Travels with Penelope

Travel, Food, Wine, Spirituality and Everything Else

Category: Travel: Boots on the Ground (page 3 of 5)

August 23, 2014 Troglodytes in Sassi

 

Sardegna, I did not expect that my relationship with you would require so many posts considering you are but a small drop in the Tyrrhenian. But as I said earlier how could I have known that you would so captivate me? Your trails harken back to the Gaia of antiquity, modernized to be sure, but contained in a cauldron of the ancient. What started out as a wine tour transcended the vine trail and its methods of wine-making. I experienced the flavors, smells and sites of Sardinia along with a history that goes as far back as the people of the nuraghi. Therein I experienced the most ancient Europe.

 

Gratitude for the mandala:

Turquoise lagoon,

Nuragi prominence,

Masked mamuthones,

Queen’s laced vineyards,

Sardo embrace,

Pecorino bleat,

Cannoneau brain,

Seada essence.

Unbounded space.

 

A smooth flight from Cagliari, Sardegna’s capitol took us across a turquoise lagoon into the navy Tyrrhenian to Bari, city of the legendary Saint Nicholas. The capitol of Puglia rests on the shores of the Adriatic. Tim had arranged for a driver to take us inland to Matera a Unesco World Heritage site and his home.

 

 

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As we drove away from the airport I became aware of an odd sight. Every mile or so an attractive, rather voluptuous well-made up woman stood back maybe twenty yards or less to the side of the road. At first I questioned what these well-coiffured women were doing standing alone on the side of a busy thoroughfare. Finally, the answer dawned: the women were offering a full service business-for truckers and travelers with easy, accessible stops. How convenient! Eventually the stops stopped. And we continued on through a few non-descript towns–nothing to write home about. From the plane we had observed thousands of olive trees dotting the region; they were the nice part of the drive.

 

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Surprise on arrival at Matera. Tim Robertson, the world’s greatest wine guide had encouraged me to visit Matera for two years. Had I known what was in store, I would have made more of an effort to get there sooner.

Matera speaks of a time before recorded time. I had been told that it is the third oldest continuously lived in site in the world although I have yet to back that up with research. Still, in how many places do people live in the same houses, in this case sassi (caves), as did their ancestors of 9000 years ago? What Mark Twain said of the ancient city Benares, India is also true of Matera. “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

On our approach, the hillside city looked like any other until we curved around the road that looped from the new to the ancient side. We stopped in front of the Hotel Sant’ Angelo that has transitioned from cave dwelling back to Neolithic times to current five star. It would be our home for the next several days. Across the road another hillside pocked with caves like empty eyes stared back at us. The le Gravina stream ebbed its way through the ravine that separated the caves or sassi near us from the empty sassi we witnessed on the other side.

 

 

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My partner at the door to our room

After settling in Tim came to the hotel to welcome us. We sat out on the terrace off our room soaking up the view (hollow eyes observing us from across the way) and catching up.

 

 

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The above sites are divided by the stream and ravine

 

 

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At dinner time we headed up to Tim and Chris’s  place. I was grateful that rather than taking the steps through the old town we were guided us up an easy road that looped around the hillside.

The sassi or settlements in stone caves are dug into the calcarenitic rock that is typical of Basilicata and Puglia. Cavern-like homes built over rooftops of other caverns climb their way up the hillside of old Matera. Stairs form the walking paths that are the fastest way to get up and through the sassi. Tim and Chris’ home is built over the restaurant where we had dinner. “Got tables?” came to mind as I viewed the restaurant from their terrace. Imagine cave upon cave stacked over and upon one another and you will get the idea—perhaps.

 

 

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Tim and Chris with the chef.

After dinner we walked back to our hotel and went to bed gazing out the window of our room at the moon drenched sassi across the ravine-stars out in full force. Our original plan to stay in Matera two days changed to five when Chris told us that the three-day festival of the Madonna of Bruna would be celebrated beginning on the day we planned to leave. By lengthening our stay we gave ourselves time for contemplative walks as well as elongated moments of deep connection to our human lineage.

 

 

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Over more time that any of us can imagine the troglodytes (cave dwellers) transitioned from ancient settlements, to impoverished slums to the sought after place that began its rebirth as late as the seventies through a-rags-to-riches story. In the past people from Matera ashamed of their home claimed to be from somewhere else, but all that has changed. Much of the change evolved with the work of Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Ebola. In his book Levi implied that Christianity had not gone beyond Ebola near Naples to the south of Italy leaving it a pagan, lawless land. Exiled to Matera by a fascist government for a year in 1945 he personally witnessed a world of poverty and its forgotten citizens. When he revealed the place where where animals and people lived together buried in disease and filth, the legendary story became the disgrace of the nation. In the uproar that followed the embarassed government devised a plan to move all 16,000 people out of Matera.

