Monday, December 30, 2013

Great Books V

Still Life, Anonymous, 16th Century, Florence

We'll be leaving for Paris on January 6 and going on to Pisa in March. In anticipation, I'm reading some great French and Italian detective mysteries. Although it might not seem obvious, a good detective story can be better than the best guide book in providing a window on the culture, history, geography and cuisine of a country. 

Auguste Dupin was the first English-language detective in Edgar Allen Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue published in 1841. Monsieur Lecoq appeared in France in 1868, and the great detective Sherlock Holmes made his debut in London in 1887. The 1920s and 1930s were considered the highpoint of the genre with the arrival of such famous detectives as Sir Peter Whimsey, Inspector Maigret, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe. Detective novels continue to be popular into this century. In 2012, mystery novels ranked second in U.S. market share with sales of $728.2 million (Romance novels were first with $1.438 billion in estimated revenue.) 

In France, a detective or police novel is known as a roman policier or a polar, a slang word derived from policier; in Italy, the books are called libri gialli. Giallo or yellow is the background color used on a series of detective mysteries first published by the Italian publishing house Mondadori in 1929. The books, mostly translations of American and English pulp fiction, had such success that other publishers began producing their own versions, with similar yellow covers. The genre expanded to include thriller and suspense books and films, which are all known in Italy today as gialli.

All of Travel Oyster's Great Books V are books in a series so if you like them, you can be assured of plenty of good reading.

The Châtelet Apprentice
published in French as L'Énigme des Blancs-Manteaux
First novel in the Nicolas LeFloch Series
Jean-François Parot
Translated into English by Michael Glencross

If you love history, want to walk the streets of a meticulously-recreated 18th-century Paris, and consult food menus of the period, then this is the series for you. Our hero, Nicolas LeFloch, raised in Brittany in a religious order, arrives in Paris with a recommendation from his godfather the Marquis of Ranreuill. With such an illustrious backer, the young police officer is quickly involved in intrigue and in the murder of some important people - with implications for King Louis XV himself. As the series develops (there are currently 11 books) LeFloch's personal life and love life become as complicated as the crimes he solves. Along the way, Parot has his fictional characters rub elbows with authentic historical figures, including LeFloch's boss, Antoine de Sartine, who was the lieutenant general of police at the Châtelet in Paris from 1759-1774. Although numerous physical changes have occurred in Paris in the intervening 250 years, it's amazing how many of the streets, buildings and markets that LeFloch frequents still exist in modern-day Paris. To enter the world of Lefloch's Paris, click here to go to the author's creative web page. The text is in French only, but the maps, works of art and photos are accessible in any language. 

Murder in the Marais
First novel in the Aimée Leduc Investigations
Cara Black

Modern-day private investigator Aimée Leduc wears high heels, Chanel suits and and zooms up to the scene of the crime on her trademark motorcycle. Underneath her classic exterior, however, Leduc is pure punk. The suits are from second-hand shops in Paris; the heels are often thrown in her bag as she chases criminals through some of the city's seediest streets; and the motorcycle is frequently in the repair shop. Like all interesting fictional characters, Leduc's personal life is complicated. She is the daughter of an American mother, who disappeared when Aimée was eight years old, and a French father, who was also an investigator. When her father is killed during a stakeout, Aimée abandons her studies at the Sorbonne to take over his business. Her specialty is computer forensics and corporate security - a business that doesn't sound as if it should lead to murder, but it does, again and again, in every neighborhood of Paris. Her work takes her to many famous areas of Paris, but also to other neighborhoods unknown to most visitors. Although the author Cara Black lives in California, she knows the ins and outs of Paris better than most Parisians, and her descriptions of the city are accurate and intriguing. For a list of all the books in the Aimée Leduc Investigations, click here. 

Death at La Fenice
The first in the Commissario Guido Brunetti Series
Donna Leon

In this first novel of the wonderful Commissario Brunetti mysteries, a world-renowned musical conductor is found dead during the intermission of La Traviata at Venice's famed theater, La Fenice. Turns out someone put cyanide in his coffee. Commissario Brunetti's investigation leads him not only behind the scenes of the world of opera, but also into the conductor's murky past. There is no shortage of suspects, but the suave, urbane Brunetti is a master of detection. 

