Truffle Hunting in Alba, Italy: Tasty, tricky and sometimes tense.

by Fyllis Hockman

The dog's tail wagged impatiently. Lady -- a small, nondescript, white and brown mutt -- raced ahead to the oak tree, sprinted back and forth, nose thrust into the ground, then triumphantly started digging with gusto. Looking up with an air of satisfaction, Lady was handsomely rewarded before her master carefully scraped the loosened dirt with his pick. The five visitors observing the ritual looked on expectantly. Using his fingers to gingerly explore further, the truffle hunter delicately removed his treasure: a large, walnut-size white truffle, one of the epicurean riches of Alba, a gem of a city in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy.

Okay, let me just say that up to now the closest I had come to a truffle was in a Whitman’s Sampler box and it was covered with chocolate. And I’m pretty sure it had never been routed out by a dog. This truffle hunting is a respected art form in Alba, and proper training of the dogs is at its heart. Any breed can aspire to the job, but selection depends upon its resume. It must have a good nose (a trait the dogs presumably share with the region's prestigious wines), and trainers can ascertain that after three days. Once the dogs show promise, they attend the Barot University of Truffle Hunting Dogs, in operation since 1880, for two to three months of specialized training. Graduate school is optional.

Now let's talk truffles. Sure, to the uninitiated, it may just be a foul fungus, but to the gourmand, it represents the ultimate in gastronomic delights. It is judged by size, color, shape, texture, aroma - some would say offensive olfactory onslaught; others, fragrance of the gods -- and its overall perfection. There's a lot to be said for this smelly little mushroom.

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Finding Mario Bollag

story + photos by Michael Housewright

Brunello di Montalcino is perhaps the finest wine produced in Italy. It is made entirely from Sangiovese grapes, grown just outside the hilltop town of Montalcino, in Tuscany. It was the first wine I ever loved.

I met Mario Bollag  at a wine bar I curated in Houston, Texas. He spoke impeccable English, and was easily the most charming winemaker I had met in all my years in the business. In addition, he made outstanding Brunello at his winery, Terrlasole.  We hit it off immediately, talked, and tasted wine for several hours. He invited me to visit him and the winery as soon as I could make my way overseas.

Less than two months after Mario’s visit to Houston, I took him up on his offer, and went to Italy. With my wife in tow, and a rental Volkswagen Golf procured, we set out from Rome airport in search of Mario Bollag.  Being a frequent traveler to Italy I assumed finding Mario in tiny Montalcino would be a cakewalk. I was wrong.

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An American Male on the Make in Italy

story and photography by Michael Housewright

I have studied, lived, and worked in Italy off and on for most of my adult life. My most enduring fantasy through the first fifteen years of Italy travel was to meet, and ultimately court, a beautiful Italian girl. I imagined I would charm her with my wit, interest in her culture, and mastery of her language. Unfortunately, I never possessed the knack for striking up an easy conversation with a woman I did not know and to whom I was clearly attracted. Being a straightforward person, I have always lacked the subtlety and easy rapport with women that men of romantic talent seemed to me to possess. However, my self awareness did not stop me from trying, and frequently failing in my efforts to woo. 


Attempts at humor, small talk, and questions about local customs all led to feigned laughter and awkward pauses when I approached Italian women in public settings. I thought I was supposed to be the exotic foreigner, mysterious and fetching. I felt more like the class clown rather than the quarterback. While sometimes funny, I felt I could never be taken seriously as a contender for an Italian woman’s affection. Perhaps I was not aggressive enough, not fashionable enough, or just not that cool. I basically had no game and I believed that maybe I never would.

Over those fifteen years my Italian language improved, I ditched my Nike basketball shoes for stylish European loafers, and above all, I made certain to always wear outstanding Italian sunglasses. Each stage of my transformation would yield a smidgen more self confidence self-confidence and over time an elevation in my skill set. 

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Sardinia’s Coastal Towers: The silent watchers

by Silvia Pe

 

We were all children once. Childhood is the time of dreams and fantasies, when our imagination craves great adventures. I wonder if there’s a child who has never dreamt of becoming the king of an enchanted, beautiful castle? It was my dream when I was six.

I grew up in Sardinia, listening to the legends of the proud guardians of the Sardinian coastline. My favourite locations were the coastal towers: They’re scattered along the edges of the whole island, from Cagliari to Alghero, from Oristano to Siniscola, placed to form a big protective circle. My Sardinian history teacher was my grandfather, an old fashioned sailor.

