Thursday, April 26, 2007

Gimme What the Guy on the Floor's Having...

Unsurprisingly, for a place so full of good things to eat and drink, Italy is also famous for several distilled spirits and liquors. Perhaps the best-known, and most feared, is grappa -- a burning, cough-inducing, firewater made from the macerated skins leftover from wine-making. Similar to the French eau-de-vie, grappa is reputed to settle the stomach and cure what ails you, assuming you can remember what was wrong after drinking it.

Sambuca is another liver-busting spirit you'll be familiar with. Made from anise seeds (aniseed) and typically drunk over ice with 3 toasted coffee beans, it can be very enjoyable after a large meal -- it's strong flavor and sticky sweetness cutting through the fullness you're experiencing. It's also sometimes, unadvisedly, drunk (in the UK) as a shot at the end of a boozy night, and is never, ever a good idea.

There are, however, other strong waters that, when mixed together, while still likely to make you feel a mite tipsy, can be enjoyed without the physical symptoms caused by grappa or sambuca. The most famous of these cocktails is the Negroni. Invented in Florence in the 1920s, it was named for Count Camillo Negroni (1829-1913), who asked the bartender in his local to add gin to his favorite drink, the Americano. Negronis are made from equal measures of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari served over ice and with a twist of orange, and most frequently, consumed as an aperitif. In the US, negronis are often served with a splash or more of soda water. You can also buy ready made negronis, Negroni 1919, in the same way you can buy alco-pops, but we suspect that's more for the teenagers in the park than mature adults like ourselves. What? eh? oh...

Anyway, why not try a negroni at a Florentine cafe before dinner? Apparently, they are the perfect thing to relax with of a warm summer's evening, and work wonders in whetting the appetite.

And, just to round out this boozy post, an Americano is simply equal measures of sweet vermouth and campari, again sometimes diluted with a splash of club soda and served over ice. The drink was originally known as the "Milan-Torino" because of its ingredients - Campari from Milan, and Cinzano, the vermouth, from Turin - but in the early 1900s, the Italians noticed a surge in Americans enjoying it and renamed it for them. It seems only right then, that our wedding guests from the left side of the Atlantic do their bit for international traditions and order themselves an Americano, or two, just for kicks.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Venturing Further Afield

Italy is a country of regions. In fact, until the late 1800s, Italy did not exist as a unified country, but as a collection of autonomous states, governed by a variety of princes, including the Pope himself. Some statistics we read somewhere suggest that, unlike in Britain and America where many young people flock to the major metropolises to find work before returning "home" later on, Italians tend to remain in the area they grew up in for life. Thus, history and a lesser degree of centralization leads to strong regional and sub-regional identities, which translate into things as diverse as strict adherence to the local football (soccer) team, impenetrable local dialects and, boon for the gourmand tourist, regionally-available dishes and wines.

In an earlier post, we covered some of the highlights of Tuscany, so now, for the more intrepid traveler, or one with more time, we're looking slightly further afield to the adjacent regions of Le Marche, Emilia-Romagna and Umbria. We cannot hope to do justice to the variety and splendor of these three regions in just this one post, instead we offer you some tasty morsels of information to whet your appetite and get you started.

Le Marche
Perhaps the least-known of these three regions is Le Marche, pronounced lay markay and sometimes known as "The Marches" in English. To the east of Tuscany and bordering the Adriatic Sea, Le Marche is almost completely undiscovered compared to Tuscany and Umbria. Having said that, the string of seedy beach resorts south of Rimini (in Emilia-Romagna) are a watchword among Europeans for tasteless seaside development, in much the same way as Spain's Costa del Sol. On the upside, however, the rest of Le Marche, from its beautiful Renaissance towns of Urbino and Ascoli Piceno, to the peaceful hill-towns around Fermo, and pretty little seaside resorts on the Conero Peninsula, remains unspoilt by the ravages of mass tourism.