The author, American Donna Leon, has lived in Venice for almost 30 years and has written 22 Brunetti mysteries since this first one was published in 1992. The beautiful city of canals shares top billing with Brunetti, his family and friends, and the crooks and murderers who inhabit not only the back allies of Venice, but also its fabled palazzos. Venice may be known as La Serenissima, but life in Leon's Venice is anything but serene. (The title La Serenissima actually refers to the Venetian Republic's historical sovereignty.) 

The Commissario Brunetti mysteries are translated into 24 languages, but the glaring exception is Italian.  It's been speculated in the Italian press that Leon is afraid to have her books published in Italian because she fears Italians may be offended by what she says about their country. In an interview, however, Leon said: "the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life...But I'm not afraid, if people don't like the books, read another book." I think that for most people, once you read one Brunetti novel, you'll want to read them all. (Fans of Brunetti are in luck: the 23rd book in the series, By Its Cover, will be available in April 2014.)  

The Shape of Water
published in Italian as La forma dell'acqua
First book in the Inspector Montalbano series
Andrea Camilleri
Translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli

Author Andrea Camilleri was little known outside of his native Italy until in 1994, at age 70, he wrote La forma dell' acqua (The Shape of Water). The book introduces us to Inspector  Salvo Montalbano and the world of crime, violence, sex and intrigue in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigàta.

Montalbano is an engaging character, somewhat contentious, but honest and decent - although he knows, as Camilleri says: "that sometimes refusing to obey an order is a virtue, not a sin."  An avid reader of detective novels and a lover of good food, Montalbano is adept at navigating the seamy underworld of the Mafia and its web of crime. 

Food often plays a part in Italian novels, but Montalbano really loves food. A culinary discussion can pop up anywhere in a Montalbano book, even at the scene of a crime.  At a restaurant, Montalbano may deliver a tirade on Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, but when the food arrives, silence reigns. Not even a beautiful woman sitting across from him can distract him from the pleasures of his food - at least not until the meal is finished. (Click here for Camilleri's web page containing recipes from the books.)

Sicily, with all its beauty and its corruption, comes to life in the Montalbano series, but the entire country is represented in the astute commentary on the social history of Italy for the last 20 years. In an interview in the Guardian newspaper, the author said: I deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary on my times. This also allowed me to show the progression and evolution in the character of Montalbano." 

There are now 22 books in the series (16 of them have been translated into English) and Camilleri is known the world over. At 88 years old, the author doesn't know how many more Montalbano books he has in him, but it's certain that there will be at least one more. Camilleri has already written that last Montalbano mystery and deposited it with his publisher. When he gets tired of Montalbano or can't write any more, the book will be published. "I finished him off," says Camilleri. I, for one, am hoping Andrea Camilleri and Salvo Montalbano live a long, long time.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading,

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Caviar from the Great Lakes

Click on any photo to enlarge and see all photos

Waking up at 4 a.m. to go fishing on a cold Michigan morning, driving an hour, and then sitting in a small boat on a windy lake may not be everyone's idea of a good time. Mist often rises over the lake, and even with your headlamp, you can barely see the end of your fishing rod.  Other boats slip in and out of view, their lights twinkling in the pitch dark of the pre-dawn hours. 

Then the sun begins to rise, turning the sky a dazzling red. You cast and recast your line and wait for a slam at the end of your rod. It's fall and prime time for Lake Michigan chinook salmon. If all goes well, in the two or three hours after dawn, you'll land one or two fresh, silver salmon from Lake Michigan. And if you are very lucky, at least one of them will be a female, full of shiny pearl-like, coral-colored eggs. Eggs, which  by the end of the day, you will transform into sumptuous caviar.

Strictly speaking, salmon caviar is not real caviar. That designation goes only to caviar made from the roe of wild sturgeon from the Caspian and Black Seas. Beluga, the most famous of the caviars - the favorite of  James Bond, the hero of Ian Fleming's novels - sells for $200-$300 per ounce. These days, however, you would have to be a spy - or a crook - to get your hands on real beluga caviar. The sale and import of beluga has been banned since 2005 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

Originating 200 million years ago, sturgeon have outlasted the dinosaurs, but are now one of the planet's most threatened species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Native to subtropical, temperate and sub-Arctic waters in Europe, Asia and North America, sturgeon can live up to 100 years, reach lengths of seven to 12 feet, and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Prior to European settlement of the North American continent, a species of lake sturgeon was abundant in the Great Lakes.  By the late 1800s, the commercial catch of lake sturgeon in the lakes averaged more than 4 million pounds per year. In 1929, the catch had declined to only 2,000 pounds and Lake Michigan was closed to the commercial harvest of sturgeon. Habitat loss, pollution, destruction of spawning areas due to deforestation and dam construction also contributed to the demise of the lake sturgeon fishery. 

