A Special Insider’s View of the Food and Wines of Umbria

 

Umbria cuisine, ItalyWise

Recently I had the very good fortune to sit down with Elizabeth Wholey, who is a local expert in the foods and wines of Umbria. She is also a dear friend. Elizabeth has lived in Umbria for many years, and she carefully and painstakingly has done her detective work in understanding the history and craft of Umbrian food and wine. She has built important, long-lasting relationships with local food and wine producers – many who are gems hidden to the eyes of many people who visit Umbria. Elizabeth recently wrote Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland

A Guide to Farms, Markets, and Fairs in the Upper Tiber Valley in Sustenance, Elizabeth Wholey explores the Upper Tiber Valley and the ways in which its peasants fed and sustained themselves throughout history. Their ancient food traditions are still alive today, often with a modern twist, and are accessible to visitors as well as to the local populace. – available at Amazon.com

Elizabeth graciously agreed to do this interview for Italywise.com. I hope this will whet you appetite to learn even more!

You’re very passionate about the food and wines of Umbria, particularly of the Upper Tiber Valley. What, in your opinion, makes them so special?

Most people were poor in this part of the world until fairly recently. They subsisted on what they could grow, hunt, forage or barter, the growing season was short, and much of the terrain was mountainous. However, they made the most of what was available, and cooks took pride in what they created. These dishes are beloved, and are still found on local restaurant menus, often with a modern twist. People here are careful about what they eat and who they buy from. If a food product is not of high quality, a seller won’t survive. In other places local, seasonal, and sustainable are concepts that you fight for; here they are taken for granted, though vigilance has become necessary. People don’t want pesticides and herbicides in their soil.  

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Yes, You Can Begin Again…

Beginnings, Italywise

Each moment affords the opportunity to begin again…

New beginnings don’t have to be big to affect a true change of life’s course. My move to Italy was of the major variety. In no way was it a rash decision, yet, however carefully planned it was, I knew I was throwing the metaphorical dice with the universe, and saying “I’m willing to shake things up.” Boy did I shake things up. As wonderful as the change has been, my reference points (a.k.a. my comfort zone) changed dramatically, and I often find myself grappling to feel grounded and steady on my feet.

If you’re considering a major cultural and geographical change, be prepared for the exhilaration of the newness and “bigness” of the change, and then settle in for a steady stream of new beginnings.

As New Year’s Day approaches,  I contemplate the gift the Universe provides us in each moment – the ability to begin again. For me, like many other people, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the beginning of a new year, and the urgings from my inner critic that I’d better shape up. Dutifully I journal my resolutions, and I take some initial steps. Yet, within weeks or days, my resolve falls prey to old conditioning, and I feel as though I’ve once again tricked myself into a cycle of futile self-improvement. Self-recriminations emerge, and I fall into the wheel of Samsara, often called “the wheel of suffering.”

Then, I remember that the ability to begin again does not rest exclusively with the advent of the New Year. And, I don’t have to drag around my stories about the past, and remain imprisoned by an identity crafted by layers upon layers of conditioning. Each moment gives me the opportunity to reorient myself, and start anew.

Everyone’s journey is unique, so I don’t presume to prescribe a “how to” to anyone else. I believe much of the mess the world is already in is due to countless fights and insistence on the right “way”. With that disclaimer I share with you the lessons that seem most relevant to me as I learn to begin again.

Quit trying so hard to find THE answer to enlightenment.

My pesky left brain insists, rather desperately, on nailing the formula for “getting it right” and therefore earning my ticket into the country club of peace and unending good feelings. Ha! I keep falling for this, but I’ve come to realize the following…the more I search, and the more I strive, the more elusive peace and truth is. A prideful, intellectual pursuit of truth has led me, again and again, to a state of supreme frustration. Dare I trust that I can allow truth to come to me?

Krishnamurti said that “truth is a pathless” land, and cautioned again relying on techniques. Not doing something to reach enlightenment seems so counter to everything I’ve ever been taught in my religious upbringing. Simply shining the light of awareness on the activity and contents of my mind might very well be the most helpful thing – and doing so without judgment.

 

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Buone feste from Italy!

Buone feste, Italywise

The holidays are elegantly rendered in the ancient streets of Italy.

My favorite holiday decorations in Italy are the chandeliers suspended in the middle of the city streets of old historic towns. I first saw a sea of chandeliers in one street in Florence and the sight stopped me in my tracks. I was speechless. I had no idea I could be transported back to complete childlike wonderment.

Using a chandelier as a giant ornament is only one of many elegant adornments you’ll see in Italy, should you be lucky enough to celebrate the holidays in Italy. I must confess, I was feeling a little burned out on the holidays when I left the U.S.  Maybe I just needed a new locale to rekindle the magic that I’d lost over the years. Maybe I had become a tiny bit of a grinch.

