I love bitters. Bitters are so insanely good for you, it’s ridiculous. What do I mean by bitters? Well, there are bitter elixirs that go into craft cocktails like Manhattans and then there are foods and drinks with bitter components. Like coffee, wine and tea. Foods with bitter components are things like kale, chard, cabbages, some citrus fruits, hearty lettuces, etc.
Any cheese hounds out there? This post is for you. The beauty of Italy is the regional bounty of genuine, typical products. And if you find yourself in Tuscany (Florence, Siena, Lucca, Prato, Pisa, etc) you may find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of selection in the shops or food markets.
Dog is a man’s best friend- even more so for truffle hunters in Italy.
My wanderlust in life is directly called from food. Like a child listening for the ocean in a seashell, I pay attention to how I can get closer and closer. To understand the fabric that makes global consumption tick. How and where food originates. And recently, I was able to follow the whispers of my inner wanderlust by going into the wild for a truffle hunt in San Miniato, Tuscany.
Truffles are as precious as gold, sold for hundreds on the ounce in some cases. They are wildly debated as a tuber or as a mushroom. To me, they seem like a little of both. They grow underground like a tuber, but grow spores wildly like a mushroom. Their taste is hunted for by umami seekers worldwide. In Italy, they are a serious business. I saw some dogs in the woods sniffing around with muzzles, not because they could bite, but because other hunters plant booby traps of poison. In just a small village in Tuscany, the size of 39 square miles, there are over 1000 registered truffle hunters. Of that 39 miles, perhaps just a quarter of that (maybe less, maybe more I couldn’t be bothered to check.) has woods where the prized truffle can flourish.
It is said that in order for an abundant truffle season, it must rain between the 1st 2 weeks of August. If there are few truffles, the competition grows fierce. If you attempt to hunt in an area where you usually don’t hunt and are unknown by locals, you may return to your car with slashed tires. So they say. Dog poisoning and vandalism all for the sake of umami.
We spent a great day in nature, with our hunter’s best friend (a pup!) following the wise olfactory guidance of this little pup, Titta.
At the end of the day, we found SEVERAL white truffles!
We paused for an aperitivo of wild (gathered) porcini crostini and prosecco (I love Italy for moments like these) and went on to wash them.
After they were washed and the prosecco was finished, we headed to a local trattoria to bask in the jewels little truffle pup had found. Truffles on prized Lardo della Colonnata.
Truffles on eggs over easy
Lonely, fresh buttered and pepper Tagliatelle
Made into pure sensory bliss with our fresh, grated white truffles on top
And dessert. Of course. No truffles were harmed in this course, sadly.
If you are interested in experiencing what I had the joy and inspiration to experience, contact me for booking and pricing. This truffle hunt excursion is offered by the lovely leaders of an organization I collaborate with whose aim is to connect the public with small producers that are dedicated to traditional, sustainable Tuscan Italian gastronomy and agriculture.
For the longest time, I refused to visit Venice. Once I learned that there is only one Venetian for every hundred tourists, I had no desire to be apart of that statistic. Tourists are a necessary good in the world, but in cities like Venice and Florence, we become exhausting to the locals. Can you imagine living in a city that is a disneyland with people blocking your commute with their wanderlost stuck in a map or drooling with their heads cocked up at some random monument? Blocking the paths while posing for their obsession with documenting every single detail (um, has anyone ever tried to guess how many millions of other people have that same token shot off the Rialto bridge?) GOSH! C’mon!
I decided to break my boycott.
What I took away: Spritz and cichèti! YUMMM!!!! I discovered the glorious world of cichèti! Cichèti is Venetian finger food (like tapas!). It’s the revolution of the tavola calda, the mecca of the happy hour, the game changer of the aperitivo and paradise for seafood lovers and the hell for anyone with shellfish allergies. I feel so sorry for those people.
Drink: Spritz is a Venetian cocktail comprised of a bitter liqueur (campari, aperol, cynar, etc) prosecco and soda water.
Cost? In Florence, a spritz can be like 6€ (screw that!!!) in Venice, if you get out of the crap tourist traps, you’ll pay no more than 3€ and they are the best in Venice. My favorite was the Cynar variety (a bitter amaro liqueur made from artichoke, so good for your liver?).
A cynar spritz is served with one of those delicious fatty green olives and a slice of lemon. Perfect for potato chips and general sipping. Or, for many Venetians, perfect for that 11am pick-me-up. 😉
What I found most odd was the Venetian style of gazzosa, which is usually a soft drink like a lemon soda, etc. But what I drank in Venice included a light local red wine with sprite. EWWW you might think (as did I) but on a warm day on the lagoon, it’s not so bad.
Basically, cicheterie have a drool worthy spread of various first courses and fishy dishes like stuffed octopus, calamari salad, baccalà and polenta, baccalà mantecato (a puree of cod), baked mussels, scallops, pine nut and raisin laced sardines…the list is making me hungry just re-hashing it.
Do you have any favorite nibbles and sips from Venice? Share! 🙂
Until next time,
Want some restaurant and general travel advice for visiting Venice? Perhaps tips for a culinary tour in Venice? Contact me.
It was when I moved to London on a whim with nothing more than a temporary work permit at age 19 that my appetite grew for travel and the desire to move to Italy after a summer weekend getaway in Florence. I remember it like it was yesterday: I was in awe surrounded by beautiful architecture, fresh fish and summer salads. I turned to my travel partner and said:
“I want to live here one day. I want to learn Italian.”
…and I did. 7 years later. So I look back on London very fondly. It was my gateway drug to my expat desires.