A remnant population of lake sturgeon stills exists in the Great Lakes today and according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, lake sturgeon throughout the Great Lakes appear to be on a rebound. Commercial fishing remains prohibited and sport fishing is highly regulated, so it may be a long time before any true caviar is available from the Great Lakes. 

On the other hand, Lake Michigan is teeming with salmon and a few years ago, I started wondering if fresh-water salmon eggs could be used for caviar. Turns out they can. So one day, I dropped by the dock where the fishing boats come in and asked a guy who was about to toss a beautiful fresh egg sack into the grinder if I could have it. "Gonna use it for bait?" he asked.  "No, I'm going to make caviar," I said. "Better you than me," he replied. Indeed!

Since then, JR and I have been catching our own salmon, early in the season when they are just entering the river from Lake Michigan. Most of our fishing in the Pere Marquette River in front of our cabin is catch and release, but we always take two or three salmon from the lake. This year we kept two large females, which in addition to producing beautiful fillets for grilling and smoking, also gave us 64 ounces of delicious, shimmering caviar.

Making caviar is a fairly simply process. The skein holding the eggs is slit open and the eggs are removed, which is the most difficult part since each egg is firmly attached to the egg sac. With practice, this part of the process can be accomplished in about an hour.  After that, the eggs are washed and put in a brine solution.  Here is the recipe:

Salmon Caviar

1 cup salmon eggs
2 cups of cold water
1/2 cup Kosher salt

In a glass bowl, mix the salt into the cold water and stir until it is dissolved. Put in the eggs and leave for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with a nonmetalic spoon. Drain the caviar and put it in small glass jars. Store the caviar in the refrigerator where, in my experience, it will remain fresh for two or three months -  if it lasts that long.

According to tradition, beluga caviar should be served with a mother of pearl spoon and eaten by itself without garnish. We like our salmon caviar on toast served over a spread that we make with hummus (without tahini) and mashed avocado.

If you are lucky enough, like us, to live near salmon waters and have lots of caviar, then I recommend my favorite recipe, caviar pasta. 

Pasta with caviar sauce

Linguini or spaghetti
olive oil or butter
chopped chives
juice and peel of a lemon

While the pasta cooks, put the olive oil or butter and the chives into a pan and sauté briefly.  Add the lemon juice and lemon peel.  When the pasta is cooked al dente, drain it and put it back in the pasta pan with the sauce on a low flame just until it is good and hot. (If it's too dry, simply add more olive oil or butter.) Remove from the heat and gently fold in 2-3 ounces (or more) of caviar.  Serve topped with another dollop of caviar and chopped parsley.

Sturgeon farming is now being practiced in many countries that have or had a native sturgeon population, including France, Italy and the United States. Markey's, the only company in the United States authorized to raise beluga sturgeon, also raises several other varieties of sturgeon on a farm in southern Florida.  Their stock now numbers 100,000 live fish.  Their beluga caviar is not yet for sale, but a beluga-type caviar, known as Osetra, is available online at Markey's for about $300 an ounce.

Salmon caviar from Alaska may be available at a Whole Foods store near you for about $16.99 an ounce. Or if you are in the neighborhood, come on by - we still have a jar or two of Michigan salmon caviar in the fridge.  But hurry, because it's going fast.

(with a caviar producer)

Photo by JR

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Baptismal Party, Kamilari, Crete, Greece

Night was already falling as we drove up the winding road toward Kamilari in Crete. We had spent the weekend touring a part of this beautiful Greek island.  We visited ancient ruins in the fertile Messara Plain, rich with olive trees and vineyards. We hiked through the cave-filled Agiofarago Gorge with only soaring griffins and sure-footed wild goats for companions. Then we swam in the Libyan Sea at the southernmost point of Europe. Now our friend Dimitris was taking us to a small-town restaurant for some local specialities: grilled lamb, stewed goat, stuffed fresh grape leaves and wild Cretan greens.

