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Practical bones

Since I left Italy just after the new year, my darling boyfriend has been networking his little heinie off.  In Italy, even more so than here in the States, finding a job is all about who you know.  That stellar boy has networked himself 2 sets of serious interviews for real jobs.

I don’t want to explain all the bloody details, but suffice it to say, one of the jobs is in Milan – and one is working for an Italian company in LA. 

Please dear controller of the universe, provide him with an offer for one of the jobs.  I am not going to bargain for this gift by offering you children or my soul or eternal goodness on my part, but I’m close.  

We just want to be able to make plans.  We don’t want our lives to be boring.  No, no.  But if we could know where we’d be living, perhaps we could decide on one of the governments to marry us so immigration wouldn’t question Fabio’s intent upon arrival at JFK airport.  Possibly we could live somewhere with kitchen cabinets that stay shut, instead of hitting us in the head when we wash dishes in the sink.  And maybe, just maybe, I could kick my stinky job to the curb and find one that doesn’t make me eat airplane snack boxes for dinner.

I’m a clown car of contradictions on this issue.  We’re almost 40, should we really compromise and take that LA job if it’s offered?  Life is short.  And earnest Top 40 pop songs like “Live Like We’re Dying” are starting to really affect me. 

After all this dreaming, my heart is mangled by the idea not living in our sweet Italian house with the garden, watching our ducks waddling in the backyard, picking plums and cherries in the summer, and lingering over patio dinners on warm nights watching the lights on the lake.

I hate every practical bone in my body that knows we will take that job in LA if it’s offered.

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Snow fruit

This is my third week back in NYC without Fabio.  I’m feeling a little homesick for him and the house – thus, another dose of nostalgia from the holiday visit. 

I’m fairly obsessed with the idea of living in the house and tending to every season of fruit that comes with it.  Christmas 2009 brought another season in the garden: snow.  The weather gods were totally with me.  My flight left smack dab between a foot of snow in Manhattan on one side and a 2 foot dumping in Milan on the other.  I felt like I held my breath the whole flight to Malpensa… hoping that it would ward off the forecast storm in Italy until I got there.  And it did.

It rained soft persistent snow for 2 full days after I arrived.  With no wind, it fell straight down and piled in gentle layers on everything.  Each fence post grew a tall snow cap.  Every tree branch was coated with thick fluffy icing, turning the world into a Scandinavian snow forest.  The silence was mesmerizing. 

We spent the first 3 nights at his parents house on the other side of the lake.  We always stay in the same room with a simple iron double bed, decorated by a delicate silver rosary with glow beads wrapped and dangling over our heads.  The rest of the room is modern, with floor to ceiling sliding glass doors.  Every time I opened my eyes, I stared out the window, warm under the down duvet snuggled next to Fabio.  I imagined the trees would be as cozy under their snow blankets.   As it cleared, car lights below twinkled through the snow-crusted branches along the lake road.

When the deluge finally stopped, we drove over to our house to check on the garden.  Our footsteps broke the knee-high snow on the path leading up the hill from the gate.  It was all white snow, grey sky, and brown trees  – with the exception of the persimmons.  The persimmon tree was decked out in full Christmas with hundreds of orange round baubles hanging from every branch.  I’d seen the persimmons before in winter, but never like this.  They were densely packed with heavy branches dangling just a few feet from the ground.

We trudged up the snowy stone steps, around the chestnut tree to the cachi or persimmons.  Every fruit was covered in a dewy, shimmery frost; some with hats of snow.  It was the height of the persimmon season and they literally fell off into our hands. 

Clean from the blizzard, we split them in half with our fingers, turning them inside out to bite the gooey sweet centers.  We picked enough to fill two flat crates – maybe 80.  We could have stayed all day, but it was getting dark.  Fabio took my picture under the fairytale tree and pressed his lips warmly on the tip of my frozen nose.  Time to go.

Oh holy eggs

Christmas in Italy is all about food.  Three days of traditional breads, appetizers, pastas, meats, and sweets from familial regions.  Many of these traditional foods are made with eggs, and this wasn’t going to change just because I was joining Fabio’s family for Christmas.  Even if I had to vicariously watch other people eat them – I swear I didn’t want them to change!

I’ve always been allergic to eggs.  I remember stuffing my face with Toll House cookies at age 8, wanting to have after school milk and cookies, like a normal American kid.  I’m sure they were chocolate-chip-cookie-yum, but all I remember is the aftermath… little freakish allergy me, extra freaked out and moaning on the couch with a cold washcloth over my swollen-shut eyes.  Lesson learned.

So before Thanksgiving when Fabio asked, “Have you ever tried eating a non-chicken egg?”  I scoffed, “No… that’s crazy talk.”  Every doctor I’d ever seen had told me to beware of all eggs.  “Well, how can you be certain you’re allergic to all eggs if you’ve never tried them?”  he innocently pressed, “ What about duck eggs?  Or quail?  Or oyster?” 

