Monday, July 25, 2011

A (very) SHORT GUSTATORY TOUR OF ITALY... honor of Lasagna Awareness Month

Funivia from Rapallo to Montallegtro
July is Lasagna Awareness Month? Are they serious? Why should we be ‘aware’ of lasagna? Isn’t everyone? Just who came up with this? The cheese industry? The pasta industry? The tomato industry? No, not the Italians. They’d celebrate all food and wine, not just one tasty dish. Who would own up to wanting to celebrate this in July: this is a dish for the cooler weather. I never had lasagna in Italy, but all this food talk reminds me of what I did have.

I have to admit that I’m partial to Italian food. You will appreciate, of course, that the best pizza I ever had was in Italy: a wonderful Margherita pizza we enjoyed at lunch in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Or was it at that restaurant in Rapallo? So many pizzas, so little time.

The best way to experience any country is to go with a native. We had this luck in Liguria. Liliana, a colleague of our former daughter-in-law, took us on a gustatory tour. In Chiavari we enjoyed farinata, a pizza made with chick-pea flour. Further west on the French Riviera this is called socca. In Santa Margherita we had, among other delights, a salad of fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and fresh anchovies. I’ve come to love certain ‘iffy’ foods like escargot and mussels, when I was embarrassed to admit I’d never tried them before. Not wanting to say that I didn’t like anchovies, I took a bite - heaven! Those fresh fellows were absolutely delicious!
In Portofino Liliana knew everyone. She got our boat a berth right at the harbor master’s dock, and then took us for a tour and a decadent dessert of ice cream covered with berries and other fruit.  In Vernazza, in the Cinque Terra, we had Ligurian pasta, trofi al pesto, and an unlabeled bottle of local white wine that was just fabulous.

Pansotti alla Noce
My most memorable meal was in Rapallo. Le Santuario de Nostra Signora di Montallegro (say that three times fast!) is a beautiful church, a place of pilgrimage, reached via funivia, a cable car that takes you up a small mountain. On the way from the car terminus to the church we smelled a wonderful aroma coming from a hotel along the way. Liliana stopped in and ordered our lunch, to be made to order for us, for our later return. That lunch is probably the best one I ever had. The dish was Pansotti alla Noce, and my travel diary says “to die for!” On handkerchief-like squares of pasta they spread a mixture of chopped herbs, including borage, and vegetables. The pasta is folded up around the filling so it stays together in cooking, and there are many layers to each piece. They are served covered in a sauce of walnuts and cream. The aroma of that sauce is what had enticed us on our way. The funivia stops service until two in the afternoon, so we had a long, leisurely lunch. Some wine, some cappuccino, some dessert. I could have rolled down that mountain on my own.

So, back to lasagna. Go on line and check out lasagna and its history. There are northern versions, mainly using béchamel or white sauces, and southern versions using tomato based sauces.   Basically, it is sheets of pasta layered with sauce, cheese, perhaps meat, and other ingredients, and all baked in a dish - a lasanum. Google ‘lasagna’ and you come up with hundreds of versions.  You really can’t go wrong.  Lasagna is on most folks lists of favorite comfort foods - mine too!

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Today, Frenchmen all over the world are celebrating Bastille Day - Le Quatorze Juillet - and in honor of the day I'm posting a story about a wonderful day we spent in St. Remy-de- Provence.  The pictures here are some of my own.

It was a serendipitous decision to spend a Sunday in St. Remy-de-Provence during the annual festival in celebration of their saint’s day. The day began with the running of a bull through the town. Most spectators stood behind temporary barriers, but some were up trees or on walls or light poles. The true ‘crazies’ just stood about and scattered when the bull came down the street.  It was hilarious to see them panic when the bull turned and started back toward them.  A large group of Camarguaise horsemen, the Gardians, dressed in black and carrying trident spears, trotted along behind on their white horses, generally herding the lone bull in the same way they herd the semi-wild horses and bulls of the region.

We had been to St. Remy on their regular market day. Vendor stalls of every kind radiated out from the town square into the side streets.  Everything from bras to bananas to baskets was available and attractively displayed: clothing, antiques, art work, jewelry, fabric, and flowers. There were foods of all kinds, enough to make a serious foodie weep for joy to see them, or for sorrow that so many of them are not available at home. A few days later that square was jammed with carnival rides and games. I don’t know how they wedged them all in there. We wandered around town, entertained by a strolling brass band. Everywhere we looked there were folks in Provençal costume, all very happy to pose for pictures. One lovely woman, dressed like van Gogh’s L’ Arlésienne, chatted with us and described the various parts of her costume. 

