Author Archives: Donica

The Fine Art of Tasting Miele

The honey tasting took place in the church in Pianiano, Lazio.

Christina and I (and husbands) spent nearly two hours in the village of Pianiano yesterday afternoon learning to taste honey. It turns out there is quite a process for distinguishing the various flavors of this natural food that has been popular in Italy for more than 2,000 years (according to this source, Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), wrote about bee farming in the third volume of his famous, “De Re Rustica.”)

The tasting took place in a church, where about 20 of us sat obediently in pews as our authoritative guide took us through the many steps involved in learning to fully appreciate the flavors and textures of various honeys.

Preparing the honey for tasting

We had five types of honey to taste, in order: acacia (clear, light and liquidity); lime trees (the street tree, not the fruit, with honey that looked like lemon gelato); sunflower (thick and golden); honeydew (from bees that eat the excrement of aphids in oak forests); and chestnut (dark and thick).

The first and second step to tasting honey involves smelling it. One takes the cup of honey and smells it closely,  inhaling deeply to catch the aroma and identify it. After doing this for a sufficient amount of time, one then takes a small honey stick and stirs the honey, releasing more aroma and requiring additional deep inhalations.

The honey expert who led us through the honey tasting process.

Smells in Italy are apparently classifiable to a remarkable degree. Our enthusiastic guide asked us to name the aromas we could identify for each honey. When Scott said the acacia honey smelled like honey, she let him know this was not an unacceptable answer. He clearly was not using his nose or imagination sufficiently. When Christina suggested the sunflower honey had a slight mint fragrance, our honey priestess allowed that it might, but when her assistant then suggested it smelled like lemon, she was visibly disappointed that he wasn’t more discerning.

The lime tree honey had an unpleasant smell which Richard suggested reeked like urine. I thought this was fairly descriptive but she didn’t agree (she said a lot of things about “animale” in response, which I couldn’t follow). However, when we arrived at the honeydew honey and Scott said it smelled like “caramel” she was very pleased and he had clearly redeemed himself. “Caramel” was the right answer! (This was also my favorite honey, as long as I didn’t think about it too much.)

The chestnut honey took a lot of conversation and after a number of wrong guesses, our honey guide announced that it had the smell of “dirty hair.” Scott and Richard thought “locker room” was more descriptive but that didn’t translate well.  Dirty socks was also suggested as a possible answer; I wouldn’t put this honey on anything but the plate of someone I didn’t like. It is however, listed as one of the top 21 honeys in Italy. (Chestnut seems to be an acquired taste that I think is related to starvation during the world wars.)

Intensifying the sense of taste by withholding the sense of smell

The third step in the honey tasting process is to take a bit of honey, spread it across your tongue and then hold your nose. This is surprisingly difficult to do as I discovered it’s impossible to swallow while holding your nose, so you have to have honey in your mouth and not swallow, concentrating instead on the four tastes that honey can hold: sweet, acidic, bitter and salty. We had to identify the dominant taste of each honey for these four characteristics. I found it was actually useful to close my eyes, hold my nose, count to five and let go. The flavors in my mouth then did feel especially pronounced which was a fun discovery. Who knew?

After two rounds of smelling and the holding-your-nose step, one arrives at the actual tasting step. It was quite a relief to be able to eat the honey and savor the sweetness, texture and flavors. We looked a bit like a room full of Winnie-the-Poohs with our own personal honey jars at this point, although by the fifth cupful (which fortunately was the worst tasting) everyone looked decidedly less enthusiastic.

Pecorino and ricotta with sunflower honey

At this point our guide announced we had reached the last and final step: to taste the honey with cheese. To our knowledge, Italy (perhaps along with Bulgaria) is one of the few places where people regularly pair honey with cheese. It’s an incredibly delicious combination and everyone was anticipating this culmination of more than an hour of careful honey consumption instruction. One of the young assistants arrived with a bag which he carefully untied to reveal a large bowl of fresh ricotta. Slices of moderately aged pecorino were already prepared and our guides carefully passed around plates of cheese for each worshipper.

