Food for the soul

Imagine this if you can; scenes from our recent visit to Italy.  An 11th-century mountain town in the central Italian countryside, nestled high on a slope in the Monti Aurunci in southern Lazio.  A cobblestone street too narrow for most American cars, lined with stone and terra cotta buildings. Centuries-old stone stairs, worn slippery-smooth by generations of feet, leading up the house.  A refreshingly slow pace of daily activities, and an agenda as carefree as walking to the town's fountain to get water for the day, and down the street to the bakery for fresh, crusty bread.  A tiny community with a median age of, say, 93 or so, where my sister and I, our husbands, and three babies in strollers were met with big surprised smiles.  In the evening, the sound of clanging bells around the necks of donkeys meandering on a neighboring hillside. At dawn, roosters calling out to each other, so that everyone nearby wakes with the sun.  A very big, very animated bunch of relatives, gesturing expressively as they speak.  

Perhaps the most wonderful thing is, simply, the food.  Food is at the center of family life for my Italian family.  Food is for nourishment, and even more, it is for pleasure.  There is no guilt associated with white carb consumption. If anything, there is guilt layed upon you for insufficient bread or pasta consumption. With the miles and miles of rugged terrain we walked, climbed, and pushed strollers all over central Italy, I felt strangely lean and also entitled to every morsel.

Everything about the food process there is slow, is savored - browsing markets for the best available fresh foods, planning a menu around those goods, preparing several dishes for a single meal, sharing the meal - dish after dish - with family or friends, talking and sipping an after-dinner liqueur for hours after the last bite has been tasted.  It is certainly nothing like my haphazardly composed weeknight stir-fry here at home (a one-pan wonder!).

Some of my food highlights from this year's trip:
Limoncello and nocciola (homemade liqueurs of lemon and walnut, respectively)
Courtesy of our longtime Esperia neighbor and distant relatives, Teresa and Genarrino, dark and salty Gaeta olives, and eggs so fresh they were still warm from the hen!
Pan di spagna, a yellow layered cake lined with chocolate creme and dampened with fruit liquor
Fried alice (like an anchovy), crispy and pungent, with salt and a squeeze of lemon
Fried, unbreaded eggplant strips layered with fresh tomato sauce, basil, and a shaving of parmiggiano reggiano cheese
Room-temperature steamed green beans tossed with lots of garlic, red wine vinegar, and olive oil
Caciotta (local farmhouse cheese from the Lazio region), and thinly sliced proscuitto with crusty bread
Scamorza affumicata (a heavenly smoked provolone cheese), seared quickly in a frying pan so that the outside crisps and browns and inside softens to melting
Squid cooked in fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and white wine, served over pasta
The best fresh mozzarella di bufala that I've ever tested
Slowly roasted red peppers, eaten room temperature and tossed with whole garlic cloves and oil
Simple salads of tomato, celery, onion, salt and olive oil
Bucatini al l'amatriciana (a pancetta and onion-laced tomato sauce with long noodles)
Svogliatelle (flaky pastries shaped like seashells, filled with a ricotta creme with a hint of orange zest)
Pasta genovese (a slowly, slowly cooked blond sauce of browned meet, tons of onions and a generous amount of olive oil)
Tender, peppery arugula and other baby greens tossed only with salt and oil

Apologies for the lack of photographs - we were too busy eating and lounging around for hours after each meal.



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