Saturday, July 9, 2011

Italy, In Other Words

I don't normally start my day eating tarts filled with freshly made ricotta cheese and topped with amaretti cookies. My weekday breakfast also doesn't typically include a crostata made with fruit jams, marble cake, apple cake or any other number of sweet treats either.

Ditto for prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese and practically still warm-from-the-cow giuncata cheese.

I'm usually not lucky enough to have Emanuele asking me every morning if I'd like to have a freshly made frittata either. 

But for one week in June I was. These were all part of the daily breakfasts served in a cavernous room called the "cantinone" (big cellar) that could have doubled as a backdrop for a movie set in the Middle Ages.

It's also where I popped in occasionally before dinner for a glass of Montepulciano D'Abruzzo and some munchies. 

I wasn't alone during the week. I was one of a group of five writers from California, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico taking part in a workshop in Santo Stefano di Sessanio called "Italy In Other Words."  The group was led by Kathryn Abajian and Helen Free, two gifted teachers who helped us find our writing voice and discover the treasures and traditions of Abruzzo.

Kathryn conducted the writing classes each day, focusing on first person writing. Although I had worked as a journalist for decades, and write a food blog now, memoir writing is an entirely different genre and I had a lot to learn. Kathryn gave me the tools and the kick start I needed to get me moving in the right direction, in a teaching style that was both firm and generous at the same time. Sadly, she lives on the opposite coast from me. Otherwise, I'd be signing up for any classes she teaches. Listening to the other women's own stories and receiving their feedback was an invaluable part of the week as well.

Top row, Julie and Lori and Cynthia. Seated, Linda, Kathryn and Diane
Helen instructed the group on Abruzzese traditions that link us with our past, regardless of nationality.

We read the words of Italian writers such as Ignazio Silone, who wrote about the long-ago struggles of peasants in Abruzzo, struggles that are still relevant around the world today. We walked in the footsteps of shepherds who led their flocks in a twice-yearly migration over hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous paths in search of warmer climes, a custom known as "transumanza."

Near the Gran Sasso mountains we ran for shelter as the rain fell, while the cow nearby didn't budge:

We returned on a sunnier day to climb higher on the path through the town of Calascio.

Lori, Diane, Juli, Linda, Helen and Cynthia

Until we reached the ruins of a fortress built in the 10th century, once owned by the Medici family.

Nearby in isolation overlooking the mountains stands an octagonal church erected between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a site where legend has it, locals fought and won a skirmish with brigands.

Santa Maria della Pieta

We also had time to think, in a place with few tourists, and no television or telephones in our rooms. We had time to roam the village and reflect on its quiet beauty and on our purpose for being there.

Time to explore the mysterious narrow streets and pathways.

Time to wonder who lived in houses like these:

And wonder how long ago someone rode this old motorcycle.

Even time to let Federica, who lives in the village, have a go at painting with my travel watercolor set.

We had time to walk below the town where poppies bloomed beside a church boarded up since the 2009 earthquake:

Where fields of yellow mustard greens swayed in the wind beside stalks of wheat and more poppies.

Where road signs indicated the distance it took to ride between towns on horseback:

We had time to transfix our gaze on the broad, open views to other hill towns in the distance.

Naturally, we had time to eat too - from restaurants where the atmosphere was funky-
and the food traditional like these gnocchi:

To restaurants that were more formal -

And that served modern interpretations of food, like these veal cheeks and potatoes with citrus flavors:

"Italy, In Other Words," gave us time to slow down, to appreciate all the beautiful sights, sounds and tastes around us, and to write about what was important to us. Thank you to Helen and Kathryn, and to all the friendly townspeople of Santo Stefano and to the employees of Sextantio, the hotel where we lodged, including Gabriella, who offered me the recipe for the luscious torta shown at the top of this post.

Arrivederci Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Alla prossima!

Gabriella's Torta Di Crema e Ricotta 

Printable Recipe Here

This recipe was enough for a very large pan - probably 10 to 12 inches in diameter.

for the dough:

2 1/4 cups flour

2 sticks butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 T. baking powder

For the filling:

4 egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup flour

2 cups milk

grated peel from one lemon

1/2  cup to 1 cup ricotta, depending on taste

amaretti cookies crumbled on top - about 1 cup or so

Blend the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the softened butter by hand or put everything in a food processor until it forms a ball. Roll out and place into a buttered 10 to 12-inch baking dish or tart pan.

For the filling:
Bring the milk to a boil with the lemon peel. Meanwhile, beat together the eggs, sugar and flour. Slowly add the mixture to the hot milk, stirring together for two or three minutes until it is thick and amalgamated. Let it cool slightly, then add the ricotta, using as little or as much as you like. Crumble the amaretti cookies on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes

In Italiano:

per la pasta base ingredienti:

325 grammi farina

175 grammi burro

100 grammi zucchero

una bustina lievito

Procedimento: Impastare il tutto e intanto preparare il ripieno:

per il ripieno:

4 tuorli

150 grammi zucchero

75 grammi farina

buccia di limone

500 ml latte

100-150 grammi ricotta

Procedimento: Far bollire il latte con il limone e intanto sbattere le uova, lo zucchero e la farina.