He was a charming middle-aged man. His broad shoulders and rather serious demeanor gave him an authoritarian look, but he had kind eyes. He loved to enchant me by gesturing with his knotty hands, telling me about the Sardinian silent watchers… Built to resist the pirate’s incursions, the towers were managed, equipped and defended by the Royal Tower Administration, a proto-agency based in Cagliari. A stone in Uras dating back to 1546 stands as a witness of one of the incursions by the infamous Red Beard, or Barbarossa as we call him (his real name being Khayr al-Din).

The towers were placed in a way that allowed the watchers to communicate using visuals and sounds, without leaving their stations… a little bit like when I was in front of my grandpa and my thoughts started running as if into a dream world.

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Once Upon A Vine: A Unique Gathering of Grapes

by Fyllis Hockman

Relais San MaurizioAlright, we all know by now that drinking red wine is supposed to be heart-healthy. So then, shouldn’t slathering a glass of Merlot on your body be good for the skin? Such is the theory, sort of, at the Caudalie Spas. There are currently only four in the world, and I am luxuriating in a ‘vinotherapie’ massage in the Relais San Maurizio Hotel in the heart of the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. The vintage is being absorbed into the skin rather than ingested into the bloodstream.

As is also true in Bordeaux, France, Rioja, Spain and New York City (Hmmm; don’t exactly think of the latter as a major wine-producing area…), here wine is king! And the appreciation of its many attributes – which, as those who know me can attest, I try to experience as often as I can – is a venerated practice. So it seems appropriate that the consumption of wine extend beyond traditional imbibing.

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I'm A Citizen Of ...

by Eric Lucas

 

“So, how does it feel to be in your homeland?”

My wife, Leslie, looks at me inquisitively.

Tindari by Leslie ForsbergWe’re visiting Tindari, Sicily, where the Black Madonna of Tindari hangs in a cool-stone basilica on an olive-scrub headland overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Beside the Madonna is an equally ebony Christ hanging on a crucifix. Up the road is a theater used by Greeks and Romans; stone seats persist on a rocky hillside, 2,000 years after they were first set down.

“She is known as the ‘Black Madonna of the Orient’,” our Sicilian guide, Lita, explains about the sepia-hued sculpture in the basilica’s huge bronze altar. “That means ‘from the east.’ In this case, Byzantium. So many, many people have come through Sicily over the centuries.”

And many have left.

“I’m Sicilian,” I tell Lita. She raises her eyebrows, looks me up and down. I hope I pass inspection: oxhide skin; walnut eyes; bones like the old olive trees nearby. She nods.

“One quarter Sicilian,” I clarify. “My great-grandparents came from a village above Palermo.

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Ghosts of Soldiers at Anzio

by Shirley B. Moskow 

My father told me about Anzio. He showed me a yellowed newspaper with heavy, black 64-point headlines from World War II. “A-N-Z-I-O. What does it mean?” I asked.

“It’s a beach in Italy,” he said.  “My best friend died there in the war.”

That snippet of memory surfaced recently when my husband, Richard, and I visited Ostia, the seaside town south of Rome. We had toured the remarkable ruins at Ostia Antica, saw the sentinel tower designed by Michaelangelo, and admired the colorful art deco buildings lining the boulevard. On the last day of our trip, we were driving to the shore for a romantic sunset stroll along Italy’s only dune beach when we spied the sign: Anzio 37 km. 

The name resonated. Impulsively, we decided to forego the beach and head towards Anzio. Our guide book offered no information, but I’d read Gerard M. Devlin’s book, Paratrooper!  The Battle of Anzio, code name Shingle, supported the operation to liberate Rome, 30 miles to the north. In the early morning of January 22, 1944, under cover of darkness, a convey of 374 Allied ships entered the harbor. With surprise on their side, troops quickly established a beachhead three miles deep and 15 miles wide before the Germans who occupied the territory were alerted.

