Wine in Italy is an every day, almost every meal occurrence. So, wine with lunch, wine with dinner and maybe also, wine between lunch and dinner; as appertivo. But it is rarely taken without food in this country. As my friend the extraordinary winemaker, Sergio Mottura reminds us at each wine tasting, wine is meant to be paired with food. Or at least that's how the Europeans savor what they imbibe. In fact, he goes further to say that most winemakers who export to the United States, where much wine is consumed without food pairing, will adjust their exported wines to be bigger and bolder. That can be done in a variety of ways, which I won't go into here, as I'm not an expert in that field. I do know that, the wine I drink with my meals in Italy does not make be me woozy or drunk and I've noted that I cannot really drink as much wine in the US as I might in Italy as it gives me headaches or hangovers. That leads me to believe, that wines produced in the US or imported have a higher sugar content, even if I take food with my drink.
So, different cultures do have different habits or traditions. I like having wine with my meals and the idea of pairing certain varietals with specific foods. It seems more of an art that way at least to my way of thinking. For instance, a big, bold wine like zinfandel or sagrantino are excellent with red meat dishes but overpower a salad, pasta with funghi or even chicken dishes. It is most often recommended to pair fish dishes with a crisp white wine like Orvieto's lovely greccheto but as Sergio says, one can also drink a very light pinot noir with strong fish. Once he sort of gave me permission to try out these different pairings it has become quite interesting and fun to explore.
One of the things I enjoy most about Italy's wines whether red or white, is the flavor of minerality which they possess. The intense mineral concentrates due to the volcanic nature of the soil also contributes to the tannin levels and tastes. This isn't always appealing to every wine drinker which may be why some people prefer sweeter or bolder reds. Anyway, it's an interesting approach to one's wine education, trying to figure out what best suits each person's taste. And let's not forget that each person has their own individual interpretation of how something tastes in their own body, so I advise guests who accompany me on tours not to get too stuck on what others say is a good wine or a particular description of a wine. It just may taste or react differently to each person's body chemistry. In fact, my own preferences and tastes have changed over the years when I stop to think about the wines I preferred twenty years ago and what I like now.
In conclusion, enjoy your wine, enjoy your food, together or not! But do enjoy the wine and food on one of our small group tours to the Italian countryside when you take your next trip to Italy. We will explore the food, wine, art, history and culture of places off the beaten path which will delight you and give you lasting memories!
Having just returned from a research trip to Italy I am still processing all the wonderful people and places I encountered. Of course, being a research trip, we stayed in five different agritourismi and ate out twice daily, so we could cultivate the most comfortable places to stay and the best food. It was well worth the exploration and netted much valuable information. Thanks to Erica Jarman, http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/ who invited me to spend the week of collaborative exploration for an upcoming Textiles & Tastes tour, and did incredible research beforehand, I am still reeling from all of the new information and knowledge gained.
The Casentina, is where we started out and if you were unaware of it, is actually in Tuscany, but a remote part of that region that doesn’t seem to get much attention from travelers. We also spent time nearby in Le Marche and Umbria as they all bump up against one another. Each area had its own historical treasures and the people, once they saw our interest, were more than accommodating in sharing their traditions with us. For example, in the tiny village of Cetica there was the Ecomuseo del Carbonaio, which is mostly a lost tradition and we were interested in learning about those cultural bits that are disappearing. We arrived and due to a festival, it was closed. We found the curator and asked if he would be willing to open it for just a few minutes, which he conceded to for just “cinque minuti” (5 minutes) but once inside he kept us there for an hour and a half, so engaged in sharing with us! Now we know just how charcoal has been made for hundreds of years.
Another fascinating tradition is the wool weaving and we found several families each with a long lineage entwined in this art. We did the whole gambit; from shearing, to natural dyes to encountering the final products. We visited a small sheep farmer and witnessed the shearing of the wool so we could follow its journey to completion. The shearing is done by a traveling tradesman who goes from farm to farm. There was also cheese making in Nonna’s kitchen at this small farm which was at the end of a very long road near Bibbiena.