After the deportation so to speak, Matera would have been abandoned were it not for a group of students who founded a cultural group known as the Circolo de Scarlatta, Circle of Stairs to examine the history, culture and sites of Matera. They discovered an architectural world of rock hewn treasures, 150 churches, some of which had been converted to homes and stables, Byzantine frescoes, and caves seventy five percent of which were not dangerously unhealthy. The rest of the story is the road to restoration. In the late seventies the first cave home was restored and in 1993 Unesco called Matera the most intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean.

I knew none of the above when I arrived. As we pulled up at our hotel I was reminded of our visit to the caves of  Cappodocia, Turkey. My intention to go to Matera to visit a friend turned into a head-spin.

Over the next few days we walked through the dozens of Churches, a museum or two and took a tour with Anne Demay a guide and friend of Tim’s. She showed us a cave occupied until the fifties shared by animals and humans. After a tour of one Church she took us up to the rooftop cemetery. This is Matera, a place where dwellings sit atop one another, churches share walls with cave homes, restaurants nestle under apartments thereby creating a wonderful mosaic of the human condition.

 

 

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I have been slowly, chewing on the steps of this journey, writing after rather than from the spot as I normally would. The act of leaving one’s personal village to travel so far to another or two comes with so many learnings. Barriers get dissolved, the insignificant begins to pale. In retrospect Matera yielded much fruit for this seeker. More to follow.

July 20, 2014 Fit for a Foodie

Once up and running, word got out, spread far and wide that the amrit was one of the best restaurants in the state of Maharastra. Tourists drove the forty five or so kilometres from what was then called Bombay, to the village of Ganespuri, knocked on the gate to the meditation ashram that housed the amrit, and asked for dining reservations. While the resident devotees found it rather humorous, tourists when told that the amrit not a public restaurant and served food for the residents of the ashram only, went away disappointed.

One of those fortunate individuals to eat the ambrosia served in the amrit three times a day for one solid year, why I get jealous when I remember my experience of living there some twenty-five years ago. The amrit’s five star reputation—well deserved!

This was not a restaurant in any ordinary sense, but it could have held its own against some of the starred Michelins. The philosophy behind it ran in deep streams of thought coming out of the Vedas and the Upanishads, some of the world’s most ancient scriptures. Food a necessity, not only nurtures the body, the divine can be known through the sense of taste.

One of my work assignments that year now seemingly so long ago, was prep work in the kitchen. As we washed, cut, and chopped vegetables, de-stemmed thyme, peeled mangos and papayas, kneaded dough for naan and chapatis we worked in silence and listened to recordings of ancient Sanskrit mantras and ragas. In a kitchen so contemplative and peaceful I could not help but fall into that same state. I could feel that peace slipping through my fingers into the food that would eventually nurture the souls of those ate it. This was in fact the intention behind the the silence and chanting. To this day I listen regularly to chants when preparing meals in my own kitchen.

An aside on a similar note: years later while visiting a large winery down in Chile I thought I was in a church when I entered the barrel room to the sound of Gregorian Chants. Piped in over a sound system because sound carries vibration, the winemaker convinced that the elevated vibrations of the chant would permeate the wine, played them continuously as the wine aged.

How many times have I heard the question, “do you like the food?” to be followed by the answer, “it’s divine”– music to the ears of the chef. According to the dictates in the ashram not only the method of preparation,  the intentions and state of the staff are important. I would add a very important third ingredient,  the essence and quality of the food.

What is it that makes me  feel that the food is divine.

First, it makes me feel good—it’s that simple.

Second, it takes me out of my ordinary experience into dimensions beyond the thing itself. Like the visuals of a gorgeous sunset, the taste of food can be overwhelming. It is one of life’s most pleasurable experiences. I am not talking about the self-gratification found in an eat, drink, and be merry hedonism in which food is solely an end in itself. That’s another topic.

How was the food in Sardegna? Divine! Simple, made with local ingredients, beautifully presented. People fuss over the preparation process like a hen taking care of her chicks.

As I toured the island some ingredients growing increasingly familiar drew my attention to the essence of  Sardinian food. I knew from conversations with chefs and locals there was a great deal of concern and pride in the way food was prepared–in short, with good energy.

Rather than my usual focus on the dishes or menus I began to focus on the menu of some of  the ingredients that turned up in one form or another across Sardegna.

Pecorino, like I had never tasted it, young and soft like mozzarella or aged from a few months up to a year. Casu marsu, a maggot riddled form was new to me. Pecorino and ricotta the other ubiquitous cheese are made from sheep’s milk until they are shorn in late spring. Cow milk replaces sheep’s milk for ricotta until late in the fall. With more sheep populating Sardegna than people it is understandable why lamb, pecorino and ricotta dominate the cuisine.

 

 

 

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Bread, made in the old, traditional way. I cannot imagine how a Sard could handle gluten intolerance, but surprisingly, there is a segment of the population with problems. One chef teacher told me that many feel that the gluten issue began when wheat production was “modernized.”

