Figs in the pan

We had an early warm spell this year in March and April, giving a boost to fruit crops in our area. That includes my honey fig tree, which produced several dozen figs, and is on it’s way to a second crop–if fall weather lasts long enough to ripen them.

In Sulmona, Italy our landlady for a few weeks, Signora Giusseppina, brought us bags of fresh figs and hung them on our door. They were dark, purplish and dripping sweetness. I’m in a different climate, and my honey figs are pale green even when they ripen.

Late figs 3The figs I have already picked are delicious, and here’s my favorite way to prepare them: Wash them off, trim off the stem, and cut in half from stem to base. The skin is edible, and pretty difficult to remove from a ripe fig. figs raw





Melt two or three tablespoons of butter in a pan on medium-high heat, and place the figs cut side down in the butter. Let them fry until they begin to brown. It won’t take long.

figs fryingTurn the heat down a smidge, and add a little orange juice. Just a couple of tablespoons, from a fresh orange if you have on (though I am not a purist about it). Let that sizzle in the pan for another couple of minutes.

Now spoon those babies out onto a plate and eat them. I especially love them for breakfast, dessert, or as a side with lunch or dinner. In other words, anytime at all!

Now I would like to find a savory fig recipe–so, readers, what do you suggest?figs close


Abruzzo’s gift that keeps on giving

Glenn and I with Piero at the Cantina di Biffi in Sulmona. Note bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo on the table.

Glenn and I with Piero at the Cantina di Biffi in Sulmona. Note bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the table.

We drank a lot of wine in Italy. Italian wine. Big mouthfilling reds and crisp Calabrian whites. But one of the most lasting wine pleasures we discovered was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a wine I had never heard of before spending a few weeks in Abruzzo.

So last week my brother, Glenn, forwarded me an email from a wine store, touting “a true gem of a wine” in Fantini’s 2012 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The email claims a wine score of 90 for it, though my online research turns up 85 or 87. Am I concerned? Naaa. I’m gonna go look for some of this, which is available from several places at about $10 a bottle, and I’m gonna bring it home, and I’m gonna cook up some pasta with sauce that includes zucchini (because I am overloaded with it right now). Then I’ll pour a couple of big red glasses of that stuff.

I’ll be wishing my brother was here to enjoy it, like we did in Sulmona in 2004 at the Cantina di Biffi. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has become my go-to red since then.

Readers, please share your best Italian wine experience in the comments. What made it special?

Easter in Italy: Parade of statues

If you visit Italy at Easter time, you don’t have to go to church to see the statues. A common feature of religious holidays in Italy is the procession through the streets with statues from the church. I’ve seen this a couple of times in Italy, but have never lived anywhere with this practice. Here are some photos, all from Wikimedia Commons, of Easter processions with statues. And some of them run with the statues!

Have you seen similar processions when traveling in Italy? Please share in the comments!

Easter procession in Ribera, Sicily.

Easter procession in Ribera, Sicily.

Residents crowd the balconies in Sulmona to watch the Madonna run through the streets.

Residents crowd the balconies in Sulmona to watch the Madonna run through the streets.

In Acquaro, Calabria, the Easter procession features John the Baptist running through town.

In Acquaro, Calabria, the Easter procession features John the Baptist running through town.

And here is a link to an article with a little history about one such procession, on the island of Ischia near Naples.

Book Review: The Love-Artist by Jane Alison

The-Love-Artist-201x300Last year I enrolled in a MOOC. What’s that?? A Massive Open Online Course, and there are thousands of them out there, taught by university professors, completely free, and just about any topic you can imagine. I chose a course on historical fiction, and one of the assigned readings was The Love Artist, featuring the Roman poet Ovid.

The subject intrigued me because Ovid was born in Sulmona, one of my favorite spots in Italy, and I wondered if his hometown played at all in the story. In that, I was disappointed.