We spent two days at a converted monastery in Lamoli della Pace, a village of 90 people to see where the plants for natural dying happens. Max and two of his friends had curated a sweet little museum for the plant dying process using only natural plants from the area and included a history of such from other countries. The plant they referred to as Wode, which resembles any old green weed, produces the most brilliant blue color imaginable. He also teaches this tradition to adults and the school children in the area in the hopes of keeping it alive. We will hire him to give our tour group a workshop when we go back. Imagine going out into the field behind our lodging to pick the plants that will become the colors for the wool.
We also met Patrizia at the monastery, who cooks things like fried elderberry flowers and nettle pasta from the plants in her vicinity and hugs everyone she meets because she is just a happy woman, doing what she loves. One of her neighbors came by in the morning carrying his laptop, set it up on a table in the dining room and started working. When we started talking to him he informed us that he tells Patrizia he comes for the wifi at the B & B but, he said, “I really just come to be around Patrizia”. The setting was so peaceful and beautiful, with rolling hills and forest nearby that it was difficult to leave after two days. And the Romanesque church on the grounds contained the same beauty as the outdoors.
We then visited a museum for weaving in Stia, http://www.museodellartedellalana.it where the last weaver (her vocation for 50 years) is the docent/curator. She does workshops in all phases of weaving and the museum is a treasure of the last couple of hundred years of weaving in wool, linen, cotton and hemp. We sat and talked with her for 3 hours and then went next door to a family owned weaving business that had looms from the 1920’s, mechanized, not treadle like the museum had displayed. We spent another 2 hours there seeing the generations of change, the beautiful clothing they made, including a copy of a coat that Audrey Hepburn wore in one of her films. The history in all of these places took my breath away. And I was almost persuaded to purchase the softest cashmere coat but came to my senses. Maybe the next time I go I won’t be so disciplined.
Citta di Castello held more treasures that were mind-blowing. We met a woman who is cultivating and saving heirloom fruit trees from all over Italy (she’s an author and just received her Ph.d in Archeologea Arboreta) and she lives in a house attached to an 1100 year old church! Her property was overwhelmingly fascinating. Then there was the Museo di Erbe in Citta http://www.abocamuseum.it which holds illuminated books and relics of old Farmacia’s from the 16th century. The care and beauty with which this museum was created makes it a must see when visiting this town.
The last place we stayed was high up above San Sepolcro where 4 generations have raised pristine cinta senese pigs for salumi cured more than 3 years! The young proprietor and his father http://www.terradimichelangelo.com/were so proud of their small business and shared all about the history, showed us the coolers for prosciutto, cooked us a fabulous meal and housed us in the most beautiful apartment; three ensuite bedrooms complete with antiques. The accommodations were stunning as were the views and the food in their small restaurant. Then we visited the Museo Civico San Sepolcro http://www.museocivicosansepolcro.it/ with the Piero della Francesca fresco that is being restored. Wow! Oh and the palazzo with private Della Robbia’s in the loggia. On our way out of town we visited the Burri exhibit at a palazzo exclusively housing his works. His oversized canvases are mixed media using some odd and interesting materials.I’ve not mentioned the castle, hosted by a charming, noblewoman, the incredible meals & wines in remote places or the Carbonaio museo in a high mountain village of 130. Every day was filled with new and wonderful things, but it was mostly the people that were so captivating. When they saw our interest they opened up and shared the generations of knowledge and traditions that were such treasures. There was much more but I am still processing it all. Our goal is to solicit and support the existing family members, especially the young ones, in continuing these important artisan traditions. Look for our 10 day tour in 2018 and remember, we limit our small groups to ten guests. For inquiries: 760.470.8852 or email@example.com://www.italianexcursion.com
The Italian countryside with nine women in a van! Nightmare or dream vacation? Lucky for me, this tour turned out to be a dream vacation for me! First, I found a comfortable, art filled, state of the art villa in a tiny village outside of Orvieto. Villa Tripoli is located on beautiful acres of rolling hills with a private drive far from the road and other neighbors. Except for the possibility of wild boar (just keep the gate closed when leaving, the owner prompted), privacy and an idyllic setting welcomed us. http://www.villatripoli.com
This eclectic group of women, including a young Smith College student, thrown together for a week, were kind, considerate and accommodating with one another. The tiny, winding roads in Italy can wreak havoc on stomachs and there were times when tummies in the way back of the van were churning, so measures were taken to move people around or get more air. I heard no complaints and much appreciation for the daily activities I had planned. We had some wonderful meals out and a couple of dinners at home after long days of exploring the area. Simona of www.sagraincasa.com entertained us while feeding us a scrumptious meal made with things from her organic farm. She paired the wines perfectly, too, as she is a sommelier as well as a chef!
