'08-Italia


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In some ways Ravenna is the perfect metaphor for my approach to blogging about my Italian travels over Easter break 2008, because rather than approach it with any sort of plan or chronology, I’ve been filling in chips providing a mosaic of my experiences rather than a single canvas. Actually, to take that metaphor even further, I’ve been filling in these chips in a the larger mosaic of my pergrinations in general but… I’ll stop with the analogy. And the reason for this perfect match is that Ravenna (as many might know already though I didn’t until my visit there) is certainly full of mosaics. It’s a real shame that I haven’t written about this place earlier actually, because of all the places that Shraddha and visited over our Italian week together, this was certainly the treasure chest of sights previously unseen. And after a long day of visual feasts we had yet another of those edible experiences that had us both swooning in rhapsodies of delight…

7 years later…

After so much time, the memory of those mosaics still delight, not only of the the bit above from one of the churches, but that of a small baptistry which brought to mind a Van Gogh starry night, with brilliant blues and purples and teals. It also recalls that line from the oft-quoted, never tired Yeats, of the blue and gold etc etc in the “Tread softly” poem. Same trip a week or so later took me to Trieste where more mosaics delighted as well. The memories haven’t gone anywhere though the impulse to write more has. ’tis best this were published. Or else I’ll have to trash it.

I like the word backblog – I’m not sure if she invented it, but I’ve lifted it from Tiffany (Dr. SciVorg on my links). This note is just to give credit where it’s due…

Anyway, I was reminded reading Tiffany’s pages on Italy that I’ve only really given an account of part of one day of my enchanted April. And since then I’ve had a rather enchanted June, July & August too, albeit in Vienna and if I’m not careful I’ll be backlogged on those chronicles as well! Not that anyone’s checking, but having begun this blog project I should do right by it.

To continue the saga where I left off, sated and mildly tipsy from Emilio’s vineyard as we were, Shraddha and I made our way to the village of Modigliana where we decided to take a break before heading on to our next scheduled destination – a cheese farm for tea/dessert. The very thought of food is actually what mandated our break. We were far too full to even consider downing another morsel (or sip come to think of it) before walking some of our previous meal off.

And so we did. Modigliana is a charming village in the Romagna region, and was on the way to our cheese farm. At the risk of repeating myself, it was not the birth place of the artist Modigliani but may have nevertheless been the source for his family name. Anyway the village has an old ruined castle atop a hill, which our trusty host Silvio had recommended we check out. To get to the castle ruins we actually had to cross a bridge over a moat. In other circumstances I might have found it too kitschy but here managed to charm me to my toes. Especially when reached to the top to find fenced in by the tower (which was crumbling and out of bounds) several black pigs. En route up there we were overtaken by a guy and his infant daughter on a scooter, who seemed pretty amazed to find a couple of Indian girls (amazingly to us in turn, he nailed our origins with his first guess) on his familiar route. And felt flattered too, I think, that we thought to stop there.

We finally made it to the cheese place well around 6 (I no longer remember). The sun was still up but not for much longer — it was definitely dark by the time we finished there but that was several hours later. The place is called Rio Monte and to call it a cheese farm is to do it a grave injustice.

Alberto and Ester preparing a fresh batch of ravvigiolo

Actually the Rio Monte is a full-fledged bed and breakfast, which boasts the rock star Steven Tyler (I think, and hope Alberto forgives me if I’m wrong) among its celebrity guests. And now us! You can read all about the place and people in their own words at their website. Here I include our firsthand experiences and take full responsibility for all mistakes of memory and mistranslation:

One of the first details that struck me about the place was the lovely old staircase leading up to the rooms of the B&B. Liked them so much that I not only photographed them but also made Matteo and Shraddha pose at the base. Speaking of Matteo, the (9?)-year son of Alberto and Ester, he was definitely the star of our evening there. Based solely on what he’d learned in school, for parents spoke nary a word of English, he proved an extremely competent translator. And a real darling all round. At the time we visited he had just been selected to represent his area in a national competition in mathematics. Matteo if you read this blog, please do post a comment or send a note and tell us how it went. We’d love to hear from you.

Alberto, Matteo’s dad is former trucker & member of the merchant marines (again I think) who a few years ago decided to settle down and take up dairy farming. Yet another character full of local vim and vigor with an enthusiasm for life and living that was heart-warming to see. He had done a fair bit of traveling in his youth, and has even been to Egypt though not with his family. When I suggested he make a return visit with Matteo and Ester his retort (in Italian) was he’d have to build an Ark (as in Noah) to be able to leave his farm! Shraddha could certainly attest to that statement as she had by then petted every pettable beast and talked to all the others. The menagerie included cows of at least two different breeds to contribute volume and milkfat (= taste) respectively to their cheeses, pigs, sheep, innumerable cats, a retired dog that had once been a prize-winning truffle hunter (Alberto showed us a photograph of Matteo with one of their best finds) and some chickens too? An ark was indeed required if this family was to cross the Mediteranean.

Chatting at sunset

Our repast here was necessarily smaller than lunch at Il Pratello and starred the aforementioned ravvigiolo. This fresh cheese is only made in small batches and involved curdling the milk without either boiling it or adding sour stuff, which gives a naturally sweet large curd. Yummy eaten with fruit or compotes (RioMonte makes and sells their own) as is customary, or as we did, with a sprinkling of that Italian staple of olive oil and salt. Along with some home cured ham and a gentle white wine we were replete and sated for the second time that day. But wait – then came the grand finale, a lovely rich homemade dark chocolate liqueur. This last product is not sold and only served to special guests (as I like to believe we were). Liquid gold couldn’t be more precious! We expressed our gratitude as best we could in their guest book, and then stood and chatted under the setting sun before finally taking our leave.

