Parmesan Cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano)

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1411487029543We are going back to Canada soon and my niece asked me to bring her back some parmesan. I only recently discovered that it is perfectly legal to bring cheese into Canada as long as its no more than 20kg at a value of $20 or less. Whoever came up with that price must have last bought cheese about 50 years ago!

Valley in the Appenines

Valley in the Appenines

Anyhow, what better place to get parmesan than Fidz’s home province of Emilia-Romagna where we were last week. A cheese can only be called Parmigiano-Reggiano if it is made in a small area between Parma and Bologna. Supposedly, the milk produced by cattle who graze in that area is different from elsewhere and the cheese does not taste the same if made with milk from anywhere else. Cheese made in exactly the same way in other parts of the province is called Grano Padano. We were able to compare as we had lunch with Fidz’s uncle near Piacenza and were offered the local Grano Padano while we went back to Fidz’s home south of Parma for dinner and had Parmigiano. I have to admit that they do taste slightly different and Grano Padano has a grainier texture. However, one likely would not be able to tell the difference when used for cooking and Grano Padano is cheaper.

1411487148765The making of Parmigiano started in 1200 or so with Benedictine and Cistercian monks living in monasteries between the Po river and the Appenines. Until around 40 years ago, there were many small farms making Parmigiano. A lot of these farms would also raise pigs for making prosciutto as the pigs would be fed with the whey left over from cheesemaking mixed with wheat chaff. Now, the operation is more centralised and streamlined. We went to a co-operative in Migliara where milk is brought in from the high plains in the mountains so the Parmigiano made here is ‘mountain’ parmesan which has a superb taste and is delicious eaten on its own. These ‘mountain’ producers are slowly fading out as the logistics of bringing in milk and transporting cheese on narrow mountain roads make it more expensive to produce.

1411504434628The milk collected in the evening is poured into large stainless steel trays and allowed to settle so that the cream (which is used for making butter) rises to the top. The next day, the bottom layer is allowed to flow into a large copper vat and milk collected in the morning is added. Some whey from the day before as well as rennet are also added. The milk coagulates and is stirred at a temperature of around 55C using a huge stainless steel balloon whisk called a spino so that the curds form little granules. We actually arrived at the co-op in the afternoon and this part had already been completed and the vats cleaned ready for the evening milk.

1411504531844After the granules have been stirred to the right consistency, the curds are are put into muslin and allowed to drain. The contents of each vat are divided in two, called gemelli (twins), and placed in large plastic moulds called fascera still wrapped in muslin. In the afternoon, the muslin is removed and perforated stamps are placed between the cheese and the side of the mould giving the name of the cheese maker and the date. This will become imprinted on the cheese and represents its mark of origin like on a wine label.

1411487419852The next day, the cheese wheels are moved into stainless steel moulds and allowed to rest for about 2 or 3 days.

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Then they are placed in salt water where they are turned every day for about 3 weeks.

 

The production process is now completed and the wheels are  taken to the storage room where they are placed on shelves and mechanically turned every week. The outside of the cheese dries forming a natural crust which, by the way, is edible. Maturation has to be at least 12 months and at this stage, the cheese can be sold as a ‘fresh’ parmesan called mezzano, not really Parmigiano but the promise of one and regarded as inferior.

1411487236187At this point, Parmigiano experts called ‘battitori’ check the consistency and quality of the cheese by hitting the wheels with little hammers and checking for the right vibrations. Wheels with cracks or faults in them are discarded. The ones that have passed the test are fire-branded and allowed to continue maturing for another 2 years. The cost of the cheese depends on its age. Fidz’s father used to be a Parmesan inspector on the fiscal side and his job was to visit the small mountain cheese makers and make sure they weren’t branding cheeses as older than they really were to get a better price. Part of the work entailed inserting a thin tube into the centre of the wheel and removing a sliver to taste in order to confirm the age of a batch. What a great job!

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The Volto Santo in Lucca

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San Michele in Foro, Lucca

San Michele in Foro, Lucca

Almost all organized activities in Rome grind to a halt in the summer until about mid-September so I was surprised to get an email saying that our choir practice was starting on Sept. 1st. The choir is associated with the Basilica di Santa Croce in Via Flaminia which was celebrating the Festa di Santa Croce (Feast of the Holy Cross) on Sept. 12th and we had to prepare to sing at this event.

