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Wanderlust and Adventure

A Porcine Adventure

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure”

Freya Stark

At the end of my Umbrian adventure, I discover the writing of Michelle Damiani and am immediately entranced by her idea of a “wanderlust” genre. Where else should we find books such as  A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun and Driving Over Lemons? To place them with travel guides is a dishonor! Those of us who crave the adventure of waking alone in a strange town in a new country cringe at the thought!

Covid has made it difficult for us who suffer from wanderlust to satisfy our craving for adventure. No more is it a relatively easy exercise to wake up in a strange town. So what’s a woman to do? Find adventure in the familiar. This morning that means discovering a new twist to chichaito.

I wrote about chichaito a while ago because I was surprised to find anise culture here in Puerto Rico ( I’ve returned for the first time since April of 2019). I shouldn’t have been because of the Spanish heritage here – and even less surprised that anise liquor is married with rum.

Chichaito Flavors

Chichaitos in Abundance

But what’s this? Chichaitos of over 20 flavors including snickers and oreo? Does the “house of chichaitos” replace the anise with pear or mango or acerola flavors making a fruit flavored rum drink? I can’t imagine pairing nutella with anise and rum. If I could tolerate rum, a tasting would definitely be an adventure. Instead, if I’m walking by some evening I will have to ask.

So, what’s a porcine adventure have to do with all this. Well, only that it was an encounter that surprised – and slightly scared – me in my familiar town not long ago.

What adventure do you find after you wake up in your familiar town? Does it satisfy your wanderlust?

 

 

 

An Umbrian Adventure

8 October 2021 – 23 October 2021

Be Prepared

I’ve known I’ve wanted to travel since I was very young. On Sunday mornings I would creep to the front door, open it stealthily, purloin the Sunday paper (yes, I’m dating myself) and after reading the funnies I’d open the travel section. My father always wanted to be the first to handle the paper and I would carefully return the sections to their original positions and place the paper between the screen and front doors for him to find later.

My best friend Kathie and I planned trips to dude ranches in Arizona and explorations to Spain. Visiting New Zealand was a goal that developed in the 70’s when I read that it was like the US in the 50s. One of my favorite books was a world atlas and I’d love reading about different countries as I read letter by letter through the World Book Encyclopedia.

It could very well be said, that I created my global business as a means to travel the world – including the dream destination of New Zealand.

Who knows why this fascination with travel consumes me to this day. The 27 months that I didn’t travel because of retirement exhaustion and then Covid have been a strange form of torture.

Well according to an article in Conde Nast Traveler, the compulsion is genetic. Along with 20% of the population, it seems I have a “wanderlust gene.”

“Dawn Maslar, a Kaplan University biologist has studied the effect that hormones such as dopamine can have on our brains. She believes there’s a definite correlation between this gene and the number of stamps in any given person’s passport. ‘The wanderlust gene is so powerful. It appears that the DRD4 gene is more predominant in the traveling type of person.’”

Given that either my great and/or grandparents emigrated to the US from Italy, it makes sense that my first escape out of the country will be there. To tune my ear to Italian (having spent 6 years living in Puerto Rico most of the year), I watch every episode of every season of the Italian detective series Inspector Montalbano and Giovanni Montalbano. This has been only slightly useful. I take away phrases like dov’è il cadavere? avanti and arrivo.

Linguistically prepared if called upon to locate a dead body, invite someone to enter my room or let them know I’m coming, I happily board the plane in Boston Covid test, vaccination papers, passenger locator form and passport in hand and am on my way.

8 October 2021

I’m in Umbria Italy in the hilltown of Piegaro – a tiny village half-way between Rome and Florence – and happy as a clam living the simple life! The apartment is in L’Antica Vetreria – an ancient glass making factory restored by Tom Webb and Colleen Simpson.

I get here courtesy of an ad that Nedra Bottieri posted in the JourneyWoman newsletter. Once I saw the ad, I called Nedra to learn more about this lovely renovated former glass blowing factory and once she told me that she loved the town so much she bought a home here I knew that it was the place for me and that Nedra would be a wonderful guide and friend.

Everyone here is wearing masks – indoors and out! AND Italy has a high vaccination rate so I feel absolutely safe walking around, stopping in the markets and café.

Echoes Cafe Piegaro Italy

Echoes Cafe Piegaro

Before dinner we meet in Echoes café. The young man who runs it left the village to take a course in hospitality and returned to open a café modeled after one in Milan in which he interned. Some of you know that pre-Covid I had a retirement dream of traveling around the Mediterranean sipping and comparing anise flavored drinks. An early adventure was in Italy at the Varnelli distillery (because it is run by women) and I am delighted to enjoy an aperitivo of Varnelli Secco.

Panicale, Umbria Italy

In the gorgeous town of Panicale we are at Osteria Il Gallo nel Pozzo (the rooster in the well). You can see it in the back left hand corner. It’s one of at least two excellent restaurants and a great lunch place. Before flying here I discovered that Nedra had been here since September and she invited me to join her and a client for dinner. We are joined by Keith – one of Nedra’s tour clients and also a former flight attendant. What a dinner it is! Since Covid, I haven’t enjoyed a dynamic indoor meal with so much laughter.

Osteria Il Gallo nel Pozzo

My dinner rests on the blue and white plate – something that will figure prominently later. What am I eating you ask? Umbrichelli, crema di burrata, fiori di zucca, acciuga ‘don Tonino,’ crumble di pane al finocchietto selvatico. In other words thick traditional noodles of the region with a sauce of burrata, zucchini flower, anchovy and breadcrumbs with anise flavor.

When I later discover Piegaro’s well (pozzo) dating to the 1200s, I realize how there could actually be a rooster in the well! And that would be notable for the disaster it would wreak.

Ancient well (no rooster)

What good fortune – there is a chestnut festival in Piegaro this week. As a matter of fact, the chestnut seems to be the town symbol.

Welcome to Piegaro

I don’t even like chestnuts, but I’m already planning ahead and will happily enjoy antipasto piegarese, tagliatelle alle castagne con salsiccia & porcini, and delizia di maiale con crema di castagne. (Appetizer Piegaro style, tagliatelle pasta with chestnuts, sausage and mushrooms, and pork with chestnut sauce.) Because when in Piegaro do as the Piegarese!

9 October

My son thinks I’m crazy. I have a “thing” for doors. All over Europe doors, and sometimes windows, capture my attention. Iron works, water fountains, and classic Italian letterboxes, too. Walking through  town I spot little beauties that surprise and delight me at every turn.

I think they fascinate me because I imagine what is behind them, I imagine the ways they facilitate connections between people and, of course, I admire the artistry with which they were created

This morning I drink my cappuccino with a flaky slightly sweetened croissant integrali (whole grain) at the local café. Whether Cappuccino means little hood or is used to evoke the red-brown of the Capuchin monks’ vestments, mine has the perfect cap of thick milk foam over hearty dark espresso. I get there in time to hear the 8:00 bells ring over the countryside, walk to the bakery (forno) and will pick up a rotisserie chicken for lunch.

