Buck Knives and Open Borders

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Our friends Bob and Francesco came over for dinner tonight. (oliviotree.com) They (Francesco mainly) cooked for us a while back  (https://fitzwritesinitaly.wordpress.com/2013/11/22/buona-note/).

So it was our turn. I cooked a chicken-sausage gumbo. “First, you make a roux…” They’d never had gumbo (not sure gumbo has ever been served in Le Marche, actually) and really liked it. I was quite pleased. They’re both quite well traveled and well versed in wine and food, so I was hesitant to say the least. But for an excellent Italian cook to say my dish was good… well, it made my heart leap up.

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(Wine, water, oil, vinegar)

 We talked about travel a lot, and how with the EU’s open borders, Europeans travel more than Americans. Francesco’s family is from Naples, in the south of Italy. Every summer his family would spend all of July in the north of Italy in a little mountain village in the Dolomites. The Dolomites just happen to be on my rock climbing bucket list.

We’d had a really productive day around Casa Mosaico. Bob did a lot of plumbing for us (hot water at the kitchen sink, thank you baby Jesus), and I did my odds and ends—door knob for the guest bathroom, chopping kindling wood for the fireplaces, hanging the 8 cup hooks on the newly hung cabinet, clearing leaves from the pool cover, etc. After dinner, over dulce, I asked Bob if he carried a pocketknife. I have 2-3 at home, but never got in the habit of carrying one regularly. My father always did. 

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(Fine Italian design… it’s everywhere. This is the carrier for our dessert dish)

I happen to pack mine for this trip… as it happens, a nice Buck knife my father gave me when I was probably a teenager. I’ve kept it sharpened and oiled all these years, but just never got in the habit of having it in my pocket on a daily basis. Fitz (my father) was a country doctor, so surgery was only one of the many things he did in his practice. Fine steel was always important to him. From his scalpels to his hunting knives to his daily pocket knife. He passed that appreciation on to me. A fine, sharply honed kitchen knife is a joy to me to this day, and I always keep a sharp Gerber folding knife on my climbing harness.

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So, bucking my usual habits, I packed Fitz’ Buck knife with me on this trip. I find myself reaching for it several times a day here. Every day. Slicing open the packing around some dishes sorella stashed in the attic; prying out an errant screw I just mis-placed; cutting apart the sashes that held together sorella’s old twin bedframes (in preparation for the new frame delivered by our new favorite store, Fallimenti); carving up an apple for an impromptu al fresco lunch; getting the seemingly ever-present gunk from under my nails (please don’t tell my now-departed mother. She’d think it uncouth.) I don’t feel dressed unless it’s in my front pocket now (handkerchief ever-present in the back).

So what do good food, good friends, travel, and pocket knives have to do with each other? I’m still working on that. But I think that when you open yourself up to new experiences, you become a more versatile and useful utensil of the universe. Something that will deliver when called upon. Something that adds to the experience at hand. Something that can slice prosciutto, pecorino fresco and pears and still slit open a love letter with grace and aplomb.

Peace out.

They're crafty like that

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Craftsmanship.

It still means something here in Le Marche Province. It means “that is the only way we do things here—the right way.” Tonight we visited an Antichitta—basically an antique shop—and looked at several pieces that ranged from 150-400 years old. They were beautiful and very useful. Not museum pieces, but items of everyday living that people have been using for centuries. The prices were not astronomical. In fact, Massimo, the proprietor, told us that the 300-year old, $1,400 walnut chest we looked at would have cost $6,000 some 6-8 years ago, but the market is not what it used to be.

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From Mass’ place, we went to ArredoTenda, a small shop/factory/ “laboratorio” that hand-makes beautiful furniture. Stefano Belfiore, who’s owned the place with his brother Gianni for 30 years, gave us a tour. “If there are two ways to do something, I will pick the harder way,” he said. I liked him right away. (That’s a leather blind he’s holding. “Very inexpensive,” he said.)

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 The way they do things is… bellisima. It’s starts with beautiful Italian design, adds in high-quality ingredients and ends with meticulous, caring, artful execution. The result is… well, it just confirms that there is a place in the world for people who care deeply about what they do and insist on putting something of themselves in every single piece they produce. While the Italian economy is not exactly robust, the market for high-quality goods has not sagged. People here may own just one or two suits (and not five or seven), but they’re hand tailored and locally made. We were trying to find the equivalent of a Goodwill store to take some unneeded household items. Our friend told us there’s really nothing like that here, because people don’t really get rid of things. High quality materials tend to stick around.

