the whole loaf and all requested the recipe, which I then had to translate into the metric system.

It's an extraordinarily simple process, and the only important piece of kitchen equipment is something like a Le Creuset, or any other heavy pot (cast iron, terra cotta, etc) with a good lid. However, since we will be heating it up to a high temp, to be on the safe side you might want to unscrew your lid handle and stuff the hole with a piece of aluminum. 

  You add your 4 ingredients together in a big bowl:
3 cups flour
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp yeast
1 5/8 cups water
 (later you will need a little corn meal, wheat bran, polenta, or something like this)

It will be a wet, shaggy mess.  Then you cover it, leave it in a warm-ish place, and let it sit undisturbed for about 18 hours.  It will grow into a significantly larger wet mess, dotted with bubbles, emitting a nice yeasty smell even though hardly any yeast is used.
After the 18 or so hours are up and it looks all bubbly and ooey gooey like the photo above, flour a work surface and gently pour your dough onto it.  Sprinkle dough with a little flour, and fold it in on itself one or two times.  Cover and let it sit for 15 minutes.

Very quickly form it into a ball, only using enough flour to keep it from sticking to your fingers.  However, I found that it doesn't want to be a ball, it wants to be a sticky blog.  Anyhow, make it as ball like as possible, and place the goopy mess on a tea towel (or as we say in the US, dish towel, although it doesn't sound as nice) that has been coated with your cornmeal/polenta/wheat bran/something like that, UGLY side down.  Or, shall I say, uglier side down.  Sprinkle some more of whatever you used (l like using mill ground cornmeal or polenta) and cover with another tea towel.  Leave it for 2 hours.  It'll rise some, as bread is prone to do.

30 minutes before your rise is up (which is 1 1/2 hours after it started on its second rise), stick your pot with its lid on in an oven preheated to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. 

CAREFULLY take it out after that time is up, and dump your dough into the hot pot so that it is 'ugly side up' AKA seam side up.  Trust me, it will make end up beautiful.  Wiggle the pot back and forth a little to make sure dough gets evenly distributed.  Cover with the lid and stick it in the oven for 30 minutes.  Then, take off the lid and cook for another 15 minutes or so until it is a lovely golden brown.  Dump it out of your pot and let it cool on a wire rack before eating.

It is delish.  Now it is time for me to prepare batch #3 for its second rising! 

 See how lovely it is?  It's turning me into a bread-lover, and will probably make me fat from carb-overload

 Nice crumb inside resulting from the day of letting it ferment... yum!

The reason you need this pot is so that bread has a shape (otherwise it will turn into a long flat blob), and most importantly, to develop a good crust.  Because the dough is so moist, when it cooks it gives off a lot of steam.  Cooking it in a hot, lidded pot is basically like cooking it in a tiny steam-injected oven, which means that you get a fantastic texture and taste out of your crust. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pie, the mysterious food art

Pie making is truly an art.
A 'good' pie tastes good and looks good. An utterly fantastic pie that makes your toes curl and moans escape your throat has so much more. Not only are the innards tasty and cooked/prepared to perfection, but they use fresh, seasonal ingredients, and are a combination of simplicity and some sort of unexpected 'wow' factor. The crust must be tender, yet flaky (even the bottom), a perfect light golden brown, and beautifully crafted. It should be so beautiful that you can't bear to cut into it, but the tendrils of eau d'pie wafting towards your nostrils make it so that you MUST try it, and once you do, you want to devour the whole thing in one sitting, but devour it slowly, so as to appreciate all of these elements which make the pie so perfect.

I usually don't have the energy, unless it is for a special occasion, to attempt to make a supremely fantastic pie. I usually settle for 'damn good'. I constantly have people asking me to reveal my secrets of pie making... but here's the thing. They aren't secrets. I'm happy to share everything I know.

First, I will post a few pictures of what I think are some extraordinary pies, some made my me, and some not. Most of not all of the photos come from my family's annual Pie Party, which is probably the best event in the world.

Anyone who knows her, will tell you, but Brookes Wolfe makes a killer pie, and she can make the most beautiful crusts imaginable.  Not only does she have some gorgeous leaf action going on, but she has a rope edge on it, which is hard to do.  I think the innards were trusty combo of apples and berries, which you can never go wrong with.

One of my pies.  If I recall correctly, it was a lemon-lavender-raspberry pie with a berry and rosewater glaze, with a leaf crust edge and crystallized calendula flowers. 

David the Baker's 'Upside down chicken pie'.  It was a combination of beautiful and terrifying.  From what I understand, it was delicious, even with the claws leering at you (I'm a vegetarian, so I didn't try it).  He butchered the chicken himself, made an interesting crust, and had extreme shock value to make this pie memorable.

A beautiful creation from my mom, Barbara Swell.  You can probably see where I learned to do the leaves from! This was a roasted veggie pie, and it was a combo of beautiful and wonderfully tasty.

Another of my mom's pies.  while it might not be a show-stopper in appearance, it is by far the best thing I ever ever tasted in my entire life.  It was a blackberry pie with a layer of dark chocolate on the bottom.  When I ate it, I shouted out 'OH MOMMA!', and that's what this kind of pie is called now.  Holy crap, you can't imagine how amazing this was.  An unexpected twist on a traditional pie, that adds to the flavor, and makes it so incredible that you scream out for it when you sleep... that's what I'm talking about.

Thanksgiving is coming up, and that means pumpkin pie for most folks. It's not a show stopping pie, but it certainly goes into the 'damn good' category, especially when you make it will a real pumpkin, as opposed to the canned variety. I'll start you off with a recipe for that (don't worry, by the end of this post you'll be able to make a stellar crust as well!). This page in my recipe book is covered with so many spills of all of the ingredients that the pages stick together and it's hardly legible anymore. It's that trusty of a pumpkin pie recipe. I swear by it.  The difference between this and most other pumpkin pie recipes is that it only has one egg, so it is denser and not eggy.

