The Original Confetti

The English word confetti comes from the Italian word for an almond confectionary. This candy is from the town of Sulmona in Abruzzo, with a tradition stretching back more than three hundred years.

Paper confetti is called “coriandoli” in Italian. And just to be even more confusing the Italian for cilantro is “coriandolo” so a single confetti. In the renaissance, the confetti used for celebrations was coriander seeds in small pieces of paper used as a breath freshener. The almonds coated in sugar were also part of the celebration. At some point these all got mixed up.

The town of Sulmona is a pretty mountain town. But the main reason to visit is to buy almond confectionary (the confetti) and saffron.

The Best Pistachio Gelato in the World

Italians love pistachio gelato. The real deal is not neon green nor “flavor” — it’s actually pistachio nuts that have been ground and then mixed with the milk to make gelato. Having read about Crispini’s world champion gelato, we had to go.

In the Umbrian town of Spoleto, Crispini’s proudly display and sell their 2017 World Champion Pistachio Gelato.

We went. But, as neither my gelato-loving friend nor I like pistachio flavor, neither of us got it!

As we were eating our gelato outside, I said that as we had come all this way, we needed to try it. It was absolutely worthy of the accolades. The pistachio gelato tasted like fresh pistachio nut juice. If you can imagine what that would be like.

So if you are a fan of pistachio gelato, make Spoleto a destination on your next trip to Umbria. An added bonus is that Spoleto is a typical cute Umbrian town with a cute old part. They have elevators from the parking area which is practical.

I Dream of This Ice Cream – Was It That Good?

The style is retro.

Recently, some friends and I were discussing ice cream and gelato, again. One of my friends reminded me of that place in Denmark that we had visited… I was sure that I must have blogged about this place… But, somehow I had not. So now I will.

The ice cream place that is still on my mind is called Ismajeriet, and it now has two locations in Denmark.

One day, several years ago, when visiting Copenhagen, we were at a lunch party. After eating smoerrebroed (open faced sandwiches), a cooler tub was taken out of the freezer, and inside were four flavors of ice cream from Ismajeriet. It was so delicious that we had to visit the actual shop. My friend and I grabbed bicycles and off we went, in search of ice cream. This was a few years ago when the shop was located out among the summer houses of Amager, the island south of Copenhagen. The Ismajeriet (translates to “the ice cream dairy”) has a large selection, including sorbets. The style of the shop was in a retro design (a bit like an ice cream parlor of old) but the ice cream was fresh! I was delighted to see that they had many flavors, including licorice (I understand that licorice is an acquired taste but I acquired it a long time ago). The shop also has sorbets.

Licorice and mint flavor.

Why is this in my dreams? Because it was so creamy. The ice cream has a high fat content so it is creamy, really ice cream. Cream is the fat part of milk and fat on the tongue adds a creamy texture when it melts. In contrast, most gelato is made with milk. Gelato’s creaminess is derived from how it is made. Some gelato is actually ice cream (which must have a fat percentage of more than 3.5 percent). There are gelato shops where they will advertise that their plain flavor is “fiore di panna” (panna = cream) and not the usual “fiore di latte” which is the “milk flower.” Basically, calling something the “cream flower” is like saying that it is the “cream of the crock” — the best.

In Denmark, gelato is quite popular now, but the Danish style ice cream lives on in places like Ismajeriet. In Italy, one can add whipped cream on top of one’s gelato (most places will do it for free and it should be unsweetened freshly whipped cream). In Denmark, that is the norm. Another thing is that the Danes like to add a “floedebolle” on top. This “cream ball” is a meringue topped wafer covered in chocolate (the one in the photo has coconut flakes on it) that can be eaten on its own, or used as the cherry on top of the ice cream cone.

One thing that the Danes and Italians share in relation to their ice cream/gelato is that any time of the year and day is a good time to eat it. In Italy, gelato shops are some of the food shops that are open almost all day long, some open as early as 8 am and close after midnight.

As for Ismajeriet, I will be back some day to see if it is as good as in my dreams.

10 Traditional Roman Foods to Try

Traditional classic Roman dishes are heavily “nose to tail” or “quinto quarto” as this city is proud of eating ALL of the animal, and all plants. Some of these traditional dishes are coda alla vaccinaria (beef tail), trippa (tripe), and pajata. Romans also eat an immense amount of seafood, much of it raw. In terms of classic dishes not mentioned earlier, here is my list of Roman dishes to try. I have listed the dishes sort of in order of what time of the day you might try them, not in order of preference. I’ll mention what I think of them in the description.

Maritozzo: Is a cream filled brioche bun. Usually eaten for breakfast or as a snack. This is delicious but quite ridiculous.

Suppli: Is the deep fried rice or pasta croquette incredible popular with Romans. Available everywhere and usually sold at pizzerias (which is weird because there is nothing deep fried at a pizza place except for this…) and eaten as a snack or appetizer. “Suppli” is the word for telephone cord because the melted cheese looks like an old fashioned telephone cord. I don’t really like this but it is super famous.

Fiore di zucca: Stuffed zucchini flowers almost always filled with mozzarella and salted anchovy. Some places will make it without the anchovy if you ask, but that would not be authentic. The anchovy adds a touch of salt and umami. Most places make this dish and it looks like a UFO, unidentified fried object. I prefer it at places where they use light batter or breadcrumbs. I also prefer it without the anchovy because I like the delicate flavor of the zucchini flower.

