I love that in Italy, August is the national month of vacation. Towards the end of July, people go around saying “I’ll see you in September!” and this appreciation for leisure is partly why the Italian life is so hard to give up.
I went to Elba for a week. I’m not going to bore you with cultural facts and history (boring!).
My idea of a vacation is eating, working out (on getting a wicked sweet tan aka lying on the beach), drinking and lounging. And not feeling guilty for having brioche everyday at breakfast overlooking the sea. Fresh fruit and sweet island baby tomatoes. Crisp minerally wine. FISH. Oh man, I learned how to make octopus! I’ll make that adventure in a new post.
Elba island is off the Tuscan coast and can be reached easily by ferry from Piombino. It is one of the most authentic vacation spots with thriving fishing villages. Their wine and agriculture sector is exploding and bursting with deliciousness. The weather is perfect for ripe wine grapes and catches the perfect amount of breeze from the sea. The summer fruit like peaches and susine are simply incredible and juicy. However, this is not historic. In the sense that, Elba was originally a mining center and agriculture is just now starting to take root. If you are an Italophile like me, I highly recommend a stay in Portoferraiofor a real taste of Italian island life off the typical tourist path. If you do, do not miss a visit to one of the most beautiful wine bars I have ever been to in my life: Enoteca della Fortezza. They showcase Slow Food Italy wines from Elba and it is so not expensive! And you can get small platters and purchase bottles of wine on-site. Of course, you can sit outside with a view of the sea…che bellezza!
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.
Do you know how to pick out fish from the market? Do you even buy fish?
I was recently sitting around the dinner table with friends and we were discussing fish and how asian cultures fight over who gets to eat the fish eyes and camp out at their local fish monger to get 1st dibs on the fish heads. And we also discussed about how ones Sicilian grandma used to know a good fish by how its liver felt or how its eyes were glazed. And how now his mom (his grandmothers daughter) can just barely pick out the freshest whole fish, having lost that knowledge from her mother on how to judge a fish by its gallbladder.
Being American, I was fascinated by this discussion. Most of us go to the shop to buy filets. Or frozen breaded packaged stuff. If we even eat the stuff at all. As much as I love food and want to deepen my relationship with it by gardening and cooking from scratch, fish intimidates me. As I suspect for most people. The only fish I know how to prepare well is salmon, and that’s because it is from my culture being from the Pacific Northwest where salmon defines our culinary identity.
My mom taught me how to buy salmon whole. How to cook it, skin it and de-bone it. This is a small beginning to American gastronomic heritage. This is what I fear we are loosing, all over the world. Gastronomic heritage.
I don’t know how to shop for good fish, and there should not be a manual. This post is not a series of top ten tips or even the 7 things you must know about fresh fish. What I think people need to do is to talk to people. Talk to your grandma or grandpa. Meet your fish monger. Find the nearest fishing terminal/port. Get to know your favorite restaurant staff. Hell, even talk to the barman at your local fisherman’s pub. These things in gastronomic heritage are things we must pass down by story telling. We must pass down through our relationships, not with some sterile blog who the author behind it you will never meet. Make a fish bake date with your grandparents or someone elses. Even if you don’t like fish, it’s probably a good idea to hang out for dinner with your Nan.
Also, I think it is important to understand how much fish are at risk. Fish are at pathetic populations, swimming in polluted seas. You must also understand how farmed fish is not the answer, at least industrial chemically farmed fish. I sometimes can’t believe how people put things in their mouths without understanding the whole story behind it, or at least part of it.
These are a few great resources about fish and fishermen.
Last time I was in London, I ragged pretty hard on the food culture in this post. How can you blame me- I live in Italy ferchrissake. However, I returned in May to be greeted with a brand new view. I realized, the food culture in London is better in certain ways than in Italy. GASP!!!! HOW DARE I??? The English??? Better food culture??
Wait, wait just hear me out! I have a few reasons. Some of the most celebrated chefs have come out of the UK. Nigella, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, just to name a few big wigs in the food world. 2nd reason: The youth is leading and taking charge of the artisan, slow food movement in the UK. In Italy, everyone talks about the cute mom and pop bakeries that start rolling out dough at midnight in order to have fresh breakfast pastries and bread by dawn. But key word: mom and pop. Pay attention the next time you are in Italy in these wine shops, veggie stands, bakeries, banco mobili (food carts) selling lampredotto or porchetta. They are sadly mostly in a similar (older) age bracket. Due to the idea that there is little opportunity left for the Italian youth, a large percentage (of the youth) are fleeing this country at an alarming rate and not following behind their parents slow food from scratch ways. Instead, the food supply is increasingly becoming monopolized by questionable entities, and in come regions affected by polluted water ways from illegal dumping and improper municipal waste management (by more questionable entities) which eventually seep into the food system. Afterall, water is the principle ingredient in the feed for crops and livestock. You have polluted water, you have polluted soil. If given a choice, I would much rather purchase mozzarella di bufala produced in Devon (UK) than from Campania (Southern Italy).