Mrs. Painter's Pumpkin Pie
from: The Lost Art of Pie Making Made Easy, by Barbara Swell

1 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/3 cup evaporated milk (I use whole milk and it's just fine)
1 egg
3/4 cup brown sugar
pinch salt
1 Tbs. flour
1 tsp each cinnamon and ginger
dash of freshly grated nutmeg.

Mix all ingredients well, and pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake in a 350 degree oven on the bottom rack for about 45 minutes or until the middle is firm. Cover the edges with foil if needed to keep from over-browning."

You know when this is done when you wiggle it a big and the middle doesn't slosh. This is one of those pies best eaten once it's been cooled off, and preferably refrigerated. The crust has a tendency to finish before the insides, so pay close attention once you hit the 1/2 hour mark, remember that foil is your friend to keep crusts from burning!
Pumpkin pie I made yesterday cooling on the windowsill

Now, for the crust...

Many folks have fear of crust. And I don't fault them for it, because a good pie crust is a tricky thing, and there are a lot of terrible crusts out there. But there are some fantastic ones out there as well, and that's what I'm going to write about now. Some people like to make different types of crusts for different pies, but for most pies I use the same basic recipe, as it works well for just about everything. It's how I learned to make it from my momma, the undisputed Queen of Pie, and it's won me 'best crust' in the giant pie contest nearly every year.

First, a couple of things that will help you, before giving you the recipe:
1) Use good ingredients. That should be obvious, but if you use discount flour and discount butter, it's not going to be good. If you want good pie, use good ingredients.
2) Keep your ingredients (especially butter) very very COLD. I can't emphasize enough how important this is.
3) Work the dough as little as possible.

Ok, so now for your ingredients. This is enough for a 1 crust pie that fits in a 9" pie pan. If you need a 2 crust pie, just double the recipe. I don't measure exactly, as I eyeball it all, but this is theoretically what I am doing:

1 cup white, unbleached all purpose flour (King Arthur brand is reliable)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
very small amount of baking powder (little less than 1/4 tsp)
5 3/4 Tbs very cold unsalted butter
small bowl of ice water with a juice of half a lemon squeezed into it (you'll use about 5 Tbs of this water)

Mix dry ingredients together. Some folks say sift, but to be honest, I've never sifted anything in my life and it all turns out just fine. Cut your butter into cubes (approx 1/2 inch), and using a pastry cutter, fork or tips (seriously! only the tips!) of your fingers cut in half of the butter, until it is like course crumbs. This step makes it tender. Then cut in the rest of the butter, until it is the size of small peas. That makes it flaky. Get your icy lemony water, and stir in the water one tablespoon at a time. Stir it with a fork, and it's done when it BARELY holds together when you squeeze it. Don't you dare make a wet dough, because it will be nasty if you do that. It will seem kind of dry, but as long as it barely sticks together, it's fine. At this point there is an optional step, which I'm not sure if I can describe, and feel free to skip. There's a French name for this technique, but I haven't a clue how to spell it, just how to do it. I quickly form the dough into a ball (don't touch it too much, you'll melt the butter!), and then I put it on a slightly floured surface and using the heel of my hand, I push it down hard into the ball of dough and push it away. This helps with the flakiness. Then I form it into a flattened ball.

However, you can skip that if it seems too much, and you can go ahead and make your dough into a flattened ball. It shouldn't be more than an inch thick. Wrap well in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. It needs to rest for an absolute minimum of a half an hour, but several hours or even overnight is ideal. The resting period of the dough in the refrigerator is important.

When you are ready, take out your dough, flour a surface, and get out your pie plate and rolling pin. When rolling out a pie crust, you want to roll in a way so that you are pushing out from the middle of the dough. I never ever bring my rolling pin to the edge of the dough, as it isn't necessary, and will only screw you up. After ever roll or two, it's good to pick up and rotate the dough a quarter of a turn, and make sure it's not getting sticky from butter melting on the top or bottom. Don't over-flour, as it will make your crust bitter, but flour enough it keep it from sticking. Roll until it is about 1 1/2 inches larger than the top of your pie pan all the way around.

Carefully lay your crust into your pie pan, so that it sets nicely in there. Use a knife to cut off the jagged bits over the edge, or the parts where it is too big. You want about an inch or a bit less of 'over hang'. You are going to tuck this behind the crust, so that you have a nice rounded edge along the rim of the pie plate. Got it?

Now, to 'pretty-fy' it. There are a number of things to do, but I'll tell you the simplest ways. If you are lazy or frightened, you can take a fork and gently press down the edges along the rim of the pie plate. I personally find this ugly, but some folks like it. OR you can do the following: With your right hand, hold out your thumb and first finger so that there is about a centimeter's space between them, and hold out your first finger on your left hand so that it is pointing into the space between the fingers you are holding out on your right hand. Having your fingers out like this, go to your crust, with those right two fingers on the outside of the top edge, and your left finger on the inside. Bring these fingers together, so that your left finger basically pushes the dough into the little space created by your two fingers on your right hand. Then, do this to all of the pie. Voila, it is beautiful!
                                          (image from

At this point, I like to cover it with plastic wrap and let it refrigerate for another 15 minutes or so. If you will be blind baking, you need to poke holes in the bottom with a fork. Otherwise, use as the recipe says.

If any of this isn't clear, let me know and I'll try to clarify.  If you know someone who is a good pie baker, it's best to learn from them, as making pie is an art best learned from another.  If not, try anyways and you can always ask me for advice!

As my mom wrote in her book that I reference above, "Pie has intrigue. Pie is adventure, mystery, romance, and love."  What more could you want in life than that?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Operation: Cheese Making Part II... Mozzerella, Ricotta, & Seras

And the cheese making adventures continue!

On to ‘real’ cheeses… that is to say, those that involve more than separating curds from whey and squishing the curds together. Only slightly more involved, and way more fun.