Taglio pizza: Is square focaccia type pizza sold by weight. There are so many kinds of pizza I recommend going to a chain like Alice (ah-lee-cheh) and ask for small pieces so that you can try different flavors (This is also a good thing to order for a party). Romans eat pizza for breakfast (my preferred Roman breakfast), lunch, and party snack. Usually the pizza had for dinner is not “al taglio” but Roman style. A Roman style pizza is ONE round pizza per person. No sharing. You eat with a knife and fork. Beer is usually the thing to drink with pizza in the evening. Pizza is not something you would cook at home because you need a pizza oven. The taglio pizzas are baked in industrial electric ovens but a dinner pizza (The Romans consider it a social thing done from 9 pm to midnight) is usually baked in a wood fired oven (forno a legna).

Porchetta: Is from a town near Rome (but then everyone likes to claim that they invented gelato, so don’t let that stop you), but is much beloved here. It is a deboned pig rolled up with crackling/pork rind on the outside and inside it is flavored with rosemary and other herbs. Usually served sliced as a sandwich component.

Pasta carbonara, cacio e pepe, gricia, and amatriciana: These are the four most common pasta sauces in Rome. Carbonara is made with guanciale (pork jowl bacon) and egg yolk. Usually with spaghetti or short pasta. Almost never with fresh pasta. Cacio e pepe (caw-chee-oh-eh-peh-peh) is pecorino cheese and black pepper. People make a big deal that this is a creamy sauce without any cream. Pecorino is sheep’s milk cheese common to this part of Italy. It is much in texture like Parmesan. Cacio e pepe (cacio is related to the Latin word for cheese. Formaggio is the modern Italian word for cheese). Gricia (Gree-chaw)is the same sauce as carbonara but without the egg. Amatriciana (Ah-mah-trey-chee-ah-na) is named after a town called Amatrice. It is a sauce with tomatoes, guanciale, and pecorino. I prefer the carbonara, but generally I prefer pasta with clams or meat sauce.

Pasta is eaten as a meal on its own or as a first course. In general, most Romans do not eat three or four course meals on a daily basis. If they eat pasta for lunch, then they probably won’t eat it for dinner. Also, the portions in Rome are not as huge as in the USA. Italians generally consider certain sauces appropriate for certain shapes of pasta. Most of the Roman sauces I have mentioned work on both long and short pasta. Almost always on dried pasta, which gives a better tooth and mouth feel.

Gnocchi alla romana: Roman gnocchi are larger dumplings that are sliced and served “au gratin” hot from the oven. Thursday is the day to eat gnocchi because traditionally, as Catholics, Friday would be a day of fasting or lights meals, like fish. Gnocchi are usually on the pasta menu because it is a type of pasta made of potato and flour.

Puntarelle: Is the classic Roman salad. It is made with the white stalk of the chicory leaf which are trimmed, put through a metal tool to split, left in cold water to “open up,” and then served with anchovy dressing. I prefer this without anchovies, because then it’s a crunchy fresh tasting salad.

Cicoria: Is usually sautéed chicory. It is always in season, on every menu, and always the vegetable of the day. It’s bitter.

Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style artichoke) and Roman style artichoke: The Jewish style is deep fried until the artichoke looks like a flower. The Roman style is steamed and dressed with olive oil. I do not like the deep fried ones because the artichoke flavor is gone. I adore steamed artichokes, but I usually just steam them in my microwave. Italians also eat the stalk of the artichoke so when you buy them, they will sell them with the stalk attached.

Guanciale di manzo: Is beef cheek. This is always served slow roasted. The Romans are famous for eating the “off” cuts.

These were the dishes that are typically Roman and perhaps less “scary” to try. Plus, gelato. Always gelato and tiramisu. If you are given a choice of dessert, I would always choose the tiramisu. Otherwise, have a coffee and go get a gelato. Gelato shops are open all day, usually from morning (when they may serve pastries) to midnight or later. While restaurants almost always close from 3 pm to 7:30 pm, a gelateria will always be open.

Elegant Wine Tasting in Torre in Pietra

This place has atmosphere.

This wine tour is now on my “M’s Adventures Tour” of Rome. The wine tasting at Cantina Castello di Torre in Pietra is a “must” (so punny, sorry, not sorry) on the tour.

It was cleaning day when we were there.

So why another wine tasting? Didn’t I just write about another? Yes, read about it here. The background to all this wine tasting is this. I had a visit from a friend who is a wine enthusiast/expert who came to Italy for a round birthday. I had this wild plan to go on a wine tasting for every decade of his life. He told me that we didn’t have to go that wild, and that surely we would drink wine every day. We almost did. But, we only did two official wine tastings. Which keeps more in line with his celebration, once again, of his “21st birthday.”

Outdoor grill for warmer weather.

Torre in Pietra has an elephant as its logo because prehistoric elephant bones were discovered here when the castle owners expanded the tuff caves in the 1500s.

The reason for the elephant theme.

The vineyard is located north of the international airport (layover? go for a lunch) and cost 35 euro by uber from inner Rome. It is off in the countryside so a bit hard to find.

Castle tower.

