Having lived in rural Italy for nearly 12 years I have learned never to expect the mundane and that every single day will present something unusual.
I am travelling around Thailand at the moment with a friend who lives mostly in London. The differences in our handling of situations are vast. My friend becomes irate at almost every inconvenience, every little set back and has no patience when a local person is trying to tell us something.
I on the other hand listen and look and of course smile. It then becomes much easier to understand what I am being told.
I am used to strange and unexpected things happening in my life (I do live in the country after all!). Things such as our taxi running out of petrol in the middle of Bangkok at 2 in the morning. My friend was furious and stormed off. I just flagged another one down and started again. The taxi drivers here seem to just cover one area of Bangkok (where I am currently) and so don’t know the other parts of the zone. This infuriated my companion here but as I keep saying, this isn’t London, life here is much more exiting!
Customs and general behaviour are obviously different. Religion, culture. It needs to be respected not compared to “back home”. Living in Italy, even such a short distance from my birth country has taught me that things done a different way aren’t wrong, they are just different and one shouldn’t anger because something is done in a different way. Instead, it is an opportunity to find a fascinating insight of into the culture.
Had a great evening recently at the Trattoria da Ubaldo in Lucca.
It’s a quirky place which is found in the street that runs around the back of the perimeter of the anfiteatro (amphitheatre) dating back to Roman times.
I didn’t know what to expect at this restaurant owned by eccentric Frank Zappa look-alike, Ubaldo.
On arrival, I was delighted to be greeted by the host and taken to our table.
The restaurant is full of amusing references to horror. A coffin is suspended over the entrance and there are toys in various states of added or removed limbs, rather like Toy Story as well as skulls on the fridge, upside down Christmas tree and an array of cazzi (look that one up yourselves!). Oh by the way, it is usually full of local diners so you know you are getting a good deal!
Now, this restaurant is very meaty and not really very good for vegetarians but, as a ‘pescatarian’, Ubaldo had made some fish dishes for us to eat.
The first was a fish soup. Delicious and full of flavour and extremely filling. The second was an octopus sauce, spicy and for my tastes a little salty but still good and served with polenta. I also add that while I found this dish salty, my Italian friend found it very spicy and hot.
Now at this stage I was full to the brim but I forced down a pudding of pear and chocolate in a filo pastry.
We washed the meal down with a bottle of Ubaldo wine, and finished with coffee and limoncello.
The price was good for what we ate and yes I would go back.
This is a delicious tomato dish that costs very little, uses up some stale bread and is filling and warming.
- 300 g stale Italian style bread
- 800 g ripe tomatoes or tomato passata
- 1 lt vegetable stock
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 sprig of basil
- 1 tsp of fine sugar
- Extra virgin olive oil
Thinly slice the bread and bake for a few minutes at 200 degrees on a baking tray with baking paper. Set aside to cool.
Peel the garlic cloves and rub them on the bread and cut the bread into pieces.
If using fresh tomatoes, you should blanch them and remove the skin and seeds. Roughly chop them.
Warm some extra virgin olive oil in a pan and add the garlic used to flavour the bread. Add the toasted bread pieces.
Add the chopped tomatoes or the tomato passata.
Add the stock which should be boiling, so that it covers the toasted bread and ad a pinch of sugar.
Add some chopped basil to taste and cook over a low heat for 40 minutes gradually adding the remaining stock, stirring occasionally.
Remove from the heat when cooked and serve garnished with basil.
This dish is warming in winter but can be served at room temperature in the summer when it is a refreshing snack.
For more flavour you can soften some onion and celery before adding the tomatoes although this as a modern addition to the recipe.
The garlic can be removed if added whole or, you can finely chop it before adding it for a stronger flavour.
After serving olive oil can be added to the bowl to taste before eating.
The traditional Tuscan way of eating this dish is from an earthenware bowl.
Spring is in the air here in Tuscany and life is a buzz..!
Seriously, the moment the sun comes out to visit after winter time, every one is out having a strim.
Here in Italy, well, in the Tuscan countryside, the only way to garden is to use a strimmer. The sun rises and all day long buzzing of keen Italian gardeners cutting back the new growth of the season fills the air, and believe me things can grow really fast here in sunny Tuscany!
The first sign that spring is coming is the appearance of the Mimosa. It is given to ladies on the “Festa della Donna” or International Women’s day. It has tiny yellow fragrant flowers and grows very easily in these parts. Not only is it very common here but it’s also extremely versatile. You can use it to make cakes and drinks. Hmmmm, maybe I’ll let you have a recipe for this in the near future.
We’ve been joining in the spring time gardening fever and have cleared a small piece of land that we have. This land can only be used for planting though and not for animals. We do have another tiny piece that can only be used to tether animals so there’s a great place if the kids start to play up!
Now that we have cleared our land we will wait until the end of April or May time and start our “orto” or veg patch but I won’t be adhering to the local custom of planting certain plants when the moon is at a particular stage in its cycle, that’s far too complicated for us.
We’ll grow the staple tomatoes, both salad and normal, courgettes (zucchini), aubergine, cucumber and peppers. Yummy, can’t wait. There’s nothing more satisfying than just nipping out to the garden to pick a basket full of vegetables and then going back to cook and eat them the same day. Love it.
We have rescued our poor fig tree which was overwhelmed by brambles and elder (sambuco). This plant will be my absolute joy this summer when it should produce two crops of delicious figs. My favourite. I eat the the whole fruit, and very quickly I might add, but Italian friends of mine howl with laughter because they don’t eat the skin. Just the insides but that is a subject for another post in the future.
Volterra is a place I hadn’t visited before so when the opportunity arose to go and see this very medieval hill top town, as usual, I jumped at the chance.
You may have heard of it. It is an important location in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series although most of the important scenes were actually shot in Montepulciano, another place on my must visit and report on list.
After the fabulous views all around this place, I was struck initially about how sensible it was organised. I mean, there is actually a carpark (paid parking) under the town. We had no trouble in parking and it was easy to find our way into the main part, inside the walls.
First impressions, alabaster. There is a lot of alabaster here. There is the Alabaster Museum to visit where there are over 300 pieces of art from the 18th and 19th centuries. There are also more than a few alabaster shops where you can buy some quite classy pieces for the house or just a simple holiday souvenir. You also have the chance to see the alabaster being worked in one of the workshops there.
There is also a museum of torture which greets you with a huge werewolf. You may think is fun to visit as I did, but I found it to be quite heavy going due to the subject matter. It is, however, very well organised and interesting although afterwards, I was more than ready for a tasty glass of wine in one of the chic wine bars that dot the place.
Lunch was in a lovely trattoria down one of the little cobbled side streets, tagliatelle al tartufo washed down with a local glass of white wine and finished off with a slug of espresso.
I visited Volterra in winter time. This place gets pretty crowded in the summer and in winter you get a feel for the real town. There is a traditional Saturday market too. In the the winter it is in the Piazza dei Priori and in the summer in the Vallebuona in front of the Roman theatre. Yes Volterra has a bit of everything. Roman and Etruscan history and remains. It even has a state prison, cleverly disguised as what I thought was some sort of ancient and well-preserved castle. I hurried away when I realised!
What did I like about Volterra in winter? I like the fact that you could feel the medieval ambience there. It is a well organised place but with chic little bars down fascinating streets as well as some cool up-market shops there. You wouldn’t have the same intimacy in the summer when the crowds are pulling you in all directions and the heat can be stifling.
Summer? Yes, actually I can’t wait to go in the summer and see the change, and of course report back.