 

 

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Pasta. Culurgiones, ricotta filled pockets rather than ravioli, malloreddus, small dumplings in tomato sauce rather than gnocci, fregola, a nutty pasta frequently served with clams, varying slightly from north to south were common.

 

 

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Veggies: tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant dominate.

 

 

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Seada: ravioli like pockets filled with pecorino, topped with honey is divine.

 

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Wine: cannonau, vermintino, carignan always available, but rare varietals indigenous to the island may be had as well.

 

 

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Nutshell: the divine food of Sardegna covers all three of the above criteria making it more than fit for a foodie, the kind of foodie as explained by Mark Bittman.

Rethinking the Word ‘Foodie’

By MARK BITTMAN

Pleasure is just one aspect. It’s even more important to reflect our values.

JUNE 24, 2014

July 11, 2014 Ethereal Roots near Alghero, Sardegna

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To the It who set my life in motion, to the That who continues to spur the dynamic behind it, I tell you, this nomadic journey around the planet is a great ride. I am grateful.

To sky-gaze from the top of Machu Picchu while a playful llama tries to take advantage of my cheek, to drum solo in the center of the King’s chamber of the great pyramid surrounded by the whispers of a thousand pharaohs singing incantations into a single sarcophagus, to sit under the Bodhi tree with a multitude of orange and maroon robed monks chanting the sacred mantra of the Mother of All Buddhas, “om tare tutare ture soha”, to chant in Sanskrit at an ashram in India with 10,000 devotees—such has been my karmic fate.

For a while I traveled mainly to what are known as “sacred sites.” Some were natural such as the Ganges in India, and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona; others were man-made as the stone circles in Ireland, the temples of the Yucatan and the cathedrals of Europe built in honor of a spiritual tradition. I believed that like the vortexes in Sedona they held special energies capable of evoking playful, but serious flip-flops with one’s destiny. Not to deny this, but eventually I came to realize what I heard Atarangi, the Maori healer put so simply. “All sites are sacred.”

As a rule attachments to places far and wide do not get in my way, but on a rare occasion when I feel roots trying to germinate from the soles of my feet seeking to anchor my soul in a specific patch of land I know I have arrived at a spot where I could remain forever.

That is what happened two weeks back when we arrived at the wine resort on the Estate Leda d’Ittiri a few miles above the Catalonian city of Alghero near Fertilia. We left Cabras early in the day in order to get to the resort before dinner, taking the country road that led along the coast. Could not get enough of those turquoise waters!

 

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About half way along we stopped in the city of Bosa known for its colorful houses and canals and after a great veggie pannino continued on to the Wine Resort.

 

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 Set in a green countryside the resort lies near a rugged part of the west coast bordering the Porto Conte National Park and not far from the Riviera del Corallo. After a three-hour drive from Cabras on two lane roads light with traffic we rolled into an estate of hilly vineyards and several hectares of olive orchards. Just beyond, I could see a wavy line of low-lying mountains shielding us from the sea.    

 

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Driving up the narrow gravelly road through the large iron-gate my soul soared. I felt the ethereal roots beginning to sprout. The grounds and the estate we were approaching all felt so familiar. Momentarily, I remembered a recent dream in which I had visited the estate of a nobleman.

As we got out of the car and walked toward the entrance to the main house a few people were happily lollygagging in the swimming pool to the far side of the front lawn. Near the front door I noticed a chalkboard inscribed with a dinner menu. As we entered the high ceilinged room furnished in Spanish antiques, a woman working at a dark wooden desk in the corner looked up. Smiling, she beckoned us over and warmly welcomed us as though we were family coming home to visit.

While Annamaria is the one who greets guests both she and her mother Antonella are the heart of the resort. When I found out that Antonella is the descendant of a Sardinian noble I understood my feelings as we drove up the driveway. Rather than a resort, I felt we had arrived at the private estate of some rather special people.

A picture of Annamaria and her mother found among the literature at the estate

 

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Once we settled into the haven of quiet I did not want to leave. Fortunately, as luck would have it, that would not be necessary. Annamaria informed us that the menu I had noted near the front door would be provided as a dinner for the guests that evening.   Those who chose to dine in joined together on the patio as we had been told, at 8:00 sharp. A couple from England and another from Bologna were to be our dining partners. Like an evening back home with close friends we were blessed with laughter and great conversation. As is the pattern on Sardegna, the dinner hour runs quite late, but by now I had adjusted. With only six guest rooms, dinners at the resort are rather intimate.

 

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A simple meal: the ubiquitous pecorino and salumni, aubergine and tomatoes, a local flan.

 

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Accompanied by Leda d’Ittiri wines

 

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The following morning Annamarie gave us the full wine tasting of the Leda d’Ittiri wines produced by the estate. From grapes grown on the estate the wine production is done in the slow, traditional, by hand method. With such intensive work needed, the size of the production is limited. Wines are mainly served to guests and on occasion in the local vicinity. Sorry they are not available in the US.