He meant “ostrich.”  The word ostrich is really close to oyster in Italian.

“I never investigated.” 

This was shocking news to Fabio, who knew first-hand about my obsessive-internet-infomania-research disorder.  I research nearly everything that pops into my head on the web.

A new search revealed that there are in fact, people with chicken eggs allergies, who can eat other types of eggs.  This kind of rocked my world.  We set out immediately to test the hypothesis, starting with the smallest, least dangerous looking eggs we could find: quail.  Step 1:  I put a dab of quail egg white on my tongue and waited.  No reaction.  Step 2: Fabio fried one of the mini eggs and I took a bite, heart racing.  Again, nada.  Step 3: Fabio hard boiled a quail egg for me the next day.  My very own egg.  I salted, peppered, and downed the whole thing.  Salty, peppery, eggy deliciousness.  And no allergic reaction.  Amazing.

Quail eggs were exciting and a whole new world – but still, an impractical world.  Have you ever cooked with quail eggs?  Not only are they impractically mini, their shells are as impenetrable as a latex condom. 

So after Thanksgiving, we conducted the same experiment with duck eggs and fingers crossed.  Duck eggs are just slightly larger than chicken eggs with the same  flavor – a perfect substitute for chicken eggs. Operation Duck Egg was another success!  Soon I was gorging myself on my first tastes of frittata, spaghetti carbonara, and homeade Magnolia Bakery cupcakes.  I ate them all with a mix of gusto, wonderment, and a little fear.  But there was never any reaction.

Fabio relayed every episode of egg testing back to his mamma, with much interest on her side.  Before I knew it, Silvana and Emilio (Fabio’s parents) were conducting a full-scale search to locate duck eggs in their area.   They discovered a convent in the hills around Lake Como where the nuns sold duck eggs at a regular Saturday market.   The D’Orazios decided then and there to make all the traditional Christmas foods with duck eggs instead of chicken eggs. 

I can’t describe how incredibly touched I was by this gift and welcome to my first Christmas in Italy.  One of the highlights of my visit was making the once-a-year homemade ricotta ravioli with Emilio and Silvana.  Another highlight… eating it.

  

My first ravioli – made with holy duck eggs from the Italian nunnery.  Buon natale!

 

I purchased Rosetta Stone Italiano language DVDs over two years ago.  As of Nov 1st, I’ve only finished a smidgen of the 5-minute learning units.  Lame.

In preparation for Christmas with Fabio’s family, I’m back on the Rosetta Stone horse.  In my geeky I-love-a-new-techo-gadget-way, I totally dig it. 

Rosetta Stone shows me 4 pictures beneath an Italian word – spoken and/or written – I get to pick my torture.  Then I must match the Italian word or phrase to the picture.  For example, match the word “gatto” to the picture of the cat – and not the picture of the camel, swan, or elephant.  According to Rosetta Stone, his method mimics learning the way a child does…complete with all the guesswork and mistakes. 

But sometimes the words seem really obscure… especially to someone who doesn’t speak Italian.  During one of my early sessions, Rosetta Stone asked me to match “elmetto protettivo”.  Through trial and error, I determined that this is a hard hat.  A critical word for me to  master early on.  I might need to ask Fabio’s mom where to buy one in Como.  Anyway, upon learning it, I asked Fabio, with the sincerest of seriousness, “do you know what this word means??”

It’s impossible to describe the quantity of disbelief in his response.  Bucketfuls.  Truckloads.  City blocks.  He pointed out that “elmetto protettivo” was in the second unit of the first level of Italian for the Rosetta Stone course.  Since he  had been speaking Italian his entire life, he probably knew what it meant.

Ah – a lesson within a lesson.

I couldn’t be more excited about the holiday season this year.  I’ve bribed my family to spend Thanksgiving in NYC with promises of air mattresses and nearby hotels.  We have surprise tickets to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. 

And I  booked my flight to Italy for my first Christmas with Fabio.

The traditions of Italy spin dreams for me.  Just last weekend I was looking for my next experimental recipe in my “Lidia’s Italy” cookbook and read a section out loud describing Torino’s decadent truffle season.  Delicately shaved aromatic mushroom sunshine melts over everything from risottos and scrambled eggs.  Fabio smiled and said,  “Those things are just normal in Italy…but it’s like a fairy tale for you isn’t it?”  It’s true.  The food and traditions of Italy read like a sparkling story.

I’ve heard the story of Christmas meals at least 4 times now – each year we’ve been dating at Xmas time, once before I booked this December’s flight, and once when my Aunt Sue asked for all the gory details last weekend.  It was then that I realized, not everyone listens to tales of food with the same freakish attention that I do.  I mean, she was interested, but not raptly fascinated.  I could literally, listen to Fabio talk about food traditions all day long.

So here’s how it’s going to go down. 

