Opera in a Bath-house

(click on photos to enlarge)1406556855259

A few days ago, we went to Rossini’s opera ‘The Barber of Seville’. It was staged outdoors in the Terme di Caracalla, the second largest Roman bath complex in Rome. Built by the Emperor Caracalla in the 3rd cent it could serve 6,000 people freely coming and going. Now it is just ruins and is used by the Rome Opera Company to stage operas during the summer.

1406559889108The Romans took their baths very seriously and they were important centres for socializing and even doing business. The Terme di Caracalla in addition to steam rooms, baths etc had two libraries, a gymnasium and shops. It is spectacularly large and must have been stunning in its time with ornate mosaic floors and magnificent sculptures. Sadly, everything has been removed or destroyed, leaving only the bare bones. The marble was used to build churches and other structures and what was left of the sculptures and mosaics is now in museums. One feels a sense of grandeur walking towards the area where the opera is staged as you pass gigantic walls and arches and you can imagine what it must have been like in its time.

1406557284575There is a short walk to get to the stage covered with a red carpet and I enjoyed seeing what people were wearing which ranged from evening dress to jeans. The stage setting for the opera was a surprise as the ancient Roman bricks were covered over to resemble plaster and a modern setting.

1406557707116The setting was Hollywood in the 1930s with vaudeville style costumes. Not having ever seen The Barber of Seville before, I thought the music fitted the vaudeville theme and the dancers were superb.

1406556985332In the finale, showers of little gold stars came fluttering down onto the stage. It was quite a spectacle. We were with some friends and some of them did not like the modern setting at all and preferred the classical setting of Seville in the 1800s.

1406562541321It was lovely to walk out of the complex after the performance with the ruins lit up, against a backdrop of Roman pines under a starry sky. As we were walking through the ruins, one of our friends remarked that the word ‘spa’ actually stands for ‘Salus per Aqua’ which means health and well-being through water. I have to say that even without the water, I had a feeling of well-being after the experience of seeing an opera in these surroundings.

 

Posted in Living, Rome | Leave a comment

The Al Fresco Pleasures of July

Piazza Santa Maria Salome, Veroli

Piazza Santa Maria Salome, Veroli

July is the month for outdoor events and festivals. Many events are held in gardens not normally open to the public.

Villa Medici, Rome

Villa Medici, Rome

The Villa Medici near the Spanish Steps hosted a 2-week film festival featuring Isabel Huppert which was held outdoors in their gorgeous garden overlooking the centre of Rome. The Portuguese embassy had a festival featuring a Fado singer and a group from Capo Verde among others, in their embassy garden. There are regular screenings of movies outdoors and concerts in parks, courtyards and piazzas. People are enjoying wandering around and so far the weather has been very pleasant with few unbearably hot days.

Veroli Street

Veroli Street

The beaches as you can imagine are crowded and we tend to avoid them especially during the weekends. However, there are many villages in the mountains, many with festivals of their own. Yesterday, we went to a beautiful little medieval town called Veroli southeast of Rome to listen to a group, the Tammurriata di Scafati, playing a traditional form of folk music called tamurriata to which people do a folk dance. We arrived in the late afternoon so that we had time to wander around the village which is really very quaint and has no tourists which is a shame for such a lovely little village.

Of course, dinner was high on our list of priorities and one of the locals recommended a restaurant where the food was excellent. Luckily, it had a terrace and we were able to dine al fresco with a spectacular view overlooking the valley.

Black Truffles and Risotto

Black Truffles and Risotto

They had just got the first black truffles of the season so of course, I had risotto with shavings of black truffles which was delicious. I really don’t know how to describe the taste except to say that it is earthy with an aroma of the forest floor and a rich, slightly peppery taste with a hint of dark chocolate.

We finished dinner and strolled to the Piazza in front of one of the main churches where the group was playing. The vocal element is strong in the tammurriata and one of the main instruments is a tamorra which is essentially a tambourine. Other instruments included a form of bagpipes, various interesting and unusual percussion instruments, a type of guitar, and the usual accordion.