Along the way I discover that the glass museum is having events nearly every day this coming week.

Do 2 people form a trend? Keith and Nancie (staying at my same restored villa) are both shopping for homes in Italy. Both retired. Keith is enamored of Piegaro, but Nancie has her eyes set on Spello (to understand why, read Michelle Damiani’s entertaining book of her family’s year living in Spello, il bel centro) I meet Erica, a local architect, who is working with Americans who are looking to buy or build in Umbria or Abruzzo to avoid the high prices of Tuscany. It has always been a dream of mine to live abroad, but I’ve recently let it go.

Butcher shop

Now that she’s arrived, Sandra and I enjoy the chicken roasted by Michele.

Michele is a favorite in town because of his charm and his beautiful meats. I’m also partial to his assistant Tomasso who speaks a little English and learns my name after I pre-order a meal. Michele and Tomasso roast chicken one day, pork another, offer fresh eggs, local wines, homemade pasta dishes and more. How does a town of only hundreds (estimates vary between 300 and 800) of people support a butcher, a bakery, two markets (granted, they are the size of a small bedroom) and an always open café?

I know Sandra vaguely because she’s a neighbor in Puerto Rico. Within minutes of her arrival she exclaims, “You’re bossy!” and she’s right. I think of Tina Fey and her book Bossypants and all the ways I’ve been served by being bossy…and the ways I haven’t! At the same time, we discover many ways that we’re compatible – similar search for quiet places and weaving ourselves into a place as much as possible in the short time available, giving each other space because I’m a morning person and she not so much and a desire for authentic experiences.

At 5:00 we tour the village with Tom (proprietor of our apartment). It was a site of partisan activity and the Americans bombed the commune building as they were pushing out the Germans. It’s stands in garish dissonance with the beautiful stone buildings of the centro storico. I wonder what stories of resistance and collaboration have been hidden here as in so many villages in Europe.

We  tour the glass factory. We are staying in the first factory – the one staffed by blowers from Murano/Venice who escaped the 1292 ban on exporting the art of glass blowing. Now we tour the second – while in the borgo below the hilltown the third turns out glass to be exported around the world. It was owned by a royal family who turned it over to a cooperative of workers.

I’m intrigued by the displays women weaving river canes around the hand blown bottles so they will stand up – and think that it must have been women who figured out this solution. The wreath-like bases remind me of women around the world who form the same in order to carry heavy baskets of laundry or containers of water on their heads. So many intricate and beautiful designs.

I am impressed by Piegaro’s  ancient tradition of important work done by women and the ways that they celebrate this heritage. And I write a tribute to women’s work Piegarese style. You can find it here: https://wp.me/pabKoF-74

After the village tour we enjoy a light meal in – wine, bread, cheese, dried meat and fruit. I must take photos of all foods to share with my sister who has asked for “food porn.” In her eyes, no Italian foods are too pedestrian to elevate to food porn status. We send the photo to our friends from Puerto Rico, Amy and Sally. They regaled us with tales of similar meals during a pre-Covid trip to Turkey. It’s gratifying to return the favor.

10 October

The wind is relentless, but the sun is out! I stride DOWN to restaurant d’elia to ask what days they’re open for lunch and stroll back up. Stride then stroll is how it must be done. There is quite a change in elevation between the town and the restaurant. The restaurant is known for their pasta with truffles, so a meal there is required!

Strolling up the hill into the center, I discover the ancient laundry. Women would wash their clothes in the tubs furthest from the clean water source and rinse in tubs closer. I’ve uploaded a video here:

Ancient laundry

Cappuccino and croissant with Nedra. She is going to see if we can join her tour group for days in Orvieto, Cortona, Assisi, Deruta, etc. My main interest is Deruta. Fingers crossed. Then walking foot trails around the back of the village. Discovering along the way a tiny orchid-like purple flower, wild mint, lovely sunny flowers…and a shortcut to the restaurant. I know I can do the walk pretty easily.

Moka pot

I am brewing espresso for the first time in a moka pot. It reminds me of when Dad came back from one of their trips to Italy and would make himself a latte with coffee brewed in his treasured moka pot. Wow! Mine is super strong – glad it’s decaf. Will have to buy some milk to heat in the microwave.

While the espresso is bubbling away, I am translating the entire menu for the chestnut festival. With 4 different primi piati, and 4 different secondi – all very different – I’m tempted to have dinners there for 4 nights this week!

 

For pranza we will have the lasagna bought last night from Michele the butcher.

It looks splendid and as I open it am relieved to note that there isn’t the slightest hint of oregano in the sauce. As we cut into the bubbling hot casserole I’m surprised that instead of the layers of pasta, cheese and sauce that I think lasagna should be, it is, instead, pasta rolled around a savory blend of ground meats. More like a cannelloni.

Is this lasagna Piegarese style? Or was it mislabeled? I almost don’t care because it is absolutely delicious.

Yes, indeed, it is cannelloni! We cut into lasagna later in the week and it’s surprisingly heavy on thin, thin pasta sheets and a touch of cheese – nothing like the gooey, stringy, cheese-heavy, thick-pasta-sheet lasagna of my childhood.

11 October

Echoes is my go-to bar/cafe in town. There is another barely steps away, but Echoes is light, cheery and welcoming. The staff appreciate my attempts at Italian and speak back as if I knew what I were doing. I love that. In Rincon, when I speak Spanish to people they talk back to me in English. That’s pretty impossible here because Piegaro is not a tourist stop. I love that, too.

The prices reflect the local market, too. My cappuccino is around $1.39.

Before today’s cappuccino and croissant, I walk..

Pride of place

 

Villa in el centro

Five km from Piegaro is the market town of Tavernelle. I don’t know what else it might have to offer, but our hosts take their guests to market day every Monday. We ask for guidance on what to buy and the resounding answer is porchetta sandwiches and cheese.

Sandra loves sharp cheeses and is able to lay her hands on a wonderful aged, but not stone hard, pecorino.

Ah pecorino!

I’ve astutely avoided porchetta sandwiches in prior trips to Italy. I avoid the carbs and the unknown contents. BUT a porchetta sandwich is pretty much demanded of us by Nedra and by Tom. Nedra, “You MUST get a porchetta sandwich from the man with the pink pig trailer.” Tom, “You may order your sandwich without the skin.” (I know from pork roasts in Miami and Puerto Rico that I hate pork skin!) Here it’s gratifying to see that the porchetta is made from a de-boned pig rolled around an herb-stuffed center featuring ample fennel – the Umbrian way. Did I tell you I love anise flavors? We take ours back to the villa to warm in the oven.

Delicioso.

AND did I tell you that I hate the cold? The other purchase at the market is another pair of warm pants. While the weeks leading up to my trip sported temperatures in the 70s and 80s, the weather is decidedly colder and all my layers don’t help when my longest pants are quick drying cropped pants. I’ll spare you photos.

