Top 10 reasons to be Italian (and live in Italy)

Hi everyone and apologies for the lack of posting over the past few months.  I injured my neck and shoulder (too much stting at my computer!) and needed to have a complete break from it.  Finally here it is, the last four reasons it is great to be Italian (and live in Italy).  Enjoy!

7.  There is a time for everything and everything has its time.

Italy has the same amount of time as everywhere else obviously, but somehow life seems to linger there and fit, in a more balanced way, to the 24 hours alloted to each day.  I never get the sense of being rushed in Italy, or expected to do too many things at once, or that I will miss out on something if I don’t.  In fact rushing (di fretta) is often used as a slight rebuke.  If someone says to you ‘Hai fretta’? (are you in a hurry?), it is usually not because they want to help you out, but because they want you to chill out and stop upsetting everyone around you.

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There is a timetable in Italy for doing things, from eating and shopping to working, holidaying and resting, dictated by the seasons, connected to nature, and supported by ritual.  Many of the things I have already referred to – expectations that you will eat a long and proper lunch, resting,  only participating in activities that are right for the current season, celebrating as much as possible.  These all create the ability to live in the present, as well as expectation and hope for the seasons to come, which bring with them their own new activities, celebrations, food and rituals.  Somehow by spacing things out, taking time in between them, living in the present yet being secure in the knowledge of what is to come, and by repeating activities that are connected to the natural world around us, Italians have created more room in their lives than I ever feel I have anywhere else.

8. No one talks about work outside of work.

I could be cheeky and add that often no one talks about work while actually at work, but I do not want to perpetuate the perception (mostly because of the above points), that Italians are somehow lazy.  As I have said before, being one of the 8th most productive countries in the world, is not the achievement of the lazy.  But I find that in Italy you are not what you do.  There is always a question about work, between friends and at social gatherings, but the question is usually ‘Do you have work?’, not ‘What do you do for work?’.  If the answer to the first question is ‘yes’, the conversation usually stops there, as the most important part of work here is whether you have a job or not (and it always has been).

Italians talk about politics, food, love, holidays, art, love, food, music, philosophy, love, literature, food and sport much more than they talk about work.  I have known some of my Italian friends for years before I actually knew what they did for work.  In Italy it tends to be more relevant how else you spend your life.  Also because for the most of the decades since WW2, work has often been scarce.  People tend to take what they can get.  A person with a PHd in Chemistry might be working as an administrative clerk in an aid organisation, someone with a Masters degree in languages might be managing a video rental store, and a brilliant musician might be teaching Primary school.  It is generally accepted that any work is good work, and that who you are and your interests, may not be reflective of that work.  And that you are one of the extremely fortunate ones if it does.

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Even at work, having a conversation that creates a relationship is far more important and effective in getting things done than merely discussing the tasks.  I once worked with a team of people that began each morning talking in detail about what they eaten the night before for dinner, where they had bought the ingredients and how they had prepared them.  Not only did I earn a wage and create an effective outcome with this team, but I learnt why my Melanzane alla Parmagiana was never as tasty as everyone elses, how to prepare Mozzarella in Carrozza (fried cheese sandwhiches), and where to find pumpkins.

9. You only eat what is in season.

Speaking of pumpkins, the first time I felt like making some pumpkin soup in Spring I couldn’t understand why the green grocer just laughed at me, or why he treated me as though I was slightly mad when I asked for strawberries in Autumn.  Where I grew up, everything was available all year round and nothing tasted like the season fruit and vegetables I began to eat in Rome.  The first time I ate a peach it tasted like it had flavouring added to it.  I had never eaten vine ripened fruit.  It is much easier to sit down to a meal of mostly vegetables, or to eat a dessert of only fruit if they taste the way they taste in Italy.

Eating what is only seasonally available means also that you look forward to eating certain things at certain times of the year, make the most of them, and enjoy saying goodbye to them as you anticipate the next season’s bounty.  It provides a structure for life when certain tastes, flavours and dishes only come around once a year and contributes to that sense of space and time that seems to occur in Italy.