Tammurriata di Scatafi

Tammurriata di Scafati

As soon as the music started, people got up to dance with feathered castanets in hand. There was much whirling and swaying which increased in speed as the music got faster. Really quite hypnotic. The, best part was the singer who had a powerful voice and set the pace. Apparently, this music originated from around Naples and dates back to pre-christian times. It is popular in villages around Naples but was apparently slowly dying out. The Tammuriatta di Scafati are a modern day group who have played a large role in reviving the tradition. I noticed a lot of young women getting up to dance and it was good to see that the tradition carries on.

Posted in Food, Rome, Travel | Leave a comment

Sexual Imagery in Food

Coglione di Mulo

Those of you who are offended by sexual imagery, do not continue reading this post! Now that I’ve warned you, I’ll start by saying that when I first got here, I was slightly taken aback by the sexual way in which some foods were presented or labelled. My regular readers may remember the story of the little cakes called Le Minne di Virgini (virgin’s breasts).

1405061520051One gets used to this type of thing and I hardly even notice anymore, but even I stopped to stare when we passed the cheese counter in the market yesterday. There were huge ‘breasts’ of mozzarella displayed in groups of two. They are always there but not quite as large as the ones I saw yesterday and not surrounded with raddicchio leaves so that they stood out (forgive the pun!). The vendor was very happy with his presentation smiling happily at people like me who stopped to look. They are actually referred to as ‘zizzone’ which means tits in southern dialect.

 1405095127801Shops that specialize in cured meats such as salami and prosciutto are called ‘Norcineria’ after the town Norcia in Umbria which specializes in cured meats. Every Norcineria has a type of salami called ‘Palle di Nono’ (Grandpa’s balls) which you can see at the top in the picture on the right. Another type of salami, (see top section of picture above) is called ‘Coglione di Mulo’ or mules testicles. I can’t think of another country which uses such vivid imagery to describe food. A couple of years ago, a Tesco supermarket in London had a display of Italian cured meats and proudly displayed the Italian names. Some of the buyers who could read Italian were offended and complained. I can imagine similar outrage and embarrasment in Canada. Here in Italy, its quite normal to go into a Norcineria and ask for a few slices of Grandpa’s balls. I have to admit that I don’t think I would feel quite the same if I had to ask for this type of salami in English. And no, I haven’t tried Palle di Nono or Coglione di Mulo yet!

Posted in Food, Rome | Leave a comment

Istanbul Excursion

Istanbul Skyline From Galata Bridge

Istanbul Skyline From Galata Bridge

We just got back from a 4-day trip to Istanbul, a city I had always wanted to visit and which did not disappoint. It has a superb location and I could immediately see why it was such a prize for invaders from both the east as well as the west.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

It is partly in Europe and partly in Asia with the Bosphorus running through it from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The western, european side is further slightly divided by an inlet of the Sea of Marmara called The Golden Horn. I’m telling you all of this because it took me a while to understand the layout of the city with its various bodies of water. The Greeks invaded it first naming it Byzantium, then came the Romans who made it the capital of the Eastern Roman empire and called it Constantinople after the Emperoror Constantine, then the Slavs and finally the Ottoman Sultans. It was renamed Istanbul only in 1930, a few years after the Republic of Turkey had been formed. What took us by surprise was how hilly it is. There are 7 hills just like in Rome and the Emperor Constantine actually named it Nuova Roma except people preferred to call it Constantinople in honour of him.

Old Ottoman Houses

Old Ottoman Houses

We stayed in an old renovated Ottoman mansion overlooking The Golden Horn close to the magnificent Sulemaniye mosque which you can see on the right in the main photo above. Many of these mansions have disappeared as they were made of wood and easily burned down or have been replaced by concrete apartment blocks, or are in a state of complete disrepair. The turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in his memoir about Istanbul, talks about ‘huzun’ which is a sort of melancholy about the loss of the past. One begins to understand ‘huzun’ seeing these beautiful old houses and we were glad to see that some are being restored to their former grandeur. The population of Istanbul has increased at an alarming rate from around a million in the 1960s, to 3 million in the 1980s, and is now around 12 million. A lot of very ugly building has taken place in the suburbs and also in the city centre dwarfing the ancient buildings close by except for the Galata Tower and Sulemaniye mosque which dominate the skyline.

pic20140702152842The city is made up of a number of neighbourhoods which range from highly modern with cafes, shops and restaurants like you would see in any other European city, to very traditional bazaar-type shopping areas. You see women dressed in full hijab, or wearing modern clothes and a headscarf, or completely dressed in western clothing.