The location is also used as wedding destination and includes a chapel just for that reason. Castle, wine, chapel, it’s got it all.

The four wines that we had.

One can go just for lunch but for 40 euro, we had lunch and a wine tasting. All four wines were from their own vineyard. One was bubbly, one was white and two were red. I think. Christian, the manager, presented them and poured while he explained about them. I don’t recall too much about the wines because I’m not a wine nerd. The vineyard is located near the coast so the grapes benefit from the salinity of the air and soil.

Appetizers of meats, bean puree, tomato, porchetta, and plain with olive oil.

After tasting all four wines, Christian said that he would take the white away to the fridge to keep cool. When my friend asked if we keep one of the wines on the table to have with our lunch, Christian responded, “they are not for looking.” We did not manage to finish four bottles of wine as there were only two of us.

The main dining room.

The lunch was the massive appetizer board, carbonara, and tiramisu. The appetizer board included house made porchetta, allowing one’s guests to try that specialty as well.

Cement aging containers. Unusual. Ask about it.

The really good thing was that we started with the meal and the wine tasting before going on a tour of the aging room. This tour does not include walking in the vineyard (no touching grapes) but it does include the bottling area, the aging cellars, and the lunch. The day that we went, it was a drizzly cold wet day, but as we were inside the dining room, we were cocooned in our wine drinking hug.

Christian, the manager (has a degree in agriculture and wine), is half Danish and half Italian, making him this combination of efficient and warm. When you communicate with him before, he is not overly responsive but once you get there, he is immensely warm and friendly.

Christian speaks, Italian, Danish, English, French…

After the lunch and the tour, we bought wine and olive oil. We had house olive oil during lunch and immediately asked about it because the aroma was so heady.

IGT is a lower ranking than DOC but on the way.

Winery hours:

Monday to Saturday 8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. Sunday from 09:00 to 16:00

Osteria hours:

Lunch every day, no Wednesday. Dinner on Friday and Saturday.

To book:

Telephone: +39.06.61.69.70.70

Email: info@osteriaelefante.it

Antique corker.

As mentioned, the place is also a regular restaurant, Osteria dell’Elefante, so they have a full menu. As I said, this is now on my “must” list so I look forward to going back.

Cork tree on site.

As you wait for your ride (we took a taxi back for 55 euro), we enjoyed the company of the pet donkey, Arturo, the burro.

Picturesque door.

Wine Tours Rome – in the Countryside of Rome

Wonderful wine tasting tour and experience! Sally and Guido and lovely hosts and easy going. They make you feel like friends that they are showing around their magical valley of demi-umbria (the area was part of Umbria at one point). Just 40 minutes by local train outside of the mega-metropolis of Rome, is this secret otherworld of vineyards and olive trees. Book for Sally and Guido for a countryside experience to see how sweet life can be.

Guido speaks excellent English and is engaging to talk to.

Sally and Guido pick you up from the local station and drive you around the countryside, max eight people or maybe ten? One can, of course, drive oneself, but then the designated driver would be… that just wouldn’t be fair! So, get picked up at 10 am at the station, taken for a fun jaunt from vista to vista on the way to a vineyard.

The view from their home.

At the vineyard, you go on a tour of processing, bottling, and aging cellars, before tasting three wines. Guido speaks excellent English and will translate and explain everything. The wine maker, presents all three wines but then leaves you to enjoy while Sally fills up your glasses (no small sip here! If you want/need a full glass to evaluate the wine, you get it!). There is a bit of bread and local olive oil to line your stomach, and so that the wine doesn’t go strait to your head. Then, you have an opportunity to buy the wine, and not just the types that you tried. The wines are very different and some are made from local grapes that you will never have heard of… Even wine nerds will discover new things.

Wine being made…

The wine is well priced at eight to 10 euro per bottle. For DOC! It’s kind of ridiculous how inexpensive it is to buy really good wine. The vineyard does ship (although not to the US yet) but it’s better to take it there and schelp it with you. You will thank yourself later. I bought four bottles of the yellow label wine because it was so zesty and fruity.  A lovely white.

Then, another jaunt through a magical Tuscan/Umbrian/Roman landscape and you arrive at their home for two more wines and delicious local dairy and sausage. Oh, and bread. Yum. Yum. Yum.

As a bonus, we got locally made chocolate.

To contact them, go to Wine Tours Rome or email them at info@winetoursrome.com. Sally and Guido also conduct cooking classes through their company, Convivio, and they have a B&B where you can stay while taking classes. The cost of the half day wine tasting is 79 euro (discount for groups so we paid 75). They also do tours in the countryside and olive oil tasting. Because they have these two companies, it can be a little confusing to find them on Google or TripAdvisor. I will be going again because I want to see the little villages and visit the linen workshop in demi-Umbria, the secret valley of Lazio.

The creamy cheese on the right is called Robiola. It was like butter and ricotta combined.

PS. Yes, Sally and Guido know Johnny Madge and their tours are in the same magical valley.

Top 10 Local Markets in Rome

In Rome, people still shop at their local market. Every “rione” (“REE-own-eh”) has a local market (Some rione can be as small as 20 streets by 20 streets). A local market is the kind of place where you will see older ladies in their house dresses pulling their shopping carts. You will never see a lady in a housedress in a grocery store. For some reason, for a certain generation, shopping at a grocery store requires putting on more formal clothing (Another great thing about Italy is that there are so many people in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond). A local market will be mostly fresh produce and products with some of the other amenities available out of convenience. Clothing stalls seem to be a big thing that crops up at these markets. Most markets will also have bakeries and places for a quick bite.