10. Everyone in the world wants to be you.

If I had a dollar for every person I have heard say ‘I am Italian on the inside’ or ‘my soul is Italian‘, I would be rich.  Why is it that I can travel to over 45 countries and ALL of them have Spaghetti or Pizzza on offer?  Why is it that everyone who can afford one buys a Prada or an Armani something? Why do 48 million people visit Italy every year making it the 5th most visited country in the world? Why is owning a Ferrari on every male’s (and quite a lot of females) secret wish list?  Because the world wants to be you! 🙂 If we could bottle Italy and take it out on a grey, cold work day, when we are sitting at our desks eating heated up left overs out of a plastic container over our computer, or while we are congregating in a shopping mall full of machine-made things from millions of miles away rubbing shoulders with strangers who won’t make eye contact, or when we are walking at night across a vast and people less, council built, strip of community park or concrete play ground hurrying to get to our next appointment/activity, then life would be just that little bit better.  Don’t you think? 🙂

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Don’t forget to check out my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons on http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

or at your local bookstore.  Check out and ‘like’ and ‘share’ my NEW FaceBook page too!

 

Top ten reasons to be Italian (and live in Italy) cont.

Today’s continuation of Top ten reasons to be Italian (and live it Italy).

4.  You get to eat the BEST and BIGGEST Easter Eggs ever!

 

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Easter is taken seriously in Italy, and nowhere more so than with the giving and receiving of Easter Eggs.  They are the most colorful, ornate and decorated eggs I have ever seen!

 

 

5.  You get to lay down in the middle of the day.

Yes the siesta is alive and well.  And before you scoff just remember that Italy is one of the G8 countries which means it is one of the 8 most productive countries in the world.  (Confirming research that shows sleep and work/life balance actually contributes to sustainable effort) .  At 1.00pm until 4.00pm each day all shops and professional services (lawyers, dentists, doctors, accountants) shut their doors to partake in an appropriate lunch (Top 10 reason no.1) and then snooze, rest, sleep it off before starting the second half of the working day from 4.00pm til 8.00 (this doesn’t apply to office workers who have to power on with only a lunch and a walk followed by a stiff coffee to keep them going).  I particularly love this quiet part of the day where my suburb shuts down and a peaceful silence descends.

 

 

 

 

 

6.  You get to have two birthdays.

I love birthdays and was determined to make a big fuss over my husband’s birthday when we were first going out.  Imagine my surprise when four months earlier than his birthday, his parents, siblings, niece and nephew, God-mother, friends and colleagues all began calling early in the morning to wish him a ‘Happy Onomastico‘ (Happy Name-Day), delivering gifts and asking him ‘what was he was doing for his onomastico?’

It is a tradition in Italy to be named after a Saint or after a family member (who was originally named after a Saint) and each Saint has a special day of the year named after them.  San Vincenzo is April 5th and all those guys who are named Vincenzo celebrate their Onomastico on that day.  Same with San Francesco(a), San Guiseppe, Sant’ Alfredo, San Valentino etc.

There are cards, cake, presents, celebrations.  How is that not like a birthday?

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Next time, the last four top reasons to be Italian.

Don’t forget to check out my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons on http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

or at your local bookstore.  Check out and ‘like’ and ‘share’ my NEW FaceBook page too!

Top ten reasons to be Italian! (and live in Italy)

1.  You get to savour lunch!

I have noticed the lunch hour, and even the concept of lunch, is dying out in many post industrial countries.  Not so in Italy, the inventor of the Slow Food movement.   In Italy lunch begins at 1.00pm.  Not 12.30 or 1.10 but 1.00pm.  No one questions you or where you are going at that hour.  Everyone knows.  It’s lunch time.  Lunch occurs mostly sitting down, mostly with company but not looked on strangely if it is taken alone.  It involves at least two courses, is followed by a coffee (cafe/short black) and a gentle walk.  It never occurs while walking or working.  If a good, nuturing and sustaining lunch is what you desire then pretend to be Italian for a day and take it!

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2.  You can eat pasta every day.

Not just for special occasions or only after you have laboured by making it fresh yourself, pasta is a staple and comes in a myriad of forms.  Pasta is eaten ‘al dente‘ (chewy) so that the flavour and texture can be truly appreciated, and is paired with seasonal produce and is therefore constantly changing.  It is part of every Italians’ diet and now even gluten free pasta is offered at most restaurants (by asking for it as it won’t appear on the menu).  Pasta is not only matched with seasonal ingredients (herbs, vegetables, fish and meat), the shapes, sizes and texture (ribbed or non ribbed) of the pasta are matched with particular sauces and ingredients to bring out the taste and texture of ingredients e.g. ribbed pasta with tomato based sauces  The thickness of spaghetti is also chosen depending on what it is served with.  Tip: never serve size no. 3 with seafood!