For lunch we went a bit south of town to Glanum, the site of an ancient Roman city. Their restaurant offers lunch as the Romans would have enjoyed it. The dish of the day was the Domitia Plate, four different things: a dish of mashed chick peas with olive oil, pepper, and cumin; roast pork with an absolutely delicious sauce of honey and - yes! - anchovies; duck pâté on toast; and melon chunks tossed with olive oil, cumin and coriander. I don’t think the Romans lacked for culinary delights if they ate a meal like that one.  

Lunch under our adjusted belts, we went back to the town arena to see the Camargue’s version of the bullfight. Much to our surprise, it turned out to be the grand re-opening of the arena, with all the local dignitaries on hand for some pomp and circumstance. The speeches and entertainment were accompanied by the same band, now in more elaborate uniforms. There was an amazing group of whip-wielding men performing a rhythmic, snapping, routine. We wondered how they kept their wrists in shape for such strenuous tricks. A few more speeches, and then, to our delight, in came all of the Gardians on horseback, performing a practiced quadrille, and the costumed folk we’d seen that morning. From little girls to elegant gentlemen and ladies, including L’Arlésienne, they did a measured promenade and a lively version of a May-pole dance.

Before ‘Inauguration’ we had located our ticketed seats and decided it was going to be a tight squeeze. Some folks had already spread out into our numbered spaces, so we hopped up and sat on the top wall where the view was unobstructed and perfect for taking pictures. Our move delighted some of the locals already sitting up there. They’d rarely seen tourists at such a local event. After the Inauguration the ‘Course’ began. Despite the language barrier - I’m only a bit conversant in French - they got over to us all about what would be happening.

This is a bull fight where the bull has all the advantages. The ‘fight’ is called la Course à la Cocarde, or the Course Camarguaise. Teams of agile men, dressed in white, vie for the cockades or knots tied to the bulls horns. The ‘raseteurs’, the ‘shavers’, wear a small rake-type device over their knuckles, and they dart in to meet a charging bull, trying to rake or snatch the knotted string from the bull’s horns. The team winning the most knots wins. 

The bulls are a small breed but their horns are wicked. They run the teams all over the arena. You can bet those men are extremely quick. Twice we saw a bull jump over the arena’s guard wall in pursuit of a raseteur.  Many times they chased men who had to jump up on the guard wall and then up onto the concrete wall of the stands in order to evade those horns.  But when the bull starts to tire, when he starts to foam at the mouth, he is quickly retired and a fresh bull enters the fray. Do the tired men get replaced? Mais non! Certainly not! At the end we couldn’t tell which team won and which lost, but it can be said, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that for several hours there was never a dull moment. 

Exhausted and elated, we headed back to our château home-away-from-home to celebrate our day with a bottle of good Rhone wine. À votre santé! 

Sunday, July 10, 2011


We recently had a visit from a lovely nurse who is with the Homecare of Lancaster. She couldn’t believe that we were from New York. Evidently, in the course of her work here in several of our Sun City Carolina Lakes homes, she has run into some very unpleasant people from above the Mason-Dixon Line.  Not everyone from the north has given her a hard, rude time, and some from the south could also use a lesson or two in manners, but we surprised her by being so nice. SCCL people I ask you: what is with that?     

This woman, highly trained, supremely efficient and kindness itself, was in our home to help us - not the other way ’round. She has a lovely southern accent, as you would you expect from someone born and bred in Lancaster. She said she feels as though northerners view folks with southern accents as working with less than a full set of brains. But you know, to her, we are the ones with the accents. (Accents are funny things. Very often in the early hours of the day in the Lake House pool there are five of us with accents: one New Yorker, one Georgia Peach, one English-born, one German-born, and one Frenchman.  O.K., which one of us has the accent? And remember, two of those five speak more than one language. How many do you speak?) Accents tell others where we were born, not who we are and how much we know. That can be told by what we say and how we say it.           