Typical Umbrian foods

There are two signs near the location for the chestnut festival. My attempts to translate them are a travesty. Literally, torta al testo seems to mean “cake to the text.”  While brustengolo has no translation at all. When it finally occurs to me to search on the words, I discover that, brustengolo is a rustic dessert that originated in rural areas of Perugia – the nearest large city to Piegaro. It is made with cornmeal combined with water and sugar, with  typical additions including apples, raisins, pine nuts, lemon zest, olive oil, anise seeds, an anise-flavored liqueur, and walnuts.” I would have LOVED it.

Torta al testo is actually Umbrian flat bread. I would have LOVED that, too!

Lily on my lap

I’ve been adopted by a cat! Of course, that means I must feed her – and I do throughout the rest of my stay. I’m happy to know that Tom and Colleen also tend to her during the winter. Sandra and I call her “Lily” for no apparent reason. One day on a morning walk I see her at the other end of town and she follows and leads me all the way “home” to her breakfast. Videos below

Lily walks me “home”

Lily walks me “home” 2

12 October

On Tuesday, Tom and Colleen usually give the vineyard tour. This month the tasting room at the vineyard is undergoing renovations so Tom drives us to and around Lago Trasimeno – the largest lake in Umbria. Along the way, and overlooking the lake, I find the “perfect” property to buy and renovate (pipe dream).

My dream project

Lago Trasimeno

Tom tells about the way that Hannibal (no, not Lector) defeated the Romans on the plains of the lake. It’s an intriguing war strategy story that includes bloody rivers. I’m happy for the sun, the olive trees and the overlooks on the way to the popular cafeteria style restaurant Faliero for lunch.

Tom is an old hand at ordering, and to be fair the restaurant has instituted a ticket system to control the mobs. I can’t imagine how he and Colleen had the courage to figure out how to navigate the dozens of offerings their first time eating here.

Trattoria Faliero

Yum! and Ahhh!

Through controlled chaos, that includes the servers getting all the way to number 29 before getting to us (#23) we pick up our meal which consists of – fried lake fish, fried shrimp, meatballs, salad, lasagna, fried chicken, wine and (what I now know to be) torta al testo. We eat outdoors with the lake in the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 October

I love a good scandal and one of my favorites is the story of the rival bakers in Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence. As the story goes there is the baker who actually gets up at 2:00 am to bake his breads and croissants from scratch (to the dismay of his wife) and there is the baker who buys frozen raw materials and bakes them in the morning. Quelle horreur!

So when I get royally yelled at for taking photo of the seemingly too-clean-to-have-been-used kitchen of the bakery on the outskirts of Piegaro my antennae are alerted. I see baskets of bread and nary a dusting of flour anywhere. Is that possible?

Yes, it could be as I discover days later when I see those very same baskets of baked goods being loaded FROM a van into the back of the bakery. Che orrore!

Thank heavens for another sunny day. Sandra and I are able to make the trek from the villa to da Elio for lunch. We share her order of da Elio’s renowned taglietelle with truffle sauce and I that with mushroom. Desserts are a lemon torte and a molten chocolate cake with pistachio center.

Taglietelle with truffles and mushrooms

Desserts – oh my!

It’s a miracle that we are able to walk back up the hill for dopo pranza – naptime.

Dopo pranza in the sun

 

14 October

Chestnut festival dinner!

Ordering for the Sagra della Castagna

I wonder why this week-long event (cut down from 2 weeks pre-Covid) is called Sagra della Castagna and not Festa della Castagna

Festa seems to connote a party or celebration motivated by a religious, civil, family celebration, or by an auspicious event. With typical Italian grandiosity, sagra translates to a celebration or commemoration of the consecration of a place or object of worship. Eaten roasted as a snack, ground for flour, candied, and as accompaniments to many dishes one can understands why the chestnut is revered. I’m not sure of the difference even now since there are festas celebrating olive oil – which is certainly as highly prized (or more so) than chestnuts.

Supreme organization. We take a ticket and a menu. Fill in our order, pay at the cassa and then enter the building when my name is called. We are placed at table 4 where two men – like Mutt and Jeff one slight and one rotund – are already enjoying their wine. I see one of them the next day soaking up the sun outside of the circcolo (social club) where the meal is served. Has he been so full that he can’t make his way home?

We are number 123. On Sunday they are well into the 500s!

Sagra della Castagna meal

Ultimately we are the only 2 women at this table of 20! And foreigners to boot. I wonder what they all think as we merrily chat in English about how much fun we’re having.

We split the antipasto Piegarese style, and share two primi piati – chestnut taglietelle with truffle and umbrichelli all’ amatriciana…. – while all around us people are eating the full 3 course meals!

How do they do it? We’ve missed out on the wild boar alla caccioatora, pork tenderloin with chestnut sauce, roasted liver sausage, roasted liver, and the roasted veal steak. Not to mention 4 torta al testos: with prosciutto, with sausage, with herbs and sausage and just plain.

15 October

Deruta!!!

Deruta

We’re so lucky to be able to join Nedra’s group for the day. On the way to the villa to meet them we pass rolling field after rolling field with stalks standing helter skelter. I wonder if they’re corn or sourghum, but no, Nedra tells us they are the remains of sunflowers. I can envision the summertime discs of gold tilting this way and that as the sun passes from east to west.

For years I’ve wanted soak in the traditional art of ceramics from the town. Walking into the city I see the beauty of hand painted majolica everywhere – above doors, adorning walls, announcing stores. If you ever see my photos of this trip, I hope you’ll linger on the gems all around the city.

 

 

Years ago I bought my Mom and Dad a gorgeous imported pasta bowl of the traditional rooster design, but on this trip I’m seeking out a more contemporary interpretation of blue and white for my son Justin and his fiance’ Gabrielle.

On the way into the town center, Nedra has found a wonderful maioliche artistiche run by the Tassi family who continue, but have slightly modernized, the ancient tradition of majolica. We watch artists painting and soak up a tour that explains exactly how long it takes to create a piece (and therefore the expense).

Maioliche Artistiche Tassi

I make dozens of circuits through the factory and store. The beauty is overwhelming. I find a perfect set for Justin and Elle who have a blue and white scheme in mind. Lo and behold, it’s the exact design that base plate was for my very first dinner in Umbria!

For Justin and Elle

The sets will be hand produced and shipped. I can’t begin to imagine the time that goes into painting the two different, but complementary designs!

Hidden away I find a lovely piece to hang on the wall in my yet-to-be created kitchenette. A potter gave the shape to the studio to see if they would want to buy in the future. For whatever reason they declined and so I will be displaying a one-of-a-kind piece.

Keith, Nedra and Sandra

Ricotta-filled ravioli with lemon sauce for lunch! And a zuppa inglese that comes nowhere the deliciousness of what my Grandma made. The owner offers us limoncello and we laugh as Sandra and Keith take turns chugging, not sipping, the after dinner drink.

Walking through town after lunch, so many lovely pieces! Only one store – the one just at the gate features the traditional pattern of the pasta bowl I’ve reclaimed after Mom and Dad died. I am melancholically happy.

