Exotic Fruits of Italy

Speaking of markets, and as I am currently writing a book about fruit, here are some “exotic” fruits now grown locally in Italy. Italy has some famous citrus types (read about popular fruit types here or here), including one which was introduced to this area 23 centuries ago (long before the formation of Italy as a country).

Annona (custard apple): A quick google search brought me to the annona, a cherimoya or custard apple, that is now being grown in Calabria, a southern region in Italy.

Bergamotto (bergamot): I mention this because people may not know that this is the citrus that is used in Earl Grey Tea. Ninety percent of the world’s bergamot oil is produced in Italy. As far back as 1709, the bergamot has been pressed to extract the essential oils, for use in perfume, most famously Chanel No. 5.

Diamante citron in Italian or esrog from Calabria (etrog). This citrus is essential in the Jewish sukkot ceremony and has been grown in Italy since the the third century BCE (before current era).

Cacchi or lotta (persimmon or sharon fruits): Introduced to Italy in the early 20th century, these are grown in Campania.

Orange persimmons behind red pomengranates.

Ficodindia dell’Etna (prickly pear): the fruit of the cactus. The black pits inside are very hard and peeling this fruit can hurt your hands.

Kiwi: This brings to mind that the kiwi is now grown in Italy. Italy is the second or third largest exporter of kiwis. I see kiwis at the market all the time in Rome. They grow them right outside Rome so they are even at my zero kilometer market that I mentioned last week.

Melograno (pomegranate): Supposedly Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds when she was in the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, the earth, made a deal with the god of the underworld to let her go. But because she had eaten six seeds, she could only be above ground for six months of the year, and that is why we have the six months of spring and summer. Pomegranate seeds are like jewels and work well in salads and on meats, but the juice is what most people like. To remove the seeds, one can whack the cut pomegranate with a wooden spoon and the seeds come rat tat tatting out like shots.

Cotogna (quince): The cutest name for a fruit that is so sour. It is better as a jelly or jam to be eaten with cheese. In Latin America, this is often paired with fresh cheese and the fresh milky mildness of the cheese goes well with the brown gummy bear texture of the cooked quince.

Finally, a native exotic.

Nespola (medlar): This is exotic but native to Italy. These strange dried looking fruits are winter fruits that are only ready to be eaten when they are soft and wrinkly. Then you peel them and eat the mushy brown interior. The taste is sort of like a fruit paste or dried figs. Just not as tasty.

The medlars are above the chestnuts. These are not ready to be eaten as they are not wrinkly.

And finally, if you want to read about the “equatorial” fruit growing now happening in Italy, read this article from Euronews.

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.

Pasta Trombolotto

With trombolotto seasoning and “bottarga” which is shaved dried fish roe.

***** Fabio, the owner contacted me and corrected the addresses and explained why his has two restaurants — one is the summer location. Thanks, Fabio, always nice when people improve the information on my blog. *****

Imagine taking the extra large, mild tasting, sweet Amalfi lemons… and serving them with pasta inside. Well, I finally had it. My Italian teacher kept bringing it up as a delicacy that we had to try. I imagined it, an oddity in a lemon. The months went by and due to a pandemic and other such things, it took a while for us to find a date for Pasta Trombolotto!

The restaurant is as picturesque as the rest of the town.

Finally, the date was set. It was October. The restaurant in Sermoneta was reserved and off I went. Sermoneta is a perfectly preserved medieval town about 30 minutes (by train + car) south of Rome. I looked at the bus route to the town, but one really needs a car to get there. Sermoneta (it is named for the vast amount of money paid for the town) is a dying town as all the young people are moving away. Hence why it’s perfectly preserved. It’s often used as a film set. But, the town needs more than that to survive. It needs tourist dollars.

This conundrum between dollars and reality will come up later in this story.

Famous, that’s what they want it to be.

The town is gasp-worthy beautiful. Tourism (as mentioned) has not stained the town with too many billboards and English menus. Even the postcards were non-touristy. Who prints a postcard with an overcast sky in a town of gray stone? That seems like a fail of marketing 101. There is no parking in the town so one enters a pedestrian haven. The town is hilly and cobblestoned so bring good ankles. As we ooohed and aaahed at every archway and turret, we imagined how marvelous this must be in sunlight. Or maybe the veil of night made it more dramatic?

