Halloween in Rome

Sunday Market, Neri

Sunday Market, Neri

Sorry to disappoint you folks but there is no Halloween in Rome. One or two clubs advertized Halloween fancy dress events but this was about it. The only sign of carved pumpkins was at a Sunday market stall in Neri just outside Rome but I think this was a tourist attraction. However, the day after on November 1st was All Saints Day or Tutti i Santi which is a national holiday in Italy. Dedicated to honouring early Christian matyrs, it used to be celebrated on May 13 until Pope Gregory III changed the date to November 1st to coincide with the foundation of an oratory at St. Peter’s Basilica to house the relics of saints and martyrs.

Campo Verano Cemetery, Rome

Campo Verano Cemetery, Rome

We did not know that on this day, it is traditional for families to go to the cemetery to lay flowers and light candles at the gravesides of their loved ones.  We took it into our heads to visit Rome’s Campo Verano cemetery which we had heard was beautiful. We got there to find a crowd outside. Apparently the Pope was due to arrive, the first time in over 20 pope years since a Pope has  set foot in the cemetery. Meanwhile, people were visiting graves and laying flowers.

Tombs, Campo Verano Cemetery

Tombs, Campo Verano Cemetery

The cemetery contains a number of large mausoleums some with photographs of the deceased. I found it quite fascinating seeing these snapshots of history with the remains several generations in the same tomb. The cemetery dates back to the Napoleonic invasion between 1804 and 1814 when a law was passed that Rome’s dead had to be buried outside the walls except for popes, cardinals and royalty. There is a Catholic section and a Jewish section. Non-Catholics are buried in another cemetery next to the Piramide (In Memoriam). We did not wait for the Pope but seeing he lives a stone’s throw from us, we saw his motorcade on the way home!

1383255234119Although we are into November now, the weather is still gorgeous. In the low to mid 20s with sunshine and cloudless skies. Last weekend, we were in the hills just outside Rome. There were sheep and a few lambs grazing in the fields as well as horses and foals. The leaves were beginning to turn but the landscape still looked green and more like spring.  It surprised me to see lambs at this time of year as I thought they were born in the spring but apparently this can vary with the breed and can also depend on whether or not the rams are left with the flock. Something new to learn everyday!

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The Way to School

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Chiesa Sant'Eustachio

Chiesa Sant’Eustachio

The last couple of weeks have been more demanding than usual. Not because I’ve had class every day (Learning Italian) but more because I came down with a  touch of bronchitis which made going to school an effort. Imagine getting bronchitis in this over 20C weather! Nevertheless, despite my condition, I love the journey to school. No matter which way I go, there is something interesting to see.  One of my routes involves passing the church of Sant’Eustachio which has its crucifix amidst  deer antlers. Legend has it that a Roman soldier called Placidus went hunting whereupon a fine-looking deer with a cross its antlers suddenly appeared before him which made him convert to Christianity and he took the name of Eustachio.

Bernini's Elephant

Bernini’s Elephant

Its hard to walk a few feet in the historic centre without coming to a church. A short distance away is the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. In the Piazza in front of the church is a sculpture of an elephant by Bernini. It always brings a smile to my face as there is a story attached to it. It was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII in 1665 to serve as a base for an Egyptian obelisk which had been found in the garden of the Domenican monastery attached to the church. The church had been built over a Greek Temple dedicated to the Goddess Minerva. Bernini originally designed a hollow space between the elephants legs such that the obelisk would only be supported by the elephant’s back but a Domenican priest Father Paglia, whose own design had been rejected, persuaded the Pope that Bernini’s design was flawed and that a hollow space would not support the obelisk. The aged Pope took this advice to heart and ordered the space to be filled in. Bernini was not pleased but had to comply with the Pope’s orders as you can see. However, he made sure to have the last laugh as he oriented the elephant such that its backside pointed towards the monastery! I often imagine how much more beautiful the monument would have looked with a hollow space beneath.

1382183389558A few steps further on is the magnificient Pantheon. Each and every time I see it I’m struck by its construction and feel lucky to have the pleasure of seeing it simply in passing. A 10 minute walk and so much to see. I haven’t even mentioned the other sights. Even the street in front of the school has its magic moments. Last week there was a bridal couple having their photo taken in the middle of the street just outside the entrance to the school courtyard. I’m still wondering what made them choose this location as its just another Rome street.

