Try a Little Benessere

 

 

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Things have been a little tense the last few weeks on the global scene. Conflicts and polarizing issues are beginning to rob and replace our efforts to find contentment and joy in our communities and families. Our lifestyle is becoming dulled and we’re becoming less satisfied with our achievements and the measure of our worth.

Maybe it’s because we’ve lost the artistry of living that the Italians know so well. They call it benessere “a sense of well being”. Traveling in Italy and staying with my Italian family and friends has led me to believe that Italians seem to know how to balance work and relaxation, surrounding themselves with beauty and art in their homes and businesses, eating fresh and vibrant food and focusing on family and friends. Italian design and fashion, culture and living, the way Italians prepare and eat their food all combine to create a sense of well being that doesn’t depend solely on the size of your bank account or stock portfolio.

Italians have long understood how art and beauty forge and strengthen our emotional bonds to life to create a sense of well being and lighten our discontent. Here are 10 ways to use the Italian concept of  “benessere” to make the world a better place in which to live.

1. Green agriculture and eco-sustainability

Italy is a country with “ un cuore verde”, a green heart. A country that measures its worth by preserving and protecting the land. In Italy green agriculture and eco-sustainability have been a powerful movement for decades.The pleasures of the table and ecologically-balanced farming methods are encouraged by the Italian government and through private groups. Italy’s farmhouses and family vineyards and orchards have always been a model for land to hand cooking.The traditional agricultural roots of Italian casalinga (homestyle) cooking are a legacy of Italian cuisine that we can all benefit from.

2. Wine

Wine is not simply considered a drink in Italy. It is part of the local culture and the moderate consumption  of wine is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. There are well documented reports about the benefits of drinking red wine and recently a lot of buzz about the healthy lifestyle and longevity enjoyed by the people of Sardegna and the dark red wine Cannonau, said to contain the world’s highest levels of antioxidants (two to three times the level of flavonoids as other wines). The people of Sardegna who drink this wine are 10 times more likely to live to be 100. Research and the known effects of flavonoids, have shown that moderate wine consumption may increase life expectancy while also lowering stress levels. Wine may not be able to solve all the world’s problems but reducing stress often allows us to put our problems in perspective and find a more balanced solution.

3. Love, Friendship and Conviviality

Love is in the air all year long in Italy and has been for centuries.  While we were busy developing the austere virtues of the Reformation, the Italians were relaxing in the inspiring glow of the Renaissance. And although we might want to identify the Italian style of love differently, Italians more often equate love with the concept of enchantment, charm or delight, innamorato. Italians take pleasure in the companionship of friends and opening themselves to life on the piazza. My Italian friend Luca once told me that his day would not be complete if he did not connect with at least one of his friends.

4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Since ancient times Italian olive oil has been an integral part of the way Italians eat. High in polyphenols and protective antioxidants beneficial to heart health, extra virgin olive oil is an important part of a heart healthy diet reducing the risk of variety of diseases and promoting good health. Italians share their love of olive oil and Italy’s precious bottles of “liquid gold” are available all over the world.

5. Art and Design

Laura Biagiotti, known for her Italian cashmere collection, has said that “Italian fashion is meant to add the extraordinary to everyday life”. From ancient Italian cultures to the Great Masters of the Renaissance, Italian art and design transcend politics, gender, economies and cultural differences to inspire and elevate all peoples of the world.
6. Cheese

According to National Geographic writer and Emmy award-winning documentarian Dan Buettner the secret of longevity is encoded in an Italian cheese. Whether or not an Italian cheese can save the world remains to be seen but Buettner who travels the globe to examine and unlock the secrets of long life claims that a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese is a start. Eaten as part of a diet among people in Sardegna, designated by Buettner as a World Blue Zone (regions where long lived people can provide lessons for living longer and improving the quality of life), the cheese known as pecorino sardo made from grass-fed sheep’s’ milk results in a product with high levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

7. La Bella Vita

Italy’s contribution to living a life of purpose and pleasure is eloquently summed up by Andrea Bocelli as he describes the essential elements of living life in Tuscany.

