For Easter weekend, we opted to forgo family feasts, pack our bags and flee north. Not quite a two hour drive from Rome and not far from the edge of an expansive blue lake, my boyfriend’s family has a small apartment outfitted like a cabin with only the bare necessities. The stove is powered by a gas tank. The tablecloth is vinyl and easy to wipe clean.
The book I’m reading takes place in Bangalore where a family of five lives in three small rooms and makes do with a bench, two chairs and a table to support a gas stove. They stack their mattresses in the back room by the shrine during the day. We bring sheets from the city to use in the bedroom upstairs and stop at a nearby grocery store for pancake fixings. Sheep’s milk ricotta from Sardinia and lemons the size of my head are dropped into the shopping basket. I request an impromptu lesson on the popular local white wine, Frascati, cultivated since the 5th century BC and favored by the Ancient Romans, and add a bottle to the basket.
November to February is puntarelle season. This bitter, crunchy, watery green and its traditional preparation are distinctly Roman and are enjoyed in restaurants and homes throughout the city.
Puntarelle or “little tips” refers to the tips or the tender shoots of Catalonian chicory. The preparation is fairly tedious as the plants are cleaned and the shoots are removed and split before being soaked to make them curl. In Rome, you can buy the pre-split and soaked greens at most grocery stores and markets.
The Negroni is one of my favorite cocktails. It is made with equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and gin and is served over ice in an old fashioned glass with a slice or twist of orange.
You can order two types of negroni in Rome: the classic negroni and the negroni sbagliato or mistaken negroni. The mistaken negroni is like the classic, but goes lighter on the alcohol by replacing the gin with prosecco.
There is a large beer festival in Rome this weekend (EurHop) with a great selection of beers for sampling from around the world. I went last night. Noteworthy beers I tried included a creative smoked sour beer, Brett Peat Daydream, by the Italian brewery Birrificio del Ducato, a powerful and meaty smoked beer, the Affumicator by the Bavarian brewery Gänstaller Bräuand, and a delicate floral beer made in the lambic-style with elderflower which was vaguely reminiscent of tea, the Sourflowers Blend 01 Sambuco by Stradaregina in Lombardy.
But while one visit to the beer festival in a weekend was sufficient for me, my boyfriend headed back again today to continue his beer “studies”. In preparation, he requested pancakes. As I recently came back from Vermont with a suitcase heavy with maple syrup, it seemed an excellent idea and since we’re in Italy, fluffy ricotta pancakes it had to be.
This Sicilian eggplant pasta sauce hails from the city of Catania which sits on the east coast of Sicily at the foot of the active volcano Mount Etna. Although the pasta’s name is often attributed to the opera Norma written by the famous Catanese composer, Vincenzo Bellini, the name is alleged by many to have actually been based on a famous playwright’s proclamation upon first tasting the pasta dish that it was a marvel, using the Catanese word norma for marvel.
Eggplant season comes but once a year and conveniently arrives along with tomatoes. Parmigiana di melanzane or eggplant parmesan in English is a classic summertime dish that takes full advantage of this well-timed culinary tryst and which is a staple in several Italian locales, including Naples and Sicily. In some versions it is made with slices of hard boiled eggs and in one Sicilian version, an indulgent layer of chocolate. The rumor is that it’s name comes not from the Parmigiano cheese sprinkled amongst the royal purple rounds of eggplant, but rather from the act of layering itself. Palmigiana is apparently a Sicilian word for shutter and the name is believed by many to have come from the way the many layers of this dish resemble the shutters on a window.
Once upon a time as a high school student in Vermont, I won a local scholarship to take a summer trip with Earthwatch, an international nonprofit that sends travelers into the field with scientists to promote sustainable environmental practices. The anonymous donor chose to send me to the wilds of Ontario, Canada to research ancient red and white pine trees. I boarded a plane for the first time in my life to get there and spent several magical weeks being lulled to sleep by the gentle rustle of quaking aspens, replacing morning showers with chilly lake plunges, scampering through ancient pine forests and navigating the shores of pristine lakes by canoe. Our primary task was to identify plants in both ancient forests and forests that had been replanted by lumber companies in order to quantify the loss of biodiversity.
Mud season in Vermont is polite this year. A practically snowless winter has left woody hilltops dry and dirt roads, often impassable in the springtime with deep pockets of mud, far more navigable. In a landscape that still bares visible scars of the violent battle waged against her gentle rivers by Hurricane Irene almost 5 years ago, a little less water may not always be a bad thing, although its overall impact remains to be seen.
Too early for leaves and without banks of melting snow to hide behind, Vermont has been drawn out into the open. I spy houses normally cloaked by forests and gaze upon a bare, stony landscape. The absence of flatlanders, Vermont speak for the city folk that drive up from the foreign flatlands south of the Green Mountains in Connecticut, New Jersey, and NYC, reveals a barrenness of another sort. Tourists do not come to Vermont during the spring mud season. Second homes are dark and driveways sit empty. A ski town with a year round population close to 1500, can swell to as many as 10,000 on a good winter weekend. Second homes are no small part of a community of this size where more than 75% of houses are owned by out-of-staters. In mud season, many businesses close, small stores and restaurants are shuttered and some locals find this a good time of year to travel elsewhere. Ghost town.
During the first weekend of April, many maple syrup producers throughout the state of Vermont welcomed visitors to their sugar houses as part of the annual Maple Open House Weekend. My friend Kate and I visited several sugar shacks over the course of the weekend, indulging in a syrup soaked pancake breakfast with heaps of bacon and sides of sausage while feeling nostalgic over bowls of sugar on snow made by pouring hot syrup over real snow. Yes, in Vermont, snow is a food, and sugar on snow brings to mind sugar glazed childhood memories of snow days and sleds, soggy mittens and hot chocolate.
Although the Vermont winter this year had been relatively snowless and the ground remained barren, dry and brown, Donna Smith of the Smith Maple Crest Farm in Shrewsbury, VT explained that her son, who now runs the farm with his wife, had rushed out in excitement with a cooler the week before when a brief snowfall insured there would be sugar on snow at this year’s open house. She scooped mounds of white snow like ice cream from the cooler onto paper plates and pressed the top of a coffee urn to spread the warm maple syrup on top. As almost any kid in Vermont will attest, sugar on snow deserves almost as much excitement as a glimpse of the first snowflakes of the year. Sleds and snow days are never very far away.
Pasta bianca o rossa? White pasta or red? I weighed my answer carefully as our little, red car raced down the road through dimly lit tunnels that crawl beneath the massive Apennine Mountain range, cutting Italy in half and dividing her landscape into an east and a west. I was still debating it as we wound our way along the narrow, twisting road that climbs and hugs the steep hills leading up and into the ancient town of Amatrice. Even in March, it’s barren slopes strewn with leafless branches and little more than a dusting of snow draped across the higher contours, the local beauty was breathtaking.