Making Our Way
We’re not out of the woods yet. After a brilliant, blue sky morning that brought our town’s residents to the piazza to revel in the bright sun, dark clouds rolled in yesterday afternoon with wind and rain aplenty. While winter has been pretty mild in Puglia this year, it isn’t ready to give up its hold, so we’re still dodging rainstorms and scirocco-fueled gusts from the south.
All of this rain is throwing a wrench in our training regimen, though. We’ve committed ourselves to a very big goal this year, so we’re grabbing every chance we get to walk just about everywhere. We’re going to join the estimated 275,000 people who will converge on France and Spain this year to walk the Camino Frances of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The Camino, or “the Way,” is a more than 1,000–year-old pilgrimage that takes various routes through Europe to arrive at the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the apostle St. James, carried by boat from Jerusalem, are buried there. The routes are marked with scallop shells, one of the enduring symbols of the Camino because of their role in the St. James legend of old.
Modern day pilgrims walk the Camino for many different reasons. In our case, the 500-mile walk presents an opportunity to reflect on our lives as we think about what will come next. A little less than two years ago, we left our home, family and professional lives in the U.S. to live in Italy. We started a new business and launched our nuovastoria. Change like this is wonderful, frightening, unsettling, invigorating and deeply satisfying. So what comes next? We hope that the Camino will give us time and space to liberate our minds.
If you read everything available about the contemporary Camino, you’d probably never leave home. There are myriad online forums, pilgrim blogs, books, spiritual guides and videos, not to mention packing lists, lodging guides and blistered feet remedies all competing with one another for attention. The modern need to know everything there is to know about any undertaking tends to suck the mystery out of the endeavor, giving rise to a plethora of voices convinced that their recommendations for “doing the Camino” are the only way to go. It’s left us cold, so we’ve resolved to experience the walk in our own way, on our own time and with our own intuitive approach to new experiences.
Maybe we’ll turn to Pope Calixtinus II’s Camino guidebook, the Codex Calixtinus, for inspiration. Published around 1140, the fifth book of the Codex is still considered the definitive source for modern guidebooks, with charming references to where pilgrims should stop, relics they should venerate, sanctuaries they should visit, bad food they should avoid and even commercial scams, including, in the author’s opinion, other churches who claimed to hold relics of St. James. Happily, just as noted in the Codex, communities along the Camino offer low cost lodging for pilgrims along with simple accommodations in monasteries and church-sponsored hostels. We expect to experience the Camino in a similarly modest way, praying to St James somewhat irreverently for blister-free feet.
There are a number of well-known Camino routes, but the most traveled is the Camino Frances. We’ll begin in the tiny Basque town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. We’ll climb up and over the top of them, then make our way through the Spanish towns of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and Ponferrada before we arrive at our destination. We’re told the most challenging parts of the walk aren’t the mountain passes where we climb over 3,000 feet in a day, but the long, even monotonous meseta, the high plain that stretches for hundreds of kilometers across northern Spain. After the meseta, we’ll enter Galicia, a region of western Spain known for its green, wooded valleys, stone houses and exceptional seafood. Finally, we will arrive in Santiago de Compostela for the pilgrim’s mass, a dramatic affair that involves an enormous, swinging botafumeiro, a censer suspended from the cathedral’s ceiling that wafts incense over the congregation below. Sadly, we’re told that the monks no longer wash pilgrims’ feet upon arrival, but arrival alone will be all the reward we’ll require after a month of walking every single day.
So we’re gearing up by walking, walking and more walking through the Valle d’Itria, increasing our daily regimen as we go. We plan to be able to walk about 15-18 miles each day with 15 lb. packs on our backs. And if we’re especially diligent, we’ll try to swap out body weight for the backpacks before we start. To that end, our menus these days are composed of heaps of vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fish. And then there is the palestra, my new home away from home, to build strength and lung capacity.
One of our current favorites now figuring heavily in our meal rotation is a vibrant take on the more traditional pesto sauce we start to crave when spring rolls around. Since basil is thin on the ground in mid-winter, I turned to Swiss chard to create a pesto that is as flavorful as it is healthy. And it is an especially forgiving recipe since you can substitute just about any greens you like along with the nuts. Vegans can forgo the parmigiano, too. Paired with an exceptional whole-wheat pasta like the ones made by Benedetto Cavalieri (find them at top quality food stores or through De Medici Imports online), you’ll love the interplay between the earthy, herbal pesto and the nutty, chewy flavor of durum wheat in the pasta. And it’s simplicity itself to have a ready stock of this pesto in the refrigerator or freezer for last minute meals.
Pesto alla Bietola—Swiss Chard Pesto
8-9 stems green Swiss chard, tough central stems removed
½ cup Italian parsley, stems removed
2 cloves garlic, peeled
4 Tbsp. freshly grated parmigiano
½ to ¾ cup nuts (try pistachios, walnuts, almonds or mix them together)
1/3 cup (approx.) best quality extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
10 oz. (2/3 pkg.) whole-wheat fusilli or penne rigate (make sure you use a great pasta for this; Benedetto Cavalieri pasta imported from Italy makes especially good whole wheat varieties)
Slice the Swiss chard (or other greens) into ribbons by stacking the leaves on top of one another and cutting ½-inch wide strips across the stack of leaves. Put the leaves in a food processor or blender. Remove the parsley leaves from their stalks; add them to the blender.
Toast the shelled nuts long enough to smell their toasty aroma. Roughly chop the garlic cloves and the nuts; add them to the blender. Pulse or blend this mixture until it is finely chopped; you may need to add a little extra virgin olive oil to facilitate the chopping at this point if you’re using the blender.
With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil to make a smooth pesto with good pouring consistency. Remove the pesto from the food processor or blender to a medium-sized bowl. Add the grated parmigiano and incorporate it into the pesto with a wooden spoon or spatula. Taste and add salt and pepper accordingly.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the sea, about a tablespoon for a large pasta pot. Add the pasta and cook for five minutes, stirring often at first to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Start to taste the pasta after it has cooked for about five minutes; it should be al dente (slightly firm at its core).
Drain the pasta and reserve one cup of the starchy pasta cooking water. Off the heat, return the pasta to the cooking pot and add the pesto and half a cup of the cooking water. Toss well to coat all of the pasta evenly. If necessary, add more pasta water until you have a creamy, bright green pasta sauce that clings beautifully to each piece of pasta.
Serve immediately, passing a bowl of additional grated parmigiano at the table.
Note: Use any greens that strike your fancy for this pesto, but steer clear of red chard. The resulting pesto will be a muddy brown color. It will taste great, but it won’t be nearly as beautiful at the table. For an especially healthy version, use chicory or dandelion greens right from your garden. Blanch them before proceeding with the pesto in the food processor or blender. Blanching removes the bitterness without sacrificing too many of the greens’ nutrients.