This summer makes 5 years since I last traveled abroad. The destination was Italy, and was my second foray into European travel.
I came home from the trip saying I didn’t have a very good time. I bemoaned the fact that I was away from my love (*ahem* the fellow) for two whole weeks – we had never been apart for a day or two in our entire relationship (and we’ve since challenged ourselves with 6 months away from each other at a time because of his job) – that I didn’t have the comforts of home, like house geckos and mosquitoes who don’t try to eat me in my sleep, and it was hot and I was sticky and sweaty and that life just sucked over there. I was an asshole drama queen, what can I say?
The more I looked at photos of the trip, the more I pieced together our stories and adventures (because the BFF and I can’t go anywhere without some sort of awesome story following us [read: my book]), the more I thought about the little things, the more I realized that I had a blast. All the reasons why the trip was “no fun” were the very reasons it was fun. They were the things I’m going to remember forever. Sure, I’ll always talk about the unseasonable heat wave with a bit of a sneer; I’ll always remember nearly pissing my pants when we encountered a wild boar in the middle of the dense woods and the intense panic that went with it; I’ll always bad-mouth the lack of screens over the windows despite the lack being a nationwide thing. I made it very clear in my book about Spain that the “good times” are not always the best remembered. We are a people that thrive on drama and love a good story, and the harrowing tale of accidentally taking our Fiat 500 off-roading will always be better-loved than that time we ate salame pizza paninis beside a fence that surrounds Circo Massimo. I mean, they were amazing pizza paninis, but which story would YOU rather hear?
Please stop reading this and go away if you said pizza paninis. Theory debunker.
Regardless of which story you’d rather hear from my two weeks abroad, there are stories everyone tells when they come back from Italy. They are about the sights and about the food. Dear gods, the food.
So here’s some backstory before I launch myself into a dither about how amazing pasta is.
We stayed in Rome for two whole nights. We slept in teeny tiny beds in a convent (the Monastero Delle Benedettine Camaldolesi), where we had a painting of Byzantine Jesus above our heads, constantly judging us. Everything about this convent was adorable. Except for the fact that it was within earshot of the Circo Massimo, where there were hardcore parties happening because something related to football was going on. Research tells me it was probably the UEFA Euro 2012 Championship. Who am I to question it? I just know that we got to hear the fireworks and the screaming and horns honking. Oh, and the convent bathroom was no bigger than the cardboard box a refrigerator comes in – and not even a very nice refrigerator – and the toilet and shower were one room. We learned the hard way to take the toilet paper out of the bathroom before showering…
After our short stay in Rome, we trained to Orvieto and rented a car to take us to a 2000 population town called Bomarzo out in the middle of nowhere (hyperbole aside, it’s about 68 km/42 miles NNW from Rome). We were renting a place that used to be a medieval oratory. It was five stories. FIVE. A sub basement (master bath), a basement (master bedroom), a ground level (living room, kitchen, and kitchen-bathroom), a second floor (two bed room), and the rooftop (rooftop balcony). While we had experienced such delightful cuisine in Rome already (and also a failure in terrible prosciutto cotto sandwiches from the Despar grocery store that we hatefully referred to as “crotch-wiches”), and I knew there was more to come because we were off to places like Florence, Siena, and Orvieto, I was especially excited to cook in our kitchenette.
After settling in, we went grocery shopping. The Ipercoop in nearby Viterbo was just… amazing. It has everything and more. And then even more than that. The only thing we couldn’t ever find was fly tape. And boooooy did we need fly tape. What with that lack of screens over the windows I may have mentioned earlier… and the heat wave requiring us to keep the windows open for any semblance of air circulation. Walking into the living room, you couldn’t avoid the spray of flies circling en masse. You just couldn’t. And there was nothing we could do about it.
Anyway, I digress.