Aya Sophia

Aya Sophia

Almost all the churches, of which there were many, were converted into mosques during the Ottoman era. The Aya Sophia for example was built as a Greek Orthodox church, subsequently served as a Catholic church (the largest in Europe until 1420) and was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman era with the addition of 4 minarets.

Aya Sofia Interior

Aya Sofia Interior

Its magnificient frescoes and mosaics were painted or plastered over as the Islamic religion does not allow figurative art, all Christian relics and icons were destroyed and minarets were added. Aya Sophia is now a museum and some of the mosaics have been restored with further restoration in progress.

There are mosques everywhere and with the call to prayer taking place five times a day and broadcast from the minarets, its easy to keep track of the time of day!

 

 

 

pic20140702171211

We loved the street food, kebabs, borek which are layers of pastry interspersed with cheese, meat or vegetables, pide which is a kind of turkish pizza and of course baklava type pastries, halva and lokoum also called turkish delight.

 

 

Grand Bazaar and Soap Display in Spice Bazaar

Grand Bazaar and Soap Display in Spice Bazaar

The bazaars are like going into Alladin’s cave, filled with all kinds of stores selling everything one might possibly want and more. Both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are covered while outside of them are open markets teeming with people. The displays are wonderful and even something simple like soap is artfully presented.

Break of 1st Day Ramadan Fast

Break of 1st Day Ramadan Fast

Ramadan started when we were there. At sundown on the first day, at the break of the fast, people poured out from the mosques and dined outside on tables specially set up for communal dining or sat in the parks having large picnics or poured into adjoining restaurants. It was fascinating to watch this communal event. We were told that at the end of Ramadan, its customary for people go to each other’s houses sampling food from each house.

 At present, Istanbul seems like a progressive and liberal city and Turkey is still a secular state as was founded by Ataturk. I hope it stays that way.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Travel | 2 Comments

An Appetizer for Zucchini Growers

1403581096929Zucchini flowers have been abundant in the market in the last few weeks. I love seeing those bright yellow flowers in among the greens and always stop to admire them.

1403538629152They are used in a number of dishes. I’ve had pasta with zucchini flowers and shrimp in a cream sauce and pizza with zucchini flowers, mozarella and anchovies. The most common appetizer is zucchini flowers stuffed with mozarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and deep-fried. I hate deep-frying anything and have not been tempted to try this. In a previous post, I included a recipe for a baked appetizer with zucchini flowers but we have discovered a simpler and more delicious alternative. You will need the flowers of course, some good fresh mozzarella (the kind sold  in  liquid) and anchovies.

1403538776289Take a few flowers, wipe them with a damp towel or rinse and dry them well. I used to remove the pistils from within but I don’t even bother to do that anymore. Cut the mozzarella into strips that will fit inside the flowers. Cut the anchovies into halves or thirds if they are large. Carefully open the flowers, put in a strip of mozzarella and a piece of anchovy into each. Gently twist the petals so that the filling stays inside. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a frying pan and saute the stuffed flowers turning once so that both sides are done.1403538835395

Once the flowers soften and the cheese melts a little, they’re pretty much done though you can saute them a little longer if you prefer them browned and a little more crisp.

Okay,I can see all you gardeners saying “I’m not removing the flowers before any zucchinis have actually grown” and I totally agree. So here’s the solution.

1403581225318We’ve been seeing zucchinis in the market with the flowers still attached and we now kill two birds with one stone as it were.  We make an appetizer with the flowers and use the zucchini as a vegetable and both are equally delicious. If anyone in Ontario tries this, I would be interested to know how it turns out as I’m not sure if the zucchinis we generally grow over there are the same as the ones sold here with the flowers still attached. Perhaps my sister, ‘Farmer Florinda‘ can try it out and tell us what she thinks.

Posted in Food, Recipes, Rome | Leave a comment

Death by Rose Petals

Il Roseto di Roma

Il Roseto di Roma

There is a rose garden on the Aventine Hill, Il Roseto di Roma which is on an interesting site. In the 3rd cent BC, it housed the Temple of Flora but in 1634, it was converted into a Jewish cemetery. Three hundred years later,  in 1934, the cemetery was moved and the area became referred to as the Jewish Garden. In 1950, the municipality of Rome decided to create a rose garden to showcase existing and new species of roses. In deference to its past, it was designed in the shape of a menorah with its seven branches forming paths and is now home to over 1,000 species of roses. As rose gardens go, I’ve seen better but many of the roses were already on their way out when we visited early in June so perhaps we did not catch it at its peak.