Stendere la pasta e metterci la crema e la ricotta. Sbriciolarci gli amaretti sopra. Cuocere a 180 gradi per 25 minuti.

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  1. I'm drooling. Sounds like a wonderful experience and your photos are great! I hate to leave your post.

  2. You were writing ... in Italy! I am trying to not have my eyes turn green. Your photos are so evocative - I'm there. I would close my eyes - but then I cannot see the photos anymore! And I am thinking this just may be my birthday cake. If we lived closer, I'd take Italian lessons from you! Stunning post about listening to the world.

  3. I love looking at your beautiful photos thru this wonderful workshop.
    Thank you for sharing them with us!

    I would gain 10 lbs after one week there, that torta ricotta looks amazing as does everything else. Wow.

  4. I could start my day eating that fabulous ricotta tart! ;-P

    Gorgeous food and lanscapes! Thanks for sharing.



  5. Kudos to how well written this post is. I savored every single photo. I'm intrigued by that large chunk of meat... prosciutto? It's on such an interesting serving rack. How blessed you are to have taken such a unique trip. I love rustic restaurants, sort of like the Bavarian Inn I used to troll around at with my Mutti. I printed this torte recipe. I have every ingredient, including the amaretti cookies. I hope there's more to come on this trip-- such a joy to read and see!

  6. Oh my goodness! That beats the toast and marmalade I just had! Linda, what a wonderful trip and such amazing photos. You had me mesmerised!

  7. Your photos look like paintings!!!! They are just beyond fabulous. The food...Let's just say I ate dinner not too long ago but am hungry again after looking at your scrumptious dining options!!!! I am so envious! I just love your postings of the non-traditional not so "touristy" sights. So glad you had a great time and looked peaceful too. Sounds like the group you went with was fab too!!!

  8. I am smitten and all I can think about is how can I get to this wonderful place! Thank you for the recipe too.

  9. First time here and I am amazed by your lovely blog and interesting pictures! Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. Shall visit again very soon!!

  10. I saw this post early this morning but couldn't really read it the way I wanted to like I did just now. Your eyes have seen so many beautiful things, you of all people are the perfect one to put it all in to words. I enjoyed every single second of this fabulous post! What an inspiring experience for you in every way!

  11. your this blog really very nice and excellent i like is so very much keep it up for more good blogs

  12. I love southern Italian towns such as this where time has stood still. There is such a connection with life, history and traditions. Their food is the purest, most divine. It is no wonder top chefs go back to learn their secrets . This ricotta tart looks incredible! I'm sure their ingredients were so much purer that even with a recipe it can't be replicated to the same excellence.

    I loved each and every photograph! How nice to be with a group and enjoying each other's company as you learned!

  13. I think one can tell a good establishment the quality of breakfast on offer - exceptional!

  14. Prosciutto for breakfast, yum :) The pictures are great!!!

  15. It sounds like a wonderful week! You take such beautiful photos!

  16. I think you had the experience of a life time, Linda. Your photos are wonderful and your post so beautifully written that I almost feel that I was there too.

  17. Beautiful pics! What a wonderful trip it was. Thanks for sharing. Ariana from Chicago

  18. Oh, Linda, what a magnificent experience. I can only dream about slowing down in such a beautiful region. Your photos capture it all - a place where time stands still - and you were fortunate enough to be a part of it. My mouth is watering over the food you sampled there (and I am definitely making the ricotta torta). You certainly deserve it!


  20. I had a great time visiting Abruzzo 3 years ago and I really want to go back. We stayed in Assergi and I visited all the places ruined by the heartquake. I hope to be back soon.

  21. Linda, This post left me weak in the knees and very, very hungry for both the food and the culture. Your pictures are beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!!

  22. This is a really good blog. Thx to the author

  23. I added you on my blogroll!! keeping browsing your site! so cool!! :)
    I am so glad I found you!

  24. Oh Linda ...
    Italy is beautiful yet you manage to make it sound even better.
    Thank you for supporting our magnificent country, people, food, heritage.

  25. What a wonderful week it must have been! The food and the scenery look positively amazing. No televisions or telephones - sounds heavenly too.

  26. Now those are some crostatas I spied on that table near the top! Linda, this sounds like a dream trip, my Abruzzese grandfather would have cried to see it once again, I don't think he ever got to go back once he emigrated to the States.

  27. Every foodie must be jealous of your adventure. Thanks for sharing such wonderful photos.

  28. It is wonderful to discover someone who loves Abruzzo and appreciates its culture and food. Keep up the good work. We are going to a very large Abruzzo descendants reunion in Abruzzo next year and we are very excited about it already.