Lessons from the Brick Ovens of Italy

June 10, 2009 at 18:13 | Posted in Amore di Italia, Bits and Pieces, Italian Cooking, Spiritual Walk | 2 Comments
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Brick Ovens of Tollo
Brick Ovens of Tollo

Many homes in Italy boast brick ovens out back. Or they may have been community ovens shared by several homes within the town. For instance my mother in law always baked her bread midweek on her day for the neighborhood oven. The oven is no longer standing, long ago fallen and then demolished. Valentino remembers well with his siblings how there was one person who guarded the locks and the wood, and another who held the yeast for everyone to use!

The flavor and shape of the bread varies from region to region. My sister in law describes the bread from Tollo as being dry and lifeless. She and I offer that perhaps it is lacking the addition of love when baked! The bread in Abruzzi is made without salt. Talk about hard to get used to! Most of my other sister in law’s life, she baked her own bread because she could not get used to bread without salt. Now that she is older, she buys her bread but often apologizes for the lack of flavor. Most Italians baked the bread in wood ovens for a couple of basic reasons we Americans have never given much thought to. Europeans in general are much more cautious with the earth’s limited resources and therefore take greater care not to abuse them. The brick ovens are heated with wood, the fires banked and stoked to conserve the heat in the bricks while the bread bakes slowly. The bread bakes slower and longer resulting in a thicker harder crust with a softer and moister inside. Yet this softer inside is not the mushy consistency of most American white bread. None of the bread is wasted even as it goes stale. Stale bread is another excuse for bread soup – if anyone is so fortunate to have bread left over long enough to go stale! Most folks will sop up the sauce after eating their pastas and also dip in the oil and balsamic vinegar dressings from the salads. Occasionally though some bread will remain and be made into bread soup on the last day. Bread soup is made by simmering a vegetable broth with onions and pouring it over the stale bread pieces, and then topped with lots of parmesan cheese. Talk about leftovers tasting like an extravagant meal! Nothing fancy but nothing wasted! It is the waste not, want not philosophy that Italians live by. Bread is now also sold in bakeries but never in the plastic one use bags we Americans seem to favor too much. Shoppers use large canvas bags, cotton breathable bags, or even large baskets carries on their arms.

San Croce Old Oven

San Croce Brick Oven

San Croce Brick Oven

 

Cavesso New Oven

Cavesso New Oven

All of this brings to mind our walk as Christians and as citizens of this world. We Christians should be taking our time to be slow baked in the fires of the Holy Spirit, slowly developing that thick skin to avoid the slings and the temptations of the world. But we also need the softer inside – not mushy – but soft enough to maintain the heart of the Lord for others without phony sentimental mushiness. We should also be concerned about the earth’s resources. Isn’t that also part of caring for widows and orphans and others less fortunate than ourselves? If we spend less on wastefulness and more on charity, maybe we would also be witnessing more to others? I guess those differing bread recipes are so much like us. It takes many denominations and many ways of looking at the needs of others to really share the Word. We all love Him but we often go about worshipping in different ways. Not wrong. Just different. Going back to the idea of community ovens: aren’t they remindful of churches? What better way to reach people than to be there at the community hearth to mingle, to share, to be instead of hiding at home alone? There are the keepers of the flame and the leavening to help each of us! Hmmm. Sounds familiar too? Gee. I thought we Americans were supposed to be the leaders? Maybe we still have some learning by example too?

Open Doors…Closed Windows

May 26, 2009 at 09:08 | Posted in Amore di Italia, ancestry, Bits and Pieces, Itri, Italy | 2 Comments
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Most of us have heard the expression “God never closes a door that He doesn’t open a window…”. I personally believe that myself …but… doors and windows seem to evoke other feelings and thoughts for me.