Le Marchigiani - the Marche locals - are reputed to eat more meat than any other Italians, and you'll find grigliata mista di carne, or mixed grilled meats, including game dishes like, stuffed pigeons (piccione ripieno) and rabbit cooked with fennel (coniglio in porchetta) on menus across the region. Given it's long coastline though, seafood is also a major component of the diet, and the local version of bouillabaisse, brodetto, which must be made with 13 species of fish, no more, no less, is a particular speciality around Ancona. For more information about all things Le Marche, visit Marche Voyager.

Lying to the north of Tuscany and spanning almost all the way across the country, Emilia-Romagna is Italy's dairyland. Like its American counterpart, Wisconsin, the landscape of Emilia-Romagna is relatively flat, only rising in the south at the foothills of the Appennines. However, unlike Wisconsin, this region is famous for its culture, beautiful cities and stunning food. Emilia-Romagna is one of Italy's most prosperous regions and is home to dairy giant Parmalat, luxury car-makers Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, and electronics company Marconi. The beautiful historic cities of Bologna, Parma, Modena, and Ferrara offer fantastically intact Renaissance and Medieval architecture. Bologna is also famous for its university, which, founded in 1088, is the oldest continually operating university in the world.

Gastronomy, however, is what the region is synonymous with. Modena is world-famous for its aged balsamic vinegars, Parma for its cheese (parmiggiano-reggiano) and its ham (prosciutto di parma), and Bologna for lasagna, stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini, and, of course, spaghetti bolognese. The combination of the area's dairy farming traditions, its location just south of the grain-growing Po Valley, and the abundant game found in the Appennine foothills makes for a fattening combination of luscious dishes with cream, butter, cheese, meat and pasta. We encourage our guests to indulge themselves in the local cuisine and not to tell their cardiologist. To learn more about the region, visit the official Emilia-Romagna tourist board website.

While it has become very much more popular in recent years, Umbria is still seen as Tuscany's poorer and less refined neighbor. In fact, Tuscans tend to look down their noses at Umbria in the same way that you would stare pitifully at your neighbors' ginger-haired child. However, this is unfair (the Tuscany/Umbria thing, not the ginger discrimination), as Umbria has much to offer the tourist, including smaller crowds, better deals, and charming rustic countryside, which is reputed to resemble Tuscany fifty years ago.

The towns of Spoleto and Gubbio are known for their architecture and history, Assisi for its Basilica to its most famous son, Saint Francis, and Orvieto for its stunning cathedral and eponymous white wine. Lesser-known attractions of this bucolic region include the hill-town of Norcia.

Not just famous for being the place where my mother-in-law to-be's family hail from, though that would be sufficient to warrant a pilgrimage, Norcia is famous throughout Italy for its hams. In fact, so famous is the town for its pork products that the word Norcineria is synonymous with charcuterie/cold cuts. The most celebrated of these products is prosciutto crudo, but the quality of others like capacollo (gabagool), pancetta (unsmoked bacon) and guanciali (cured pigs' cheeks) is also renowned nation-wide. Boar sausage is another Norcian delicacy. Rumor has it that Norcians also do a mean line in fresh bread rolls... For more information about Umbria and its many treasures, visit Umbria Online.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In Vino, Veritas

Got any grapes...?

The authors of this blog know only too well how it feels to be reminded the morning after that we ought to have eaten something to line our stomachs before our first drink the night before, and so it is with the health and well-being of our dear readers in mind that this post, tackling, as it does, the tasty subject of Tuscan wines, comes hard on the heels of one on Tuscan food.

We also know that pretending to know about wine is both the privilege of every drinker, and frequently the bane of the drinker’s companion. On the subject of wine, it is very much easier to sound simultaneously pretentious and ignorant, than it is to offer basic information, so this post does not pretend to discuss the merits of Tuscan wines, nor to speak from a position of any real knowledge about them, rather it attempts to give you the reader some food for thought and some things to look out for.

