Hortus Conclusus

As I begin to put my garden to bed for the Winter my thoughts are never far from its reawakening in the Spring. A typical read for me on a snowy winter day usually has something to do with gardening. “Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination” (Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897) that spurs a gardener to come up with new designs and combinations every year.

garden-ortoMy inspiration comes from a little known monastic garden at the University of Perugia that I visited with my Umbrian friends, Luca and Luigi. The garden houses a collection of plants which are of scientific value because they contain DNA that allows for the study of  ancient genetic lines. Historically the garden is reminiscent  of a Hortus conclusis, a garden surrounded by a wall in which medicinal herbs and edible plants were grown. Located on the site of a Benedictine monastery, the University garden (Orto Botanico dell’Università di Perugia) was meant to be “symbolic” in that the placement of certain plants was based on religious and cultural  customs and conventions reflecting myths and beliefs typical of the period.

The first part of the garden is elliptically shaped like an egg and surrounded by water features representing the rivers of the Garden of Eden.  A succession of symbolic plantings and trees create a pathway to renewal and healing with medicinal plants for treatment, hygiene and nutrition meticulously labeled with common plant names used during the middle ages. The arrangement of semi-circular open-air seating , the Theatrum, was once used by the monks to distribute food and medicinals to the city’s needy.

hortusDesigning a garden where every plant is meant to nourish the mind, body and spirit   within a confined space is a little like creating a metaphoric garden of Eden. Something I can exercise my imagination on over the next few months.

 

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Truffle Times

white truffle
Some have described the aroma and flavor of the Italian truffle as rich and intense with a taste of honey and garlic reminiscent of the earthy woods in which it is found. Others have described them as a misshapen knot with an aroma best left in the leafy understory of the woods. Each to his own but I would suggest that you give truffles a try. Italians eat them raw, shaved over egg dishes or plain pastas, infused in olive oil or honey, in risotto and soft polenta (I had them over braised pigeon on my last trip).
A few years ago I stayed in the village of San Giovanni d’Asso, in the heart of  the Crete Senesi, where I was able to get up close and personal with the legendary white truffle. S.G. d’Asso is the home of the Museo di Tartufo, Italys first museum dedicated to the truffle. The museum created by a pharmacist, a chef and a botanist is located in a 13th century castle. But this is only one of the many wonderful things about the town, the other is a the town itself and a remarkable locanda (country inn) called Locanda del Castello where Selvana, her son Massimo create the most pleasant soggiorno for you to enjoy truffles, termes and Tuscany plus other activities from wine and cheese tastings to horseback riding and cycling.
Many cities and towns in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria celebrate the white truffle with food festivals and markets during October and November. The town of Alba in Piemonte is the classic big box tourist destination for white truffles in Italy but the towns of Savigno, NW of Bologna (1-2-3 Sunday in November), San Giovanni d’Asso south of Siena (2-3 weekend in November) and Citta’ di Castello in Umbria (1st weekend in November) all have regional truffle festivals.
A good introduction to the taste of the Italian truffle is by way of a honey available at CosituttiMarketPlace . This luxurious millefiori honey has a precious sliver of Italian truffle in every jar. A balance of earthiness and sweetness. Here you can also find some recipes for using this honey in the most extraordinary ways.
Some interesting facts about truffles 
  • The aroma and flavors of truffles was thought to be so intoxicating that the Church in the Middle Ages regarded the seductive appeal of truffles as dangerous and they were banned from Medieval kitchens.
  • Rossini, the famous Italian composer, admitted that he had wept only 3 times in his life, “Once when my first opera failed, once again when I heard Paganini play the violin and once when the truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic”.
  • A tartufaio, truffle hunter, accompanied by his trained dog will search early in the morning for truffles when the air is clear and favorable for the dog to smell out the truffle.
  • The most sought after white truffles are found only in select geological pockets in central and northwest Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, and the yield each autumn cannot keep up.
  • The amount of truffle oil required for most recipes costs 25 to 50 cents, a small price to pay for an aroma and flavor that is so unique and irresistible.

Italy’s Magic Touch

An American: Will say ‘hello”.
An Italian: Will give you a big hug and a kiss and pat you on the back

hugsI am never happier than when I am in Italy. The food, the wine, the art and design, the landscape and sounds . . . the touch.

As you might have noticed Italians like to touch. They are a tactile society. Everything around them invites them “to feel” both physically and metaphorically. Italy is filled with emotions that cannot be denied. The fabric of history demands it.

Italians in general are a welcoming people with a culture of hospitality. They still shake hands and may touch your shoulder as they escort you through their country. Acquaintances often hug and kiss when they meet. Our Italian family greets us with many baci e abbracci.

As we become more distanced from traditional customs and families become divided we are less likely to experience the emotional power of touch. The spontaneity of touching has become downsized. Touching someone has become a negative action, an intrusion on one’s space, a danger signal. Stranger danger is real but are we overcompensating as a society when we teach our kids not to let anyone including aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents touch them without asking first. We teach are kids not to hug too tightly and that many people don’t want to be hugged. A published study in the Journal of Early Child Development and Care reported that preschoolers in America are more aggressive than their peers in France (another demonstrable country). They’re also touched less. Coincidence? It could be, but research would suggest otherwise.

The risk of loosing the connection of touch, once thought to be unbreakable, is crumbling before our very eyes. A friendly touch has appreciable affirming benefits and it is no more magical than when felt in Italy.