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Martina Fiorita

After the facelift, our house is shiny and white, with all of its plaster intact.

After the facelift, our house is shiny and white, with all of its plaster intact.

While we were walking in Spain last month, our house in Martina Franca experienced a much-anticipated facelift. Ever since we acquired this centuries-old place years ago, we had intended to address its aging stucco façade before chunks of ancient plaster wreaked havoc on passers-by below. But there always seemed to be something else more urgent to fix, so we postponed the inevitable until we couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Scaffolding obstructed the already narrow street in front of our house for the duration of the stucco project.

Scaffolding obstructed the already narrow street in front of our house for the duration of the stucco project.

Home improvement is never pleasant, but now I am a firm believer in absenting yourself completely during the process. While there is some inherent risk in trusting the fates to make sure it all works out the way you imagined, avoiding the dust and noise made it all worthwhile. Hedging our bets, we deputized friends to drop by, unannounced, to assess the progress, surreptitiously shooting the occasional photo to send us in an effort to calm my nerves. It turns out we needn’t have worried. Angelo, our intonachista (plasterer), was an absolute champion. He came highly recommended by the neighbors who had not-so-subtly referred him to us over the years. His work was superb and he finished the job both on budget and weeks earlier than promised, firmly dismissing stereotypes of Italian remodeling horror stories. He even sent his own photos to us on the Camino, pressing his son into service to navigate the electronic mail infrastructure on his behalf.

Martina's Baroque balconies and windows are now adorned with floral displays in a show of civic pride motivated by the Barocco in Fiore competition.

Martina’s Baroque balconies and windows are now adorned with floral displays in a show of civic pride motivated by the Barocco in Fiore competition.

After we returned to a shiny new, blindingly white house, we were visited by representatives of Martina Franca’s Comitato Centro Storico, a citizens’ group dedicated to preserving and improving Martina’s historic town center. It seems they wanted to include our house in a competition called “Barocco in Fiore,” an effort to adorn as many centro storico balconies with flowers and hanging vines as possible, focusing attention on Martina Franca’s baroque architecture among the annual wave of summer tourists. But that appeal was just the thin end of the wedge. Next we were invited to join the committee to further its good works, including translation services and an appeal to share the punto di vista degli stranieri (foreigners’ view) on such pressing issues as parking in the historic center, litter abatement and more.

The Comitato Centro Storico Martina Franca is especially well organized; they've even developed a logo.

The Comitato Centro Storico Martina Franca is especially well organized; they’ve even developed a logo.

We went along to our first meeting eager to join in with fellow preservationists. While the group bore some resemblance to volunteer civic groups everywhere, there were some classically Italian elements that served to remind us that we were out of our cultural depth. The meeting started pleasantly enough: introductions were made and polite chat about where we lived, who we knew and what we thought of Martina Franca occupied the first half hour. But it became clear that no decision-making would take place at the actual meeting since factions had already met and discussed their positions in advance. And because the positions were fairly well entrenched—and diametrically opposed—nothing much happened beyond a drawn-out discussion of where the Barocco in Fiore ballots should be printed and how much should be spent to finish the job. Oh, and there was quite a lot of back and forth about whether or not to identify street names on the map that accompanied the Barocco in Fiore

The map and the ballot: fruits of many hours of important comitato discussion.

The map and the ballot: fruits of many hours of important comitato discussion.

competition, along with how the map should be folded to best effect. All of the comitato members thought it best to share their thoughts simultaneously, with voices that got louder and more definitive as opposing views were aired. Every so often, someone would need to leave the room for a cigarette, stopping to light up, breathe in and exhale for emphasis before actually leaving the room.

The competition.

The competition.

While we adore the way all these newly-flowering balconies cascade prettily throughout the main thoroughfares and meandering alleyways of our town, we have decided that the committee is doing a wonderful job without us and we needn’t return to the weekly meetings unless a translation is urgently required or a foreign opinion sought. Perhaps civic volunteer work is the same the world over and we lack the stuff of committed foot soldiers. Still, we’ll lend our support from afar by patching our stucco, watering our new plants and vigilantly collecting any litter that strays into our path. And we’ll keep you posted on whether or not we prevail in the competition, but there are serious contenders in our own little quartiere alone. After pulling and alarming number of dead blossoms from our geraniums this morning, we’ll probably vote for them, too.

