Here Comes the Sun

A1For me Spring means road trip and one of the most iconic is on the Motorway of the Sun – Italy’s A1, the Autostrada del Sole. A1 is the principal north-south highway in the country that connects Italy’s three largest cities Milan, Rome and Naples. I refer to it as Italy’s Mother Road , the European counterpart to America’s Route 66.

Driving the A1 is a longitudinal cross-country adventure full of excitement and unpredictability as you travel from the foggy skies of Milan to the sunny shores of Naples. Passing through Parma, Modena, Bologna and Florence traveling south for a total distance of 759.6 km (472.0 miles) it is the longest Italian autostrada. Considered to be the “spinal cord” of the country’s road network with a series of plexes that connect you to the culinary and cultural history of a city-state country that remains very much tied to regional customs and traditions.

A1 was the first motorway completed in Italy after World War II. After 8 years of engineered building that carved through Apennine mountains making tunnels, bridges, handling some remarkably steep slopes and tight curves, the Motorway of the Sun was inaugurated on October 4th 1964 by then Italian premier Aldo Moro with great pride and promise. The first two cars on the autostrada were driven by two female students (one from Milan, the other from Naples) who each set off from their hometowns in Fiat 500s, the ultimate symbol of Italy’s new post-war future.

I’ve driven on the A1 many times and it has always led me to great adventures, remarkable sites and unplanned pleasures. Travel author Bill Bryson says that he believes “the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” Seeing and savoring Italy on a road trip rewards you with more than a “show and tell tour”. It connects you to the people and places that go beyond a travel brochure with a playlist of possibilities that will make your trip unique and unforgettable. An Italy where towns and villages spring up like pages of a book each with something new and exciting to see.

By the way if you’re worried about driving in Italy, don’t be. Read my post (Contrary to Popular Opinion Driving in Italy is Not An Extreme Sport) for a few things to consider before you take the keys to your Italian rental car.

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Risen – Italian Easter Breads

breakfast breadIn a few weeks Easter will be here as Christians throughout the world celebrate the risen Christ. In Italy Easter is a blend of many rituals and celebrations. A special time when families and friends come together to commemorate this great event. A seasonal celebration that symbolizes rebirth and renewal. In the Italian culinary world springtime means it’s time for yeast-leavened breads and dishes rich in eggs. Foods that are symbolic of new life emerging this time of year and the Easter season.

Traditional breakfast breads are very popular in Italy. Breads that are lightly-sweet, yeast-leavened, enriched with egg, often studded with golden raisins or chunks of candied citrus peel. Breads that are risen with a golden, crusty exterior and a soft fluffy interior. Rich with butter and eggs, filled with raisins and candied orange peel, the classic Colomba di Pasqua is the most familiar of the traditional Italian Easter breads. Shaped like a dove (colomba means dove in Italian) colomba di pasquait is a symbol of peace and the resurrection. However there are many favored Italian breads and regional variations to celebrate the Easter season. In the Italian Marche region crescia, a traditional cheese bread is a risen, more savory than sweet, bread meant to be eaten with cured meats. Some breads are braided, studded with eggs, topped with colorful sprinkles or glazed. Italy’s Pane di Pasqua are tangible representations of the meaningful ties to the origins of Easter Sunday and symbolic of seasonal food celebrations and the culinary and cultural traditions of regional Italian food.

Here is  a recipe for one of our favorite”breakfast breads” to enjoy during the Easter season.

Italian Sweet Breakfast Breadbread easter
Makes one 10-inch round loaf

2 ½ tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 Tbs.sugar
2 eggs
½ cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon salt
4-5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup chopped candied lemon peel

In the bowl of a large stand mixer, combine yeast, water and sugar. Cover and let stand 10 minutes, or until a foamy vital yeast bloom has been formed.  Add eggs, yogurt, vanilla, lemon zest, and salt. Mix well. With the paddle attachment of the stand mixer, stir in flour ½ cup at a time, scraping sides of bowl down, until dough starts to form (this should happen after adding about 3 cups).  Switch to the dough hook and continue adding flour (about 1 more cup) until dough begins to come together. Continue kneading for 5 to 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary (up to 5 cups), until dough is soft and pliable, but not sticky.

Form dough into a large ball and coat all sides with oil.  Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

Punch dough down in bowl, transfer to a floured surface, and knead in the dried fruits. The goal is to get the fruits uniformly incorporated throughout the dough. Form dough into a ball and place in a greased 9-10 inch round pan.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and cool rise in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, remove pan from refrigerator and let come to room temperature (about 1 hour before baking).  Bake in a preheated oven at 350 F  for 45 minutes, or until loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  (If bread browns too quickly on top, cover with a piece of foil.)

Between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn

tropic-of-cancer-and-tropic-of-capricornMaking coffee in Italy is an art but growing coffee depends on a botanical landscape far removed from the coffee bars of Milan, Rome or Venice.  The life of every town, village or borgo in Italy begins with un caffé and while Italians have perfected the roasting and brewing of coffee they rely on latitudes far away to provide them with their magic beans.