1402598543395What I found fascinating was the history and descriptions of the roses. In Roman times, roses became a symbol of wealth and grandeur and vast quantities were brought into Rome from Egypt and the Middle East. One type of rose was described as the one Heliogabalus might have used during his dinners. Apparently, Heliogabalus or Elagabalus was a Roman emperor who attained power at the age of 14 largely through the machinations of his aunt who put out the rumour that he was the son and rightful heir of the emperor Caracalla who had just died. Needless to say, Heliogabalus was not capable of ruling and furthermore led a life of considerable depravity, some would say he was likely deranged. Legend has it that he once invited his worst enemies to a lavish dinner. They suspected that something was afoot but the emperor was in such a jovial mood and the atmosphere was so festive that they soon relaxed and partook of the vast quantities of wine and food on offer. When the night progressed to the point where many of the guests were in a drunken stupor, all of a sudden rose petals began to float down from above.  The light shower of petals became a torrential downpour and many of the guests suffocated to death. Murder by flower petals!

TheRoses of Heliogabalus

The Roses of Heliogabalus

Last week, we went to an exhibition of works by English painters of the  Aesthetic Movement. The paintings were from the private collection of Perez Simon, among them many paintings by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It turned out that Alma-Tadema was fascinated by the tale of Heliogabalus and the rose petals and painted the scene in his studio in Paris. The painting is about 4 feet high by 7 feet wide and was the highlight of the exhibition. Not a great photo and you will find better images on the web but you can see Heliogabalus lying on the table wearing a golden dress. It is a beautiful painting and the rose petals look velvety and so real that you feel like touching them and you can almost imagine the perfume. Had I not been to the rose garden the week before and heard about Heliogabalus, I would have just thought of how pleasant it must be to have rose petals floating down on you. Instead, the painting is actually quite horrific when you know what is happening.

Posted in Rome | Leave a comment

Capers

Wild Caper Bushes

Wild Caper Bushes

While walking around the neighbourhood yesterday, I noticed that the caper flowers were in bloom. Although I’ve used capers in salads and garnishes for years, I had never actually seen capers growing until I came to Rome. Vatican city and some other associated religious institutions, are surrounded by very high brick walls and some are covered with wild caper bushes which grow in between the bricks and cascade down the walls.

Caper Flowers

Caper Flowers

Caper (Capparis spinosa) bushes, also called Flinders rose, are perennials which can tolerate both heat and cold. They are hardy plants which like arid, well-drained soil and can grow in cracks and crevices. The flowers are a very pale pink, almost white, with delicate petals and feathery stamens. Plants can survive for 25 to 30 years. In Italy, capers are cultivated in the south, mostly on the islands of Pantelleria and Salina off the coast of Sicily.

Caper Buds in Vinegar

Caper Buds in Vinegar

 What are sold in jars are the flower buds pickled in vinegar. Here in Italy, we often see them sold loose in salt. The buds have to be picked by hand which is why they are relatively expensive. When picked, they are graded by size and the smallest, also called nonpareil, are the most desirable as they are more aromatic and have a smoother texture. When capers are cured, they release mustard o1401521749288il which leads to the formation of a substance called rutin. Crystallized rutin forms the little white spots you often see on caper buds.

 Caper berries are the fruits which form after the buds have flowered.  They are like little olives and are milder in flavour. Recipes which call for capers cannot be substituted with caper berries. They are filled with little seeds and are usually sold pickled in vinegar with a bit of the stem still attached. They are delicious as a garnish. In biblical times, caper berries were considered to be an aphrodisiac. The Hebrew word for caper berries is abiyyonah which has the same root as the word for ‘desire’!

Posted in Food, Rome | Leave a comment

A Quick Visit to Piacenza

Wild Poppies, Emilia-Romagna

Wild Poppies, Emilia-Romagna

I arrived in Rome at the end of last week and left the next morning for Piacenza in northern Italy where Fidz had a family gathering. We drove through Tuscany to Emilia-Romagna. The weather was beautiful, sunny blue skies, fields of poppies and roses in full bloom. Quite a change from spring in Ontario.