Cheese #4: Mozzerella

Now, there are 2 different main ways to making mozzerella; one way takes two days, and the other takes less than an hour. My ’cheese making for idiots’ teaches the one hour method, although I am keen to explore the 2 day method, because apparently it keeps better.

My friend Denise came by to do this with me. She’s never made cheese, either, but she has childhood memories of her grandmother making simple cheeses in the kitchen, so she has an idea of what should be going on.

As I said in the previous post, I am trying my best to follow the directions to the letter. However, all of the Italians I talked to thought that the recipe called for too many additional ingredients (like calcium chloride and cultures). I think it is because normal American milk (which the book was written for) has been overly processed, whereas I have tasty raw milk at my disposal which apparently already has the appropriate cultures living in it. And upon some research, the calcium choloride is used to counteract the pasturization process, but it also helps to work with the cheese so that it is stretchier. So, I followed the ingredients. A gallon of raw milk, a 30% calcium choloride solution, citric acid, rennet, flaked salt. I had to approximate the measurents, since the book was written for Idiots in America, but I am an Idiot in Italia, where we use the metric system, and I have liter milk bottles. Yeah yeah I know I am a physicist, so I am capable to making exact conversions, but also because I am a physicist I am ok with making approximations.

Did you ever hear the joke that goes something like, Q: ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’, A (from a physicist): ‘Well, first we have to assume a spherical chicken….’.

Anyhow, it felt more like a fun science project to make mozzerella, like I was back in chem lab. Making solutions, dealing with acids, boiling stuff, etc. A combo of the rennet and the citric acid coagulated the milk, and the calcium chloride helps bind it together. The secret is to get out as much of the whey as possible from the cheese, and to keep it quite warm while working with it. First we kneaded it, then stretched it, like taffy, and tied it into lovely knots. It ended up being very very tasty, and much better than the normal mozzerlla that one can buy in the shops (which is still much better than American mozzerella). The only problem is that I think we overworked it, so that it was slightly tougher than it ideally should have been. Otherwise, it was quite perfect.

The raw milk, fresh from the vending machine:

After heating the milk, adding the other ingredients, and letting it sit for 5 minutes, the curds clump themselves together!

Kneading the cheese to expell liquid and create tasty layers

Operation: Mozzerella succeeded! Myself and Denise.

A closer look at our newest cheese

Cheese #5: Ricotta

Ricotta is made using the seemingly useless byproduct from mozzerella: the whey, which is a kind of greenish liquid. It must be used right away, as it starts to go bad within a few hours. We heating the whey up to the right temperature, added 2 liters of raw milk, got it back up to the previous temperature, and then added 6 Tbs of fresh lemon juice to once again coagulate it. Drained it in a cheese cloth, folded in some flaked salt, and let it drain. It ended up being extraordinarily good. I generally don’t like ricotta whatsoever, but this one was fantastic. It was creamy, and had a good flavor.

Making ricotta... pouring the curds and whey into the cheesecloth

After it drains, we have ricotta!

Cheese #6: Seras

Seras. What the heck is seras?! you are probably wondering. It is the final dairy byproduct of the whey, and apparently it is a word in the regional dialect, and not the official word. Absolutely no one here that I have talked to know what it is called outside of Valle d’Aosta, but that is what they call it here. It involves adding a fair amount of apple cider vinegar to the hot whey after the ricotta is made, and waiting until all of the curds possible separate out. At first we thought it didn’t work, until we realized that you really need a huge amount of whey to make a decent amount of seras. After pouring all of this through the cheese cloth and letting it drain, we got about a tablespoon of very fine, creamy, and grayish cheese out of it. To be honest, it kind of scared me (I hate vinegar, and it spelled to vinegary to me… plus grey cheese? Ew!), but my cheese-hating husband loved it.

The next step in the cheese adventures is to start making cheeses that need to be aged a bit. The only thing I am really worried about now is that the milk from the cows around here is so particular, which is why they only make a couple kinds of cheese around here (primarily Fontina and Toma), which have very particular flavors. The raw milk already tastes quite a bit like Fontina, so every cheese I make also tastes a bit like Fontina. I might have to hunt down some ‘normal’ cows that aren’t used to make the local strong cheeses.

bread from a french market, garden tomatoes and basil, the mozzerella we just made, with a balsamic reduction

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Operation: Cheese Making

I've had a dream for as long as I can remember; one of those kinds of dreams that you never think will actually happen, and you tuck in a box under your bed, but you keep harboring a distant hope that one day maybe it'll happen.

I realized that waiting around and hoping doesn't do jack squat, and if you want something, you gotta grab life by the horns and make it happen. So I have started to do just that. And what is this crazy dream of mine? To be a cheese maker. Cheese has always interested me. Not the tasteless processed blocks of crap that you find in American supermarkets, rather artisan and traditionally made cheeses. Even if you eat the same cheese by the same cheese maker who uses the same animals for every cheese, it'll always taste just a little different. Or a lot different, sometimes. It's always a mystery, as you never know exactly what you are getting, but it is bound to be exciting.

Cheese is an adventure for my senses, and I would love to be able to learn how to create that mystery.

I realized that NOW is the time for me to grab that milking cow by its tits, so to say, as I am living in Italy, in a house that is connected to a calf barn (I can hear their tinkling cow bells all day long even from inside my house!), and across the field from us is a really fantastic dairy. So yes, now is the time. When I was in the US, I found a 'Cheese Making for Idiots' book in a local bookstore, as I figured I didn't know nothin' about making cheese, and brought it back to Italy with me. For once in my life, I am trying to (mostly) follow directions, and the books says to do the recipes in order, so as to learn the right techniques, so I am doing just that, and will regale you with the extraordinary tales of my new life as a beginning cheese maker. I won't give directions as to how to do everything, because there are a lot of details and I don't want anyone to take what I say as a full explanation as to how to do something and now realize I skipped all the boring sanitation details and have you get sick. So, go learn to make cheese too, but make sure you do it safely.