Man was created for living here, where, with the toil of his labour in the fields, he can procure everything that he needs for a tranquil life and where he can also meditate on the profound meaning and spiritual value of his time spent on earth safe from the contradictions, vices, absurdities and tensions of the increasingly oppressive reinforced concrete world“.

8. Espresso

Although Italians may not have invented coffee they have perfected its making and service. True Italian coffee beverages bring enjoyment and satisfaction to millions of people all over the world every day. And as an espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee, a little goes a long way in lifting our spirits.

9. Family

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Our Italian Family near Vicenza circa 1900.

Italians appreciate their families and develop strong bonds with older family members. Elders are celebrated and family is revered. Loving grandparents provide child care, financial help, wisdom and motivation to perpetuate cultural and family traditions. In turn, elders are more engaged and feel a sense of belonging in their families and communities. Time and age is more irrelevant and society as a whole more dependent on family values with encouragement and supportive circle of family.

10. Relax and Recharge

Americans choose to work  much more than Italians in fact lately more than any European country. Now although this may have as much to do with a complex economy, tax policies and labor issues it still tells the story that Italians value time to relax and recharge much more than we do. In fact today 15th August , the Feast of the Assumption , is when all Italy, or so it seems, stops work to celebrate. In fact some Italians and businesses take the entire month off.  During  Ferragosto everyone pretty much abandons their career obligations and heads out of town making time to relax and enjoy life regardless of present circumstances.  Because fortunes always change , politicians come and go, the economy races up and down and it’s important to do something to make it all worthwhile.

Let’s Get Smashed in Bergamo

bergamo 2You like polenta right?  . . . and you like cheese.

Then you’re ready to smoosh the two together in a Northern Lombardian dish from Bergamo called schisola (schisol) which means “squished” in the Bergamascan dialect. Bergamo is located in the scenic Italian foothills, a 45 minute train ride from Milan. The town is both modern and medieval. Bergamo Bassa, (Citta’ Bassa -the lower city) is the modern part of the town. Bergamo Alta (Citta’ Alta – the upper city) is the evocative ancient part with a panoramic view of the Italian Alps.

Preserved in time, rich in its medieval heritage of art and history, Bergamo is known as the polenta capital of Italy using the ingredient in both savory and sweet dishes. Polenta e Osei,  individual cakes shaped like mounds of freshly turned out polenta decorated with tiny pecking marzipan birds (osei) on top, is a pasticceria specialty of the city.

To make schisola roll the polenta into balls, squish pieces of cheese inside (a Northern Alpine cheese is preferred) and then broil or bake them. No time to make these polenta meatball then try polenta taragna, another “enriched” version of polenta made with a mixture of buckwheat flour, which gives the dish a typical dark color. When polenta  taragna is nearly cooked sizable bits of fresh alpine cheese (Branzi, Bitto or Fontina) and butter are added and then served topped with melted butter, sage and garlic.

Recipe for Schisola polenta Schisola

2 cups cooked polenta
4 ounces Italian Alpine cheese, divided into 12 pieces
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus some for greasing the pan
¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
8 sage leaves

1. When the polenta is ready, let it cool, wet hands and form with the help of parchment paper 12 balls of polenta, each 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Make a depression in each polenta ball and press a piece of cheese into the dimple. Form the polenta around the cheese, rolling it between your wet palms into a neat ball. Place on a parchment-lined tray, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

2. Preheat the oven (convection if possible) to 500 degrees. Grease a baking sheet with some of the butter. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter, arrange the polenta balls on the sheet and brush each one with butter. Bake until the polenta lightly browns and the cheese just starts to melt inside, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 5 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat in a small skillet and add the sage leaves. Cook until the sage lightly browns, the butter turns golden and the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan and turn light brown, 6 to 7 minutes.

4. Sprinkle schisola with grated  Parmigiano cheese, drizzle with brown butter and garnish with the sage leaves.

Adapted from Eating Italy by Jeff Michaud