 1410804066245Despite being raised as a Catholic, I had never heard of this feast and went to check it out on the Internet. Celebrated mostly by churches who have relics of the cross, I found out that it is a major event in Lucca in northern Tuscany and this year, it was being celebrated there on Saturday Sept 13th. Since we were going up north for a couple of days, we decided to stop there on the way up to check it out. Lucca is a small walled town with narrow streets, one of the few medieval towns in Italy with completely intact walls. We got there on Saturday afternoon to find that the fronts of all the buildings were adorned with candles which were already being lit by about 4pm as there were many to be lit and they spanned three or four stories in places.

Volto Santo, San Martino Cathedral

Volto Santo, San Martino Cathedral

 The cathedral of San Martino houses a wooden crucifix called the Volto Santo. Legend has it that this crucifix was carved by Nicodemus (one of the followers of Christ) following the crucifixion. It somehow arrived in Lucca in the 8th century and is deeply revered. On the feast of Santa Croce, almost all electric lights are switched off within the walls at nightfall. A candlelit procession proceeds from the church of San Freddiano and wends its way through the town to the cathedral where homage is paid to the Volto Santo. The figure of Christ is crowned with a gold crown and ornate solid gold belt which are normally housed in the museum and only brought out on the day of the feast.

Volto Santo Procession

Volto Santo Procession

By 8pm when the procession started, the town was jammed with people from Lucca and the surrounding area, as well as lots of tourists. Everything was bathed in candlelight, a very beautiful sight. In the procession were the clergy and congregations of all the parishes around, carrying crosses and standards from their own church and of course tall candles. Then there were representations from various bodies like the firemen, police, hospitals as well as a number of brass bands. The procession just kept going and going.

 1410809072612At the church of San Martino, where there was a choir and music being played, each group came in, went past the Volto Santo and out again. By about 10pm, the procession was still in progress but we were tired after several hours of walking and returned to our hotel just outside the walls.  Within the walls, the lights were still off and candles glowed everywhere. I hoped that not all the firemen were at the procession!

 

 

 

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Michaelangelo’s Legacy After 450 Years

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Piazza di Campidoglio

Piazza di Campidoglio

We are surrounded by works of Michaelangelo as he spent the latter part of his life here in Rome. Every day, walking home from the market, I can’t help admiring the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica which was designed by him and of course, crowds throng the Sistine chapel to gaze at his paintings on the ceiling and front wall. Since most of his larger works, both sculptures and paintings, are ‘in situ’ and cannot be moved, I was not particularly tempted to see an exhibition of his work at the Capitoline museum marking the 450th anniversary of his death. However, we felt that we should go just to see what was on display.

Michaelangelo's David

Michaelangelo’s David

The Capitoline museum is at the Piazza di Campidoglio which fittingly, was designed by Michaelangelo and houses both the museum as well as City Hall. At the entrance to the museum, we were greeted by a copy of Michaelangelo’s 17 ft high statue of David. The original is in the museum in Florence and many copies exist but this one was done by 3D scanning and some sort of resin. Amazing what modern technology can do!

Michaelangelo really was an incredible man, and it is unimaginable that a single person could be a master of sculpture, painting, architecture and even poetry and not only that, but could have produced so much in his lifetime of 89 years. Very difficult to exhibit such a broad range of monumental work and I felt that the exhibition did not do justice to his genius.

Michaelangelo's Sketch of Piazza di Campidoglio

Michaelangelo’s Sketch of Piazza di Campidoglio

There were some very interesting sketches and drawings and childishly, I was taken with his drawing of the Piazza di Campidoglio as we could actually see the piazza out of the window as shown in the above photo. What surprised me was his body of written work. I did not know that he had written so much poetry and though I could not read it, I found it a pleasure just to look at his exquisite handwriting.