052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl1.jpg

When I look at a door, a closed door, I want it opened. I want to see in that door. I walk past a closed door or window shuttered and I want to throw them all wide open – to peer into every corner. Not that I want to be the local peeping Tomasina or anything like that. Well, maybe I do??? Hmmm. Guess I might need to think about that…. Nah. I don’t. But I do want to see in all those closed doors and shuttered windows. I want to know who is behind Door # 1 and 2 and 3 and …


 052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl2.jpgI think about the people who live there, what their lives are like, what they wanted it to be like. Were they disappointed, happy, weary? I try to imagine myself inside those doors.. would I be happy there? Was life there what I wanted life to be or would I be disappointed, looking for something more? This is never more true than when I gaze on doors and windows in Italy. I have 052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl3.jpgdreamed for so many years of living in Italy that I wonder if I would find what I dream about or not.

052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl4.jpg

 But what about those doors and windows that are opened and can never be closed again? Those doors fascinate me even more, if that is possible. I wonder so about the people who lived behind them at one time. Were they there when tragedy struck? Were they a happy group or were they simply getting by emotionally and physically? Did they have the same dreams and prayers that I do or were they too busy to think about a future? Or were they dreaming of emigrating to somewhere else…were they looking for a new life? Why is it I see those 052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl5.jpgpeople as someone with feelings and emotions and dreams and hopes for the future? I can almost hear their laughter around the table as fathers and mothers sit with their families. The sounds seem to still drift from those windows. 052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl7.jpg
 052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl6.jpgIt bothers me more that in today’s crazy world, others can look at the ruins and see joy that an enemy is destroyed. Do they not hear the cries of the children? Do they not think of the pain of the mothers who weep for their children? Do they not see the people as people? For me I wonder if those families heard the bombs, knew the last seconds of terror that they would die? When I see the bombed ruins of Italy I wonder so about those precious souls. My own mother in law heard the planes coming. She ran out from her house to see the plane aiming low and she sought refuge in the arched door of a church. She survived but hundreds died that day and 65% of the town was destroyed. These people who were farmers for the most part – and certainly no one the soldiers needed to fear. But the enemies were hiding in barns and alleys and other buildings and needed to be routed out. Those buildings sit still as silent reminders to the horrors of war but I listen instead for the laughter of the children, the joy of the parents. I chose to remember the families who lived there and see them like myself dreaming of a better future for the children. Throw open those closed doors and windows… maybe sunlight will allow others to see and hear them too. 052609_1307_OpenDoorsCl8.jpg

Springtime in Italy – Or Why It’s Easy to Love Italy

May 21, 2009 at 10:08 | Posted in Amore di Italia, Bits and Pieces, Fun Reminders of Italy, genealogy, Italy, Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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gerber daisies

gerber daisies

cana lilies
cana lilies
grapeleaf

grapeleaf

Fields

Fields

There are too many reasons to even begin an attempted list of why it is easy to love Italy – but this post is one sure reason it is hard to not love Italy in the spring. There are no words that can state it better than these photos will show it.

 

It doesn’t matter if it is someone’s backyard, or the wildflowers of the fields, or a balcony.

windowsill

windowsill

strawberries

strawberries

pinks100_1873

The colors and smells carry one away, overtaking one’s senses, in brilliant displays of beauty amidst the ruins of bombed or crumbling buildings.

white wisteria

white wisteria

 

 

 

 

Trees in San Cristoforo

Trees in San Cristoforo

It is no wonder that flowers and romance go hand in hand because in this land of romance, Italians make use of every spot possible to include flowers. They are unashamed of their love affair with flowers!
apple blossoms with tractor

apple blossoms with tractor

Olives Olives Olives

May 19, 2009 at 20:51 | Posted in Italian Cooking, Itri, Italy | 2 Comments
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Itri Views of Olive Groves  The olives of Itri are some of the finest grown in the world. Most know them as the olives of Gaeta due to an arrangement made years ago as the port of Gaeta was more recognized than the smaller town of Itri. But the olives themselves are grown up and down all the beautifully terraced mountain groves of Itri. There they benefit from both the mountain air and the sea breezes that blow inland across the mountains. Standing at the top of the Castello di Itri one can look out in all directions and see row upon row of neatly terraced olive groves spreading up and down all of the mountains and hills.