Traditional rooster (not in the well) pattern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16 October

What an indulgence. I follow Nancie’s (a guest who has rented the 5 bedroom Villa at L’Antica Vetreria) lead from our gathering at Echoes last night and order a hot chocolate. Not just any hot chocolate and nothing like what is served in the U.S. This is Caffarel‘s 80% cacao chocolate and nearly thick enough to hold up a spoon. Such a treat. With a bit of whipped cream it would be nearly as delicious as Angelina’s of Paris. And they sell the packets!

Caffarel’s 80% chocolate

There’s nothing like a weekend countryside morning. As with my walks in La Louviere France, my walk this morning includes wafting smoke scented country vegetation air punctuated by the barks of hunting dogs. Where in France I walk on thyme, here mentuccia (wild mint) and rosemary predominate. I wish I had known that mentuccia is said to pair splendidly with artichokes.

Walking out of the village center to find the stadio communale for the afternoon’s futbol/soccer game, I see those baskets of bread being delivered to the back of the bakery where, only a few days ago, I was yelled at for taking a photo.

Sandra is off to Rome so I laze around La Cantina and I feed the ever-hungry Lily. Yoga with Wendy over Zoom and then off to the stadio communale for the regional championships. I wonder if I misread the time because the poster in Echoes said 13:15 for the start, but at the gate the gentleman says 3:00.

Phew, only a 15 minute wait.

What fun sitting in the sun to watch the game. They have a lovely tradition at the start of the game. Both teams face the stands and clap to the audience while the audience claps for them.

Regional championships

When I leave after the end of the first half, the team from Piegaro is ahead 3 to 2. They ultimately win to become the regional champions. Echoes sponsors the team and I admire the baby blue and white uniforms with gold numbers. Stylish!

Impagliatura del fiasco

Timely return after the futbol game to watch both the art of glass blowing and – more especially – the art of using lake reeds to stabilize bottles for standing. Impagliatura del fiasco – the work of the women in the glass producing process.

I can’t keep from wondering if she is the last remaining woman in the village who has learned the craft. Here’s a video of her intense focus and intricate gestures required to wrap the bottles. Impagliatura del fiasco

There are many different designs, some incredibly intricate. These are mostly of the simpler design. Some wrapped bottles are adorned with reed-decorated stoppers. Along the sides of the wheelbarrow hang the donut-shaped bottoms just waiting to be added to the irregular bottoms of hand blown bottles to make them stable on the table.

Impagliatura del fiasco

17 October

The town could not have asked for a more beautiful day for the market and end of the chestnut festival! There must be a dozen clothing booths, one with local foods – lucky Justin to be able to look forward to Crema di Nocciole. Sadly it is not to be. The crema is considered and liquid and the jars exceed the limit for liquids in carry on luggage.

Crema di Nocciole

This crema is what Nutella used to be before it became stabilized for global markets. Today’s Nutella is a far cry from its distant (but artisinally available) relative.

It’s Sunday and the church bells that regularly toll the hour and quarterly intervals are dancing with joy. I hope you’ll click on the video link below so you can hear them.

Piegaro’s joyful church bells

The church in Piegaro

The church is open and I’m happy to be able to peek inside – actually walk inside nearly alone. I wonder if the lights are from Murano – or from the descended glass-blowers who were smuggled here from the island and helped break the monopoly Venice held on blown glass.

Walking along the market there’s a small opening through which to see the roasting of chestnuts in a rotating bin over open fire, cooling on the stone floor and and the removing of the nuts from the shells. Molto lavoro.

 

Michele’s is the best porchetta panino that I’ve tasted! The roll super fresh and the porchetta delectably seasoned with salt (of course) and rosemary. Speaking of which, the largest rosemary plant I’ve ever seen overhangs the pool at L’Antica Vetreria scenting the air, flowering and drawing pollinators even in the October cold.

Rosemary bush in bloom

Rosemary and bees

18 October

Day of Personal Leadership

Indulge! That’s the watchword for the morning even though the calendar says that 18 October is the Giorno della Leadership Personale – day of personal leadership.

I order an espresso to mix with my hot chocolate and a slice of the dolce di castagna (chestnut cake) to enjoy at home.

Perhaps I am leading myself to an extra 10 pounds or early heart attack.

 

The gate to the sun

 

While the streets are mostly shaded, I delight in the sun lighting the world outside of the village. This is one of 3 gates that form the entrances to Piegaro

When I think about living here – as Keith is contemplating – I think about the lack of sunlight inside the village as of the drawbacks to life here.

Only homes high above their neighbors or on the outside have sun streaming in.

 

Sandra was a detective on Long Island before she retired and so we are interested in the local policing scene. In Italy you can find 2 policing entities in any area – the local police (Polizia) and the caribinieri.

Caribinieri hours

The Polizia is a civilian structure that works under the Ministry of the Interior. The Carabinieri is a military branch under the Ministry of Defense. There are other differences, but we are most intrigued by the fact that the Caribinieri office isn’t open 24/7/365. It’s open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 8:00 am – 12:00 pm and Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. I guess state crimes don’t happen in Piegaro except occasionally.

Ah, la dolce vita.

19 October

I’ve walked and walked for the past 11 days and still I make new discoveries. Today’s is a local amphitheatre complete with flowering crocuses. It’s a short walk out of the center, but feels like a park in the countryside. And they hold outdoor events there – well they did pre-Covid.

Amphitheater

Crocuses

I also find the house I would buy if someone FORCED me to live in Piegaro. It’s “of” the center, but not in the center. I crave the light that touches it along with its sweeping views of Piegaro and the surrounding countryside.

“My” house

The view from “my” house

The day ends with Lily and I watching the most beautiful sunset of my time here so far.

Lily and the sunset

20 October

Birdsong strikes me as I leave the village for a morning walk.

Today’s diary says it’s the Giorno di Modo – the day of fashion. It reminds me that one of the holdovers from my Nana’s years as a child in Gaeta was that she wanted her granddaughters to always make a good impression – una bella figura. This is something I certainly never accomplished.

Mornings with Danila

In my halting Italian, I say the same to Danila as she checks me out after my hot chocolate and croissant. Among words I don’t understand she says that my eyes are very pretty – bella oggi. It has been a very long time since anyone has said that anything about me is pretty. I get a bit teary…and it reminds me that the time I worked in Milan was the first time I felt totally at home in a workplace.

I didn’t understand a single word of Italian – well maybe a few – and yet the women and men in the group felt like kindred spirits. In a sense I felt like I exhaled, uncoiled and merged into a place I belonged.

The same is true here in Piegaro. The people are warm, open and welcoming. Everyone either wishes me buon giorno (literally good day) or buena sera (good evening) or responds when I do. My driver Gianni says that it’s because in small villages people know and rely on one another whereas in cities (e.g. Amsterdam) people walk around without even meeting your eye.

Stay in a village long enough and gossip finds its way to your ears. Whether it’s the baker having it on with the shopkeeper or the crazy Englishwoman on the hillside (both of which are representative and made up), it’s simultaneously unnerving and comforting to be on the receiving end of  secrets. And this is the downside of everyone knowing and relying on one another.

Today is a day of little discoveries…

School entrance

Secondi delivery – school lunch

Did I also mention that I love door knockers, handles and key holes?