Approaching Kamilari, we saw that the entrance to the town was barred. An outdoor party was being held and all the streets leading into the center of town were closed. We walked to the town square and came upon a scene straight out of Nikos Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek. Seated at long tables, standing in groups, dancing in a circle to the haunting music of traditional Greek instruments, the whole town, it seemed, had come out to celebrate the baptism of one of its newest members.

It is still possible to see scenes like this in Crete.  For although it is the biggest of the Greek islands and an economic motor for the struggling Greek economy, Crete still maintains a strong respect for the old ways. 

In Crete, the old ways can go back a very long time. During our stay, we visited Knossos and Phaistos, where more than 4,000 years ago, the Minoans built palaces of amazing splendor. Ancient tablets, written in Linear B script and only deciphered in 1952, show that the palace was used for parties and religious festivals.  Sheep were raised and sheared every year; huge quantities of olive oil were used, mainly as a base for perfume; and brightly-colored cloth was popular, including reds, purples and whites. An older Cretan writing system - Linear A - remains undeciphered.

The Minoans - Europe's first great civilization - were thought to have arrived in Crete from Africa, Anatolia or the Middle East. Recent DNA testing has proved, however, that the Minoans have western and northern European origins and that they arrived on the island about 9,000 years ago. The gods of the Minoans are so old, in fact, that they are the ancestors of the great mythical gods of Greece. Zeus himself, the father of all Greek gods, is said to have been born and raised on Crete. 

The largest collection of the world's Minoan treasures are housed in the city's Archeological Museum. The museum has been under renovation since 2006, but there are still marvels to discover. Stopping before a group of sculptures, I couldn't help noticing the similarity between the hairstyles of the Minoans and the Egyptians. I mentioned this to JR and immediately a museum guard came over to set me straight: these were Minoans, not Egyptians. The Minoans were great traders, he told me, and more likely they influenced the Egyptians than the other way around.    

Over the centuries following the fall of the Minoan empire, Crete was conquered and occupied by the Mycenaeans, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks. It wasn't until 1898, after repeated uprisings against the Turks, that an autonomous Cretan state was declared and not until 1913 that Crete entered into a union with Greece.  

We visited the island for a week in April when JR was invited to give a math talk at the University of Crete in Heraklion. It is a great time to go. The summer crowds have not arrived and restaurant and hotel reservations are easy to get. The weather is heavenly and the archeological ruins, museums and beaches are practically yours alone.

Looking for flights, I realized, once again, how bizarre airline prices can be. A round-trip from Pisa to Heraklion on all the major airlines cost about 700 euros, involved three planes and took 11 hours. On the other hand, Ryan Air, one of Europe's many low-cost airlines, had a two-hour nonstop flight from Pisa that cost only 32 euros! The only drawback to these airlines is that their luggage restrictions are draconian and they often arrive at a town some distance from the major tourist destinations. But traveling light is always a good idea and Chania, the town where our flight arrived, is well worth the visit. 

Chania, Crete's second city, is a beautiful seaside town that retains its old port with a fortress that dates to the Venetian occupation of the island. We spent a day touring the town and then took a bus to Heraklion. Buses are the main form of public transport in Crete and they are very efficient. The three-hour trip was comfortable and gave us great views of the coast on one side and the high mountains of the island on the other. 

While JR worked, I explored Heraklion. The old center is mostly pedestrian streets. They are filled with restaurants, coffee bars, souvenir shops and fish spas. At the latter, for just a few euros you can immerse your feet in a tank of water while schools of tiny Garra Rufa fish - a type of carp - nip them clean and smooth. I was not tempted. 

In among this usual tourist environment is the Venetian-built Morosini Fountain. Dating to 1628, it was central Heraklion's first source of fresh water.  There is also a beautiful Venetian city hall, the town's cathedral and several smaller churches. For an excellent overview of the history of Crete, the Historical Museum near the port has great exhibits complete with English text. 

Up the hill from the sea is Heraklion's old market, a bustling place with stands that fill the small pedestrian streets and spill out on to the sidewalks.  Souvenirs seem to be overtaking the more traditional market stands, but it is still possible to find wonderful fresh cheese and thick luscious yoghurt. We discovered  another market along the sea west of the port that seemed to be where the ordinary citizens did their shopping. Its displays of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, yoghurts and meats made us wish we had a kitchen instead of only a small table on our hotel balcony. 