I’m not much of a student of ancient Rome, so cannot judge the authenticity of Alison’s depiction of the setting. Her prose is lyrical and lovely, appropriate to the time in language, and evokes a mystical sense that works with the story, which re-imagines Ovid’s inspiration for his (now lost) tragic play Medea. Enchanted by Xenia, a mysterious woman he meets on the shores of the Black Sea, Ovid returns with her to Rome, where his writing career and personal life are bound up with Emperor Augustus and his family tumult.

Statue of Ovid in Sulmona, Italy, his birthplace. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of Ovid in Sulmona, Italy, his birthplace. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The story itself is very slow-moving, and I’m not convinced that Alison took advantage of the natural drama in the story she tells. Not a book that would keep me up reading until two or three in the morning. Perhaps readers who thrive on stories of the Roman Empire would find it more engaging.

I’d be interested in the opinions of others who have read it, so please comment below!

The abbey built by “my” pope!

I spent several years researching Pope Celestine V, and wrote a novel in which he was a significant character. Don’t bother looking at Amazon–it remains unpublished.

Touring the abbey, September 2004

Touring the abbey, September 2004

One of the most exciting days during my research in Italy was visiting the Abbey of the Holy Spirit, which was founded by Pope Celestine in the late 1200s. At the time of our visit, nine years ago, the abbey was in the middle of an extensive renovation, and was closed to the public. However, with the help of an Italian friend, I was given a tour guided by the architect who had worked on the restoration from its beginning.

At that time, we picked our way through construction debris and materials, plastic draping, and electrical cords. The paintings on the walls were just emerging as a blanket of grime was removed.

But most meaningful to me was a visit to the crypt–probably the oldest section of the abbey, because much of the existing construction was done after a devastating earthquake in the early 1700s. Long strings of construction lights left shadowy corners in the crypt, and dust from the restoration work covered the floor. The architect pointed out a fresco picturing the future pope, Peter of Morrone, with a group of monks.

I noticed a large panel of concrete in the floor with an iron ring set into it. When I asked what it was, the architect and my friend placed an iron bar through the ring and lifted the panel to one side. We peered in, but the poor lighting revealed nothing. Then my husband aimed his camera down the hole, and the flash went off.

The ossuary of the Abbey of the Holy Spirit

The ossuary of the Abbey of the Holy Spirit

The resulting photo is my favorite of our travels, an image that awes me to this day. We were looking into the ossuary, the place where monks’ bones were laid to rest. Amidst the dust, the human bones are visible, bones of men who served God hundreds of years ago. The monastery was closed more than 200 years ago, so the remains we saw were from the 18th century and earlier.

Today, the restoration is done, and the results are beautiful! Here is a video tour, narrated in English, of the Abbey and a couple of other nearby sites.

Have you visited a monastery? Is there a particular one whose history intrigues you? Tell us about it in the comments!

World Championship In-line skating: Sulmona 2004

We arrived in Sulmona in the fall of 2004 to a scene of celebration. Teams of athletes from countries around the world were gathered there to compete in the summer version of speed-skating, with in-line skates, and we were there for opening night!

A banner announces "World Championships" with Sulmona's iconic medieval aqueduct in the background.

A banner announces “World Championships” with Sulmona’s iconic medieval aqueduct in the background.

We had no idea this event was happening when we planned our visit. Piazza Garibaldi, Sulmona’s enormous main square, was transformed into a racetrack surrounded by bleachers and vendors’ booths.

A parade of nations entering the arena.

A parade of nations entering the arena.

The teams paraded along Corso Ovidio and into the arena in alphabetical order by country (a little trickier in Italian!).

Team USA passing the fountain in Piazza Garibaldi.

Team USA passing the fountain in Piazza Garibaldi.

We found the American team and wished them well.

A young fan cheers his favorites.

A young fan cheers his favorites.

Here are a few photos we snapped while watching the events.

Medics help after a nasty fall.

Medics help after a nasty fall.

