Just “a day in the life” in Spello . . . and Anne and Alain

Condiments, fruit, photos--always on my table

Nothing special here—just an attempt to show a bit of normal life in Spello for me.

First, here’s a view of the constant “still life” (here, “natura morta”—dead nature?) on my kitchen table.  On top of my spot-proof tablecloth carried from Bed, Bath and Beyond, bits of my daily life are here. Always there is a fruit bowl on the table—partially because fruit is something unlimited for Weight Watchers, so I always have a variety of fruit in the house. In October, the pears here are fantastic—and frequently I use them sliced thin on a circle of puff pastry, with small bits of aged Gorgonzola. When the “pizza” is finished in the oven, I drizzle just a bit of honey over all, and sprinkle on some chopped walnuts for an appetizer for guests. Never fails to get compliments!

On the wooden plate, the unbroken half of what was once a cheese plate with a glass cover, the condiments of my table are assembled. Salt and pepper, of course—and then ground red chilis “(pepperoncini”) to add to pasta at the table, plus ground garlic and red chilis (“aglio e pepperoncini”) for an extra kick. Then, the little frog ashtray that was meant to carry a cigarette on it’s rolled tongue, now serves as a container for toothpicks. The last bottle is “crema balsamica,” reduced balsamic vinegar that punches up the flavor of just about anything—especially fresh strawberries, or thick flakes of parmiggiano reggiano cheese!

The colorful photos are from Debbie Brunmeier, a friend from Wisconsin whom I met here in Italy in 2006. She and her Mom (82 at the time, I think) had come from Assisi to see the weekly “Black Celery Marketplace” in Trevi, but had had to walk up the hill when no cabs or buses presented themselves to them at the train station in the valley. My friend, Dee, and I had arrived earlier for the market in a rental car, so we were able to take them back down to the train station (they were exhausted, and without options until we arrived with a car—AND they had missed the morning marketplace entirely because of the time it took to walk up the hill to the central piazza from the train station).

Debbie and I began to write each other e-mails regularly—both of us married to “Mikes,” both husbands were business owners, and both of us were very interested in Italy. When I bought this place in Spello, she began to write to me weekly when I was here, and send photos from her home in Wisconsin. These October photos are from the areas around her yard, with pumpkins arranged in groups among her flowers, and on her patio. I have a huge stack of her letters here, always a treat to find in my mailbox and almost the only real correspondence I ever get here. (Side note, April 2012: Debbie and I corresponded all through her diagnosis, surgery and treatment for gall bladder cancer, discovered soon after she had come to California for a visit with me. I was her confidante, her friend, and her eyes in Italy. She passed away in early February, after a valiant struggle to beat her cancer. I’ll always miss her more when I’m here—where her letters were so very welcome. One more thing–there was one last letter from her here in my mailbox, posted in November, 2011, waiting for me when I arrived in March, almost two months after her death.)

Knowing I was on the way to Spello, and had limits on the luggage I could wrangle here alone and in a boot cast, I sent myself a package from the U.S., filled with books, zip plastic bags, cleanser and some CDs. I can send 20 lb. of items by mail for less than the cost of overweight bags, so I send the heaviest things this way—usually books. This time, in the guaranteed postage box, I arrived in Spello, but the package did not. Leonardo did some investigation on my behalf, and finally found out the problem: I had to sign a declaration of the contents of the package (already on the U.S. customs form, in clear view), and sign a document assuring that none of the contents of the box were made from the skins or fur of dogs and cats. WHAT?? (Yes, really.) I signed the documents, Leonardo faxed them to the proper authorities, and then I got my books and CDs delivered. Go figure! (Never had issues with the first two times I did this, sending my things to myself here in Italy.)

Shipping box arrived, after being embargoed at the Dogana (Customs)

Declaration that these are books and household goods, from the US to Italy, and mine

Sworn statement that nothing in the box contained cat or dog skin or fur

US Customs statement: books, cleanser, CDs and plastic bags

This is just a photo of a fruit tart in process, with the crust already formed and baked on a pizza pan. For all that I have learned from Paola here about baking, and have exchanged some ways that WE bake in the U.S., this is the one thing that seems to stump her—fixing a crimped edge on a crust. Here, this type of dough is called “pasta frolla,” and I can make the crust look pretty, but I still have not figured out what is different here—the flour? The lard I have to use instead of vegetable shortening? The humidity? Whatever it is, I make beautiful crusts that are NOT flaky, and will keep trying until I figure out what is the problem. But I can crimp among the best!

Beautifully crimped, but not flaky--must find out why, and what is different here in Spello

In foul weather, when laundry is normally dried outdoors on a line or on a rack (called a “stenda”), sometimes I have to resort to using my head. This time, in order to get sheets to dry after a guest had visited, I hung them from the loft railing, and they were dry in a day. It’s not the best “look” for the house, but when I have no other options, it works.