Palazzo Comunale

Palazzo Comunale

Piacenza derives its name from piacere ‘to please’ and is indeed very pleasing. Surrounded by walls complete with a moat, it dates back to Roman times. Although heavily bombed during the war, many medieval buildings in good condition still survive and there is an air of prosperity to the town. A lot of people travel around by bicycle (the old-fashioned kind) and life seems to proceed at a relaxed pace.

Il Duomo

Il Duomo

We were sitting in a cafe on the Piazza by the Duomo, said to be one of the finest Romanesque churches in Italy, dating back to the 12th century, when Fidz pointed out a curiousity on the bell tower. An iron cage was attached to it accessible by a narrow doorway.

La Gabbia del Duomo

La Gabbia del Duomo

Apparently, it was common in medieval times to place condemned people in such cages in order to make them suffer a public humiliation. This cage (la gabbia, which means iron cage) was commissioned in 1495 by Ludovico il Moro of the Sforza family who was then Duke of Milan, for people guilty of crimes against the church or state. No records exist as to its use so Fidz’s theory that people were doomed to slowly die of thirst and hunger might be true, though I think he’s exaggerating.

Posted in Living, Travel | Leave a comment

Spring Miracles

 

Samuel Charles

Samuel Charles

Jacob Leo

Jacob Leo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What makes love stronger, days shorter, nights longer, bank balances smaller, homes happier, clothes dirtier, the past forgotten and the future worth living for? The answer is a new baby. We have been blessed to have two new firstborn babies in our extended family. Samuel Charles made his debut on April 15, the day after we arrived in Toronto and Jacob Leo joined us on May 10, just a couple of days before I return to Rome.

1400037118956I’m lucky to have the opportunity to spend a little time with Jacob who is placid and easy to please. Even though I’ve seen many newborns, I’m still fascinated by how small they are. It seems a miracle that their bodies can be so small and so perfect. Apparently, at 3 days, an infants stomach is the size of a walnut and only capable of holding about 25mL. Jacob’s entire forearm is the width of his mother’s hand. The real miracle is the joy that babies bring not only to their parents, but to all around them. I may be biased!

 

 

Posted in Living, Toronto | Leave a comment

Toronto’s New Aquarium

1399385946583

1399383729490A few days ago, we went to visit the newly opened Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, just next to the CN tower. Having seen aquariums (should this be aquaria?) in other places, I was expecting more of the same and I didn’t think any aquarium could come close to the one in Monterey, California so it was a surprise to find that our Toronto aquarium is actually quite spectacular.

1399384079972It includes a tropical reef lagoon, an exhibit of cold-water fish from the Great Lakes, a ray bay, a shark tank, a jellyfish tank and many other habitats. I’m calling these tanks for want of a better word but they are so huge that you can’t see the boundaries for most of them.

There is a 300 ft moving walkway through an acrylic tunnel deep below the 750,000-gallon Shark Lagoon, a habitat occupied by 10 –12 ft sand tiger sharks, largetooth sawfish and dozens of other species.

1399385716028 You can step on and off the walkway if you want to spend more time looking at something specific. In the tunnel, you are surrounded by water with fish swimming beside and above you. You really feel as if you are underwater.

There are supposedly around 13,500 exotic sea and freshwater creatures, comprising more than 450 species.

1399386209587The jellyfish tanks were spectacular. Jellyfish are transparent but turn a deep orange if exposed to uv light. There were pulses of uv light so that you could watch the jellyfish changing colour.

I found it interesting as to how to identify the gender of jellyfish. If you look closely, you will notice 4 little rings in the jellyfish ‘cup’. These are the gonads, pink in the females and white in the males.1399383922095

The sea horses were just gorgeous and there were different types including a spiny one that looked just like an aquatic plant.1399386552919

1399386728259


What was really interesting was to get a glimpse of the ‘guts’ of the aquarium. There  was a room full of large tanks supplying water at different temperatures. I had never thought about the amount of engineering that is required to run an aquarium but it’s obvious when you think about it.1399386414815

I was mesmerized and could have spent hours just watching the sharks swimming around and th jellyfish changing colour. My photos do not do justice to the aquarium.

Posted in Living, Toronto | Leave a comment