CATEGORY Italian Experience | July 2013 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Valentina Bertazzoni
The great Sicilian writer Elio Vittorini wrote that Scicli was "possibly the most beautiful small town in the world." Other major Italian writers have celebrated it, including Piovene, Brandi, Bufalino and Consolo. At present, it is one of the major locations for a popular television series: Il Commissario Montalbano – Police Commissioner Montalbano. Located at the southern end of Sicily, about twenty kilometers south of Ragusa, Scicli is close to the Mediterranean sea and has beaches of fine golden sand.
The town name probably comes from Siculi, an ancient population who lived in these lands over 3000 years ago. Scicli is surrounded by hills covered with Mediterranean vegetation and is located in the middle of three canyons carved by three streams. In this splendid setting, decorated with Baroque churches and palaces, Saint Joseph’s traditional Cavalcade takes place every year on the Saturday preceding St. Joseph’s Day. At sunset, the Cavalcade starts out from the main square of the town and moves towards the church dedicated to the Saint. As the Cavalcade goes by, pagghiara are lit, making the night shine. They are bonfires made with bundles of stubble. Since Scicli was under Spanish rule for centuries, the sight of bonfires made me think of the Fallas de San Josè – St. Joseph’s bonfires - which burn, on that same night, at the crossroads of Valencia, in Spain. Feast of medieval origin, legacy of sacred dramas and certainly also linked to the pagan celebration of the awakening of nature at the beginning of spring and to the rites for a good harvest, St. Joseph’s Cavalcade requires a male inhabitant of the town to wear the cloak of Saint Joseph, while a woman has to play the role of Our Lady, in the act of fleeing to Egypt, to escape Herod’s edict. The horses taking part in the sacred pageantry are cloaked in mantles woven with wild violets and lilies, on a warping of palm branches. The decorations reproduce sacred images. Both riders and onlookers hold lit ciaccari in their hands - ampelodesmos sheaves - to illuminate the road to the Holy Family. Before leaving Scicli, do not forget to spend at least a couple of days in the Vallum of Noto, to see the masterpieces of Sicilian Baroque!
CATEGORY Italian Experience | June 2013 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Elisabetta Bertazzoni
Among the most vivid memories I have retained of the time I lived in Parma, there’s the Tortelli Festival on June 23rd, St.John’s Eve, which is traditionally considered as Witches’ Night. Before I continue, I had better explain that tortelli is the name given to ravioli in the Food Valley… Like many other Christian celebrations, St. John’s Eve overlaps and coincides with a pagan feast: Midsummer’s Eve, the summer solstice, the triumph of light over darkness and the symbolic victory of good over evil. It is also the time of harvest and stubble fires in the fields.
It was once believed that on that night witches used to fly over the fields on their brooms, searching for souls and ending their Sabbath with a wild dance under a walnut tree. To prevent witches from entering their houses, people put either garlic or bunches of aromatic herbs and plants in front of their doors and windows. These herbs and plants were believed to be endowed with "magical power". It was also believed that all plants and fruits reached the pinnacle of their healing, nourishing and aromatic potential on that night. The walnuts used to make a famous liqueur called nocino are still picked on that night to this day. In this regard little has changed since the time the Celts inhabited these lands, around the IV century B.C. and their priests, the Druids, used to collect herbs on midsummer’s night and celebrate with huge bonfires meant to keep evil spirits away.
In Parma and its province this important festivity is still deeply felt, perhaps because it feasts the end of a usually long and cold winter, often followed by a rainy spring. On St. John’s Eve festivals and fairs proliferate everywhere, where nuts and tortelli are served. This paticular type of tortelli, made with a filling of spinach, chard and ricotta, are called tortelli d’erbetta. Even the restaurants in the old city center put their tables out, because this summer festival is an outdoor celebration and those who get soaked in the dew will soon become lucky in love. It is no coincidence that St. John’s Eve is also known as Rozäda äd san Z'van, namely St. John’s dew!
CATEGORY Italian Experience | May 2013 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Nicola Bertazzoni
On Saturday May 18th, Mille Miglia (literally One Thousand Miles), "the most beautiful car race in the world" passed through my hometown: Guastalla! The last time check was performed there, before the final sprint to Brescia. 415 vintage cars, selected out of the 1575 that had signed up for the race, sped through the streets of the town.