Looking up to the “roof” of the restaurant.

Finally, we went to the restaurant famous for Pasta Trombolotto. The owner, Fabio, is charismatic and undeterred by a lack of comprehension. There are two famous Pasta Trombolotto restaurants in Sermonetta and he owns them both. One is called Simposio al Corso (it is the winter location) and Il Giardino del Simposio (open April to October). We went to the Il Giardino del Simposio located at Via
Conduttura 6. The location at Simposio al Corso which is near the entrance to the town and located deep underground. The summer location, Il Giardino, is a patio overhung with lemon trees. It feels a bit magical.

Close up of the pasta. For Italy, this is a complex sauce.

We had wine, we had appetizers, we had main dishes, dessert, and coffee, but what I recall was the pasta. That’s why we were there. It was the main show. But, it was not served inside a lemon. Frankly, I was torn. Because it was not lemon season (March), our Pasta Trombolotto was not served in a lemon. It wasn’t served in lemon shaped crockery. Not even on a yellow plate. Not that it wasn’t dramatic.

Fabio coddled and seasoned every serving individually in a pan, table side. Trombolotto is a herb and lemon infused oil. It’s good and certainly one of the most seasoned things I’ve had in Italy (remember that simple is the key here), but without the Disney-esque lemon container… well, this is why I was torn. I like that they keep it seasonal and authentic. But, part of me, the marketing maniac, wants them to at least get lemon shaped bowls with lids. Ya know?

Adding the secret spices to the pasta, table side.

The owner is trying to make the town famous for this dish. He is resisting offers to take his show to Rome because he wants people to come out to Sermoneta for the Pasta Trombolotto.

If you are ever in that area, I recommend going. The address for the winter location is Corso Guiseppe Garibaldi 33, Sermoneta. The summer location is at Via Conduttura 6. The phone number is +39 339 2846905 anytime of the year.

And, and, just to add more to this story, the owner will show you an oil that you cannot have… because you are not his grandpa. It even says it on the bottle… like the best of experiences, there is always another story.

Italy Is a Film Set

The movies have influenced pop culture so much that when people think of Italy (which is gorgeous to visit on its own merits), people want to visit the towns where films made them famous or were imagined. So which of those places do I hear about most? Italy has a famous film pedigree from long before Under the Tuscan Sun (Fellini, Leone, etc.). But, in more modern times with the acceleration of social media, the obsession with overall mystique about Italy and “the sweet life” is here to stay. Here are some of the films and locations that you may want to visit, not including Italian films.

An enchanted April if every there was one.

La Dolce Vita, Rome, and more specifically, the Trevi Fountain. Anita Ekberg famously so bought in to the idea of the sweet life that she moved to Italy after frolicking in the movie. (This movie introduced the word “paparazzi” to the English language).

Roman Holiday. This film may also make you want to visit Rome. Rome houses Cinecitta, the Pinewood Studios or Hollywood of Italy. A place where one can visit many places and times all in one filming location (and some of the set pieces may actually be real!). At almost any time, there are films being filmed in Rome. Even during the pandemic, the Gucci film was on location in down town Rome.

The Godfather, Taormina, 100 miles east of Palermo, the capital of Sicily.

While this looks like Tuscany, it is actually just outside Rome.

Room With a View, Florence, Hotel degli Orafi was the set for the “pensione” with the view.

Gladiator, in Tuscany Val d’Orcia. The soundtrack and the scenes of the protagonist longing for elysium (paradise) so he could reunite with his family, is some of the most haunting and beautiful cinematography out there. I often want to add Lisa Gerrard’s score to my Instagram posts but I don’t want to add a sad note to the beauty I see.

Tea with Mussolini, filmed in Florence and San Gimignano.

Enchanted April, filmed at Castello Brown in Portofino, on the Ligurian Coast north of the Cinque Terre. This is where the author stayed in the 1920s.

Under the Tuscan Sun, Cortona, but filmed in Villa Laura. This film seems to be the end-all of wistful movies about Italy.

Eat, Pray, Love. Rome and Naples. This book and movie had the added bonus that it was non-fiction so it made la dolce vita seem even more attainable.