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Learning Italian

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Palazzo Firenze

Although I started learning Italian shortly after I got here (Beginner’s Italian and Fig Gelato), I have not attained a great degree of fluency. My frequent trips back to Toronto combined with the fact we speak English at home have not done much to further my skills. In an effort to improve, I signed up for a semi-intensive course at the school run by the Societa di Dante Alighieri.

1382183193141The school is in a beautiful building, the Palazzo Firenze in the area between the Tiber and the Spanish Steps.  There are about 10 of us in the class all from different parts of the world which is a good thing as we are forced to speak to each other in Italian during ‘la pausa’. We have two teachers who alternate classes. One is a mature woman who looks over her glasses at us and gives us long lectures on how we must do our homework diligently and not only do our homework (which there is a lot of) but write something every day. All excellent advice as many of the students in class are learning the language in preparation for going to university in Rome and need to be able to write well. However, since half the class don’t understand a word she’s saying, she may be wasting her breath! The other teacher is a young fellow who bursts into class and launches into teaching with a lot of energy. At his first lesson, he brought in a guitar and made us join him in a well-known (not to us!) folk song. He sometimes forgets to take attendance and never tells us to write anything or if he does, he leaves it to the other teacher to correct which she always complains about. However, he has a gift for explaining grammar and he’s a good teacher. In fact both of them are good in different ways.

Auditorio

Auditorio

What I really enjoy is the physical space we are in. The building dates back to 1516 and was originally built by an apostolic official to house his large family. After a series of subsequent ownerships and further building, it became the property of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Firenze which is how it got its name. The Medici family in keeping with their status, turned it into a sumptuous Palazzo. It was ceded to the Italian State in 1867 and became the Ministry of Mercy, Justice and Religion. Only in Italy could such a title for a government ministry exist! Since 1928, it has housed the Societa Dante Alighieri and its language school.

Biblioteca

Biblioteca

The finer rooms of the Palazzi in Rome were always on the first floor (piano nobile) so that they escaped flooding from the Tiber and allowed space for a courtyard on the ground floor that carriages could drive into. Our classrooms which are small and plain are on the second floor. Only some of the rooms survive in their original state today or I should say, I’ve only been able to gain access to two original rooms, the Auditorio and the Biblioteca. Nobody ever seems to go into the Biblioteca except for the librarian. If I’m early for class, I go in there and admire the frescoes on the ceiling done by Jacopo Zucchi, a student of Vasari’s. The auditorium is only for special events and overlooks a gorgeous garden in an internal courtyard. I wish we could do our lessons there but perhaps it is better to be in what I can only describe as an ugly classroom as I’m sure my mind would wander if we were in one of these fine rooms.

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Sunday Lunch in Frascati

Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati

Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati

Many Italians living in Rome, like people in busy cities all over the world, don’t spend as much time cooking as their parents and grandparents might have done. I see harried young women in the supermarket buying convenience food though there is less on offer than what one can get in north America. However, there still seems to be a tradition of having a family lunch on Sundays. Where Grandma might have once cooked lunch for the extended family, the more affluent book a table at a restaurant.

1381438082378Last Sunday we went to a restaurant (Cacciani) in Frascati for Sunday lunch. Cacciani, a family-run restaurant, has been in operation since 1922 and prides itself on serving local specialties in season. Despite being a slightly upmarket restaurant, it was packed and we were glad that we had booked a table beforehand. Looking around, one would never dream that there is an economic crisis in Italy. There were families with children of all ages, old and young couples. and groups of friends. Many looked like they came there often as we noticed the owner going around greeting them like friends.

1381438234760We had a delicious lunch. Mine was a starter of little choux pastry puffs filled with a mixture of broccoli and pecorino cheese followed by tortellini filled with baccala (salt cod). I can never resist dessert after a good meal and I followed this with a semifreddo (sort of like a light ice cream). This being the season for truffles, Fidz had a traditional bean soup followed by fettucine with truffles.

1381438316965All of this including a fine bottle of wine came to about 80 Eur so we are definitely going to return during the week when they have tasting menus coupled with wines to match, for a very reasonable price. After this, we had to work off our lunch and we went wandering around the town.