Everyone knows Chianti, or thinks they do — the often rough n’ready red wine that is sold at every Italian restaurant for $12-18 a bottle and, until recently, was rarely seen sans straw basket. But is that all there is to know? Indeed, if that is all there is to know, is that such a bad thing? Is there any point searching for complexity and depth when you can enjoy something at face value?

We leave you to make up your minds about the merits of Chianti, the region and its various wines, offering only the following links as pointers to greater enlightenment. We mention here that Lupinari makes, bottles and sells its own reasonably-priced wine on the estate, as this is the wine you’ll be drinking at the wedding reception. However, since we haven’t tried it yet, we can’t tell you any more about it, but we suspect that good or average, we’ll all be doing our best to put it through its paces with a rigorous testing in two months' time.

Gallo Nero (Black Rooster Consortium) - for much more information about the Chianti Classico terroir, classifications, DOCG’s, and producers than a casual boozer could want.

Map of the Chianti Region - Please note: in providing this map for those of you who want to explore the area, this blog is not condoning drunk driving.

Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - because there is more to Chianti than just Chianti.

Super Tuscans - "super" is such a subjective word, but apparently, these are where it’s at in modern Tuscan wines.

Vin Santo - you can get red wine anywhere, but this stuff is only made in Tuscany, and goes down exceedingly well after a large meal.

Tuscan Wine Books - for those of you who want to know what you’re talking about, and think that you’ll remember any of the fascinating facts after half a bottle…

This blog reminds our readers to enjoy Tuscan wines responsibly.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Among the Bean-Eaters

Excuse me waiter, this steak looks a little rare...

Now that you've come to terms with the fact that your eating and drinking might get in the way of some of your more ambitious site-seeing goals in Italy, you might as well take a few minutes to learn some more about what your options are. We all know about pizza and pasta because you can get those at any Italian restaurant in the US or UK. So what else is there to know? A lot. Is the answer. And it's all delicious.

Italians are rightly proud and passionate about their food and so it's no surprise to learn that you can find more information than you could ever need through a simple google search. Distilling all that information for our wedding guests would take a lifetime -- admittedly, a delicious one -- but since we don't have that amount of time, we thought you might be interested in the selection of sites below that we've found useful in learning more about Italian food, but specifically, Tuscan cuisine.

Tuscans are known in the rest of Italy as mangiafagioli or bean-eaters because so much of the traditional rustic cuisine of the region is based on beans -- white beans, fava (broad) beans, and sorana beans -- but there is much more to the Tuscan diet than that. Tuscany is also famous for its chianina beef, pecorino cheese, proscuitto and hunters' sausage (salami alla cacciatoria), black cabbage (cavola nera), mushrooms and truffles, and perhaps most of all, its olive oils.

We would encourage you to get stuck into the local food while you're there, not just because it'll make us feel better about stuffing our own faces, but because no matter how good the chef or restaurant in London or New York, the food somehow always tastes better in Italy. - the official website of the food and wines of Italy is an excellent place to start

Castello Banfi - gives the low-down on Tuscan cuisines' ancient Etruscan roots

Tuscany Dream - if you can't wait to get there and must order some Tuscan specialties right now

Tuscan Recipes - gives you the know-how to try your hand at authentic Tuscan dishes


Getting Your Groove On, Literally

Coming to a wedding near you...
So, with the day fast approaching and most of the other details figured out, we're starting to address the conundrum that is the event's aural pleasure. What music will work in the peaceful surroundings of Lupinari? (Slayer?) What tunes will our guests enjoy listening to the string quartet play as they wait, expectantly, for Amy to walz down the isle? (Hall & Oates' Maneater, perhaps?) And which dancefloor classics are going to get you all on your feet, cutting a rug, after dinner? Regular readers will know that dancing at the reception is compulsory, and rest assured that all dancefloor antics -- the best and worst moves, and the most "in to it" facial expressions -- will be faithfully captured on video for our subsequent entertainment. You might not know, though, that the music for the reception will be played on an iPod instead of by a DJ.