20130917_202754Rigatoni cacio e pepe –  one of my favourite typical Roman pasta dishes.  Sheeps cheese and pepper.  Sounds simple, is delicious.  Note it is served with ribbed pasta so that the cheese coats the pasta as you eat it – yum!

25122004(001)My mother-in-law Francesca’s Timbalo (baked pasta dish – every mother does one).  Francesca’s has fried pork meatballs in it and is sealed with fried eggplant.  The pasta inside this dish is usually penne, unribbed because the mixture is already dense and doesn’t need to stick to it.

 

3.  You get to experience four complete seasons, consecutively and well spaced (but don’t forget to follow the seasonal ‘rules’).

Each season is quite distinct in its weather, food, activities and lifestyle.  As everyone is impacted by the seasons at the same time it creates a sense of community – everyone is eating, doing and talking about the same things at the same time.  Where you will be going for your summer holidays, when the seasons last vegetables are available, how you will be celebrating this seasons’ saints days, what you will be eating for lunch that day are all acceptable conversations with complete strangers at the bus stop or with neighbours in your apartment block.  The first sunny day is not a reason to go to the beach unless it is after June 21st (the official beginning of summer) and if the heat continues into September it is still not a reason to wear your summer clothes as I recently experienced.  While walking in my local neighbourhood wearing my summer clothes (as it was 27 degrees), I overheard a person commenting to her companion how ridiculous I looked wearing them when it was now September and therefore clearly Autumn!

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If you’re not sure what to do in each season or how to behave, head to the Trevi fountain and look up.  The four statues at the top represent each of the four seasons in Italy and how they are personalised!

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Next week: more reasons to be Italian.

If you love this blog don’t forget to check out my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons on http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

or at your local bookstore.  A synthesis and first chapter is available on this blog by clicking on the ‘My book’ page.  If you have already read it please ‘like’ my FaceBook page, subscribe to this blog, write a review on Amazon, and tell your friends!

The best things in Rome………..are free!

The title of this blog was supposed to be ‘ Top Three Spas in Rome‘ (watch this space for a later blog), but while doing research for that blog post I became outraged about the amount of ‘best things to do in Rome‘ articles requiring the spending of zillions of $$$. They included things like breakfasting on hotel rooftops and banqueting with 250 of your closest friends inside the Vatican palace ‘so you can experience the splendour that only Popes and royalty do/did’, while casually mentioning ‘you might like to also take in a few piazzas, the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon if you have time’. So I decided to change the topic of my blog.  I am passionate about my adopted city  because it is one of the most visually beautiful cities in the world, full of art and colour and life, it also is one of the most historically and culturally interesting.  And most of all I love the fact that nearly all of this can be experienced for free!  Yes folks it’s true, the best things in Rome are free!

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It is therefore a backpackers and budget travellers delight.  However probably because a lot of it is free, it seems that the Eternal city sometimes thinks its needs to embellish itself and add costly delights for travellers who don’t feel they are special if they don’t have to pay lots of money for something.  One of the things I love the most about Rome is that I can be minding my own business sitting around at the Trevi Fountain when right before my eyes Isabella Rossellini hops out of a taxi.  Or that I can be waiting for a table (not queuing, there is a big difference) at a well-known restaurant in Campo dei Fiori and ahead of me in the not-queue is Harvey Keitel.  Or that I can walk into Prada or Dolce & Gabbana or Versace on the Via dei Condotti and be treated like I, in my wildest dreams (and theirs), would be able to afford anything.  You could also find yourself out for drinks with any one of Italy’s international movie stars or politicians who frequent the vibrant aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks that often substitute dinner) scene in Rome’s tiny back streets.

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Rome is a great leveller.  Its streets and piazzas are open to everyone, always. It’s accessible a lot only by foot and so this makes it hard to create VIP experiences as opposed to public experiences. Rome is unequivocal, it can’t be cordoned off because Brangelina are visiting. Movie stars, models, zillionaires, dictators, mafia bosses, Prime Ministers mingle with the unknown, every-day tourist, back packer and refugee.