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Frascati is on one of the Alban hills and is famous for its wines. I’m used to seeing Frascati wine on the LCBO shelves in Toronto so I got a kick out of actually being there. The view is spectacular as Rome lies below and it is close enough to identify the larger buildings. It is home to a number of villas belonging to Rome’s aristocracy who used to go there to escape the summer heat in Rome during the summer and there is an atmosphere of graciousness and wealth. The church of course dominates the main Piazza with a view down a narrow street directly down to the valley and the Dome of St. Peters in Rome! 1381438783830On Sundays, there is an antique and crafts market in the main Piazza. After having had to get rid of all my stuff recently, I was not tempted to buy anything but I wonder how long that will last!

 

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Leek and Chickpea Soup Alla Marcella Hazan

1380914158534Fidz is much more passionate about cooking than I am and consequently I’m quite happy to leave him to it. However, last Sunday, I felt an urge to make Marcella Hazan’s leek and ceci (chickpea) soup. Marcella Hazan is credited with introducing good, simple Italian cooking to north American households, much like Julia Child did with French cooking. Fidz likes her recipe books as she comes from the same province in Italy as he does (Emilia Romagna) and she has recipes for dishes which he remembers eating from childhood. Italy is very regional in its cooking and dishes vary considerably not only from province to province but also from one mountain or valley to the next!

The soup turned out well and we enjoyed it but I was dismayed to hear later that evening that Marcella Hazan had just died at the age of 89. I was struck by the coincidence of me making the soup on the day she died and I thought I would share my version of her recipe as a tribute to her. Thank you Marcella for giving us precise instructions on how to make the food that people learn by watching their mothers and grandmothers who add a handful of this and a pinch of that.

Leek and Chickpea Soup (serves 6)

13809144785904 large leeks (about 1kg)

3 Tabspns olive oil

1 can chickpeas

chicken/beef stock

grated parmesan cheese

Slice the white part of the leeks, wash and leave to drain or spin them dry. I puree the leeks after they are cooked whereas Marcella does not so if you prefer a soup that is more crunchy, slice the leeks quite fine. Saute the leeks in the olive oil with a little salt and leave them to simmer slowly until they are soft and mushy. Add the stock and either puree all of the leeks and then add the chickpeas or add the chickpeas and puree a couple of ladlefuls so that the soup has some body. Marcella skins the chickpeas but I don’t mind the skins so I leave them whole. Add enough stock so that the soup is not too thick or too runny. Stir in ground pepper and grated parmesan to taste before serving. I usually add about 1 – 2 tabspns of freshly grated parmesan to each bowl of soup and mix it in well.

And now there is something I have to tell you that is generally not mentioned in any cookbook including Marcella’s. The combination of leeks and chickpeas is guaranteed to produce intestinal gas so enjoy the soup but don’t serve it at a dinner party unless you want to embarass your guests!

 

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Olive Trees and Olive Oil

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Olive Groves in Puglia

Olive Groves in Puglia

Last week in Puglia, I was struck by the miles and miles of olive groves. Olive trees are fascinating to look at in that the trunks are gnarled and twisted and sometimes almost entirely hollowed out so that its hard to believe that they can actually support the branches. Puglia is said to produce 40% of Italy’s olive oil and could likely produce a lot more given the number of trees one sees.  I did not know this but there are over thirty different varieties of olives in Italy alone not to mention the other varieties prevalent in France, Spain and Greece. The trees are hardy and are tolerant of drought and different types of soil but needless to say, they love the sun and hate ‘wet feet’.

Thousand-year Old Olive Tree

Thousand-year Old Olive Tree

We saw trees of different ages as we drove around and when we stopped at an olive farm to buy some oil, they had a thousand-year old tree in the front laden with olives. The family-run farm has been in operation since 1917 and we were shown around by the daughter of the present owner who said that many of the trees on the property were forty years old or more. They had seven varieties of olive trees and the flavour of the oil varies, depending not only on the variety but also on when the olives are picked, the type of soil, and the weather. Just like wine! When we saw them, the olives were still green but they begin to change colour to shades of purple as they ripen.

