Wednesday, August 26, 2009

SAGRAS AND FESTAS

If you've been reading this blog lately, you've noticed that every week we're going to another 'festa' or 'sagra'. It's not too hard to figure out that these are local celebrations, but I thought I'd explain a bit more.

We use the terms sagra and festa interchangeably, but I think that they each signify a certain type of celebration. I think the festa is really a feast day or celebration of a saint, often the patron saint of the town, or maybe just a saint from the region - Umbria is teeming with homegrown saints - Francis, Clare, Benedict, Valentine, Rita, and more!

Sagras, on the other hand, are usually a celebration of a local food specialty - or at least that's the way it used to be! Yes, we still have the celebration of the local onions from Cannara, the black celery from Trevi, the porchetta from Costano, but we also have the celebration of Nutella, of tequilla and of crepes!

When we first arrived in Italy we thought these festas and sagras would be something like the good ole Catholic Church picnic, complete with games of chance, cake raffles and wine instead of beer. We quickly learned otherwise! First of all, local sagras and festas NEVER begin before 7:30 in the evening. The first time we came across an evening festa we assumed that on Saturday and Sundays the festivities would start around lunchtime and continue all day long, but no - 7:30 p.m. - it's almost carved in stone, just like the Italian lunch time of 1 o'clock.

Depending on the size of the festa and the size of the town, there may be travelling trucks selling a variety of goods - nuts, candy, useless plastic toys. More often than not though, the festa is simply local food cooked fresh on site by the local grandmas, then served by an army of teenage volunteers. There might be ticket sales for a raffle to be held at the end of the celebration, but it's pretty low-key. The point of a sagra or a festa is to get together with friends and family - to eat, talk and laugh, then after dinner to dance to a local band or DJ until midnight or later. Most Italians, including the kids, are up until midnight in the summer because it's just too darn hot to sleep before then. Not only is air conditioning a very rare commodity, most Italians would never dream of having a fan blowing directly on them at full blast like I do!

When we were newcomers it was fun to attend a local festa and peole watch to our hearts content. Once the (traditional) music starts the old people fill the dance floor, circling in unison with a waltz or some variation thereof. If the music happens to be more akin to rock and roll it's a different story - usually everyone just sits and watches! If the music isn't too radical some of the young adults might start a line dance, and eventually the floor will be one large group, stepping and turning as one to the music.

Now that we've been here a while we see people we know at the local festas. We can chat with the mayor or even run into the man we bought our house from! We watch the kids run around with such wild abandon, and marvel at how they've grown since we first met them. A few nights ago one local woman confided to me that we'd paid too much for our house - I told her that was probably always the case with foreigners, but that we'd been happy with the price and were glad we'd picked San Venanzo.

If you're ever in Italy, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city during the summer or fall, check out the local billboards to see if there might be a sagra or festa somewhere near you. Although you don't have to get there right at 7:30, be warned that the later the evening the longer the line, but the less time you'll have to wait for the evening's entertainment. Plan to order the special of the day, and plan to share with your friends so that you can sample a lot of different things.


There are also pictures of some typical foods we've eaten at local festas on our FLICKR PAGE in the folder named "Food in Umbria".

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

WINE TASTING = TASTY WINE!

Art received several bottles of wine for his birthday, and the other night we opened one of the bottles to share with friends. The wine was Poggio Madrigale from the Vini di Filippo winery. We'd never heard of the winery but thanks to Google I found their website and learned that they were just outside of Cannara. All four of us liked the wine so much that we decided we needed to visit the winery to see what other nice wines they might have.

Vini di Filippo - Elena
We had a group of seven the day we visited Vini di Filippo. When we'd call to ask about a tasting we were told we just needed to call one day in advance. Elena greeted us when we arrived and after giving us a brief history of the vineyard we were ready to taste! We started with the whites: crisp. light and refreshing, then moved onto the reds. For a relatively small vineyard Vini di Filippo has a nice variety of wines, including a Sagrantino.


wine glass_0035Some of us bought the white wine (Grechetto) and some of us concentrated on the reds. For us it was the Poggio Madrigale (2004) (the wine that brought us to the winery) and the Sallustio, a rosso di Montefalco (2006).

If you're in Umbria and looking for an organic winery run by nice people who make great wine, we can heatily recommend Vini di Filippo. The link will take you to their website, available in Italian, English and German. Their phone number is 074 273 1242.