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Every year on my birthday (since I stopped being a backpacker and could afford to eat properly), I used to choose one of the fancy restaurants advertised in tourist magazines as being ‘the best restaurants’ to eat in.  The kind where you spend your weekly and sometimes monthly wage on dinner.  Year after year, hoping for an amazing experience, I was disappointed.  The food was always average, the service pompous (one year my husband and I had to sit near the toilets because he wasn’t wearing a tie – just a suit) and we mostly ended up stopping on the way home at one of our usuals to calm ourselves down with a real bowl of pasta and some local wine.  My point being that in Rome the best restaurants are always frequented by average Romans, even the very wealthy ones.

So when in Rome don’t spend your money on rooftop breakfasts in hotels or dinning in the Vatican museum with 250 0f your closest friends or in a fake Roman spa being pampered by Eastern Europeans or on ‘private’ tours (where in the end you will have to queue up and approach things on foot with everyone else anyway).  Here’s my tip for a fabulous Roman Day out and, apart from the inexpensive meals, it is all FREE!!!

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Begin at the nearest bar (cafe) to your hotel.  There should be one within 100 metres.  Order a cappuccino or a ‘cafe’ and a cornetto, possibly with an orange juice if you want to be healthy.  You will find the coffee is the best you have ever had, the cornetto (Italian croissant) will be light, and made that morning, the juice will be juiced in front of you and you will pay about the same amount altogether as the cost of one cup of coffee on a rooftop.

Then take your free map (get them at the airport, McDonalds or from your hotel).  Hopefully you have done some slight research (free on the internet) or have a cheap guide book.  Otherwise scroll through this blog to get to the ‘Top ten things to do in Rome‘, ‘Top ten places to eat in Rome’ etc. articles. If you are staying anywhere in the city of Rome (centro) everything will be in walking distance with plenty of opportunities to sit down, grab more coffee or juice, fill up your water bottle free at a fountain or just rest.  Start at one end of town and make your way down and then left and right as you please.  Take one to five days depending on your itinerary and energy levels and repeat in the evenings for a different view.  You can start anywhere but I have you starting at Piazza del Popolo.

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Marvel at the huge space in such a crowded city, cast your eyes up to the lush green gardens of the Villa Borghese on one side, and put it aside for another day.  Feast your eyes on the fountain in the centre of the Piazza, the churches all around it (one of which contains a Caravaggio) and the Egyptian obelisk (stolen by the Romans from Egypt).  Walk out of the Piazza and down the Via del Babuino and admire the antique shops (stop at Hotel de Russie if you want a spa – next blog).  Be entranced by your next view at the end of Via del Babuino which will be Piazza di Spagna.  Sit awhile on the staircase and admire the beautiful people and the view of Via dei Condotti, Rome‘s premium shopping strip.  Don’t forget to look in the window at Dolce & Gabbana half way down the Via Condotti, one of the best visual feasts outside a museum that you will see.

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At the end of Via Condotti you will arrive at the Via del Corso. Turn left and head towards the ‘wedding cake’ Victor Emmanuel Monument at the end of the street.  Admire the palaces and beautiful baroque buildings that line either side of this main street of Rome.  Shortly after you pass the houses of Parliament on your right, turn down a pedestrian side street on your left full of market stalls.  Follow it on to the end.  Gasp.  Get pushed in the back by other tourists behind you who don’t know why you have stopped.  Yes folks this is the Trevi Fountain, at the cross roads of three streets or ‘tre vie’.  All the more beautiful because it is contained in such a small space, wangle your way to the front and admire it sitting down for as long as you can.

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Walk back the way you came and cross back over Via del Corso to another pedestrian street full of restaurants.  Meander along the path following everyone else until you get to the Pantheon, another breathtaking moment but within a larger piazza.  Sit on the steps of the fountain in the piazza and take it all in before you head inside (for free) and view the perfectly round, 2000 year old temple, with a hole cut out in the middle of the roof that lets the sun in to highlight different sculptures around the room as the sun moves overhead.  How’s that for antique engineering??  Using your map move your way left (with the Pantheon to your back) towards Piazza Navona.

