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.

All Hallow’s Eve

Today is Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, and tomorrow is All Saints Day, a public holiday in Italy, followed by All Souls Day on November 2. The tradition of dressing up and trick or treating is a new import. All Saints Day is part of the Catholic church in Italy. It is also not Day of the Dead which is a big celebration in Mexico.

These are a type of gourd, or pumpkin.

For those who believe more, for a brief time on All Hallow’s Even and All Saints Day, the dead return to this realm and visit with their loved ones who are still flesh and blood. It’s not scary. It’s a sort of reunion. People will visit their dead family members. Read an explanation here. Like all holidays, it’s build on much older ones. And, of course, there’s a bread for that. The second of November is All Souls Day. Read more about some of the regional foods and traditions here.

The idea of pumpkin as the icon of the Halloween season is also a commercial idea. The pumpkins are a food in Italy and have much more flesh so will be very hard to carve. But, they make excellent food. It is hard to find perfectly orange round pumpkins (but I’m sure that will become a common thing soon enough). As you can see from my photo below, I was more interested in the orange persimmons (sharon fruit so some), walnuts, celeriac (celery root), and the pomegranates.

Green pumpkins in the background.

The impact of All Saints Day in Rome is that the stores may be a bit packed and the traffic bad. How is this news?

Happy halloween!

10 Years of M’s Adventures

Can a blog make your dreams come true? For me, this blog has lead to book publishing. So when my father suggested that I start a blog, he fulfilled my childhood dream to be a published author. Amazing, right? Thanks, Dad.

When I reflect on ten years of writing blog articles and ten years of adventures in food and travel, I feel emotion. I realize all the stories I have heard of people’s lives, the dignity in ordinary lives of hard-working people, and all those other cheesy American ideals. To write a blog is to exercise the very core of the American ideals: freedom of speech, pursuit of happiness, liberty, and the American dream.

The reality of blogging has been many hours writing, editing, taking photos, and thought. It has also included waiting over 3,000 hours for bad food in restaurants, lots of money (my own) traveling, taking photos incessantly, hours uploading, editing, hashtagging, and posting on social media.

Ah, but yes, people want to know one thing. How do I afford it? Please read my “Who Am I?” page.

Many times people (and companies) try to get me to monetize my blog. I laugh at this idea. To monetize a blog requires a certain readership/following (for example on YouTube, one must have at least 1,000 subscribers — I have 12) which I do not have. Also, it would take the fun out of it. Instead, my blog costs me money. Which is really not necessary because a phone camera is all one really needs. One can even blog from a smartphone.

I don’t. I write at a computer. An old fashioned desktop (well, it’s not but the set up is) with a mechanical keyboard because I like hearing the clickety clack of the keys as I type (slowly). I use a Mac and iPhones simply because that’s what I went with and so that’s what I’m sticking with. My keyboard is not from Apple. It’s a “Das Keyboard” that I bought in a kiosk in Vancouver. I use WordPress to publish my blog. I started blogging 15 years ago using Blogspot because it was user friendly. But, I moved to WordPress because that seemed the platform used by professional bloggers. It took 24 hours of hate but eventually I learned to use WordPress. I also find it interesting that almost all social media platforms have begun to resemble WordPress. I guess they got it right.

It was once that a “blog” or weblog was said with some disdain. But, it’s really just a website. It’s an online journal. Like an online book. In South America and Europe, people seem to be less disdainful about blogging. Embarrassingly, some restaurants have given me free food assuming that I was a powerful food blogger. I prefer not to receive anything for free. I like having a normal customer’s experience when I go out to eat.

From my blog, because I have to release my inner marketing demon at times, I have produced mousepads, pens, stickers, postcards, magnets, mugs, t-shirts, and of course, over ten books. I don’t do as much marketing anymore, but I try to keep my blog pages up to date and I work on my books. In looking at the pages of my blog, I am surprised (although not sure why) at how often people read the “about” page which I call “who am I?” — while it’s not a secret who I am, I just don’t think it’s so interesting.