They were all of great quality and high historical and sporting value. In all, between May 16th and May 19th, they travelled one thousand miles in their route from Brescia to Rome and back again, passing through several beautiful Italian regions: Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany. The 31st edition of Mille Miglia, 86 years after the first, in 1927, was a reckless race through old villages and natural reserves, following, with little variation, the same route of the twenty-four historic editions that were held from 1927 to 1957. The victory was reserved for models that had taken part in the first editions of the car race. Mercedes and Alfa Romeo were among the car brands that were most represented in the race. Alfa Romeo had the lion’s share of it with 35 cars - including a car once belonging to Benito Mussolini - followed by Fiat, Lancia, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Porsche, Bugatti, Maserati and BMW.
Thirty-one countries and many personalities took part in it. Among them: two former F1 drivers, such as David Coulthard and Karl Wendlinger on a Mercedes, golfer Colin Montgomerie and former rally driver Christian Geistdoerfer on a BMW. Co-pilot of a Jaguar manufactured in 1953 was film star and three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis. Participants wore double-breasted suits, to commemorate Count Giannino Marzotto, who won the race in 1950 and in 1953 and became famous not only because he was the youngest in history to win this difficult car race, but because he wore an elegant double-breasted suit while driving. Born as a long distance race along roads open to traffic, Mille Miglia has been revived, since 1977, as a regularity race for vintage cars. Count Aymo Maggi established it in 1927 as a non-stop race. He was an experienced pilot, who had created this race in response to the establishment of the Grand Prix of Italy in Monza, rather than in Brescia, his hometown. The winners of the 2013 edition of Mille Miglia were announced in Guastalla. They were Juan Guillermo Tonconogy and Berisso, both from Argentina, on a Bugatti T40, built in 1927.
CATEGORY Italian Experience | April 2013 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Paolo Bertazzoni
Surrounded on three sides by lakes formed by the River Mincio, the city of Mantua seems to rise from water and it is often wrapped in liquid fog, during the winter. Mantua is home to countless works of art, including Palazzo Ducale, splendid residence of the Gonzaga family, the largest in Europe after the Vatican, Palazzo Té, their pleasure palace, and St. Andrew’s Basilica, designed by Leon Battista Alberti, one of the founding fathers of Humanism. Since it is just 20.5 miles away from Guastalla and it shares with it a common past of Duchy of the House of Gonzaga, Mantua is a favourite destination of local as well as national and international tourism for both cultural and culinary tours, or to go shopping in the elegant boutiques of the city center. The city is beautiful, with its medieval and Renaissance masterpieces and it is worth the risk of driving in the fog, while crossing the River Po, or being suddenly shrouded in it, once you get there!
One of the reasons why I often go to Mantua is to buy its delicious mostarda, a syrupy condiment made of candied fruit and mustard. In the old city center there are several specialist shops, which sell almost exclusively homemade mostarda of all kinds and flavours, ranging from apricot to pears, plums, watermelon, oranges, mandarins, figs, lemons and, of course, the best-known one, quince mostarda, sold in cans and in bulk, in a blaze of colours and a delight of scents. I purchase some homemade quince mostarda for our Sunday lunch, when the whole family gets together. Mantuan mostarda, with its spicy flavour, is certainly a delicacy that everyone likes, as it goes equally well with boiled and roast meat and cheese. After leaving the shop, I call in at a confectioner’s, to buy a typical dessert, called anello di Monaco - Munich ring - a sort of stuffed sponge cake, light and fluffy, which is only made in Mantua, to be served before coffee ...
CATEGORY Italian Experience | March 2013 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Paolo Bertazzoni
Leghorn covered foodstuffs market is one of the most beautiful in Europe. It is also one of my father-in-law’s favourite touristic attractions, when he’s on vacation, and since I do not like basking in the sun too long, I often volunteer to go with him to do the shopping.
The market is in a building of great charm, made of iron and glass, dating back to the Belle Époque, and located along Leghorn "royal moat", which was part of the old fortifications built by the Medicis. Thanks to the famous Leghorn Laws, issued by king Ferdinand I in 1590, offering free accommodation and workshop to anyone wishing to start a business, Leghorn has been a free port for centuries, a haven of civil coexistence and tolerance, where all major ethnic and religious communities have found shelter, a city that has never built a ghetto for its large Jewish population.
The market recalls, for its beauty and for the amount of goods on display, the famous Boqueria market in Barcelona. The vast area which can be accessed from the main hall is reserved for fish, while the side and rear entrances lead to a large hall with high metal trusses, where fruit and vegetables stalls can be found as well as groceries and butcher shops. For those who, like me, live in Emilia, prices seem very reasonable. As usual, we buy an awful amount of food. It is true, though, that on vacation there are often many guests at the table, including our children, who come to visit with their friends.