First, you gotta know where I get my milk, as it is pretty awesome. It's possible I've mentioned it before, but it is so cool it deserves a reminder. There is that dairy down across the cow field, and there is a freaking VENDING MACHINE for raw milk, and another for dairy products like butter, yogurt, and various cheeses they make. It is right outside the barn. It's straight from the cow, not homogenized, not pasteurized, just kept cold til I stick in my euro coin, put by milk bottle under the spout, and press the button. And voila! A liter of tasty, fresh milk comes out. It's pretty strong tasting now, as the cows just came down from their summer holiday eating the tender grass at the top of the Alps that makes them produce milk with a particular flavor which gives Fontina (the real stuff, not the fake Fontina sold outside of this region) it's particular flavor.

Dairy Product #1: Yogurt

First, I will admit that I accidently destroyed the first batch. Ya see, the way you make yogurt is first you pasteurize your milk (if milk is raw), then when it cools down to be luke warm you stir in a serving's worth of plain yogurt with live active cultures. Got both the milk and the starter yogurt from the vending machine. Then, you cover your stainless steel bowl that you heated up the milk in with plastic wrap and stick in a turned off oven (to keep it at a stable temperature) for about 12 hours. Then, voila! You have super tasty yogurt. Unfortunately, after about 12 hours I forgot about the yogurt and turned on the oven to make dinner, and ended up instead with a yogurt and melted plastic mess. However, the next time I made it, it was devine. We have since started making the yogurt using 'real' cultures, and it is also very tasty.

Dairy Product #2: Paneer

This was my first real-ish cheese. It's a direct-acidification cheese, and the curds are separated from the whey using lemon juice that is added while heating the milk over a double boiler. I then separated the curds from the whey using a cheese cloth, letting it drip out for an hour or so, and the curds into a patty and compressed it for a while. I ended up with a soft cheese that I could cut into blocks, without much taste, and sort of like tofu. It browns up nicely in a pan, and is a fantastic addition to traditional Indian recipes like Saag Paneer, which I made. I don't think this is a cheese I will make unless I am making Indian food... I suppose that makes sense, as it is an Indian cheese. But wowza, what a difference a little bit of salt makes in some cheese, to make it taste cheesey. This was an unsalted cheese.

Dairy Product #3: Queso Fresco

I must admit, I am a Mexican food addict, and it greatly saddens me to live in a country where it is hard to find proper ingredients to cook tasty Mexican food at home. I have brought over masa harina, mole sauce, tomatillo sauce, good black beans, dried peppers, and other such things from the US, but one thing I didn't have was the CHEESE.

Luckily, the next step in my book was this Latin American cheese. The process is similar to the last cheese (it is made my direct acidification), but with quite different results. Heat the milk to 90.5 C, added apple cidar vinegar, and waited for the curds to separate out. For some reason they didn't separate out so much, so after I took out the curds that formed, I added more vinegar to get more curds out, which worked just fine. Salted the curds with flaked salt, put them in a cheese cloth, and let them hang & drain from the sink faucet for an hour until about all the liquid was gone. The result was something very much like real queso fresco, except that the milk is so strong tasting that it makes the cheese taste strong, as well. It had a good consistancy, melted perfectly, tasted tasty, and was a perfect addition to a devine meal that I made of vegetarian tamales.

Next adventures in cheese making: Mozzerella and Ricotta!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Quart Cheese Festival

It is high time I wrote about the Quart Cheese Festival! It is always the same day every year, August 14, conveniently timed to be the day before day of national holiday, so that all participants can recover from their overdose of cheese and indulgence of wine.

It is in the Alpine village of Quart (pronouced 'Carr' by the locals', way up on the mountian, on the trounds of an ancient castle. Unfortunately, this year it was raining cats and dogs- or shall I say Fontina and Moscato- which led us to be wet and cold, but still very enthusiastic. I managed to convince my cheese-hating husband along, but don't be too concerned for him, as there was plenty of local wine for him to drink!

Upon entering the castle gate, we got to buy our tickets. A ticket is approximately a euro each, and a glass of wine costs two tickets, and a cheese tasting one. I got the 9 ticket package, which included the COOLEST 'necklace' ever.

As you can see, it isn't just for looking stylish. It consists of a cheese board, a wine glass that has a base that slides into the board, and a nice cheese knife, which also fits into the wooden board. It is finished off with a lovely cord through the end of the cheese board to easily fasciliate wine and cheese tasting. It is simply brilliant, I tell you!

Now, I was expecting a glass of wine to be the normal amount, which is to say, not so much. But, no no no no no. They fill up that sucker. And, I expected the cheese tasting to be just that... a taste of cheese. But again, no way. You get a monster hunk of farmsted, artisan cheese with equally big hunks of of homemade brown bread. Alternatively, if you don't like your cheese solo or with it's best friend, bread, you can get something made with cheese like patate fondute (potatoes with a fontina cheese sauce).

aged goat cheese

Bleu d'Aoste

potatoes with a Fontina sauce

I thought 9 tickets wouldn't be enough, and that I could taste every cheese there. However, I was quite mistaken, as there is a limted amount of cheese that even the biggest cheese head can inject before feeling a bit cheesy around the edges. I tasted a nice variety of local cheeses and wines, wandered around the inside and outside of the castle, got to learn about how polenta is made (and meet the cows!), and had a lovely time! I highly recommend this event to anyone who happens to pass in or near Aosta on August 14 of any given year.

Oh dear, I almost forgot about the French Cheese Monks. Ok, not strictly Italian Alpine, but still relatively nearby and peculiar. They are French monks who make DEVINE brie cheese (I bought a round and brought it home), and wear the best cheese hats I have ever seen.

The French Brie Cheese Monks

Fontina cow

Friday, September 17, 2010

Those hands!

I'm not generally a person to notice hands. They are useful tools, and the opposable thumb helped humans to get us to where we are. If I want to look at the aspects of someone with respect to how they communicate, I look at their face. Their eyes, their mouth, eyebrows, if they wrinkle their brow.