I encourage anyone, anyone, to write the stories you want to tell. Self-publish the books. Everyone has stories to tell and if you can’t tell them as a book, then use social media. It seems like everyone wants to be heard. I have written quite a few books but don’t expect them to be widely read or bought. Some may have a publishing run of ten or 20 copies. But, to me, it’s the joy of writing them that has been the most fun. The production is the journey.

Some of the unintended things that have happened because of my blog is:

My friends wait to eat until I’ve got my photos. Thanks!

My friends often will go with me to places that they say, “is this for the blog?” Yes. Thanks.

And once, I was recognized while waiting for the elevator (through colleague’s photos).

Some unpleasant stuff has happened too but I don’t want to deign to give those unpleasant things the time of day. Trolls and bullies get no play here.

I try to keep the focus of my blog on travel and food. This is a view in Emilia Romagna, near Modena.

What have I learned from a decade of blogging:

  1. Americans (gringos) are obsessed with TexMex food. This is possibly the most common question I get.

2. It’s easy to publish a book. Don’t be held back. Write and publish your words!

3. Don’t write about massage. It brings too many porn hits. Which is too bad because I like massage.

I used to carry my DSLR camera everywhere (where it’s easier to get photos like this one), but I do so less and less.

Almost every day, I check the statistics page on my blog to see which articles are popular and what topics people like. The top searches are to do with Bangladesh. This makes sense. At the time that I was writing from Dhaka, I was one of four expat bloggers writing in English. Even years later, I still receive questions about Dhaka. For a while, I was interested in what countries my blog was being read. I’ve been read by people from almost every country. I think I’m missing a few, but only two or three.

For many years, my article about the Bangladeshi lungi was the most popular. From the search terms that lead people to my article on the lungi, I’m afraid that my article on national dress, with only ankles on display is not what they hoped for (I don’t think I mentioned anything lewd in my article…). I am not tagging this subject for this article because I don’t want to start re-start the mislead hits by those looking for men in lungis.

So, other than that, the most popular article in the past ten years is:

Dhaka-townian’s 100 Eats and the Top Ten Restaurants in Dhaka. Over 22,000 reads of that article/post. When I wrote that article, my blog was the only comprehensive list of restaurants in Dhaka. I even had people write me and ask/tell me that they would use my articles and photos to write their own guide. Imitation is the best form of?

In the past year, the most popular article was an article from several years ago in Bogota about fruit.

Does anyone blog anymore? It was such a thing ten years ago. Now, it has been overtaken by moving words and pictures by way of YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and other video formats.

I have noticed that many bloggers have quit and often leave their blogs as a website. I can see why. It’s sad to see the decrease of readership. My readership peaked in 2014 and has gone down since then. As I mentioned above, Dhaka was a popular topic. No one seemed to care about Bogota (at least not in English) or Lima. But, some of the articles from Bogota are picking up traction, which is strange because I thought the google bots took six months to trawl but perhaps it takes a few years now that there is so much content out there in the vast pacific of the Internet.

For my readers, other than those who know me personally, why should they stick with me when I keep moving. Those who are interested in Dhaka are not interested in Bogota. Of course, my blog has evolved. When I started, there was little content and not much linking. Now, I have accounts on Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, and a podcast. I am not as diligent about keeping all these forms of social media up to date but I try. Yet, I still write a blog article about every week. I try to post on Instagram and Facebook every day. Like any relationship, consistent care is required. But, my readership keeps dropping on my blog while conversely, my followers increase on Instagram. Heck, I even joined Patreon so people can support me in my blogging endeavor… maybe I would do this full time if I could making a living… no, no, no, that way leads to dependency!

When my readership goes down to zero, I may stop. Maybe. Then, it may simply become an online diary. A weblog. Like on the Starship Enterprise.

From Star Trek:

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise
Its five year mission
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life
And new civilizations

…. my blog is twice the age of those space voyages!

So, let’s see where we go. I have plans to sort of “reverse engineer” my blog and write books that are only available as books! Then I can write about massages and other topics that get bowdlerized on the web. But, mainly, I’ll just slip into my comfy shoes and continue to be mad for food and adventure!