Family Grove

Family Grove

Fires

Fires

              During the month of April one can see and smell the fires as the olive growers trim back the trees and ground scrubs to encourage more fruit growth. This also helps protect the trees during the dangerous fire seasons when lightning strikes can start the wild fires so difficult to fight in the mountains.

       Most experienced farmers will trim the trees back to the two or three main branches and then smaller ones off of those. Keeping those branches trimmed means more of the energy of the tree goes to establish roots and then olive growth instead of small branches and many leaves. The trees are kept small enough that they can use a small ladder to access all of the olives to be harvested.

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        By April most of the olives have been harvested except for those being left to fully blacken on the trees. These are considered the sweetest ones because they so ripen. The farmers take great care at this stage to not bruise the olives by rough handling but because the olives are ripening quickly now, they hang nets beneath the trees overlapping each other so as to not lose any to the ground to spoil or be walked on. 

Save Those Oilives!

Save Those Oilives!

Olives - Saved!

Olives - Saved!

 

 

Nets

Nets

 

    

 

 

     Slow growing by nature, these trees have been tended by the same family for generation upon generation. With care, they live well over one hundred years. They carefully store the olives for the family to eat as well as take some to refineries to be made into deep pungent oil. It is important for un-bruised fruit to be refined in order to monitor the acid content in order to have the sweetest oils. The cold pressed or first pressed is the deepest green known as extra virgin. Then the olives are pressed again and even again a third time to extract the most oils possible. Each pressing results in a lighter colored oil. Nothing is left to waste – after oil is pressed, the waste of the pits is often mashed to become heating fuel as well as mulch for back around the trees. Now that refineries use so much water in the pressing process, they are dealing with the issues of the waste water being toxic. This was not a problem before the larger refineries came into being as the farmers seldom used quantities of water in their smaller local refineries. Now waste water is collected to be disposed of safely and many of the commercial refineries are developing methods of cleaning this water to not foul the water supplies or ground.
       Each stage of the harvest yields a different olive. Nothing beats the flavors of these olives. The strong green new olives, the cracked olives with their more pungent flavor, the tender black olives, and the sweetness of the sundried black olives!

Olives Olives Olives

Olives Olives Olives

La Valle del Re

May 4, 2009 at 10:07 | Posted in Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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La Valle del Re II

La Valle del Re II

 

The Valley of the King – forgive me but this is a shameless plug for one of the most special places in Itri to visit … a restaurant opened by a good friend of ours, Mario Petrillo.

Gioielleria Petrillo

Gioielleria Petrillo

Already a well-respected business owner and talented jeweler, Mario has added the title of restaurateur to his list of accomplishments. Located on Via C. Farnese between the route to the Sanctuario and Itri proper, this is classic dining in the true elegant Italian style. It includes views of the beautiful Italian countryside making the atmosphere complete. We Americans so foolishly believe Italian food means pizza or just canned tomato sauce on pasta without ever knowing the many varied and tasteful delights of Italian cuisine. Mario proves it is much more than just this while offering you an Italian dining experience in gorgeous surroundings. It will be well worth the short drive … and tell Mario that Valentinoswife sent you!…”

La Valle del Re

La Valle del Re

 “On the 10th of February 1849, the august Monarch Fernando II with his Royal family and the Highest Pious Pontiff IX, after the ardent supplication of the mayor of Itri, they went to the Sanctuario to revere the Virgin Saint of the Civita. The hearts of the canters were filled with joy and the merry trip changed faces in devoted pilgrimage, when it had reached the strata of the mountain. This valley that from the first echo of hurrah, resounds again of then those sacred hymns…”

Update on Trip

May 2, 2009 at 17:01 | Posted in Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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The trip is wonderful – perfect t! Only a couple minor problems that will not ruin our time here – a car that will not allow me to charge cell phones or laptop, and a frustrating lack of an Internet café handy in Itri! Seems the ones we knew about are gone — and any others are well hidden because no one seems to know about them if they exist! Internet connections here are slow slow dial ups so I am not going to worry about it! This may end up not being a bad thing as it means I will spend time relaxing instead of writing blogs daily and being tied to a schedule. It means I can relax with no obligations to the world back home for now – something I have needed. I am enjoying being free avoiding the usual exhausting tourist routines and just taking whatever comes as it comes.