Not in Italy. I've been here about a year now, and I have realized something: It is ALL about the hands. I found myself wondering today exactly how an armless Italian would communicate. Or how someone who was handcuffed behind his back would talk. See, I just don't think they could do it. They would be at a loss for words, because for Italians, their words originate in their hands, and then travel to the mouth, and come out. Sometimes something is lost in that travel, but the message still comes across, clear as day, because it is all about the hands- they say everything. The first couple of times I tried watching American movies dubbed into Italian, I was confused. I should have been able to understand what they were saying, but I couldn't. I was just completely and totally not getting a word, and couldn't follow the story. It was only later that I realized why- they don't move their hands! The expressions were all wrong. Italian language isn't just words, it is movements, which generally all originate in the hands. Now, a 'hand movement' might actually be a whole body movement, with them flailing around and jumping and such, but it is just an extension of their hands moving.

Italians are funny. I see them riding their bicycles through rush hour traffic, cigarette in one hand, mobile in the other. They somehow manage to maneuver through crazy Italian driving, and smoke and talk on the phone. But they aren't just talking into the phone. They are gestering like crazy, somehow managing to smoke, hold the phone, and not fall off the bike or run into a tree, pedestrian, car, or Roman ruin. I get the bajeezus scared out of me sometimes when my husband drives, because he likes to talk on the phone, as he is a bit of a social butterfly. He follows the law and has his mobile in hands free mode, but you know what that means for an Italian? One more hand to gesture with! I often find myself squeeling because of the certain death that will soon befall be because his hands are flying through the air (not at 10 and 2 o'clock on the steering wheel), making wild gestures, unseen but certainly somehow felt by the person on the other end of the phone, to illustrate and punctuate his points. Somehow we haven't died yet.

I do it now, too. I DARE you to try to properly say something in Italian without moving your hands. Or without even imagining moving your hands. Really, try it. You can't do it.
By properly saying something in Italian, I am not even talking mainly about the pronunciation. It's the enunciation. The expression. The emphasis on certain words, and the enjoyment of saying them. A certain... flair, that only someone (in the mind of an American, mind you) with a name like Fabio, Giancarlo, or Massimo can pull off. Savoring certain parts of the word, holding them, round and warm in your mouth like a delicious chocolate truffle, or spewing them out like sharp bits of ice, punctuating the warm fullness. Like a rollar coaster, and adventure, the word building up to a climax before you fall perhaps to your death, or perhaps to another undulating phrase. The more exciting the word, the more important, the more beautiful or fun to say, the bigger the hand movement.

Say 'Spaghetti'. That was the first word I learned to say correctly. I don't mean say 'spagedi' like an American. But, 'Spah-GHETT-ti', with the first syllable building into the next, and ending on a sharp note. Touch your thumb to your middle finger (some touch to the index- you can choose!), moving your hand slowly away from you on the 'spah', and then faster has you get to the 'GH', and punctuating the air sharply as if your connected fingers where plunging deep holes into the atomosphere because the word is just THAT important (as they all are) on the 'ETT', and then gradually coming back towards yourself on the 'ti'. Alternatively on the 'ti', you can puncture the air again, but with slightly less emphasis than the climatic 'ETT'.

Every word has a gesture that goes with it. You take that away, and you've taken away the best part of the language. It isn't even the look of the movements, it is how the movements make the sound come out. Actually, it is about the look. Today, I was in a meeting with my department at work, and instead of calmly discussing things, hands in our laps, like Americans, everyone was throwing their arms up in the air to elaborate on their points, patting each other on the shoulders to say 'I agree', or 'good job' , or 'excuse me, I must go to the bathroom', depending on the kind of pat. with your hands you can say everything. To learn Italian properly, one must also learn their sign language. How else would you say 'this meal is so incredibly delicious I have no words for it!' other than putting your fingertips together on your right hand, kissing it, and then bursting your hand backwards as if the deliciousness from your mouth created an explosion that threw it backwards? Alternatively, how could you properly and concisely put into words, 'I don't care about you because you are a dick, and you can go screw yourself. But, on the other hand, since I don't care, do what you want but get out of my sight. Not like I care,' rather than tilting your chin up and sharply drawing your thumb away from the soft spot behind your chin until it goes into the air and reconnects with your hand? Sure, people usually shout words along with these gestures, but you KNOW what is going on based on these signals!

The hands of an Italian conduct an orchestra of their vocal cords, and put on a symphony for everyone listening, whether they want to listen or not. The hands are the maestro, the director, the genious behind the musical language.

They also knock over a lot of glasses. Take note of who gestures the widest, and with what arm they gesture with, before sitting next to them at dinner. Because trust me, you will end up with wine covering you from head to foot as a part of that symphony. I, for example, know to never ever EVER sit on the right of my maternal (in-law) Nonna Maria. I specify maternal because my husband's other grandmother is also Nonna Maria. But, yes. She is Italian. And I was inducted into the family with a baptism of fine local red wine as she was making a (not so) elequent point, as only an Italian does.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Alpine folks try to be Appalachians, and it rocked my socks

'Baby girl, don't worry, we are going home,' I whispered to Genepy, the bunny.

You see, I was driving the car on the second most curvy road in the mountainous region where I live, Valle d'Aosta. Which means that it is so curvy that when you come around the bend you just about run into yourself coming the other way! Genepy was in her new pet carrier, that I wrote about in the previous post, and she is a giant bunny so she pretty much filled up the whole thing. And she wasn't too happy to be in the car, in a slippery plastic carrier, on a curvy road. But, she was going to the village where she was born, in Valgrisenche, which is in a very narrow valley which ends in a giant dam. The story of how Genepy the bunny was adopted from the 'Guardian of the Dam' (no kidding!) in the middle of a snowy November night, to save her from the fate of her siblings which surely ended in many stomachs, will be told another time.

