Wednesday, June 29, 2011

L'Aquila part two - or the meaning of the word 'basta'

It was like I had come home: the long-lost grandchild they'd never met, but smothered in hugs and kisses and passed from person to person none-the-less.

Rapid-fire Italian flew about my ears, a cacophony of unfamiliar voices crashing like waves about my head and disorienting me – but in a nice way. Like that moment after you've caught a wave, land on the shore and spot the familiar red-and-white striped umbrella.

I was introduced to Marisa and Anna, both daughters of Ercole, Rafaella - Marisa's daughter, Dritan - Rosanna's husband, Denise and Dorian – Dritan and Rosanna's children and finally, our translator Rosanna - daughter of Anna, the sole English-speaker. Rosanna, in an accent flavoured with an American twang thanks to cousins in New Jersey, embraced me and began translating all that had been said to me. The general gist was that everyone was so happy to meet me, and did I speak Italian? The answer had become apparent without my even needing to acknowledge it, but I did impress them with my counting skills (all the way to 12!!) and a bit of 'ciao, buon giono, ciao, buon giorno, come stai?' to the tune of Frère Jacques. Thank you my sole year of Italian classes at age five!

With welcomes and introductions out of the way, we rushed to our awaiting table at a restaurant located literally in the middle of a field.

If the name L'Aquila sounds familiar to you, it may be owing to the 2009 earthquake which devastated the small town, injuring some 1,500 people and ending the lives of just over 300. Some 65,000 of town's residents were left homeless as a result of the quake, many of whom were forced to move elsewhere due to the Italian government's slow-moving recovery plan. Speaking with some former-residents now living in towns nearby, they will be lucky if their homes will be rebuilt within another three to four years. Considering it has already been three years since the event, it's a long time to be living in temporary accommodation. Businesses, unable to wait that long to star up again have begun popping up on the outskirts of the city, sometimes in groups and sometimes in random fields.

Inside the restaurant - an epicurean island in a sea of green fields - we sat at a long, rustic, wooden table. Obviously early, the wait-staff routinely clanked down plates, silverware, glasses and two carafes of red wine, giving us attention while we were still among the few occupied tables. Rosanna commented that this was a very popular restaurant and that we had come early to secure a table – something I'm glad we'd done. Not half an hour later, the restaurant was at capacity. I'll repeat that: a restaurant, full of Italians, at capacity. If you think the Germans do merriment and cheer well, the good-natured, easy-going Italians give them a run for their money!

Accepting my first glass of red wine (another fantastic drop for house plonk) baskets of fresh bread, prosciutto crudo and formaggio were brought out and passed around the table – the cheese mild and the prosciutto moist, almost like a sliver of carpaccio. Before I could even blink, it appeared that the rest of the table had inhaled their antipasto, and I quickly scoffed my meat and cheese to the approving eye of the older ladies.

Round two arrived quickly, this time warm terracotta bowls of a tomato based meat and vegetable dish, like a ratatouille, and plates of grilled eggplant. More bread was passed around, and chunks taken and used to mop up the stew-like offering. Fresh basil and lashings of olive oil mixed with tender bites of beef, I was urged to take more and I gladly obliged.


If only I knew.

Eye blink, plates gone.

Hearing grew increasingly difficult as more parties arrived and children grew fussy. Over talk of their memories of my grandfather, new plates had arrived and a server with a dish of steaming risotto came to each person to ladle the fresh offering. One scoop. The server gave me the eye that said “unless you say so, I'm going to put at least another three spoon-fulls on your plate”. Second scoop. I gave Rosanna the “I don't know if I can eat this much” look. Before scoop three could occur, Rosanna muttered the word I needed to know 'basta' - that's enough, stop. Grateful, I took a deep breath, inhaling the steam of the spinach and spring onion risotto, which looked nothing like the gluggy, glue-like imitations of back home. Instead, it was light and tasted mildly of stock, and once I'd had my way with the parmesan bowl, parmesan.

Thoroughly satisfied, my eyes grew large when the server came around with yet another set of fresh bowls (I pity the dish-pig!) and another steaming dish. Fresh, home made tagliatelle served with ragù; I don't believe I have ever had pasta this good, and I doubt I ever will again. The pasta itself was soft, yet firm to the bite, and wasn't drowned in sauce. It was all a bit Goldilocks – just right. Of course, despite absolutely loving every minute of this meal, I was once again the last to finish. Not wanting my Italian hosts to think I didn't like the meal, when offerings of a second helping came, I accepted happily.