Little treasure

Door handles

Door knob – imagine all the key that turned the lock

21 October

I love progressive politicians. In Puerto Rico our mayor is a disaster – so much so he is rumored to have been with his mistress in Florida after Hurricane Maria and nowhere to be found as the town struggled without power, water, internet, food deliveries, etc.

Here I learn that the two recent mayors have worked to cement the future of Piegaro. The first helped Tom and Colleen create their beautiful Antica Vetreria in order to bring tourists into the centro storico. The second is welcoming young families with children in order to keep the school open. These families come from Macedonia. Embarrassed to say that I have to look up where exactly that is.

Little delights each day. Today it’s capturing the church bells accompanied by the town fountain. Which reminds me that you could live perfectly well in Piegaro if you never did anything on the quarter hour. The church bells signal the hour (to the count of the hour) and with a different note the 1/2 hour (chime, chime). You’ll here it here:

Fountain and church bell symphony

 I’ve walked by these at least 5 times, but today the scent of slightly “off” grapes catches my attention. What could they be? They are clearly constructed as two halves that can be joined. And though they clearly have contained grapes, they have too many holes to be wine barrels. Could they be for stomping?

Mystery halves

I think the mystery is solved. Days later when reading A Tuscan Childhood by Kinta Beevor, I come upon this picture.

Holding the harvest

 

Lillo Tatini

Today marks the 2nd of two memorable meals. Tom, Colleen and I head to the Michelin noted Lillo Tatini in Panicale. My dining experiences are ending and beginning in the same charming town called the balcony of Lake Trasimeno because of the magnificent views off the north side.

I could do a whole album on the ambience, hospitality, decor, wine, bread, olive oil, flavored butter and meals in this lovely family-owned restaurant. My lunch of Ravioli stuffed with quail eggs sauté with bacon from Siena “Cinta” and special sheep cheese (ricotta) from Norcia was to die for. And dessert – so glad we went for lunch so I could walk off a bit – that is after my nap!

Quail egg ravioli

Death by chocolate

In case you’re wondering, the shell you see is just for presentation.

I leave in two days and already I’m thinking about when, how and where to return. I ask Erica Pellegrini, local architect which is her favorite town in the area. “Spoleto,” she answers without pause. The very handsome and animated gentleman next to her pipes in with a twinkle in his eye, “Assisi. But that’s because I’m from Assisi.” And a friend walks in, answering when Erica asks her, “Orvieto. Because I work there.” Lots of future destinations!

22 October – Travel in Covid Times

It’s cold, rainy and I’m in the fewest clothes possible so all are clean for my flight to Amsterdam, so I wrap myself in small blankets. I HATE being cold!

I’ve spent 5 hours dealing with Covid-related travel requirements. I purchased two Ellume home test kits from CVS in Rhode Island where I’ve been since Covid. To save packing space I put the two kits in one box and took them with me to Italy.

So, this morning I’m ready to make an appointment for a test before my flight to Amsterdam and discover that some kits have been recalled. I test one.

Ellume fail

AND now I am with two kits – one I know for sure has been recalled. The other I can’t check because the box is in RI. And no proof of purchase except the components spread out on my bed. This means that if I’ve made some mistake booking a test appointment in Florence airport, I’ll have to spend the night or more in Florence – so I’m researching hotels near a wonderful osteria from my trip in 2015 – which is still open!

It also means that I have to find a place in Amsterdam to get tested – and the tests are pricey!! Not to mention figuring out how to get to and from the test location – which is too far to walk in rain which is predicted for my test date.

I also discover a new form that I have to fill out to enter the US, and ask Tom and Colleen to print it. They don’t get it to me before I leave.

After the first 3 hours I stop the frustration and pack everything that’s dry.

I’m so glad I didn’t go to Deruta again. I’m too cold and tired to do much except huddle and read.

23 October

Today I leave after 2 weeks and still on my morning walk I discover little joys. Today it’s painted panels on the back doors of the palace, a rustic broom propped against a front door.

Palace door panels

Rustic broom

This is one of the wonders about travel. Being able to see and appreciate little things with fresh eyes. It’s a recipe for joy. It can be so hard to do in the familiarity of where we live and when work feeds us with busyness.

I feed “Lily” one last time. So happy that she comes early today.

I feed Lily one more time

Bring groceries to Nedra and join her for a hot chocolate at Echoes. I say good bye to the family who run it and to Michele and Tomasso at the Macelleria. I’ve stopped going into Matteo’s little market because in spite of the no smoking sign on the door, he feels free to smoke and it stinks.

Village butcher shop

Getting tested at Florence airport is effortless. And after all the forms I fill out based on KLM’s requirements AND getting the Covid test at the airport, no one asks for anything other than my passport and my vaccination record!!

Well, at least I’m on my way to Amsterdam.

Arrivederci Piegaro

After Thoughts

There’s no way to capture the  brilliant red of flowers here.

In real life it hurts the eye

The Sagra della Castagna is run entirely by volunteers and all the proceeds go to the Circolo – the community center. Here’s a look at the entire menu. And the prices! Grilled veal steak for approximately $13.00

Sagra della Castagna menu

Before and after

How could I have written over 6000 words without once mentioning gelato? When we arrived, the gelato freezer at Echoes was stocked with several flavors – which Sandra and I kindly told Leonardo we’d help him empty. We did our best, but in the end, our promise was as empty as the spot where the chocolate gelato had been.

Lemon and cherry

Before

During

After – note the columns

 

The Work of Women – With Love from Piegaro, Italy

The work of women is celebrated all over the centro historico (historic center) of Piegaro in the region of Umbria!

From murals to statues to models and live demonstrations, here girls see that women have been key to commerce for centuries – actually from the time that glass blowers were smuggled out of the island of Murano in Venice (which wanted to hold a monopoly on glass making) to this hilltown in the middle of the country.

I am staying in one of 3 glass factories. The oldest (L’Antica Vetreria) which has been converted into apartments, the next – Museo del Vetro – is, as you would guess, now a museum dedicated to the local history glass making and the newest is a cooperatively owned factory outside of the village center.

Are you old enough to remember when tables at every Italian restaurant had a wax coated bottle of Chianti wine dressed in a reed covering? Well here’s the background.

Women historically were not glass blowers, but instead here fashioned the important outer covering with reeds from Lake Trasimeno. Why? One reason is that hand blown bottles would have imperfections at the bottom that would make them unstable.

What a delight to be here for the Sangra Castagna (chestunt festival) during which the museum does live demonstrations. Breaking with tradition, the glass blower is a woman and nearby an elderly woman – perhaps the last in the village – demonstrates impagliatura del fiasco (dressing of the flask – although I think impagliatura literally it means “stuffing”).

Here’s to the work of women – that which has been celebrated, that which is forgotten and that which we do today!

Chichaito and Anise Culture in Puerto Rico

Sitting on Elva’s front porch drinking in the view of the Caribbean, I wasn’t much interested in my friend’s conversation about an evening spent drinking chichaito until Elva explained to Peg (who was new to the coffee klatch) that “Chichaito is a drink of rum with anise-flavored liquor on top, usually Paloma.”