I was going up there, and toting the rabbit with me, because I was staying up there for the weekend, at the en of a three week traditional music camp called 'strada blu' (blue road) held by the local CenTrad organization (they teach people traditional music from around the world), which this year was all about TRADITIONAL AMERICAN MUSIC! Which of course meant that my very talented father, Wayne Erbsen, was teaching the final week, for the advanced students. He is a 'jack of all trades, master of all' kind of guy when it comes to American history, folklore, and traditional music, and he's been teaching, literally, for 50 years, so he was the perfect guy for the job. Somehow I ended up teaching dance workshops, for two weeks up there. Taught them flatfooting and even some contra dancing! I had never called before these weeks (I'm a contra dance musician and dancer...not a caller), but I did pretty well considering it was my first try.

Italians discover contra dancing:

flatfooting battle:

Anyhow, I had obviously been up there a number of times over the three week camp to hang out, teach dance classes, play music, and visit with my dad, but hadn't yet spent the night, which just about everyone else both working and taking classes there does. It's at an ancient fort that was converted into a WWII military base, and is now a restaurant, bar, B&B, and community center. It is in an incredibly gorgeous place. So, I made it up there with the bunny and as soon as I parked the car, I heard the unmistakable sound of my dad playing music, which is as recognizable to me as his voice- if not more so. I jumped out of the car with my fiddle and Genepy, and ran over to where he was playing with a group of students. I whipped out my fiddle and joined in. The bunny made a ruckus, so I took her out and she sat on my lap while I played. It was a little bit more difficult when I played the banjo, but as she is a spoiled brat who loves old time music she gets what she wants!

It was awesome. The group split up into six bands or so, and they were all practicing for something that evening, which turned out to be incredible, and I don't think I could possibly put it into words. We were hoarded into a bus with our instruments, and taken to a village where each of the bands (I was in one with my dad and some other great musicians, including an incredible singer) were given a place to play in the town, along the pedestrian walkway. I assume it is pedestrian, anyhow, because the streets are too narrow to imagine any kind of car driving down them. My group was placed on top of a who-knows-how-old arch over the walkway that led into a really cool barn that would be a potentially great place to have a dance.

It turned out that we were the last on the 'tour'; all the townspeople basically went from one band the the other, down the street, 'til they got to us. There was local wine flowing freely, as well as nachos and salsa, because that is obviously American to them. And straw cowboy hats. We played and played and eventually ended up under the arch, playing and dancing at the same time. After a bit, once it started to get dark, we were herded once more up the hill with our instruments, where there was a big cookout (no attempt at American food here... this was pure Valdostano fare), a big bonfire in the middle of the street, and perhaps the biggest music jam I've ever been a part of. About 30 of us were playing American old time music, by the bonfire, with Alpine townsfolk milling around and dancing, and it was beyond words. I was there in that moment, playing my guts out on music from my homeland, belly full of good food and wine, sweating from the fire, surrounded by family and friends and I thought, 'THIS is as cool as it gets'.

And it just kept getting better. Those of you who have seen me play music, especially for a contra dance, know that sometimes I get a little wild and shake my head and jump up and down and wiggle my hips and basically throw myself around like a crazy woman when I get really into the music while playing my fiddle. I've seen videos of me doing that, and it can get pretty crazy, but I took it to a whole new level this night, and the Italians, who are not inhibited at all, decided that it would be a good idea to dance around like crazy people as well while they played their fiddles, mandolins, guitars, harps, drums, clarinets, flutes, and accordions. So, if you can imagine, it was the middle a summer night in a small Italian village in the Alps, thirty musicians are playing American music with all their mite, jumping around, hootin' and hollerin', sweating from the exertion and from the fire, with village folks getting into it too. I think my dad took a video and I'll have to post it at some point.

Lets just say it was a hellofa time.

Friday, July 16, 2010

An encounter with a little boy and an empty cage

I just finished work after a long week, and had walked to the pet store to buy a carrier for the bunny Genepy, so that she is more easily portable. I was walking back across town when I was stopped by someone. A very young, waist high someone who came in the form of a curious little Italian boy, probably about 3 or 4 years old. He looks up at me and latches onto the pet carrier. We had a conversion something like the following, roughly translated into English:

'what's in there'

'nothing! It is empty. But it is for my rabbit.'

(he grabs onto the carrier again, this time sticking his nose against the door and sticking his tongue through)

'rabbit? Where is the rabbit?'

'She is at home! She is waiting for me.'

'oh no! Is she alone?'

'yes. But I will be home soon to play with her'

'are you her mommy? does she have a daddy?'

'yes, I am like the bunny's mommy! And she has a very nice daddy'

'will she get a snack? I want to go in the cage.'

'uhh... I don't think you will fit in the cage. It is too small for you.'

'no, it's ok. let me in! I want to go inside! Where is the bunny?'

'well, we will just have to get a bigger cage for you! But I really need to get going home so that my bunny isn't alone....'

'Is the daddy Italian? What language do you speak?'

'Well, I am American so I speak English'

'But what language do you speak? I want to go inside with the bunny.'

(he grabs onto the cage and tries to open it, peers inside, and licks it again. I am wondering where is parents are. Just then a woman comes up)

'mommy! there is a rabbit in there!'


After some more time of me convincing him to stop licking my damned rabbit cage, he let go and I came home. Now I have the bunny on my lap. Little Italian boys are funny!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Glaciers and Druids and Fiddles, oh my!

It has been an unusually long time since I posted. But, there is much to be caught up on, and I intend on having more adventures soon, so there will be even more to write in the future! These months have been insane; started my job (finally), wedding planning, lots of guests, gettin' hitched, hospitalized, and such things.

But first, I had a kickass adventure last night. One of those that you don't expect to have, but are eternally grateful for and quite possibly change your life. One where you set out to go to something that you are thinking will be pretty cool but possibly nothing special and then you get blown out of the water because you are listening to the best Irish bands in the world under a giant glacier in an Alpine forest, drinking mead, and surrounded by cloaked druids. That pretty much sums it up, but I feel like I should provide a few more details! Although no photos to speak of, because my camera is unfortunately broken and I didn't think to bring my husband's (oh! that word! husband! did you notice? It is because I am married now, you see).