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Now at this stage if you really have had enough of Roman culture and need to recover, you could eat at the McDonalds which faces the Pantheon (and serves beer), therefore having a drink/burger with one of the world’s best views at about 100th of the cost of sitting at any of the other cafes that also surround the Pantheon.  I am only recommending this on the grounds of it being cheap and acknowledging that sometimes people need a break from antiquity (based on the experience of some of guests over the years).  Otherwise I would suggest pushing on and eating a slice of pizza, also for the same price as a burger, at one of the places around Campo dei Fiori, a bit further along in our walk.

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As you spill out into Piazza Navona and take a stroll around its race track type shape (yes it was originally a chariot racing track), admire the artists who display their wares and the magnificent fountain of four rivers in the middle.  At one end (on the other side of the toy shop) you can see the original entrance to the race track in Roman times, below street level.  Exit the piazza at the other end and cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele into cobblestoned streets that sell great pizza by the slice, and where you can sit down and eat for around the same price as McDonalds.  Take the opportunity here to have an ice-cream in the same area.  Campo dei Fiori will open up in front of you.  Stroll around the square, take in the history of this being the last place that the Vatican burnt someone at the stake for daring to state that possibly the earth rotated around the sun rather than the other way around……

If you follow most of the traffic going out of the piazza in the opposite direction from where you came in, you will eventually hit a street going off to your right which becomes a foot bridge over the river.  If you follow it you will find yourself in Trastevere, the oldest neighbourhood of post medieval Rome and home to its vibrant restaurant and nightlife.  Have an aperitivo, at any of the little bars (cafes) that line its tiny cobbled streets, standing up of course which will cost you a fraction of what it costs to sit down, enjoy the free bar snacks and choose your inexpensive restaurant to eat at for dinner!

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After dinner take a stroll along the river, meander throughout the Trastevere neighbourhood or go back the way you came for a completely different view of Rome.  We haven’t even touched the free St. Peters or Roman Forum or the many parks and gardens that are just waiting to be explored!  During your walk, or the next day, lose yourself in any one of the streets off this main beat. Sit and watch the local Roman traffic go by from a street cafe. Admire the marble columns, statues and painted plaques that adorn most buildings. Freely feast on the art inside most churches, and regularly look up to enjoy the free natural beauty of the skyline with its domes, starlings and magnificent sun sets. Now that’s something for free that’s worth paying for!

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The Italian Pantry: How to Italianise a corner of your kitchen

Happy New Year to everyone!!

As I am now on my Christmas holidays I am borrowing from another fantastic blog from Italy Magazine for this month.  Happy holidays and Christmas season to all.  Will be back blogging soon!

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After spending a year in Italy studying its cuisine, in 1954 Elizabeth David wrote what is still considered one of the most comprehensive, if not the first English book about Italian cookery. This seminal work is called simply, “Italian Food”. The book has been reprinted over the years and still sells many copies in the United Kingdom – a testament to the great research and writing of the author.

If you are a fan of Italian food and enjoy preparing it at home, Elizabeth David stresses the importance of keeping an Italian larder – or pantry, for our American friends! Another bastion of Italian cooking is the talented Antonio Carluccio, who himself in his book, “Simple Cooking”, said, ‘In your larder keep a little of everything you think you will need for making the dishes you like to cook and eat.’

Italian Larder

So let’s take a look at what is required for the essential Italian larder:

Pasta

Keep at least three types of pasta in your store cupboard, a ridged one like penne or rigatoni for thick and meat based sauces, a thin ribbon such as linguini for thinner and seafood sauces, and a small one such as stelline or corallini for adding to soups and broths.

Rice and Grains

Let’s not forget that even rice is part of the Italian culinary traditon from North to South. Buy some Carnaroli rice for the perfect risotto or Sicilian arancini or farro for a traditional Tuscan winter soup.

Extravirgin Olive Oil

It goes without saying that every Italian pantry has olive oil …and yes it must be extra virgin Olive oil!

 

Herbs and Spices

The Italian pantry would be almost empty without this important section and, although keeping fresh herbs all year round such as basil can be tricky, there’s no reason why you can’t grow your own and store the leaves in the freezer, as freshly frozen basil is superior to dried; however, do find space for a jar of dried oregano. Rosemary and sage can be harvested all year round, so consider a plant in the garden border or on the patio in a pot. Capers and chillies, fresh or dried, along with salt and black pepper complete the herbs and spice section.

