Aug 28, 2015

Guide to the Beaches of Positano

Forget long sandy stretches, the majority of beaches on the Amalfi Coast are mostly rocky. Shores in this part of Southern Italy are pebbly coves pulled from towering cliffs, with rapidly plunging deep blue sea underfoot.

Positano is often known for its main spiaggia grande central lido, but the “natural crèche village” boasts several other beaches to choose from. You can pick one of the Positano beaches listed below and lounge there all day, or hop from one to the next, chasing the sun as it starts to dip behind the mountains when evening approaches.

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Aug 21, 2015

Etna is a "she"

Locals refer to Mt Etna as a "she", and it doesn't surprise me since constantly active 'a muntagna is a goddess of fertility and energy. Its rich volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread all across the lower slopes.

During my recent stay in the Etna town of Linguaglossa I had a nearly constant view of the volcano. Every morning on our way to a granita breakfast we'd always peek uphill to look at "her", and punctually she'd greet us with white billowy plumes, or hide  in dark veiled clouds concealing her summit craters.

On our last day we decided to meet Etna face to face. We drove up in the late afternoon in order to see the volcanic landscapes at sunset. The twisting hairpin curves carved into the slopes winded in and out of thick pine forests, tall and dark, redolent of piney resin and clean mountain air.

At 1400 meters above sea level we switched off the AC and rolled down the windows. In the woods the sticky summer air quickly shifted to crisp, with an even more intoxicating woodsy aroma. Vegetation and surroundings abruptly changed as we turned a curve, finding ourselves cut off from the ancient forests and plunged into a jagged lunar landscape of more recent lava flows. It felt like someone had used a dimmer on the color dial in our vision: as we proceeded upward, it all became black and white. Shiny snow-colored birch trees replaced the pine trees, creating a bizarre contrast with the dark lava rock forest floor.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

And then more monochrome magic happened when in the silence of this powerful moonscape we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sheep herded by not a single human and a pack of Maremmano sheep dogs and mangy pups. These duly defended the herd that grazed on lichen and sparse tufts of dry mountain grass, chasing the car and barking loudly – even going at the tires if we dared to move. We waited patiently, showing the pack that we had no intention of harming the herd and the dogs eventually moved away allowing us to proceed.
When we stopped further ahead, we saw the herd slowly making its way into another birch forest. It was an incredible, surreal vision which I will never forget.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Further up along the climb, past ski facilities with chairlifts and rental shacks at 1800 meters, we decided to get out of the car and walk up the 2002 eruption lava flow. Off the road we negotiated a leisurely climb up the lava fields with crunchy black pumice gravel underfoot and clouds so close above our heads we could actually reach up and touch them.

My child was giddy and – charged up by the electromagnetic energy the surroundings exuded – ran around bouncing like a little mountain goat.

my child on Etna, Sicily

I couldn't believe the silence.

No wind whistled among the lava rocks. Not a sound blew through the trees way, way below. No echoed voices came from the small group of hikers up at the Sartorius mound (the remnant of an 1865 eruption) three hundred yards from us on the flank. Nothing.
The silence was pneumatic and still. And it screamed in my unaccustomed ears.

Monte Sartorius, 1865 eruption Etna - Sicily

After a meditative moment, and a few captured stills, we gathered a handful of black volcanic gravel and filled our pockets with it to bring home some of the mountain's magic force.

Volcanic gravel and rocks, Etna Sicily

The drive down was quiet, each of us still pervaded with deep emotion. Under a crescent moon, a solemn promise was made to return here soon and climb up even further. The word "camping" was uttered as well as donkey trekking. I also am curious to meet Gianni, a seasoned guide who can take us to even more remote and unvisited locations, lending his geologic and botanical knowledge.
Therefore this is not good-bye, Etna.

This is the closest moment to when we shall meet again – this is only arrivederci.

More photos and media on my Sicilian vacation can be viewed on my Facebook profile, Twitter and Instagram feed, and on the Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine blog.

Aug 6, 2015

Recipe for "Focaccia Pugliese"

There are some dishes that improve overnight.

Focaccia Pugliese – a summer spongy, feather light and tasty baked specialty from the region of Puglia (Apulia) in southern Italy – is one of such dishes. Baked fresh, this particular focaccia is fantastic, but the day after... it's even better!

Round, fluffy with it's typically crisp edges and caramelized topping, Focaccia Pugliese (also known as "ruota di focaccia barese") is quintessential street food and the perfect picnic item. When I make it for my son, we always try to leave some for the next day and pack the leftovers in the beach bag for post-swimming munchies.

Focaccia Pugliese's secret is in the dough, which includes boiled potatoes. This gives it a unique soft, springy texture and a beautiful aroma.

500 g (2 cups) 00-type flour
2 large potatoes, boiled and peeled
25 g (<1 oz) brewer's yeast
1 tsp sea salt, plus more to taste
250 ml (1 cup) lukewarm water
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
10 black olives, pitted
1 tbsp dried oregano
Extra virgin olive oil

Let the boiled potatoes cool before peeling, and set them aside.
Place flour in a large mixing bowl, and using a ricer, add the potatoes.

Dissolve brewer's yeast in the lukewarm water and add that to the mix as well. Fold in a small pinch of sea salt and begin kneading to obtain a sticky, firm ball.
Wrap in cling film and leave the dough to rise for 2 hours in a warm, dry place.

Preheat your ventilated oven at 240° C (428° F), or set it at 260° C (500° F) if static.
Use olive oil to generously grease a large round baking dish (9 or 11-inch) and stretch the dough to fill it evenly.

Press the halved tomatoes in the dough, cut side down, add the olives, a good dusting of oregano and lashings of sea salt.
Drizzle the surface with more olive oil and bake in the hot oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the surface appears evenly browned and tomatoes are caramelized.

Buon appetito.

Aug 4, 2015

La Tradizione gourmet deli in Rome

It all started with a passion. Two competent and adventurous young Umbrians, Renzo Fantucci and Valentino Belli, joined forces in 1980 to take over an old Rome delicatessen not far from the Vatican with the objective to pioneer a mission: provide the eternal city with prime quality and forgotten products. Passion drove them to start the business and passion is the leitmotif that is at the core of their store, "La Tradizione" which literally means 'tradition'.

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Aug 1, 2015

What produce is in season in August?

Fact: produce is of better quality and taste when in season.

Though Italians have cooking and eating a selection of produce that rotates seasonally in their DNA, lately mass distribution and globalization have confused these rhythmic, natural guidelines, making the calendar distinction on our plate a little fuzzy.

Here is a list of what fruits and vegetables are in season in August in Italy, gracing our market stalls from Sicily to the Alps.

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