We loaded up on all sorts of food. We had a little refrigerator, we had cupboard space, and we were ready to stock up. A lot of the sightseeing we were doing wasn’t necessarily taking us into the bigger cities. In fact, there was a lot of backwoods type places we would end up and that meant eating breakfast at home, packing lunches for ourselves, and making our own dinner. This wasn’t the case 100% of the time, but pretty damn near it. So a full fridge we finally had and the food adventures were about to begin. Most mornings, we had a combination of fresh chunks of bread with rich butter and a myriad of fruit. Maybe a little nun jam we picked up at the nunnery up the road… that makes jams and marmalade and honey. Lunch was either sandwiches with Fonzies (white cheddar Cheetos, essentially) or quick pasta with butter and copious amounts of fresh grated pecorino romano. We’d pack sandwiches with fruit or heels of bread to eat on our little adventures into the woods. Our homemade dinners were laden with mushrooms and asparagus and peppers. And of course, pasta. Pasta, pasta, pasta.
We won’t even touch on the issue with lighting the stove and cooking with gas for the first time. And the constant fear of the lid of the stove top falling on the lit, in-use stove, and flipping all of our hard work and fire everywhere.
And then there was the wine. I don’t care for wine, much. It’s never been my thing. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, drinking isn’t really my thing. But when in Rome… The BFF picked out all sorts of white wines to try, and a couple reds for her, since those were her favorite. I have been told that Orvieto Classic can be found in some local grocery shops out here and I am on a mission to find it. It was my favorite while we were there. It’s not high class or expensive or anything, but the memories of sitting on that rooftop balcony, overlooking the valley as we ate dinner, talking about our old college antics and sipping drinks, will always make the cheap wine so much better.
I mean, wouldn’t you not mind having something sub par to drink while looking at this beauty every evening?
And much like the celebratory raucous in Rome, we ran into the very same in Bomarzo. There is a town off in the distance (I don’t believe we ever figured out which it was, though it may have been Mugnano) that was shooting off fireworks like mad. It woke us, actually. But instead of grumbling about it and being annoyed that we had to get up in the morning and our precious sleep was being interrupted, we ran upstairs, climbed up on the concrete patio table and watched with eyes wide. Blooms of red, white, and green filled the sky. Bright displays of colors and shapes followed by loud cracks echoing over the valley entertained us. Then the mosquitoes started buzzing in our ears and we were afraid we were going to fall off the table and crack open our skulls, so we went inside.
I was considered one of those “annoying Americans” who pulled out their camera to take photographs of the meals. I probably embarrassed the BFF at one point or another. I don’t know and honestly, I don’t care. I went to Italy to experience my surroundings and to photograph them; food was right up there on the list. At least I had the class to have a real camera and not some bullshit iPhone with Instagram filters and sepia tones. (Except now years later, armed with a smart phone, I have become that person. Though I refuse to use sepia tones.)
With that idea in mind (the food, not iPhones and Instagram), let’s move forward with the main purpose of this post: Italian cuisine.
As mentioned, travelers return from Italy raving about the things they saw and the food they ate. While I could go on and on about all the awesome things we saw, especially those outside of Rome, I want to focus on the grub. I can’t remember a day where we didn’t eat pasta.
There was more in the way of divine eats we experienced abroad, but low lighting, or the inability to wait an extra minute or two before wolfing it down, makes for scarce photographs.
Some of what we made/consumed at home:
In Italy, folks are in love with kiwis. Having not been much of an adventurous eater in my youth and most of my formative years, it was a new fruit to my diet. After my mate forced me to try one during breakfast at the convent alongside the nun-baked buns, soft cheeses, and fresh jams/spreads, I was equally gaga for the fuzzy compact fruit, and made it a staple for breakfast.
I travel because I enjoy immersing myself in cultures other than those I grew up with. I don’t love American history. I mean, some of it is kind of neat, and getting to see some of it in the making is unique, I guess, but I’ve such a love for European flair that spending all my expendable income and time in places as beautiful as Spain, Portugal, Italy, and beyond is far more titillating than what’s in my own back yard. And I live in the Pacific Northwest, so that’s saying something!
Food makes a table. It brings family and friends together. It is a universal language for most. If you’ve never seen the 4 part documentary by Michael Pollan called “Cooked”, you should take the time to watch it. It is simply about how food matters, both to those who make it and those who consume it. It’s beautifully done, and has fueled my 2017 goal to eat more wholesome, home cooked meals, cutting out as much overly processed food as possible, and just eating and living better. It’s the least I can do for myself, especially in a time when so little control is in my hands.