The Piazza is on a little hill with the Foro Romano just behind it. The two museum buildings flanking City Hall, are connected by an underground tunnel with views of Roman excavations below and steps leading up to behind City Hall with spectacular views of the Foro. As you can imagine, the museum is quite extensive and after tramping up and down for a couple of hours we came upon the cafe on the top floor where the view was amazing.  Needless to say, we sat down immediately to have lunch. My regular readers may have noticed that I change the header picture of my blog occasionally. What you now see is the view from the terrace at the top showing a number of church domes including St. Peter’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Summer Continues in Rome

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Beach Near Latina

Beach Near Latina

We were lucky with the weather in Ireland as it didn’t rain much while we were there. However, at around 15C, it felt quite cool and there was the sense that summer was ending. When we returned to Rome it was around 30C, and apart from the daylight hours getting shorter, it is still summer weather here.

1409229232176With the heat, we were glad to accept an invitation to go to the seaside south of Rome for the day. Beaches in Italy are crowded at this time of the year and it was a far cry from the deserted beaches in Ireland. However, the warm sea and cloudless skies compensated for the activity on the beach if you can call lying in the sun an activity! I was pleased to see five or so young men with a little baby. They all took turns amusing the baby including all pretending to sleep so that the baby would sleep as well. Several of them actually did fall asleep while the baby remained wide awake.

1409229105427I was reminded of walking on the beach in Goa when I saw a couple of fishermen using the same type of circular nets. I had always thought that these were specific to India but apparently not. Not too many fish being caught but I think the men were enjoying the activity more than the catch.

 1409493484091On the way back to Rome, we passed by Castel Gandolfo where the Popes traditionally spend their summer vacation. Papa Francesco has decided to open up the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo to the public so we stopped to see if we could visit. Indeed the gardens are open to the public but one has to pay a hefty fee to go in and tickets can only be booked through the Musei Vaticani in Rome. So much for making the gardens accessible to the public though I do believe that if Papa Francesco had his way, it would really be free for all! Castel Gandolfo itself is a little village on Lake Albano so instead of enjoying the gardens we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant with a wonderful view overlooking the lake as you can see from this photo.

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Ireland: From Dingle to Wicklow

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Dingle Peninsula

Dingle Peninsula

We drove from Northern Ireland to the Dingle peninsula via Clonmacnoise, an ancient monastic settlement developed in the 9th century.

Clonmacnoise Monastery

Clonmacnoise Monastery

The last time I was in Clonmacnoise, admittedly many years ago, there was nobody else there and it had a mystical atmosphere with  its tall round tower and ruined churches situated right on the banks of the Shannon River. It was a little disconcerting this time, to see busloads of tourists, an interpretive centre,  and prettified surroundings but it was still interesting to see the Irish high  crosses now on display indoors with copies on the original sites.

We opted to take a ferry from Killimer in County Clare to Tarbert in County Kerry  which took us along a scenic route. Arriving on the Dingle peninsula, we were immediately struck by how beautiful and wild it is. Rumour has it that National Geographic once declared it the most beautiful place on earth!

Inch Strand

Inch Strand

We stayed with friends in Inch overlooking a long stretch of beach which attracts a few surfers but which is otherwise empty. It was glorious to wake up in the morning and see the wonderful view while still in bed. The landscape on the Dingle peninsula really is magical with a rocky wild coastline, mountains and hedges of wild, purple fuschia and orange montbretia growing along the sides of the narrow roads.

Ogham Stone and Cross, Kilmalkedar Church

Ogham Stone and Cross, Kilmalkedar Church

There are a number of archaeological sites on Dingle ranging from prehistoric Beehive huts built without mortar or nails, to pre-Christian artefacts to early Christian churches. Driving to these sites, one follows a narrow coastal road with truly magnificent scenery.  The road signs are in gaelic so it helps to know the Irish form of the town or village one is heading towards. I was fascinated by the Ogham stones which consist of groups of one to five horizontal lines representing letters, and which are the earliest form of Irish writing.

1408968938057Much too soon, we left Dingle and made our way to Cashel and Kilkenny. The ruins of the church on the Rock of Cashel are certainly impressive but I preferred the completely empty and unvisited ruins of the massive Kells Abbey and a magnificient stone tower and high cross at nearby Kilree. There was nobody at either of these two places and Kilree is down a small lane with the cross in a field and a sign saying ‘Beware of the bull’. Luckily, there was a small herd of cows also in the field so we figured that the bull wouldn’t be paying much attention to us.