Dinner out at Locanda Rosatti http://www.locandarosati is always special. Giampiero, the owner, invites not only outside guests to his table like our group, but also the people staying at the inn. His chef, Nicola, is brilliant in the kitchen and Giampiero is the perfect host for this family style meal, making sure everyone feels welcomed and well fed! The large plates of homemade pasta and local produce and meats just keep coming until we say “stop”! Then, of course, there is the dessert, grappa and limoncello before we can leave for home. It’s a true experience of Italian hospitality.
We didn’t just eat and drink great wines on this trip. There were many other experiences, too. A trip to Deruta which will be featured in another blog; two very different wine tastings; shopping frenzies in Orvieto and beyond! And did I mention Luigi, a local man who rents out cars and vans? So, more to come as this was a very fulfilling travel adventure.
Of course, we have shared some of our most loved places to explore in Italy, like Orvieto, Bagnoregio and Viterbo. However, fortunately for all of us, our list of small towns and villages that are quiet, un-touristed and interesting, just keeps growing. Here are a few of our favorites.
Lujnano in Teverina, is set on a wooded hill top, dedicated in ancient Roman times to the Roman God Janus (Jucus Janus, or Lugnano).There is a lovely Romanesque church in its center, called Church of Santa Maria Assunta. It is mentioned in many art books, a gem of the twelfth century and holds some important works of art. There is an alabaster Crucifix of the XV Century and the Crucifixion (Giottesque school), the triptych of Nicolo Alunno (dated 1494). The town hall also hosts a good museum, the Antiquarium, with relics from The Roman villa of Poggio Gramignano.
Not far from here is Amelia, a quiet country town, known in Roman times as Ameria. it’s surrounded by the famous cyclopean walls ( VI Century B.C.)., which you don’t see intact in too many places.
Bagnaia about the same distance from Lugnano but towards the west, houses the Villa Lante, a wonderful, complex summer estate and gardens, nearly 600 years old. The stone statues and numerous working water fountains cool the hot summer days, while one meanders in this timeless place that was once a spot for a pope’s parties.
Italian Excursion pointedly explores the undiscovered regions and sites that bring re-creation to traveling in Italy. We never tire of this wondrous, fascinating country as there is always more to see!
About ten years ago I came upon an opportunity to buy a small piece of property in the beautiful farming community of Bagnoregio, Italy. Having vacationed in this funny little town for several years, I’d made many friends of the locals and word of mouth is a powerful tool in small Italian towns. This can be a good thing and maybe not so good, at times. At any rate, I ended up with more than just a property. I ended up with an incredible tale that is not yet finished.
Farm valley of Bagnoregio
It will take much too long to tell the entire story here, so it will be told in increments, maybe 3, maybe 4, depending on just how far I get with this small amount of blogging space. It starts with my friend Carlo, a German immigrant who settled in the farm valley several decades earlier, becoming a local character with friends and business associates all over the regions of Lazio and Umbria. He’s the one that invited me to think about buying a property in Bagnoregio, as I was spending so much of my time there. He actually took me to see several properties, most needing much renovation. I wasn’t convinced I could afford to buy anything but he insisted there was something available that would suit me. And indeed, Carlo heard about two acres on a hill that an old farmer wanted to sell. So, we went to see it and after climbing up the driveway and coming to the top where the little building (an old stone “barn”) stood, taking in the captivating view which was breathtaking, I knew I wanted this place for my own.
