Category Archives: beef

Sorrento to Sicily: A Different Kind of Coast

Mediterranean coastal waters of Calabria
I grew up in an area called the Central Coast, but traveling this leg of my recent trip to Italy showed me a coast with a very different personality. If my home coast in California was the quiet Woody Allen heroine, the Calabrian coast was a battle-scarred, blue-eyed Warrior PrincessWhat makes me think of a warrior princess? The colors are fierce, for one. Look at those blues!
Sorrento Bridge High Above the Trees
This bridge near Sorrento, though not ancient, reminded me of the Roman aqueducts (another warrior reference…) constructed to move water hundreds of miles- I guess for these builders it was a case of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ From Sorrento to Sicily, Mediterranean waters

As I bumped southward from the Naples train station to the toe of Italy’s boot, I was treated to breathtaking views, those vivid colors, and a special quality of light that comes out really well in some of the snapshots.

Light Traversing Sicily
The coast displayed its vivid colors on the sea side, and its homely, timeworn hill-towns facing it on the other. I wondered as I passed in the train what people did there for a living, and saw evidence of some agriculture, some tourism. It definitely felt very low-energy, content. Nothing like a newcomer, intent on a goal and working feverishly to attain it. No, the land I passed showed a quiet, sleepy face. Let sleeping dogs lie?

But then I arrived at one of my transfer points, Villa San Giovanni PortVilla San Giovanni, where I would have to hop off the train, find the port, search out the ferry or hydrofoil ticket offices, and decide how to get across to Sicily. For someone who is used to researching schedules, routes, and costs online, it was an exercise in letting go to have to uncover new information in real time and make a decision on the spot, but I managed not to burst into flames.

Before too long I was pulling out of the port in the hydrofoil, trying to take a picture through the I’m-sure-they’re-impossible-to-clean windows of this white stone monument above. No idea what it is. I’m taking the view that it’s to look after the souls who have perished in the maws of Scylla or Charybdis, purported to have been real-life  obstacles near here for ancient sailors.
Of course, once I got off the hydrofoil on the Sicily side, it was another round of: find the bus station, compare bus companies that go where you want on timing and pricing, decide, and jump on! I had time to dash into a quick cafeteria-style Messina mom-and-pop for some bread and a sugary treat, but that was it- and away we went!
 Windy Sicily Road
We scaled heights. (See that speck of asphalt down there? Yeah, that’s the road we were just on- yowza!)
The bus ride took between 2 and 3 hours, and it was more distant from the shore than the train had been, so I couldn’t see the water past the other side of the highway, the cypress screen, and some buildings, but the journey was painless enough, until we approached my destination- Taormina– and started CLIMBING. Then it became positively edge-of-your-seat. Apologies at this glimpse I offer: it was hard to get photos because you never knew what would be around another corner, and we were twisting up and up and up enough for us to be in a Dr. Suess tree by the end.
At long last, we emptied into Taormina’s town centre. I beheld this place, a cute little shop selling pizza and other dainties made with savory bread and tomatoes. It was a hard sell.

Sooooooooo satisfying… and I’m glad I got something to eat right away, since what happened next put my devil-may-care attitude about planning to the test! Stay tuned for that, in my next installment on Sicily.

And side note, if and when I try making these in my kitchen, I will be going straight to the authority on Sicilian food for a recipe. Happy eating!

What is your association with “coasts”? Do you prefer quiet or warrior-princess ‘bold’ in your landscape retreats? Let us know what floats your boat in the comments!

Passing along Southern Italian Foodways to You

**Announcement!**

I would love to host you at my final cooking class of the summer in August, so email me now to reserve a space!

This class will focus on Southern Italian foods and cultural foodways, which, as you’ll see below, I learned a lot about while in Naples, Sorrento, and Sicily this spring. It was gorgeous. In fact, this was the sight that greeted me from the window of the hydrofoil as we docked- quite amazing.

Pozzuoli and Napoli held their own charms- views of the sea and charming locals high among them- but the next stage of my trip launched me into the independent mode of travel. From the seaside you see above, I scaled the cliff (ok, climbed the stairs) with my suitcase, and getting some advice from the tourist office, I scouted out a few small hotels before deciding on one.
The night of my arrival I wandered around the small town of Sorrento, glimpsing citrus trees in every yard, people in every cafe, and a bustling center of town, which included this gated corner alcove, apparently an ancient men’s club (so unfair).

I walked and walked until I was so hungry I had a hard time making a dinner decision… ending up with this spread, so I didn’t end up too badly…
Whole fried anchovies (unless they were sardines? I can’t find a good way to tell them apart when battered and fried), octopus, shrimp, and more- all celebrated the generous gifts of the Mediterranean Sea. Perfect for my sampler nature.

After a couple days like this, I went to see one of the most famous historical sites right nearby: Pompeii. Having gotten a good look at Vesuvius on the hydrofoil journey crossing the bay from Naples to Sorrento, I was excited to see this city that was buried in an instant, so long ago.

What bowled me over about the site was not the professionalism of the preservation or the views of the countryside (although the site was well managed, the surrounding suburb was rather scrappy), but the unbelievable detail brought to us whole and untouched from that distant culture. Here is a frescoed wall from a bath house. Such colors, thousands of years of ash and dust later!

I recently had “atavism” explained to me in an online course, and it was connected to the idea of a discontinued past, that past which is not linked to our present because we perceive it to be too different. Pompeii was nothing of the sort- the people living here had road ruts under repair, were building extensions on their houses, and had decorations lovelier than many expensive ones I’ve seen  in our own time.

Mosaics laid so precisely.

Signs lettered so carefully
and in recognizable script!