Italy has come to my rescue, and I’m falling in love with the holidays again. I know this is trite, but I feel like I’m in the middle of a fairytale expression of the holidays. Perhaps old world charm was the missing ingredient.

As my education about “all things Italian” continues, I know I still have much to learn about the traditions of celebrating the holidays here in Italy. I promise to plan a post for next December to call out the most special aspects of an Italian Christmas and New Year.

I dearly miss my family in friends back in the States, especially at this time of the year. But, I am surrounded by the warmth of my new Italian family, and I love having days filled with hearty and frequent wishes of “Buone feste” and “Auguri!”

Thank you all for following my adventures, and for your enthusiasm and your support during this first year of Italywise. May you all have the richest and warmest of holidays, and may we all be blessed with magic!

Auguri, Italywise

Auguri! Best wishes from Italy.

Don’t Wish Me Luck – Talk about Wolves, Whales and Poop!

Speaking Italian, Italywise

Photo by NatureGuy, Adobe Stock Images

You’re probably asking (if you’re not offended) “What do wolves, whales, and poop have in common?” They all share a common function of wishing someone well here in Italy, while avoiding saying “good luck”.

I am fascinated by idiomatic expressions, and they are plentiful here in Italy. As you begin learning them, you might be overwhelmed. I’d recommend concentrating on matters that come up more frequently, so you can fit in. So, don’t be surprised when an Italian instructs you, “Don’t wish me luck!” Other colorful ways are at your disposal for wishing someone well. Let’s start with probably the most common…

“In bocca al lupo” means “In the mouth of the wolf.”

This phrase, is similar to the English “Break a leg,” and has origins in opera and theater. Over time, its use has expanded to encompass wishing someone well in other endeavors, such as taking an exam. I heard this several times before I took my Italian driver’s license exam. How do you respond when someone says this to you? “Crepi il lupo” which means “May the wolf die” is the proper response. Often it is shortened to “Crepi!” A prevailing theory insinuates that you hope the wolf dies, choking while he has you in his mouth.

An alternative theory of the origin of “In bocca al lupo” is that it isn’t phrase that is meant to have menacing overtones, but instead refers to how a mother wolf might protectively hold a cub in her mouth. I prefer that interpretation, and I’d rather not wish that a wolf dies. But, I don’t need to split hairs. I just want to go with tradition, and follow the formula.

If you want to equip yourself with one phrase for wishing someone well here in Italy, this would be the one, in my opinion. Other options exist, but they’re pretty colorful, and you might not feel comfortable using them. They also include references to “poop” (my attempt to be a bit more polite).

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The Beauty of Silence

beauty of silence, Italywise

A river in the Veneto at sunset.

I am grateful to be “stunned” into silence by the many beautiful scenes that present themselves here in Italy. And, given this post is about the beauty of silence, I will attempt to be brief in my reflections.

Silence and beauty can be experienced anywhere. Yet, sometimes a change of scenery, and a change of life can wake us from our hamster wheel thinking minds and conditioned selves. Italy has done this for me, again and again. Perhaps this is because I left the rushing torrent of a busy work life where I had little opportunity to really pause and see.

Italy has been a gift that keeps on pouring out her treasures. Thankfully, my artist-teacher-mother trained me to always have my eyes open, and to take in the quality of light, the composition of a scene, and the underlying emotions of the experience. The genes that my nuclear-engineer-father gave me, which give me abilities in analysis, deconstruction and problem-solving, often can be at odds with the aforementioned artistic training. In other words, my analytic brain sometimes yanks me out of the immediacy and “feltness” of the moment, into a noisy intellectual violence that seeks to hold prisoner the scene and the memory. Having awareness of these machinations of my mind has been a breakthrough, and more and more I am able to accept these gifts of beauty with hands willing to receive, and not closed to possess. The by-product of this is a deep, rich silence. Words cease, and even though I am not able to articulate it, I sense that my true self resides in that vast space of quietude.

I close now with a short quote from my (and my mom’s) favorite book of inspiration and comfort…

Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.  – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Living in Italy, Italywise

Living in Italy – The Integration Agreement

I’ve just received formal notification that I have met the terms of the Italian Integration Ageement I signed as part of my first permesso di soggiorno application process. If I were coordinated enough, I’d do a few cartwheels, now that I am able to check this important “to-do” off my list.

What is the Italian Integration Agreement? If you plan on living in Italy, you’d better bone up on this one!  An American, or other non-EU person applying for a stay permit (permesso di soggiorno), and subsequent residency, is required by the questura (the immigration police) and the immigration offices to meet important criteria demonstrating they are doing certain things to become part of the Italian culture. When I went to the questura during the interview and fingerprinting part of my first permesso di soggiorno application, I was presented with the Integration Agreement, and asked to sign it. Thankfully, this multi-page document had been given to me in English so there would be no mistaking the terms to which I had agreed. 