In the afternoon I am going to come back to Leghorn and walk around the area of Pancaldi Bathing Establishments, the first built in masonry in Italy. I am also going to take some pictures of the Art Nouveau buildings on the waterfront. I suddenly remember that we bought fish to be cooked on the barbecue and I have the "honor" of being the "main stoker"... My photo tour of Leghorn will have to wait a little longer...
CATEGORY Italian Experience | November 2012 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Paolo Bertazzoni
There must be powerful reasons - well beyond its intoxicating effect - why wine has such an impact on mankind. Barolo has certainly the status of a great wine, but the aura by which it is surrounded cannot be explained only by the pleasure given by its deep red colour, by its taste and aroma.
While visiting the interesting Wine Museum at Castello di Barolo, near Alba, in Piedmont, I came across an evocative theory: wine is made by powerful elements of Nature: the Sun, the Moon, the Soil, the Seasons.
Human beings with their enormous wealth of knowledge, labour and patience bring this process to fulfilment through Time.
All the magic lies in the strong connection of Natural Elements with Time and Human beings.
Driving through the finely groomed hills of the Langa, I realized the positive interaction of Humans with Nature: a vineyard follows another, the lines intertwined in a marvelous pattern of vibrant colours in the warm light of Fall.
The king of Italian wines is produced in a handful of villages of a limited area around Barolo.
Like nebbiolo, made from the same grapes, barolo draws its unique characteristics from the quality of the soil and the techniques hailing from France, introduced in the mid-19th century. It is a full-bodied and firmly-structured wine and for this reason it can last for years.
The friends I met there last Sunday told me of a curious family tradition: the parents of each newborn child store bottles produced in the grape harvest of the same year.
A precious present for their adult age and a lasting way to wish them well.
CATEGORY Italian Experience | September 2012 | PERMALINK POSTED BY VALENTINA BERTAZZONI
On the last Sunday of September, for many years now, I have had an important engagement with my Granny, Maria, one of the first women to get an MD in biology, in 1949, from Parma University. She is still very keen on botany and zoology, so I once again volunteer to go with her to have a look at a show called Rare and Lost Plants and Animals, that has been held in Guastalla every year for the last 16 years, at the end of September. On that day and for a day only, scenes of everyday life long since died out are suddenly revived, together with the taste of foods and products of yore.
We start roaming around: there are over 400 exhibitors of rare, endangered species and age-old arts and crafts that nobody can or wants to practise any longer. We take a look at the balètt, sieves used for cereal, fèr da sghèr, sickles, sgùrbie, pruning hooks. I confess that one of the initiatives that most arouse my curiosity is the so-called donkey-bus. How can it possibly work? And what about getting a donkey license? Who will “deserve” one? Granny would like to attend gardening lessons, despite the fact that she doesn’t need them, as she has a true green thumb when it comes to house plants: hers grow as big as baobabs! Anyway, I decide to please her. I shall have a look at more amusing initiatives later on. Among them are: a crowing competition open to all Italian cocks, a beauty contest for geese, Pretty Goose, a photo contest called Lights, camera, action! We’re braying. This initiative seems to me particularly nice, as it is a photographic competition open to all children. I cannot take part in it, of course, but I can take a picture!
CATEGORY Italian Experience | April 2012 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Elisabetta Bertazzoni
The beautiful small town of Porto Venere is situated in a panoramic position on the western shore of the Gulf of La Spezia - better known as the Gulf of Poets - facing the three small and lovely islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto, a few kilometres away from Cinque Terre.
Renowned for its crystal clear waters and the splendid old village, perched on a cliff, its origins date back to the sixth century BC, when the area was already inhabited by the Ligurians . Portovenere owes its name to the presence of a temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility, love and beauty, Venus Ericina, located in the very same place where the magnificent church of St. Peter now stands, in its Gothic-Genovese style, made of black-and-white striped marble.
A famous sea-side resort for centuries and easily accessed by car La Spezia, connected to Cinque Terre with a sailing service, Porto Venere counts, among its most famous visitors, Lord George Gordon Byron, who spent a long time there in 1822. It is said that he once swam across the Gulf to Lerici, to visit his friend and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died shortly afterwards in a storm off the coast of Viareggio. Beneath the Church of St Peter, it is still possible to visit Byron’s Grotto, where the poet uesd to go to get inspiration for his compositions.
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal”.
