A Sabbatical-ish Italian Extravaganza

The return of the Chowgypsy.

And then there was that morning that I groggily woke up early in the Cinque Terre, looked out the window, and noticed an old lady hastily selling vegetables out of the back of her car. I think it was some sort of Vegetable Mafia coup. Vegetables are a rare sighting in the upper half of Italy, so I braved the storm of clamoring old Italian ladies and descended. 

After about four weeks of intensive gypsy-style vagabonding, eating, volunteering, more eating, and general exploration, I have finally settled for a fitting chunk of time in a place with a relaxing and open workspace.

With a mind that is as distractable as a kitten's, if there is no space, there is probably no work.

(No hard work, at least.)

The new digs in Tuscany. John and I have a cozy little downstairs apartment with a half-kitchen and loads of privacy.
Situations like this make volunteering absurdly easy.

My sabbatical has been filled with extreme/strange diets (ranging from quasi-veganism to a form of all-pork gluttony), a six-day visit from my parents, a seven-day visit from a friend, lots of ragu, at least 50 hours spent white washing walls, and, within all of that, visits to TWELVE glorious Italian towns.

Did somebody say photo recap?

cathedral tirano
Yet another stunning cathedral in northern Italy, the Madonna di Tirano, which dates back to 1505
Ancient carvings (from the Neolithic and Iron Ages) on the Rupe Magna at Il Parco delle Incisioni Rupestri in Grosio, Italy. Screw up your eyes and you can see figures at top right and toward the bottom left
A hike in Valtellina Valley's Parco Orobie 
Approaching Lake Como's quaint town of Varenna 
It's porcini season. Beautiful, beautiful porcini season.

Venice, the Disney World for adults. Note: this photo was not taken from a gondola. Stay AWAY from the gondolas unless you love wasting money.
Bunny ears: They never get old. Or do they?

how to sun dry tomato
One of my tasks at our previous farm was picking some of the ample tomato harvest and drying them in the heat of the greenhouse. Sun dried tomato much?
Eating one of the three entree options at Trattoria di Ermes in Modena: Roasted Rabbit (and the best I've ever had).
Bologna's Pasta Fresca, run by a mother & daughter team and serving the BEST fresh pasta and sauces...ever.
A well-served Italian coffee should come with a little glass of water for before-and-after palate cleansing
Visiting a Prosciutto di Parma factory with over 50,000 curing legs (more on that later)
Visiting a factory of the KING, Parmigiano Reggiano (obviously more on that later)
A real producer of Balsami of Modena (boy do we need to talk)
Dark chocolate, yogurt, and blueberry. Gelato art.
Meeting up with Sir Dante Alighieri on a walk through Florence. Are we surprised he looks serious?
Coppa, sopresatta, and prosciutto with a side of pickled vegetable sand marinated Bitto cheese.
A little morning surprise celebrating fig season (they're perfectly ripe when green on some species)
John and our visiting friend Kristen soaking up the day in Florence

Clearly we have some catching up to do.

Over the next few weeks I'll be sifting through all of the writing that I surprisingly have (mostly) been keeping up with in order to fuse them together with the surplus of unedited photos currently glaring at me from my laptop.

Hopefully I can make this deluge of memories into a few blogworthy forms, but it's going to take a little backwards time-travel.

Namely, I wouldn't actually mind going back to this time: A secluded beach between Cinque Terre's Vernazza and Corniglia where, apart from a large and awkward speedo-donned man, John, Kristen, and I had the Italian coast to ourselves.

Regarding the future, however, John and I are actually slated to return (!!) to dear old North America in November, which means (dare I say it?!), Chowgypsy will be Chowgypsying Stateside for a while.

What better way to avoid the oncoming end than to live in the past?

(I don't know if that's actually sound reasoning.)

At any rate, be a pal and travel back to Teglio with me, to the days just before leaving Paolo and Marisa's, and we'll careen toward the end together.

I ain't through with you yet, Northern Italy.

Stay tuned...!

Parents and Piodas

With a pleasant twist of flying-standby fate, my parents were forced to fly into Italy earlier than expected for a long-anticipated visit, which means that John and I have an extra two days with them here in the Alps.

Oh yes, find a job working for the airlines and you, too, can visit your children in Europe for less money than a road trip to the next state over.

Just a casual evening walk through ancient churches and the Italian Alps. We do this every night.
Trekking up to nearby Teglio, a 30-minute uphill walk (single file style optional).

For $50 a night in a B&B that's only five minutes away, we've realized that this should've been the plan to begin with. And since the only plans for the weekend are to house/petsit while Paolo and Marisa take their prize-winning Bernese "Doc" to an international dog show in Switzerland, things couldn't have worked out better.

Workouts with the prize-winner
A little leisure at the B&B

To show our appreciation for their overseas trek, John and I decided on a home-cooked meal using Paolo's pioda. The pioda is a large flat stone that was historically the roofing of choice for this area because it was abundantly mined from the surrounding Valtellina Valley (although cheaper and easier—though not necessarily better— methods have become the norm since then).

Eventually, some crafty Italian figured out that the stone would also make a perfect source for grilling. Word spread, and this big beautiful hot plate of stone was born for all of your grilling needs.

