Tag Archives: food

Four weeks in Lecce and the Salento

I just finished four weeks of study at the Scuola d’italiano per Stranieri in Lecce, Puglia. The trip was organised through Learn Italian in Lecce, an Adelaide enterprise set up to give students an opportunity to immerse themselves in Italian culture and language through classroom study, cultural events and excursions with Italian speaking teachers and guides.

The city of Lecce is down on the heel of Italy, in a region known as ‘the Salento’. Like all Italian regions, it has unique cuisine, language and customs. Along with a group of other learners from Australia plus learners from Spain, Columbia, US and Egypt, I had a full immersion in all things Salento.

Below is a selection of photos highlighting my time in the Salento. Thanks to fellow student David Bishop for allowing me to use some of his photos here. David has a keen eye; I have noted his photo with the initials(DB) in the caption. Click any photo to enlarge it, read the caption and scroll to the next.

Martano – Kurumuny Festival

We started off the weekend with a cure for jet-lag: Pizzica music and dancing. The 2016 Kurumuny festa was dedicated to Lucia Assunta De Pascalis, a great interpreter of the oral tradition of Salento folk song and protagonist and promoter of the previous  May Day celebrations (Kurumuny).

Il cibo e il vino – Food and wine

Like much of the south of Italy, the diet springs from what was traditionally available. The term ‘cucina povera’ is heard often, but this isn’t what we think of as the ‘food of the poor’. What we tasted used simple ingredients and cooking methods that be achieved by home cooks — and language students! We tried our hand at a few Italian and Salento dishes each week with Cooking Experience Lecce‘s irrepressible Gianna and her sous chef Andrea. Both are also knowledgable about wines and our dishes were always served with a selection of local wines.

Apart from the meals at Cooking Experience Lecce, we had many good meals on day trips around the Salento and in the town of Lecce.

Day tripping

The Scuola d’italiano per Stranieri and Learn Italian in Lecce organised day trips to various places in the Salento and beyond, including: Martano, Otranto, Bari, the Adriatic coast (plus the bottom of Italy, Leuca) , a Masseria (with winery and olive oil production), Ugento, Felline and more. We visited a working farm near Ugento where vegetables are cooked, dried or otherwise preserved for sale. We experienced degustations, meals, local traditions, festivals, fireworks and parades. We danced, ate, drank, chatted with locals and smiled a lot!

Around town

The people of the Lecce welcomed us with open arms. The teachers, baristas and waiters, tour guides and host families alike wanted us to experience life as it is lived year in and year out. They are proud of their heritage, traditions and culture.  This is not a show for tourists. Lecce and the Salento are real. And really fantastic.

If you’ve been considering studying Italian in Italy, I would highly recommend this trip organised through Learn Italian in Lecce. Raffaele is well connected and has a true passion for the Salento. The trip contacts and costs can be found on the website link above.

The teachers and administration at Scuola d’italiano per Stranieri in Lecce, were top notch and I know our group of students felt well cared for, regardless of our level.

Lecce and the Salento will enchant you.

Pescara seafood feasting

Abruzzo’s most populous city, Pescara, has a reputation as a brash new city, however its history pre-dates the Roman Empire.  The Lombards, Spaniards, Turks and French have all attacked or ruled over the centuries.

As a key Adriatic port city, much of the old medieval centre was bombed and destroyed during WWII. It has the appearance of a new city. Luckily, there is a wealth of tradition here and enough of a vibrant young population to put Pescara on a culinary par with better known cities.

The Romans dubbed it Aternum, which was also the name of the river that divides the northern and southern parts of the city. It wasn’t until 12th century that Pescara was known by something resembling its current name – then it was Piscaria, meaning ‘abundant in fish’. I visited in October, after the summer high-demand period when fish stocks are low, so luckily, I was able to taste some of this bounty.

When it comes to the old and the new of food in Pescara, you are spoiled for choice. I was wowed by the few restaurant meals I had and the flavours in one establishment were as edgy as any I have had in the ‘new world’.

Twice I lunched at Berardo Caffé, a big open air establishment at the beach end of Corso Umberto I. The front of the building is a popular coffee, cake and gelato place, and the back, a restaurant with just a few choices and specials on offer.

