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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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!

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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!

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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