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(Mechanics aren’t the only ones with calendar girls.)

The evening ended, of course, with a lovingly crafted meal at Casa Mia. There were only two occupied tables in the romantic place situated in the castle walls of Tolentino town. All of the ingredients came from within a few miles of where we sat. That’s not trendy; that’s just the way it’s done here. Always has been. As we were about to leave, the proprietors, Palmira and Paulo, talked to us for a long time about the restaurant and their customers… Paulo said he’d much rather have a few loyal customers who appreciate what they do than to have a whole lot of transient diners who didn’t really give much thought to what was put before them.

Just before we headed for the door, Paulo went to the kitchen and brought back a treasure to proudly share with us: white truffles, kept in a mason jar like an 8-year old’s secrets. I’ve never seen a whole truffle—only shavings of them. Here were three plump, fragrant bulbs probably worth hundreds of Euros, bursting with flavor and care and promise. He was so excited to show us these ingredients foraged by a local friend and supplier. This intoxicating aroma triggered in me olfactory memories of earlier, incredible earthly delights that I won’t mention here. I envy the diners who will enjoy them in the coming meals.

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Craftsmanship. You can see it, feel it, smell it and most certainly taste here in Le Marche

 

Buona Note

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“Good night.” And I have to say it was. Nothing special. Just dinner with friends and neighbors Bob and Francesco on a cold, rainy night. Bob’s the English former Coke engineer and Francesco is his Italian friend from Napoli. And wow, can Francesco cook. Joining us for dinner were Jenny and “Legs,” their Workaway couple (At 5’6″, that’s really what he prefers to be called. Go figure.) What’s first– food or friends? Let’s go with friends.

Legs is just over 50 and Jenny is “sub-50,” as Legs says. They’re British citizens who have been living in Australia for about 13 years and are on “Workaway,”  http://www.workaway.info is a program where you sign up to work somewhere in the world in exchange for room and board. You pay your transportation, and your host family feeds you and gives you a place to stay, and a little education on the local area. Your host gets free labor and you get a uniquely local experience in another part of the world. Before Jen and Legs got to Le Marche, they workawayed in Tuscany. Jen’s a former nurse and Legs a former gold bullion trader and they were doing odd jobs (olive harvesting, pruning, feeding animals, etc). Why? I guess people do it for different reasons. These two wanted to get away from the workaday world and into the workaway world. Pretty wise, I think. They’ve met incredible people, seen places they’d only read about before, and had amazing times (and food). From Le Marche, they were going to spend holidays in England with family, then workaway in Vietnam and Cambodia. That takes them out to spring, 2014. Beyond that… they weren’t quite sure. Yes, this is something I will look into.

 

Bob and Francesco. What can I say? Warm, kind, friendly, loving, helpful. Bob has helped out immensely around Casa Mosaica and will help keep it up when we’re gone until Kerry arrives again in the spring. And the meal… First, the Prosecco we brought. Then,

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Homemade bruschetta. Then, 

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Cheese-stuffed olives and two other kinds of cheese dipped in breadcrumbs and sautéed. Then, the main course (Il secondi piatti)

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I’m afraid I’m going to have to tease you here. Bob jokingly called it “pasta in a towel.” I will have to find a picture of the actual plated dish, but dream along with me here– it’s Mortadella, spinach, cheese and olive oil wrapped in sheets of pasta and steamed in the towel, then sliced across the length of it. It looks like a pinwheel and tastes like heaven. Accompanied, of course, by Rosso Piceno, the local red wine (from the jugs we filled yesterday). Bellisima. Yes, a good night. 

The day wasn’t bad– I planed and sanded some doors that were sticking, hung some shelves, we got the heat to work (thank you, Baby Jesus) and bought some needed fixtures from the Home Depot. (No, of course it’s not a Home Depot, silly. This is Italy.) But the day paled in comparison to Il Buona Note.

Making the donuts ( o rendendo l'olio di olive )

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Making the olive oil.

Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? It’s not. Well, it IS an industrial process. BUT it does produce a heavenly, romantic, sensual product. So why quibble, right? Non importa.

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We went to the Oleficio Piccinini today. Our olives had already been delivered and rendered earlier, so our guide (and neighbor) Bob took us just to see the process. The fruit of our work was already at home.

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It’s not unlike a modern printing press: you have to schedule time on the press so that your olives are pressed on their own, and not tainted by your neighbor’s inferior growth. The Bruno family olives here are– I’m sure– perfectly fine.