Onions and Garlic

They are the mainstay of many Italian dishes and onions, whether white, yellow or red, are the unwavering base of most sauces. Garlic peeled and chopped or rubbed over toasted bread has that incomparable taste that conjures up memories of a rustic Italian osteria.

Beans – Tomatoes – Tuna – Anchovies 

A can of chopped tomatoes makes a simple pasta sauce in a hurry if you add a few herbs and some chopped pancetta; a can of either cannellini or borlotti beans are great for adding to soups and salads. Tuna and anchovies in olive oil are great in pasta sauces or salads.

 

 

Breadcrumbs

They are used in many Italian dishes for making cozze ripiene (stuffed mussels) or for coating a hammered veal cutlet or chicken breast. Instead of buying them, why not make your own in the food processor!

Wine Vinegar

Vinegar is handy for adding piquancy to sauces and to store vegetable antipasti.

Luxury items like balsamic vinegar and truffles are also a great addition to the perfect Italian pantry, however, if your budget won’t stretch to dried porcini mushrooms, a pre-packed mix with field mushrooms is perfectly acceptable.

There is one item of the Italian larder that you should make a considered purchase: Parmesan cheese. Always buy the best quality that you can afford; I prefer one that’s aged for at least two years, it will keep for months in the fridge and is well worth the investment.

Once you have Italianised a small corner of the kitchen, you’ll be ready to start cooking great dishes, just like Nonna.

– See more at: http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/italian-pantry-how-italianise-corner-your-kitchen?utm_source=ITALY+Magazine+Newsletter&utm_campaign=d36ce3753d-ITALY+Newsletter+-+December+5th+2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_7e828ebed3-d36ce3753d-402225#sthash.xQtaz8oI.dpuf

Remembering Franchy

A few months ago I wrote about my father in law, Antonio, in a blog entitled Antonio and Francesca – A love story, which mostly focussed on Antonio (Pa).  I promised to write the other half of story.  For those of you who can’t be bothered looking at that blog, a quick synopsis.  Franchy (Francesca) met Pa (Antonio) when she was 13 and he was 17.  They both lived in Taranto, a small town at the very bottom of Italy.  In the 1930’s both families struggled to meet both food and rent expenses on a monthly basis, and sometimes sacrificed one for the other.  Shortly after Franchy and Pa met and started ‘seeing each other’ clandestinely, war broke out and Pa, who was doing his national service, was sent off to fight.   He returned to Franchy several years later by walking home from Trieste to Taranto, a distance of tens of thousands of kilometres, and literally from one end of Italy to the other.  It took him a month, and happened as aresult of the Italian army surrendering to the Allies.   Pa was 19 when he returned to Taranto.

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Francy and Pa were married for 67 years.  They died within two months of each other.  Franchy had a stroke and was taken to hospital.  Pa thought she was never returning and died before she returned home.  His severe dementia meant he couldn’t understand where she was or the concept of time.  He just thought she was gone and wanted to go to.  Francy returned to an empty house and lived on for another two months before a second stroke killed her.  They brought up two children, one of whom is my husband, surrogate parented another two when their best friend lost his life early, and were grandparents to three others (besides their own) who lived across the hall from them.

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Today I wanted to remember Francy.  In acknowledgement of Mother’s Day I thought i would remember her from that perspective.

My first glimpse of what kind of mother Franchy was, and therefore how she had mothered my husband, came one Saturday morning when we had driven to Taranto for the weekend as we did regularly.  We were sleeping in the lounge room (family room) on a sofa bed.  The lounge room had a large balcony from which a basket on a rope would be lowered to the street to pull up groceries or deliveries.  Their apartment was on the fifth floor and there was no lift.  It was a ten flight set of stairs to walk up.  Francy and Pa were in their 70’s when I met them and did the stairs twice a day every day.  I could barely make it up once on a Friday night when I arrived and I often avoided doing it again until Sunday afternoon when we left.  The height of humiliation was that Franchy would often come and meet me half way and carry my suitcase for me up the rest of the flights as i struggled huffing and puffing behind her.