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Salute!

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Friday, August 21, 2009

GARLICKY BREADCRUMBS

I know you’ve read countless times about how much I love the simplicity of Italian cooking. Fresh ingredients are the key, of course, but every once in a while I run across some little tip or trick that seems oh-so-simple but of course I’d never thought of it.

Our friend Letizia, who lives not far from Assisi, is Italian, and not surprisingly, a great cook. I don’t know where she finds the time, but she writes a food blog called MADONNA DEL PIATTO. Recently she wrote about breaded pork cutlets, and the recipe included a link to her recipe Garlicky breadcrumbs.

When I lived in the states I usually had a can of breadcrumbs on hand, and of course, being the U.S., there were a variety of choices: you could have plain bread crumbs or breadcrumbs seasoned with different herbs. Here in Italy I also have breadcrumbs on hand, but I make them myself. The saltless Umbrian bread stales quickly, so if I end up with more than I need I cut the bread into croutons or grate it into crumbs and store it in the freezer.

Why I never thought to pre-season my homemade breadcrumbs is beyond me, but when I saw Letizia’s recipe for seasoned breadcrumbs, I just said “DUH!”, and immediately wrote down the recipe for immediate inclusion in my collection! Here’s the recipe for here Garlicky breadcrumbs, but be sure to click on her link to get more great ideas for using this simple and tasty kitchen staple! Buon Appetito, and grazia Letizia!

Garlicky Breadcrumbs

2 cups (300 gr) bread crumbs
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, very finely chopped
black pepper to taste

Store in the freezer in a zip-lock back or other freezer container.

If you’re interested in staying with Letizia, here’s the link to her
AGRITURISMO and if you’d like to take cooking lessons with Letizia, click on that link! The views from the agriturismo are incredible, and I can guarantee you’ll take home some delicious recipes from her cooking lessons.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

HOT TIMES IN FRATTA TODINA!

Summer here in our part of Italy means hot and dry. Usually there’s no rain at all during July, even much of August. I think the mountain that separates us from Orvieto, Monte Peglia, has a big effect on our weather, and we still have a hard time figuring out what the weather on any given day will be. When we lived in Louisville it was pretty easy: look at the weather in St. Louis, and that’s what we’d have the next day. If there happened to be a big cold front swooping down from Canada or the remains of a hurricane in the Gulf that would of course alter the pattern, but that was the exception rather than the norm.

Italy of course has oceans on three sides, bringing us a variety of air currents. The Alps in the north and the Apennines running the length of the country also have a big effect, and the hot winds from Africa often blow our way, or we can get a cold blast of Arctic air from Russia. The weather forecasts online do us little good – we’re too far south of Perugia to depend on their forecast, too far north of Terni, and Monte Peglia usually makes the forecast for Orvieto inapplicable for us.

Yes we’re retired, and no, for the most part it doesn’t really matter what the forecast is, except on hot days like yesterday, when we’d planned to go out for the evening and wanted to leave all the windows open to catch the cooler evening air – and the difference in the night air has been significant – great for sleeping!

Throughout the day yesterday we’d heard the rumble of thunder far off in the distance, and although it was cloudy, we never saw rain clouds and weren’t expecting any rain at all. Just as we were getting ready to leave for the festa though, there was a loud KABOOM of thunder much, much closer. Our neighbors, who’d been sitting outside began gathering their seat cushions to head inside. I called down to them to ask if it was really going to rain, and was told yes, we can see it coming! We dutifully, but regretfully closed all the windows before we headed down to Fratta Todina for another festa. Because the rain here is so localized we knew there was a chance it would rain in San Venanzo but not in Fratta, or that it wouldn’t rain anywhere around us, just somehow dissipate or blow over.

As we drove down to Fratta Todina we could see a narrow band of showers moving in, but it looked liked we’d stay dry at the festa. Once we arrived down in the valley the wind was still blowing, but we didn’t see any rain or even rain clouds. After waiting a few minutes to see if the rain would arrive, we decided we were safe so we walked into town.

We’d agreed to meet our friends at the far gate to the city, and as we stood there, under the portico studying the menu, we heard a crack of thunder so loud and so close that we, and everyone around us, jumped a mile! Just a few minutes later as we walked towards a table under the cover of a tent, we saw a lot of smoke in a nearby field, and realized that yes, the lightning strike really had been THAT close!

