domenica 21 settembre 2014

To eat a fig or not to eat a fig?

As a child my experience related to eating European foods such as figs was limited to tasting squishy Fig Newton cookies at school, probably the result of an unfair trade at snack time. That horrid flavor haunted me for years and prevented me from tasting the fresh figs that I saw all over Italy. 

Everyone in Italy loves figs and eats them from any tree growing alongside the road or hanging over garden fences. They see them as little, sweet treasures to be picked and eaten quickly. They also make fig preserves, they eat figs with ham, they eat them dried like raisins. They even use figs figuratively: non me ne importa un fico secco=it's less important than a dried fig=I couldn't care less). 

Despite all the smiles around figs, I couldn’t bring myself to taste them. The insides of some figs are a deep red color and look like a mysterious animal that lives in the ocean or an exotic, poisonous plant that grows in the jungle. It just bothered me too much, despite the looks of ecstasy on my Italian friends' faces whenever they would eat the little, ripe fruits. 

One year a vacationing tourist made some fig preserves from the fruit he found growing around the area. I tasted the preserves to be polite and I was pleasantly surprised by the mild, sweet flavor. However it was only recently that I started eating fresh figs, and now I can’t stop! These little pods of deliciousness are heavenly!! Try them if you dare. They grow everywhere...but hurry, fig season is almost over!

sabato 10 maggio 2014

Beekeeping for beginners

What can I say? I love honey. My family consumes huge quantities of honey every year. But who would have ever thought that my love of honey would have spurred me to become a beekeeper? And yet, here I am enjoying the adventures of beekeeping. I’ve been documenting it for a couple of years, reading all kinds of literature and frequenting local beekeepers, but I never thought I’d really take the plunge and get my own bees.

So, I must admit that it is thanks to my determination combined with a four-month beekeeping course, that I finally decided to get my own families. My first bees arrived last week and I have been bothering them regularly, peeking into the hive to make sure they are doing all the things that a healthy family should do. Pretty soon they are going to lock me out.

And today, with the help of my supportive husband, I caught my first swarm of bees. This morning a swarm was lingering on the roof of a home just in front of the house I rent to tourists (yes, the famous Altavista Holiday Home!). I couldn’t believe that I was so lucky to find a family of bees looking around for a new home.

The procedure wasn’t quick. They didn’t want to go into my bee travel box even though I rushed to put wax frames inside so they would know it was an appropriate place for them to make a new home. So we had to ask the neighbors for help. There is the nicest man ever who lives nearby on via degli Scacciati; being a retired man and a very capable do-it-yourself kind of person, he is always there to assist me in times of need.

My ladder wasn’t tall enough to reach the roof of the neighbor’s house where the bees where grouped together. So Sandrino lent us two long ladders and helped us tie them together and then helped us tie the bee box on top. Then he lent me a really long bamboo pole that I used to push the bees into the bee box. Most of the bees went into the box right away, for others it took a little longer. By evening time they were all in the travel box so I closed it up and transferred them to my apiary.

I prepared my apiary in town, on a two acre property that belongs to my sister in law. I’m following the good advice of an organic beekeeper in Palestrina, Mauro Marini (Apicoltura Antica Praeneste), who sells wonderful organic honey made by his many honeybees. Organic beekeepers must use certified organic wax, only certified organic products for treating bee ailments and problems like the varroa mite, and annual analysis must be made on the honey and wax to make sure that the beekeeper is sticking to the rules and using and making only high quality products. Yes, my bee families are also organic and arrived with their certification and everything. Let’s just hope they make some honey!

sabato 26 aprile 2014

La Grotta del Mortale

Off we went the other day for a walk in the woods in the Monti Prenestini. I love this time of year because the woods are full of scented flowers and wild cyclamens. After driving past Castel San Pietro, we turned down the road called Via Valle Pantana, a few kilometers down that road is the entrance to the hiking area. After a quick salute from a group of adorable donkeys, we followed a well-marked path for 2km which led up hill. Along the way, we passed an old fountain and then up, up, up all the way to the cave, which is actually a Roman cistern. It was a short but lovely hike. We even passed a truffle hunter who was training his puppy dog to hunt for truffles; they had actually found some brown truffles! For those looking for an easy hike, this is definitely a good option.


giovedì 10 aprile 2014

And then I discovered artichokes

Growing up in the midwest, I didn’t have many opportunities to eat artichokes. Maybe it was just because my parents didn’t eat them. The first time I saw them, they were in a glass jar swimming in vinegar and I just couldn’t get past the idea that you have to eat the heart. But since living in Italy is all about learning to eat new food, artichokes were among those scary vegetables that I eventually learned not to be afraid of. 

Spring is a great time of year for eating fresh artichokes. In fact, I now actually love eating artichokes (even those in vinegar!), you can bake them, deep fry them, sauté them, even cook them on cinders (see photo below), but my favorite recipe is the following: 

Take off the floppy leaves from the stems, strip the stems of their stringy sides, remove a large number of outer artichoke leaves; cut a straight top on each artichoke to remove all the thorns, separate the stem from the heart, cut the clean stems into pieces. Finely chop a couple of garlic cloves and some fresh parsley (most Italians also add “mentuccia” a minty herb whose scientific name is calamintha nepeta). Put a little olive oil in a pot or sauce pan and add the artichoke heads and stems; sprinkle the garlic and parsley mixtures on top of each artichoke and sprinkle some salt (or, as I do, sprinkle some home-made vegetable bouillon). Cover and let cook for 10 minutes on a low flame, then add a small amount of white wine or water and turn the artichokes over. Cook for another 10-15 minutes...and I promise you will not be disappointed!! 

For dinner tonight…

Every year in the spring friends of ours have an artichoke party and cook over one hundred artichokes over cinders

sabato 11 gennaio 2014

A Walk on the Snow

As everyone knows, there is quite an array of winter sports to please any enthusiast. In Italy skiing is probably the most popular sport of the season, however a growing number of Italians are experimenting with snowshoeing. Today I went out with my favorite association “Tesori del Lazio” to explore the lower Apennine Mountains around Campo Catino, about 90 km east of Rome. Fantastic weather, warm sun and the absence of wind made the day perfect for trying out the snowshoes and exploring the mountains in the silence of the snowy slopes. What a fantastic day in the fresh air, making new friends and enjoying a healthy walk while feeling high enough to touch the sky!

lunedì 6 gennaio 2014

Happy Epiphany

La Befana: a cross between Halloween and Christmas
When my husband was a young boy, the only holiday gifts most children received were those on January 6 for la Befana, or Epiphany. A stocking full of goodies was given to Italian children (coal was put in the stocking for those who misbehaved). The main character of this tradition is la Befana, a witch who rides a broomstick and fills the children’s stockings during the night. In Rome’s Piazza Navona, every year there is an enormous outdoor market where pre-filled stockings, candies, toys and Befana dolls are sold. It is the main place where families go to choose a surprise for their children. Buona Epifania!