Had folks from the university over for dinner the week before exams and moving where we consumed the wines from Emilio’s vineyard, which brought on a wave of nostalgia and reminder that I really must update my chronicles with the foodie and travel accounts. Both from my spring break in Italy and my Thanksgiving sojourn in Upper Egypt. Else it will be the next year’s rounds of those holidays before I know it, and I’ll have more chronicles on backlog – insh’allah. Right now I’m working on two of these accounts on parallel streams …make that three with summer in Vienna well underway as well.

Anyway, Emilio is the owner of a small boutique vineyard, Il Pratello, just outside a small village called Modigliana.

(Click on picture to link to the vineyard’s website)

Modigliana, by the way, is not as I thought, the birth place of the artist Modigliani (whose impressionism runs to strange and to me, disturbing iris-less blue eyes) but may well have been the place from which he took his name as he &r his Jewish family wandered through the Italian countryside. According to our second hosts that day (of the Ravvigiolo cheese, ham, jams and chocolate liqueur) this practice was common among Jews to escape anti-Semitism.
But first, about Emilio and our Il Pratello experience. He is definitely one of those people who would fit into the category of the Maylesque characters I mentioned in my previous post. Barely spoke a word of English (don’t be fooled by the slick website) but managed to entertain and inform us about his wines anyway.

Despite our minimal common linguistic abilities however, we had a great time and managed to communicate the important details to one another. Food, wine and an appreciation thereof form a universal language, I think.

Here’s a picture of the man himself at the entrance of his cellars.

And here he is, having driven us out to survey the land that he’s lord of…

Of all our spectacular meals in Italy – and there were many of those – the lunch at Emilio’s farm consistently ranked up top on both our (especially Shraddha’s) lists. Beginning with the charming table set for two (farmhands and owners came in and out of the same dining room to eat at a separate table), and ending with the most spectacular dessert of my entire trip, virtually everything we were served, including the many different wines, came from Il Pratello’s own land. We did it complete justice — we ate every morsel and drank every drop!

Table for two…

Il Menu e dei Vini

Antipasti

(served in two courses)

Herbed egg and cheese pinwheels
Wild greens frittata with a small skewer (toothpick) of grilled veges – zucchini and melanzana.

The wine: A refreshing glass of his Morana

Primo Piatto

Homemade stuffed pasta with fresh herbs and butter

The wine: We graduated to a red now, a very nice blend of grapes, Il Casetto.

Secondi

Rabbit (Coniglio) and braised fennel (finocchio). If I”m not mistaken a second pasta — a mixture of green and yellow linguini also accompanied this dish.

The wine: Mantignano, a fabulous celebration of the Sangiovese grape. This one was a keeper — both Shraddha and I bought a bottle each.

Il dolce

Fresh strawberries marinated in dessert wine and more of said wine.

The wine: Becugiano; Wow ! That one word describes it all. Consumed a lot of this one, both in the bowl and in the glass, and bought a bottle which was demolished in one evening on Cairo.

Sated and tipsy after all this, we went with Emilio, his daughter and their dog, out to the vineyards where the sheer joy of existence (and not the wine) sent transported Shraddha to prostrate herself on the hillside (she has the picture I don’t).

A quick tour of the cellar, presses and other chambers dedicated to the winemaker’s craft. Further celebrations of the craft followed at the time of leavetaking for not only did we leave with our new purchases of wine (Me two and her three) but also all the half empty bottles from our meal, which we shared with the Mini family later that night. Silvio, I might add, enjoyed the Becugiano as much as I had earlier in the day.

I always thought it would be fun to live in a Peter Mayle novel. The pictures he paints of the south of France in his novels (Chasing Cezanne, A Good Year, Anything Considered, Hotel Pastis) have had me drooling for the foods and wines — his description of the truffle and that of a good cassoulet were especially inspiring)– and sighing for the landscapes and wistfully wishing I could be there.

And while I won’t echo the great Poe’s raven, I have to say I’ve gone one better. Having just spent two weeks in Italy — a week of it in the the lesser-explored Emilia-Romangna region — I got to sample all that I longed for in those books. Great food, lovely warm people, interesting characters who ought to be in books but am glad to say are real, art of course, fine wine and did I mention food already? Before I launch into any more rhapsodies (and there will be many to follow, I assure you) I have to pay tribute to Silvio and his charming cottage, Ca’ Lumacheto, which I urge anybody who wants to experience the good life but a little differently and less touristically, to try out. Here’s the link to paradiso:

Shraddha and I had an absolutely fabulous time, using the cottage as our base and tales of our adventures in and around the region will follow. But meanwhile I must keep a promise to the kind Venetian artist (Murano glass artist to be precise) who helped me. Mauro, his first name is, and he treated us to a very interesting interlude when we entered his shop in search of help, on the recommendation of the expensive if nicely-stocked bead lady two doors up (or was it down?) from his. Here’s his website and if you’re in Venice and have a taste for the unusual but authentic in Venetian glass visit his shop and help support the local artists and their centuries of tradition:

Artigianato d’Arte

Mauro’s is an interesting story, and I’ll try to tell it when I reach the Venetian portion of my holiday chronicle. Meanwhile, back at home in the Cairene batcave, duties in the guise of papers to grade, and lectures to give call, and hence I must to bed

Ciao. A presto!