The setting is modern, but the treatment of the food was quite authentic and true to the region known for seafood.

There was a selection of different vegetables on display and one day I simply needed veggies.  So I indulged in the grilled pepper, zucchini, fennel and chicory accompanied by the delicious homemade bread and a glass of local Ceresuola wine. This wine is rosè in colour but has none of the lolly sweetness of some rosè wines. It is made from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape but spends less time on the skin to achieve its beautiful hue.

Another day, I dined with friend Amanda on the timeless classic Frittura di Pesce, a delicately battered then deep-fried mixed seafood dish. We followed with spaghetti vongole (my death bed meal) tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes that had just been lightly crushed. The vongole (clams) at Berardo were pan steamed with the tomatoes then the pasta was tossed in and warmed together to create a lovely emulsification. And veggies, more veggies.

Fritto Misto - Frittura di pesce - plus a side of roasted and grilled veggies at Berardo Caffè, Pescara. Classic, timeless, perfect.

Fritto Misto – Frittura di pesce – plus a side of roasted and grilled veggies at Berardo Caffè, Pescara. Classic, timeless, perfect.

 

Spaghetti Vongole at Berardo Caffè, Pescara.

Spaghetti Vongole at Berardo Caffè, Pescara.

 

One evening I was lucky to catch up with the sister of a my friend Sandra. Sandra runs the wonderful La Cucina di Sandra in Melbourne, Australia and she and sister Paola are natives of Pescara. Paola and her beau Simone were fortunately free one evening while we were in Pescara and suggested a restaurant I’d had my eye on! So with my friend Amanda, we joined Paola and Simone at La Baracaccia, around the corner from the Esplanade Hotel.

Me with locals Simone and Paola at La Barcaccia, Pescara

Me with locals Simone and Paola at La Barcaccia, Pescara

What we experienced next was nothing short of fabulous. The restaurant inside appeared quite old school formal and the service was impeccable. However, the  food was as modern and fresh as any I have eaten anywhere. So I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

Raw fish paired with fruits and other flavours. Genius!

Raw fish paired with fruits and other flavours. Genius!

 

Raw prawns with pear and pomegranate. Who thinks of these yummy combos? They deserve a prize.

Raw prawns with pear and pomegranate. Who thinks of these yummy combos? They deserve a prize.

 

Squid, lemony oil, onion and chilli. Just the right amount of hot!

Baby squid, lemony oil, onion and chilli. Just the right amount of hot!

 

Calamari with orange, olive oil and hazlenuts. Insanely delicious.

Calamari with orange, olive oil and hazlenuts. Insanely delicious.

 

Large prawns with passionfruit. I know, just crazy, but it works.

Large prawns with passionfruit. I know, just crazy, but it works.

 

Spaghetti with mussels and squid. This was subtle and divine.

Chitarrini with mussels and squid. This was subtle and divine.

 

For years I have treated Pescara as a transit hub, but from now on I vow to go to Pescara each trip to Abruzzo and try more of the delicious offerings.

 

Guardiagrele with Abruzzo4Foodies

During my recent trip to Italy I organised a half day of food and sightseeing for family and friends with Emiliana of Abruzzo4Foodies. Emiliana is a native of Abruzzo with a passion for travel, food and the Abruzzo region. She runs customised tours in a few languages, including English!

We were staying in Manoppello (see previous post here) and Emiliana suggested a few hours wandering around Guardiagrele about a 35 minute drive away. The town is set in an extraordinary background of the foothills of the Majella mountains and has a population of about 10,000. Emiliana knows this place so well; she can tell you the history, geography, agriculture and customs of the place as well as the food traditions. She has a well established network based on her years of experience living and working in the area.

On Sunday local farmers and producers bring their fruit, vegetables cheeses and meats to sell at tables in the piazza. There are both cow and sheep milk cheeses for sale from the backs of refrigerated trucks. Being early October, there were still plenty of local tomatoes and green vegetables. A van was selling spit-roasted chickens, sausages and, of course, the ubiquitous porchetta (fennel and garlic seasoned suckling pig which is rolled and slow roasted over charcoals or wood).

