Monday, 31 December 2012

A region of Italy that I'd like to know better: Le Marche

Although I've only visited the Italian region of Le Marche once, and only the city of Urbino (the above photo is one of the towers in the Ducal palace) I'd love to know it better. I recently interviewed my friend Giulia Savini, who lives near Urbino, about the region's appeal (these are also her photos.)

 It seems that visitors to Italy seeking an authentic experience, away from tour buses and camera flashes, are turning to the stunning beauty of Le Marche region. Below is a photo of the hilltop town of Mondavio.

Stretching from the 6,000-foot peaks of central Italy's Apennines on the border of Tuscany and Umbria, Le Marche reaches across to the Adriatic sea.

Its land is hilly and even mountainous, with plenty of agricultural fields dotted with stunning hill towns, curving rural roads, and even crowded summer beaches snaking along 200 kilometers of coastline.

Surprisingly few tourists make their way to Le Marche, despite its numerous art treasures, carefully preserved historic churches, towers, and piazzas, all giving the region the air of being frozen in time. Below is Sant'Ippolito.

"Something that makes Le Marche so special is that we are really off the beaten path," says Giulia, who runs an organic farm with bed and breakfast Locanda della Valle Nuova, 12 kilometres outside the region's best known city, Urbino.

"People here are not fed up with tourists".

(Here's a photo I recently shot of Giulia, on the right, and Letizia Mattiacci of Alla Madonna del Piatto in Umbria. We met at Letizia's house. As you can see, they were up to something.....)

Many Le Marche visitors head to Urbino, where the walled city centre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Birthplace of Renaissance master painter Raphael, Urbino is also known as an early model for the ideal Renaissance town, remade as such by Duke Federico of Montefeltro during the 15th century.

His court was famous in its day and the countryside is today still dominated by his magnificent Ducal Palace - which holds the region's most important art gallery, boasting works painted by Raphael and Piero della Francesca. Below is one of Giulia's photos of a XII century castle perched on a steep hill above the Candigliano river between Acqualagna and Piobbico.

Churches and monasteries hold beautiful art endowed by the wealthy families that were drawn to the duke's court, and Raphael's home is open to art lovers keen to see a fresco painted on the house walls by the artist as a very young man.

Still, Le Marche is less of an urban experience and more about stunning landscapes, important nature preserves, hidden monasteries, and charming villages.

For example, visitors can explore the Grotte di Frasassi (Frasassi Caves), among the biggest in Europe, including a chamber which is large enough to hold Milan's great cathedral; or, hike in the beautiful Riserva Naturale Gola del Furlo (Furlo Gorge).

"We have many great sites, but they're all spread around so the region attracts the kind of visitor who wants to really 'live' a place and not just have a list of must-sees from a more fashionable place," adds Giulia.

The region is also about wine and food: traditional dishes produced and prepared in the old-fashioned way but rediscovered by modern cooks looking for natural, clean ingredients.

Because Le Marche is fairly unknown, land here was relatively cheap in the 1970s and early 1980s, bringing waves of young producers - including Giulia's family - interested in clean production that would leave as small an environmental footprint as possible.

It's still possible to find heirloom fruits in Le Marche - varieties that have disappeared or been forgotten in other regions. Certain farmers in the Montefeltro area in northern Le Marche specialize in forgotten fruits including visciole, sorbe, mele rosa, and pere angelica.

Friday, 21 December 2012

A golden Christmas cake

It's easy to know that Christmas has arrived in Italy when the golden star-shaped treat pandoro appears on the shelves of supermarkets and pastry shops.

Similar to its brother, the panettone, the pandoro is a high-sided sweet bread, or cake, that is often dusted with icing sugar to resemble the snow-covered mountain peaks of the Alps near its northern Italian home.

However, the pandoro is now a Christmas standard across Italy. The simple ingredients of flour, yeast, sugar, and butter, which combine to form this light, spongy dessert, can be personalized and its slices decorated with cream or gelato.

The recipe for pan d'oro - or golden bread - dates as far back as the first century in Italy, when it was a special confection reserved for royalty because of its exotic and expensive ingredients: eggs, butter, and sugar or honey for sweetness.

In fact, pandoro was mentioned by various names in the writings of such historic Roman writers as Pliny the Elder, Virgil, and Livy.

The Christmas treat become more widespread in the peninsula in the 17th century, enjoying popularity in Venice. However, in modern times it has  became firmly associated with Verona, a city in Venetian territory in northern Italy where the formula for making pandoro was perfected.

The recipe is complex and precise, involving three different doughs and rising times that must be followed scrupulously before the sweet bread is cooked in a star-shaped mould.

The modern history of this holiday treat began at Verona in 1894, when Domenico Melegatti obtained a patent for a procedure to be applied in producing pandoro industrially.

