The Southern Urban Homesteader Goes to Italy

Where have I been lately?

The short answer is in Italy. Last month, my sweetie and I took eleven days to eat and drink our way across Tuscany and Umbria—a trip I have been fantasizing about for years. It wasn’t until a few months ago, however, that the stars finally aligned: timing, travel partner, finances.

One of the many lovely things about my sweetie is that he is as food-centric as I am, so the decision to fly into Rome and then immediately leave the city behind to find deliciousness in farms and villages was quick and easy.

So was the good eating itself. Our first stop was Orvieto, where we stopped into a small market shortly after we arrived and bought salami, bread, fruit, cheese, and wine, thinking that this would cover us for lunch for a few days. The proprietor smiled when we saw our purchases and poked a bit of gentle fun at the Americans: “Il cibo pronto, eh?” Ha. Yes, fast food—the only way to do it in the birthplace of Slow Food.

And so it began. Our pattern quickly became to grab a pastry and a caffe latte in the mornings, nom on our market goods throughout the day, and then either find or prepare a feast for dinner. That is where it became interesting. I found myself bringing my own habits from home to our routine in Italy: what could we find that would be fresh, in season, inexpensive, and absolutely delicious?

We began with lessons from the pros. The region is having its coldest winter in about three decades, and it had been snowing like crazy. Most of Orvieto was closed—either because it was the low season or because no one could get to work. Staggering a little from the combination of jetlag and icy cobblestones, we tromped around until we finally found an open place—Ristorante Piazza del Popolo. A gentleman seated us, took our order, poured our wine, went into the kitchen and prepared our food, and served it to us. We were the only guests in the restaurant, and Jostino, the owner/chef, was the only one working. The menu and the staff were limited due to the weather, but the meal was simple and perfect—I had a fennel and orange salad on greens, followed by a tagliatelle pasta with cinghiale, the local wild boar meat. The flavors were fresh and uncomplicated and light-handed. There was no garlic (a surprise to us—we thought garlic was the defining flavor of Italian food).

So we learned: find fresh, don’t overcomplicate, don’t worry about the garlic. And a couple of days later, in San Gimignano, we picked up pancetta, an onion, tomatoes, pasta. I had bought some fresh pecorino with black truffles in Pienza earlier in the day after reading somewhere that the pecorino of the region is creamier this time of year because the sheep are eating grass instead of hay. I stole a sprig of rosemary off a shrub on the side of the road during a walk (yes, still a forager!).  We had a small apartment with a kitchen, so we put it all together – complete with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar stocked in the kitchen.

We had a few more blowout restaurant meals (especially worth noting was the incredible seafood feast we had in Bracciano with a friend of mine from college and her family), but we enjoyed our self-catering just as much. Apples, pears, more cheese, cinghiale prosciutto, fresh bread, spinach, mixed salad greens, more pasta, more wine. We would just dig out whatever we had — sometimes even just sitting in our tiny rental Fiat Panda, to stay warm — and picnic.

At some point during our indulgences, I remarked to my sweetie that the way we were eating on this trip was not all that different from the way we eat at home—fresh, local, seasonal, unprocessed. The main difference was the flavors we encountered by virtue of the locale. The cheese was fresher and creamier, truffles were much more plentiful and affordable, and cinghiale is certainly not easy to come by in Decatur. 

But since we returned home we have taken a definite Tuscan and Umbrian turn in the kitchen. I found my old pasta maker, dusted it off, and put it into the sweetie’s hands, along with some all-purpose flour and a bunch of my girls’ eggs.

He figured it out and cranked out some fettuccine, which we combined with fresh kale from the garden and some local sausage I had in my freezer (nope, no garlic).

We walked up to the farmer’s market on the square, too, where I picked up some carrots and cabbage for a minestrone with barley and some aged pecorino with black truffles from Antico Mercante, purveyor of cheeses and cured meats from you-know-where. (I tried out my Italian on Franco. He didn’t seem terribly impressed.)

I used the rind of the cheese in the minestrone. Then I grilled a slice of homemade bread and poached an egg to go on top—just like the soup we had in a trattoria in Orvieto.

  

Buon appetito!

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3 Comments

Filed under Feasting

3 responses to “The Southern Urban Homesteader Goes to Italy

  1. Ooooh … I’m burning a deep shade of envy green! Haven’t been to Italy for a few years now, and you’ve poked a raw nerve relating your adventures in the Tuscan food arena … practically lived on the beans, bruschetta and egg dish thing … not to mention the penne picata con bietola e asparago (chard and asparagus). Stayed for a few months in the Abruzzo region of the Apennines … incredibly wonderful people and incredibly delicious, simple food. Every morning they packed a lunch for me … of homemade cheese (had a great lesson in making it from scratch) and salami (that the minute before had been drying on a thick string sagging over the fireplace), freshly baked crusty ‘panne del paese’ and some sort of fruit (usually green grapes) … then sent me on my photographic way trapising the hills on ancient Etruscan roads, to lose myself in a way of life that has sustained this part of Italy for centuries. Last I was there the girls still needed chaperones on dates, and we women went foraging over the hills for wild mushrooms and sticks for kindling … and, in the night I became a guest in nightmares of the local cobbler and his son, both suffering from the terrible afflication of ‘lycanthropy’, who had once caroused and ripped people apart in these woods … or so the story goes! So happy your fantasy finally became reality, and you had a traveling partner so willing to make it all the more enjoyable. I usually travel with my cousin Judy, and we go the same … buy what we need for the road, eat on the lamb, or at some irresistible spot, and dine when we stop in the evening. Great way to travel! Now put Scotland and Ireland in your ASM (automatic success mechanism = brain) cuz, and you’ll be one bonnie, happy camper! Sheesh … have I gone and written a book here? Words seem to come easy in this family!

  2. I found your blog trying to remember if I had ever wrote about poke salad (yeah, I know, I know) in Southside Atlanta Memories (dot typepad dot com) because I’d just gotten a friend’s book, and I believe her pub didn’t let her write about poke for liability reasons, but not positive on the details yet. Your essay in the Southern Spaces journal was the most inclusive and better done of the posts I saw about poke on the web. My favorite: “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bring it to our buying locations.” Writers in Arkansas must be doing well these days!
    My aunt Linda (Weller) and her mother raised me in their later years, coinciding with the ’70s nostalgia craze.

  3. She told me fantastic stories of life during the first half of the 20th century. Her mom was born in Thomaston, came to East Point, and moved to Kirkwood, where Linda started school. After the crash Mama (my aunt’s mother) had to move them to Macon, and then they had to subsist near Lifsey Springs in what much later my uncle described to me as a shack. My aunt described eating poke salad, and even cooked up a mess for me for old times sake, and showed me how to find and gather the correct, non poisioning, specimens. It’s the purple. Do NOT pick any leaves threaded with purple, and do NOT touch the berries. Do not eat the stem. The best plant is about knee to waist high, and mostly green. The purple is the poison.
    She later headed the food service part of the WPA school in I believe Williamson. I was told by several people that she devised a plan to keep school employees in a check during the summer. She proposed the school employees start a garden at the school, and during the summer, be kept on to tend and harvest the garden, and then can the food to serve during the school year. The kids and teachers got good food, and every one stayed employed.

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