Bambina at the Beach

While the Americans and northern Europeans flock to the Tuscan countryside, the Tuscans head for the shore.

girls at beachThe Italian constitution establishes work as the right of every citizen, but it could almost make the same claim for an annual beach vacation, since the way those are talked of here is as of a duty or a need. “Lo faccio fare del mare”—I’m having him do time at the shore, the parents and grandparents boast to one another of the children’s summer plans. From the plumber to the banker, every one seems to have a “casa al mare,” which I discovered early in my life in Italy means a cramped, sparsely furnished, 1960s- or ‘70s-built apartment and not the Martha’s Vineyard homesteads atop swaths of pristine private beach I had imagined.

Going to the seaside for vacation is a post-war phenomenon in Italy. Before the 1950s, the mountains were the destination of choice for anyone of means, and wisely so. They are still the only place to escape the brutal heat of summers on the peninsula. But these days, when the English and Germans and Americans rush in to occupy the Tuscan countryside in August, the Italians flee to the beach, to days that proceed as follows:

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Lessons in Wine

How not to sell wine.

For a number of years, I worked as a buyer of Italian wines for a US wine importer. Annual trips to wine regions were a tradition. A few years ago, we had managed to gather a group of ten of our best clients, buyers from some of the most important restaurants and retailers in the country, for a tour starting in Sicily.

We were in a rental van, heading north on the E6 toward Messina. Jay, the owner of four important restaurants, was driving, and his assistant, Alec rode shotgun. I was giving them the lay of the land in Sicilian winemaking, leaning through the middle of the two front seats and going through my points, kind of loudly to get over the sound of the road, ignoring for the moment, the clients farther back in the van, whom I thought I’d educate later.

They were all arrivistes, I was saying, all the newly-trendy wineries that the press couldn’t get enough of, all the names being bantered among buyers as the hottest new properties, had no Sicilian roots at all. The families actually from here, families that were bottling wine before the turn of the millennium, were only a handful.  That was my first point, to separate for them the natives from the newcomers, which struck me, as an importer, as essential.

“Salenti, that’s the guy,” interrupted Jay, leaning forward and looking over at Alec, an up-and-coming sommelier at the hottest of Jay’s four cash-printing restaurants. “He’s got incredible wines, Alec.” Inevitably, a journalist—not a frequent visitor to Sicily—proved to be the source of Jay’s discovery. “Had dinner over at Sam Binnel’s place last fall. He opened Salenti’s ’02 Lavaria for me. Talk about terroir. 90 year old vines. Blew me away.”

“Salenti’s actually from Milan,” I carefully rejoined. Continue reading “Lessons in Wine”

Bringing Up Bambina

A healthy children’s diet, all’Italiana…!

In order to instill a lifetime of sound eating habits in your children, all you need is an Italian grandmother, and the will to stand back for twelve years or so, while she feeds them the opposite of what you would. You won’t have to foist the responsibility on her—she will take it as soon as she can. Conversely, should you not care to hand it over, you’ll find her expert slavish service to your child will remove your entire generation from the running.

Glass of eggThe moment I gave up nursing, my mother-in-law, Rita, stepped in with a diet of bottles of baby biscuits dissolved in boiled cow’s milk that continued (in its later stages by stealth) until Giorgia was almost five. Starting around six months old, my daughter also got a raw farmer’s egg to drink mid-morning, which quickly became a favorite. (Even the Italian physician balked at this: better a store-bought egg, she said.) At a year or so of age, she was ushered into the three-meals-and-two-snacks day that accompany Italians from the cradle to the grave.

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On the Second Day of Easter…

Ten ingredients for a truly Tuscan Easter.

yellow linden blossomsIt’s still Easter in Italy, in a manner of speaking. Yesterday, Sunday, was “Pasqua,” and today, Monday, is the holiday known as “Pasquetta,” or the mini-Easter, the day on which friends and family vie for the right to host rather than attend one another’s buffets of leftovers. So, while the spirit lingers, here are the ten ingredients for a real Tuscan Easter:

1. Reserve a lamb in advance with the nearest sheep-herding Sardinian farmer. When you go to pick it up, remind him that last year’s was tough and overpriced, in the hope that he’ll feel bad and give you some of that fresh ricotta he is sure to have made for the holidays. Put the lamb in the freezer. Continue reading “On the Second Day of Easter…”

Down to Earth

The real experts come to make pizza in our brick oven.

pizze margheriteYesterday, Lidia, Luciana and Bruna came to make pizza. They came early, built a huge fire in the old brick oven, and sat on folding chairs on the lawn while it burnt all day. Then around five, they went to work extending the dough on the rectangular, aluminum teglie, smearing the sauce across, scattering the mozzarella, and at last shoveling out all the coals and settling the pizzas toward the back of the oven’s dome to cook. The tomato sauce was ours from the garden, but the mozzarella was supermarket, yet the pizza was divine: crispy, tangy, milky, and tinged with roasted flavor. Continue reading “Down to Earth”

To Market, To Market

“Local” and “organic” taken to the limit.

Last week, the first really cold one this winter, I was at the farmer’s market in Siena, standing in front of the “Azienda Agricola San Pancrazio” meat booth, trying to think of something seasonal to cook for dinner, which in January means pork. With the grapes and olives harvested and the fields frosted over, the post-holiday lull has traditionally afforded farmers the time to undertake a task that kept their families fed for months. I had been in Tuscany almost a year when that task showed me first hand what “local” and “organic” really mean.

Ape“Tell him we’ve killed the pig,” squawked the voice, and hung up. I called my soon-to-be-husband, relayed the message, and was told, “You’d better go get him.” So I started up the ape, our ancient, three-wheeled, stiff-clutched, over-steering little pick-up, and, after one false start (my mother-in-law came running out of the house, hollering over the roar and grind of the ape, “Don’t forget the blood!”), drove up the mountain to the neighbors’ farm to collect our apparently free-ranged pig carcass, which then spent the night in our barn.

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Bar Tips

How to behave during the Italian rite-of-passage that is having a morning coffee at the local bar.

Foamy cappuccino in a cupTo those who come to me asking how to see “the real Tuscany,” I say, forget the Uffizzi, the wineries and the villas, and go to a bar—a bar in the Italian sense of the word, that is a café. Ah, you think, a welcome break in the pace and pressure of travel with family, twenty minutes to slip into neutral, park myself over a long, warm coffee, and shoot the breeze or flip through the paper. But that wouldn’t be Tuscany at all.

First, make your entrance. Open the door, step inside, and stop. The whole bar will turn and look you up and down (they know you’re American by now), at which point, stand tall, try to look bored and mildly disdainful, and scan the room, as if for danger or possible prey. Then, walk straight to the pastry counter. Order “un’ brioche,” which is the thing that looks like a croissant, or if you absolutely have to point, say “quella,” not “quello” because pastry is feminine. When you are handed your pastry in a napkin, resist the urge to thank anyone, and don’t smile; it looks suspicious so early in the day. Continue reading “Bar Tips”