Friday, May 20, 2011


For years I have prided myself on being pretty proficient in the languages that I taught. I am able to discuss politics, argue over gun control, make purchases of arcane hardware supplies and handle less than polite store clerks. I can tell stories and talk about books and films. But I can't banter. I don't know what it is, but engaging in small-talk and playful banter is proving to be difficult to me. Perhaps the problem is that I'm not a great small-talker in English. I tend to find myself tongue-tied in many social situations, even with friends I have known for years.
In language teacher parlance, you can't do in L2 what you've not been able to do in L1, so perhaps my inability to engage in casual chatter is more a basic lack in my own communication skills. But it is bothering me more and more this year.
I went for a mani-pedi the other day, and once we had finished talking about the weather, it was hard to get a conversation going. Eventually, the girl began talking about her fiance and her upcoming wedding, and I was able to get involved in that thread.
I struggle with letting myself loose, grammatically. There is a change in tone here, some common grammatical mistakes that everyone makes that sets everyone on common ground. And I am trying to be sure that I use the imperfect subjunctive correctly!
The dialect spoken here in Cervinara is basically a Napolitano variation, and I've never been able to make those sounds come out of my mouth. Couple that with the vocabulary that is unique to Cervinara, and the common history that most people share, and I will always come across as the outsider.
I wish I could just open my mouth and have funny "bons mots" come out, but I don't think it's ever going to happen. I guess I'll have to resign myself to being the foreigner who tries hard but never quite gets to the point of being able to joke around with folks and is able to really relax during conversations. I suppose being the grammar queen isn't all bad, but I do wish I could laugh it up with other ladies in the beauty salon or at the bar and stop being so darned up-tight!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The final stop on our gustatory tour took us to a small family enterprise that made Parmesan cheese. The Per San Damiani farm was an inspiration to us and a tribute to one family's dedication and amazing hard work.
We were met by a young woman who introduced us to her husband, father and mother-in-law, a nephew and her two little kids. She escorted us into their work area that was abuzz with activity. Several cauldrons were heating up the milk at various stages. As the rennet made its magic happen, the milk would get chunky, and the workers would break up the curds, stirring it carefully until all was well mixed. Each cauldron was carefully watched and the milk was constantly tested for temperature and consistency. When the experts decided a cauldron was ready to be "cheesed", everyone jumped into action.
Cheese cloth was wrapped around some big poles straddling the cauldron, the cheese was divided into two chunks and slung into the cheese cloth to be formed and drained. Each chunk weighed around 50 lbs. The cheese was pulled out using the big poles and were immediately dropped into basket-like forms. In fact, the Italian word "formaggio" comes from the forms that are used to "form" the cheese.
This was a very wet and laborious process...everyone was wearing Wellies and heavy duty aprons, to protect them from the overflow.
This family has been making cheese for over 35 years and has never taken a vacation or had a day off. The cows keep producing milk, so the cheese must be made every day. They take a break between 12 and 2, then go back to work for the afternoon's cheese making.
We were shown their aging rooms where there were hundreds of huge rounds of Parmesan cheese, all smelling incredibly good. We were shown how inspectors come and with a little hammer, test each round before it can be labeled Parmesan. If the inspectors aren't happy with the sound (if they hear minute little holes in the cheese), the rind is marked with striations, indicating that it is 2nd quality. It is perfectly fine to eat, but it isn't perfect so it can't be sold as such. If they find too many flaws, it is labeled as 3rd quality and will be destroyed.
When after our visit we went into the showroom for a taste-test (of course), we were greeted with chunks of aged Parmesan, honey and balsamic vinegar of dipping, and of course some wine. We had a lovely visit with the mother-in-law and enjoyed our samples and shopping. We came away with some great-tasting cheese and a new-found respect for the work that goes in to a product we have come to take for granted.
Over the course of these three tours, we learned that there is still value in the small, family enterprise that takes pride in its products. We learned that not all farming is factory farming and that smaller is often better, even if it may be more expensive. And we became more aware of just how lucky we are to be living in a country where these products are appreciated and treasured. America could learn a lot from these folks. While we are getting back to a more natural way of producing our food, we should support the small family farm instead of the mega-factory farms that get all the subsidies. Archer Daniels Midland doesn't need government subsidies....the local farmer who grows our veggies and who makes artisanal cheeses does!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Prosciutto di Parma