Well, I perked right up. Anise-flavored liquor? What kind? I was so oblivious to the possibility that Puerto Rico would have an anise culture that I had never even bothered to look for anise liquor in the stores here. So, what’s the next logical step, go shopping!

Since I’m focusing on anise culture around the Mediterranean, I, for now, look past the several liqueurs distilled/blended on the island in pursuit of any imported from Spain and I find a bottle of Anis del Mono Seco.

Anis del Mono Seco

Ah ha! I had read about Anis del Mono ages ago when first researching anise culture around the Mediterranean and here I find it in Rincon, Puerto Rico. There’s something both magical and not quite right about that. On second thought, it shouldn’t be surprising that a culture with strong Spanish roots would also enjoy anise culture.

So I head out to search for a second bottle for a tasting party. The only other bottle is the sweet version of Anis del Mono which will make for a challenging party. Strangely, one liquor store had Ricard Pastis (which I bypassed having had a fun tasting party in Rhode Island…not to mention France).

Now to plan a tasting.

Salud!

 

Executive Profile: Orietta Varnelli, COO Distilleria Varnelli S.p.A.

Since 1988, Orietta Varnelli has been one of the owner operators of Distilleria Varnelli S.p.A.. In 2011, she became the president of ActionAid Italia. In 2015 she was named one of 3 women among the 13 senior directors of the Banca d’Italia. Today, she is my companion for lunch. I’m wondering what lessons women in public companies can learn from women executives in family owned businesses.

Family Owned Business

Family run businesses are Italy’s economic engine. As in the US, about 85% of all companies in Italy are family-0wned. Unlike the US where family-owned business contribute 64% to GDP, in Italy they contribute 94% of GDP.

Varnelli has been family-owned and operated since its founding in 1868. Which led me to wonder, is executive leadership different in family-owned businesses?

Over Our 5 Hour Lunch!

Much of  lunch was spent discussing the anise culture, but sandwiched (pun intended) between the cocktails & aperitivi, multiple courses & bottles of wine, we did discuss leadership and women in leadership.

Grounded in Values

Once an aspiring architect, Orietta’s life changed when her father died. She was 12. Her mother started her career a pharmacist, but had shared the business with her husband and become a fundamental point of reference for decision-making. When Orietta’s father died, her mother became the head of the business. When I ask her what kind of preparation her mother and sisters had for running the business she answers, “My mother and father shared everything – especially their values and seeing a wider responsibility for the business. She was educated in the company being a part of the local community with ties to the past and responsibilities to the future.

Her involvement in the business wasn’t so much a choice as it was an acceptance of something like destiny – to make a contribution to family and community. A continuation of the past into the future,  a commitment to tradition, the family, the local people and the land/terroir. She says, “I made myself available for something right.”

Time and again during our meal, we return to the concept of the family and business being integral to its land/terroir, community, and employees. Talking about the ingredients for the flagship product, Amaro Sibilli, we end up discussing the sustainable harvesting of gentian bark from Switzerland and how she is working to bring gentian cultivation to the lands outside the protected Sibillini mountains. The ingredient was first available there before the mountains became a national park. In the wake of the 2 devastating earthquakes in 6 months, helping local people develop income at elevations where normal crops won’t grow.

Talking about the use of Star Anise (often from India) versus the herb Anise, she speaks of working to retain a supply of the herb from the fields in Italy that first gave rise to Italian anisettes.

She speaks of work and life as many women do. With work as a small circle inside the larger circle of life – and a life that has a broad reach encompassing family, community, employees, local residents, the Marche region, terroir, country, industry. This is quite different from men who often see work and life as two separate (and sometimes not even touching) circles!

As these moments illustrate, Orietta frequently refers to the mission, vision and values on which Varnelli is built. This is significantly different than conversations with women executives of publicly held companies. When discussing the mission, vision, values of their companies the  words sound noble. But, as one expects from publicly traded companies, mission, vision, values are spoken of less often than strategy execution and return to shareholders. This is not to say that the focus on business growth isn’t there. It is.

External Strategic Relationships

In Leading Women’s leadership programs we stress the importance of external strategic relationships and choosing wisely how to invest time on professional, industry and market-influencing organizations. This is based on our research into the career trajectories of women CEOs around the world including F500, Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Our guidance is that the more senior you are and the higher your aspirations, the more important it is to be involved in industry and market-place influencing organizations – and to be taking leadership roles in them.

This is something that Orietta has done extremely well. An analysis of  the external positions she’s held shows that most of her external strategic networking activities are focused on leadership positions in industry (e.g. Treasurer of FEDERVINI or the International Order of Anysetiers) and market-place influencing (e.g. Banca d’Italia) organizations.

She uses many of her external relationships to spread the anise culture to grow the industry and create new opportunities for Varnelli. For example Varnelli sponsored and organized a tasting of all Mediterranean anise-based drinks. Wish I could have been there!

She also uses her external activities (e.g. ActionAid) to fulfill her commitment to social justice. Orietta believes that social justice should be part of the mission of every entrepreneur and business. That business and social justice can be integrated and she works with employees, customers and suppliers to make that a reality – to create a synergy that adds to everyone.

What Did I and Can We All Learn?

I left our lunch inspired by Orietta’s worldview about the role of business in the broader world and slightly surprised that the external relationship patterns we discovered for F500 women CEOs and other women CEOs around the world also make sense in family owned businesses in Italy.

 

Varnelli and Cocktail Culture

So, the proper way to enjoy Varnelli is after the meal (LINK ), what about as an aperitif?

For this I have the pleasure of experiencing an aperitif tasting conducted by Anna Tosoni, owner of Gossip Wine & Drink in Civitanova Marche and a director of Italy’s bartenders association. Serving as Treasurer, she is the first woman director in its 70 year history. Today she is displaying her talents as she prepares cocktails featuring Varnelli’s Amaro Sibilli and Anice Secco.

One of the reasons Varnelli Amaro Sibilla is  popular in mixology culture is that mixologists like to have control over the flavor of their drinks and it is easier to adjust the sweetness in a cocktail that uses this somewhat bitter liquor.

Anise isn’t central to Amaro Sibilla, so I won’t write much about it, but I do notice that it has tremendous “legs’ and clings to the side of the bottle after being poured. I am also surprised that gentian flowers and bark are part of the decoction. Orietta tells me that gentian has antimalarial properties which is why her great-grandfather used it in his remedy.

Gentian grows above 1300 meters and used to be sourced from the Sibillini Mountains, since 1993, one of Italy’s magnificent national parks. Since then, Varnelli has had to source gentian from authorized harvesters in Switzerland, but Orietta – as an assist to the local community – is interested in helping farmers cultivate this and other ingredients in areas outside of the national park.

Aperitivi

Rosaria Morganti, the owner of Ristorante Due Cigne, where we are having our tasting and lunch serves both unique and traditional aperitivi. I could make a meal of the olive ascolane – olives stuffed with meat, coated with bread crumbs and fried. They are a specialty of the Marche town of Ascoli Piceno.