Steeling ourselves for more instruction, there was a a definite change in mood when everyone realized that the only directive now was to pair the cheese with whatever honey we fancied. Everyone began to chat as our host and hostesses poured more water, shared extra cheese and the event, like most Italian gatherings, turned into a party. We shared smiles with those behind us and the grandfather of the young assistants showed up with his adorable toddler granddaughter. Everyone slowly emptied back into the narrow cobblestone street which had been blocked off for the weekend garden show and filled with flowers. A perfect way to end our first full day back in Italy.

Flowers at the Pianiano Garden Show

For the proper Italian names of each of the honey we tried, courtesy of The Honey Traveler:

  • Acacia – ‘Miele di acacia’ (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)
  • Lime Tree (aka Linden or Basswood) – ‘Miele di tiglio’ (Tilia spp.)
  • Sunflower – ‘Miele di girasole’ (Helianthus annuus L.)
  • Forest Honeydew – ‘Melata di bosco, Melata di metcalfa’ (Insect: Metcalfa pruinosa (Say))
  • Chestnut – ‘Miele di castagno’ (Castanea sativa Mill)

A final bonus: “La vita delle api” — The life of the bee (to be said with rhythm: la vee ta della a pee).

Poster that accompanied the honey tasting session.

The joy of fresh eggs

Patrizia's double yolk egg wonders

Around the corner from our apartment is a small, unmarked shop, identifiable only by a cardboard sign hung from one of the doors when the shop is open. The sign says: “Pollo” along with a few other words I haven’t yet translated. When the owner is in, the characteristic curtain of hanging beads marks the entrance, which leads to a dark space filled with a meat case, several wood stumps for sitting on, usually a large box of eggs and often a customer or relative chatting with the owner, Patrizia.

Patrizia sells chicken: whole or cut up, minced or kebabed, in pate, for pasta, and occasionally rabbit or turkey breast and of course, eggs. That’s it. She talks as fast as any Italian I’ve met and she has taken us in as her “Americani amici.” She’s met all our visitors, sold us servings of just about everything she has (whether we intended to buy it or not). She greets us on the street with kisses, she asks about our children, and she has taught us the difference in taste between frozen supermarket chicken and fresh chicken that she cuts quickly and perfectly to give us the choicest part of whatever we need. Her eggs are often gathered the same morning we buy them and sometimes, as in the photo above, every single egg she sells us has a double yolk. They make the best (American) breakfast you can imagine, are wonderful in carbonara and even in egg salad sandwiches. She’s on Via Carlucci in San Pellegrino in Viterbo…open mornings and afternoons.

Hunting for wild asparagus

Asparagus in the wild in early spring.

Foraging for wild plants to serve with a meal is a favorite activity of many Italians. Last fall we saw dozens of families picking up hazelnuts from the sides of the roads around Lago Vico. We’ve seen people picking greens on the side of the highways and read stories about families who jealously guard information about where to find the best mushrooms in the fall.  We’ve harvested fennel flowers from the fields around Viterbo and dried them for use in risotto.

Last weekend we took a lovely walk that included serious hunting for wild asparagus. Richard led the way, armed with a plastic bag and a sharp eye for the tiny shoots that are nearly indiscernible from small sticks. The secret is to find the asparagus plant itself, recognizable by light green frothy fronds. The challenge is to find the small individual shoots that appear at random intervals near the main plant. The narrow asparagus spears are quite dark and often nearly overgrown by the surrounding dry grass.

Between the four of us we managed to pick enough to make one generous asparagus frittata. The taste is very subtle but definitely has an asparagus flavor. Because we gathered them ourselves, they tasted particularly delicious and fresh and wild. Asparagus hunting is definitely a worthwhile spring activity!

La Macina Ristorante perfect place for Sunday lunch

Chocolate cake with fresh whipped cream and nutella

Last Sunday was the first day of blue sky and sunshine in Viterbo for several weeks; the warmest day of the year so far. After a morning hike through Norchia, one of the best preserved Etruscan ruins in our area, we stopped for lunch at La Macina, a ristorante – pizzeria surrounded by a small olive grove on a hillside near Vetralla.