Recently, I was offered an opportunity to stay in London for a month for a secret food and wine mission. I accepted. But the critic in me unleashed its analytical wrath within just hours of arriving.
To say the least, I was shocked by a lot of things concerning the British lifestyle. After living in Italy for nearly 7 months now, I was quite excited to go back to an Anglo culture for a little bit. Italy can be tiring for a young, foreign American woman. You think I’m joking, but in Italy I am not really taken seriously in certain situations based on my age and gender. Also, people assume I am a rich American tourist. It could be worse if I were in a developing country, but c’mon this is ITALY. It is a country in EUROPE. I shouldn’t have to make such comparative justifications.
As happy as I was to be surrounded by so many options in the grocery stores (like a whole section of greek yogurt! In Italy it is the same dinky overpriced Fage. One variety: plain.) I was relieved to be able to speak my language and be respected. And, to find such a variety of international foods, sauces, condiments, spices and organic granola hipster culture food. I was quite tickled when I was able to make this delicious shallow fried tofu and veg green coconut milk Thai curry:
But after a few days, I found that I really appreciate Italian food culture. In London (like in Seattle) cuisine is imported. There is a plethora of fusion but nothing quite convincing of its own. Yes, the Brits have a cuisine and it is very modest and humble. Meat pastry pies, scotch duck eggs, fish, stilton, cheddar truckles, oysters, roasted root veggies…they do indeed have delicious fare. But what they lack is culture in comparison to the Italians.
Please note: the following comments are merely gross generalizations.
I noticed a lot of drinking and not a lot of food pairing. In Italy, it is almost a violation to serve an alcoholic drink without some sort of snack- even if it is a small bowl of chips and nuts. “Happy Hour” in London consist of, not full on buffet bars of lasagna, salami, cheeses and radicchio salads like at an Italian aperitivo, but rather 4 beers for 10 quid. People work hard in London. They live in small flats. By the time you come home after a ten-hour day combined of work + riding the grey, crowded and smelly tube all you want to do is relax with a beer, eat something quick or grab dinner at the pub. And smoke a lot of cigarettes. My diet was at its lowest while I was there. Not because there isn’t good food, but because I was so busy and refused to pay a lot of money on food. Food is to me, a basic human right and should be affordable and good. Good food in London (and in Seattle) come at a premium. In Italy, good food is accessible to everyone. I can get a big bag of local organic farmer market produce at 5-10 euros. It’s not trendy, it is just the way they do it. And no wonder rates of diet-related disease are lower and people seem generally healthy and vibrant.
In London, I noticed an affluent couple taking a picture of perfectly merchandised Romanesco (a simple cruciferous vegetable related to the cauliflower priced at a whopping 9pound x Kilo). The said vegetable celebrity was paparazzi’d at the food hall at Selfridges ( Hellridges: a pretentious food museum) because the couple had never seen it before and I recall laughing to myself and trying really hard not to scold (judge) them silently for this blatant food voyeurism.
I did however manage to eat delicious samosas and Indian food on Brick Lane. Just walking through the colorful street with spices lining the store counters piled up in the shapes of upside down cones and fresh fried samosas sitting innocently in the windows wafting their savory turmeric and chili aromas deep into your nostrils, so deep that you can almost taste the mushy potatoes, curried lamb and fried fennel seed within those little triangular pockets of Indian heaven. As well as decadent spicy onion bhajee with tamarind.
While I was on my food mission, I discovered a couple true English food gems. Such as: Christmas Pudding w/ Brandy Cream (and Brandy Butter) and mince pie. A mince pie is not what you think I thought (a savory pastry pie filled with minced meat). The mince is actually a sweet pastry filled with a winter spiced apple and dried fruit gunk. Christmas pudding is this gooey sticky fruit cake thing that is soaked in brandy or some sort of booze and is set on fire and served warm with the brandy fat/cream products oozing on top.
I was lucky enough to be in a small beach town in East Sussex with a lovely Brit family that left a wonderful taste in my mouth about the English food culture.
On Christmas Day, you basically eat everything all day long. Not much different from the rest of the Christmas celebrating world. Port and Cheese is not an uncommon compliment and neither are little sausages wrapped in bacon, homemade cranberry sauce and creamy bread pudding. The food social scientist in me asked a lot of questions concerning food and tradition to the family’s grandmother. She told me that in her school years, domestic sciences were taught where you learned all cooking basics and knitting. Like I imagine home-economics was in American schools. Those classes don’t exist anymore (at least in the U.S.) and no wonder why people of our generation are having to either teach themselves culinary arts as apart of hipster homesteading trends or simply eat processed convenience foods out of ignorance. I notice, that in America unless you come from a liberal, educated family (or a very rich one), your holiday dinners generally come from a box, a can and a cling-wrapped foster farms tortured processed meat product. In England, at least most people from a wide range of socio-economical backgrounds cook from scratch.
After my trip, I realized Italy is the best place on earth. People (Italians) sometimes take for granted how precious their country is. What other country has what Italy has: Rome, Venice, Sicily, food, wine, art, history, music, Milan…the list goes on and on. Not only is Italy wonderful for its rich landscape and crystal blue beaches but the also the way everyone respects each other, their body and how to eat (and live) a good life. I heard so many Italians on the streets in London and it made me sad because I know why they are there. Young Italians are giving up on Italy and fleeing to more affluent (organized) parts of the world for a “better” life. But what constitutes a better life? To me, I left America and effectively rejected my culture in order to live a better life. In Italy. And this is where I plan to stay until its not fun anymore.
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