Also, shrimp marinated in Varnelli coated with bits of sweet red onion and taralli, a traditional bread of Puglia that looks, at first glance like calamari.

Varnelli 150

The first cocktail is Varnelli 150 – developed in honor of Varnelli’s 150th anniversary. It features ginger beer, Amaro Sibilla and honey. The interesting thing about using local and rare millefiori  (wild flower) honey is that the bees pollinate some of the same plants and herbs that are used in making Amaro Sibilla. And there is honey itself in the decoction. This creates a unique complementarity!

V150
ml. 20 lemon juice
ml. 10 ginger syrup
ml. 10 honey mix (0,8ml honey + 0,2ml water)
ml. 30 Sibilla Varnelli
ml. 30 ginger beer
garnish lemon peel
glass medium tumbler
serve with ice

The olives are a bit salty and pair beautifully with the V150! “Absolutely,” Orietta says validating what Jim, Lisa and I learned at our tasting, “salty pairs better than sweet.”

Mexico Meet Muccia

I hate Tequila and I was a bit afraid to try this one, but what’s a good guest to do?

Mexico Meet Muccia
ml. 15 lemon juice
ml. 10 simple syrup
ml. 30 tequila Silver
ml. 40 Varnelli anise
ml. 0,5 egg white
2 drops of Amaro Sibilla Varnelli
garnish star anise
cocktail glass
serve straight

I love both cocktails, but take notes about this one. It hit my tongue with a bitter foretaste and then sweet to follow. I tell Anna, “It’s like it lifts the taste buds for everything else.” She nods and explains that part of the balance is that agave and anise are both plant-based liquors.

The shrimp, of course, with their anise flavor are a superb fit. And the small rings of bread with their taste and feel of olive oil…but I’m trying to cut down on carbs.

Now on to lunch!

 

A Meal to End All Meals! Part One

Back in the day, the 3 martini lunch used to be a thing. Beneficiaries enjoyed long, leisurely “working” lunches…well let me tell you about the 2 bottle lunch.

In last night’s blog, I marveled that the people around me were eating 3 and 4 courses. Today I learn how.

The star of this 2 bottle meal is Rosaria Morganti, chef, owner of Ristorante Due Cigni and master sommelier. She proudly shows me the napkins that are hand woven by her nearly 90 year old mother – who still works in the restaurant! Strong women abound during this meal.

Due Cigne offers a farm-&-fish to table experience that is both traditional and contemporary. The decor is refined and minimalist – it occurs to me that there is nothing to compete with the experience of the food. The only thing that isn’t minimalist is its award winning wine cellar!

I arrive to meet and interview Orietta Varnelli at noon and walk into an empty restaurant. Well, I think, maybe they open at 12:30. Anna Tesoni is there setting up cocktails and we chat. I’m thinking only that this small cocktail set-up is a lovely welcome offered by the restaurant. Orietta arrives for our meeting – still no one is arriving for lunch. We sample cocktails and Rosaria escorts us into the dining room.

I finally understand that she has opened her beautiful restaurant only for us! She has prepared a menu that features Varnelli in some way in every course.

Courses, how do I love thee, let me count the ways!

  1. I have to count the bread because it is presented as a work of art conjuring the famous Sibillini Mountains of the Marche (my photo in no way does it justice).  I’ve never seen anything like it. It feels like an insult to not have one of each, but I resist. I sample a breadstick – I love the olive oil – and a bite of the mountain and am unable to tell you what it is beyond delicious.
  2. Having poured the water before presenting the breads, Rosaria brings the first bottle of wine. Chosen from her expansive cave. As she has won a Wine Spectator award, I’m confident it is the perfect pairing for the meal. Turns out it’s simply the perfect pairing for the appetizers – yes, plural! What it was, I can’t tell you because I forgot to take notes or photos.
  3. Next what I expect is going to be the appetizer. A trio of a light cheese ball, a light salted macaron filled with a puree of bean and garnished with Pedano onion and a savory bite about which I took no notes!
  4. On to the main course, I’m thinking. But, no! Another appetizer. Made to look like a cute little fish, it’s shrimp marinated in Varnelli with herb garnishes from the land and seaweed garnishes from the beautiful Adriatic coastal area of the Conero.
  5. Are we there yet? Will this be the main course? The answer is a resounding, “No!” Another appetizer. This time another trio of small bites including beef from the Marche region cradled in zucchini, pecorino and sundried Sicilian tomato wrapped in mozarella and onion and garlic shrimp marinated in Varnelli and garnished with an edible  herbal flower. All  resting in a tomato gazpacho. Will the main course be next?

End of Part One!

 

 

 

 

Beyond Aperitivi

Wild FennelMy mouth is watering as I plan foods to eat after my anisette and aperitivi.

Wild fennel – the taste of anise served up by silken green fronds and starbursts of sunbeam yellow. The flavor is central to one of the best dishes served in Marche – porchetta suckling pig stuffed with herbs.

I find another dish of the region that features anise. Coniglio in Porchetta (literally “rabbit cooked like suckling pig”) which is stuffed with fennel. The idea of rabbit conjures 3 stories. First, of my Uncle Angelo who had rabbit hutches behind his house in Wellesley, MA. I thought it was so cool that he had “pet bunnies.” Little did I know that they were to be eaten. Years later, my son Justin and I who had binge watched A Year in Provence ate rabbit in mustard sauce at a Seine-side restaurant in Paris. And later, on the drive in Languedoc to visit our friends a rabbit bounded across the road. It was HUGE. Justin’s comment, “Now I see why they eat them.”

Marche includes the coastline of the Adriatic. It is also known for one of the most famous seafood soups of Italy – the brodetto. Similar to bouillabaisse or cioppino, brodetto is made primarily of fish from shallow waters, red mullet and squid (ah, Nana who fried squid long before it became a thing!). A touch of vinegar, fish coated with flour and served over slices of toasted bread. No fennel here, the anisette will have to do.

Anticipation and Experimentation

Now that I’m in Civitanova Marche, I search several recommended restaurants’ online menus for porchetta or coniglio in porchetta. No luck. Instead, I seek brodetto and find it on the online menu at Ristorante Gabbiano. I call to make a reservation, but get a recording saying the number is inactivo. That can’t be, so about an hour before they open I drive into town to take advantage of the last minutes of daylight. The restaurant is charming and I make a reservation. “Sola?” They are asking if I’m alone. The word always makes me feel a bit incomplete. It’s so much less appealing than, “party of one?” Indeed, one can certainly party!

And I stroll along the Adriatic for 45 minutes.

When I return and am seated, I ask for anice secco. Even though I believe I’m pronouncing it correctly, the waiter doesn’t understand me. I know they have it – I saw it behind the bar. When the handsome bartender, who speaks English and helped with my reservation, comes to translate my request, I end up with a glass of anice secco and…a bottle of San Pellegrino! If you don’t know it, San Pellegrino is a naturally carbonated water.

Oh well, time to experiment. Presenting, as my Nana would say, a bruta figura – roughly equivalent to poor form, I pour the liquor into a wine glass, add the sparkling water, watch the louche and take a sip. Hmmmm, kind of nice. Why not enjoy the liquor as a sparkling drink on a hot evening?