It is drizzling but our plan is to drive to Latina to visit another sister today and her family. Again I get to be lazy in the backseat and doze! I am so enjoying this!

Lunch is again a complete family affair and sisters share more recipes for me for the cookbook! Soon cooking and recipes leads to more family stories and we are all laughing and crying as stories are shared. All too soon it is time to return to Itri – we have an evening appointment with the priest at Chiesa del Annunziata to try to find Valentino’s grandfather (whom he was named for).

Next morning: We met with Father Giorgi last evening and he was more than happy to help us with our quest. To see old church registers with hundreds of years of history of all the important life events of the town’s residents was awe-inspiring. We have narrowed down the birth and death dates now due to the sisters all sharing bits and pieces of information. He died as a result of an auto accident – a speeding car (a wealthy individual from Rome) hit him as this vital 85 year old walked home from the farm. It was a very traumatic accident in the area for everyone, not just family. We hoped therefore that information might appear. We also suspect he was one of five or six brothers or siblings so we want to track as much as possible. There are a few points everyone did agree on – he was a very strict parent/grandparent. He would warn the little ones to not trample new seedlings – they were his work! He was renowned for his skills as farmer/gardener. And he absolutely loved and adored his tiny wife Cristina. In our one photograph, he towers over this tiny little woman and holds her hand protectively. They tell the stories of how he treated her like a little china doll. This was quite a remarkable fact given that most men of that era treated their wives as property and mere slaves, not friends and lovers. This man made no attempt to hide his feelings for her – what a legacy to leave his heirs! In the photo he wears a black arm band as a symbol of mourning for a son who died in another tragic accident at work in a sand quarry. One strange fact – he normally wore Roman style sandals and this was the first time in a long time he wore shoes – and the photo was taken only fifteen days before his death! At eighty-five he still walked several kilometers each day back and forth to work his farm. Hardy stock like most of the folks of Campodimele.

Next Few Days

May 1, 2009 at 09:17 | Posted in Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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Lesson I

Lesson I

Monday: I was treated to a personal pasta-making session. My sister-in-law makes the best handmade pasta – pasta that reaps the benefit of the love she puts into everything she does for family! Soon I will be adding many more pages to the family cookbook that were given to me by all my sisters-in-laws. Leaving Tarquinia is never easy even when we are this eager to travel down to Itri to see more family.

After my crazy work schedule before I left, I have been ready for rest. I have not slept more than a couple hours here and there so I am at the exhaustion stage. While Val and sister gab on the drive to Itri, I opted for the backseat to grab some much needed rest. Once again it bears mention that the backseat of this car is NOT meant for comfort – the seat is like being on a rock bench so I have rearranged baggage to have some cushioning! It has been rainy so it is a good day to drive and not miss precious time. Family is waiting and we are all anxious to be there!

Grazing Cows in Itri

Grazing Cows in Itri

Tuesday: We are ready for our first full day in Itri. We have gotten up earlier to enjoy a leisurely breakfast enjoying the view and the sounds – song birds are doing their best to sing a welcome and we can hear the bells clanging around the necks of the white cows we see walking on the not too distant mountaintop. The view to the ocean in Formia is beautiful – almost too beautiful to pull ourselves away from but we already have a full day of plans to accomplish. First on the list is a trip to City Hall to make a request for family information. We arrive and can only interrupt our friend for a few moments of his busy schedule. Our marriage is registered properly and we are given an Atta di Matrimonio – not sure why the Consulate does not have it after thirty-two years? Seems we are still being tracked in Boston even though our Florida address relates to Miami. We leave with a promise that our friend will try to locate information on Val’s maternal family line.