There was no electricity or water, just a hand dug well, 50 olive trees and a sickly little vineyard. But I could see the entire farm valley and the Umbrian mountains, not to mention Civita Bagnoregio, the “dying” city, which sat high above it all. Carlo was sure that my closest neighbor who’s property backed up to this one would be happy to share utility lines for a small fee.
Old stone barn doors
The farmer, an ancient looking man who came twice daily to the land to care for the animals he raised, rabbits, goats and chickens, was tired and probably saw an easy way out of the daily trips in his little three wheeled truck that putted up and down the hill at 10 miles an hours.
The timing couldn’t have been better as the Italians were still using the lire and he asked just $12,000 for the property, plus a few costs for fees, etc. There are two “contracts” for selling or buying property in Italy, the first being the deposit which is determined by the two people in negotiations. The second contract is for the remaining balance and is executed anywhere from six to 12 months later.
End of first segment: You won’t want to miss the subsequent chapters! Especially the surprise ending!
OK, six months passes and I return to Italy for vacation, tour leading and to finish the sale of a lovely piece of agricultural property in Bagnoregio. If you recall, I had completed the first step in the process of the sale by paying a deposit of half the amount of the agreed upon price. The next step was to pay the balance and sign the paperwork, which would put the deed in my name. Sounds simple enough to me, most especially if one speaks fluent Italian (which at that time I did not)! I would spend the better part of a day regretting that “infraction”, if not several others.
Did I mention that the whole family showed up wearing, again, their “Sunday best”? Yes, and it was clean, pressed and vintage mid-century, same as the first meeting. And of course, everyone was talking all at once with instructions for seating, routes, and who knows what else, as I was still struggling to understand Italian. I was fortunate enough to have mama and her sisters in my car, with not word of English between them, shouting louder and louder at me in hopes that I would understand what they were saying by raising their voices ever higher. “Capice? Capice? That, I understood and my answer was continuously, “no, non capisco, mi dispiace”………or in English: “Do you understand? No, I do not understand, sorry. And I’m not even sure that was the correct Italian response!
So needless to say, after trying to navigate the two lane road, find Italian translations in my rattled brain and doubting my decision to own this beautiful two and half acres of farmland, I was a bit frazzled and had a pounding headache when we arrived. But reminding myself I has more than half-way through the process I just kept telling myself it would be over soon. In retrospect, which is always so much more fun to ponder later, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It’s one of those events that sticks out in my memory as an unbelievable piece of theater that could not have been fabricated had someone tried.
The end of Chapter Three in this epic saga left me with my chin on the floor and my heart somewhere south of it’s usual resting place! I had just been told by one of the relatives of the couple I was purchasing a piece of property from that she would not sign the paperwork making me owner. Everyone else around the table had already put their “John Hancock” on the contract and she had crossed her arms emphatically stating, “no escrito”!
Viterbo, Lazio, ItalyThere was much clucking and cross talk at this point from all the others at the table. Why? The notaio (para-legal) finally got someone to clarify the big question of why she would not sign and evidently it was just that she indeed, did not write (escrito). She was illiterate, as some of the older generation in small villages still are. I proffered suggestions such as making a mark on the page, an X possibly, but apparently that was either not understood or was not legal.
After some twenty minutes of much conversation in which everyone spoke at once, seeming not to listen to one another, decisions was made! The county clerk would go to lunch! After that a power of attorney would be drawn up for one of the other relatives to make a signature. Oh and did I mention that none of us were included in the lunch plans. Since the farmer’s family was not accustomed to being in the “city” or going out to restaurants to eat, we just sat around the table for two hours waiting for the clerk to come back. I had no idea how long the clerk would actually be gone and I was determined to wait it out with the rest of the family. They were very kind to me, shouting in Italian to ask if I needed the bagno (bathroom). That I understood! I’m not sure how I made it through those two hours but at long last the clerk returned with new paperwork and his hunger satiated, while my stomach gurgled and groaned about being so empty. (In hindsight I know I could have gone to eat, but not knowing all the protocol regarding the family and the fact that some had ridden in the car with me, I opted to wait it out with them rather than add another ding to my already tarnished reputation. They had previously made clear that my poor language skills defined a major character flaw, from their viewpoint.)