We left the Malpighi vinegar establishment a little lighter in the wallets but weighed down with some nice purchases of balsamic vinegar, and headed to our next culinary destination, the prosciutto plant of Cav. Ilari Alberto in Langhirano. Of course, we got misdirected and were off course for a few miles, but nothing too serious. Alberto came to meet us on the main street after a couple of calls asking for clarification of the directions, and we followed him to his fattoria.
We were greeted by his son, who was a lovely and gracious young man. We followed him down into the basement where we were met by the overwhelming sights and smells of prosciutto di parma. There was a power point presentation waiting for us, showing details of the different processes and we were also able to look through the many long racks of hams in the various stages of curing.
Prosciutto, unlike our deli ham, is not cooked. It is merely cured with salt until all the moisture comes out of the raw meat and then it is left to age and finish this natural process. As with the balsamic vinegar, there are very strict regulations for how the meat is deboned, cured, aged and tagged. It is labeled at every step of the way, from the farm it came from, to the butcher, through the various steps in the curing stations....every detail is logged and recorded.
We were told that our visit would be free unless we wanted a tasting which would cost 10E. At first we hesitated, thinking that a tasting would be a couple of slices of prosciutto and a bread stick. Boy, were we wrong!
When we were done with the tour, Alberto and his son escorted us into a lovely room where a table fit for a king was set. There were trays of prosciutto (so fresh and buttery right off the rack), some other salamis and deli products, a huge wedge of parmesan cheese, baskets of bread and a bottle of wine. We were all set for sure! Everything was so delicious and fresh, even the wine. I don't usually care for lambrusco, not liking sweet wines, but this was delicious and refreshing. It had a slight sparkle and was lovely and dry; the perfect complement for the fattier meats. As we were about to cry "Uncle", Alberto took our platter and refilled it with more prosciutto! Of course we couldn't insult him by not enjoying our seconds, so we managed to empty that tray as well.
I was hoping that this business was on Facebook because I would love to publicize their beautiful facility and their generosity. They told me that last year they did 84 tours, but I am sure they could do many more and would impress all those who wend their way out of Parma and into Langhirano.
This was the second stop on our culinary adventures, and it was certainly a memorable one! The next day we visited a company that makes the "undisputed King of Cheeses"....parmeggiano reggiano!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Aceto Balsamico di Modena

Last week we indulged in a culinary tour that was quite unique and most enjoyable. Our first stop after leaving Bologna was to the Malpighi Balsamic Vinegar factory. The parents of our good friend Brian Cook suggested this establishment to us as an interesting and pleasant introduction to the intricacies of balsamic vinegar. Brian's parents were lucky enough to live in Bologna for several years and we were so happy to have their personal recommendation for this outfit...and they certainly didn't steer us wrong!
Monica Righi met us at the door and we were welcomed warmly into the gracious tasting area. There, she laid out several bottles of different types of vinegar produced on this family farm. First we tasted an orange vinegar that was so different and refreshing. We immediately thought of using this product as part of a marinade for fish or for a dressing for a citrus-based salad. Next was an apple vinegar, different from cider vinegar...much sweeter and more mild. Then came the actual balsamic vinegars. We started with a six year old, then moved on to a twelve year old and finally the grand-daddy of them all, the 25 year old product. The six year old vinegar was perfect for a salad dressing or marinade, the twelve year old was sweeter and denser and the 25 year old was almost syrupy and very intense. Of course, we had to make a couple of purchases and we are now the proud owners of our own bottle of 25 year old balsamic vinegar. We are awaiting the right moment to crack that baby open and maybe drizzle a few drops on some good parmesan cheese.
After our tastings, we were escorted up to the attic, where the barrels of vinegar are kept. They age their vinegars in the attic where it is drier to help with the evaporation of the liquid. Every barrel is open on the top, with a linen handkerchief over the hole to protect the vinegar from dust. Every year as the liquid evaporates, a certain percentage of the vinegar is moved from one barrel to the next, always diluting an older barrel with a younger one, and then allowing them each to evaporate for another year.
It's a very complex process, one which requires dedication and a long-term investment. In order for this or any vinegar to achieve the desired Balsamic of Modena label and the official bottle, it must pass inspection, both through taste tests and through visitations and observations. While many vinegars from other regions or even from as far away as China may be bottled in Modena and sold as balsamic from Modena, only the officially sanctioned vinegars will bear the seal of the cooperative that handles the quality control.
Malpighi vinegar is available in the USA at Williams Sonoma and Sur la Table. I can't wait to go home to see if I can find it at the mall! Check it's worth the trip!