While at the Commune, we visit the Information Center and again old friendships are renewed. They are only too happy to share a wealth of information with us and literature as well as posters and old photographs. Their help as well as generosity is astonishing and I am extraordinarily grateful to them. All that was asked in return is for me to give credit back to the Commune of Itri, something I am more than willing to do! No matter how many times I hear others criticize Italians for being rude or not helpful, I know this does not relate to anyone in the Commune of Itri – everyone has always given freely and generously of their time. It reinforces my dream to make Itri our second home.

Arrival in Milano

April 29, 2009 at 19:04 | Posted in Trip to Italy 2009 | Leave a comment
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Maria's pizza

Maria's pizza

We arrived in Milano mid-morning. SwissAir was a very smooth flight but they have the tightest seats I have ever had the displeasure of occupying! Their service and their food made up for the seats – the staff were delightful. They served everyone with smiles!

After a quick cappuccino at the airport to refresh ourselves, we drove to our sister\’s apartment in Milano. After hugs and kisses all around, Maria served us an incredible meal. There were all of our favorites in one sitting! The artichokes and grilled vegetables were wonderful! Along with pasta we were treated to a family recipe of a mixed meat pie, cheeses, fruits, salad, fresh tomato pizza, and spinach pie. Enough food for an army! Naturally our plans to stay only a short while before leaving for Carpi were forgotten as we talked and talked. They enjoyed reading through the genealogy book we had brought and more family stories were shared. One interesting fact we learned explained some of the confusion about dates of marriages and births – seems we had a few minor errors that we knew had to be wrong but were never able to find correct information. Now we have it! The only problem we have encountered so far is not having enough time!

Stuffed Bread

Stuffed Bread

 

Chocolate Stuffed Torte

Chocolate Stuffed Torte

Anticipation

April 6, 2009 at 09:38 | Posted in Amore di Italia, Bits and Pieces, Fun Reminders of Italy, Itri, Italy | Leave a comment
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We are suddenly and joyfully planning a trip to Itri. There have been many excited phone calls back and forth across the ocean making plans with family. This trip will not be as long as one as we have made in the past due to my work schedule here but what wonderful days we are planning on. It is the first trip back home in four years and that was much too long for us! Unlike previous trips we will not be doing touristy things this time. This trip is strictly to be with family and to recharge ourselves physically and emotionally at a place we consider home. We want to concentrate on family both present and past. We have lost loved ones since our last trip and we will be missing them as well as concentration on those left here to mourn. And then we will be working on the family of our past.

Valentino will take me on a “tour” once more of Itri – the Itri of his childhood. My goal in all of this is to photograph him along with others at all his old haunts. I want to gift our sons with a slideshow of their dad at all his favorite places (and maybe some not so favorite ones, too). Although the sons have all visited Itri, I wanted to put this together as something of a keepsake to accompany the family history work.

One of our other hoped for excursions will be to city hall to beg for some assistance. We need to find a record of at least one person on the maternal line so we can finally get some research done. So far that brick wall has not lost even a hint of the mortar holding it together! Needless to say I have double checked as many sources and citations as possible so I do not chase someone else’s family instead of our own! I do not want to waste any of our time as it will be a precious commodity this trip!

 

Packed and Ready….

The suitcases have been pulled out of their closet and dusted off. Two hard suitcases and two duffle bags are ready to make this trip. Clothes are washed, dried, folded (no ironing, thank you very much!) and ready to go. All the convertor plugs and transformers are packed. The Euro-plug blow dryer and curling iron are also packed. Those will remain in Itri so that our friends can also make use of them on their trip. Two cameras are packed along with the laptop accessories such as blank CD’s and of course extra family group sheets. Maps of the autostrade are packed just in case. Little granddaughters wanted to help me pack – and then were not so happy with the packing. It looked as if we planned to be away too long to satisfy them. “But grandma – if you don’t cook pasta zouli I will get hungry!” A few extra hugs were reassurance enough that grandma and grandpa would be home again soon enough.