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The olives are hand-picked from mid-October to mid-December, cold-pressed and bottled on the farm. We tasted several types which vary considerably in price and texture depending on whether the oil is a blend or organic or when the olives are picked. We bought oil from the first-pressed olives to use in salads and a large tin of oil for cooking from olives picked in December. The taste between the two is quite different as was the taste of the different oils we tried including one made from olives which are pitted before pressing and has a very delicate flavour. The use of olive oil goes back to around the 5th BC. What I find amazing is that anyone would think to try and do something with an olive. They are bitter and completely inedible if eaten off the tree.

When I first met Fidz, I used to be appalled by how he poured olive oil over everything including pizza. Now I find myself doing the same thing as there is no doubt that it enhances the flavour of almost anything you eat that is not sweet. Thankfully, this is no longer a guilty pleasure as there was an article in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year claiming that consumption of olive oil (or mixed nuts) together with a Mediterranean diet considerably decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fidz and I have discussions about what exactly constitutes a Mediterranean diet but I will leave that for another time. Suffice to say that one of the main constituents is plenty of vegetables, with olive oil of course!

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Puglia From Coast to Coast

Santa Maria di Leuca

Santa Maria di Leuca

Pucce

Pucce

We drove south along the west coast from Gallipoli to Santa Maria di Leuca which is the southern most point in Italy. We had a leisurely drive along a a road which hugs the coast stopping to swim and have a picnic. In Puglia, you get little bread buns called Pucce which are made with olive oil and contain olives or tomatoes or both. They are simply delicious and need no addition though we couldn’t help indulging in prosciutto and mozarella as well. Santa Maria di Leuca has a church called the church at the end of the world (Santuario di Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae) so we really felt like we had reached the farthest point in Italy. With the Ionian Sea on the east side and the Adriatic sea on the west side, the coastline is dramatic with lots of caves and grottos.

Coast South of Otranto

Coast South of Otranto

As you round the tip, you can see the coast of Albania in the distance and Corfu is only about 60km away. With the risk of invasions, since the time of the Greeks in BC, there are towers and fortifications at intervals. As we approached Otranto which is on the west side, the coastline became dry and rocky. Most plants are dry and look dead but it must be glorious in the spring when the flowers are in bloom.

Bones of the Otranto Matyrs, Otranto Cathedral

Bones of the Otranto Matyrs, Otranto Cathedral

Otranto is a walled town on the sea with a well fortified castle and a cathedral within the walls. In 1480, during the Ottoman invasion, around 800 male inhabitants were put to death for refusing to convert to Islam. The bones of these matyrs have been preserved in a side chapel of the cathedral.

 

 

Porta Biagio, Lecce

Porta Biagio, Lecce

Too soon, it was time to leave Otranto and continue inland to Lecce which is a another walled town full of baroque and rococco churches and buildings. These walled towns are beautiful and I love staying in them. Only trouble is the streets are very narrow and impossible to drive through never mind parking. This is a good thing as its a pleasure to wander around except that you have to park outside the walls and carry your luggage to your hotel. Since the streets are cobbled, wheeling your luggage does not always work well. I think I need to revert to my student days and get a backpack!

Trullo, Locorotondo

Trullo, Locorotondo

On the way back to Rome, we drove through Locorotondo and Alberobello. This area is notable for its trulli, small circular dwellings made of stone with a conical roof. Originally built as single room shelters, they are experiencing a revival and have become a tourist attraction. Gorgeous in their original state, they are being painted and refurbished for tourists to stay in. Good for the economy I guess.

 

Figs by the Wayside

Figs by the Wayside

More than seeing the trulli which are really quite unique, I enjoyed stopping by the wayside to eat ripe figs warmed by the sun. Its hard to describe what it feels like to pluck a warm, ripe fig and bite into it!

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Travels in Puglia: Gallipoli

Fishermen Repairing Their Nets, Gallipoli

Fishermen Repairing Their Nets, Gallipoli

When I was up to my eyes packing and clearing my house, I mentioned to Fidz that I would need a holiday when I returned to Italy. He stepped up to the plate, as we say in Canada and organized a trip to Puglia, the heel of the boot that represents Italy on a map. Continue reading

