Thursday, October 22, 2015

Castagnaccio: Tuscany's traditional chestnut cake recipe

One of Tuscany’s autumn specialties is Castagnaccio, a chestnut flour cake (castagna in Italian means chestnut). The traditional version has no sugar and no yeast - so if you see a recipe with either of these ingredients, it might be very good, but it’s not authentic. The cake’s delicate sweetness comes from the chestnut flour itself and from adding raisins. Other essentials are pine nuts, (sometimes walnuts) and rosemary. As with all the seasonal dishes in Tuscany, they are only made when the ingredients are available fresh. So castagnaccio can be found from October until early December - during the chestnut harvest when the flour is milled (since it does not keep very well).

It’s like the schiacciata con l’uva - the flat bread made with the wine grapes during harvest. After the fresh grapes are gone that’s the end of the season and you must wait until the following September. But luckily, you can move right on to castagnaccio! 

Here is the simple recipe for Castagnaccio:

Ingredients (for 8 people): 

250g (½ lb.) chestnut flour
2-3 cups of water (500-700ml) - the exact amount will be determined by the consistency of the batter.
75g (⅓ cup) of raisins
50g (¼ cup) pine nuts
(optional) 5 walnuts peeled and coarsely ground 
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
20-30 needles of fresh rosemary

Put the raisins in some water to soak (for about 10 minutes). Remove and lightly squeeze out excess water and pat dry, then set aside. 
Sift the chestnut flour into a bowl. 
Slowly add water to flour while mixing with a whisk. Batter should be soft enough to fall from the spoon, but not too liquid. 
Add the olive oil, pine nuts, walnuts, raisins and combine well. 
Oil a pan large enough so that the poured batter is 1cm thick (approx. 7 inch diameter).
Pour in the batter and sprinkle the rosemary needles on top.
Bake at 200°C (400°F) for 30-40 minutes. 
The castagnaccio is not ready until cracks appear on the surface.
Remove from oven, let it cool and enjoy - either on its own, or with a teaspoon of ricotta cheese. 
Stored in plastic wrap, it will last about 4 days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Movies filmed in Italy - to help you get a dose of the Bel Paese!

If you have been to Italy and are feeling nostalgic, or if you dream of going some day, a good way to get a dose of the Bel Paese is to watch a movie that was filmed on location. Considering the country’s scenic beauty, art, history and stunning architecture, it’s no small wonder there are so many to choose from. While not all are masterpieces, plenty are worth watching. 

Here are some suggestions for your Italy fix:

Suspense/Action/Adventure:



  • The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) 1999 -  starring Jude Law and Matt Damon - filmed in Naples, Rome, Amalfi Coast and Venice
  • Angels and Demons (Ron Howard) 2009 - filmed in Rome 
  • The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) 2010 - starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp - filmed in Venice
  • Hannibal (Ridley Scott) 2000 - filmed in Florence
  • The Gladiator (Ridley Scott) 2000 - filmed in Val d’Orcia and Siena (Tuscany)
  • 007 Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster) 2008 - filmed in Siena, Carrara, Italian Alps and Lake Garda
  • The American (Anton Corbikn) 2010-  starring George Clooney - filmed in Abruzzo


Comedy:




  • Tea with Mussolini (Franco Zeffirelli) - starring Cher, Maggie Smith, Judy Dench - filmed in Florence
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream (Michael Hoffman) - filmed in Pienza and Siena
  • Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branaugh) 1993 - filmed in Chianti (Tuscany)
  • When in Rome (Mark Steven Johnson) - 2010 - filmed in Rome

Drama:



  • Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni) 1997 - Oscar-winner, not to be missed! - filmed in Arezzo
  • The English Patient (Anthony Minghella) 1996 -  filmed in Arezzo and Siena
  • The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion) 1996 - filmed in Lucca
  • Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci) 1996 - starring Liv Tyler - filmed in Tuscany
  • Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee) 2008 - filmed in Stazzema (near Lucca) - Versilia (Tuscany)
  • Shadows in the Sun (Brad Mirman) 2005 - Val d’Orcia and Siena
  • Il Postino: The Postman (Michael Radford) 1994 - filmed in Sicily
  • Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore) 1988 - filmed in Sicily
  • Under the Tuscan Sun (Audrey Wells) 2003 - Cortona, Amalfi Coast
  • Enchanted April (Mike Newell) 1992 - filmed in Portofino (Liguria)
  • A Good Woman (Mike Barker) 2006 - starring Scarlett Johansson and Helen Hunt - filmed on the  Amalfi Coast
  • Eat Pray and Love (Ryan Murphy) 2010 - filmed in Rome and Naples
  • To Rome with Love (Woody Allen) 2012 - filmed in Rome
  • The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Chris Weitz) 2010 - Montepulciano
  • The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino) 2013 - Oscar-winner filmed in Rome
  • Malèna (Giuseppe Tornatore) 2000 - filmed in Sicily
  • Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica) 1948 - a masterpiece of Italian Neorealism, filmed in Rome