On the 6.5 hectars, vermentino, cagnulari, locals varietals and some French merlot, cabernet franc and sangiovese are produced. We tasted all of them!

 

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 In the four days that followed, roots holding steady we rarely left the resort. One evening when dinner was not offered we drove in to old town Alghero to sample the traditional local food of a renowned chef Benito Carbonella at Al Tuguri restaurant. More on that later.   On a second outing we drove along the edge of the nature reserve to Capo Caccia a cape that juts out into the Mediterranean. When we reached the end of the road we could see the dramatic cliffs that make sheer drop into the azure waters. At the foot of the cliffs a famous stalactite cave known as Neptune’s Grotto was waiting–at the end of 654 stairs. We were about to head down but with the sun setting we changed our minds.  

 

I wanted to stay on at the resort where I could walk through the vineyards and olive orchards in the morning, write on the terrace overlooking the vineyards during the day, swim in the pool with singing frogs at night, but there was a plan set in place and it called. On the fourth day I pulled up my ethereal roots and we drove out. If it is my fate to return to Sardegna, I will head straight for the Wine Resort.    

 

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July 6, 2014 Mamathones

While I was so touched by the Sedilesu family and their hospitality,  the “Mother” continuing to reveal her purpose had another intention for our visit to the village of Mamoiada that had nothing to do with wine tasting. Set in the heartland of Sardegna at 700 meters and surrounded by green unspoiled, but harsh mountainous land Mamoiada is a sleepy village inhabited by families whose historical lines make centuries. Apart from wine and history it has become famous for its renowned marathones.

When I told Maria the owner of the Wine Resort where we stayed in Alghero, that we were going to Mamaoida to tour Giuseppe Sedilesu’s cantina she insisted that we also visit the mask museum. I envisioned an exhibition space where the work of Sardegna’s contemporary mask-makers would be on exhibit. I should have known better.

When we finished lunch at the cantina, Salvatore Sedilesu led us down a quiet street and dropped us off at The Museo della Maschere Mediterranee. This was neither ordinary museum nor an exhibition space for contemporary art as I had anticipated. As I ambled through the small collection of masks and costumes I thought of what the Balinese have said forever, “art and life are not separate.” As a matter of fact there is no word for art in Balinese.  The masks and costumes in the museum an expressive art developing out of human need represent of one of the oldest continuing rituals in Europe, dating back some 2,000 years. The ritual, now mask festival continues to be celebrated annually and attended by up to 10,000 revelers.

 

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A woman met us at the door of the museum,  the only person we saw until we left. Beginning with a video of the festival as it is now celebrated she guided us through the small, but important exhibit. The guided tour enabled me to piece together a few facts.

I must say that today’s attendees witness a celebration, a long cry from the original. In an earlier time there were Christian attempts to offset and shut down that which was viewed as pagan. The tradition, rooted in pre-Christian practices and beliefs was baptized so to speak.

I have heard it said that the original marked the end of winter, sought to intervene with natural forces for a good climate for the harvest—that eternal issue: climate control. With ritual, incantations and objects empowered with signification the ancient ones hoped to accomplish their goal.

Today, in mid-January a celebration is held in honor of St. Anthony who is said, to have stolen fire from hell to give it to mankind. Bonfires are lit across the village in commemoration of his gift (I was quite surprised to hear of Anthony acting in the role of a Prometheus). At this time the mamuthones, ominous and rather creepy looking characters wearing traditional carved black masks, shaggy dark sheepskins and sets of bronze bells that can weigh up to sixty pounds make an appearance. Not a role for the timid!

They appear again on Shrove Tuesday the day of Carnival. Led on a leash by the issokadores twelve mamuthones representing the twelve months, process through the streets. The issokadores dressed in antique gendarmes uniforms are perhaps a leftover from the Spanish control of Sardegna. Like All Hallows Eve this is a night when work is done to ward off the demons.

 

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A local crafstman preparing sheep clothing for the ritual.

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I was told that up to another two hundred mamuthones could parade. I am reminded me of some of the shamanic traditions of the Tibetans and Native Americans.

The museum exhibit included masks and ritual clothing from other ancient cultures around Europe including Greece and Scandanavia. I found none of them intimidating, nor did I feel the kind of energy that such works can evoke. Some were merely spooky objects of curiosity. To get the full point of the masks and sheep’s clothing I believe it is necessary to participate in the experience.

 

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I do not think I will be returning to Mamoida, but I am grateful to have been guided to the mamuthones. I touched into a primal line of human action that connects with much of what I have experienced in contemporary drumming and shamanic circles, and if for nothing else it served as a reminder of a world beyond cell phones and I-pads.