The pioda stone as roofing! When used for cooking, it's typically two inches thick and should be taken care of like a cast iron skillet.
The pioda is kept low to the ground in order to keep the fire directly underneath. Here we have one of Paolo's fresh-caught meals. River trout rubbed with local herbs.

The food ends up being infused with the scent of the smoking wood that burns directly underneath, but without grill grates, whatever you're cooking seems to maintain moisture especially well yet remain perfectly crisp.

I took a page from Paolo's book and made a revised pesto with parsley and salt-brined capers thrown in with basil and EVOO, which was a fresh and fitting spread for both the grilled meat and the vegetables.

With Paolo's rather "hearty" cooking absent for the weekend, we opted for a vegetable bonanza.
Perfectly pioda-grilled freshwater trout from the nearby Adda river rubbed with local herbs and lemon

Keeping dessert simple, we opted for local chestnut honey, the first figs of the season (praise Jesus!), a hunk of 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano, and a layered "cake" of gorgonzola dolce and mascarpone.

The first place we hit when mom and dad arrived: the Sondrio food market, of course.
The lighting may be poor, but luckily that has nothing to do with flavor. This is what honey is made for (thanks bees).

Life away from home and family can be hard. It can be amazing, but it can be hard. It's nice to have the folks around.

Ca Branchi was my parents fantastic B&B that sits just below the town of Teglio and is run, aptly, by a Swiss woman named Heidi. It's a bit out of the way, but the views are worth it. If you're interested in booking, don't judge the place based off its sorely out-of-date website. Take my word, it's worth a visit!

Tomorrow we celebrate the anniversary of the day Teglio made peace with Switzerland, some 500 years ago. Huzzah, history!

(Avoid this Recipe) Terribly Delicious Chestnut Buckwheat Banana Bread

Three aging bananas sat staring at me in Paolo's kitchen, and I knew something had to be done.

Let it be said: bananas are an amazing and tasty fruit. You know this. Monkeys know this.

Nonetheless, I am typically not in favor of banana consumption because of the miles undertaken to get a banana from point A to B (say, for example, Peru to Italy). Those miles are paid for in more ways than your .60 cents per pound bounty.

(I'm not even going to get into the conditions on most banana plantations; whether you're buying "organic" or not. Organic says nothing about fair trade, and this industry can be notably horrendous.)

healthy banana bread
Can you guess what it is that I decided had to be done??


But . . . I didn't purchase these bananas, so am I such a hypocrite if I consume them before they go bad?

And am I so terrible if I guiltily enjoy this occasion of being forced to save bananas from a disgraceful, wasted end?

healthy banana bread
And if it happens to be the case that you have candied walnuts, you know what to do.
chestnut banana bread
Make it look sweet and glazey with just a bit of local honey immediately after removing from the oven

The excitement of living in a region that produces buckwheat flour and chestnut flour has yet to wear off (see my chestnut buckwheat bread recipe), and so I smiled a bittersweet and salivating smile as I  began improvising Chestnut Buckwheat Banana Bread.

You can probably substitute any flour for this recipe, but if you can track down buckwheat and chestnut flour, I suggest following my lead. But, keep the chestnut ratio around 2/3rd because of its tendency to brown quickly.

Whether or not it matters to you that this recipe is gluten free, it is. But that's neither here nor there, because why use regular flour if you can have the hearty flavor of buckwheat and the sweet nuttiness of chestnut (um, and it's healthier)?

Also note that I omit any sugar because I like to drizzle [local] honey over my bread. Like a boss.

chestnut buckwheat banana bread
Yeah, I guess this is an ok spot to eat this completely Italian version of banana bread. Fine.

Chestnut Buckwheat Banana Bread
1 1/2 cup chestnut flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
3 extremely ripe large bananas
1 cup milk (or milk substitute)
2 eggs* (use one egg for a drier texture)
1/4 cup EVOO (substitute butter if you like saturated fat)
1 tbs fresh lemon juice or apple cider (this is to give the baking soda something to react with and will be flavorless once baked)
2 tsp baking soda
1-2 tsp cinnamon (I buy it in bulk—save dat money!)
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
optional: 1/2 cup toasted walnuts and/or dark chocolate chips
*if you're out of eggs or vegan substitute with 1/4 cup yogurt or applesauce or an extra banana)

Preheat oven to 350 F/180 C. Grease a bread pan or, in my case, a bundt pan.

Sift together flours, salt, baking soda, and spices

Whisk egg, lemon juice, milk, and EVOO together. Mash bananas into a puree and whisk in with the liquids. Stir this into the flour mixture until just combined, then fold in walnuts or chocolate chips, if using.

Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake for about 30-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out relatively clean. Easy breezy.

healthy banana bread
ok, so I undercooked this a bit. But I like a moist banana bread, and so did all of the mouths that tried this.

The bread comes out moist, almost cakey, but without any added sweeteners (thanks, natural sweetness of bananas and chestnuts!).

Drizzle it with honey when just out of the oven for a glazed look, or if you just so happen to have candied walnuts on-hand, sprinkle away, my friend.

I know this is an odd way to close out a post centering on bananas, but I humbly request that you not put yourself in a situation where you can make this recipe.

 If you'd like to read another great opinion on why you should stay away from bananas unless you're in a country that grows them and they come from a fair trade source, read Darya Rose's opinion here.



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