Humane Airport Furniture

Let’s be real. People in airports need to sleep on a flat surface. So many airports make this hard to do but Rome and Copenhagen (and maybe others) have furniture that one can lie down on. Thank you.

After all, it’s not like we want to be tired and exhausted when traveling. It just is a reality. If we can rest horizontally for a bit, we will be much better tourists.

Eating Monk’s Beard

In March, I saw clumps of grass being sold at the markets. I asked what it was and was told, “agretti” — in English, this vegetable is called Salsola Soda or Opposite-Leaved Saltwort (although I don’t think it’s a common thing to eat in English speaking countries so the name may not be so important). In Italian, the fun name is Monk’s beard.

I asked the vegetable seller how to cook it and she said, to cook it in salted water for ten minutes, dress with olive oil and lemon juice, a bit of salt and pepper, and eat. Some recipes say to add garlic so I may do that. I like this recipe because I like the idea of cooking it with spaghetti so that the shapes are similar. First I tried it without any flavorings so I can see what it tastes like.

I over cooked the pasta… I was too busy taking photos!

For those who live in the U.S. and want to grow Italian vegetables, this site also provides some information on them. This vegetable is supposedly becoming more popular with chefs. Other season vegetables right now are wild asparagus and artichokes. I even saw some sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes, at the market the other day.

While the appearance is a bit like chives, it tastes more like… grass, and has a nice slippery texture. I think this would be a very healthy vegetable and it could be fun as a dish by itself. I made it with spaghetti so that the shapes matched. Of course, I put cheese on it.

A View For My Room

In Lima, I had the luxury of ocean views. I now live inland, with no ocean views. But, I may have a remedy. I’ve been looking on Instagram, of course, and I’ve seen some azure seas that beckon like jewels glittering from the Internet. Most of the tropical views that I see on Instagram from Italy are from the South, on Sicily, or Amalfi, or Puglia… Or, I could use a photo from my archives. This photo of our “taxi” seaplane from the Maldives is still one of my favorite photos.

My plan was to paint directly on the wall… but, then I thought, why invent the wheel? I looked online and found sticky decals that already have pre-printed tropical views. There are even decals of views of forests, or even outer space.

Other than for view, I also want to be able to give directions to the bathroom by saying, “To the left of the Maldives” or some fun phrase like that. I may have to play the sounds of waves, a fan, some sand, and it will be a complete view to a tropical location. Or a kitty litter box. Oh COVID, we are all cats now.

Whatsapp? Are You Zooming to a Google Meet For Quality Facetime?

For the past seven months, many of us have spent time socializing and working on Zoom, Google Meet, Whatsapp, Facetime, and more. I do not know which one is better, but here are few things I’ve learned about them.

Zoom is now a verb. That’s how big it is. For more than 50 people, someone needs to have a paid account. With the paid version, I have the option to “hide self view” which allows me to not have to look at myself when I am looking at the grid view. There are a few other features like the ability to change the view when sharing someone else’s “shared view.” The free version has a meeting limit of 40 minutes. Zoom allows you to share your screen and have a “green screen” virtual background. I enjoy this feature quite a bit. It allows me to travel every time I zoom.

The main plaza in Lima, Peru.

Google Meet, previously Google Hangouts, also requires a paid account and the non-Google emails must be “let in” to the meeting “room.” The professional account can host meetings of over 100 people.

Whatsapp now allows for up to eight faces to appear on your phone screen. The computer version of Whatsapp does not allow video. Whatsapp is owned by Facebook. One can also have video calls on Facebook Messenger. 

Facetime is the classic Apple iPhone product.

Skype was one of the revolutionary early products for video calling. It was acquired by eBay and it is now owned by Microsoft. Microsoft deactivated some of the features in 2017. Microsoft Teams seems to have take over many of the features. 

I find that I actually prefer using most of these video calling programs for audio only. I don’t need to see people’s faces when I talk to them. But, that may just be me. 