Jerpoint Abbey

Jerpoint Abbey

One of the most beautiful cloisters I saw were at Jerpoint Abbey also close to Kilkenny. All of the cloister pillars once had magnificient carvings but few of these are still intact. Again, there were very few people here and the atmosphere of the place was retained. Kilkenny is a very pretty little town dominated by an Anglo-Norman  castle on the Nore river which runs through the town.

The Wicklow Gap

The Wicklow Gap

Our last stop was visiting friends who have a lovely cottage in County Wicklow. Wicklow is close to Dublin and I was able to visit my favourite haunts. Some of them like Glendalough, are now teeming with tourists but the rest of the county is still wild and spectacular with rivers, mountains and bogs covered with purple heather. We had a wonderful and memorable holiday in Ireland. Thank you to all my friends all over the country who hosted us and showed us around. We hope to return soon and perhaps to reciprocate your hosptality in Rome.

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Northern Ireland

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Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

We left Dublin and drove up the northeast coast into northern Ireland or Ulster where there were more friends to visit. The only indication that we had crossed over the border was that the road signs were in miles per hour instead of kilometres, and we suddenly began to see lots of British and Ulster flags.

Bushmills Bunting

Bushmills Bunting

Needless to say, these are seen particularly in areas where there are a lot of Protestants so you can always guess the allegiance of the area you are driving through,

The scenery along the northeast coast of Ulster was beautiful with the Mourne mountains on one side and the sea on the other.

Belfast's Titanic Museum

Belfast’s Titanic Museum

We only spent a day in Belfast and a friend organized a trip to Belfast’s Titanic Experience in the morning. Housed in a specially designed building in the newly developed docks area, there were multiple exhibits ranging from economic conditions in Belfast when the Titanic was built to showing how it was actually built. Harland and Wolff still have an enormous gantry for ship-building at the docks though there isn’t much of this happening at the moment.

Shankhill Road Mural

Shankhill Road Mural

In the afternoon we took a “Black Taxi’ political tour which consisted of our friend and the two of us in a black cab with our guide and driver Sam. First he took us to the Protestant Shankhill Road. There were lots of British flags and the entire sides of some of the houses were covered with giant murals, jokingly referred to as ‘the Muriels’. Next we went to the Catholic Falls Road where the only flags we saw were Palestinian and there were no ‘Muriels’ but memorial ‘gardens’ commemorating those who died in sectarian warfare. 1408559709096Separating the two areas were what they call the ‘Peace Walls’. Around 10 metres high, there are several of them in the city separating Protestant and Catholic areas. There were metal gates at intervals which open at 6am and close at 6pm preventing easy access to these areas at night. The houses backing onto the walls have what Sam called a Belfast conservatory i.e. a huge wire screen enclosing the back of the house to keep out petrol bombs. It was sad to see that sectarian allegiances still divide the working classes in such a strong way.

Derry Walled City

Derry Walled City

We also paid a short visit to Derry city, the only walled city in Ireland. We were able to walk on the broad medieval walls which still have the original cannon used to protect the city from siege. The walls enclose the old city and one can walk around the entire wall in about 45 minutes. Derry was also plagued by sectarian strife as in Belfast, but it seems that this has been overcome to a better degree here. The city is lovely and it was a pleasure to stroll around. I would have liked to spend more time there.

Antrim Coastline

Antrim Coastline

Our next stop was Ballycastle at the tip of the northern coast. Again the coast is beautiful with rocky cliffs, beaches and lush meadows on the tops of cliffs with grazing cattle. One of the main tourist attractions is the Giant’s Causeway where volcanic activity 60 million years ago has resulted in outcrops of geometric basalt columns of various heights.

Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge

My own highlight was walking across a rope bridge at Carrick-A-Rede. The rope bridge connects the mainland with a tiny island offshore which is in the path of migrating salmon and was originally used by salmon fisherman. A visit to Bushmills whiskey distillery was educational for me as I did not know that malt, which whiskey is made from, is the term for germinated flax seed. The education continued as we tasted generous helpings of 12 year old single malt! We did so much in just four days that it was really just a taste and we decided that we have to visit Northern Ireland again and enjoy it at a more leisurely pace.