According to Lavazza, Italy’s  number one coffee company, that spot is between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (known as Robusta) grow at altitudes ranging from about 650 to 6,500 feet.

These two imaginary lines that circle the planet are the roadmap to what many consider to be the perfect cup of coffee. A climate controlled chamber where the soil, humidity, and altitude coax the sensitive coffee plant to produce at its best.

It’s All About the Towers

Someone posted on my Facebook page that San Gimignano in Tuscany is one of the places you must visit in Italy. I would agree. San Gimignano like many towns in Tuscany is a regional microcosm of the food, wine, art and design of Italy. A historic city in Siena, San Gimignano together with Florence and Volterra, has a palpable sense of the culture and traditions of another time and place. In San Gimignano that has a lot to do with towers. Imposing even from a distance, the towers enclosed by two walls running around the city are a teaser for the charm and beauty of the narrow streets, fountains and a castle that dates back to the 12th century.

San Gimignano lies on the Francigena Road, a road that connected Rome to the rest of Europe. From the year 1000 to the 1300’s, San Gimignano became an important economic, cultural and trade center with merchants, princes, popes and San-Gimignano-Towerspilgrims traveling through its walls.

And this brings me to the reason why San Gimignano is called the “Town of Towers” or “The Manhattan of Italy”. Then as now conspicuous consumption leads to keeping up with the Jones when the richest families of the city showed off their wealth by constructing high towers each one trying to outdo the other – safe havens for an edgy aristocracy protective of their power and prestige.

Today San Gimignano is a registered UNESCO’s World Heritage site and cultural tourism brings millions of visitors to the towered city where 15 of the original 72 towers still stand. However many more towns and villages with incredible towers are hidden away, scattered across Italy.  Near San Gimignano stands Lucca’s 14th century Torre Guinigi, Guinigi Tower Luccathe “Tower with the Oaks on Top”. Built by the Guinigi, then the most powerful and influential family in the city, this 44.5 meter high tower has a garden of oak trees at the top. The Tuscan Tower of Pisa may be Italy’s most iconic tower but it is not the only leaning tower in Italy. While visiting our cousins in the Veneto we stayed in their hometown of Portogruaro, a gem of a city with beautiful arcades, stone bridges,watermills and canals that are connected by channels to the lagoons of Venice. The city has its own leaning tower, a 51 meter cathedral bell tower from the 13th century that leans more than a meter out of plumb.The slight leaning is caused by the partial cave-in of the foundations, similarly to that of the Pisa Tower.tower and portogruaro

Almost every castle and cathedral in Italy has a towering structure attached to it that will keep you looking up. Other towers of note include –

Torre degli Asinelli and La Torre della Garisenda in Bologna

Torre del Mangia in Siena

Giotto’s Campanile in Florence

Campanile di San Marco in Venice

The Tower of the Winds in Vatican City

The Torrazzo in Cremona

The Filarete Tower at Castello Sforza in Milan

 

 

What to Drink with a Wild Boar (Bore)

wild boar 2I couldn’t resist the double entendre for today’s post, just like I can’t resist anything made with wild boar. These brown, bristly relatives of the pig taste remarkably good, a gamier version of pork. Depending on their range and eating habits wild boar meat can have a sweet, nutty flavor and is leaner and deeper red than pork. In Italy wild boars (cinghiale) typically forage on plants, acorns, grasses, fruits, bulbs and the occasional contadini (farmer’s) vegetable garden that they dig up from the ground with their formidable tusks and hard snouts.

Wild boars have been roaming the forests and hills of Italy for millennia. Their hunting is an ancient sport that goes back to Roman times where the fierceness and strength of the boar made it a worthy opponent. Today overpopulation, hybrid breeding and their penchant for invasive behavior that results in damage to crops, vineyards, stone walls etc. makes the boar hunting season in Italy (from October to February) a much anticipated time of the year that follows an ancient tradition and way of life for the Italian cacciatorewine-pour

The Italian love of wild game and preference for rustic cooking makes cinghiale (wild boar) a popular dish throughout Italy. In fact, cinghiale is so popular in Tuscany that it is considered by some to be (unofficially) the national dish. So I am selecting a Tuscan wine to drink with my wild boar whether he be part of my pici or pappardelle al ragu’ or the bore sitting next to me at the table. A Tuscan Brunello from Montalcino (the little dark one) or Montepulciano’s Vino Nobile would be my choice. Both have cherry, plum flavors and aromas that would compliment the boar. Both are highly regarded – a robust food pairing that would honor the boar and hasten the bore.

*for a more cost conscious occasion you might enjoy a Rosso di Montepulciano  or Rosso di Montalcino (Brunello’s little brother) or Chianti Colli Senesi produced in the hills around Siena