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The porchetta van

In addition to food, various shops displayed locally crafted wrought iron and copper home decor and cooking implements. One of Abruzzo’s favourite sweets, the pizzelle (also known as ferratelle or neole) are made on decorative irons held over the fire. One shop had a selection with different patterned pizzelle irons on display.

Pizelle irons

Pizzelle irons

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One of the cheese vans

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Fruit and veg vendors

Guardiagrele’s most famous sweet is indisputably the ‘Sise delle Monache’ or the ‘Nun’s tits’.  The distinctive mound of three cakes is meant to represent how the nuns would stuff their tops to make their breasts less obvious, but actually creating the appearance of a third breast.

Descendents of the Palmieri family (one of the town’s original producers) still make this special treat, not in the original shop though, which has changed hands, but in another shop just down the road. We sampled our Sise delle Monache at Pasticceria Emo Lullo.

Shop front

Emo Lullo

Poster of the famous

Poster from original makers

Guar-nunstits

Sise delle Monache

Our tour continued between food stops. We gazed upon the Cathedral of Guardiagrele (Santa Maria Maggiore) which is made of the local Majella stonework from the nearby Majella mountains. It was built in the 13th century on the site of a pagan temple (430 AD) with a massive bell tower added.

Cathedral Guar.jpg

Most impressive to me were the elegant porches on the outside with a highly decorative sculptural surround on a fresco of the Madonna del latte (Madonna of the milk) and coats of arms of Guardiagrele nobility. There’s also an impressively large fresco of Saint Christopher (patron saint of Travellers) under another porch.

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Coats of arms representing noble families

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Maria Lactans (Madonna of the milk) fresco

Cathedral fresco St Christopher 1473 Andrea Delitio

I just love this St Christopher fresco

A short walk away is the Monastery of San Francesco parts of which date back to the 14th century.

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San Francesco

In the courtyard between the monastery and the church is a peaceful cloister where we enjoyed a tasting of local cheeses, salamis, grilled vegetables and frittata, accompanied by Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine. As if this wasn’t enough, we were treated to more typical sweets and a liquor called Genziana, made from the root of the gentian plant. Gentian grows in alpine regions and is common in Abruzzo’s Apennine mountains.

Typical sweets

A single nun’s tit accompanied by a soft, jam-filled pizzelle

Genziana - herbal liquor

Liquor of gentian root

I would love to get back to this lovely town one day. Not only does it have a wealth of man-made wonders and delicious culinary traditions, but it’s also a gateway to the Majella National Park.

Ah, what I’d give for another lifetime to explore Abruzzo!

A weekend in Sulmona

A weekend in Sulmona is not enough. But I reckon even a short time spent there is better than none.

I’d been to Sulmona once before and enjoyed its refined, historic centre and relaxed vibe. Nestled in the Peligna Valley and surrounded by mountains, Sulmona is a destination in itself as well as a great jumping off point for day trips in all directions.

Most of the points of interest in the town are on or near the main street, Corso Ovidio, which runs roughly north-south. Narrow streets and parking restrictions in the centre make walking the best way to get around.

My recent trip was last-minute and finding accommodation was problematic. There must have been some event on in town because the seven or so places I tried were fully booked for at least one of my desired nights. I contacted Katy of Welcome to Sulmona to see if she had any suggestions. As it turns out, the Welcome to Sulmona site has a list of accommodation possibilities to suit various tastes and budgets.

Although not affiliated with any official city or regional travel body, the site authored by local residents Katy and Susanna (both of whom I met through the Abruzzo Blogger Community) is a storehouse of information. Welcome to Sulmona is my go-to place for things to do and see in the Vale Peligna.

Fortunately, I had luck with one of the places listed, B & B Il Marchese del Grillo. My room was beautiful and the breakfast was fresh, varied and plentiful (a highlight was the lemony yoghurt cheesecake).

My room

A corner of my very comfy room

 

The cheesecake

The cheesecake

Between proprietress Marta’s broken English and my more-broken Italian, we managed the business end of the weekend and had a chat about Sulmona’s dining scene.

One evening, wanting an early night and a light meal, I ate at La Cantina di Biffi, on via Barbato, just off the main street of Sulmona. Biffi is a relaxed restaurant that’s a cross between a wine-bar and a bistro and has an excellent choice of wines, many of which you can taste before deciding. There is no printed menu rather a boar of what’s on today.