I know that many of SCCL’s residents think nothing of giving a hard, rude time to the folks at the Lake House desk. The denizens of the desk say that a thick skin has to go along with the job, but that’s a sad commentary on how we live here. I can imagine myself manning the desk and spying some grim-looking resident coming up to face me. I’d think “Oh boy, here comes trouble.”  How much nicer it would be for me to greet a smiling resident with a sincere “How may I help you.”  If they said “I’ve got a big problem here and I need you to help me solve it,” their smile would already have put me on their side. Simple as that: it’s nice to be nice.

The stories told by the nurse or desk personnel are not unique. Many of our local merchants tell similar stories. In my humble opinion folks, this rude, ‘I’m better than you are’, ‘you are here to serve me’, ‘the world owes me a living’ attitude has got to stop. You are giving the rest of us a bad reputation. Ain’t none of us so wonderful, so rich, so absolutely right, or even so old, that we can be rude and thoughtless to others, no matter what their status, station or calling in life. 

Think of, truly digest, the words of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.   Get beyond your pain or your problem, be pleasant if it kills you, and help will be given to you sooner and with a smile.  ‘As you would have them do unto you’ - fate forbid some folks should think to be as rude in return as some are to them. That would be nasty, and it might even come to fisticuffs. (Oooo, can I watch?)  

There are all sorts of mottoes and sayings that could be trotted out to tell you to have more regard for others - you probably know them all.  These two will suffice: ‘Remember the Golden Rule’, and ‘It’s Nice to be Nice’. Now - go to your mirror and practice your smile. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Today every Tom, Dick and Harry has a last name, but that wasn’t always so.  I doubt that our ancestors were named Fred and Barney, but until they started to sort themselves out and create a hierarchy, I’d surmise that everyone needed only one name.  For millennia, rural people were so far out of town that they knew everyone in the area.  It was when they congregated in cities that they had to tack identifiers on to their simple names.

Once folks realized there were others around with their name they began to tack on the name of town they were from.  Thus we have George Washington, whose forebears were from Washington in England, or James Galway, from Ireland. In English we don’t use the ‘from’, but among others, the German Von, the French or Spanish De, or the Italian Da, mean ‘from’. Think of Von Richtofen or DaVinci. 

Meanwhile, back at home, the population was growing.  Tom wasn’t the only Tom in town, so in many places he became Tom Johnson, the son of John.  In Arab countries a son was ibn-, in Hebrew he was ben-, they’re almost the same. In Gaelic, Mac or Mc means son, and O’ means grandson. Could a Scots-Irish lad be O’MacDonald?  In the Scandinavian countries a son was -son sometimes -sen. Erik the Red was Erik Thorvaldsson. A daughter was -dóttir or -datter. This is still used in Iceland, where Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the world’s first democratically elected female head of state.

In other instances, instead of being a son of someone, folks added their profession to their given name. They became Tom Baker, Margaret Thatcher, Maurice Chevalier, or Robert Allen Zimmermann. One ‘n’ or two, a zimmermann is a carpenter, but we know this one as a singer: Bob Dylan. They might have had a characteristic that distinguished them: if they were redheads they might be Russo in Italy or Rousseau in France. If they lived by a lake or pond they became Veronica Lake or James Pond. If their father worked for a bishop, abbot, or priest, or if their father was one, they might use that as their surname.  Is that how that comic became Joey Bishop?  Nah, his last name was Gottlieb, which is German for God’s love, and that might have begun as a nick name.  

In 1979, the United Nations adopted a measure that states, among other things, that there should be equal rights in the transmission of family names. Parents can decide to give their children either the name of the father or mother, or a hyphenation of both – although no more than two names can be hyphenated. I wonder what happens when a Smith-Wong marries a Patel-Jones. Though in one form and one place or another this has been going on for a long time, many couples are now deciding on the wife keeping her own name and their children having a combined surname.  When James Pope marries Anne Sicola, their children’s surname will be Pope-Sicola.

So, surnames came from relationships, towns, locations, occupations, even nicknames. There are many whose origins remain a mystery. It’s said that the name Ryan can’t be traced, but that’s the luck o’ the Irish for you. Surname is from the Old French ‘sur’, meaning ‘super’ or ‘on’ or ‘on top of,’ and ‘nom’, meaning name. We’ve just skimmed the surface of surnames.  Names from our western European heritage, once so prevalent in the States, have been joined by a United Nations of names, and their origins are interesting and very intriguing.