The Integration Agreement was only put into place a few years ago. People who have been residents here before the enactment of this immigration law already are “good to go”. If you are planning on living in Italy for several years, be prepared to do what it takes to satisfy the terms outlined, or you will risk being sent back home.

Don’t fret. Meeting the terms of the Integration Agreement is very doable. From what I understand from having navigated the immigration system here, you pretty much have three years to get your act together. For me, after I secured my third permesso di soggiorno renewal, I received notifcation from the immigration office in Perugia that the formal process of tallying points had begun, and I had ten days to submit any documentation that would add points into my file. “Points?”, you may be asking. Let me explain…

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Preparing for Winter in Italy

Italywise, winter in Italy
Just a few winters ago winter bit hard in Umbria, and left people homebound in rural locations.

Autumn is firmly entrenched here in the hills of Umbria, the smell of wood smoke dominates all other smells, and colder weather is just around the corner. Winter in Italy, especially when you reside in the rural countryside of central to north Italy, can be mild and it also can be harsh, therefore calling for a change in one’s day-to-day living strategies. You’d best be prepared…

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Speaking Italian, I love you

Speaking Italian – Love

If your desire, when visiting or living in Italy, is to demonstrate proficiency speaking Italian, learning the rules of saying “I love you” must be part of your basic education.

Recently, I was reading a thriller by an established American author, and the mother of the Italian-American main character says “Ti amo” to her daughter. Yikes, in Italy a mother would never use “Ti amo” to express love to anyone but her husband, unless she is keeping a lover on the side. I chalk up this mis-step in mainstream literature to trite, and one-dimensional Hollywood presentations of Italian life and the language. In my opinion, the entertainment industry could do with a bit more vigilance with their fact checkers.

Expressing love is taken seriously here in Italy, and not tossed around quickly, nor is it over-used. More on that later, but first let’s talk about the two basic rules that will keep you out of trouble, and prevent you from embarrassing yourself.

“Ti amo” is reserved exclusively to express love between romantic partners.

This includes boyfriends and girlfriends, lovers and spouses. It is not used between friends, or between family members unless it is between the parents. One important distinction is that “Ti amo” isn’t used when couples are just beginning to date. “Ti amo” only comes with time and a maturation of romantic love. Instead young love calls for the following…

“Ti voglio bene” is used to express affection in the early stages of romantic love, and it is used between family members, and close friends.

Literally translated as “I want you well”, this still is an expression of love or affection that carries weight. You certainly wouldn’t use it with casual acquaintances.

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Living in Italy – Speaking Italian Requirements

Living in Italy Requires Speaking Italian

Living in Italy Requires Certification of Speaking Italian at the A2 Level

If you are contemplating living in Italy, or if you’ve already arrived, be prepared to demonstrate proficiency in speaking Italian as part of the residency process.

I’ve just received my official certificate stating that I passed the level A2 proficiency of speaking Italian. When the results were first available online, I held my breath and, after seeing I had passed with a 90% score, I muttered “Grazie Dio” (Thank God). Woohoo!

You might be asking “What’s the big deal?” Let me explain…

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Italian Life is “The Cat’s Meow”

This is the story of Francesca and Oscar, our two cats, and how I imagine they view their lives in Italy. Oscar is an Italian native, Francesca is an American transplant, and they have distinctively different personalities. But, at the end of the day, I think they would both say that Italian life is “the cat’s meow”.

Oscar is almost 3 1/2 years old. Born in the hills of Umbria, to a feral mother, we gave him a decidedly un-Italian name because it fit his unique, mischievous personality. But, he has decidedly Italian traits and preferences.

For starters, he communicates passionately. He just puts it all “out there”, and doesn’t brood. He is very direct and clear about what he wants. I’ve never had a cat who vocalizes with so much emotion. (Read more about cat vocalizations in this online article from Catster).

Oscar also uses his hands to communicate. For Italians, the hands are almost as important as the mouth in fully expressing oneself. Oscars stands on his hind legs and whips his paws up and down the surface of a closet, door, or a window, to let you know he expects your attention (while also expressing his displeasure that you would dare to be otherwise engaged). In the kitchen he artfully employs his little cat hands to snatch his favorite foods. Tops on his list is arugula.

Oscar makes himself at home in a sea of pomodori.

Oscar makes himself at home in a sea of pomodori.

Yes, arugula. His wild, greedy nature comes out whenever he sniffs the presence of arugula. It’s a real head-scratcher. You would think he was eating the treat to end all other treats.

He also loves other salad greens, and he loves to nestle himself in my summer harvest of tomatoes (pomodori).

Life in most Italian households centers around the dining table and the kitchen. Oscar loves to camp out in both places. It is as though he is watching and studying to be the next Italian Master Chef. I’ve given up on banishing him from the kitchen. He is just too intent on being part of the action.

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