In Trionfale. Bring your own bottle and pay for the wine.

Here is my list of top ten markets and why. At the bottom is the market where I like to shop.

The main entrance of Trionfale is the light at the end of the photo.

Mercato Trionfale (“Tree-ohn-FALL-eh”), Via Andrea Doria 3 (you can read about here): This is the biggest and oldest of the neighborhood markets, completely covered, with parking underneath. There are rows upon rows of metal box stands. It’s not the most attractive place inside. Some of the nice things about this market are that there is a stall where you can bring your own bottle to fill with wine, there are zero kilometer produce vendors at the back of the market (useful to know in August when the farmers markets shut for August vacation), and there are international produce vendors at the front of the market (one or two). Trionfale is open every morning, except Sundays. The market hours are 7 am – 2 pm, but if you arrive after 1 pm, many of the stalls will be closing for lunch (But, a warning, the vendors will be hangry). Also, many of the vendors will give you samples and some even speak English (not the samples). At the entrance to the market, there is a stall that usually has porchetta (“pork-et-ah”), the famous pork roast, out for you to buy.

At Trionfale, one can buy dried cod.
Esquilino is a whole different vibe.
Esquilino is very international.

Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, Via Principe Amedeo 184: This market is located near Termini train station. This area of town is the “Chinatown” or Banglatown or whatever one calls the international part of town. The market is much bigger than it appears with what appears to be markets within markets. There are stalls selling produce and groceries from Bangladesh, India, Senegal, China, Kenya, Philippines, Italy, and other parts of the world. They also sell halal food. I have even seen rambutan for sale here. There are also fresh fish stalls and the local coffee bar truly feels like another part of the world where this is a refuge for men (there are women in this one, by the way). The market, as well as the whole area, does not feel as clean as one might like but I guess that adds to the charm. It reminds me a bit of the markets of Bangladesh, which could all have been improved with a change of lightbulbs to something less neon and stark.

Esquilino has markets wihin markets.
Esquilino has a seafood area. Actually, I think it has two or three.
Mr. Main Uddin’s Food Stall.

Nuovo Mercato Testaccio, Via Benjamino Franklin: This market is quite different than all the others, also perhaps the cleanest of the markets, or at least feels so because of the good lighting. The roof allows in light and the stalls are painted white giving the market a new feel. It is also fairly new as it was relocated here in 2012. The old version of this market was the largest butchery in Europe. The unusual thing about this market is that it has many eateries making it like a food hall, a trend that has not really taken off in Rome. Due to the food stalls and the eating area in the middle, this place is popular with food tours and lunchers. Testaccio market also is the location of a recycle food program where the unsold food is given to the needy. This is the most “way trendy” of the places. Lots of food tours and publicity from international magazines and TV shows.

Testaccio market.

Mercato Rionale Coperto Nomentano, Piazza Alessandria: This market is inside an attractive building from the 1920s, with a high dome. This market has both produce, pizzerias, and some stalls with clothes outside. It is not huge but a good size for a local market. You can find almost anything you want in here. I think I bought a paring knife and a bowl. There are several bakery stalls in this market as well.

The clothing stalls outside Nomentano.

Mercato Italia, Via Catania 70: This is a large market in a part of town that is not touristy and not international. Also, it has a bakery run by two young guys who play rock music and make excellent lasagne. It was like visiting Rome as one might imagine it was. Zero tourists. I’ll be back.

One of the central areas of Mercato Italia. I saw the most house coats at this market.
One of the bakeries at Italia market.

Mercato di San Cosimato (Trastevere), Piazza San Cosimato: This market is slightly different from the others because it is outside in a square in Trastevere. There are some permanent box stalls but the majority of the stalls are fruit and vegetable stands that set up some tables and umbrellas every day.

Mercato di Campo de’ Fiore, Piazza Campo de’ Fiore: Surely the most romantic sounding of all the markets, located in a former field of flowers. This is the uber touristy local market. In the morning, the hold-out vegetable sellers are still there, slowly losing out to the ever dominant tourist tat and limoncello vendors, toasted nuts, and fresh-juice-at-five-euro-a-glass touters. This is an outdoor market in a square that was used for executions (people seem to ignore the statue of the hooded figure) because it was the only square without a church (which to me is the opposite reason as far as I can see). The location can’t be beat. Also, some of the vendors sell exotic items like lychee and round cucumbers from Apulia. In the evening, this square becomes a boozy open air bar, sticky with spilt drinks and hair product from the 80s.

Campo de’ Fiore.

Mercato Rionale Monti, Via Baccini 36: This is the smallest and oldest of the local markets, but it is also quite special. In the center, it has a reading area with shelves with books, a children’s area, and a few tables. The book selection is both in English and Italian. This market also has a pasta stall with a window where there is active pasta making in action. Although this market is basically a square, it even has a gift shop, a speciality Apulian stand, a fish vendor, a butcher, baker, two vegetable stands, a basic grocery stall, and a coffee machine that stands in for a coffee bar. This market is also open until the evening on Thursdays and Fridays, making it even more convenient for the locals.