The view from bed in Positano.

But, there are other places that could be on a movie pilgrimage. In Positano, one can stay in the hotel (Albergo California) which stood in for an apartment (perhaps even the room!) where the heroine in Under the Tuscan Sun met her romantic interest, Marcello. In Verona, one can visit Juliet’s house! Also, many a James Bond movie and Mission Impossible have had scenes in Italy. Not to forget, Indiana Jones, and now that I think of it, so many more.

The Amalfi Coast, one of the most magical locations, is a popular film location.

All over Italy, there are villages that seem like movie sets. For example, near Rome, is a town called Sermoneta (named after money because it cost so much to buy the town) which is a perfectly preserved medieval town.

To read other lists of movies, read this article. Or this one about films set in Italy. I also found this article useful.

I am sure that I will go to many of these places in the future. It is hard to not trip over them as it seems like most of Italy is a movie set.

The Artichoke King

Trimmed artichokes ready for purchase.

As it is once again artichoke season, I have been thinking about them again. There is more to this thistle than one would think. There was once an artichoke mafia and the head of that was called the “The Artichoke King.” This was way back in 1920 in America. The mayor of New York, at the time, La Guardia (that guy who got an airport named after him) took a hard stance against the mafia. In his words: “A racketeer in artichokes is no different than a racketeer in slot machines.”

In Italy, the artichokes are sold with the stem, which is also edible.

The artichoke even inspired poetry. In this poem by Pablo Neruda of which I quote a short bit:

Scale by scale,
We strip off
The delicacy
And eat
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.

There are many different types of artichokes.

The artichoke was also considered an aphrodisiac for many centuries. Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949.

Cardi, or cardoons, can be grown in the dark, making them white.

The artichoke is related to the cardoon, the artichoke thistle, which is part of the sunflower family.

A “Jewish style” artichoke is a fried artichoke.

I had a realization last winter — the microwave is an excellent steamer. I discovered this after I had heard about this from some cooking show or another. Previously (and perhaps because I had a mother who did not own a microwave) steaming artichokes involved that weird satellite dish steamer, scalding steam, and balancing the atomically hot metal thingy with heavy artichokes. Now, I simply wash and steam (I like to let my artichokes have a good drink of water when I bring them home so that the leaves plump up). Then into the microwave for about five minutes per artichoke depending on the size.

These mini artichokes fit in a muffin tin.

Today, there is no longer an artichoke mafia but the artichoke type most commonly sold in the US, are the kind with the hairy heart. I wish they would switch to the kind that has an edible heart.

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.

Cook Italy – Food Tour in Bologna

Bologna’s streets will make it hard to move on.

Do you know someone who is so extremely picky? As in, never satisfied? Oh, maybe YOU are that friend.

If you are one of those people who has such high standards for everything and never quite finds things up to scratch, then Carmelita of Cook Italy is the guide for you.

She will talk a lot about tortellini.

We booked her for a food tour. I mentioned some of the places earlier. We met at an excellent pastry shop where I am glad that I got a good breakfast.

Carmelita then showed us the formerly great, the famous, the touristy, and the abominably disgraced. She then showed us the still great shops and vendors downtown. Along the way, we had a snack stop and the history of why Bologna, “La Grasso” is translated too literally — the nickname refers to the bounty that is Bologna.

[A note about bologna, boloney — mortadella. It is a whole separate food product in Italy. It can be eaten sliced, cubed, and in a meat pate like a smear. There are required amounts of lardons per product and, of course, there are standards. People eat it like proscuitto. Yes, just like having slices of proscuitto on a charcuterie board… that’s how they eat mortadella.]

Bologna is a bountiful foodie city with warm red brick porticoes, shopping opportunities galore, and enough foodie gems for a month of feasts. One of the best things about the tour was being taken to the “horse” emporium.

This shop is a knife shop but so much more.

Carmelita ended our tour at an enoteca who kindly stored our wine while we went to Carmelita’s newest “project” – a new gelateria called Sablé. Check it out!

The pastry chef who owns Sable.