Disappointment and Recovery

I search and search the menu. It looks nothing like the one online. “Do you have brodetto tonight?” I ask the bartender. Shame on me for not brushing up on my Italian. “No,” he says, “but we do have pentolaccia.”

While I wait, I am served an aperitivo of 3 mussels with a sauce of mayonnaise, parsley and dill. I am surprised by the dill. It’s the leading flavor with the parsley following. What a fascinating combination – worth remembering and easy to make for a tasting party.

When the pentolaccia arrives, abundanza! I am awestruck by the gifts from the sea: mussels and clams by the dozens, shrimp, scallops, razor clams, crab, and calamari in a broth rich with plum tomato, garlic, parsley, garlic and toasted bread for sopping (Nana would approve). If there’s wine, I’m not picking it up.

I relax into the rhythm of sipping and savoring. I find it strangely restful to be surrounded by people enjoying themselves in a language I don’t understand very well.

How do they do it?

All around me the families, groups of friends and couples are enjoying 3 and 4 courses. It’s a Wednesday night, neither a holiday or Sunday dinner! I can’t even finish one course. “How do they enjoy 3 or 4?” I wonder and, “How do they stay so thin?”

I notice that not a one is drinking anything but water or wine. Have they had their aperitif at home?

Women in STEM and Ancient Alchemists

Yes, there is an overlap between my work with Leading Women and my Sip.Savor.Adventure! hobby. It goes beyond the fact that my first official connection is with a woman-owned and operated distillery. The overlap goes back to the tradition of alchemy in ancient times. Here’s how I know.

Alchemists from the Ancient World

I turn to Wikipedia to learn about the distillation process. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, to read that Cleopatra* the Alchemist (a woman who lived 1800 years ago) is believed to have invented the alembic still – a precursor to the pot still used to distill liquor.

I often use the hashtag, #AnonymousWasAWoman and am not surprised to read that “Cleopatra is a pseudonym for an author whose real name has been lost.” Apparently, women in STEM have had their voices muffled for at least 1800 years. In this case, at least, they get her gender right!

The alchemist known as Mary the Jewess lived perhaps as many as 200 years before Cleopatra. If you’ve ever melted chocolate or made custard or cooked delicate sauces, you can thank Mary for inventing the bain-marie. You can also thank her for inventing several devices important to the distillation process.

Women in STEM

This trip has offered celebrations of women in STEM:

  • I discover that a woman from Brussels  patented the first chocolate gift box.
  • During my day trip to Bruges I learn about the Beguines of Flanders who lived a life of religious devotion, but were pretty much free to do anything – including own property, have children and work in a variety of occupations. (It’s no surprise that these early feminists ran into resistance from authorities because they “seemed to enjoy the best of both worlds: holding onto their property and living in the world as laypeople while claiming the privileges and protections of the professed religious.”) Good for them!
  • I read about the alchemists whose work makes it possible to sip anise-flavored liquors around the Mediterranean.

These discoveries are a welcome surprise. Now I prepare to meet one of the women who own and operate the Varnelli distillery.

Lead ON!

*Not to be confused with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.

Anice at Renzetti

Before my visit to the Varnelli distillery, I venture into Civitanova Porto (the part of town near its Adriatic port) to taste Varnelli’s Anice Secco at Renzetti Aperitivo&Bar. It is a bit hard to find – only a small sign high on a wall – but I know I am in the right place when I see the napkins!

I find a seat on the breezy and shady side of the corner establishment and explain that I am here to taste Anice Secco. I learn that anice (anise in Italian) is pronounced ah’nichay. No wonder no one has understood when I’ve said I was here to learn about liquors made of ah-knee’-say.

When ordering my Varnelli Anice Secco, I am asked if I want aperitivi. “Of course!,” I try to say in Italian. That’s what the experience is in its essence – friends and family at ouzeries with meze in Greece or raki table with mezzes in Turkey. I’m missing only friends and family.

Aperitivi and Anice

First, I am served an abundance of aperitivi and notice that (in keeping with what we learned at the tasting) they are savory and/or salty including: cauliflower with tuna, anchovies on focaccia with added sea salt!, marinated carrot curls, and ceci (garbanzo beans) with rosemary. Later, when the table next to me orders what look like a sweet  drink – rossini (strawberry puree’ and prosecco) – I notice that the aperitivi they are served are slightly different.

Then arrives the Anice Secco served properly with water so cold that droplets condense on the pitcher and ice cubes in a separate vessel – not already in the liquor. I’ve been curious about the types of glass that are used with anise-flavored liquors. So far all are of the highball variety, but this one is radically different. “Do they,” I wonder, “serve Anice Secco in a tipsy glass so when one gets tipsy, the glass looks upright?”

Sip and Savor

Enough of the looking, on to the tasting! My current process:

  1. Smell the undiluted drink. Having been repelled by the scent of gasoline/ethyl alcohol with the cheap raki in Istanbul, I attend carefully to the scent. Here, only anise and a bit of sweetness – something floral? Varnelli, describes, “The strong, persistent aromas of aniseed develops into a fragrance of wild fennel, dill and cumin, enriched with floral scents.” My nose – which is so good it has saved me from death once – isn’t up to picking up the dill or cumin at all!
  2. Taste the undiluted drink holding it in my mouth to see where the taste buds are triggered. Again, wary of any overt taste of ethyl alcohol. I discern none, but experience a familiar tingle on my tongue and lips. Powerful stuff at 46% alcohol. Varnelli’s notes on taste, “All-enveloping, full-bodied, medium dry, it recalls the same strong, persistent aroma found in the bouquet: aniseed, cucumber and wild fennel. The finish is harmonious, which is a sign of excellent quality, and very pleasant.”
  3. Check for “legs.” Looking carefully, you can see in the photo to the left, the way that the anice secco clings to the side of the glass. During our tasting party we noticed that some of the liquors had these strong legs and some not. In addition to scent, taste and aftertaste, I added to the Tasting Template a place to note color and legs.
  4. Dilute the drink with the icy water. I wish I could show you the time lapse video of the drink turning cloudy (louching), but the file is too big. Perhaps elsewhere. It’s a joy to behold.
  5. Sip and savor. Again, to the tasting notes: aniseed – yes, wild fennel (well, isn’t that like aniseed?) – yes, cucumber – really, cucumber! Such a subtle flavor. My palate – while it tastes an undertones of spice (I thought cardamom), doesn’t get the cucumber at all. No matter, it is delicious!
  6. Take a nibble of the aperitivi. Savor each distinct flavor to the extent possible with a somewhat numb tongue (no really, after diluting the anice that doesn’t happen). Consider whether I can create the same for a tasting party at home. How can I pair the cauliflower with tuna and make it taste so good? Rosemary and chickpeas – I will remember that. Focaccia with anchovies – easy to prepare, not to everyone’s taste. Marinated carrot curls – can’t quite get what’s in the marinade.
  7. Repeat 5 – 6 above until at or below tipsy – after all there is a windy road ahead.