Large groups were already gathered around enormous tables in the sunny alcoves. It wasn’t quite warm enough to enjoy the outdoor tables under awnings, but it will be soon.

Orrchiete with artichoke and potato

The restaurant features a variety of seasonal vegetables and local meats in simple, creative combinations. We ordered four pasta dishes, each with a different vegetable: artichokes, asparagus, chanterelles and ferlengo. All four were delicious, with just the right combination of ingredients to keep the sauce and pasta light but flavorful and filling.

Artichokes have been so good in the markets we decided to try two separate artichoke dishes, some whole with olive oil and lemon and some sautéed in olive oil. Both were so tender that the artichokes were almost creamy but not at all mushy.

Pannacotta with fruit

Because we skipped the second plates, we tried three desserts: a crème brulee, pannacotta with fruit and a chocolate cake with very fresh whipped cream and nutella. They were beautiful and a nice complement to complete the meal.

We enjoyed the selection of dishes, the food, service and atmosphere very much and look forward to returning.

La Macina
Loc. Valle Calandrella snc
Cura di Vetralla (VT)
0761 483329
Open for lunch and dinner
Close Tuesdays

Learning from accomplished (and patient) chefs

The co-owner and master chef of L'Altro Gusto, shaping bread sticks

The USAC Italian cuisine class, which Christina teaches, is spending two class periods cooking with the chefs from L’Altro Gusto, one of our (if not the) favorite restaurant in Viterbo. They’ve opened up their kitchen to more than a dozen American students eager to learn about Italian cooking – and eating it too, of course.

For the first night, half the class made homemade pasta, some plain egg pasta and some spinach. They made half of it into sheets for lasagne and the other half was used to make pumpkin filled ravioli. The other half of the class worked in the restaurant kitchen, preparing from scratch and making small piadinis, bread sticks, a variety of fried vegetables (and apples) for antipasti; ragu and béchamel for lasagne, and castagnole for dessert. When everything was ready nearly 20 of us sat down for a bountiful four-course meal, served by the elegantly dressed L’Altro Gusto waiters who enjoyed teasing the American students to make sure they ate all the food.

The fruits of one evening

Eating in Màntova

Window of sweets in central Màntova.

According to one source, the poet  Torquato Tasso wrote about Màntova in 1586:

This is a very beautiful city and one worth travelling a thousand miles to see.

After a recent trip to this city in Lombardy, we would agree that it is both a beautiful city and a very satisfying place to eat. Two specialities stand out. The first is tortelli or ravioli di zucca, a traditional pasta with pumpkin.

Pumpkin tortelli from Spirito diVino in Mantova, Italy

Cooked pumpkin is mashed and combined with parmesan, amaretti cookies and/or mostarda, and wrapped in fresh pasta in the shape of ravioli or tortelli (see the recipe). The dish we tried at Trattoria Osteria Spirito Divino combined the sweet taste of pumpkin with the sharpness of parmesan, wrapped in fresh egg pasta and topped with a traditional butter and sage sauce. It is often eaten in the fall and for the Christmas holidays when pumpkins are in season. Very satisfying!

Sbrisolona is baked like a large cake and then broken in pieces to eat.

The other specialty of Mantovà we particularly enjoyed was a sweet called sbrisolona. It tastes almost like shortbread with lots of almonds, not too sweet but dense and nutty. We bought several pieces of it at a bakery called Casa del Pane that had the most beautiful range of sweets and breads, including a large variety of long bread sticks in a variety of flavors, from onion to red pepper. We kept some of the sbrisolona for the next day and it was still crumbly and nutty, a perfect snack while walking around with friends in the afternoon. A recipe for sbrisolona can be found here.

Quick pasta dish for a cold night

It’s cold in Viterbo this week — brief snow flurries this afternoon — so a warming dinner that didn’t require another trip to the store was perfect. Spaghetti alla Carbonara is as close as Italians get to eating an American breakfast for dinner…eggs and the Italian equivalent of bacon in a rich paste of parmesan cheese, garlic and onion. Christina has posted the full recipe here: Spaghetti alla Carbonara.