January 6, 2012
There are few things as good on the green earth as first-press, extra-virgin olive oil from a little farm in the Italian countryside. It can‘t be found in American supermarkets and specialty stores where fancy-looking carafes of Italian extra-virgin abound, all too often mixed with chemically-rendered oil from someplace else.
The best Italian olive oil comes in hand-lettered, recycled bottles. It is way too perishable for export, produced in minuscule quantities chiefly for the grower’s family and friends. To get it you have to roam back roads in the Italian sticks.
That’s because, like wine, superior, extra virgin Italian oil tastes of the place it comes from—of the sunny hillside in Tuscany or Campania where the olives were grown, of the mill where they were pressed, maybe even of the sweat on the harvesters’ brows. But unlike most fine wines, which benefit from aging, olive oil is most flavorful when freshly pressed. How do I know?
Because a few years ago while I was living in Rome, my niece Sarah and her friend Phil came to Italy to pick olives. They‘d both just finished four years at New York University and wanted to take a break before joining what is known as the “real world.” Of course, they didn’t have much money, but it didn’t matter because an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms helped them find places to bring in the olive harvest in exchange for bed and board. Which is what I call clever.
They stayed at my apartment in Rome before taking the train to a farm west of Florence. Once they got there I phoned Sarah every other day to find out how two city kids who know more about iPods than olives were faring in the in the deep Italian countryside.
Just fine, it seemed. Sarah was climbing gnarled old trees like a monkey, shaking the fruit into nets spread around the trunks and taking the harvest to the local mill where she and Phil observed its miraculous conversion into the nectar of the gods.
After spending a week there, the kids came back to Rome with a sample of the farm’s first press in an old vinegar bottle with tape securing the top, a gift I‘ll never forget. Homemade olive oil such as this is like no other I’ve ever tasted—ripe, viscous, fruity and way too precious for cooking. I parsed it out on salads, knowing that my life would be emptier when the bottle was drained.
November 16, 2011
The Way, a new movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez, starring his father Martin Sheen, had me from the moment the main character arrives in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to identify the body of his son who has died in an accident while traveling. It’s a sad set-up, to be sure. But what really got me was the Pyrenees Mountains scenery around the town where pilgrims begin the 500-mile walk to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Campostela, Spain, resting place of the apostle’s remains, discovered after he was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 A.D.
For people who have dreamed about walking the Camino, the film is the next best thing, not only because of its glorious Pyrenees and Spanish Basque country setting, but because it dramatizes the emotional and spiritual journey pilgrims inevitably take, regardless of religious affiliation. Sheen plays an irascible, lapsed-Catholic ophthalmologist from Southern California. Others join him on the journey, each with his own mission. Together they follow the route, getting their official Camino passports stamped in hostels where they stop as they gradually discover truer, deeper reasons for walking the pilgrim’s path.
In real life Sheen, well known for playing President Jed Bartlet on the TV series “The West Wing,” is a devout Catholic and the father of four children, all of them actors. Emilio, his oldest, got the idea of making the film on a family car trip in 2005 roughly paralleling the Camino. He wrote the lead role for his father and based the story partly on a book by Jack Hitt, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain.
I won’t give away what happens along The Way, except to say that one of the things Sheen’s character learns is why his son loved to travel, and that every trip taken with an open heart can be a pilgrimage.
November 1, 2011
Reading murder mysteries used to be one of my guiltiest pleasures, pure entertainment for the couch potato. But then I discovered a multitude of crime novels set in Italy and realized they could be useful to the traveler. While on the trail of bad guys, mystery writers recount history and politics in an amusing way, set the mood of a place and sometimes even offer specific tips for tourists willing to track them down.
Take Rat King, Cosi Fan Tutti and nine other mysteries by the late Michael Dibdin, set all over Italy, featuring the suave, sharp, but emotionally adolescent investigator Aurelio Zen, recently played by Rufus Sewell in a BBC Masterpiece Theater. One of the books takes Zen out to lunch at a little pork restaurant near his office on Rome’s Viminale Hill. As it turns out, Er Buchetto (which means pork in an old Roman dialect) is still there, a cubbyhole dispensing slices of succulent roast pork from a carcass by the front door, served on wax paper, by weight. Accompanied by crusty rolls and excellent jug wine, it’s as cheap and tasty a meal as you’re likely to find around the historic center.
The mysteries of Donna Leon, an American academic who lives in Venice, feature Commissioner Guido Brunetti, a plain, old-fashioned good guy who helps his kids with their homework and goes home for lunch when the crime scene in La Serenissima allows. Every time I go to Venice I end up in some lonely cul-de-sac by a canal that I recognize from a Leon mystery. She’s on her 21st, Beastly Things, now.
Western Sicily is the territory of Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, so richly-rendered in 16 books (and an Italian TV series based on them) that tourism has spiked in Port Empedocle, the model for the mysteries’ fictitious town of Vigata near the island’s southwest coast. Camilleri’s gumshoe Salvo Montalbano has a taste for blondes and Sicilian food; ordering the local specialties he eats in the books won’t leave any gourmand disappointed.
Finally, there’s a mystery set in Tuscany by the late Sir John Mortimer who gave us the inimitable Rumpole of the Bailey. Summer’s Lease, published in 1988, is about an English woman who drags her family to a rented villa in the Chianti region of Tuscany (so popular with people from the U.K. that it’s nicknamed Chiantishire) where she noses into the absent owner’s secrets.
The book, made into a BBC Masterpiece Theater feature in 1991 starring Sir John Gielgud, is a little piece of fluff. But the story begins with a terrific piece of travel advice in the form of an itinerary:
The work of Piero della Francesca can be followed from the frescoes in Arezzo to the pregnant Madonna in the small chapel at Monterchi. Enthusiasts can take the trail to Sansepolcro and on, across the Mountains of the Moon, to see the sublime Flagellation in the Ducal Palace at Urbino, undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world.
Based on nothing more than that, I followed the trail last spring and ended up grateful to Mortimer for leading me to its enchantments, especially Piero’s riveting Resurrection in the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro.
September 21, 2011
At this time of year I’m reminded of a good reason to visit Sicily: Pachino tomatoes. Unknown outside Italy and even hard to find there, Pachinos are generally small, shiny and outlandishly sweet, way too good for sauce. Cooks who know their way around tomatoes use Pachinos raw in salads.
They are grown in the hot southeastern corner of Sicily, little more than 100 miles away from North Africa. People who visit towns in the area—beautiful, Baroque Ragusa or Greek colonial Syracuse—sometimes pass Pachino fields and discover them in markets.
If you happen to be in the area, buy a bag of Pachinos, a bottle of the region’s signature Cerasuolo di Vittoria wine and some chocolate from nearby Modica, made in the ancient Aztec way, without additives. Then head to the coast for some intense Sicily in the form of a picnic amid the salt marshes at Vendicari Nature Reserve. It will be hot and messy, but go ahead. Drink from the bottle, lap up the melted chocolate, let Pachino nectar dribble down your chin.