It wouldn't be Italy without fireworks!

It wouldn’t be Italy without fireworks!


Sulmona: A city of surprises

Surprise #1: Sulmona is easy to reach by train or by car–about two or three hours east of Rome in the central Appenines. It’s off the beaten path for tourists, but is gradually being discovered, as evidenced by dozens of reviews on TripAdvisor for lodgings, restaurants, and things to do.

Confetti flowers for sale in Sulmona (RaBoe/Wikipedia)

Surprise #2: Confetti! Not the bits of colored paper, but bits of colored candy coated almonds and chocolate, attached to wire stems and shaped into butterflies, flowers, swans, and other beautiful creations. Bouquets of confetti line the shop fronts along the Corso Ovidio, brilliant color drawing you along to find the next candy fantasy.

Surprise #3: History galore! I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise anywhere in Italy, but there are Roman ruins beneath the city, visible in a couple of museums attached to churches: S.S. Annunziata and San Gaetano. The city is surrounded by medieval walls, and a medieval aqueduct forms one side of the large Piazza Garibaldi.

Surprise #4: World class events! In addition to annual jousting competitions held in late July and early August, an international Latin competition celebrates the Roman poet Ovid who was born in Sulmona, nearby towns have festivals celebrating cherries, red garlic, and wine, and in Pacentro the annual Corsa degli Zingari (Race of the Gypsies) in early September has been celebrated for more than 500 years. On one visit to Sulmona we were surprised to see the Piazza Garibaldi transformed into a skating track for the International Speedskating Championships.

Medieval aqueduct in Piazza Garibaldi, Sulmona. (RaBoe/Wikipedia)

Surprise #5: Great food! We enjoyed meals at the Hostaria del Arco and Cantina di Biffi–rated number one and two among restaurants in Sulmona on TripAdvisor. Like most Italian cities, coffee shops abound, along with pizzerias and a variety of restaurants.

Surprise #6: The great outdoors! Sulmona’s valley is surrounded by national parks with lots of hiking opportunity. The mountains have remnants of ancient shepherds’ huts, along with several hermitages which are popular hiking destinations. There are also about a dozen ski areas within 60 to 90 minutes’ drive of Sulmona. The beaches along the Adriatic coast are about an hour away.

I hope you’ll try Sulmona when you plan a trip to Italy!

Who hunts the wild boar?

One food I enjoyed in Italy, but seldom see in America, is wild boar. When we were staying in Sulmona, our friend Cesare took us through several mountain villages to see various monasteries and hermitages connected to Pope Celestine V (the subject of my research in central Italy).

We stopped for lunch in a village in the mountains of Majella National Park, and went to a restaurant called Belvedere, which hung on the edge of a precipice overlooking the wild hinterlands of Abruzzo. Vern was intrigued to find wild boar on the menu—cinghiale in Italian—and decided to try it. His curiosity was rewarded: the waiter soon delivered a huge bowl of savory chunky stew. The meat was similar to pork, and very tasty.

As we ate, I asked Cesare who hunts the wild boar they serve in the restaurant. At first he seemed not to understand the question, but I persisted. “Nobody hunts them,” he finally said.  “Where do they come from then?” I asked. “Una fattoria.”

Yes, it seems the ‘wild’ boar was raised on a farm! Quite a disappointment, as a boar hunt was fully formed in my imagination already.

Truly wild boars have proliferated in some areas of rural Italy, because their natural enemy, the wolf, has declined in population. According to some sources they now produce more offspring due to mating with domesticated pigs. They damage farms and gardens, and can be a traffic hazard.

My son and I found wild boar on the menu of La Dolce Vita restaurant in Seattle a couple of years ago, and like his dad, he had to try it. I don’t see it on their online menu now. I haven’t found any to try cooking myself, but I found a recipe online at that looks pretty good. If you want to try it using pork, and just pretend it’s wild boar, go ahead—I won’t tell!