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Searching for Shakespeare

by Jean Kepler Ross

 

Venice. I was waiting for a traghetto gondola to ferry me across the Grand Canal when I spied a building plaque indicating that the palazzo in front of me was the home of Desdemona, the tragic heroine of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” I didn’t have time to check it out on that trip, but it fired my imagination and I did some research. Desdemona’s home is traditionally set at Palazzo Contarini Fasan, a private home, but now I must go back to see what I can of this home with the plaque. I’ve already been to the Doge’s Palace on Saint Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge and the Jewish Ghetto to breathe in the scenes of “The Merchant of Venice.”

from the Wikimedia Commons filesI bonded with William Shakespeare at a young age. I got to play Katherine, or Kate, in our high school production of “The Taming of the Shrew” - a fun and boisterous role - and later played Miranda in a university production of “The Tempest.” Through my exposure to his dramas, I learned to love the language of the Bard.

These early impressions follow me on my travels and when I have a chance to explore sites or works related to Shakespeare, I jump. I’ve been to the Old Globe Theater in San Diego’s Balboa Park to see “Macbeth” (a fine production, but it was my birthday and by the end of the show, there were bodies and prop heads on stakes all over the stage – a bit heavy for a celebration) and to many plays at the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Elizabethan stage in Ashland.

On one trip to Europe, I made a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon and saw Anne Hathaway’s cottage and Shakespeare’s house, but missed out on seeing a play in Shakespeare’s home town as the productions were all sold out. I made do with a performance of Tom Stoppard’s “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at the Old Vic Theatre in London where I saw the minor characters from “Hamlet” star in their parallel side story. In Denmark, I stopped by Elsinore Castle to see where the Danish royal family used to live and imagined Hamlet pacing the ramparts, deciding whether to be or not to be. My strongest memory is of a torture device in the dungeon and I could see how easy it would be to be melancholy there.

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Suddenly Seeking Sunshine

by Jean Kepler Ross

I was trimming my geraniums the other day, preparing to bring them inside for the winter.  As I worked on my plants out in the garden, I appreciated the warmth of the sun on that beautiful fall day and thought of a woman I encountered once in Siena, Italy, on another sunny fall day.

photo via Flickr.comMy husband and I were on our honeymoon, a five-week tour through Italy.  We arrived in Siena by train and found our way to the plaza where the famous Palio horse race is held twice a year.  We ordered lunch at an outdoor café and my husband went to look for lodging while I guarded the suitcases (I loved that job).

All of a sudden, an elderly woman with white hair and crinkled skin sat down in my husband’s chair.  I tried to explain to her that that was my husband’s chair and could she please move.  The woman just said, “sole.” My Italian isn’t very deep, but I gathered she was enjoying the sun.  I didn’t know what to do, but I again told her that that chair was for my husband and we were having lunch.  She said to me, “He can sit over there,” in English and kept sitting next to me with her face held up to the sun.

I am usually a peaceful person but I felt so upset with this woman that I actually felt like pushing her out of the chair.  What kind of manners were these? We were customers at the café and she was intruding on our romantic fantasy. After indignantly repeating that that was my husband’s chair, I gave up and the two of us sat next to each other quietly taking in the sun.

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Final Move Home

by Janet Eigner

Mother’s left the building again to search
for her husband, a year ago passed on,
says, "Do you know where Len’s gone?"
"Our charter...we can’t
guard her safely on this side,"
worries the director,
"Call in our movers."

We creep along the palm-shaded sidewalk
the pristine lawns, behind the scrawny,
muscled couple toting
the plaid sofa-bed, her queen mattress
sturdy chair with arms to push herself upright
cherry china cabinet to hold the proud evidence
they’d shed the immigrants’ threadbare cloth:
Lalique crystal sculpture, a sixty year collection:
Sister takes the small dove.
I warm the smaller owl in my palm

across the parking lot that divides each
past day lived in her vivid suite,
front door open to clan and friends,

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Mama Mia, Indeed

words + photos by Melanie Fidler


My mom and I just got back from a mother-daughter bonding trip to Italy to visit my little sister, Jaclyn, who is studying abroad in Florence. We traveled hand-in-hand to Venice, Florence, and Rome in 10 days. It was the first trip we took, just the two of us. It was my first trip to Italy and I was happy to have my Italian mother with me.


We started off in Venice, a magical wonderland of masquerade masks, Murano glass, gelato, and romance. If only I was on my honeymoon! It’s an amazing place that almost seemed fake, like a movie set. Instead of streets and highways filled with car traffic there were quaint canals and waterways with gondolas and boats. We really did nothing all day but wander the streets, get lost, find our way, and eat, drink and be merry with the locals. I’m lucky to have had my mom there to experience such fine treats with me.

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