A beautiful day for a drive in the country!Great! We made it through the lunch hours, the clerk returns with the correct paperwork to complete the transaction, signatures are captured, the last of the money is exchanged and safely tucked into the patriarch’s mid-century sport coat. I am the proud new owner of two acres, fifty olive trees, a very sick little vineyard and a gorgeous view!!! We are all smiling and shaking hands and it’s time to return to Bagnoregio with the same amount of shouting and berating of me about my poor language skills as on the drive earlier. But this drive is much easier for me for I am now through the difficult part of this whole event. Or so I thought. Oh you thought this was the last chapter?
So, once we settle on a price for the property we must hire a “notaio”, a sort of para-legal professional, who handles the creation and filing of contracts between the buyer and seller. Bruno was a handsome, shy Italian man in his late thirties with an office in the center of Bagnoregio. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Italian which meant we needed my friend Carlo to interpret for us. That worked well up until the day I was to meet with the farmer and his wife, to sign documents for the first of the two contracts needed for completing the deal. Carlo had his own business to conduct that day and was not available so I joined Bruno and the sellers at Bruno’s office.
This couple who looked quite ancient to me, were probably not much more than 65 years old. But they had not lived an easy life. In fact, the husband had come from a family noted to be the last “cave dwellers” of this little town because during the second world war they were so poor they had lived in one of the numerous Etruscan caves in the valley. Had he not married up, so to speak, he would not have had any land for sale to begin with. Neither the farmer or his wife spoke any English and they were a bit indignant that my Italian was so poor, saying (through Bruno’s struggling English interpretation and many hand gestures) that it was imperative for me to learn their language if I was to be a landowner in Bagnoregio. I smiled, nodded and promised to do just that, but for the moment I wanted to get through this torturous meeting, sign documents and hand over the enormous stack of lire I had stashed in my bag.
When Bruno brought out the city plans that showed the property and its boundaries we discovered that there was also another detached piece of the sale in a different part of town that went with the package (it took half an hour with much hand and arm waving to convey all this to me), which to this day I’ve not seen. However, I do know that it has quite a few very old chestnut trees on it and it’s not much bigger than a good sized RV. Oh well, finding that is on my bucket list as I’m sure it’s just another small adventure.
After about an hour of me listening to the Italians speak Italian and catching maybe 1% of what was being said, my paranoia set in. What the hell was I doing here, trying to buy property so far from home? In a language I couldn’t really speak or understand? And what if I had missed some important details or what if they were all just conspiring to rip me off? No, no, no, I told myself, that is not the case and I have $6000 in Lire in my bag so just do it, as Nike prompts. When it came time to hand over the loot, I counted out pile after pile of tiny lire. Do you know how many lire it takes to make $6000? And then, the farmer, his wife and I sign documents and he proceeds to pack all the money into his vintage sport jacket, circa 1952. Yes, the couple had come dressed to the nines in their very best Sunday clothes, clean, perfectly pressed and from another era altogether. I failed to mention that I felt as though I had stepped into a Fellini film, which continued to be fun for another year or so.
The next step in the process of signing the “first” as the contract was referred to and after handing over the money, was to walk over to the farmer’s town home and have a celebratory drink, though it was only 11:30 in the morning. Hey, what the heck, I’m in Italy and I just bought property. And yes, the farmer’s jacket was bulging with my lire but he didn’t seem the least bit concerned as we walked through the little village to their home for a little mid-day apertivo and toast to ourselves. Little did I realize that this was only the beginning of a story that is unfinished today, eight years later! Stay tuned for another chapter in June.