With friends and family all over the world, these various options are an important part of keeping in touch. My very informal and tiny survey of my friends is that they seem to prefer Zoom. They seem to feel that it connects better, and that is the point.

The Beginning of the Internet

I was doing some research on Italy, and I got to a screen that said, “You have reached the end.” During this time at home, you too may have reached the end of the Internet… but, did you wonder where it began?

The plaque put up by Arlington County.

The Internet started just a few steps from Washington, DC, USA, fifty years ago. Developed from 1970-1975 in Arlington, Virginia, the “ARPANet” (Advanced Research Projects Agency Net) was developed as a communications tool by the military. A small plaque stands on the side of the road in Arlington, Virginia. The plaque has a smaller plaque with zeroes and ones representing the binary code for “ARPANet.” Although Arlington County claims to have invented the Internet, the first computer-to-computer transmission was in California in 1969, but it was the ARPANet who figured out how to dice up information into binary code…. which became the Internet, online shopping, electronic mail, blogging, and video-calls (imagine no Zoom?)… The World Wide Web.

A whole new world.

Rock, Fork, Scissors

One of the things I find most useful in my kitchen are scissors. I’m not alone in this. In Rome, there is a type of pizza that is cut with scissors. In Korean food, scissors are used to cut the meat after it’s been grilled. In the photo, the mini scissors are used to cut open condiment packs (photo taken in Argentina). 

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Then, there’s the fork. Have you ever wondered why some forks have that slightly wider tine on one side? The answer is that the one tine is wider depending on if the fork is for a right handed or left handed person. If both the outer tines are wider than the inner tines, then the fork is for everyone, both righties and lefties. There are over fifty different types of forks, but that is the subject of another book. I have plans to write a book about forks and kitchen tools. A friend begged me to call it, Fork U

While forks had been used since ancient Egypt for ceremonial purposes, the personal dining fork was first used in Constantinople in 400 CE (This particular fork is in a private collection in Washington, DC). The fork fashion spread to the middle east and the courts would use small two-pronged gold forks instead of their fingers. In the eleventh century, one such gold fork was part of the dowry of a Byzantine princess sent to marry a Venetian doge, a chief magistrate, Domenico Selvo. When a bishop saw her eating using this fork, she was admonished and told that she was insulting God by not using her fingers. The fork disappeared from the dining table for three hundred years!

By the 1400s forks had returned to the dinner table in Italy. The fork probably gained traction in Italy due to the popularity of eating pasta, which is much easier with a fork. By 1400 CE, it was common in Italy to present a diner with his own spoon and fork.

Famously, the fork was introduced to the French court by the queen, an Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici. Caterina de’ Medici was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence. She took silver forks with her to France in 1533 as part of her dowry. The French did not take to the fork immediately.

The fork did not gain popularity in the rest of Europe until much later. British travelers in the seventeenth century would deride the fork as an effeminate Italian custom. It was not until 1633, when Charles I, King of England declared the fork “decent.” The original dining forks had two prongs. The two prongs were not enough to eat peas and other round foods, so over the next several centuries, the fork gained two more prongs. The word “fork” comes from Latin “furca.” The fork reached North America during the revolutionary war, most likely via Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, both who had enjoyed the good life in France.

Blurbing It Out

This time around, I went with Blurb. To read about the last time I published books, and how to do so yourself, read here. I published a few books in the past month, Do You Dare Eat That, PorFA! (ISBN 9781715282417),on Amazon, M’s Adventures in Peru — A Love Letter (ISBN 9781715299149), on Amazon, and Tales, Tall and Short, About Food in Peru (ISBN 9781715324087), on Amazon. I published them all on Blurb.com — you can too.

It is fairly easy to publish on Blurb. You can upload a print ready PDF with photo and illustrations all included or you can use their software to layout your book. I found that the layout program was a bit clunky for me as I find it easier just to use one of the book templates in my word processing system. The only tricky thing so far has been figuring out the sizes. Luckily, the Blurb computer figures it out for me. Unlike in the old days of the printing press when the broad sheet could be folded and cut into 16 pages, Blurb uses six as the divider. If you upload less, Blurb will add blank pages at the end.

