Archive for November, 2012


At one time in their 400 year old history, the order of sisters that operates our convent B&B ran what was a kind of finishing school for young ladies. Here, young women learned what it was to be a proper lady in society along with skills to help them be accomplished. There is a many-months-long exhibit at the convent showing off some of the lace work that was produced by the ladies in training. There is some very beautiful work in the display.

One of the many pieces of lace


There was an incredible amount of work in these garments.


The images are hand painted on this piece.

There are several large cabinets with displays including these threads.

No Bernina sewing machines in those days!

One of the fun things about staying where we do is that you never know what to expect. We have been here for weddings, family reunions, conferences, and now this historic display. We learn something every time!


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Food in Italy

I have just added a City Life gallery to the new web site I have created to house my pictures. In it is the picture seen below.

Orvieto is rich in life. A lot of this has to do with the fact that you live on the street and on your feet. You aren’t isolated from others in cars. So there is much human interaction. You see people going about their daily chores and work in a way we simply don’t in the U.S. It is very interesting and endlessly entertaining. It does make for a fuller, more varied life.

You come across the unexpected like the image below. We are truly divorced from our food here, while the Italians are much more in touch. They have big grocery stores just like ours, but they have a wealth of little grocery stores – alimentari – as well as stores that just do one thing – vegetables and fruit, bread, or meat. The butcher shops are wonderful. You go in and order what you want and it is cut for you right then. Toward the end of the book “Heat” by Bill Buford, he talks about working in an Italian butcher shop and how much he learned about the animal. There is simply a closeness to one’s food that somehow gives it more meaning.

In the picture below I was walking down an alley and walked past a gleaming white small truck. It was delivering a whole pig, cut into two, to a butcher shop. Not what you typically see in the U.S. and the first time I had seen this in my 10 years of travel to Italy!

Delivery to an Orvieto butcher shop

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I’ve never been a Twinkie fan, so I have marveled at how distraught people are over its demise – the result of Hostess Cakes, makers not only of Twinkies but Wonder Bread, going out of business. Pictures of people going to stores and loading up on bags full of Twinkies seems incredible!

So it made me think of Italy and the grief Italians get from Americans over their breakfast: a pastry and coffee. This from a culture mourning the loss of those two fabulously healthy foods Twinkies and Wonder Bread! While most Americans will grant that the coffee is fabulous, they just have problems with a nonhealthy pastry for breakfast.

But really now, have a look at this scrumptious looking item from Scarponi’s, our favorite coffee/pastry house in Orvieto. Now I could see being upset if these disappeared – they are beautiful. But a Twinkie?

Almost too pretty to eat!

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The End of Heat

As news unfolds about retailers deciding to open on Thanksgiving, thus eliminating what was perhaps the last day out of 365 in which we were not completely submerged in commercialism, I go to one of the last paragraphs in Heat (see the previous two entries). Buford is responding to Mario Batali’s offer to help open his own restaurant. Buford said,

When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef, just a cook. And my experiences in Italy had taught me why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals – like chefs. But I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

Just to be more human. This is what Italy does for those of us who visit and spend a little time there. It makes us more human, puts us in touch with our senses and the essence of life. It is a huge gift, one I wish I could convey to all those suits who have decided to open their retail doors on Thanksgiving!!

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More Heat

Following up on yesterday’s post about the book Heat, which I finished last night. The author, Bill Buford, is summing up his experience in Italy, and he talks about food there and as it is done modern day.