This time in London, I was refreshed by the amount of youth working at these artisan food markets. Even delighted that I found various young Italians as slow food purveyors, too. Struck by this reality, I returned to Florence only to notice I was one of the few young people on the morning commuter bus. But also discovered how fortunate I am to have a job in Italy and even more determined to not give up on Italy and the necessity to the positives or else if I do, with everyone else, many things that the world loves about Italy will be flushed downstream, just like toxins polluting the precious mozzarella.
That being said, here is a slideshow of what I found during my last trip. Enjoy:)
A lot of people I know who like Italian food love pasta. It is the cornerstone of Italian cuisine, it is what makes Italian cuisine, at least modern-day Italian. I go through phases of shunning carbs and gluten but during the winter months like January and February- I can’t seem to help myself.
Recently I have had to attend some culinary dinner events which included pasta making top chef-like challenges. So after one weekend of an event I borrow a pasta maker because I’m really curious if I can do it on my own after observing it at these events. All I gotta do is look up a recipe, give me a machine and I’ll figure it out, right?
So I call a pal to see if she is game for an afternoon of pasta making. She trumps my request by adding that we make our fresh pasta with a ragù of cinghiale (aka wild boar ragù). The game is on.
The night before I was excited. I told some Italian friends about my plans for the next day, they seemed impressed and respond by saying basically how weird is it that a couple of Americans are making something that Italians themselves are forgetting about. Italy is being colonized by the Big Mac meanwhile American foodies teach themselves how to make the traditional dishes their grandparents used to make. Incredible.
After some trials and tribulations of finding wild boar meat in the city of Florence, my trusty sidekick succeeds in finding some from a local butcher and marinates it overnight with garlic, rosemary and wine.
We spend about 3 hours simmering a wild boar ragù– which is basically a red meat sauce starting with a battuto of carrot, celery, onion, peeled tomatoes, red wine and ground marinated cinghiale.
While the sauce is simmering we mak’ala pasta!
Start with 1 cup of all purpose flour and a cup of whole grain flour (believe me the consistency and texture is real nice- plus the fiber will make you feel less guilty for eating pasta! score!) mix it in a bowl with a pinch of sea salt. Pour it on a dry surface and stick your fingers in the middle to form a volcano
Then when you get a deep valley in your lump of flour, crack 4 eggs into it, careful to not let the lava spill quite yet.
Then you put a few drops of olive oil in your egg lava nest and try to whisk the mix without letting it spill of the sides. But if it does, don’t worry. I did and the pasta came out just fine. Once the lava is all mixed, start incorporating flour in little by little with a fork.
Then just say screw it with the dainty fork and just get your hands all up in it and capture all your flour and knead like crazy- pasta dough is very kneady process and needs a lot of kneading care. get it…get it??!!! It’s a PUN!!!! No? Just me? Okay moving on….
Once your dough has got all it has kneaded..(okay, I promise to stop…) Tada! Let it rest, it’s taken quite the beating. For about a half an hour. In the meantime, feel free to eat chocolate, drink coffee and sip on wine. Yep, that’s Italy!
After the rest and by now I hope you’re buzzing and cracked out on caffeine…it’s the perfect time to do something time consuming and somewhat tedious- and that’s rolling out the pasta dough and cutting it! Good thing we were making a slow cooked ragù…maybe that’s why it was discovered! Maybe someone left some meat sauce on the stove while making fresh pasta and it turned into a delicious melt-in-your mouth wonder!
Be sure to keep your surface nice and floured as you are slicing your dough and flattening it out a bit.
When using a pasta machine and making sheets of pasta from the dough, start with the lowest setting and work your way up to your desired thickness/thinness. Once you make flat sheets of pasta, you put it through the cutting attachment as seen here in exhibit: z.
After you cut your pasta, you lay them on a flat plate-object like a plastic sheet or cutting board make sure they don’t stick together by adding a bit of flour, untangling the strands like hair.
And you must have a fun face on while you are doing it. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong. In fact, in life you must always have a fun face on.
Your slow cooked ragù is almost ready. So boil up a large pot of water, add all your hard earned pasta in and cook for no more than 3 minutes. A spectator in the peanut gallery of this adventure said “how funny that something that takes so long to prepare takes so little to cook.” Deep thoughts about pasta, yes this is Italy.
When your pasta is cooked and drained, pile some on a few plates and dollop a nice ladle of your slow simmered wild boar cinghiale ragù on top. Grate some aged pecorino on top and you got yourself a plate of pasta that will knock Dante Alighieri’s socks off.
Don’t forget to stop and smell. Watch. Drool. Devour.
Don’t forget to pair with some red wine. Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino…heck just make sure you have some goddamn red wine, preferably from Tuscany. Oh and make sure it’s daytime. Drinking during the day is totally okay. Only in Italy can you drink all day and be called a wine expert. Back home we call that a lush or an alcoholic! What a relief to live with real culture!
I think I will use this post as blackmail to get my friends and family back home to come visit. You want this? Then come visit me. Mwahahahaha! I mean, hundreds of dollars on a plane ticket is sooooo worth a lunch like this…and with me- hello! Sheesh. NO BRAINER! See you soon! 😛
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