 

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July 4, 2014 Fireworks from Matera

Happy Fourth of July

On July 2, the people of Matera, Italy concluded a three day celebration of their patron saint, the Madonna of Bruna. We celebrated with them and at the end of the day we retired at midnight. A half hour later we were roused from sleep by the sound of what we initially thought was a cannon. As the sound continued recognizing the sound of fireworks, we jumped from our bed and ran to the window. The show concluded at 1:15 AM!!!!!

 

 

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July 1, 2014 Remarkable Meetings

From my table at a café in Matera I look out at the following.

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  A consistent round of church bells mark the hours. Sweet tweets and willowy songs of birds recently flown in from Africa fill spaces between bell rounds. An occasional map poring tourist seeking transport passes by. Sitting here in Matera I am reflecting on Sardegna,  somewhat torn between whether I should record facts or simply communicate experiences. Perhaps a bit of both.

 

Going to Sardegna as I alluded earlier is like dropping off the planet and falling into a quiet place where the living is slow, the quality of food impeccable and life is about connection with family and friends, all marked by the rhythmic kneeling to the gods of the seasons and the Deity. Sardegna, when I think of you it is not your turquoise beaches that come to mind although I have rarely seen more beautiful. Nor the nuraghis whose presence is a reminder of time before recorded time.  I think of the people we met as we made our way along the wine route that our friend Tim Robertson of Robertson’s Wine Tours set up. Our meetings with winemakers were remarkable.

 

We began in the southwest where we stayed on Sant’Antioco, then up the central west coast to Cabras on the Gulf of Oristano. From Cabras we had a stay in the Catalan area of Alghero, then a trip to the east coast city of Orosei.  Finally, we returned south to Calgliari, the capital of Sardegna. Along the way I learned more about the grapes of Sardegna, the winemaking process and of course the end result.

 

Guiseppe’s Sedilesu’s story from orphan at nine to overseer of one of Sardegna’s most prestigious cantinas is a case in point. Guiseppe went to work in a sawmill. As he grew up he recognized that having wine at the table for dinner carried a certain dignity. By the time he had his own family he decided to provide wine for his family meals. Taking some of his hard earned money he began to rent vines. We would call this sharecropping. Eventually, Guiseppe was able to purchase a hectar and grow his own vines. As they grew up his children helped him with the small vineyard. Along the way he acquired more hectars and honed his winemaking skills all the while focusing on cannonau for which Sardegna is famous. The children acquired the same skills.

 

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Guiseppi, his wife, children and their families

 

In Sardegna family is the base and core of everyday life. Along with cannonau, family connection is given as the reason for the longevity, centenarians are quite common, of so many of Sardegna’s citizens. When Guiseppe reached an age where he knew it was time to consider retirement he gathered his children and offered them a proposition. He could divide up the vineyard into parcels for each and himself, or the siblings could band together to develop their cantina and the quality of the wine. They chose the latter.

 

Mamoiada is famous for its mask festival, but as one writer said, “there is nothing strange about the wines of the Sedilesu family, a new star of Sardinia’s wine scene. This clan, under Giuseppe, the elderly patriarch, has moved with the times, to produce organic and biodynamic wines. The result is intense, complex vintages…”

 

IMG_4974   Salvatore and Emilio handle public relations and hospitality. Francesco not available  for the photo is the oenologist.

 

IMG_4910   Mario of Travel Motus accompanied our tour of the cantina.

 

IMG_4942   Cement tanks

 

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IMG_4948   Row upon row of tightly stacked bottles of aging wine extends back for several meters.

 

 

The Sedilesus set up impromptu tables in the storage room and surprised us with a feast of the typical foods of the region.

 

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IMG_4967   The dish on the far left is brain. I thought I was eating fried zucchini!

 

 

IMG_4955  Nine bottles–all cannonau representing different vineyards and qualities. One white called granazza is a mystery grape as of yet unidentified.

 

 

Gabbas from Nuoro who focuses on canonnau is attorney turned winemaker. He, too, purchased a vineyard, worked it on days off until he decided to devote himself full-time to working with the grape. His wine has received three glasses six years in a row from Gambero Rosso, (means red prawn and comes from a tavern in Pinocchio where the cat and the fox dined) a guide started in 1987 and comparable to an Italian Michelin Guide for wine. Francesco, Guiseppe’s nephew gave up architecture to join full-time in the family business. Today they produce some of the finest on Sardegna   We  piled us into Guiseppe’s Range Rover  to be taken on a hair-raising ride up and down the slopes of the vineyard.

 

 

IMG_4830    Guiseppe at the wheel

 

 

IMG_4829     Far above the cantina.

 

 

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IMG_4836    Queens Lace borders the vineyard.

 

 

IMG_4839   Gabbas wines enroute to the US.

 

IMG_4848    From the tasting room.

