History denied me: Old stuff I can’t figure out.

Exploring Sorrento on foot, Vern and I followed a road that crossed a deep ravine. Looking down, among the thick undergrowth, I saw a ruin, a former mill or factory, it appeared, covered in creepers and moss.

That kind of thing just gets my head spinning. What was it? When was it built? Who worked there? Why was it abandoned? I’m sure that some research could turn up the answers to these questions, but I had higher priorities at the time. Still, that picture catches in my imagination now and then.

The trouble with Italy (and of course there are other places) is that it is filled with these bits of time gone by, wherever you go. Bits of ancient columns built in a new(er) stone wall. Arched “doorways” forty feet above the beach on a cliff face. Roman mosaic fragments dug up during remodeling.

Sometimes when I see such things, a story simply comes to me, and I wonder how close to the truth it might be.

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Black wool stockings, or Winter travel in Italy

We arrived in Sorrento in mid-February to begin two weeks of Italian language school at Sorrento Lingue. We’d packed for a month in a mild winter climate.

Too mild, it turned out.

Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio in the snow.

Our host family’s apartment, with its icy marble floors, was not heated to the level we Americans are accustomed to. My first purchase in Sorrento was a pair of black wool tights, which I wore almost every day, with my other clothes. With additional socks, and a sweater under my warm coat.

It’s one thing to bundle up when you go outside–after all, I grew up in Alaska, and I know what winter cold is like. But it seemed nearly as cold inside as out, and we were bundled up inside and out.

Granted, it was mid-winter. We had several very windy days in Sorrento, and a few with rain. We walked several blocks every day to our class, and on our free afternoons we walked all over the city. We walked a couple of miles each way to see the ruined villa at Capo di Sorrento, and took trips to Pompeii and Positano.

Clouds hanging low over Positano.

Umbrellas were the order of the day in Pompeii.

But I’m afraid in all my planning, in spite of knowing that we were traveling in winter, my brain retained the images of sunny Italy, warm Italy, cappuccino on the terrace Italy.

After two weeks in Sorrento–two weeks in those wool tights–we picked up a rental car and headed to L’Aquila. It’s farther north, yes, and a higher elevation, in the central Apennines. A beautiful, historic city (until April 6, 2009), one I was very eager to visit. Weathermen in military regalia on TV had forecast possible snow, so we insisted on getting chains with the rental car, and sure enough, snow began to fall by mid-afternoon as we climbed into the mountains.

But we Alaskans were not daunted by a little snow, and we carried on. As the snow accumulated to three, then four inches, with no sign of letting up, we pulled to the side of the road under an overpass to put on the chains while there was still some daylight.

The chains did not fit.

The thought of another couple of hours in failing light on curving mountain roads gave us pause. We had a lovely hotel room waiting in L’Aquila, and were eager to be in it. But how long would it take us if the snow continued?

As we pondered this question, the rumble of a large vehicle on the overpass caught our attention. It slowed, and then appeared on the ramp and pulled onto the highway in front of us. A snowplow! As we folded our maps and prepared to pull out behind him, another plow came down the ramp. And another!

Following our caravan of snowplows.

With high hopes that one of them would go to L’Aquila, we pulled out into the thin slush in their wake, and followed them at about 40 mph all the way to our destination. Other cars passed us, but we simply followed. It was our first day of driving in Italy, and a memorable experience!

So for anyone planning a winter visit to Italy, I will say: By all means, go, see the sights, the pasta and wine are just as wonderful in winter, but take your black wool stockings! You are likely to need them.

Strange things at the fish market

A September day in Naples brought us to this fish market, and a lot of unfamiliar seafood to look over. It reminded me of a meal we had in Sorrento with our host, Maria, when we were studying Italian. She was very pleased to have a special meal of fish for the first Friday of Lent, telling us it was ‘seppia’. I had no idea what that was, and even looking it up in my Italian-English dictionary didn’t help. I didn’t know what a cuttlefish was. She showed me a covered pot in the sink, and then lifted the lid.

AAKKK!

The ugliest creature I ever ate stared up at me.

Now tell me, does that look like food to you?

Well, we ate it for dinner, and it was very good. Maria was an excellent cook, and we enjoyed many good meals during our two weeks in her home, but that was the most shocking one to me.

Book Week: Siren Land by Norman Douglas

I cannot call this week’s post a book review, because I have been unable to read the book. Have you read Norman Douglas? If so, please share your experience with me.

I want to read it. Norman Douglas’s travel books on southern Italy are said to be classics of the genre. So I bought a paperback of Siren Land (a 2010 edition of a book first published in 1911, a sure sign of a classic) and have made several attempts.

This is not light reading, not the kind of travel book for hotel and restaurant reviews.

Norman Douglas in 1935

Granted, some might say I am a lazy reader, but Douglas writes dense, complex prose. He cites snippets of Latin, and uses Italian phrases, with no translation for the benefit of readers like me. He alludes to obscure mythologies and little-known historical events.

