Memories of….

A few years back a well-known grocery store in Canada started marketing items – mostly sauces and condiments – under the name “Memories of….”.

The whole campaign suggested that the use of these products would revive memories of exotic places visited, grandma’s kitchen or delightful childhood events. I’m not sure how successful they were as aide-memories but as a campaign it was – and still is – successful. As I settle in to our new home I’m unpacking things that trigger memories of the past four years – exotic places visited, if not grandma’s kitchen then certainly some exceptional nonne’s kitchens that served up incredible food and again if not events from childhood then assuredly ones that fulfilled childhood dreams and gave delight.

I realized that with all the books, pamphlets, programmes and catalogues on hand plus the enumerable photos taken in the past four years I have enough material to do my own series of “Memories of …..”. That and a look at the Post List shows a fair number of pieces on sights and cities that I started but didn’t finish – perhaps completing them wouldn’t be a bad idea while I still have “memories of …”. Now I must admit this idea could also be viewed as a rather pathetic attempt to hold on to Italy and what amounted to some of the most wonderful years of my life. If that’s the case … so be it – I’ll also post a few things about life here in Bagdad on the Rideau as I once heard a Cabinet Minister call it.  That is – as Italy was for the past few years – my current reality so I’ll deal with it. I’m looking at a calender that is filling up with some interesting concerts, dance, theatre and occasions with dear friends. Plus there is always the joys of the frozen canal, snow and -35c (before wind chill) to look forward to and capture with camera clicking and teeth a chattering.

Coming soon to a grocery shelf near you a computer near you:  Memories of …..  Italy.

24 settembre/September – Beata Vergine Maria della Mercede

Sicilia or Bust

Coat of arm of Sicily
Well after months of anticipation and planning the vacation to Sicilia has come and gone. Its been a busy – at times maybe too busy – 16 days: food, wine, sights and sites. I’m not sure how many kilometres were clocked up on the car but its probably more in that two weeks than have been put on it in four years in Italy. And I’m not sure that even driving in Mexico City, Cairo and Roma had prepared Laurent for the singular style of driving that we encountered in the towns and road of Sicilia. Ah well we’re in one piece which says more about him than it does the local drivers.  One thing: I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without the help of a GPS – that smarmy British voice telling us to “bear left” may be irritating at times but damned he knows the roads – or a least the ones that haven’t been changed and not updated. Note to TomTom – there’s an entirely new subdivision on the main road in Gela that nobody told you about!

The overnight crossing (12 hours) from Civittavechia to Palermo was smooth sailing however the good ship Splendid was not – splendid I mean. Grandi Navi Veloci should either update their website or their fleet.

The first and last legs of the trip were on car ferries – Roma to Palermo/Catania to Napoli. The Grandi NaviVeloci to Sicily was, to put it kindly, an interesting experience. Shabby would be too polite a word. Let’s just say that the boat had seen better days and I was afraid of walking barefoot on the carpeting.   The TTT ferry back from Catania to Napoli, though smaller, was clean, cabin at the bow spacious and staff helpful – too bad they don’t do the Civettavecchia to Palermo run.

The first part of our travels took us from Palermo along the Tyrrhenian Sea to the West and than eastward along the Mediterranean Coast.

Laurent has written extensively on his blog about the various stops on the itinerary and I’ll be posting a few items on thing that caught my fancy as we travelled from Palermo to Trapani, Erice, Marsala, Mazara del Vallo, Agrigento, Ragusa, Siracusa, Noto and Catania. Looking at that list – and a general sense of fatigue at the end of the trip – make me aware that this is a trip that should have broken into two trips; in fact I said only the other day that had we been wise we would have spent a week in a different area of Sicily each year that we were here. But should, would and could are all conditional verbs – and in this case conditional past – so no point in labouring over what we should have done; just sit back and enjoy the memories of what we did.

Continuing on from Agrigento we headed a bit inland to Ragusa and then back eastward to the Ionian coast and the two major seas ports of Siracusa and Catania.

And the memories are varied.  Wonderful music – an emotionally charged performance of A Greek Passion in Palermo; wonderful food – an unexpected lobster fest at a local trattoria in Marsala were the room was filled with groups of men sharing a meal with their friends and only three women in the whole place and no it wasn’t a gay restaurant; great wine – quite a few Enoteche but particularly Michelle’s in Trapani and Salvatore’s in Marsala; over the top baroque churches – the Duomi in Mazara del Vallo takes the prize with Ragusa running a close second; antiquities galore – the Valley of the Temple leading the pack; and friendly, warm, welcoming, if at times slightly suspicious of strangers, people.

The departure from Catania and the trip up to the Straits of Messina on TTT’s Partenope was a bit on the rough side but once into the Tyrrhenian it was a smooth sail up to Napoli and then on to Roma by road.

The one thing that struck me the first time I went to Palermo and was confirmed on this trip as I saw more of the island is that Sicily may be part of Italy but it isn’t really Italian. It shares a common language and some history but the people, the food, the landscape has been molded by the influences of the Mediterranean in a way that makes it a place unto itself.  A succession of occupiers – the Greeks,  the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the French and the Spanish – have left their mark. As it always is Nature has been both kind and cruel: the sea, earthquakes and volcanoes have formed, enriched and scarred the terrain making it both welcoming and hostile. Religion – Pagan and Christian – has molded the architecture of cities and minds. And a wry sense of survival on the part of the inhabitants has taken all these things – the good and the bad – and created a place that is Sicilia.

24 maggio – Santa Maria Ausiliatrice

A Master’s Degree in Bathroom Fixtures

I have nothing but the highest admiration for Italian design – whither it be in clothing, furniture, architecture or kitchen and bathroom fixtures Italy excels. There is a innovative flair and style to how Italians create, perceive and display things that give them a beauty that is, to my untrained eye at least, very distinctive.