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Most of Franchy and Pa’s friends and relatives were in their age bracket if not older, so in order to avoid the stairs, if they were dropping something off, they usually just used the basket on a rope lowered over the balcony.  It was Saturday morning early and as usual the doorbell and telephone had been going since around 7.00am.   It always seemed to me that the elderly population of Taranto had nothing bettter to do than get up early and start visiting and calling each other.  The telephone extension was in our room, the doorbell very loud, and both parents a little deaf, so I had been woken up time and time again with “yes they are here and sleeping right now’, if only.

A timid knock on the double glass doors leading into our room and a stage whispered “Alfredo”. “Si, Ma”, my husbands response.  There followed a whispered conversation in dialect, in apologetic tones from Franchy.  Her uncle, in his nineties was at the entrance of the apartment block below.  He had made her some tomato pasta sauce and was dropping it off.  Would we mind if she came into our room and out onto the balcony and lowered the basket down so he could put in this precious sauce that he had lovingly hand made for her?  Alfredo said he would go out onto the balcony and lower the basket down and bring up the bottle of pasta sauce.  Franchy stayed timidly at the bedroom door.  I was still half heartedly pretending to be resting.

The basket was lowered, the bottle brought up inch by inch in the basket, over the balcony and the basket placed on the floor.  Alfredo picked up the bottle from the basket.  As he did so, his huge hands did not grip the bottle as closely as it required.  He fumbled, he stumbled, he reached out and up in a desperate attempt to keep the glass in his hands and like a juggler pretending to drop something, it slow motioned out of his hands and crashed onto the marble tiled floor, spreading tomatoe sauce and glass like an egg blown out of its shell.

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I was horrified.  He had ruined the gift so lovingly made and presented, by his clumsiness.  I was caught short by the sound of Franchy’s strangled laughter.  I looked over to see her bent double trying to contain herself.  And across at Alfredo with tomatoe sauce all over his hands and a distraught look in his eye.  At that moment I understood Franchy’s mothering and how Alfredo had turned out so marvellously as a human being and a husband.  Instead of punishment there was love, instead of retribution there was laughter, instead of anger there was lightness and mirth.  At that moment  I understood that Franchy’s playfulness, her ability to look on the bright side of life, her patience, her fortitude, her choice to live life through her heart and not her head was not a recent thing but were her hallmarks and how she had raised Alfredo.  And why he in turn was patient, playful, never took things too seriously, had an inate belief in himself, and lived life with through his heart as well as his head.

I was so jealous that my husband had had a mother like that and I glimpsed what made them a happy, healthy, and functional family.  And I wanted my share.  From that moment on I made sure I had as much of Franchy as she would give.  And she met my need head on and never once wavered.  After my miscarriages I put myself on a train all day to reach Taranto and spent a week with her without my husband present.  Silently sitting with her in the kitchen, watching TV, eating and resting for a week.  It helped heal my soul.

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Once when I tried to take a plate to the sink after lunch she almost arm wrestled me to the ground to get me to let go of it.  She told me that her name wasn’t ‘thank you’ so I should stop saying it every time she did something for me.   One day I let rip about how much i loved her vegetable soup, brodo, she made it for me every single time I visited even though my husband hated it.  He occasionally joked that his parents asked after me more than they asked after him.  It didn’t seem right to share that I had partly married him so I could get them as well.

Franchy didn’t ever read books, she barely spoke Italian preferring to stay in her dialect.  She had not attended high school and thought that going to the Post Office was the height of complicated, post industrial living.  She had never been into a bank.  Her sister came every week to set her still black hair.  When she was hot in the middle of searing Taranto summers she would strip down to a black negligee which she always wore underneath her dresses and apologise to everyone for her appearance but she was too hot to wear anything else.

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She spent most of her days at the local market buying the food for the two meals of the day and then cooking it.  She always asked us what we would like to eat on the weekends we were coming down and she would spend days preparing it.  The food was always very simple pasta and meat dishes but were unlike anything i have every tasted anywhere else.  So flavoursome and I always ate double what i normally would.  At first I would try and explain that i really could only eat one or maybe two courses and to please not cook anything more.  To which she would solemnly agree.  Then after the first two courses she would shyly explain that she had just made a really small something else and would i mind eating it?  She would usually do this at least twice per meal until I just gave up directing her and accepted my fate to eat lovingly home cooked food until i could eat no more.