At the foot of the tourist center is the Venetian harbor built between 1523 and 1540. There is a sea wall where you can take a morning or evening walk or just watch the local fishermen wield their long poles out over the rocks. The port is also home to our favorite restaurant in Heraklion, the Heraklion Sailing Club Restaurant. We went there our first evening and I returned again and again for lunch.  The fish is fresh and grilled to perfection and the other island specialities such as Cretan bitter greens and stuffed fresh grape leaves are delicious.

Outside of the old center, Heraklion is a bustling mishmash of stores, workshops, apartment buildings and traffic. This part of town could do with a bit of restrictive zoning laws, but it's still worth visiting.  The people are more relaxed and willing to talk and the old workshops, especially the knife makers, can't be much different than those that lined the streets outside the Knossos palace 4,000 years ago. 

A week was certainly not enough time to take in all the wonders that Crete has to offer, but after months of cold, rainy weather in Paris and Pisa this past winter and spring, it is perhaps the sunshine of Crete that remains in my mind and bathes the island in a warm, luminous glow.

For more photos, click here.

Εις το επανιδείν

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Jersey Shore - Post Sandy

                                                                                                  Watercolor by Jerome Myers, Private Collection

The Jersey Shore has been the place to be these last few weeks. Now that the summer tourist season is upon us, New Jersey is eager to show the world that the shore area is rebounding from the devastation of last year's Hurricane Sandy. Prince Harry of England and President Obama both have strolled the boardwalks of Point Pleasant and Seaside, alongside the state's tour-guide-in-chief Governor Chris Christie.  A week or so before the visits of the Prez and the Prince, JR and I were passing through New Jersey on our way home from Europe.  We decided to take a tour of our own to see how the Jersey Shore was faring. Although there were no reporters following us and no governor to guide us, we did get the royal treatment from my family, who live in New Jersey.

I was in the State last October when Sandy struck on the next-to-the last day of a family visit. My plane back home to Michigan was leaving from the Philadelphia airport, which was little affected by the storm. Although my flight wasn't cancelled, all the fallen trees and wires on the roads in New Jersey made it impossible to get to the airport. The upside was that I got to spend a few extra days with my brother and his family - but without electricity or running water for the rest of my stay. We were not alone. According to Wikipedia, more than 2 million households in New Jersey lost power. Building losses in the State were estimated at $30 billion and 346,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The Jersey shore was particularly hard hit, with many towns completely destroyed and left buried under mountains of sand. Neither of my brothers' houses suffered any significant damage although my older brother and my sister-in-law were evacuated to a shelter from their bayside home.  

Many of the hardest-hit communities in New Jersey are on barrier islands, part of a chain of islands along the East Coast. When I was a kid, just like Governor Christie, I spent a good part of my summers there. The beaches are beautiful and the boardwalks with their rides, games of chance and food stands are a Jersey tradition. 

In their natural state, these islands provide a protective barrier between the mainland and the sea. When they are covered with houses, casinos, amusement parks, paved roads and parking lots, however, they are much less effective. The smartest move would be not to rebuild on these islands or at least to limit development. Instead, the Jersey shore area is abuzz with construction. 

The Point Pleasant boardwalk and concession stands are up and running, including one where we play Skee Ball, my favorite Jersey shore amusement. It all seems pretty normal. Just a mile or two away from the boardwalk, however, the shoreline is still littered with destroyed oceanfront homes. Instead of the the word "sold," one realtor's sign in front of a pancaked luxury dwelling simply said "sorry."  

In Seaside Heights - which provided some of the most dramatic photos of the devastation from Sandy - I talked with three local construction workers who seemed upbeat and optimistic. Like many events that bring hardship to some people, Hurricane Sandy is providing  opportunities for others. "We're rebuilding the shore," one of the workmen told me, "and it's going to be even better than before." According to the New Jersey Tourism website, tourism is a $38 billion industry that provides almost 10 percent of all the jobs in New Jersey. Almost 62 percent of those tourist dollars are spent at the Jersey shore, so it's not surprising that in a press conference right after the storm, Governor Christie said about the shore area: "there's is nothing more important to the future of New Jersey than to rebuild." 

In a Quinnipiac poll taken a month after the hurricane,  almost two-thirds of New Jersey residents agreed that Sandy and other super storms are the result of global climate change. In spite of that, 88 percent of New Jerseyans want the Jersey shore rebuilt, although 70  percent of that number do favor stricter building codes. 