Romance:

  • Roman Holiday (William Wyler) 1953 - the classic starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck - filmed in Rome, of course! 
  • A Room with a View (James Ivory) 1985 - filmed in Florence
  • La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini) 1960 - filmed in Rome
  • Only You (Norma Jewison) 1994 - filmed in Rome, Venice, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast
  • Letters to Juliet (Gary Winick) 2010 - Verona and Tuscany

Buona visione! 

Hopefully there is enough here to keep you busy until you come visit Italy (again)! 


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reflections on Italy - the ins and outs of air conditioning

During this summer's incredibly long heatwave, one of the “hot” topics of conversation is air conditioning. Many people assume that there is a lack of air conditioners in Italy due to the high cost of electricity and the expense of the units themselves, and while both are true, they are probably not the real reason. 

The truth is that Italians have a love/hate relationship with this technological means of overcoming high temperatures. While they can recognize the benefits of not having to swelter in their homes and offices, for many it is still considered "dangerous and unnatural", likely to cause a series of maladies, ranging from the common cold (often referred to as a frescata) - a direct result of getting "hit by air" (the famous colpo d’aria), to headaches and stiff necks (the dreaded torcicollo also called colpo della strega - which literally translated means hit by the witch!) Ever notice how many Italians wear scarves even when the weather seems too warm for them? The list of associated risks is a long one and it helps to explain why so many people avoid using these machines (even when they have them!)


I remember when buying my first car in Italy (about 20 years ago) asking the salesman if it was possible to have a/c; he literally laughed in my face, remarking that if a utility car had air conditioning it wouldn’t have enough power left to move! Luckily, he has been proven wrong over time and today just about every car produced has a/c, no matter how compact or budget it is. Whether its Italian owner will turn it on is still debatable - but it’s there! 

As an American I have known/had air conditioning for my whole life. My father, a "hot blooded" European immigrant to the US, was a living example of someone who had quickly learned to love this luxury offered by his new homeland and we had central a/c in our house starting in the ‘70s. I can’t remember ever having a car without a/c either (until I moved to Italy!) Today, at least 90% of Americans have a/c in their homes - while in Italy it is about 30% (and yes, I am one of them). The funny thing is that it took me a few years to convince my Italian husband that it was worth the investment - but today it is his favorite “americanata” that I introduced into our lives. (I would also definitely include the clothes dryer on that list - another good blog topic for the winter season!)  

Living here I have heard (and experienced) all the gripes we expats have about the a/c situation and my conclusion is that when it is too hot, it’s just plain too hot and something needs to be done! An Italian friend once said, "Air conditioning only hurts those who don’t have it!" I prefer to claim that if used properly (without excess) it can only be an asset. While there is no reason to make your living quarters a refrigerator -no one will convince me that it is healthy to sit in a room that is more than 30°C (86°F)!  

In defense of the Italians, who do voice their observations/criticisms about the way foreigners use this commodity, I will admit that when I return to the U.S. I sometimes find that there is an excessive use of air conditioning. Why should people need to wear a sweater in August to enter a supermarket, mall or office building; even at home, is it logical to sleep with a comforter in the middle of the summer? I once asked someone in a large chain store about the ridiculous cold and he said that the a/c was regulated by their headquarters in Boston - we were in NY, by the way! This practice is both foolish and wasteful. 

As usual, what’s needed (but often lacking in our society) is common sense. If you use moderation, you can probably make most people happy. Technology has come a long way in improving the machinery that produces cold air - so as long as we pay attention to how we set our thermostats and position our vents we should all be able to live happily together, even in our multi-cultural families, and avoid being hit by that treacherous air! 





Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni

One of the reasons I strongly suggest for visitors to go on a guided tour of Florence is that you learn so much about the history of the city and notice things you would surely have missed just walking around on your own. Getting the background of the events and people who shaped the Renaissance makes a world of difference in how you perceive the city, and certainly makes things more interesting. Unless you are a history scholar, it is unlikely that you will spend 3 hours with a professional guide and not discover something new! Every time I participate in a tour with my clients I learn a few fascinating things - and I have lived here for a long time! 

On my most recent tour of Florence, I came to know the history of a unique building located in the heart of the center, between Piazza Santa Trinita and Via Tornabuoni. Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni was built between 1520 and 1523 by the architect Baccio d’Agnolo for a wealthy family of wool merchants whose descendants were originally from Siena. This residential palazzo represents an unconventional, avant-garde style of architecture for that period.

photo: Fabrizio Pivari via Flickr.com

It was the first building to have rectangular windows, topped by a tympanum with arched or triangular gables. The window panes were divided into rectangular sections by a cross set inside them. The front door and the windows were flanked by columns, reminiscent of ancient Roman architecture. These, among other unique elements, distinguished the building from all the other Renaissance residential palazzos (this is quite evident if you consider that the building right next to it, on the right in the photo below, was built only a few years earlier).  

photo credits: Sailko via Wikipedia.com
However, the radical design was not well received at the time and it resulted in a great deal of general criticism, which spurred the proud architect to brazenly challenge his detractors by engraving this quote above the door: carpere promptius quam imitari: criticizing is easier than imitating. To his credit, over time this new style became an architectural model to emulate and many other buildings were constructed to resemble it. 



As is almost always the case when probing into the history behind the monuments, there is an intriguing tale about the Bartolini Salimbeni family that helps to explain some of the other details found on the facade. These rich wool merchants were known for their diligent and untiring work ethic, so it is not surprising that they chose their motto to be: Per non dormire (to not sleep) - which is engraved in several of the window crosses. However, legend has it that there is more to the story than just their hard-working nature. In fact, another decorative element linked to this theory can be found in the
 border with a symbol from their family crest, a ring containing 3 poppies. It is said that they used a shrewd trick to claim a shipment of precious wool which brought them great wealth. A sumptuous banquet was organized at the palazzo for their fellow wool merchants (and competitors) where the food was laced with opium - derived from poppies. While the guests were conveniently asleep, they secured the valuable  goods - making a fortune. (So, I guess in modern vernacular their motto would read: You snooze you lose!) 





A stunning courtyard is another typical characteristic of historic palazzos, although it's unfortunately hidden behind the (normally) closed doors of the facade. Here too you can see the classical architectural elements and also a wonderful example of the graffiti decorations and the grotesque motif. 

The Bartolini Salimbeni family lived in the residence until the early 1800s when it was rented to a foreign couple who turned it into the Hotel du Nord in 1839 - a fashionable place where illustrious guests like Henry James and Herman Melville were known to have stayed. 
Today it is privately owned. 

photo: Simona Constantin

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Discover the Art of Tuscan Living


What is it that draws people to Tuscany? For many it is a combination of qualities that are present in this beautiful region of Italy: the natural scenery, with postcard perfect landscapes of rolling hills covered with vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees; the excellent wine and food; the extraordinary art and history; the stunning architecture and monuments… but perhaps what tilts the scale is the mystique of the Tuscan Lifestyle. This intangible element is really the underlying attraction that seems to unite everyone in their love of Tuscany. 

In the collective imagination, Tuscany is somehow synonymous with “good living”. In many ways this is true. Here you are surrounded by beauty, which is probably why  Italians tend to take things slower - their meals, their encounters with others, their walks (known as strolls called passeggiate), but can you blame them? History permeates everything, making it easy to get caught up in the past - when things were less frenetic. Also, it is a reality that rushing down a cobblestone street can be downright dangerous! One false step and you risk breaking a leg (I speak from experience!) - so it’s best to slow down, even if you are a few minutes late reaching your destination. Other characteristics that surely interfere with speed are the quaint shops lining the streets (constantly inviting you to glance in their windows); the cafes everywhere, beckoning you to pop in for an espresso or a pastry; the beautiful architecture, where even the doorways and courtyards will catch your eye as you make your way through town. 