Mercato Rionale Prati, Piazza dell’Unità 53/Via Cola di Rienzo: This is another 1920s building high to the ceiling and attractive. Another market that is not huge but big enough. It is a bit overgrown by the abutting buildings but you can find it if you try.

I think this is the inside of Italia but many of these markets look alike.

Città dell’Altra Economia, Via di Monte Testaccio (not far south from Testaccio Market): This market is part of a much larger event space. The market is in the large open space and comprises ten to 20 market stalls. If you live near here, then one could shop here. Especially if you like the outdoors farmers market atmosphere.

Outside at the City of the Alternate Economy.
All the food stalls are outside at the City of the Alternate Economy.

To read more about the markets of Rome, this site is a good place to start. There are many other local markets but you get the idea.

Every market sells cheese, vegetables, meat, flowers, oil, and anything else you can think of.

Now to the most famous farmers’ market, a zero kilometer market, where I like to shop.

Campagna Amica market. This market is way swish upmarket. The prices are normal but the clientele are quite fancy pants.

Campagna Amica (Coldiretti is the cooperative that runs these markets all over Italy) in Via San Teodoro 76, Sat & Sun, 8-3, sometimes called the Farmers Market at Circus Maximus because it is located nearby: This zero kilometer market is as local as you can get for Rome. Everything produced here, from milk, meat, artichokes, and oil, and all are from within 100 kilometers of Rome.

In the back courtyard, there are a couple of eateries, including a fried seafood food truck. If you follow me on Instagram, then you will have seen that I like to check out this market every few weeks to see what is in season. It is not my local market, but it is all about local food. This market attracts a lot of TV crews and special events.

The entrance to the market at San Teodoro. It’s on a one way street so it’s better to arrive at the corner and walk back.
San Teodoro market is housed in a former Jewish fish market.

As I go to more markets, I may update this article but this gives you a start if you wish to go to a local market. In general, it is better to go to the market at 9 am if you want to avoid the crowds. 11 am if you like the crowds. After 1 pm, forget it.

Parmesan, More Than A Cheese

These balls of cheese weigh more than 90 pounds.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is more than a cheese. No Italian refers to it as a cheese. They call it by its name.

Getting weighed and squeezed into shape.
Inside the metal girdle is a plastic cartouche with all the markings.

To be the real deal, it can only be produced in a few areas around Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna. You can read about the consortium that controls it here.

But, the other very similar cheese that you find around there is also good. It’s called Grano Padano and in a way, it’s better on pasta. Leave the real deal for eating on its own.

Brine bath.

Going on a parmesan factory tour is a study in alchemy. How milk (from two different milkings) can, with a few ingredients, and many turns of the wheel, be turned into something that plays a symphony on your tastebuds, is pure magic.

The professor demonstrates how to test the cheese.

We went on a tour at the Red Cow creamery in Reggio Emilia. Our guide was a wise professor. He had been making parmesan for more than 60 years, and he still got equally excited about it every day. The tour cost 5 euro per person and was conducted in Italian. At the end of the tour, the professor had us try different ages of Parmesan. Wowza.

It has lots of stamps of origin but it probably sounded wrong and so has been scarred to mark that it is not for export.

By the time we got to the factory (10ish), the parmesan was already at the “getting swung in clothe stage. We saw a lot of balls of white curds being transferred from one cloth to another and rocked back and forth by two guys. Then we saw where the girdle with the shape and writing is applied. Then the salt baths. Finally we were in the aging room.

So old that only presidents’ eat them. Next to it an “AB” one that will not be exported.

We saw parmesan so old and crystalized that only presidents get to eat them. We also saw parmesan wheels that had scoring around indicating that they were not perfect but still saleable. Then we saw those with “AA” stamped on them. These are the perfect ones that have been x-rayed. These are only ones that get exported.

Yes, we had to wear hairnets, shoe nets, and net robes to protect the parmesan.

These cheeses have 30 percent protein and no lactose.

In the old days, parmesan and other hard cheeses were the “meat” for many Italians.

Balsamico, A Sweet and Sour Dowry

Italians love food. It is an integral part of their family structure. This is evident in the story of balsamic vinegar. In Emilia Romagna, Italy, balsamic vinegar started out as a daughter’s dowry. No gold, no houses, just the sweet product of 25 years of nurturing. This is no longer the case, but in some families, the balsamic production continues. Some also make it when they have a son.

Traditionally, when a baby girl was born, her father would make a “mother” barrel of balsamic vinegar. There is sometimes a misconception that the grapes used to make balsamic are left over from making wine. Not so. The grapes are crushed into a “must” just like in wine making, but then, a mother yeast (like sourdough starter) is added to the mother barrel. From this mother barrel, a “battery” of progressively smaller barrels are filled.

Normally, one should wait till the daughter got married, or 25 years to started imbibing in the balsamic. If the woman got married before she turned 25, she could decide to leave the battery in her paternal home or take it to her new home. On the old battery frames, one can still see the name of the girl painted on the frame, as these are passed down through generations.

So you aren’t supposed to eat the balsamic before 25 years. But, this rarely happened. Also, the balsamic evaporates. To fill up the evaporated balsamic, the smallest barrel in the battery is filled from the next big one and so on. The largest of the battery barrels is then filled from the mother barrel. Which is itself filled with fresh grape must.