With these things in mind, we thought the least we could do was to request that guests suggest their favorite songs - i.e. ones they'll dance to - so that when they're caught, eyes closed, lips-pursed a la Mick Jagger, and body contorted like spaghetti in a wind-tunnel on celuloid, they'll have the excuse that they really love the song. So, please send us your ideas on music for the post-dinner reception and we'll do our best to accommodate as many tastes as possible. Do bear in mind though, that the international nature of the wedding might mean that at any time, half the people in the room might be throwing themselves around with reckless abandon, hands in the air, to a "classic" that the other half of the room has never heard of. This, i'm sure you'll agree, is infinitely preferable to taking a risk with a local, Tuscan DJ playing all manner of crazy-sexy-Euro-disco-dance-party tunes from the early 90s, not to stereotype our Italian cousins as having poor taste, of course...

Anyway, get all ideas to us asap so we can collect all the songs together in time. You now have no excuses for not dancing!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Thank You All

Just a quick note to thank everyone who responded to our call for deposits so promptly. It's a great help to us as we check another item off the "to-do" list, and will make it much easier when we all get there, as it's all pre-paid. That means all you need to do is bring some pocket-money for the week. Glorious.

And, just to get ahead of the game and put out a reminder in advance, the deadline for the remaining balance is Tuesday, May 1.

Thanks again,

Amy & Jonny

Weather or Not

Now then, let's get back to the serious reality of a summer trip to Italy. You might think to yourself that you're going to spend all your time soaking up the famed culture and romance of the country -- it's glorious renaissance cities with their stunning art and architecture, and the beautiful landscape, crafted by man in concert with nature for millennia to bucolic perfection -- but really, you're going to get a tan, and probably drink and eat too much.

Once you've accepted this as fact, and are comfortable with it, you'll be interested to learn about the weather you're likely to encounter while lazily surveying the Tuscan hills from a sun-lounger by the pool. Click here for pain-stakingly gathered statistics about Tuscan weather patterns from people who really live there. In fact, if you want to read more about what it's really like to live in a Tuscan village (move over Frances Mayes), this is the website for you. Admittedly, it'll make you sick with jealousy as you read about the truffle harvest, their local restaurant and, in general, the pastoral bliss they call life, but it contains lots of useful information for visitors to the Chianti region.

It's your choice whether you visit the site or not, but I'm sure its authors take the favorable climate and the beauty of their surroundings for granted, whereas we, visitors for only a brief time, will soak it all up and enjoy it all the more for its brevity.

I'm almost convinced about that, anyway. Honest.

For Art's Sake!

Apologies, keen wedding blog consumers, for the recent lack of posting. As you can imagine, as the day draws near, the planning gets ever more frantic and time-consuming. And, as this blog matures, it's requiring more and more thought as to what to post, and as you'll see, this particular post is so highbrow, it took months of writing and editing...

Whether you're a serious art-lover, a complete ingenue, or like us, you like to pretend to know something about art and make ridiculous, yet informed-sounding, comments like, "the brush-work in his earlier canvases is reminiscent of blue-period Van Gogh," you'll be interested in visiting this website. It's not comprehensive, but it does give you a run-down on some of the exhibits that are going to be on display during the summer in major Italian cities.

As you know, Italy is one of the best places to view celebrated works of art by people you'll have heard of, and many that you won't, and often at little or no cost, as many of the museums and galleries are publicly-owned. Visit, a website of the Italian tourist board, for more complete details of Italian museums, their exhibits, opening hours and locations.

If you want to feel all cultural, but don't want to spend all your time inside pouring over a museum guide, you'll be delighted, no doubt, to learn that the Italians have very kindly put many of their works of art on display outdoors in public piazzas, on churches and other buildings, so they can be enjoyed as you stroll by in the sunshine, gelato in hand.

However, there really is nothing like having your appetite for culture sated by morning in a museum, followed by a long and indulgent lunch, during which you can satisfy your appetite for another, equally famous, aspect of Italian culture, and reflect more deeply on the artistic value of what you've seen...

And, in case you were wondering, of course, we really do know all about Van Gogh's blue period... what? oh...