My theory is one of smallness. Smallness is now my measure: a variation on all the phrases I’d been hearing, like the Maestro’s “it’s not in the breed but the breeding” or Enrico’s “less is more.” As theories go, mine is pretty crude. Small food – good. Big food – bad. For me the language we use to talk about modern food isn’t quite accurate or at least doesn’t account for how this Italian valley has taught me to think. The metaphor is usually one of speed: fast food has ruined our culture; slow food will save it. You see the metaphor’s appeal. But it obscures a fundamental problem, which has little to do with speed and everything to do with size. Fast food did not ruin our culture. The problem was already in place, systemic in fact, and began the moment food was treated like an inanimate object – like any other commodity – that could be manufactured in increasing numbers to satisfy a market. In effect, the two essential players in the food chain, (those who make the food and those who buy it) swapped roles. One moment the producer (the guy who knew his cows or the woman who prepared culatello only in January) determined what was available and how it was made. The next moment it was the consumer. What happened in the food business has occurred in every aspect of modern life and the change has produced many benefits. I like island holidays and flat-screen televisions and have no argument with global market economics, except in this respect – in what it has done to food.

The watery eggs Gianni bought when he fell asleep after lunch: big food. Granny’s eggs sold under the counter to Panzano regulars: small food. Th pig I brought home on my scooter: Small food. A ham from a chemically treated animal that has spent its life indoors in a scientifically controlled no-movement pen (every cut perfectly identical as though made by a machine): big food.

The Italians have a word, casalinga, homemade, although its primary sense is “made by hand.” Just about every preparation I learned in Italy was handmade and involved my learning how to use my own hands differently. My hands were trained to roll out dough, to use a knife to break down a thing to make sausage or lardo or po;pettone. With some techniques, I had to make my hands small. With others, I made them big. With hands, cooks express themselves like artists.

And perhaps that is the difference: food made with your own hands, reflecting care and investment and love. It is unrealistic to think we will go back or that we can feed the numbers we have to feed otherwise. But we can at least make conscious choices. We can shop local, support local farmers, buy in season. Thankfully, this seems to be happening. Buon appetito!

Making food by hand

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I’m reading Heat, a book written by Bill Buford about his time cooking with Mario Batali. It is a fun read. I’m near the end and am enjoying the last third of the book most – about Buford’s time in Italy learning from Italian chefs and butchers. Here are a few gems from the book:

  • “For Mario, Quintiglio (an Italian Batali came to know when he was on his own learning trip to Italy) was the first proponent of finding what is made by the land and feasting on it, of recognizing that you are eating something that you can enjoy only now and here, during this day in this season, grown in this dirt.”

This is quintessential Italian and one of the reasons we so enjoy our food there. It is fresh, from the place. Even the wine is this way. Giovanni at Palazzone Vineyard says how important it is for wine to reflect the character of the place in which the grapes are grown.


  • Buford asked Batali what he could expect to learn cooking in his kitchen. One thing Batali said was, “You develop an expanded kitchen awareness. You’ll discover how to use your senses. You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says. You’ll hear something is cooked. You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

This explains something I’ve observed when we do our cooking classes with Lorenzo. Here we are in a kitchen covered up with activity in ever square inch. Things are cooking on the stove, vegetables and meat are being cut up. Pasta is being made. In the second room of the kitchen the ovens are baking pizza. In the first room Lorenzo yells,”Who’s checking the pizza?” he knew it was done. It must be this awareness, for I didn’t smell it. He also can tell when a pot needs water from across the room. Wonderful to watch!

Lorenzo feeding grapes to a student

  • Buford devotes the last section of the book to his time with a butcher in the Tuscan town of Panzano. This is the most entertaining part of the book. The butcher is a traditionalist, believes in doing things the way they once were. He says, “When I was young, there was one kind of prosciutto. It was made in the winter, by hand, and aged for two years. It was sweet when you smelled it. A profound perfume. . . . When I was young there were no supermarkets. Now there are many. They’re able to sell more prosciutti than it is possible to make. So they invented new kinds. In addition to a prosciutto that’s aged for two years, you can now get a cheaper one-year kind, a cheaper six-month kind, and a very cheap three-month variety. They are made all year round in prosciutto factories. The truth is, there is only one kind of prosciutto, and it is made in the winter, by hand and not in a factory. These new varieties are not good. They do not smell sweet. They are bad.”

It’s why I love Italy. They are closer to the traditional ways, and care about it. It is nice to be exposed to it.



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