Take bathrooms. I don’t know about you but one of the first things I do when I check into a hotel room is look at the bathroom. And many hotels here are upgrading their bathrooms with sleek shower stalls, designer bidets, floating stainless steel bowls as sinks and space age controls. Like this little console at the Hotel Savoy in Parma.

It’s simple! It’s sleek! It’s shiny! It’s sophisticated! It’s Italian design at its best. And its a bitch to use. Notice it is uncluttered with silly things like indications of what does what or hot (C for caldo always a little catch) or cold (F for fredo). Now I don’t think of myself as a techno-idiot but I do require some instructions when I first use something – even something as basic as do not touch stove element when gas is on!!!!! But I guess Italian designers take for granted that you will know what to do – unless of course you are a dumb stranero like me!

I was about to step in the shower – one question, why do so many hotels have those folding glass panels that only cover half the bath forcing you to crouch in the corner unless you want to get water all over the floor? – so in an attempt to test the water first I reached for the knob to turn on the faucet. I turned it left! Nothing! I turned it right! Still nothing. Ah maybe the lever? I turned it up! Nothing! I turned it down! Still nothing. Ah wait a minute if I pull the lever out what happens? Well it definitely starts a flow of water – hot and from the hand shower which is pointed at me and into the room. For an old person – sorry Marco, make that a mature person – my reflexes were pretty quick – close the lever.

Okay so pulling the lever out controls flow and turning it up or down must control the temperature of the water. Now for the knob, it turns so it must control something – turn the hand shower away, set the lever at midposition and slowly pull it out. Ah that’s the secret. Now turn the nob slowly to the left. Why look waters coming out of the faucet – a bit more and its coming out of the overhead shower head but I forgot to swing the glass panel into place so water is now spraying all over me and the floor.

I hadn’t even stepped into the shower yet and already I’m all wet. I really do admire Italian design!

01 novembre – Ognissanti

Espresso Yourself

This morning I was walking from the Lion Bookshop and Café (the oldest English bookstore in Roma) down near the Spanish Steps to the Scuderie del Quirinale for the magnificent Roma, La Pittura di un Impero exhibition. I took a short cut and as I walked past a very ordinary side-street cafe these implements caught my eye.

Before sachet packets and stylish George-Clooney-sleek power machines came into play these were the tools required for a perfect cup of caffeinated goodness: a hand grinder for the beans, a boiler, a hand puller and a metal vessel for heating and frothing the milk.

A few facts to assist if you were hand pulling your espresso:

  • The Beans should be ground just before use.
  • A dark roast is preferable though only in Southern Italy is it holy writ.
  • Only the freshest water should be used and I have been assured by my friend Marco that the calcium loaded water here in Roma makes the best espresso.
  • The equipment should be warmed before use.
  • 7 oz of fine grind coffee should make a single 1-1.5 oz shot – 14 oz for a longo
  • The grounds should be tamped into the portafilter with 20-50 pounds (depending on the grind) of pressure to make a compact cake for the water to flow through.
  • The water should not be boiling but almost – 195F
  • The water should be forced through the grinds at a high pressure – 135 PSI
  • It should take between 23-28 seconds to extract the coffee – anything less or longer and the grind is wrong or an adjustment in tamping is necessary.
  • There should be a dark golden brown crema floating on top

Can you imagine if today’s Barista at one of those – god help me – chains had to hand pull their espressos?

And to all anyone who recoils in horror from a shot of espresso after dinner or tells you how they would never sleep if they did that: a 30 mL (1 fluid ounce) shot of espresso has about half the caffeine of a standard 180 mL (6 fluid ounce) cup of drip brewed coffee. And if you think the coffee will keep you awake then have a shot of grappa or amaro to go with it.

12 decembre – Santa Giovanna Francesca Frémiot de Chantal

Kaki Time

No that’s not a misspelled fashion statement. Its Plantae Ericales Ebenaceae Diospyros time of year here in Italy. Its guaranteed that in late October-early November a wander past any fruit stand or market display will reveal white Styrofoam trays holding three ripe orange/brown/golden yellow squishy balls of delicious goodness. Or there will be bins of yellow hard fruit ready to take home and ripen on the window sill. And they will appear as a frutta along with the ubiquitous ananas (pineapple) on restauarnt menus.

In North America we call them persimmons, in other places they are Shizi, Date Plums, Black Sapote or Mabolo depending on the variety and location. The variety grown in Italy – 5th in worldwide persimmon production – is the Japanese persimmon or Kaki.

Persimmon is not a fruit that I ate much back in Canada – maybe in a pudding once or twice at Thanksgiving but that it would be about it. As I recall North American persimmons were small and even when ripe had a slight astringency that could be almost unpleasant. Not so the Kaki – Kakis??? what is the plural? – appearing in the markets here. They are large, plump and soft to the point of appearing to the unaccustomed eye as being overripe. When split open they reveal a sweet, custardy centre with two seeds encased in gelatin. And the taste – well for me it brings to mind the Ancient Greek appellation: Fruit of the Gods.

As well as having all sorts of medicinal and nutritional value it appears the seeds can be used as a weather oracle. According to Wikipedia:

It is said that one can predict the winter by taking the seeds out of some persimmons and then slicing the seeds. The shape that shows up the most inside each seed will indicate what kind of winter to expect.

The three shapes resemble three eating utensils:
A Knife – there will be a cold icy winter (as in the wind will slice through you like a knife).
A Spoon – there will be plenty of snow for to shovel.
A Fork – there will be a mild winter.

I’ll have to try that tonight and let you know what my kaki predicts – though I would be surprised if many spoons showed up here in Italy.

28 ottobre – I Santi Simone il Cananeo e Guido