George Gordon Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, canto IV – stanza CLXXVIII
CATEGORY Italian Experience | February 2012 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Valentina Bertazzoni
Visiting Venice on a clear winter day, after the passage of joyful Carnival crowds, is a unique but achievable experience! Having parked my car in Piazzale Roma, after less than two hours’ drive from Guastalla, I haven’t made up my mind whether to walk to the Pinault Foundation – which I haven’t seen yet - or try to track a route invisible to most, but charming, which I have heard of for some time: that of the hidden Venetian vegetable gardens… Given the sunny day, a decision is easily taken! I head for the big Campo Santa Margherita, with its fruit, vegetable and fish market, where huge seagulls try to snatch away shopping bags from unwary customers, scaring them off with their shrill cries. I cross the bridge leading to Campo San Barnaba and I bump into a boat that drops anchor there every single day to sell fruit and vegetables: a feast of colours! I immediately notice artichoke hearts, so typical of the Venetian cuisine, floating in a large bowl of water.
A few more steps and I reach Zattere, where I wait for a boat to take me across the Giudecca Canal to Zitelle (literally “spinsters”), a religious complex that owed its name to a neighbouring charitable institution for poor young women.
Peering here and there inside the Venetian palaces and houses, I can see gardens everywhere, but at Giudecca you can still find small vegetable gardens next to the houses. Here you can also see a “common vegetable garden” of about 16,146 square feet., open to residents and tourists alike. It is not an exception: Venice municipality granted the cultivation of 38 municipal gardens to pensioners also in Dorsoduro, a district which includes the entire southern area of the city. Other urban vegetable gardens are present at the Lido -Venice beach resort.
Giudecca common vegetable garden is a "synergic" one, where the soil is neither plowed nor fertilized and crops are concentrated in beds raised from the ground and a variety of plants and flowers are grown, complementing one another. I wander along the “mulched” flower beds, covered with straw and other vegetable substance, taking care not to step on cultivated land.
Heir to the medieval tradition of the hortus conclusus (enclosed vegetable garden), Venice is also dotted with orchards and vegetable gardens tended within the cloisters of its churches. Thus, at Sant’Elena’s, the monks grow exotic plants, along with pomegranates, grapes and olive trees; at Il Redentore’s (the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer) the Capuchin friars grow fruit trees, olive trees and vines, together with vegetables and herbs; at San Francesco della Vigna’s, in the district of Castello, the Friar Minors, who live in seclusion, cultivate the vine. Even in the islands of the lagoon you can find vegetable gardens. In San Lazzaro degli Armeni, for example, or in the island of San Michele. The so-called "salt gardens" are also famous. Their name is due to the high rate of salt in the soil, especially in the islands of Vignole and Sant’Erasmo in the north-eastern lagoon. Their most famous produce is the "purple artichoke", on sale on the wonderful stalls of Rialto Market. Before leaving Giudecca, I can not resist the temptation of sipping a spritz - Venice celebrated cocktail - on the roof-garden of Molino Stucky, a former mill recently turned into a Hilton hotel. From the rooftop terrace you can enjoy a breathtaking view of Venice and its lagoon!
CATEGORY Italian Experience | October 2011 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Paolo Bertazzoni
If you are ready to be overwhelmed by intoxicating aromas and your pockets are deep enough, you have to go to Alba, in the Italian region of Piemonte, where the Truffle World Market is held, every year in October.
The most precious of truffles, the white type, is an underground mushroom, growing at the roots of poplar, birch, hazelnut, oak trees. Alba is the area where the White Truffle spontaneously grows.
This tuber, defined as the diamond of the kitchen, is literally hunted for by highly specialized individuals (Trifulau) with their specifically trained dogs. Before dawn the Trifulau leaves with is dog to his secret places, making sure nobody is following.
The season this year was very dry and the harvest quite scarce, sending the price to frightening levels of 30 Euros a gram, equivalent to 120 US Dollars an Ounce!
Sales were scarce as a matter of fact, visitors from all over the world were passing by and pondering rather than buying.
A favorite way to savor truffle is to slice it over butter tagliolini. The intense aroma is carried by the humid warmth of the pasta directly to the receptors of your nose.
I would say this is an ancestral feeling, probably explaining the irrational price and success of White Truffle.
CATEGORY Italian Experience | August 2011 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Valentina Bertazzoni
Beside the famous, strong, sweet wine, Marsala has some interesting produces. Salt may seem trivial, well, it is not. Faced to the regular Mediterranean wind coming from west this blessed land had the ideal climate to extract salt from sea water, since the first human settlements, through the Greeks, the Romans and today. Since that time and for ages afterwards salt was so important for food preservation and human nutriment to be regarded as money. Hence the word “salary” we still use today.
In Marsala a saltwork still produces the salt on the same spot, the same way of two or three millennia ago, with Sun, wind, and seawater.
It is a beautiful view: huge, shallow pools are placed in degrading order to bring seawater inland with the help of traditional sail windmills. Pool after pool, the water changes color and while evaporating it thickens, leaving all the mineral it contains until, in the last pool, blinding white piles of sodium chlorite are amassed, by hand, in cones.