Day 1: Christmas Eve.  Fried breads, stuffed with anchovies or not.  The dough must be swirled into bubbling hot olive oil with an expert flourish to avoid becoming too dense or too airy.  My strategy: kneel close to the stove like a dog and hope to be thrown early snackings hot from the oil.  Baked fish with herbs.

Day 2: Christmas Day.  Many courses each with many matching wines – leading with smoked salmon, middling with ricotta ravioli pasta and a platter of many meats, finishing with classic Italian cakes like pannetone.  Apparently Fabio’s little nephews often give in after the ‘primi’ pasta course.   My strategy: Pace myself and attempt to last longer than the 5 and 7 year olds.

Day 3: Boxing Day:  This is not the right name, but it’s the same concept as the English bank holiday.  Happily reconvene as a family over all the leftovers.   My strategy: Go home 10 lbs heavier and happier.

In sum, there are homeade fried bready things and meals that last for 3 days.  Of course, most of all, I am just looking forward to being together with my honey over the holiday.  No strategy for that.

Xmas market on Lago di Como

Italy was very relaxing – primarily because it downpoured nearly the entire time.  The rain climbed into my luggage at JFK and when I unzipped my bag in Italy, it jumped out to follow me through my entire 10-day vacation.  It rained  over the hills of Como and into the city of Milan, to the Alps in Switzerland where it froze into the season’s first snow, and fell in spectacular lightning storms over the Mediterranean in Tuscany.

There’s not a lot to do when it rains except stay snug indoors, eat, drink, and occasionally bundle up and dash between sheltered areas.  So that’s what we did.

However, it briefly wasn’t raining when I first arrived in Como.  We dropped off my luggage and after a simple ricotta pasta with Fabio’s parents, took off in the mini 4WD to his house on the other side of the lake.  Our mission was figs.  The fig tree was producing fruit for the first time and Fabio waited for my arrival to pick them.  This was not out of kindness; it’s because he is a fig snob and these were lesser figs.  He spared the tree so I could try them, eat them for a season, and then chop it down.

We grabbed a plastic crate lined with newspaper and headed straight to the top terrace of the garden, which means zigzagging back and forth.  After feeding on a long summer of sunshine and thunderstorms, the garden was like an overrun Mediterranean dinosaur land. Everything was lushly unkempt and growing over and between the stone steps with Frisbee-sized leaves sprouting out of holes in the stone garden walls.

As we walked up the path, Fabio suddenly stopped, staring at some pale green Dr. Seuss-ish golf balls with fuzzy spikes. “Nooooooo. It’s too early!” he said as I kicked one with my Adidas.  “They look like sea urchins.”  With a cocked eyebrow, Fabio said “They’re chestnuts.” 

He picked up a stick and using it and the toes of his shoes, worked off the green husk to reveal shiny brown pods. “They must have been knocked down in the storm last night.” Working our way up the path and under the chestnut tree, we gathered about 40. When I picked one up with my bare hand, it turned out they were not fuzzy, but painfully spiky like an angry porcupine.

We climbed to the top terrace and the fig tree, which wasn’t much taller than me with its hand-shaped leaves.  We picked one that was already splitting its sides and broke it into halves to find a gorgeous ruby red interior.  But there’s no Tuscan sun in Como to carmelize the insides to sweet jammy goo.  Only one summer of Tuscan figs and a winter of his mamma’s fig preserves had spoiled me for anything less. 

As we deliberated over whether anyone we knew would eat these figs, raindrops started to fall between the leaves.  We ran down the path as the rain picked up pace, then into the house, and up the stairs, throwing open the balcony doors to lay on the bed, catching our breath and watching the boaters darting inland from the rainstorm.

castagne

Speaking of crazy…this asparagus idea is starting to sound a little cuckoo. 

I’m meeting Fabio in Italy tomorrow and have been researching how to prepare the asparagus bed.  We had this idea that we’d spend a day or two of our vacation digging a plot for the asparagus in a sunny spot in the terraced garden.  Then we’d mix the soil with manure or something equally tasty for hungry, young asparagus roots and let it marinate over the winter in preparation for the spring planting.  Piece of cake.

Annoying research has shown that this is no small potatoes activity.  Potatoes would involve less work.  I suspect almost any other vegetable would involve less work. 

I located this very kind American farmer and asparagus blogger in Cinque Terre who confirmed what I refused to believe from my internet research.  The recommendations are as follows: 

  • Plant 25 asparagus plants per asparagus-eater.  So that’s 50 plants.
  • Set each plant 1 foot apart.  So that’s 50 feet… of digging.
  • Dig each row 1.5 feet deep.   Gasp.
  • Mix in manure and sand with your feet because gawd knows you won’t be able to use your arms after digging 50 feet of soil 1.5 feet deep. 

We are intimidated.  It’s like mining a football field.  Okay, it’s not, but Fabio estimates 1 full week of excavating.  Like digging-all-day-on-our-vacation kind of digging.  And I have to admit, the work would mostly fall on him because I will hit a point fairly early on where my girl arms will just cease to function.

We might wait til spring.

backhoe