The ladder up to the first floor of La Vecchia Dispensa’s tower is almost vertical.

This is how one gets “100 year old” balsamic vinegar (where a percentage of the balsamic is from a barrel made 100 years ago). I tried it and it was too musty for me. The barrels used can be old whisky casks and the barrels can be made from many types of wood. The bunghole of the barrel is loosely covered with a stone and/or a lid with a doily. The acid from the balsamic eats away at the stones so it’s cool to see how strong those bacteria really are.

Now, to what it’s called. In Europe and Italy, one must call real balsamic, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” — if it’s from Modena which is one of the few places where the real stuff comes from. The bottles are distinctive so that it’s hard to copy. There are many fakes. Most of what is sold is fake. The real stuff will not be sour and bite you when you try it. It won’t make you gag. The real stuff is subtle and sweet. With a slight tang. It will be complex. It’s also not impossibly expensive. 25 euro for a small bottle. But that’s the kind that one sips on a spoon or drizzles on a piece of parmesano reggiano.

One can still see graffiti from prisoners from when this was a jail.

Most of the acetaia (ah-chey-tie-ah) will sell salad vinegar products that you will like. Real aceto balsamico is not for salad. That’s how you can make it last a long time. Salad dressings are better with apple cider or red wine vinegar. Balsamic is too strong. Also, all those thick balsamic sauces in squeeze bottles are not made with the real deal.

Going for a tasting at a real acetaia is eye opening. It really is. We went to three. La Vecchia Dispensa is fantastic as a destination. Great tour, tasting, and shop. It’s in a fancy building and the tower is medieval (it was a jail/dungeon before), in the picturesque Castelvetro (one can also go on the less expensive tour that does not include climbing up into the claustrophobic medieval castle tower). The tour guide also speaks English, well.

At Acetaia San Matteo, you get a family feel and the son-in-law who shows you around is enthusiastic but doesn’t speak English. It’s marvelous but almost has a Swiss chalet feel. We also went to the a place that claims to be the oldest (they claim that their family has been selling it for 400 years) but the museum is now in a new, from 2017, farmstead. Also, their vinegar wasn’t tasty. And the place had a slight theme park feel. Too touristy. Enough about them. Go to Castelvetro and La Vecchia Dispensa.

When we were in the tower for our tour with La Vecchia Dispensa, we could see the photos of the families who maintain their balsamic there. It’s a heartwarming idea of familial love.

Oddly, or perhaps not, most of these places also sell jams and other products.

There is a lot more to aceto balsamico than I imagined. It was also a delight to go to the acetaia with a balsamic fanatic. When we got to the San Matteo location, my Italian wasn’t up to explaining things so I just blurted out “we are balsamic fanatics!” We were welcomed with a big grin.

Agroturismo – Farm Bed & Breakfast

Italy is famous for its agroturismo, a bed and breakfast on a farm. To qualify as an agroturismo, the farm must actually be a working farm. Many of these places will also have animals. Many are family owned. You can search this site or use other sites, like Google, to find a stay. Some of these farms have a minimum stay and during the peak summer season that may a minimum of a week. Because these farms are actually farms, often someone’s family homestead, the guest accommodations may not as fancy (or air conditioned) as at a hotel.

Wow, Sotto i Sassi, wow.

The concept of an agroturismo was started as a government scheme over 30 years ago, as a way to help the economy and tourism, which is 13 percent of Italy’s GDP. During the pandemic, I have been told, that the quality of the cleanliness has gone up at these farm stays.

Recently, I stayed at two that contrast quite a bit but seem typical of what’s out there.

One of the bedrooms in the apartment “room” that we had.

Sotto i Sassi: Located at Via Castellino 171, Guiglia. Near Modena. You can book them through the usual places like booking, airbnb, tripadvisor, etc. but my tip to you is to whatsapp him (Matteo Bizzini): +39 337 331 802. He speaks English.

The family farm is located up some narrow lanes in the countryside and you may get lost getting there. Use a GPS. And go left around the parking lot with the bench at the end of the road — the road continues to the left but, BUT, do not go up in the field. Not yet. Prepare time to find the place.

Once you get there, Matteo will greet you and help you to your room. The rooms are decorated stylishly like something out of a style magazine. There may be steps. During the pandemic, the breakfast part is a basket placed outside your room in the early morning. The onsite restaurant is not open every night but it’s an excellent restaurant with lots of outdoor (under the trees and stars) dining. The food is so good that it’s a place that people eat here for the food, even if they are not staying at the B&B. Convenient for not having to drive home after dinner, as well. Matteo takes a genuine interest in your stay with him. At dinner, he gave us a taste of his family’s balsamic.

Outdoor dining at Sotto i Sassi.

The grounds are free for walking around and there are some majestic gobstopping views. The air is clean and as it’s the countryside, you can hear the animals in the early morning. Sotto i Sassi is the kind of place that I imagined an agroturismo geared for slightly luxury customers. Lots of photogenic locations, nice bathrooms, kitchens, good food, not so fancy that one can’t figure out how to turn on the light (actually there were a lot of lighting options), but nice enough that you felt that you were staying at a deluxe farm. Some antiques and some modern design. Plus, the personal connection to Matteo, always just one whatsapp message away.