Carmelita also offers cooking classes. I found her through a friend, even though I see that she is famous on TripAdvisor. For a food tour, this was the least amount of food that we ate but the pace was very nice for the more mature traveler. It was a relaxed tour. Carmelita is very communicative and will send all kinds of recommendations even after the tour. A tour with Cook Italy is a gently paced tour.

But Carmelita’s standards and critique of the gastronomy scene is fierce and pointed. Carmelita is passionate about those she disdains and even more passionate about those whom she admires. If you want that style of guide, then she is for you.

Those hams are all the same because of special selection.

Here are some of Cook Italy’s recommendations:

Best aperitivo

Gamberini via Ugo Bassi
I Conoscenti via Mazzini
Stefano Cardi same street

Best gelato

Sablè  – in a Class of its own
Cremeria Santo Stefano – via Santo Stefano
Cremeria Cavour – in Piazza Cavour

Best little cakes  

Pasticceria mignon

Regina de Quadri – via Castiglione
La Borbonica  – via Riva Reno
Stefano Cardi as before
Gamberini as before

Inside Enoteca Italiana

As my friend commented, we had the least amount of food on this food tour. But, we did stop for a quick snack, and then for the light lunch. Also, a balsamic tasting. For three hours, the tour cost 280 euro for the group.

Carmelita will also come after you after the tour to write reviews. Beware. In the nicest way, but you are forewarned.

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.

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!

12 Seasons of Roman Vegetables and Fruit

Romans truly eat by season. They get excited by what is only available at certain times of the year. Of course, all year, there are imported vegetables and fruit in Rome, but the Romans still find joy in the seasonality of fresh vegetables. And, it seems like chicory is always in season…

Three types of asparagus with the expensive wild version in the front.

Cicoria (chi-CORE-E-ah) or chicory is “Italian dandelion” and is a bitter green leafy vegetable that looks a bit like spinach. If you live in the U.S. and want to plant some for your self, this farm sells the seeds.

January: puntarelle (puhn-tah-R-ALE-eh), or cicoria di catalogna or cicoria asparago (although no one in Rome uses these names) is in the chicory family but looks more like a thick stemmed dandelion. The Romans eat the white stems, cut to curl up, in a salad with an anchovy garlic dressing — like a zero-carb caesar salad. No cheese. In other parts of Italy, puntarelle are cooked. In Rome, only the trimmings are cooked as part of a general vegetable stew. But, the white inner stems are the treasure.

The first stage of the preparation of puntarelle.
Puntarelle ready for dressing.

March: agretti, asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus), fava beans, and artichokes. Wild asparagus are slimmer and have a stronger taste. Agretti (Salsola Soda, opposite-leaved saltwort, opposite leaf Russian thistle, Roscano, or barilla plant) is almost unknown in the English speaking world, although recently becoming a bit of a thing with chefs.

Agretti
Peas and fava beans are both eaten fresh and raw when young. Fava beans are eaten with pecorino cheese.

April: Strawberries, agretti (monk’s beard), peas, beans, and small artichokes.

May: Peas, beans, spring onions, garlic chives, etc.

June: Apricots, peaches, green beans, potatoes, etc.

July: Melons, peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, lettuce, etc.

August: This was hard to figure out as most of the markets close in August… but at the back of the Trionfale market, there are still some zero kilometer farmers who sell their produce. So it’s all about peaches, cucumbers, pears, walnuts, water melons, cantaloup melons (called so because they were grown in Cantalupo just outside Rome), lettuce, grapes, nectarines, plums, and apples.

Apples

September: Pears, apples, figs, melons, lettuce, broccoli tops, pumpkins, pumpkin greens, plums, peppers, chiles, peaches, and grapes.

Pumpkin greens

October: pumpkin, potatoes, gourds, squash, nuts, cabbage, lettuce, and peppers.

November: potatoes, clementines, and nespole/medlars.

Medlars which one eats when they are brown and toffee like.

December: puntarelle, artichokes, and clementines.

clementines

Every restaurant will have “seasonal vegetable” on the menu and it will always be cicoria/chicory greens. Very healthy. One of the nice things about living in Rome is that it is possible to eat pesticide free food and in a perpetual “farmer’s market” all year round. I have to admit that I’m excited for artichoke season after not having artichokes for six months.