According to the Center for Ocean Solutions, scientific studies "indicate that climate change will affect the intensity, frequency and paths of strong storm and wave events." It goes on to say that  "Increases in catastrophic storms will adversely affect coastal communities..." Stricter building codes may help in the short run and I wish my home state good luck.

The waist-high sand that covered many oceanfront towns has been removed, but it's just possible that too many people still have their heads buried in the sand.

To see more photos, click here.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Wild Asparagus

Spring has come late to Tuscany this year, but in the last week or so, the air has been full of the scents and sounds of primavera. All over Pisa, the wisteria is in full bloom, filling the air with an intoxicating perfume. The swallows, the acrobatic high flyers of the bird kingdom, have returned. Gliding swiftly and effortlessly above the River Arno and through the narrow corridors that separate the great tower houses of Pisa, the birds' high-pitched calls fill the morning and evening skies as they feast on newly-hatched insects.  

Yesterday, the little three-wheeled truck piled high with spring artichokes made its first appearance on the Borgo Stretto. And in the market, wild field greens, spring peas, tender fava beans and big bunches of cultivated asparagus fill the big red bins of the vegetable sellers.  

If you are so inclined, know where to look, have a bicycle and a sunny day, you can pick wild asparagus. I have all of these things so when I found myself with a free afternoon, I put on my hiking shoes, grabbed a cloth bag and pedaled out of town along the Medici aqueduct toward the Monti Pisani, the high hills that form the green backdrop of Pisa. There, in an olive grove that climbs a steep, terraced hillside, the asparagus grows amid a profusion of wild flowers 

Asparagus acutifolius is found only in the Mediterranean basin. It is an evergreen and as its Latin name implies, is thorny and prickly. The thin, delicate spears hide in the thick grey-green foliage and are not easy to spot. 

I was lucky.  It was a weekday and I had the Monti to myself. At the base of the hill, wild fennel was growing and I made a note to pick some on the way back. (Fennel greens are great sauteed or chopped fresh into salads. Or throw a big bunch of fennel greens into boiling water; cook some pasta in the water; and then serve the pasta with butter or olive oil, salt  and cheese for a delicate first course.)

Asparagus is not only good, it's good for you. It's low in calories and salt and full of vitamins and minerals and has been eaten for thousands of years. Asparagus spears appear on a 5,000-year-old Egyptian vase and the vegetable was very popular in Greek and Roman times.  It fell out of favor in the Middle Ages, but by the 1500s, it was being celebrated for its aphrodisiacal qualities.  There is no creditable scientific proof of this, but it is known that for some people, eating asparagus in the evening can inhibit sleep. It might be that - more than any chemical effect - that turns one's thoughts to lovemaking.

By the end of the afternoon, I had lots of wild asparagus, some fennel and a nice sunny complexion. I biked home and that evening we had a delicious, simple asparagus pasta. (Who needs sleep?) The recipe is below. 

If you don't have access to wild asparagus and it's springtime where you are, buy the freshest asparagus you can find in the market; mix up a green salad; accompany it with a good bottle of Italian wine and enjoy. It's up to you whether you have it for lunch or dinner. 

(If you are fortunate enough to live in a land where asparagus acutifolius grows and want to learn how to cultivate it at home, click here.)

For more photos, click here.

For an in-depth article on asparagus from the blog Quick Easy Cook, click here.

A presto, 

Pasta with wild asparagus 

A bunch of wild  (or cultivated) asparagus
Parmesan cheese
1-2 garlic cloves chopped
Olive oil
Pasta of your choice


1.  Bring about 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil, put in the pasta and cook for the required time.
2.  In the meantime, especially if using wild asparagus cut off just the tender tips (about 3     inches or so - 30 cm)
3.  Cover the bottom of a small frying pan with good, full-bodied olive oil.
4.  Set to medium-low heat, and add garlic, asparagus and some good sea salt.
5.  Saute for just a few minutes until garlic is golden and asparagus is cooked, but still a little bit crisp. (Don't overcook. Try to remember the Roman expression for acting quickly, which loosely translates  from the Latin  to "faster than cooking asparagus.")
6.  Drain pasta, toss it over a low flame with some more olive oil, serve it into pasta dishes and top with cooked asparagus.
7.  Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pisa Unchanged