Yet, despite all the distractions, the locals do actually manage to live and work in Tuscany. In fact, it is one of Italy’s most productive regions. As a result, often they themselves forget to look up and appreciate their surroundings - because they are in a hurry to get to an appointment, catch a bus, reach the office, or whatever else normal residents do on a daily basis in the 21st century. However, fortunately most Tuscans do still recognize their good fortune of living in such an incredible place. They are the ones who proudly carry on the traditions of this land - despite all the obstacles (and there are many!) Among them are the artisans, farmers, shopkeepers, winemakers, and those who have restored ancient homes both in the city and the countryside, saving them from ruin and disrepair. 



You will also find a great number of passionate Tuscans working in the tourist industry, proud to show off their home and culture to visitors. They are the ones who do their job with integrity and a smile - making you feel welcome. Having looked behind the scenes, I can honestly say that for many it is truly a calling, as the effort required to do their jobs well is much greater than what one would expect. Italy still doesn’t support its local economy enough. Small entrepeneurs are faced with so much red tape and a mountain of challenges, making success very difficult. It is important to mention this aspect, because sometimes Italy’s tainted reputation clouds the general perspective on the existence of its honest hard-working population.

So my suggestion is, when you visit Tuscany, allow yourself to feel its vibe. Take time to enjoy the good life - even if it means not being able to do and see everything on your bucket list. Don’t rush or over-schedule, otherwise you’ll miss the best part of what this wonderful place has to offer. Leave room for the unknown, be spontaneous and love the journey as much as the destination. Chances are, no matter what, you will be left with the desire to return… that’s the magic of Tuscany! 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Best Food Country in the World

Recently I read an article in the Huffington Post by Lewis Krell titled: I Just Got Back From Italy… And America Is the Best Food Country in the World. It was clearly a provocation aimed at enticing readers to read on. Basically, the premise of the article was to praise the variety of food available in the US, and “to show you that there really is no better country on the planet for cuisine than […] the United States of America.” 

Although I don’t disagree that the US offers an incredible amount of culinary diversity - which is perfectly normal considering that it is a very large country made up of immigrants from all over the world - this article doesn’t really hit the mark in trying to defend the statement that the US is the best food country in the world. It is only successful in pointing out that the US has the most varied cuisine in the world - which is in and of itself a no brainer. After all, what is “American cuisine”? It is nothing more than a fusion of the different cuisines brought by the country’s settlers over the years: English, Mexican, French, Italian, etc.  


One important thing to consider is that you cannot define the US by its major cities, (i.e. New York, LA, SF, Chicago, etc.) which clearly do offer incredible cuisine and variety, with restaurants that can compete with the best in the world. I too have eaten amazing food in these metropolises, and whenever I return to NY (my native US home), I focus on getting my fill of classic American fare, as well as those of international cuisines which are certainly not plentiful in Italy.

Personally, I think that the author of the article offers an elitist's perspective (despite claiming that “Eating 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes […] (is) damn impressive”) to defend his assertion that America is the best food country in the world. In order to present his case, he must base his argument on dining in large cities. In my mind, this is exactly where he trips himself up. In all countries, the more sophisticated and educated part of the population has a greater opportunity to enjoy and understand good food. People who have the chance to travel and become informed are more likely to appreciate and gravitate toward better cuisine - and if they live near a city they will find more venues serving excellent food. However, not everyone has this possibility.

 La Torre Restaurant at Castello del Nero in Chianti just got a Michelin star
The real challenge comes if you leave the big cities, and head to the more provincial areas of the US, where it is a fact that haute cuisine (international or otherwise) is not something you will find everywhere. After all, Taco Bell certainly doesn’t represent the author's claim of having the “second-best” version of authentic Mexican food! Personally, I am sure that you would do much better dining in rural Italy - even if you are forced to eat Italian food! The reason for this is primarily because many Americans (unlike their Italian counterparts) aren’t accustomed to excellent, wholesome food - in fact this is what spurred the recent campaign in the US to promote healthy eating. Not something you’d think necessary in the best food country in the world.

Ristorante Vun in  Milan


The author criticizes Italy’s cuisine as being monotonous and lacking culinary alternatives. However, what one has to remember is that European cuisine is rooted in national tradition, which means that it is more than just about the food - it’s about the culture. So, when your food is good and the recipes are intertwined with your history and cultural identity, it becomes harder to move away from it.  And while it is true that when you seek “foreign cuisine” in the form of an ethnic restaurant, Italy can’t really compete with the US, it is also true that if you explore some of the newer restaurants in Italian cities, you will find some exciting culinary experiences which won’t force you to eat only tagliatelle al ragù or risotto alla Milanese. 