Today, Melegatti's commercial pandoro products can be found in supermarkets all over Italy. It also exports to more than 40 countries on five continents.

But there is still a high demand from consumers for handmade pandoro, and Italians flock to popular pasticcerie, or pastry shops, for artisanal versions of the Christmas classic.

In Rome, one of the most popular, go-to places for every kind of pasty and cake - and especially pandoro - is Colapicchioni near Castel Sant'Angelo.

It also produces panettone, another important Christmas treat that is less sweet than pandoro and includes dried fruits and raisins. Italian shoppers can often be seen hurrying down the street with this carefully wrapped, large seasonal treat.

To the casual observer, panettone and pandoro look quite similar, although the panettone is rounder, like a church dome, than the taller pandoro.

The origins of the pair are also different, although both are associated with northern Italian cities. But where the pandoro is traditionally linked to Verona, the panettone belongs to the history of Milan and the region of Lombardy.

There are several legends built around the birth of the panettone. One comes from a kitchen disaster in the house of Milan's Renaissance ruler Duke Ludovico Sforza, better known as Il Moro.

After a cook in Il Moro's kitchen allowed the Christmas cake to burn, a kitchen boy named Toni suggested a quick solution: throw all of the leftover   fruits, flour, sugar, butter and eggs together.

The creative new sweet bread was a hit and become know as the "pan del Toni", Toni's bread, which evolved into the name panettone.

These two cakes are so important to Italy's culture and traditions - and economy - that the national government has set strict regulations governing what products can be labelled panettone and pandoro.

These rules even set out the required ingredients and in what proportions.

"Italy has an age-old tradition in the manufacture of sweet products that dates all the way back to ancient Rome: simple, oven-baked cakes, made with the ingredients that reflect the wholesomeness and simplicity of Italian cuisine and of our nationally grown products – cereals, eggs, butter, honey, almonds, hazelnuts, raisins, candied fruit," explains the preamble to the 2006 regulations.
"It is a tradition that has been handed down to modern times and thus deserves to be safeguarded and fostered".

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Rome is dressing up for the holidays!

Rome is getting all dressed up for the holiday season, with Christmas trees, lights, and presepi. And in every store window, delicious pandoro and panettone beckon.

Above, at the Vatican in Piazza San Pietro, workers are hoisting an enormous tree, and are beginning to decorate.

Meanwhile, at the Spanish Steps, the lights are already twinkling on another giant tree.....

Streets in the area are decorated with pretty strands of lights....

Since today is my birthday, I'm going to pretend the lights are all for me!

At the Vatican, in St. Peter's Square, the presepe is sure to be very large and beautiful. The Vatican says that this year's Nativity scene will be traveling to Rome from the southern Italian region of Basilicata. This is last year's version..

And I'm off to check out the Christmas tree at the Colosseum, which was so lovely last Christmas!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

What a year it has been!

Happy Anniversary! I have just passed the one-year mark of life in Italy, and I appreciate having all my friends and blog readers along for the ride.

I can't quite believe that I've made it past the one-year mark. Not because I didn't think I could survive emotionally, but for financial reasons. However, I'm scrapping together enough to live on - not luxuriously, but well enough - and so why not carry on? I think I'll stay put here in Rome and see what happens next.

Things have actually gone very well. I'm learning Italian, the work with the Italian news agency is always interesting, I've made a few new Italian friends, and been able to spend time with the friends I already had in Italy before I moved here.

I've also published my first novel, and am well into writing a second novel, so all in all, I feel as if I've accomplished a lot.

I'm still not as patient as one needs to be to live a foreign country. Things are done differently in Italy than in Canada and because I don't always understand why or how, I become frustrated too easily and waste a fair amount of time. Fortunately, since I'm under-employed I do have some time to spare.

Rome can be chaotic with too much traffic, too much noise, and too little space. Yet, the city's beauty can be staggering and it can be found everywhere. Fountains in small courtyards, orange trees and rose bushes along sidewalks, random street shrines. The other day, I walked past an elderly man who almost crashed his bicycle because he had let go of the handle bars to make the sign of the cross as he pedaled past a pretty shrine to the Madonna.

Most important of all, I am continuously being reminded of the necessity (for me, anyway) of accepting the fact that I don't know everything that is going to happen to me. This is hard, for I am such a control freak! But it's impossible to know the future, a lesson I'm re-learning all the time. To think I can control everything is a recipe for even more frustration and disaster.

I turn often to the brilliant professor of religious studies, Joesph Campbell, who basically said that in order to live a full life, you have to make your own way. You can't imitate someone else, or try to live a life that others expect of you, or chose a life that you think will be safe. If you try any of these, you will be miserable. However, what this also means is making your own way, and learning to accept uncertainty because you can't tread in someone else's footsteps.

Campbell said it much better:

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.”