 

 

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June 28, 2014 The Power of Sardegna

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I have missed you my dear friend. Yes, I am referring to you dearest writing. I felt you pulling on my mind and heart, but it was just impossible to be with you. The last several days have been so long and full. The mid-morning breakfast followed by the day’s activities, not to mention the late night feasts that often went on to midnight. By then, no energy left, let alone time for you. Most days I have been caught up in establishing deeper relationships with cannonau, vermintino, carignano, turriga, monica, nauraghi some of the well-known nectars with which the goddess has endowed the beautiful island of Sardegna.

And Sardegna. How was I to know? Her energy so deep and intense. Twirling from her center like a dancing Sufi rotating in slow motion she embraces her children as she spins. Sedona has nothing over Sardegna.  Drums beat from the vortexes, the ancient ones call from the base of the nuraghi, Neptune pleads from his Grotto, the hyla sarda resound with the song of the night and the sacrificial lamb gives its bleat by day.  Century after century the rituals repeat themselves.

I had no idea why Gaia was calling me to Sardegna, but with all good intentions I planned the trip knowing that purpose would eventually reveal itself.  It would be similar so I thought to following the grape in Napa Valley, Walla Walla, or Willamette. After all, wine regions here or there have so much in common.

 I concur with DH Lawrence, “Sardegna is different.” I have already noted how quiet and tranquil she is; add to that simplicity and complexity. Layered in the history of so many civilizations stretching back thousands of years to the Ozieri culture whose rock tombs stand yet today followed by the nuraghi, who left seven thousand nuraghe in their trail. So mysterious these Bronze Age towers and settlements that came before the dawn of history, what was their purpose? I like to think for ritual and community gathering, but then how would I know this unless I had been there? Later the Phoenicians arrived followed by the Carthaginians, the Romans who were responsible for roads and cities. After the fall, the Vandals, the Genoese, and the Catalans left their imprint. Remains of the old reverberate today in the parades and festivals especially of the interior villages with each revealing its own unique culture and tradition. With so many layers I am unable to get to the bottom of it all. She is unfathomable.

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A nuraghe overlooks one of her many stunning beaches

Sardo is the language here. I have heard that it is the closest spoken language to Latin. Many villages, even side by sides have their own dialect. The Sardinians make it clear that they are not Italian. They are Sardo! I made the mistake of calling one an Italian only once. Some Sardo’s feel this with such intensity that they have started a separatist movement known as the Swiss movement. They want to leave Italy and unite with Switzerland. I’ve heard some of the Swiss seem to be happy with this; they would have access to the beaches and lagoons, the Sardos with an enlarged bank account.

The wine culture is very different from the rest of Italy. It goes back thousands of years beginning with the Nuraghi. It developed separately from the rest of Europe including Italy. Even though the Catalans occupied Sardinia until the eighteenth century even that did not impact winemaking so much especially in the south.

Tim, Trevor, Jeremiah, Eduardo, Ceri, Clare, Jeanne, Sandra, Shachi, Maneesh, Adam and any I have missed that have helped to steward the industry, I have so much to share with you about Sardegna’s new developments in winemaking.

This afternoon we lifted off the island from Caglieri on Ryan Air and flew to Bari the capitol of Puglia near the heel of the boot. Tim had Luigi pick us up at the airport. He drove us to Matera where Tim and Chris were waiting. With a few days of lollygagging in the stone village at our disposal, hopefully there will be time you my dear friend. Together we will share the experiences on Sardegna.

P_writing

 

June 21, 2014 Roma

We arrived to a hot, muggy Rome with ninety five percent humidity. Hardly off the train, a woman approached us with an offer of a room for the night. Rather than pursuing the recommendations in Europe on Five Dollars a Day and hoping to save some time, we followed her. The second floor room would have been ok for a night or two, but I found the woman’s energy intimidating, something about it not ok. We politely rejected her offer, made our way back to the hectic area around the train station, stored our backpacks in a locker and caught a bus to the Vatican. When I felt satisfied we returned to the station grabbed the backpacks and hopped on an overnight to Barcelona.

Forty years ago turned off by noise, pollution, the strange woman, I left and did not return to Rome until 2010. That’s when I fell in love.

On the current trip we ubered in from the airport with a polished limo driver, Emilio. He spoke to us in the fluent English he learned as a child when he lived in Montreal. Later his father brought the family back to Rome. He explained that Uber differs in Italy from other countries in that only black limos are available, driven by professional drivers. Emilio gave us a smooth as silk ride to our hotel in Trastevere.

Arriving at 9:30 AM with one day in Rome and, in order to recuperate from a twenty four hour trip on which I had no sleep, we limited our schedule to a few short walks, two sites, and a Michelin *ed dinner.

The first, our hotel the Donna Camilla Savelli, is a convent built in the seventeenth century. I use is because it is still part convent.

 

 

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Raining when we arrived.

 

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Former convents turned into hotels are warm, and resonant with the energy of the sacred rituals that were performed daily  for centuries. Spacious, originally built with a spiritual purpose in mind they are a far cry from the chains that river across America. From Spain, Puerto Rico, Oxaca and now to Rome, I cannot imagine why my karma continues to take me for sleep-overs in these hallowed sites.