I chose a crisp white wine, a ‘Pecorino’ to accompany the soup of the day, Farro and Chickpea Soup (Zuppa di Farro e Ceci) which was almost a stew. The staff were friendly and generous with their time in answering questions about the menu, which changes daily. Along with a generous basket of assorted breads plus some complementary small-bite appetisers, I left feeling just the right amount full.

Biffi

Biffi

 

Zuppa di Farro

Zuppa di Farro e Ceci

Another evening I ventured to the southern end of town to Il Vecchio Muro on via M. d’Erato.  I had eaten pizza here on a visit a few years ago, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. This evening, I decided to try Il Vecchio Muro’s ‘Arrosticini’ and a big ole’ mixed green salad. Arrosticini are skewers of lamb (ok, a castrated male sheep, or ‘wether’ in sheep talk) cooked over charcoals; they aren’t marinated or seasoned with anything but salt. When done well, as these were, they’re a real Abruzzo treat. And all washed down with a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo…hard to take.

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On my last visit to Sulmona, parts of the Museo Civico e Archeologico (Civic and Archeological Museum) were closed. This time some of the archeology rooms were still closed but I took the opportunity to visit the open rooms plus the fabulous display of traditional women’s costumes from the various parts of Abruzzo. (As an aside, read this interesting article on traditional costumes that just popped up in my feed!)

The Museo is housed in the stunning Annunziata Complex, comprised of the museum building and the attached church. The complex has been rebuilt over many years and there are both gothic and renaissance features still visible.  

Below are photos of some of the costumes and artefacts. Click any picture to enlarge and view as a slide show.

In the Piazza XX Settembre you’ll find a statue commemorating local poet Ovidius, a Roman poet in the time of Augustus who was a contemporary of Virgil and Horace.

Ovid, Roman Poet

Ovid, Roman Poet

Without leaving town you can do any or all of the following: stroll the charming narrow lanes, visit the medieval aqueduct (1256), people-watch from one of the cafes along Corso Ovidio, ponder the fate of Ovid, plus admire the beautiful shop windows and confetti (sugared almond) displays  – I even managed a load of washing at a self-serve laundromat! –  and that’s your weekend.

You could base yourself in Sulmona for weeks, explore the city and surrounding area, do lunch at the family run Gino’s (which I missed out on this time) and still only scratch the surface. But even if you only have a day or a weekend, I highly recommend you visit Sulmona.

I’ll be going back… 

Roseto degli Abruzzi – finalmente

Reaching Roseto degli Abruzzo is easy from Rome. There is a Baltour ticket window at Tiburtina Station. Buses depart in morning, midday and late afternoon and take about 2 and a half hours.

On departing Tiburtina, you’re soon out of the built up urban area and the scenery changes from light industrial to rural. The Apennine mountains appear quickly in the distance then suddenly you are amongst them, going through tunnels and coming out to a different world on the other side. It’s wild and rugged and lush and green. After a while, the scarred city of L’Aquila appears with more cranes on the horizon than I can count. Signs of the ‘terremoto’, earthquake, of April 2009 are clearly visible.

Soon the mountains give way to hills and I get my first glimpse of the Adriatic Sea. My grandfather, Giovanni Pergolini couldn’t talk about the bounty of the Adriatic without welling up with tears. I smile remembering him.

I am greeted by my great friend Lucia at the station where the bus me off, and we go to her B&B for an aperitivo and spuntini (a glass of wine and some nibbles).

After a swim and a shower I wander up to the centre of Roseto to see my cousin Walter at his shop, the Cartolibreria D’Ilario. Near closing time, Adriana, Walter’s wife, arrives to ride home with him. We chat. I ask her where to get the best gelato in town and she points me in the direction of her favourite, a family business that is pumping with holiday-makers, even at 10.30 on a weeknight.

At Gelateria Mario Magrini, undeterred by the crowd, I wait until my number comes up. I choose lemon, a classic benchmark for gelaterie everywhere, and a local seasonal flavour called Fichi di Montepagano which is fig from the local hilltop village where my grandfather and generations of the Pergolini and De Angelis families were born. The lemon is perfectly tart and the fichi rich and creamy, but not overly sweet. I ponder the number of trees that must be on that hillside surrounding the medieval village of Montepagano.