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End of Summer in Ontario

Dining at Richard and Bea's in St William

Dining at Richard and Bea’s in St William

Last Monday (Sept 2nd) was Labour Day in Ontario. Labour day is celebrated on the first Monday of September and although created to honour workers and the labour union movement similar to May 1st in Europe, it has come to represent the end of summer and the beginning of Fall and the new academic year. Many people leave the city for a final weekend in the country before buckling down to their daily routines which are often suspended during the summer. After a week of final packing and clearing prior to moving out of my house, I was delighted to be invited to my sister’s cottage in southwest Ontario for the weekend where I was able to recuperate from the week’s labours. On Saturday evening we had dinner with friends Bea and Richard who have a country house in St William built in the mid 1800s. Lovingly restored by them, it is a jewel in the heart of the countryside with a beautiful garden. We dined ‘al fresco’ possibly for the last time for those who live in Ontario as the weather is already getting cooler. My friends (thanks to you all!) have been wining and dining me extremely well for the last few weeks and this dinner was no exception. We started with samosas served with tamarind sauce followed by barbecued lamb sliders and middle eastern Fatouche salad. Now I know why these are called sliders as the little ground lamb patties slid down one’s throat very easily! Dessert was a pear flan made with ground almonds instead of flour. Delicious and of course all washed down by copious amounts of wine! When darkness fell and the mosquitos came out in droves, Richard lowered a mosquito net over the table. Now that’s a brilliant idea!!

View of San Pietro From Behind Our Apartment

View of San Pietro From Behind Our Apartment

Autumn has always been a slightly sad time for me signifying an end rather than a beginning. In many ways this autumn is the end of life as I have known it so far with selling my house and not having a permanent base in Toronto. One is reminded that nothing lasts forever and that one’s life is finite. On the other hand, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum and the end of something marks the beginning of something else. So as I leave my old life with a degree of sadness, there is excitement about embarking on a new phase. I arrived back in Rome yesterday where summer still prevails. Today is sunny and the temperature is 31C. There is no feeling that one has to return to a daily routine and since I spent my entire summer in Toronto packing and clearing, I’m now officially on holiday!

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Old and New

Ai WeiWei's Han Dynasty Vases Dipped in Industrial Paint

Ai WeiWei’s ‘Coloured Vases’

In my frenzy of packing last week, I was excited to take a break and avail of an invitation to see the new Ai WeiWei exhibition “According to What?” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ai WeiWei is a dissident Chinese contemporary artist who is presently under house arrest in Beijing. His public criticism of the Chinese government’s authoritarian stance on democracy and individul rights has led to his passport being confiscated so he couldn’t be at the opening of the exhibition. The show was visually stunning encompassing sculpture, video, photography, and more. I was taken by his use of old antique pieces to create something new and dynamic. In the picture above, he has dipped original Han Dynasty vases in brightly coloured industrial paint while the photos in the background show him dropping Han vases to shatter on the floor. My first reaction was horror that something so old should be destroyed in this way but then I began to appreciate his philosophy of having to break away from old patterns of thought and behaviour in order for something new to emerge.

Looking Through the Aperture of 'Moon Box'

Looking Through the Aperture of ‘Moon Box’

His ‘Moon Box’ is a series of seven 3 m high hollow boxes made of huali wood reclaimed from destroyed Ming and Qing temples. They have little circles cut out of the middle and are aligned in a curve so that if you look through the centre to the other end, you see the phases of the moon. No nails or screws have been used in their construction.    There is something to be said for taking something old and re-working it using traditional techniques to create a thought-provoking piece relevant to our modern culture. I found myself examining the boxes much more carefully than if I had been viewing an original temple. By the way, in case you’re wondering what huali wood is, it is fragrant Chinese rosewood!

IMG00496-20130825-1320Speaking of old objects, I have been having difficulty getting rid of some of my antique pieces of furniture as they are not fashionable at the moment and nobody is interested in buying them. I have one cabinet in particular which has decided to remain with me despite my best efforts to get rid of it over a number of moves. Oddly, it has also turned out to be the most useful piece of furniture regardless of where I ended up. Despite wanting to dump it each time, I made good use of it in my house in Dublin, an apartment in London and two houses in Toronto. History is repeating itself and I still can’t get rid of it. My sister kindly agreed to store it for me until I figured out my next move.  The cabinet is somewhat fragile and rather than load it into a small pick-up truck and risk damaging it when we were moving stuff on Sunday, my nephews put it on a little cart and wheeled it down the road to my sister’s house. It looks very nice in her living room and I might just leave it there. Alternatively, I could follow Ai WeiWei and paint it in a striking colour to suit my new apartment when I eventually move into it!

 

 

 

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