It made the tragedy of the deaths in the settlement all the more real. Here, the archaeologists had left their mark, finding the bodies burnt to ash, essentially vacuuming them out, and making plaster casts of how their bodies were found. It was both eerie and compelling to see the models, composed of some of the ash of the bodies themselves, on display in their final, frantic positions.


But since the one plaster model I saw was placed near the entrance I used, I had a couple hours after that of wandering around the narrow streets and peeking through other courtyards to sweep out the sad thoughts. Marvel at the art and society of this little town was the foremost emotion, and by the time I finished, I was ready for switching gears.

What did I jump to? My cooking lesson with Chef Lucia!

She had a menu planned and printed out for me, and we mixed it up a bit as we went along. Chef Lucia took me through an immense amount of details as we made our way through rolled beef, stuffed eggplant, and rolled eggplant (I requested the eggplant- love it!). One of the highlights of the class was the ballet dance of languages we all did, as her son translated for me, I tried to understand Lucia’s Italian, and she mostly understood my English. It made 2+ hours of standing on my feet in the little kitchen fly by, and that is saying something!


Chopping.

Tearing.

Mixing.

Heating garlic in oil!

There are proper ways to do everything, and traditional ways, too, as in whether you peel your cucumber completely or in stripes- one way gives you the Napolitano version, the other, the Sorrentino.


One of the add-on items on the menu was fresh pasta from potatoes, usually known as gnocchi (that is a link to an excellent tutorial with step-by-step pictures- go see for yourself!).

We used a pasta machine, the kind that clamps on the counter and cranks by hand, which led to some more ballet-like hilarity among the three of us. We also used a tool like the one shown  in the linked tutorial above, which looks like a miniature washboard. It is obviously a skill learned through repetition, to drag two fingers with a dollop of gnocchi dough over the wooden board in such a way to create the classic shape. I tried, but my pasta didn’t win any beauty contests!
It was a lot of fun, and even though setting up the class was stressful at the last minute, and finding the place was another adventure, it was all totally worth it.

Now I have this precious experience to share with you!

Have you taken cooking classes on vacation? How did it give you a different view of the location and the region’s people? Did it help you connect the region’s past with its, and your, present?

It’s magic!

Let us hear about it in the comments…

Bluff City and Home of the Blues

Memphis.

What side of this city did I see? Several, actually. I had two trips there for work, one in March and one in May. I met the nicest, funniest hotel staff at the welcome and valet desks both times. I observed the pieces of the city’s history that residents refuse to let go, such as the trolley, the horse carriages, and bygone symbols of its fame and glamour, like the named music notes in the sidewalk.

I also experienced Beale Street, sort of. Not in the rip-roaring, guitar-wielding, flam-doozling way someone else might have (it was with work, after all), but bar-hopping and cooling my heels in the shade listening to the street hawkers and the wildly cacophonous competing music venues in the small space was certainly a unique experience. Plus, good company.

And oh yeah, I found plenty of good eats. I did my exploring online beforehand, as well as through friend networks. They all pointed to one place: Rendezvous.

The place was happily down-home, with random knickknacks, lots of tourists, and a we-don’t-take-no-guff attitude at the front desk. Only open for dinner (not lunch) during the week- that was odd. Their specialty was most certainly the “Dry-Rub Ribs,” but my coworker’s brisket was mighty tasty too.

The ribs were pretty addictive, and quite unique- it’s kind of like tasting a really salty food- all the crystals tingle in your mouth- but then you realize they contribute to a seasoned, earthy  flavor, not just salt. Who needs sauce, anyway?
It turns out the seasoning mix contains oregano (a main Greek spice) because the immigrant family that started the joint was from Greece! I love when food connects back to the travel theme…of course it always helps your food when it’s got history and whole-heartedness.
Another place I had to stop at was The Little Tea Shop- I mean, come on. Tea. Home cooking. This was a place I found by reputation online. Their most touted items were the vegetarian turnip/ collard greens and the corn sticks: “crispy on the outside yet flaky and buttery on the inside.”
The Little Tea Shop, in its position as a local institution/ legend, deigns to be open for lunch only. And its waitresses tend to be a little short (with their words, not their height), which I chalked up to cultural differences. Oh, and neither their cash register nor their credit card machine was working, so the woman at the front had her hands full trying to make change for people out of spare change she had in a PAPER BAG. It was wildly endearing, and made for a great story.

So, besides the barbeque (sort of) and Beale Street, what other sides are there to Memphis? Well, there are the fun new ‘cuisine-y’ type places popping up (Local Gastropub comes to mind as a place where we had great food, but slow service), and you’ve got your music history pathways to follow.
But my antennae went up as the cab driver from the airport said he knew how to direct us to “any number of diversions, from used bookstores to-“
“Hold up, did you say used bookstores?”
*Done.*

I found one or two downtown, and went on a bit of an adventure to Midtown, a short drive away from the downtown, and home to Memphis’ hipsters and dive monkeys, to find another one, pictured below. Heaven! (Loved the quirky aisle caps consisting of chairs with vintage typewriters)

And how could I forget the fried chicken! Gus’s Fried Chicken was very low-key, and although “Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Chicken” is its full title, I didn’t find it spicy. And I’m a wimp, soooo… Gus’s didn’t have the kind of sustainable sourcing policy of the places I usually find on these trips, but the chicken was so tender and juicy, I went back twice!


Ohmigod, and just like in Omaha, TRY THE FRIED PICKLES. Gus’s were entire spears, and had a spicy crunchy coating- dee-lish.

Besides these neighborhood attractions, a group of the people in town for the meeting had a fun round of friends’ poker (no betting in the state) in the hotel lobby. It was EPIC.

Thanks for the memories, Memphis!