The event that I am speaking of is called Celtica. I saw that Lunasa was playing, which is mostly why I wanted to go. They are an incredibly kickass Irish band that I am certain you have heard of, and if you somehow haven't, please stop reading this blog and listen to something of theirs right now. I didn't recognize the other bands, and actually thought that it looked like it might be quite a cheesy festival that I, a lifetime attender of many amazing festivals, would likely scoff at. Oh boy, I was wrong.

It spans 4 days, and takes places primarily in a really old evergreen forest right at the base of Mont Blanc (the tallest mountain in Europe). It's at a high enough elevation at the damned base that there was still some snow around. And it was directly beneith the biggest glacier I ever laid eyes on. One of those that you see and go, 'HOLY CRAP! That is a REAL glacier! EKKKKKKKKKKKK!', and can't take your eyes off it, except when you get distracted by the roaring glacial melt river at your feet (which is grey, because it comes from the glaciers, which are... grey), or one of countless waterfalls cascading from the tip top of the alps, or the giant centuries old evergreen trees, or the biggest mountain on the continent towering over your head. With all that, it is hard to keep your eyes off the glacier. It is pretty cool, and sad actually, you can see the path of the glacier as it has gradually retreated. It is such a strange thing, and it difficult to imagine that it was created purely by nature, but it would be difficult for man to create something of that scale. It leaves behind a trail of pulverized mountain and it's basically a crumbled mountain in a path in front of the glacier. Natures construction zone!

So that was overhead, in addition to Mont Blanc. There is the forest, and the river. And a very strange sound, exactly like nearby thunder, but it couldn't have been because the skies were totally clear. We eventually realized that it was the sound of the river moving boulders.

Upon paying and entering the festival, we walked through a forest path and then before us we came to a market in the twilight. Kind of like at the LEAF festival in Black Mountain, NC, if you've ever been to it, but more Celtic and less overpriced. It was pretty interesting; basically a street formed by two rows of vendors in the forest hawking their Celtic and Druid wares, ending with a stand that sold mead (idomiele in Italian). I've drunk a lot of mead in my days, and it is usually pretty nasty, but this was extremely tasty. And appropriate for the situation. At the end of the market, there was the main stage, where I heard something that sounded like harp music, but... not quite. It turned out it was a guy who is apparently far beyond the level of kickass that one usually stumbles upon in an alpine forest in Magic Storybook Land (AKA Valle d'Aosta, the region I live in) and was playing two giant harps at once in an incredibly complicated and gorgeous manner. It blew me away, and I am not easily impressed with regards to music.

Now, as for the people. They were dressed strangely. Not 'hippie festival in the woods' strangely, exactly. Well, yeah like this, but with woolen cloaks. Almost everyone. Also, just about everyone had floral wreaths on their heads. And a number of them carried ornate wooden staffs around. It was pretty strange, really. It turns out that many of them are Druids. Like, real Druids. Or at least the modern day interpretation. Celts obviously inhabited much of Europe before more recent empires (like the Romans and Ottomans) conquired it. I think my region here in Aosta was actually a purely celtic region until about only 2000 years ago. And druids are celtic high priests, or something like that. There is a modern day order of them that is apparently quite active in Europe.... kind of like how Native Americans are in the US, in some ways. Not culturally, because I don't think there are surviving celts who have continuously preserved their culture and lifestyles, but in the way that they were the 'native' inhabitants.

There were also lots of fires, and fire spinners, and such things. And a small creek that seemed to be used exclusively as a beer cooler. And really really great french fries and only Irish beer.

Lunasa kicked ass. A group of Irish dancers performed and their fiddlers, I swear, were playing mostly New English contra dance music. I swear to you! I actually yelped when I heard them play from a distance and ran to see if I knew them (but did not). I don't know what the deal was, but they sounded like it, and I can't think of another option. Except maybe they are Scottish and listen to a lot of contra dance music. That's the only other thing I can really think of, cause I kind of doubt they were American (as in, I'm quite certain I was the only American there in the whole festival).

It was amazing. I was inspired. I am now ready to jump back on the playing the fiddle horse and ply my guts out! And next time this festival happens (either in one or two years), I will be there camping in that druid forest for the whole weekend like the true festival girl that I am.

Now I am off to teach flatfooting to Italian teenagers for an old time music workshop week up in another high Aosta valley!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Prosecco Ladies

As per usual, I haven't been keeping up with this thing. There are a number of exciting adventures to write about but lets just skip to the most recent one. My mom just dubbed them the 'Prosecco Ladies.'

We are in the middle of wedding planning. No, not the middle. Approaching the finish line, at least with regards to time, but with way too much left to do! Yesterday Gianluca dropped me in town (he was doing other errands) and I was going to get photos developed, go to the organic food coop, check in on the progress of my wedding dress alterations, and stop by the ring maker's shop. Conveniently, all of these things are on the same street.

I went and made my order for the photos, and it would be about a 15 minute wait. Next stop was going to be seamstress. However, I noticed I was only across the street from the ring maker, and I thought that while I was waiting for the photos, I can stop in and talk with him (he's the same guy who Gianluca had make my gorgeous engagement ring). Two birds with one stone! At least with regards to time. Oh, little did I know what would happen next.

So, I went into the little crooked ancient ally way where the ring maker's shop was. You wouldn't know it was there, well, unless you knew it was there. But luckily I did, so all's well. I had a nice chat with Giancarlo (ring maker) about wedding rings, and told him what we were thinking, and he said that would be no problem. I told him that before he made them, maybe double checking with Gianluca would be good, just to make sure we are all on the same page. But I didn't know how long he would be, so maybe another day. Well Giancarlo decided that we should wait for him, and drink a glass of wine until he arrived. Hm. A little strange, right? At least by American standards. Maybe in Italy it is perfectly normal to drink wine with Giancarlo the goldsmith while waiting for your fiance to call.