Sunday, May 8, 2011


We have been back in Cervinara for a few days now, and though we have been on the go it has been so good to see all our friends and neighbors here in the neighborhood. Some changes have taken place, but for the most part all is just as we left it.
Our first stop was to the bar across the street for breakfast. How nice it was to sit in our usual chairs, read the paper and catch up with all the local news. Adrianna the barista, was able to bring me a supply of the local eggs, so we are looking forward to a bright yellow frittata for supper tonight. Our friend and handy man Pasquale came for a visit. He had been away, ill with bronchitis and we are glad to have him back. Bertuccio, our neighbor who is a little bundle of energy has come by with advice for our ailing lemon tree and with a suggestion for someone to work on our still leaking roof. There's always something to do here!
Our first visit to the baker down the street came with an invitation to climb up his extremely steep stairs to enjoy the view from his hilltop gazebo. We haven't done that yet because we have been so busy going off on excursions that there has been no time for valley-gazing. Theresa, the sister of Don Giorgio came by for a quick visit to welcome us back and we are looking forward to touching base with the rest of the neighbors shortly. I haven't seen Carlo my fruit vendor yet and have only had a quick wave to the wife of the hardware store owner. She was thrilled to see me, knowing that her best customers were back in town!
I haven't been to church yet, because of our busy schedule with day excursions, but look forward to getting back into my old routine. They have repaved the church piazza with small paving stones and a beautiful white inlaid design. It looks so much nicer than the rough concrete that was there after the floods. They are supposed to be working on expanding the piazza across the's hoping!
Before too long our old friends and neighbors Bianchina and Lello and Maria Rosa and Pietro will be here to join us in our old courtyard for nightly chats and a bit of gossip. While time in Cervinara doesn't stop, it does slow down a bit, allowing us to really appreciate this little corner of heaven.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Arrivederci Manarola, Salve Volterra

This morning I sat on the terrace of our little Manarola apartment for the last time, sipping a cup of tea and dunking my biscotti. The sky was a clear blue, edged with pink and white clouds. The sea was quite agitated, unlike our previous mornings when it was smooth and quiet. I have tried to memorize each moment of our time here, the sea and sky, the hills and stairs, the colors and the lights. This has been a wondrous place that has etched itself into my soul.
We were a finely tuned machine this morning, getting all packed up, cleaning up the apartment and then schlepping our many bags up a steep flight of stairs (about 30 in all!) and then down the 1/4 mile long hill to the bus stop. The little shuttle bus arrived at 8:55, we loaded everything in (fortunately we had the bus all to ourselves), and headed up to the parking area where Big Bertha awaited us.
We had an uneventful trip over to Volterra until it came to actually parking the Ducato. We tried following our GPS directions to a parking lot, but it appeared we had to actually go inside the walled city to do that and we were reluctant to try maneuvering through those narrow streets so we opted for an underground garage. Oh my! We went down in the tightest circle imaginable until the fourth level, where we found a spot. Mike jumped out and threw himself in front of it so no one else would take it until Brian went around again to back into the space. It was a tight fit, believe you me! But we were soon ensconced in a very enviable spot and were ready to begin our tour of this lovely hill town.
Volterra dates from Etruscan days and there is an ancient (4th century BC) arch that is one of the first to use a keystone. I always thought the Romans were the ones to come up with that architectural piece of genius, but they were inspired by the Etruscans from Volterra. We also visited the Duomo and Baptistery, then went up to a look out point for some lunch. Mike had the May 1 traditional dish of tripe followed by fava beans and peccorino cheese. We all opted for something more mundane....tagliolini with duck ragu. It was very tasty, but the service could have been better.
After lunch we headed over to the Roman theater. During the middle ages this was turned into a garbage dump and eventually the whole area was filled in and forgotten. It wasn't until 1950 that excavations began and the arena was discovered. It's a beautiful piece of work. Then we went down Via Matteoti for some shopping and snacking. Alabaster shops abounded, as did pastry shops and of course gelaterie. We stocked up on some biscotti for later and had a nice little artisanal gelato for dessert.
We left Volterra and headed to our agriturismo (Molino d'Era). It was quite a trip down the same kinds of twisty hilly roads that we have gotten so used to now. It has some lovely grounds and a little brook that bubbles through the garden. Quite pretty. We hope to have a good rest here tonight because tomorrow is a five hour journey down to Aversa and on to Cervinara. It will be good to get home, to settle into our little nest in the hills and start getting back to normal. Life on the road is wonderful, but it is always better to sleep in one's own bed!