Sometimes I think I should have worn a more appropriate outfit to my meeting with the Farinosis. At the end of the fourth course, there was definite strain on the high-waisted fastening of my skirt, and I was wishing for something with more of an empire line, or at least an elastic waist band. Still, I soldiered on in the name of good manners (of course). When the fifth course arrived, I damned myself for that second helping of pasta and the slices of bread I'd feasted on earlier.

In between courses, my dear friends the Farinosis
The fact that I smelled this course before I saw it should speak volumes. Large roasting dishes of slow-cooked meat were placed before us, tenderness visible, swimming in juices of deliciousness (I know that's a bit of a nothing word, but it was amazing – more flavourful than any stock or gravy I've ever tasted). Next to the meat dishes, tureens of garden peas with speck and generously doused in olive oil offered one of the few vegetable components of the meal (the other being a salad served with the pasta). Knowing I would regret it if I didn't, I placed two matchbox sized pieces of meat on my plate, and a serving of peas, wishing I could stomach more. The meat melted, dissolved into separate pieces in my mouth, stringy bits of fat falling away with a mere nudge of the tongue. If only, only I could have fit more in!

Finally, I was done, well and truly finished. I had overdone it and began swearing that I'd never eat again (ha!) or I'd at least be eating salad and soda water for days. Of course, this meant little to the Italians, who were already planning dinner.

After throwing back an espresso, turning down a piece of fruit and then in-turn a piece of cake, much to Signora Maria's disappointment, it was time to hit the road, and start digesting before the next epic meal.

This experience has taught me a couple of things – primarily what an amazing thing the human body is to be able to put away the above meal, then a couple of hours later at least four slices of pizza, a meat stick, salad, and two slices of Vienetta ice cream cake. Oh, and some cherry liquor to top it all off.

How those Italians do it, I'll never know, but at least I'll know for next time – basta!

xoxo Fifi von Strudel

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Some von Strudel family history

I know it's hard to believe when I tell you there's von Strudel family history lingering in the Italian alps - especially when I tell you there is no last name more Scottish than mine. But it's not what you're thinking - a wayward relative falling for a handsome/beautiful Italian god/dess? No, nothing quite so sordid. So, let me tell you a story...

Almost seventy years ago, during World War II, my paternal grandfather was captured by the Germans. He was among the approximately 30,000 South African soldiers taken prisoners of war at the fall of Tobruk, North Africa. The Germans then transported him and many others to POW camps thoughout Italy.

After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the Germans undertook the task of moving all the POWs in Italy north to safer land Germany. Somehow during the transportation of prisoners (by foot) my grandfather and three or so other prisoners managed to escape without being noticed.

The escaped POWs walked the roads of Italy for days and days, living in fear of being sighted; defences were down as hunger and fatigue set in. When an an Italian civilian cycled past the group on the roads of the province of L'Aquila, the escapees quaked at having been sighted and the thought of being turned in to the Germans. However, rather than turn them in, the Italian man cycled back and somehow conveyed he wanted to help them.

This man was Ercole Farinosi and he and his family went on to harbour my grandfather for the next nine months, before an Italian spy betrayed the family and my grandfather was re-captured and sent to Germany.

This act of courage and kindness created an incredible tie between all those involved. Once my grandfather was safely repatriated to South Africa and had started his own family, the bond continued through letters between the families.My grandfather and grandmother even went to visit in 1973, which was apparently quite an emotional and joyous occasion. Sadly, my grandfather passed away in the early '80s, and with him, the communications between South Africa and Italy ceased.

1973 - my Grandfather and Grandmother visit L'Aquila and the Farinosi family
It was only in 2003 that my father, remembering the story of the Italians who'd saved his father, set about trying to re-establish contact between the two families. With time, and some help from Italian-speaking friends, the Farinosis were located, a pilgrimage of sorts arranged, and the special bond forged again.

So when Papa von Strudel heard I was planning a trip to Italy, he sent a messenger pigeon to the town of L'Aquila to alert the family that the next generation was coming to visit...

Next - Learning the word 'basta'

FF v S xox

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I hate to say it, but...

When in Rome, do as the Romans do - that old cliché finally became applicable when we visited Bella Italia: home of spaghetti and pizza, calzone and fettuccine, focaccia and farfalle. The greatest thing about eating in Italy is that there is no need for translation, so familiar are we all with this now-universal cuisine.

Things started well in Italy. Having woken up at 3:30am to catch our 6am flight to Rome (the things we do for cheap flights) Mr von S and I were starving by the time we were ready to explore the capital. Second breakfast anyone? Ignoring that it was 10:30am, we settled for two focaccias with mozzarella and prosciutto crudo, plus a coffee for me, thanks. Despite not having left the tourist area, so far, Rome tasted pretty good. The focaccia itself was more like Turkish bread: fluffy and full of air, (but in a good way) with a salty crust. Inside, the mozzarella had just begun to melt and the prosciutto crudo (not to be confused with prosciutto cotto – the cooked brother of the dry-cured crudo) was chewy and satisfyingly salty. Appetites satiated, we headed off to pound the streets of warm and slightly humid Rome.