I will be updating and posting as time allows – and as long as internet connections are available! Ciao!

We leave in less than 54 hours now! Not that I am counting – but I am! Ha!

Espresso, Sapore di Italia

April 2, 2009 at 16:38 | Posted in Amore di Italia, Bits and Pieces, Fun Reminders of Italy, Italian Cooking, Itri, Italy | 3 Comments
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When I was in college (way too many years ago now) I drank tea. My mom’s family was from Scotland so tea was a family thing for us, a cultural harkening back to roots. It was a staple of my life, a main food source – so much so that I could literally distinguish between brands of tea by the taste. One tea manufacturer was a bit taken aback when I wrote a letter of complaint. I knew by taste they had changed their formula, their blend, something their taste pros told them the average customer would not be able to do!

Somewhere along the way I began to drink American coffee. Maybe it was in revolt to the tea change thing but I do not remember when or why I first started to switch my allegiance. My dad drank his coffee black but I preferred cream and sugar. My grandmother always had a little container of instant coffee on her kitchen table and evaporated milk with the tin lid that made a pour spout. I really never was a fan of instant coffee.

Then I moved to Rhode Island to Providence. Dinner at the local Italian restaurants and homes of localites always always included an after-dinner small cup of espresso. And then along the way I became engaged to an Italian – you know – as in from Italy kind of Italian! Ha! That is ANOTHER whole story by itself – but suffice it to say I was now beginning to rearrange certain aspects of my life. The Corningware™ percolator was regulated to the back of the cabinet. I still remember our shopping expedition to buy my first espresso pot, a shiny aluminum Bialetti™ with that cute little fellow in black suit, striped pants, hat, and cigar! We drove to the local hardware store, a typical mom and pop store that sold much more than just nuts, bolts, and hammers. There on the shelf was row upon row of espresso pots and right next to them were espresso cups, saucers, and tiny spoons to fit the saucers. Then we were off to the grocery store to buy the coffee… And finally back to my apartment to learn to brew my first pot of espresso at home!

On our honeymoon soon after I suddenly discovered more flavors of espresso, crema, cappuccino. Our first weekend as we strolled the Mercado I reveled in the choices of espresso pots and a love affair was begun. Now my little Bialetti was going to have lots of company as I found a Napolitano, a crema, a ceramic pot with hand painted flowers set atop the metal base, and even one with a metal base with flat top to hold the four demi-cups instead of a regular pot. But my love affair did not stop with just the espresso pots. I also fell in love with espresso cups. Delicate porcelains with hand painted flowers, chunky white serviceable cups for the kitchen, clear gold toned glass square ones with the handles on the edge instead of the flat sides, the list goes on and on! Surprisingly everyone woman who came to visit the newlyweds would feel obliged to bring cups, or spoons, or espresso pot to help outfit the perfect kitchen back in America! After all the bride was expected to “serve her husband properly” when they went back home!

Now all these many years since our collection has grown. Each time we moved, the espresso pots were carefully packed and then unpacked. Kitchens were remodeled so they could be displayed on long shelves. It was never a home until those pots and espresso cups were once again the center of the kitchen! They have never been simply decorations. Each is used as the mood strikes and the occasion calls for. A petite one cup is enough for me if I am alone. There is a gleaning stainless steel we use every day for family. There is a 12 cup Bialetti™ for parties. The choice of cups suits our moods or the occasion. Each set reminds me of where we were or who we were with as I made the purchase.

American friends often ask how I can stand the taste of the strong bitter coffee. “Doesn’t it keep you awake all night?” Indeed sipping a cup of espresso con latte or strong and black is restful, a de-stressor for me. I find that cup of espresso to be more enjoyable than an herbal tea when I want to sit and relax. I sit back with my cup and a good book or perhaps outside at first dawn light watching the mist rise and listening to birds. The only thing better is to be enjoying a small shot of espresso at the Bar Farnese in Itri!

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