Some of the buildings are Sotto i Sassi.

Then there is the other sort of experience… The sort of experience where you feel like the hosts were gulag forced into exploiting their inheritance to keep it in their family. A place where the hosts are shackled by their amazing farmstead but can’t enjoy it because they are constantly changing sheets in the rooms. Corte Olfino was such a place. Their website makes it look cosy (I have not posted any photos here of this place — it was cute in a tired sort of way — be a bit suspicious of the website photos) and emailing with them makes it seem like they speak English. The couple who run the place look so unhappy. Well, she does. He seems oblivious to how miserable his wife is. She is harassed and stressed looking all the time. If this beautiful farm is her inheritance, I almost feel sorry for her that she can’t enjoy it.

The majority of the customers are German and they give the place a high rating. The place is interesting looking, like a small village, and the rooms are clean. But, the checkin process and accessing WIFI was difficult. I only found the WIFI code because someone left if on a scrap of paper on the table in my room. Some of the rooms are up in a tower from a fairytale and have a dungeon-like lock that makes it quite annoying when tired (mine had a modern key). The breakfast was fine and included the usual cake (yes, the Italians seem to think that tourists eat cake for breakfast), and toast, ham, eggs, and cheese (Is it this that makes them have higher ratings? The hard boiled eggs? The ham? Apparently it’s the price point and the cleanliness). Yes, they have animals including a llama, and maybe this is why people like this place. The prices were around 68 euro per room per night. So not so high. But, the overall prison feel given off by the house-poor owner made us uncomfortable. Also, the rooms had no sound insulation so one could hear everything going on in the neighboring room.

We felt no need to stay and left early. They owners did not seem surprised and did not want to know why (I paid for the whole stay even though we left early, but I wish they cared why we left early). I guess they don’t need my business. I wish them well and hope that they enjoy their farm when the cash cows are not there…

The doors at Sotti i Sassi are a photo-op waiting for you.

A word about air conditioning. A place like Sotti i Sassi doesn’t have it but even during the heatwave of the summer, the rooms cooled down by evening. Corte Olfino had AC but we also didn’t need it.

The season is over so you have six months or so to research where to stay next year.

Bologna the Bountiful

Bologna is called “La grassa” or “the fat” city. The correct translation should be “the bountiful” as the fat represents richness. I learned this when on a food tour with Cook Italy.

The plaque explaining where the salami makers created “the fat” myth about Bologna.

The origin of the name comes from Bologna’s production of bologna, or as they call it here, mortadella. To be a protected status mortadella, there is a required number of fat squares in each.

Rich delicious mortadella.

Normally, to preserve meat, before refrigeration, is to salt, dry, or cover with fat. Bologna invented the boiling of this meat product and the city became famous for it. Hence why in the United States, mortadella is called bologna or boloney.

Bologna is also famous for its covered sidewalks, over 70 kilometers of them. Also, the red brick. But, mostly, Bologna is famous for being a foodie city. The city anchors the food valley (which is also motor valley) of Emilia Romagna.

Bountiful Bologna is often overlooked by tourists. That’s kind of nice. There are many foreigners in Bologna because Bologna has the oldest (still functioning) university in the world (started in 1088). True, the center of the town is a bit crowded but slip down a side street and you can soon imagine your own medieval scholarly wanderings. Or just shop.

So next time someone calls Bologna fat, you know that it’s bountiful. Enjoy it for yourself. More later about where to eat, shop, and stay in bountiful Bologna.

I Love Olive Oil — Tasting with Johnny Madge

Tomato bruschetta

Tomatoes are juicy and red,
Olive oil is gold and green,
Mozzarella is creamy and white,
And Johnny Madge is keen.

I felt inspired to write a cheesy poem!

Johnny Madge loves, lives, breathes olive oil. He even has “I Love Olive Oil” written on his van. Oddly, that is the least of the reasons to go on his olive oil tour. Sorry, Johnny. It’s not just about the oil.

Imagine living here.

If anyone is a natural at what they do, then it’s the legendary Johnny Madge. Taking an olive oil tasting class with him feels less like a class, and more like you just happen to have a wise friend who is an expert on olive oil… wild plants… wine… life? There are some professors and tour guides who seem scripted in their style of teaching. All respect to them, but Johnny is not one of them. Johnny Madge speaks with the ease of someone who knows vastly more than they are telling you. It reminds of advice a writing teacher once told me, “Make sure you know everything about the character, and then put none of that in your story.” Once in a while you meet people who are more than the product they sell. The fact that he has a British accent just makes everything he says sound more credible. It’s easy to get a crush on him (olive oil joke).

Johnny Madge inside an olive tree.

As I said, the olive oil tasting was a minor part of the day. The whole day was a celebration of good extra virgin olive oil (and the lifestyle that it symbolizes). Johnny Madge has a sensational high rating on TripAdvisor and rightly so.

He will pick you up from the train station in Fara Sabina (a small town about 35 minutes on the regional train line from Rome) in his van which can seat eight. If you drive your own car, you can follow him like the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The whole day had that fairytale feel to it as we meandered the undulating lanes.