 

 

 

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The Camilla, designed by Francesco Borromini the famous seventeenth century architect is currently considered one of the art sites of Trastevere, the old part of Rome that lies at the foot of Gianicolo Hill. Camilla Savelli a noblewoman commissioned Borromini in 1642 to build the convent of “Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori” as well as an adjoining church. Today the hotel carries her name.

Those who renovated the convent adhered to the laws of the Baroque style as well as Borromini’s intentions. It is a hotel, but retains the original style and space of the former and present convent. The nuns who turned the convent over to the architects retained part of the original place for their current living quarters. Just off the lobby is the old chapel where mass is celebrated daily.

 

 

 

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We stayed at the hotel the last night of a two-week visit to Rome in 2010. The quiet by day, the bustling café scene by night of the area appealed to us; we knew it would be a great place to recover from jet lag.

While there we ventured out for a short walk about mid-day, but when the monsoon came in a few hours later we headed back to the hotel and rested up until dinner.

In May we made a reservation at All’Oro a one star Michelin housed in the The First Luxury Art Hotel our second planned site. The first? Sounds a bit dubious. But, it is true. When I think of the art hotels I have visited over the years, this one takes the cake. No hippie-doo, no cheesy rooms in a vagrant run-down area, just pure luxury and high, fine art- literally a visual feast for the eyes. At a standard 500 euros a night, could it be less?

Like the Camilla the Art Hotel is also in a historic area. Near the Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps, Via del Courso, Via del Babuino, and inside a historic building but totally renovated with natural materials and with the original façade was left intact.

We arrived early enough to give ourselves time to view the more than 200 pieces of contemporary art, much of it on the ground floor lobby, bar and restaurant.

 

 

 

 

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Bob Arneson’s influence!

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The food.

We lamented that our great lunch at a tratoria near the hotel including melt-in-your-mouth squid, tomatoes. and onions highlighted with green peas and my partner’s rabbit in rosemary brushed with a light olive oil, and a fresh chicory, did not allow much internal space for dinner. With our planned, brisk walk interrupted by intense rain-pour, we debated about canceling, but oh my goodness, thank the Lord we did not.

 

After intense research I had chosen All’Oro not because of its good reviews, but rather so we could sample the innovative work of the chef. From the readings I gathered that Riccardo di Giacinto is a bit like some of my favorites chefs in California: Carlos Salgado-Taco Maria in the OC, Joseph Centano-Bar Ama and Orsa and Winston in LA, Matthew Accerollo-SPQR in SF among them. These young, humble chefs are cooking in the style often learned from the mothers and grandmothers, doing a fusion of traditional flavors with new. At the heart of their work is heart and their own creative inspiration.

 

As it is written, di Giacinto is “known for his unique talent to revive the authentic flavor and reintroducing it with dazzling master into the modern plate.”

 

I ordered two dishes. The first, Reduction of carbonara. The photo says it all. An eggshell filled (approx.. 2T) with a combination of the flavors of pasta carbonara: pecorina, parmesana, egg yolk and surely somewhere in there a dollop of bacon fat? This almost vegan could not resist! It was all I needed to make my dinner complete.

 

 

 

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Followed up with cod tempura shaped like three pears in a tub. We rejected a final plate of delicate sweets but delivered to our table none-the-less, perhaps by mistake.

 

 

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Tired and happy we ubered back to Camilla with Pietro.

 

Ciao for niao.

 

June 16, 2014 Enroute to Italy

 

 

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My partner has been invited to speak at conferences or teach at universities in Italy for the past several years. We have rarely planned a trip for personal purposes. The call simply comes and we are off. Food, wine, culture, history and now Pope Francis to boot, Italy has become the gift that just keeps giving. Occasionally, I get smug,  think I have seen it all, then another trip comes up and we return to see a new piece of the boot-shaped land.

In a few days we will fly out with Sardenia, Basilicata and Emilia Romagna as destinations. This time, no speaking engagements, no conferences, instead we are travelers with no purpose other then exploring and enjoying what lies ahead.

In speaking to people about the trip I have been surprised by a question that has come up repeatedly: Where is Sardinia? It lies off the western coast of Italy a little south of Rome. The French island of Corsica rests a few miles north, but we will save it for a later trip. The map  gives a good view. Click it to see it.

Posts to follow.

April 24, 2014 Holy Day in the City

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A friend wrote and asked if I was going to maintain silence from noon to three on Good Friday.

“Sort of,” I responded.

At the peak of the three hours I would be on a plane from the OC to San Francisco, reflecting on the twists and turns of life as I frequently do on short flights. As it turned out my participation in the rituals of the three-day tridium preceding Easter gone down the tube of ancient history barely crossed my mind on the flight itself.