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Olives go into a big hopper where they are separated from the leaves and other detritus. They are fed into a masher– in the picture, three mashers are going at once, with three different batches of olives– each are identified by name. Oh– and I’m sure they’re not called “mashers,” but that’s what they do. The mash is then fed into a centrifuge, which extracts all the water and somehow miraculously does not eliminate the oil.

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It comes out and some old Italian gentleman bottles it– either in your own huge stainless steel cask, or your raffia-wrapped jereboam or whatever you happen to have. They’re not picky.

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 Oleficio Piccenini has won numerous awards for their olive oil. And you’ll see them when you deliver your olives. You’ll know the awards because they’re covered in dust and stuck haphazardly into machinery that looks like it could take a finger off.

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This is a picture of an old “cold press” on the walls of  Oleficio Piccenini. There are still cold presses around, but our friend and guide Bob, who formerly designed and maintained canning equipment for CocaCola (so he knows his manufacturing shit) far prefers the method we saw today. Much more efficient, and he likes the product better. And the product…

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It doesn’t suck, no.

Ciao.

 

La Festa

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The Party

It’s hard to communicate this. One party (our friends Ben and Lisa) are leaving the home they have lovingly created by hand over the last 11 years. Another party (the newcomer Americans) are meeting “the locals” for the first time. The guest list includes many British expats, local neighbors and local Italian friends who have been significant in Ben and LIsa’s (and their 9 year old son Felix) life. Lisa swore to us she would not get emotional or cry. Because I am who am I ( a Southerner raised by a Southern mother), I always carry a handkerchief. Let me just say that it was used tonight at Casa Mosaica. Ben is an amazing mosaic artist. You can see his work here: http://www.bencravenmosaics.com/#

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Not that it was all sad. On the contrary. It was una festa. A party. A lovely party. A glorious party. The guests thanked us– my sister and me– almost more than they thanked the real honorees, Ben and LIsa, who are moving on to their next adventure in India. We started with a considerable supply of Prosecco and red wine, and it only grew during the evening as friends brought more bottles. Local sausages, cheeses and party fare weighed down the kitchen table. Kids ran in and out and under the eye level of the grownups. Discussion topics included Italian government red tape, the olive harvest and friendly competition over yields, local wines, favorite restaurants… I met Italians, Brits, a Canadian and a Czech. The good-sized farm kitchen, previously damp and cold, was bright and warm and overflowing with food, wine, friends and chatter. I got to jam on guitar with an older English gentleman, and serenade a couple of beautiful little English girls before they ran off to terrorize little Italian boys.

I awoke slowly, but without a headache… Italian wine doesn’t contain sulfites, so is much easier the morning after. Today we ran errands, and Ben, Lisa and Felix boarded the plane that will take them to build a grand new life in a faraway land. Something they are very, very good at. We’ll miss them. Arrivederci.

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Low hanging fruit

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We arrived in Rome around 8 this morning, got the Renault lease car (it’s cheaper and less hassle if you plan to stay at least 21 days) and drove to the country farm house in the Le Marche Region where we’ll be staying for the next month. Rome was gray and cool with patches of occasional sunshine. We gained a little more sun as we gained altitude approaching the passes of snow-capped Gran Sasso. I couldn’t help scoping the limestone cliffs for climbing routes as we whizzed by and was pleased to spot at least one climbing party enjoying their Saturday. We passed through tunnel after tunnel and I couldn’t help wonder at the work that had to went into drilling straight through mile after mile of mountain. After going through the longest and highest tunnel, we re-emerged on the Adriatic side of Gran Sasso in a completely different weather system: rain. The rain tapered as we approached the coast and was gone altogether by the time we reached the farm house.

The farm is studded with hazelnut, peach, pear, pomegranate, persimmon, apple and of course, olive trees. Lavender, sage, rosemary and a lot of other herbs I couldn’t name make up the landscaping. Our friends here, Ben– a mosaic artist– and Lisa– a web moderator-trainer-guru, are British expats who’ve lived here for more than a decade. They’re heading to India to start the next chapter of their lives. Lisa figured we’d have enough Italian food over the next few weeks, so she cooked us an incredible Indian meal, washed down with a few bottles of Prosecco. My sister Kerry has known Ben and Lisa for about two years. After just an evening, I now consider them friends.

Tomorrow night is The Party. Ben and Lisa are inviting a lot of the locals and some fellow expats over for a farewell (to them)/welcome (to us) party. Sounds like an interesting bunch.  Ciao.

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Persimmons and rosemary in the yard 

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Pomegranates, mid-November

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