You might wonder what could take so long. The pace is set by the lovely small streets along the neat rows of olive trees, the green hedges, and azure sky above gently rolling country. The tour starts in an olive tree orchard. Johnny will tell you about olive trees, the recent devastating fires, harvesting, and other facts about the trees. Did you know that an olive tree can survive a fire? As you walk around enjoying the clean air of the countryside, he will show wild edible plants like wild fennel, and explain other plants if you ask him (I asked about a seed that I found which it turns out inspired Leonardo da Vinci to invent the helicopter). Or you can wander away and sit in the shade of an olive tree. There are no demands that you pay attention and no exam. No stress.

Don’t drizzle, pour.

After the orchard, he takes you to visit the largest olive tree in Europe. The tree is famous for being large, but it was comforting to meet such an old tree. It is perhaps 2,000 years old but no one really knows. Olive oil trees hollow out making it hard to count rings. When we were there admiring the tree, the owner came out to chat with Johnny. They were clearly friends catching up with each other.

Then back to admire the vegetable garden. All the while, Johnny regales you with stories and anecdotes, pointing out this and that along the way. As a city person, it’s interesting to see Swiss chard growing like a weed. One could feel the pace of life slowing down to that sweet art of doing nothing (a saying in Italian)… the art of enjoying the sweet life.

The mill is entering prime time. They got game.

After this, we went to an olive oil mill, Il Frantoio Saporito, which, with a new store, a new YouTube video, new Instagram account, is ready for primetime. They got game.

Outside the main hangar-size building, there is a metal car scale built in to the parking lot. When the local farmers need their olives processed, they drive their olive-laden cars on to the scale. After the initial weigh-in, the car is emptied of olives. Then the car is weighed again. The client pays by weight. I say client because it turns out that many Italians own a small patch of olive trees and make their own olive oil each year. After the weighing, the olives get cleaned, crushed, and spun. In the old days, the olive mash would be squeezed in reed mats but now, the oil is extracted using centrifugal force. Super high quality olive oil is spun for a mere seven minutes — thus ensuring that minimal heat is created — making it truly cold pressed. Most extra virgin olive oil is spun for 30 minutes. After spinning, the oil is filtered. Olive oil doesn’t need to be filtered but it’s better to avoid the sludge at the bottom of the bottle. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.

There is also something about what can be called “virgin” and “extra virgin” — the “virgin” olive oil is defective. Shocker. I think that he explained that defective doesn’t mean undrinkable. But I wasn’t paying attention… I guess I’ll have to go on another tour. If you want to geek out a bit, read this newsletter. Olive oil’s quality is not based on color. How deep is that? Professional tastings happen with blue glasses.

When we came by, they surprised us with bruschetta (the green is pistacchio paste).

The mill has just opened a shop on site where small bottles of olive oil cost 5 euro and large bottles cost 8 euro. I didn’t get a photo of the shop because I was too busy shopping! They also sell flavored oils, but not garlic flavor (Romans really don’t eat much garlic), and spreads like pistachio with pesto. I think I spent around 90 euros… because I wasn’t sure when I’d get back. That said, the mill will deliver and you can purchase online. I don’t know if it was pre-arranged (despite what Johnny said) but when we visited the mill, they gave us freshly made bruschetta, which had been toasted on the olive tree wood barbecue. I’m not sure it gets better than that, in terms of experiential shopping experiences.

Maybe it was a mirage.

From the mill, we could see our lunch destination, across the valley, past neat green fields, impossibly pretty. Can this be real?

This course was maybe fourth?

Lunch was a leisurely feast of multiple courses including creamy cannelloni beans, crunchy bruschetta with tomato, cheese, golden oven roasted potatoes, yummy lasagne, and not too sweet apple pie. Johnny brought lots of wine to pair, but it was mostly about the olive oil pairings. Every dish had olive oil. At this point, Johnny explained how to taste olive oil and we tried a few straight up. I did not like most of the oil when tasted alone. I preferred the oil on the food. We actually started with olive oil on a chocolate crostini which brought happy memories of my days in El Cacaotal in Lima. I can’t wait to get these food nerds together and watch them nerd out.

Chocolate crostini.

To contact Johnny for olive oil tastings, or to feature him in your documentary or to hire him as an expert (he was in Pasta Grannies! Name drop!), here is how to contact him: Johnny Madge, oliveoil@johnnymadge.com, www.johnnymadge.com, +39 328 339 8479. He speaks English and Italian.

The olive oil tour, including lunch, wine, and olive oil tasting, cost 110 euro per person. The train costs 2.80 euro each way. You can also drive there in 35 minutes and leave your car at the train station or follow him around the countryside.

The vegetarian lasagne made me want to be vegetarian.

The day out was fabulous. Johnny loves olive oil and after a day with him, you might love olive oil as much as Johnny. Or maybe him.

A pomegranate tree in bloom.

If you really want to get an idea of how pleasant the day was (I mean, how olive oil is made!), enjoy this video by the mill again.

I end this with a version of the roses are red poem from Les Mis. We did go a-touring in the countryside of Rome where the pomegranate blossoms were orange and I loved, loved, loved it.

We will buy very pretty things
A-walking through the suburbs.
Violets are blue, roses are red,
Violets are blue, I love my loves.

I have also made a video of my own. Nothing compared to the mill’s… but, enjoy the song by Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli. It’s perfect.