 Michelin-starred Executive Chef Michele Griglio - Winter Garden da Caino, St. Regis Hotel Florence


Recently, Italy’s chefs have been widely recognized for their flair and creativity. Many are exploring world cooking more than ever before, revisiting local dishes or creating new ones drawing on the influence of foreign cuisines and flavors. So, while it’s true that Italy is still lagging behind when it comes to international restaurants, where you find the traditional food of a specific country, there is a good chance that in the future this too will begin to change, as we see certain categories of ethnic restaurants emerging already. In the meantime, when you are in Italy, do try some of the new Italian restaurants on the scene; I assure you it will be hard to claim you had a monotonous meal! 

a creation by the Michelin-starred Italian Chef Andrea Berton

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What Exactly Is Tuscany?

Sounds like a foolish question, right? The allure of Tuscany has made it one of the most famous travel destinations in the world and there are probably few people who don’t have an idyllic picture come to mind when the word Tuscany is mentioned. In the collective imagination, it is simply the kind of magical place dream vacations are made of - where rolling hills, vineyards and cypress trees define the stunning landscape, and hilltop towns with cobblestone streets, ancient buildings and charming shops complete the picture. When you add the good food and excellent wine to the equation, you’re pretty close to paradise. And thus far, this definition is spot on - all of these characteristics are definitely part of Tuscany. 








So, what’s the problem? Well, the glitch comes when the myth of “Tuscany” blurs the real understanding of what it really is. Not everyone is clear on the matter, since it is pretty common for people to ask to spend “a few days in Florence followed by a week in Tuscany”, or to request to see “all the main towns of Tuscany, including the Cinque Terre.” That's when I feel the need to clarify a bit better what Tuscany actually is, from a geographical and administrative perspective.  

Italy is divided into 20 regions, and Tuscany is one of them. Located in central Italy, it covers an area of nearly 23,000 square kilometers (8,900 square miles), has a population of about 3.8 million people, and includes a vast variety of topographical features. Two-thirds is made up of hills, 25% is mountainous, and the remainder are plains. There are also 397 km of coastline and five Tuscan islands, the largest being Elba. Tuscany is bordered on the West by the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Seas - but the Cinque Terre do not belong to Tuscany, they are part of the neighboring region of Liguria.

Tuscany includes the famous cities of Florence (the region’s capital), Siena, Arezzo, Pisa and Lucca (to name those best known to tourists). This explains why saying, “Florence and Tuscany” is not correct, because Florence is IN Tuscany. Obviously, what people are usually referring to is the countryside of Tuscany, but here too it’s not all that simple. The region itself is divided into various geographical areas and 10 provinces (soon to be officially eliminated by the government - but from a psychological point of view it will be a long time before the locals don’t identify themselves by their province of origin). 


Some of the geographical areas which will immediately sound familiar to many are Chianti, Val d’Orcia, Crete Senesi, Colli Senesi (Siena hills), Maremma, Valdarno, Val d’Elsa, Val di Chiana, Mugello, the Tuscan Archipelago, Casentino,  Apuan Alps and Garfagnana. All of these names (and quite a few others) belong to Tuscany. In addition, there are nearly 50 important artistic centers throughout the region, which include cities and small hill towns. Hence, when you say, “I’d like to visit Tuscany”, it’s a tall order (especially when you only have a few days to do it). When you factor in the incredible amount of history and art that are present, it becomes plain that one should focus on a smaller area in order to appreciate the experience more. This leaves plenty of choice for a return visit (or more than one), and it helps to avoid the other frustrating thing about travel overload: when people return from a trip not remembering exactly where they went or what they saw. 
How is that possible? you might ask. Well, I really have heard people say things like, "I think I visited Montepulciano, or maybe it was Montalcino?" and I can assure you that I have been stopped in Florence by tourists asking me where Michelangelo’s Pietà was… and then being stunned to hear it was actually at St. Peter’s, in Rome! As a consolation, I pointed them in the direction of the Accademia Gallery, promising they’d find another of the artist’s sculptures worthy of a visit… after all, this IS Tuscany!