According to the introduction, Douglas said that the reader of a travel book is entitled to “all one would wish to know about the subject–features of landscape with their associative history, geology, zoology, botany, archaeology, etc.–but also that author’s ‘mind worth knowing'”. And Douglas has supplied these things, some of them in six- and eight-line sentences that require reading three or four times to disentangle the meaning from the words.

Truthfully, he lost me in the very first chapter, titled Sirens and their Ancestry. I tried to pick up on a topic of particular interest to me, his third chapter, The Siren Islets, and lasted a little longer.

His chapter On Liesure opens with this sentence: “Come, let us discourse beneath this knotty carob tree whose boughs have been bent earthward by a thousand gales for the over-shadowing of the Inspired Unemployed, and betwixt whose lustrous leaves the sea, far down below, is shining turquoise-blue in a dream of calm content–let me discourse, that is–for if other people are going to talk, as Whistler used to say, there can be no conversation–let me discourse of leisure, the siren’s gift to men.”

Who knew leisure would be such hard work? And that’s just the first sentence!

So this week, I would especially like to hear from anyone who has read Norman Douglas, with any hints or encouragements to help me through his book.

 

English Soup? Save it for dessert!

As Vern and I walked from our lodging to the language school in Sorrento, we passed a small bakery, often succumbing to temptation and buying a treat. The owner bantered with us, switching between our limited Italian and his limited English as he described the various pastries on display. One day a large rounded cake caught our eye, a little like the one pictured here which we bought later for Vern’s birthday.

“Zuppa Inglese,” he said when we pointed. He offered us a taste, and we fell in love.

Zuppa Inglese is described this way in the glossary of www.lacucinaitalianamagazine.com:

“TZOO-pah een-GLAY-zay

As the name suggests, zuppa inglese (“English soup”) is of English origin, and is derived from the trifle, a popular British dessert. To make zuppa inglese, wedges of sponge cake or delicate cookies such as ladyfingers are dipped in sweet wine or light liqueur, then layered with whipped cream, diced candied fruit, and chopped bittersweet chocolate.”

There are several stories about the origin of this dessert. The first we heard was that Admiral Nelson’s fleet made an unexpected call at Naples, and the king’s cooks were rushed to prepare something suitable for him. Zuppa Inglese was the result—a kind of hybrid between English trifle and tiramisu.

The internet abounds with recipes for Zuppa Inglese, from complicated (sponge cake
and custard made from scratch, hand shaved bittersweet chocolate, and so forth) to very simple (store-bought ladyfingers, instant pudding, chocolate chips). Find one you like the looks of, and adjust it to your cooking style. The basics are: a light cake of some kind in the bottom of the serving dish (clear glass looks pretty) sprinkled with a liquor such as rum or marsala; a custard or pudding with fruit of your choice mixed in, some form of chocolate as a highlight (not so much it overwhelms), and whipped cream. It can also be formed in a bowl or pan, layered and chilled, then inverted onto a platter and decorated with meringue or  whipped cream, the way we first encountered it in Sorrento.

Here’s a video demonstration featuring chef Jeff Michaud from Osteria Restaurant in
Philadelphia with a professional’s version of Zuppa Inglese.

And here is another video, definitely the home style version, with two sisters describing mamma’s shortcut recipe.

Whichever recipe you choose, this is a delicious dessert, and fun for a special occasion. Like, tonight!

Why I Love Sorrento

Medieval cloister in Sorrento--a popular wedding spot!

From my travel diary in February of 2004:  “The city is a marvel of history to me, with ancient pre-Roman walls, from the original Greek colony, with Roman walls built on top of them, the remains of several old gates, including stairs in the steep cliffs along the water. There are houses and buildings around the town from every era of the last 2,000 years! ….. We found ourselves in a narrow street where a motorcycle could barely pass us, and we had to flatten ourselves in a doorway while several cars passed, and then we made a run for the next wide spot. We came back to town near the old city walls–through a gate whose sign indicates it was made in the 3rd-1st century BC. The Antica Mura. (ancient wall) …. Ah, a sunny morning! The air is so fresh and clear, pero un po freddo, a little cold. Still, it is beautiful to see the sun on the water, birds wheeling above, palms swaying in the breeze….. Today is Carnevale in Italy (a.k.a. Mardi Gras)…here in Sorrento the streets were full of people tonight when Vern and I walked around. There is confetti among the cobbles and paving stones, and paper streamers litter the ground. The Corso Italia was so crammed with people that cars were not even attempting to pass through. People of all ages were out for the passeggiata and festival. Parents with young children dressed as Zorro, Sleeping Beauty, animal characters. Young teens were dousing their friends with shaving cream or silly string, which was also sprayed on shop windows and cars, lampposts and on the sidewalks. Music–live–played from a bandstand in the Piazza Tasso, and old couples strolled the streets together. Older men talked in groups or leaned against a wall watching the crowd–happy revelers all, it appeared. There were a few adults in costume too–we saw a pair of dalmations get into a small car and drive away.”

Is there a place in Italy that you love?  Tell me about it!