A few minutes later we were ushered out of the tent, but I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was just because of the smoke, or because of the proximity, or maybe it was to make way for the fire trucks. Fratta Todina Festa 2009 002We found a table in the centro where we were more protected from the wind and from the smoke. After we ordered I walked back towards the fire to take a few pictures. All I’d seen earlier was the smoke, but now I was able to see that there was quite a fire burning. Everything is so dry and I think the remains of the cut hay, or whatever had been growing in the field had simply caught on fire. The smoke was so thick, and the wind was blowing it right towards me, so it was almost dark!

Fratta Todina Festa 2009 010As I walked further down I could see that another section of field was burning; this section not one large fire, but rather a long line of low flames. The fire trucks arrived via a back road, and I was told they were pumper trucks with their own water supply. After taking a few more pictures I left, and I’m sure it didn’t take the firemen long to put out the fires.


Unfortunately the area where the fire occurred was quite near to the area where the entertainment was held, and since we never heard any music I’m guessing that it might have been cancelled for the night. I don’t know who was scheduled to play, but we had to make it an early night anyway since our guest was heading to Rome at 6 a.m. the next morning.

Anyway, the lightning and subsequent fires certainly made the festa in Fratta Todina one to remember!


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Sunday, August 09, 2009

LIVE LONG AND PROS...errr...PAY BACK YOUR LOAN

I remember just before we moved to Italy Art had a visit with his eye doctor. I don't like this doctor at all - he's a real sadist and seems to get off on his patients discomfort. He's also an idiot. Here's why: When Art told him we were getting ready to move to Italy he said "That's fine if you don't want to live very long." At the time Art didn't have a smappy comeback, but now that we live here, in a hilltown, we see people in their 80's regularly walking up and down the streets here. We see the death notices posted - lots of people in their 90s. And now we know that Italy ranks #19 in life expectancy, versus # 50 for the U.S.A. (And those stats don't include San Marino in with Italy; San Marino ranks #5!)

And last week I saw the clincher: this ad, which says: "Loans to Grandparents Up To 90 Years Old". In this economy, where money it tight and loan requirements are strict, this in itself must say something about how long the banks expect their customers to live!

Loans for Grandparents

Pardon the red wine stain on the ad, but Art's convinced that the wine has something to do with the longevity, so he's testing his theory daily!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

LUNCH IN DERUTA

When we met with Jane and Ken last week the big question was "where should we have lunch?" We don't often venture far from our own little world, and usually find out about restaurants in different areas from the recommendations of friends. We had lunch back at the beginning of July with Brad and Palma at L’Antico Forziere, but not only was it out of our price range, I just hadn't been that impressed with the food. (I wrote about it HERE.)

I was hoping that Judith, who was also joining us for lunch would have some suggestions, but when she didn't, I knew exactly who to ask: Wendy! Wendy, our guardian angel knows so much about this area, and I should have asked her advice from the beginning. She recommended la Locanda dle Bracconiere, on via borgo Garibaldi,8. If you're on the lower road, (via Tibernia) turn at the only stoplight, towards the centro, and when you get to the next stoplight (just a few car lengths), you'll see the restaurant directly in front of you. You can turn left and park in the free lot that's just beyond the restaurant.

La Locanda del Bracconiere offers a great lunch special - a great antipasto buffet, your choice of pastas and your choice of a secondi (meat course). Water and wine are included, all for €15! What a deal! The antipasto buffet was gorgeous and well-stocked. If you just want to order the antipasto by itself you can order either a small plate or a large plate - the large plate is €7.50. It's a one-time trip, not like U.S. all-you-can-eat salad bars. Judith ordered two large antipasto plates and was quite satisfied.

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The special of the day included the small plate of antipasto, but if you plan carefully you can stack things up and get a little of everything - like I did! There was grilled eggplant and zucchini, tomatoes au gratin, several types of bruschetta, tomatoes with mozzarella, arugula salad. onions marinated in basalmic vinegar, cabbage salad and more.....


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Our waitress wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Between her confusion and the elctronic gizmo she was using to enter our order on, I think we all gave her our orders at least four times. Eventually she had everything straight and we set off for the antipasto buffet - and it was all as good as it looked. Our pastas arrived just as we were finishing the antipasti - the choices were spaghetti with garlic, pepperoncino and oil, or tagliatelle with ragu. The consensus was that both were wonderful, along with Casey's penne arrabiata.