To see more photos, click here

Recently, I attended a press conference given by the mayor of Pisa. Its purpose was to announce an upcoming Dante conference and a new summer program entitled: "Reading Dante in Pisa." (If you would like to enroll, click here.) In 1312-1313, Dante is believed to have spent quite a bit of time in Pisa writing his famous Monarchia. After his death, Pisa was a center of Dante studies and some of the best-known Dante commentators and historians lived here. The University of Pisa is, in fact, still home to a host of illustrious Dante scholars. (One of them, Marco Santagata, recently published a well-reviewed narrative biography of the poet: Dante, Il Romanzo della sua Vita.) While Florence, Bologna and Ravenna have capitalized on their role in the life of Dante to attract visitors to their cities, Pisa's connection to the great poet is much less known. 

How big a draw is Dante, you might ask. Well, when the well-known actor Roberto Benigni read the Divine Comedy on Italian television, more than 10 million people tuned in. The entire 13 programs have reached more than 45 percent of Italian households.

The Dante initiative is just one part of a larger plan to make Pisa more attractive to tourists. Contracts with the European low-cost airlines are bringing more and more visitors to Pisa and the city wants people to know that it has a lot more to offer than one magnificent leaning tower. 

A new, multi-media web site with tourist itineraries is in the works; two new museums - Palazzo Blu and the Museum of Graphic Design - have opened on the Lungarno in recent years; and the restoration of Pisa's incredible medieval walls is well on its way to completion. Soon it will be possible to walk the restored portions of the nearly 35-foot high walls and see Pisa from a whole new point of view. A relative late-comer, the town's beautiful Teatro Verdi, completed in 1867, has a new web site (presently in Italian only). Visitors can now buy tickets online to the theater's many plays, concerts, operas and dance performances. On the splendid Piazza dei Cavalieri, the ugly blacktop paving has been removed and replaced with more traditional paving stones. The Piazza Victorio Emanuele II, under construction for many years, is now finished, complete with underground parking. Cars are no longer allowed on the square, which means locals and tourists arriving at the near-by train station can enjoy a long passeggiata from the Piazza down the renovated pedestrian street of the Corso Italia, over the Ponte di Mezzo and on to the medieval Borgo Stretto. Along the way, they pass great shops, book stores, restaurants, bars, cafes and gelaterias.

Not every citizen in Pisa, of course, is happy with all the changes, but from a visitor's point of view, the biggest draw in Pisa is all the things that haven't changed - not in hundreds  and hundreds of years.  

The cathedral, one of the most celebrated Romanesque buildings in the world, was started in 1064, the Baptistery in 1152, and the famous Leaning Tower in 1173. The town walls of Pisa were begun in 1155. Just outside the walls is the modern-day Jewish Cemetery, which opened in 1674 on the site of an earlier 13th-century one. The University of Pisa, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, was founded in 1343. The National Museum of San Matteo, housed in a 13th-century Benedictine convent, is filled with magnificent works of art from the 12th to the 17th centuries.  At the archeological site of the Cantiere delle Navi Antiche, there are the remains of ships dating from the 5th century b.c. to the 7th century a.d, a testament to Pisa's maritime dominance, which continued into the 13th century. The Borgo Stretto, as it name implies, is a narrow street in the heart of the old town lined with 15th-century arcades. 

In addition to its monumental buildings, Pisa is packed with beautiful, smaller Romanesque churches, magnificent town houses along the Arno, and hundreds of traditional Tuscan-colored, medieval tower houses. One of them is the house where Galileo was born. And although more than 1 million people visit the Leaning Tower each year, it is still possible in Pisa to walk alone down any number of small streets and to imagine yourself in a time far removed from the present.  

Our apartment is right in the heart of medieval Pisa, just down the block from the Teatro Verdi and Galileo's house. We're just steps away from the Arno River, but we've not seen many tourists in our neighborhood. The other day, however, I saw two American women with a guide book, looking up at our tower house.  

So, if you want to see Pisa before the rush, come now.   