In rainy weather, the loft railing becomes the clothesline

This is the birthplace of blogs—on the sofa, with Radio Subasio playing low in the background. Here, I have a place to plug in my laptop, using it for hours without depleting the battery power, so I sit and process photos and then write the text, and then put them together and post the next blog. On the couch, I can look out the window of the front door, to see the weather changing and the valley below—keeping an eye on a bit of the rest of the world.

Birthplace of the blogs--on my couch, and with my laptop

This is upstairs, in the loft. This device is my “stenda,” which extends (thus the name, I think) to hold laundry to be air-dried. The reason almost no one here has a dryer is that dryers require a higher level of electrical service because of the amount of current they draw—and no one is prepared for pay for the higher level of service for occasionally using a dryer. For me, there is also no SPACE for one in the house—the washer is tucked under the stairway, in a closet and out of sight—but most of the washers (“lavatrice”) here in Italy are located in the kitchen, where there is a water source—or sometimes in bathrooms, too. It is a choice to make when putting in a kitchen—washer or dishwasher? Most homes have one or the other in the kitchen, and I’m fortunate to have the washer in the closet, and so have room for a dishwasher, too.

Laundry drying in the loft, on the stenda

This was an experiment. Here in Italy, persimmons are plentiful, and by October the trees looks as if they are holding orange ornaments, since the leaves fall off before the fruit is fully ripened. The trees full of “cachi” (pronounced “ka’-kee,” the Japanese name for the fruit) are everywhere in yards, and many Italians love to eat the ripe fruit. No one here seems to bake anything with persimmons, though, so I brought my recipes, lots of walnuts and raisins, and some cinnamon and cloves, and started passing out baked goods using persimmons. Cinnamon is not a common spice here, although it is available (kids in Florence threw out the cinnamon rolls I made for them after the first bite—not a hit). I found that most everyone enjoyed the breads and cookies I made, but the flavors we commonly use are not common to Italians. They were willing to try, but spiced desserts are quite unusual, especially here in Umbria.

Persimmon breads on the way, an experiment for the Spellani

One of MY favorite Italian appetizers is “cipollini in agra dolce,” small, flat onions cooked in reduced vinegar and sugar, for a sweet and sour taste. They are caramelized to a rich dark brown, and served as an appetizer, or sometimes for part of the meal. In Florence, I was always able to buy a kilo (2.2 lb.) of cleaned cipollini for €1, but in the U.S. I pay nearly $5/pound for the same onions, uncleaned (easily 10 times the price). They are plentiful here in Spello in the fall, but don’t come already cleaned and skinned. Here, in preparation for dinner with friends, I dipped the onions into boiling water for a minute, to hasten the process of cleaning them to their white centers, before beginning the cooking. This is a well-known recipe here, but not often served in Umbria—so it was a surprise when I arrived with warm “cipollini in agra dolce” as a dinner guest.

Parboiled cipollini, ready to be skinned and cleaned

Cleaning the cipollini before caramelizing then in sugar and vinegar

From my first time in Italy, in 2003, I have had a friend in Anne Boulamakis, in Florence. She is the sister-in-law of Sandy Hongo, who works with my husband in Sacramento, and Sandy encouraged me to meet Anne while I was here in Florence. We have become friends, but I am a guest often at the “Hongo Hotel” (her maiden name), sometimes with guests I am escorting to the airport for very early morning flights. Anne hosts us in her guest room, and my guest and I usually have a cab pick us up about 5 a.m. for delivery at the nearby airport. Anne and her companion, Alain, usually pick me up at the airport when I arrive, and I spend my first night with them in Florence (and my last night, to be near the airport), and then I come to Spello by train. THIS visit, with my boot cast, they both were adamant that I not be left on my own to get OFF the train in Spello with bags, a cane and a boot cast. Instead, they insisted on driving me to Spello (2 hours each way for them), and delivering me here. They were invited to stay for lunch with Leonardo, Paola and Robespier, and then drove back to Spello, knowing I was safely delivered here.

Anne and me in my kitchen, before they left for Florence

Here in Italy, just like at home, there are Groupon special offers on the internet—coupons for big discount for travel, purchases, and services. Anne and Alain had found a good deal for a weekend away, farther south, and returned through Spello to spend a night in the Fratello Sole B&B, and pay me a visit. They renewed their acquaintance with Paola and Leonardo over Paola’s breakfast pastries and coffee, and then were off to return to Florence. Alain and Anne are my safety net here, and my friends, and I really appreciate all that they do for me. I am the courier of goods to and from Italy, for the Hongo families. My pleasure to return all the things they do for me!

Anne Boulamakis and Alain Labadie, my good friends

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