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Ireland: Dublin’s Delights

Guinness Gate

Guinness Gate

Rome can be unbearably hot in August so we decided to leave the city for cooler climes like the rest of the Romans do.  We decided to visit Ireland and started our trip in Dublin where I had lived for many years. I was looking forward to seeing the city again and catching up with old friends who I had not seen in a long time.

Dublin Mountains

Dublin Mountains

We were met at the airport by my friend Maggie who whisked us off to the Dublin Mountains so we could breathe in the fresh mountain air and get a view of the city. It’s wonderful to get to a completely unspoiled landscape just a few miles out of the city. One of the things I love about Ireland is the constantly changing light as it can be raining, cloudy or sunny within minutes making the same landscape look different all the time.

Renovated Gas Tower

Renovated Gas Tower

Our hosts Rory and Bernie greeted us with open arms despite being in the throes of a massive kitchen renovation. Luckily, their friends and neighbours across the road had given them the use of their house while on holiday so we just all trooped across the road and used their kitchen instead. Rory who has an architectural background, gave us fine tours of the city inbetween our packed schedule. I was really surprised by how much the city has grown since my last visit with new areas which have been developed, new buildings and interesting renovations. The old gas tower has been converted into an apartment building which is used by Google who have a ‘campus’ nearby to house its geeks. I was glad to see that despite the recent economic slump, the city has maintained an air of prosperity.

Cobblestones Pub

Cobblestones Pub

In addition to seeing the sights of which there are many, Fidz was keen to taste Guinness and to listen to traditional Irish music. Luckily, my friend Renee is well up on the music scene and took us to a pub on Sunday afternoon where musicians randomly gather to play together. There weren’t too many people in the pub and we sat at a table right next to the musicians and were actually able to talk to them. The Guinness flowed very easily down Fidz’s throat and I suspect that there will be a number of pub stops during the rest of our tour!

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The Virgin in the Village

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Madonna Degli Angeli, Capitignano

Madonna Degli Angeli, Capitignano

This past weekend, we were excited to be invited to a Italian village feast by our friends Jane and Enrico from Toronto. Enrico was born in Capitignano, Abruzzo where there is an annual feast of the Madonna (Madonna degli Angeli) dating back to the 17th cent. 1407260613150The drive there on Saturday morning was very scenic as Abruzzo is green and mountainous, a pleasure to drive through.

 When we got there, the procession from the church had just started. A brass band led the way followed by the statue of The Virgin borne aloft by a few strong men. Dressed in a red robe with a blue cape and a crown on her head, she was a fine sight. Every few yards, usually in front of someone’s house, a person would approach to pin money to ribbons hanging from the Virgin’s arms. There were quite a number of 50 Eur notes fluttering about! 1407241284376After doing a round of the village, the statue was returned to the church in a burst of fireworks followed by Mass.  Then it was time for lunch.

 We were invited to Ennrico’s aunt Elena and uncle Enrico Sr. for lunch. It was a beautiful sunny day and we started with appetizers in the garden. 1407241430649A gargantuan lunch followed, consisting of an antipasto plate, two types of pasta, three types of meat, vegetables and an array of sweets, all accompanied by copious amounts of wine, and ending with home-made liqueurs. The relatives were happy to see Enrico again and it was a jolly affair with stories and memories of the past.

 Meanwhile, the village was preparing for the evening festivities which included a live band playing in the main Piazza.

1407241022091There was a fascinating array of photos from times past on display in the Piazza. I was particularly struck by the photos of the dowry (la dote) being carried to the husband’s house by the bride’s relatives. The photo on the right taken in 1956, actually shows Elena’s (our hostess) relatives (including our friend Enrico’s mother) taking la dote to the house where we had just had lunch. Typically, ‘la dote’ would consist of the bride’s goods, linens, and so forth. Likely money was involved as well with some families.

 In the evening, people walked about the village meeting up with friends and relatives who had come back for the event. Babies, teenagers, grandparents and parents all mingled which is something I enjoy seeing. The band played when night fell and the village was lit up just like Christmas. It was truly a memorable occasion.

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Opera in a Bath-house

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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.

 

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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.

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