A similar lunch followed the next day in the beautiful Campo de' Fiori, where amidst a weekly market, Mr von S and I munched our focaccias at the foot of a statue. On one corner of the square is a little bakery, which if you walked past quickly, you would miss. Forno Campo de' Fiori (literally 'bakery of the field of flowers') was bursting with people – mostly local – lining up for focaccias, various biscottis and other baked goods. We took our place in line to receive our focaccias, all of which are sold by weight. I took ownership of a spinaci e formaggio combo, while Mr von S stayed loyal with mozzarella and prosciutto crudo. While the spinach was a bit wet, overall I was very satisfied with my focaccia, which was both filling and better priced than the previous day.

That evening, we sought out a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant just off the Campo de' Fiori. While the Campo was easy enough to find, the roads surrounding the square are a maze, changing names every 20 meters, and dispersed with mini 'piazzas' that barely qualify for the title. In time, we found Baffetto 2 at Piazza del Teatro di Pompeo 18. Large, thin-crust pizzas served quickly and with little on top, these are apparently a very good specimen of a Roman pizza. Served with a half litre of house vino rosso, it was a satisfactory and affordable meal. Would I go back? Probably not, if only for the fact it felt far too touristic, although what did I expect from a LP rec?

To top off dinner that evening, we treated ourselves to some gelato at San Crispino, once again recommended by the Lonely Planet. Well, this time, they got it right. Conveniently located on our route back to hostel, at Via della Panetteria 42, right near the Trevi Fountain. Quietly lining up and silently gasping at the prices (at least a euro or two higher than most places in Italy) I ordered a cup with honey and caramel meringue gelato. Please ignore my facial expression below, or rather, look at it, and understand what it tells you. AMAZING. The honey was subtle, the meringue a textural dream – ice cream dispersed with bits of meringue and ribbons of caramel. Definitely worth the price.

Our final night in Rome took us out of the city a bit, to the trendy suburb of Testaccio. Boasted as one of the suburb's institutions and rumoured to at times have lines stretching the length of the piazza it sits on, Pizzeria Remo is a dining experience. Located at Piazza Santa Maria Liberatice 44, Mr von S and I appeared to be the only non-Italians in the place, and lucky to snare a spot – the place was busy! Tables were lined up so close that any ideas of personal space were left at the door. I bumped elbows with my Italian neighbour at least twice, and leaving the restaurant was a group effort, as everyone moved their tables left or right to allow enough room for the departer to shuffle past.

Armed with a menu and an order sheet, we played bingo as we crossed off what we wished to eat: bruschetta, two pizzas, two beers and ½ litre of house red. Our order came quickly, although slightly behind our neighbours – both couples – who chowed down with amazing speed. By the time I was done nibbling my bruschetta, both couples were on to their pizzas, with the ladies going bite for bite with the men. No polite 'oh honey, I couldn't possibly eat another bite'  – nope, these ladies finished every last crumb of their pizzas. Impressive. Our pizzas also arrived, and like the night before, were of the thin-crust Roman variety – but better. While the team in the kitchen obviously work quickly, there seemed to be more authenticity in the pizza, and slightly more toppings. There were parts of the crust that bore evidence of the wood-fired oven, producing a smoky, home-made flavour. I understood what all the boasting was about and why those ladies managed to finish their pizzas. With that, I add my commendation.

Next...a rustic meal in L'Aquila

xox Fifi

Friday, June 17, 2011

Quick Update

Hello friends,

It has been an age since I've posted, but I have been doing what one does when one lives in Europe, and that is country-hopping. Last week I was in Italy, and moments ago I landed back in Berlin after a brief sojourn in the Czech Republic. Trust me, there will be content and content in coming days (or maybe weeks..there's a lot to say!)

In addition to my travels, I've also been busy jotting down some articles for the FABULOUS European online mag, Running in Heels. 

Check out my article on some of Europe's trendiest fashion bloggers: Blogging in Heels: the Fashion Blogger Files - it's German for clothed, and also a great fashion blog!

Or, grab some inspiration for a summer-style garden party (souther hemisphere friends, take this a season or two early and start preparing for December!) in: Five of our Favourites....Garden Party Essentials

dreaming of summer yet, southern hemisphere? source
Off to put some washing on and unwind a bit, but more posts to come soon!

xox Fifi
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