Nor were signs of such as evident when I arrived at the city by the bay. The presence of the bunny, decorated eggs, chocolates, pastries and colorful bonnets illustrated the mind of the general public on the hallowed holiday. While a well-filled Easter basket failed to show up at my hotel door, I was not bereft. In fact, during the two days in SF my transcendental basket ranneth over with grace lingering from the love ritual celebrated on Maundy Thursday.

Originally, we decided to go to the “city,” because the Harbor View, a Klimpton Hotel, offered a special. The special was so good it made the two nights special, but I am hesitant to return to the HV. Clean, well-appointed, friendly staff were all in place, and a beautiful view of the Bay Bridge, but when I wanted cozy chairs that provide a place where I could put up my feet and get on my computer; there were none to be found. With coffee available only in the lobby, my poor partner had to make a run first thing out of bed! To make matters worse no croissants, cronuts or juice were available. Cellophane wrapped, overly sweet Danish would have served.

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On this Holy Sunday we chose to create a silvery side to the lining.  Rather than ordering breakfast up from a local eatery we decided to do a bakery crawl. This was a new one for me; with my kapha body (a Sanskrit word for one of the three Vedic body types) I generally do not indulge in flour carbs.

We exited the hotel to a gorgeous day. At the end of a hilly street sidelined by skyscrapers, we witnessed peeks of sparkling azure water canopied by columnar slices of glistening bridges. The Sun had risen and the beauty it showered was enough to resurrect a tingling joy through out my body.

I carried a list of bakeries I procured from Eater.com. Twentieth Century Café, our first stop, slightly obscured behind non-descript windows and a bit down the street from the heart of Hayes Valley, was every bit twentieth century. The wait people mainly women decked in clothes of the forties and makeup finished off with bright orange and red lipsticks greeted us with large smiles. An assortment of goods, Meyer lemon buchty, cherry rhubarb strudel and sacher torte tempted us from the glass box counter, but we opted for the pink, marshmallow bunnies. Not as a breakfast food, but as a dessert we would take to the dinner to which we had been invited later in the day.

We saved our appetites for the next stop: Sweetmue a new bakery, with Mue (pronounced mew) herself as our hostess. The goods on Mue straight from her website describe how Sweetmue evolved.

“after 10+ years in finance in sf, nyc and then houston, muller decided it was time to move back to the bay area and spend a year doing anything except excel spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations. After a few weeks of winter in Europe, it didn’t take much for her sister to convince Mueller to head back to nyc in the spring and attend the pastry course she always wanted, but never had time to. within the first two classes it was pretty clear that finance was going to be a thing of the past. So after a few months of internship in the east bay and a month-long trip all over asia, the idea for sweetmue was born.

Excel spreadsheets remain a big part of muller’s life. but they are now used for planning and recipe for her little baker in an awesome sf neighbor where muller can share her lifelong love affair for anything sweet!”

 

Sweetmue was meant to be a ten minute stop, we had miles and a whole list of bakers to visit before we slept, but with the sweetness of Mue in addition to that of her pastries, we dawdled for two hours tasting, conversing (Mue shared a few baking secrets), and when other customers crossed the threshold, engaging.

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Finally, happily satisfied and with bags of black sesame and green tea macaroons for more dinner dessert, we left for the next stop.

www.sweetmue.com

Mue had recommended b Patesserie. Who was I to argue with one of the new pastry marvels of SF? She warned us that the line at b would be down the street and around the corner. It was not, probably because we arrived about 2 on Easter Sunday.

 

“Two things you must have,” she advised. “The chocolate chip cookie and the Kouign Amann.”

 

The latter is a combination croissant and brioche for which b has become famous. We had two of those, a rather late lunch we rationalized, then purchased a bag of peanut butter macaroons and chocolate chip cookies to also take to dinner. The cc cookies were great, but how many chocolate chips can you eat in a lifetime? The peanut butters would be a hit at the dinner party, but Mue’s black sesame subtle as they were would provide the ectasy needed to complete such a blessed day.

Biondivino (don’t you love that name?) is one of the finest, mainly Italian wine shops I have come across, at least in this lifetime. Ceri Smith owner, and also Wine Director for Tosca Cafe was recently named SF Sommelier of the Year by Food and Wine Magazine.

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www.biondivino.com/‎

When Ceri and I met to describe the connection we felt she exclaimed, “we were separated at birth.” I was duly complemented as I had arrived at least acouple decades before she. Ceri had invited us to Easter dinner in the shop. She told us she would do most of the cooking with a little potluck to finish it off. I think of Ceri as an Italian wine specialist par excellence, but after experiencing her cooking, I know that she holds in own in this arena as well!

 

At day’s end, a long one, I counted my proverbial blessings: morning meditation at the bay, beautiful city, sunny weather, divine sweets from some of the finest pastry chefs in the country, an intimate dinner with great minds, rare wines and food, my basket overfloweth!

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