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by GFK

Monday, March 18, 2013

Under the Tuscan Rain

The Arno River approaching the top of its banks as it passes through Pisa

Since we arrived in Pisa last week, more than once we have heard the phrase: Povera ItaliaPoor Italy.  The economic crisis is worsening and young people are returning home to mamma in droves because they can't find jobs. In the recent national election, no one party received a clear majority. The various factions could cooperate and form a government - on the order of Republicans and Democrats in United States coming together for the good of the country. That tactic hasn't worked so well in America in the last few years and cooperation is, apparently, even more unlikely in Italy. So it is probable that there will be new elections in the next couple of months. On top of that, the highly-respected president of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, has announced that at age 87, he will step down when his term ends on May 15.  Even the Pope has turned in his red shoes and resigned. And then there is the rain - weeks of it that has flooded roads, turned the fields into lakes and filled the rivers to overflowing.  

Nonetheless, the Italians are still displaying their customary friendliness. And now there is a new pope, Francesco, so for a few days at least, the politicians and the weather were banished to the back pages of the newspapers. 

As has become our custom, we had dinner our first night at nearby Giorgio's Pizzeria. As we entered, Giorgio himself rushed from behind the counter to embrace us. The next day, my friend Roberta drove me to the supermarket, to stock up on wine and olive oil and cheese and pasta and all those other wonderful Italian products. Beautiful, fresh octopus was on sale so we each bought one. 

On the way home, we decided that it would be a great idea to invite some friends for dinner and have a Saturday-night, Italian-American octopus cook-off. By the end of the meal, there was not a scrape of octopus left so the competition was declared a tie! (My recipe is below; if you can't get octopus where you live, the same recipe works equally well for squid.)

On Sunday, there was the possibility of no rain, so when another friend invited us to drive with her to the mountains of Liguria, we said yes. As we approached the mountains -  invisible in a mass of dark clouds - rain began to pelt the windshield and hiking no longer seemed like a good idea. Fortunately, in Italy, a museum is never far away so we drove into the town of LaSpezia. There, we spent two hours at the Museo Amedeo Lia, a little-known, but wonderful museum housed in a former 17th-century church and convent. 

When I went out to buy bread this morning at our favorite bakery, Panetteria Tolemei on the via San Francesco, it was still raining. Traditional Tuscan bread, known as pane sciocco, is made without salt. Some say it is because centuries ago, the government levied a tax on salt. The locals say it's because their saltless bread is especially suited to the strong flavors of the Tuscan cuisine. Even Dante, apparently, loved saltless bread because he laments its absence in his canto in Paradiso that talks about the pain of exile:

You shall leave everything you love most;
this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots
first.  You are to know the bitter taste of
others' bread, how salty it is....
We, however, have not yet learned to appreciate this Tuscan speciality and prefer the salted pane brutto di Pontedero, which we buy every day at Tolemei. Its name translates to "ugly bread," but it's got a wonderful crispy crust and a nice, open crumb that is perfect for soaking up sauces and just enough salt to make it tasty. 

JR has been picking up the bread each morning, so this was the first time I went into the shop this year. "Signora, welcome back to Pisa," said the baker. "You look younger every year." I graciously thanked him, but added: "I don't know about that.  In fact, I was just looking in the mirror this morning and thinking how old I look." "Signora," he said with a smile, "the mirror was wrong." 

Ah, these Italians, they can make the sun shine even on a rainy day.

For more photos, click here.


Octopus in a tomato/wine sauce

Octopus, cooked as below
1 medium onion  or comparable amount of shallots chopped
two to three tomatoes chopped or one medium can Italian chopped tomatoes
2-3 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
garlic crushed
glass of white wine
chopped boiled potatoes (optional)

Buy a cleaned octopus, wash in cold water.  Leaving just the water that clings to the octopus, put it in a saucepan over very low heat.  Cover and let simmer for about 30 minutes or until almost tender.  When octopus is cooked, allow it to cool somewhat and then cut into pieces (bigger than bite size since the octopus will shrink when cooked in the sauce.) Preserve the liquid from the cooked octopus. This will be added to the sauce below.  

While octopus is cooking, saute onion or shallots - add flour, tomatoes, salt and pepper, crushed garlic, dash of cognac and a glass of white wine. Bring to a boil, stirring. Lower heat, cover and simmer until sauce is a good consistency and some of the alcohol has cooked off.  Add the chopped octopus (and cooked potatoes if desired) with any liquid it has produced and cook in the sauce until tender - about 15 minutes.  

Without the potatoes added, the octopus can also be used as a sauce over pasta or served over rice.