Walter has told me that his sister is in Roseto for a few weeks to enjoy the end of summer with her daughters and granddaughters. I have never met Gabriella and I’m excited at the prospect of meeting more cousins.

The next day I pedal up to see Walter again and Gabriella arrives at the same time with her charming and cheeky little granddaughter. I promise to go to the house later and meet the rest of the family who were holidaying together.

I have now met six more cousins: Gabriella, who is my mother’s first cousin’s daughter, plus her two daughters, two granddaughters and a son-in-law. We share family stories, look at old photos and dine on pizza and beer. I return to Lucia’s tired and happy after a short stroll along the beachfront. The moon is full and I have a stupid grin on my face. I really like these new cousins and I’m more motivated to continue to improve my Italian.

It’s so comfortable staying with Lucia, who makes all her guests feel at home with lovely touches like cake on the breakfast table! ‘Il ciambellone’ is a typical ‘dolce delle nonna’, a real nonna specialty. The recipe varies in each family. Lucia’s is divine. I’ll post a recipe soon.

Click any picture for a slide show.

I’m ready to settle in happily for a few days. But I’m registered to attend Athena International Italian Language School and the Abruzzo town of Lanciano is calling me…

Return to Italy

Flying across to Rome

Flying across to Rome

There’s a sense of excitement when you look out the window and can clearly see the place where you are headed, like flying into Sydney and seeing the iconic Opera House or into JFK and seeing the Manhattan skyline. And two weeks ago when I flew to Rome, we crossed over southern Greece then headed up the Adriatic coast of Italy.

The heel of Italy was clearly visible and I could see small settlements where all of the building looked white. Soon I could make out the Gargano Peninsula which is in the northern reaches of Puglia near the border with Molise. Just north I could then see the mountains of Abruzzo as the plane banked left towards Rome. My face broke into a grin that I couldn’t wipe off. I thought, “Che fortunata”, how lucky am I.

My sweet cousin Marina and her daughter Giulia met me at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Giulia had to go to work soon so we dropped her at the train and continued to Marina’s apartment on the ‘periferia’, the outskirts of Rome. Their apartment is large and airy and so welcoming after the long journey.

Flying across to Rome

These trees tell you that you’re in Italy

As luck would have it Marina was able to settle me in before she had to go off for a late shift at work. She needed to pick up some groceries so I went with her to the supermercato. I was like a kid in a lolly shop, checking out all of the pasta brands and salume and cheeses.

After a good night’s sleep and a strong cup of coffee, I headed into the centre of Rome to buy an Italian SIM card for my phone since I am in Italy for 2 months.  Then, after enduring the 36 C heat (102 F) I managed to cool down for a bit in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, the National Gallery of Modern Art, just to the north and west of Villa Borghese.

Amongst other things, the gallery includes Renato Guttuso’s black and white study for ‘La Vucciria‘, a painting that evokes all the colour, sights and smells of the marketplace of the same name in Palermo. I was temporarily transported to Sicily.

On the way out I spied another painting, this one quite sentimental in its style and subject, Gli Emigranti or The Emigrants, by Angelo Tommasi. The picture represents the great era of Italian Emigration when millions of Italians were desperate for a new life due to poverty and political unrest. My mother’s parents were both part of this great exodus from Italy and it’s easy to imagine the little girl in the centre of the painting as my nonna Anna Mezzacappa from Morro d’Oro in Abruzzo.

I felt profoundly sad looking at Gli Emigranti and rested on a bench in the museum until I could contain my tears. Part of that sadness stems from the knowledge that there is another crisis for young people in Italy today. I have spoken with many (including young Giulia in Rome) who are looking to leave for mostly economic reasons. We in the new world have a romanticised view of life in Italy.

So here I am in Italy once again, on a voyage of discovery of the language, food, lore and traditions of my mother’s family, but also to better understand modern Italy. A few months will not give me a deep understanding, but I know this isn’t my last trip…

Andiamo. Let the adventure begin!