This slow process produces the best salt for human usage, healthier than rock salt where all the minerals are still present along with the chemical products used for extraction. Pure seawater salt can be identified on the box and by its higher price. The difference is affordable and a moderate use of the good one is advisable.
Marsala is near Trapani, can be reached by flight, or Ferry and has very beautiful surroundings, including the Aegadian Archipelago with the island of Favignana, alone worth the trip.
CATEGORY Italian Experience | March 2011 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Paolo Bertazzoni
One of the good things of travelling in Italy is that, in a time span of two or three hours you can completely change your perspective. I mean landscape, climate, cuisine and also people, sound of the language and historical setting.
Distances are relatively small and if you want to avoid the stress of traffic, the train is a great option. Recently the italian rail backbone has been connected into a high speed train network so that Northern, Central and Southern Italy, as well as the rest of Europe are now closer and easy to reach.
When tired of the cold Northern Italian winter the best way of getting to the warm light of Rome is train. From where we live and work, near the main rail hub of Bologna, it only takes three hours of comfortable ride.The fact that in some legs of the trip, this beastly machine may speed up to 300 kilometres per hour is a great thing for us, believers in the Faith of Progress. However not to be mentioned to the others, the “non believers”. Yet users!
You will get an extra bonus by taking a seat by the window. As the Italian landscape, flows and changes, this is an experience that you would like to do over and over again. The large glass window is not a TV monitor, it is all real and about nature, while it is guaranteed that during the return trip you will be watching a new show, under a different light.Starting from the hazy, rich cultivated plains of Emilia, after crossing or better piercing the Appennines, the train rides Tuscany, where the sky takes new colours and a different depth.
You start realising that you are close to Rome entering the ample Tevere river valley.
Within minutes you are there, ready to be engulfed in the noise and frenzied activity of this unique city.
CATEGORY Italian Experience | April 2010 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Paolo Bertazzoni
Verona is about one hour drive from where we live and work. It is a very elegant town and full of historical buildings. Placed as it is at the entrance of the Brenner valley, that connects Northern Italy to Austria and Germany it has always been a capital for the succeeding ruling peoples in each time of its long, long history.
Not every time I go there do I visit the famous monuments, like the Arena, or spill a tear or two under the balcony of Juliet (great fiction, isn’t it?): we go there for shopping!
Via Mazzini starting from the Arena, ending at the Piazza delle Erbe, has the most elegant shops and as spring is approaching my wife Gabriella stops at every, I mean every, window for shoes, purses that seem to be a “must have” for the new season.
Luckily she is a sensible girl and most of the shopping is made with her eyes. It is a kind of activity that quickly bores me and over the years we found a reasonable compromise in splitting our ways after the first five or maximum six windows. This is when different interests come into place, why to insist?
Last Saturday I happily went alone, hunting for curious things in the narrow roads departing from Piazza delle Erbe. I found this beautiful Salumeria where a lot of prosciutto legs are hanging inside, while the front windows still keep the original fixtures and sign.This I what I call a window! And look at the inside. An Easter Chocolate Egg is just waiting to be bought! Going inside I could not resist buying thinly sliced prosciutto, craftily packed with three different types of paper: oily paper for the slices, a thin transparent divider, everything rolled and wrapped on Havana coarse paper. The perfume of this little pack accompanied me until we finally got home that evening… Gabriella did not bother; she was craving to show me her new shoes.
CATEGORY Italian Experience | March 2010 | PERMALINK POSTED BY Paolo Bertazzoni
Last Saturday my family and I made a day out in Viareggio, in Versilia the Tuscany Coast of the Mediterranean sea. As it was a sunny and warm winter day we went for a stroll on the beach now empty of people and umbrellas.
Viareggio is a quite interesting place. Facing the seafront, Passeggiata a Mare, there are beautiful buildings in liberty architecture.
We were delighted to find one of the beach establishment open and serving food. My choice was for a light dish, that could be an idea for a tasty appetizer or a light meal, Insalata di polpo. Octopus Salad, is easy to prepare and healthy.
What I found quite curious are the bathing establishments: their entrances to the beach are built along the style of the seafront buildings. The arches and the signs are liberty, eclectic and art deco and many of them have been beautifully restored to their original splendour of early 1900.
It is a nice contrast with the idea of easy going life that beaches bring along. Also the font used in the signs belong to the same époque and bear a resemblance with the typefont of our original Bertazzoni Logo.
I really enjoyed shooting pictures, seeing an artistic touch where it is not expected.