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I realised that this was the real way i could say thank you to Franchy.  She had almost no way of relating to me in the world i lived in of university degrees and world travel, of global organisations and several languages, of independant living and international friends but she could make sure that i was extremely well fed and that i didn’t have to spend any of my time on providing for myself in that way.  And she did a marvellous job.

And because of her example of and sharing with me of her patience, her fortitude, her playfulness, her living through her heart and not her head I often feel stronger, patient, positive, playful and have the courage to listen to my heart more than I would have had without her.  It is hard to live without her at times but it would have been harder if I had never had the opportunity.  Vale Francesca, Vale.  xxxx

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Top 10 things to eat in Rome!

As promised nos. 6 – 10 plus another one for dessert!  For context please read the intro to my last blog as this sets the scene for the precious food tips I am about to give.  All of these dishes can be found on the menus of the ‘Top 10 restarurants in Rome’ blog dated March, 2012.

6.  Saltimbocca alla Romana.  Veal done Roman style (literally means – jump in your mouth style).  There is a theme here……each of these dishes are called ‘alla Romana’ because of the fact that the dishes originated in Rome and are mostly not found outside of Rome.  Another reason to eat regionally and where ever you are, if you see something on the menu that ends in ‘alla the name of the place you are in’ then order it!

Saltimbocca alla Romana are thin, soft slices of veal sauteed lightly in olive oil and flavoured with proscuitto and sage leaves.  Any veal in Rome is divine and no matter how many times other countries’ butchers and restaurantuers tell me they have thinly sliced, soft veal, I’ve never tasted anything remotely like it outside of Italy.  The salty prosciutto and the strong pungent flavour of the sage work perfectly to bring out the subtle taste of the veal.  Highly recommened.

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7. Pollo all Romana.  Baked chicken Roman style.  This is a simple and humble dish and very traditional.  The flavours are amazing, subtle and sweet.  It is basically cuts of chicken (not breast) that have stewed most of the day with a variety of peppers (capsicums) of all colours, some wine, garlic, herbs and tomatoes and produces tender, fall off the bone meat surrounded in delicately flavoured juices that require Italian bread to soak them up.  If you like chicken or need some protein it is highly recommended.

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8. Fegato alla Romana.  Liver Roman style.  OK I admit I am a liver lover, even the shoe-leather type liver I grew up eating, so this liver dish is a real treat and I have often converted non-liver lovers to it.  The liver is very thin and delicate, and is fried using a bushel of white onions and olive oil so that it tastes almost sweet.  It is like eating a deconstructed pate.  Romans have been cooking offal for centuries and they have it down pat!

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9. Carciofe alla Romana.  Artichokes Roman style.  Vegetables are served as separate dishes in Italy and are not included as part of the main dish. They are worthwhile ordering just on their own though, perfect as a simple starter or instead of the main dish.  Carciofe alla Romana are artichokes cooked in Roman mint and garlic.  Roman mint can be found in any park or nature strip in Rome.  Just walking on a park or naturestrip disturbs the scent and you can then identify it.  It is different to other strains of mint and tastes a little sweeter and subtle than other varieties.  I am just intrigued by the fact i can have a local vegetable cooked in a local herb.  It is cooked by boiling it with the ingredients mentioned before and comes to the plate hot, soft and wet and flavoured with the squeeze of a lemon and some olive oil.  They are fantastic with a basket of bread as a light lunch with a cool glass of local Frascati white wine – yum!

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10. Puntarelle.  Little points (aka translation is useless just trust me).  This vegetable dish contains a riot of small green things that look and taste a little like celery, but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

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11. Torta della  Nonna.  Nana’s/Grandma’s cake.  This is essentially a custard tart topped with pine nuts and is found in every cafe and restaurant in Rome.  It is light and delicately flavoured with just a hint of lemon.  The pine nuts give it a crunchy texture and add taste.  If you really want to understand and appreciate the flavour of the pine nut I highly recommend the pinoli gelato, pine nut gelato, also found prolifically in Rome.

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I have now made myself so unbelievably hungry it is time to go!  Next week more about Francesca and less about food as we all give ourselves time to digest!

I will throw out a challenge though.  How many of you can make all of these dishes before my next blog?  Reports and photos required.  All recipes are found easily, and in English, by googling the names of them.  Buon appetito a tutti i miei amici.

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