Abruzzo and my mother

Abruzzo is never far from my mind.  I am planning a trip of my own later this year. But, as always in April, my thoughts turn to my late mother Louise Pergolini Tucker. She would have been 89 this week. Not only was she born on the 10th of April but she also died on her 81st birthday. So the date holds even more significance and bitter-sweet memories.

Ironically, our mother never visited Abruzzo, but she was our link to her parent’s place. We are connected by a long line of people with the names of Pergolini, DeAngelis, Mezzacappa, DiRocco, Fagà, Marini, Marani, Ettore, Tassone. Villages like Morro d’Oro, Rosburgo, Montepagano, Montorio al Vomano, Notaresco, Scoppito, Roio Piano and more.

Through the years photos kept our migrant grandparents in touch with their family. Travel was not easy, money was short.

The first picture below shows our great-grandmother Sofia DeAngelis with her youngest child Vittorio Pergolini taken in Roseto degli Abruzzi. Vittorio was born in 1910, a year after his older brother (my grandfather Giovanni – John ) left for America. The brothers met 50 years after this photo was taken. Four of Sophia’s six children emigrated to ‘L’America’.

The next photo is of our mother’s grandfather Nicola Mezzacappa,  from Morro d’Oro, Abruzzo, pictured on the front porch stoop at Thompson Street, Philadelphia in the 1940s. He left his wife behind until he got settled, then sent for his family, which included my grandmother.

The third photo shows the brothers: my grandfather John, my grandmother Anna Mezzacappa and Zio Vittorio. It was taken in Rome when John and Anna made their one-and-only trip back to Italy in 1963. The brothers first met on this trip.

The last photo shows more of Louise’s Abruzzo influences. Her own mother, our grandfather’s brother’s wives and a neighbour at a beach house in Delaware, cleaning up after a clamming expedition and meal, no doubt.

Vittorio Pergolini Sofia DeAngelis

Vittorio and mother Sofia, Roseto degli Abruzzi

Nicola Mezzacappa

Nicola Mezzacappa, from Morro d’Oro to Philadelphia

Anna and John united in Rome with Vittorio, 1963

Anna and John united in Rome with Vittorio, 1963

Pergolini women

The women cleaning up after a fish dinner.

It’s almost unfathomable to us now, with ease of travel and modern communication methods, that brothers could not meet until they were in their 50s and 60s. But they wrote affectionate letters and sent photos back and forth to maintain the relationship. Thanks to the relationships they kept, some of us have been fortunate to meet our mother’s cousins and their children and grandchildren. The journey of discovery, not only of our family but of the beautiful rich culture of Abruzzo, continues.

For all of our mother’s modernity, forging her way in the new world, there was no denying her Italian roots. Last year, before I started this blog, I wrote on my other blog about Louise’s love of Mussels. Soon after, on this blog, I wrote about the connection with her heritage symbolised by the dish Scripelle ‘Mbusse. Food is surely the biggest connection to one’s heritage.

I’m reminded of Louise’s resistance to making lasagne because it was so labour intensive. After all, she had six children, a part-time job as a nurse and a home to run. But we always convinced her to make lasagne for special occasions. She didn’t make her own pasta though. No, she was a modern woman who knew where to buy the good stuff!

Her lasagne was truly worth the wait. She never used a recipe. Feeding a large family was intuitive for her. For quantities, she worked back from how many people she needed to feed on the occasion. Then she doubled it in case any unexpected guests arrived. Nothing could be more embarrassing than to run out of food!

Louise’s lasagne was a tightly packed, multi-layered affair, and in hindsight was more like a timballo. Traditionally a timballo from the Teramo region is made with super-thin crepes (crespelle) instead of pasta. However, Louise used layers of fresh egg pasta, mozzarella, a homemade tomato sugo (starting with ‘un soffritto’ of garlic, olive oil, carrot, celery, onion and herbs) with minced (ground) beef, some vegetables like zucchini or eggplant if in season and topped with more mozzarella and pecorino cheese.

It’s surprising that I don’t have a photo of my mother’s famous lasagne to show here. Maybe one of my siblings has a photo of the Christmas table to share. If you’re reading guys, send me your photos!

Instead of Louise’s lasagne, I will show you our modern American mother of Italian heritage, caught between cultures and managing both with great legs, and a martini…or two. Salute!

Louise at age 38 or so, already the mother of 5.