You can even upload the cover and back cover in the same PDF. I did and Blurb worked with me. It even troubleshoots pre-flight (printing). My page size was not quite what it was used to using for the “bleed” (variable area around the outside of the page) even though I made the size of the books according to what I thought was a Blurb size. Blurb’s computer just quickly says that it is not a standard size. When you see this message, you just choose the option to have it auto-fix it and it does. The books turned out great. Blurb also tells you if the images you are using are too low quality, too low in pixels for printing. You can adjust them right there by replacing or re-sizing. I still went with one that was “lo-res” and it turned out fine. I was concerned that it would look pixelated, but it did not.

The minimum page count is 20 pages, but you can go as high as you want. I think, but do you want to publish a 600 page book?

For the photo type of book and the hardbacks, the prices are higher. The cheapest, with the highest profit margin for you, is paperback. The good thing about these paperbacks is that it includes color photographs in the cost. If you buy more than 10 books at one time, you get a discount. Blurb will even mail out the books for you! Once done setting it up, you can buy it for yourself and send out the link so others can purchase it. Books are hard to find on Amazon so it’s best to search by ISBN or author name.

Then, when you get to the next process which is where you set it up for sale or not. If you do want to sell it, you can choose to hard back, paper back, paper type, and your profit margin. You can also choose an ebook for five bucks. The book will then be on sale on Blurb with an ISBN of its own. Yay! If you click on the “Ingram” publishing option, the book will be distributed through the Ingram distribution system, a central warehouse system. It takes about two weeks for the book to show up on Amazon. When it shows up on Amazon, they add their markup.

My children’s book, a 7 x 7 inch photo book cost around $26. If I buy it and send it through Blurb, I can get a quantity discount but it’s rare that I’m sending more than ten books to the same place. The “coffee table book” of M’s Adventures in Peru cost $42 because it’s a hardback with outer sleeve. Wowsa. The cheapest was the standard paperback size for the Tales, Tall and Short, About Food in Peru, at around $16. I set a small “profit” on that and marked it up accordingly.

The paper versions of the books look good and even the images that the Blurb software warned me were “low resolution” turned out okay. I will be printing more with Blurb, but I’ll probably move all the books to the paperback size.

The Honey Shot and Food Lust

The honey shot — a riff on the money shot. I was scrolling through old photos from back when I “lugged” around my DSLR camera and this got me thinking about name calling. While I understand where it comes from… I think it’s sad that the hobby of food photography is called, “food porn.” Maybe we could call it “foodlust” so that it’s more about the passion and less about bodily fluids. Equally so is the term, “money shot” which derives from the same business (and it is a business), so I posit the term, “honey shot” instead to denote something sweet and in keeping with the food field.

In that vein, I present to you, one of my favorite honey shots. It’s a photo of home made cabbage salad and egg pie from a picnic in New Zealand. Hark, how regal (purple is a royal color) and how glorious (gold like honey) it is!

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Do a Little Good While Shopping

A few friends told me about Amazon Smile, smile.amazon.com, where for every purchase you make through Amazon’s charity, a percentage of the cost on eligible items goes to the charity of your choice. You have to go to smile.amazon.com and choose your charity and then from then on, shop through that portal. Easy peasy. At 0.5 percent, it might not seem like a lot, but I bought a book recently and $13 went to my charity of choice.

In preparation for my move to a new adventure, where all roads lead to, I am buying lots of visual storytelling equipment, and now I am doing a little good at the same time (pats self on back). If you want to use it on your iPhone app, you will have to allow notifications. I prefer to use smile.amazon.com from my computer.

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As an aside, I bought a bespoke iPhone SE 2020 case on Amazon Smile from MTRONX Direct. The ink job on the case is well done and the case has the flat sides, like the iPhone design from the 5 SE. Good old days. It took almost two weeks to get the order, but it was worth the wait. Plus, the little holes for my lanyard/hand leash are an added bonus.