The meat course was the next to arrive and we'd all selected the mixed grill. I have to say that Art and I were both surprised to find some delicious cuts of beef on the plate - tender and cooked to perfection. Normally we expect a variety of pork and sausage, but the generous servings of beef were a wonderful (and yummy) surprise.

Given the generous servings, and the fact that both water and wine are included in the daily special price of €15, I would certainly recommend Locanda del Bracconiere. I do have to note that our friend Shelly used to visit this restaurant regularly, and the last two times she was there the price had gone up to €20. She questioned the price but was told it was correct. I don't know how long ago this was, but perhaps the higher prices caused such a decline in business that the €15 lunch special was reinstated. Who knows what might happen in the future, but as of this week the daily special is still €15!

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Monday, August 03, 2009

CERAMICS IN DERUTA

Deruta_KZ_0026Our friends JANE and Ken, along with grandson Casey are back in Italy for several weeks this summer. We all wanted to get together, and since Jane had never been to Deruta, we decided to meet for some shopping and then lunch.

Jane's mission was to find a ceramic clock that would sit on a shelf - all she'd been able to find so far were wall clocks. Casey was looking for something for his mom, but the fact that he was spending his own money would make the decision very, very difficult.

We met at GERIBI, at the southern end of via Tiberina, the road that runs the length of the lower part of Deruta. We moved across the street to BETTINI and the shop next to it whose name I don't remember. We checked out several other shops within walking distance, and although Jane found a few (very few) table clocks, most were too large for the shelf she wanted to put it on.

Deruta_0002We drove a short distance to GRAZIA, one of the oldest ceramic producers in Deruta. Their pieces were exquisite, but probably the most expensive we saw. I loved these purple and lavendar dishes, new colors and a new design.






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Deruta_0009Although there are many fantastic factories and showrooms in lower Deruta, we decided to drive up to the historical center where the shops are located much closer together, meaning that we could check out quite a few in the limited time we had before lunch. The historical centro of Deruta is quite small, but of course it's charming.



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We had to check out this ceramic guitar that our friend Adam had told us about. He played the guitar and said it felt and played just like any other guitar. I wondered how heavy it was, but unfortunately the shop was closed when we were there, hence the photo through the window.













Deruta ceramic clock


It wouldn't be until after lunch, at the very last shop we looked in, the one right next door to the restaurant, that Jane found the perfect clock!











And just like at several of the other shops we'd visited, the works in progress were clearly visible. Quite often the artist will work on a piece in between customers....

Deruta ceramics - Paints


There are a few more pictures of Deruta and ceramics on our FLICKR PAGE, in the folder named "Deruta 2009".

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

ANOTHER WEEK - ANOTHER SAGRA!

Yes, this is summer in Umbria, where every week brings another sagra - or two or three. Originally sagras were festivals to celebrate the arrival of a seasonal fruit or vegetable, or a dish specific to the area. Now there are sagras for everything - there's a sagra for Nutella, even for tequila! and for every type of food imaginable. Villa San Faustino, just south of us, celebrates summer with a "Sagra del Buon Mangiare" - a celebration of good eating!


San Faustino sagra


Our friends Milena and Marco had invited us to the festa when we saw them at Larry and Shelly's 4th of July picnic, and had specifically told us to come on Thursday when a play would be the evening's entertainment. Although Milena was the one born in San Faustino, her husband Marco would be in the play. They warned us that there would be lots of dialect, so we probably wouldn't understand what was being said, but we still thought it would be fun.

After some prosecco and cheese at Larry and Shelly's we headed to Villa San Faustino, which is just off the E45 at the Massa Martana exit. It's known for it's bottled water, sourced from a spring since 1894. It's a tiny village but they put on a great festa! The antipasto plate was great,


San Faustino sagra antipasto plate


and the stinco di maiale was fallin' off the bone tender! Marco told us it's marinated for two days, then slow-roasted for four hours! It was delicious!

stinco di maiale


After dinner we walked down to the outdoor theater for the play. No, we didn't understand much, the dialog was very fast paced, but we were very impressed with the acting. The play was a comedy and the audience seemed to really enjoy it. It involved a family, their uncle who had returned to Italy from the United States, and a baron. The mother was trying to fix up her daughter with the baron, and there were many plays on words, which of course we didn't understand. Despite the language barrier it was still a fun night with friends!

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