He led me into the back room where he makes the rings, and there were two ladies in there with a bottle of prosecco. I guess he had some other customers to deal with, so I introduced myself to these Italian Prosecco Ladies, they poured me a big glass, sat me down with them, and instantly were my best friends. They didn't speak a lick of English, which is fine, because when the wine flows so does my tongue in Italian! They are the hootin' and hollerin', talking about dirty things with everyone kind of women. In their fifties but don't look a day over 40. Dressed much more stylish than me, with hair (and haircuts) and figures that I was envious of. Giancarlo the ring maker wandered in and out, and at one point he dialed a number on his phone and handed it to me. Apparently I was supposed to talk in English with the random Italian guy on the phone. However, at that moment, Gianluca called to say he was done, and was coming to the ring shop. Everyone then made a toast at that. Oh, and they were making toasts to everything in the world about every five minutes before that. Gianluca showed up and the Prosecco Ladies were very excited to meet him. Giancarlo the ring maker then brought out several more bottles of prosecco and opened them up, and then a older, round man walked in and sat down with us for the drinkin' and whatever else kind of ruckus was going on in that back room where we were. He seemed quite fascinated that I was American, and asked me about the house prices in Miami, Florida. I of course don't know a lick about Miami, but asked him if he wanted a house there. He said that he was too poor for that, and was also afraid of flying.

I found out later that while his fear of flying and travel might be true, he ain't poor. Apparently he is the richest guy in the region, and very well known. He owns most of the land, and whole mountains even! So that was was kind of amusing to find out.

Then a pie got brought out. Rather, a crostata, because they don't have pie here. A crostata is more like a tart, with a crust that is more cookie like, and they are always open faced. It had a creamy base, with strawberries on top. we licked the tasty crostata off paper towels, passed around the continuously full glasses of prosecco, and the Prosecco ladies kept the party alive!

By this point, the whole afternoon had passed, all the shops that I intended to go to were closed, and we had a hard time walking in a straight line. So, time to get down to business, obviously, with the rings. And so we did.

And apparently I've promised to make pie for all, for another backroom prosecco and pie party in the back room of Giancarlo the ring maker, in three weeks.

Oh, and The Prosecco Ladies said they'd be my Italian mommas if I need them!

This is why life in Italy is great. You never know, when you stop by a respected goldsmith's shop, when you will end up drinking away the afternoon and eating crostata with new friends in the back room where rings are made.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Friday Night Out

A summary of tonight:

Traditional music session in a small village. In a room above the library. Beer in plastic cups and ten musicians playing music from ten different countries. I got my permisso di soggiorno today, which means I am OFFICIALLY a legal and able to work and such resident of Italy and Aosta. Playing for 4 hours with fantastic young musicians. Drive back to town. Eat fresh baked cream filled croissants at 1 am from the back door of a bakery in a sketchy alleyway behind the supermarket. Go to ArtCafe. Drink beer, traditional instruments decorate the walls. Ancient mandolins and girondas. Also a mountain dulcimer (yes, as in Appalachian mountain dulcimer). Obscure 70's and 80's music pulsing. Punks, goths, anarchists, a hippie chick, and a very drunk guy who looks just like 'Shrek' in a striped pullover. Someone has a hand drum that they are pounding away on to the music while dancing. A guy who looks like he escaped from a mental institution is drumming on Shrek's head as well. Hippie chick dances on the table, and all the guys are mesmerized. There is a sparkly red hat, and someone being carried upside down so that their feet are nearly at the ceiling. We dance around, drink our beers, and try to ignore Shrek, who keeps trying to grab at us. Herve drove me home and we arrived exactly on my birthday, at 2 am on March 27. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

That sums it up.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A summary of my culinary adventures of the past month

My mom, Barbara Swell, was teaching a week long cooking class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Western NC. She was teaching her class about the similarities in the food cooked in the Alpine regions of Italy and in WNC (lucky for her, she's been able to learn a lot about Alpine food because of the direction my life has taken!), and thought it would be fun to cook polenta with the class. She also had the brilliant idea of having a 'Skype cooking lesson' with the Italians, and it ended up being a blast. We ended up having a polenta party where we cooked polenta over a fire, and made a number of traditional toppings, and did it all via Skype with the students at the Folk School. We were stirring the pot, explaining the history of polenta, eating cheese, drinking wine, and playing music. Basically a typical Wednesday night here in Aosta! The students really got a kick out of it. Here are some photos of the evening:

Next, I started to experiment with home made pasta. It's basically one egg for every 100 g of semolina flour, with a pinch of salt, and I like to throw in some dried or fresh herbs. I made a really tasty dish for Valentines Day (picture is below) with the home made herbed pasta where I mixed it with a butter saffron and blood orange sauce, broccoli, fresh mozzarella, and drizzled it with a balsamic reduction with a dollop of pesto on top. I also highly recommend the wines we drank with it, shown below.

I continued with the lemon cake pie experiment, but wondered what would happen if I replaced the lemon juice and rind with blood orange juice and rind. While it was tasty, the chemistry just didn't work out quite right, as it didn't separate in to the cream and the cake like it usually does. It was kind of like a creamy cake instead, haha. I think that it needs more acidity than an orange can provide.

The next fun thing I made was lemon curd and crumpets. For some reason I had a craving for them, and obviously gave in! I had only tried making crumpets once before, and it didn't work out so well, partially because I have no crumpet rings. However, this time I had a brilliant solution: cookie cutters. I happen to have cookie cutters in the shape of gingerbread men and women, as well as a leaf, and those worked perfectly, and made them adorable, as well! The lemon curd was divine. The recipes I used can be found here for the lemon curd and here for the crumpets. Yum yum yum! Actually, I think I might have to make some more of both today....

And finally, Genepy the bunny also likes to eat, and particularly likes carrots. Actually, she likes everything, but we think carrots are more healthy than beer and jelly beans (both of which she will steal from me given the opportunity)