In the Swing of Summer

Creamy white and violet-striped eggplant have just started to appear in Martina Franca's fruit and vegetable market.

Creamy white and violet-striped eggplant have just started to appear in Martina Franca’s fruit and vegetable market.

When we’ve been away from Martina Franca for any period of time, we try to get ourselves to the weekly open-air market as soon as we can. Not only do we need to stock up on whatever looks especially gorgeous in the fruit and vegetable department, but meandering through the stalls and listening to the vendors confirms that we’re really home. Read more

Ritual

Our Italian Thanksgiving table doesn't look so different from the American version.

Our Italian Thanksgiving table doesn’t look so different from the American version.

Thanksgiving has come and gone, but the turkey excess lingers on in the form of soup, sandwiches and an especially inelegant hash. It seems that smallish turkeys are almost impossible to come by outside of the Christmas holidays here, so we’re awash in the detritus of an 18 lb. bird. Since we were a mere seven for dinner, our leftover creativity is sorely tested already. Read more

The Vendemmia

The fruits of our grape-picking labor during this year's vendemmia are transported to Cisternino's cooperative winery.

The fruits of our grape-picking labor during this year’s vendemmia are transported to Cisternino’s cooperative winery.

We’re getting ready for the olive harvest, but I’m still reeling from our previous harvest effort just a few weeks ago. While having dinner at a neighbor’s house, we found ourselves offering to help with their vendemmia, which was exploding all around us. So that’s what we did one morning in early October and it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m still recovering. Read more

Fichissimo

The many colors and forms found in the world of figs (Photo credit: http://neigiardinidipomona-bari.blogautore.repubblica.it/page/2/).

The many colors and forms found in the world of figs (Photo credit: http://neigiardinidipomona-bari.blogautore.repubblica.it/page/2/).

I used to think that spring is the season when Puglia is at its best. The air, though still slightly brisk from the last gasps of winter, is somehow sweeter. The sun feels warm on the skin. The fields host a riot of new growth with a hundred shades of green manifest in every new leaf and stalk. But now we’re moving from summer languor to autumn abundance. The markets are bursting with an end-of summer avalanche of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, melons and sweet, plump pale green grapes. In terms of beauty, autumn in the Valle d’Itria is giving spring a run for its money.  And then there are the figs. Read more

Limonata

These lemons came all the way from the Amalfi Coast, hauled back to Puglia after a brief trip there.

These lemons came all the way from the Amalfi Coast, hauled back to Puglia after a brief trip there.

Signs are everywhere that summer is on the wane. The weather, though still sunny and warm, is ever so slightly cooler than just a week ago. Every day is a little shorter. Backpacks and i grembiuli, those adorable gingham smocks that all elementary school children wear to school here, are on display in the weekly market. Yet we’re not quite ready to let go of Puglia’s most exuberant season and move into fall, especially since we know that winter’s chill is not far behind. Read more

Italy Bound?

Hordes of tourist visit the Trevi fountain in the heart of Rome's historic center (Photo credit: Daniel Eden).

Hordes of tourist visit the Trevi fountain in the heart of Rome’s historic center (Photo credit: Daniel Eden).

Town squares and beaches full of summer vacationers here have gotten me thinking about visiting Italy. No, not for me, for you! If I’d never been to Italy, what would I really want to know before setting off? I’m not thinking about the general guidebook information—when to visit the Vatican, must-see Italian art, car or train transportation—but the insider tips you wish someone shared with you before you made your plans. So many of our friends ask us for advice, so I thought I would share a few thoughts here. Remember that all advice reflects the values, experiences and individual interests of the advice giver, so be sure to gather lots of different viewpoints before you plan your Italian adventure of a lifetime. And seasoned Italophiles please chime in with your own thoughts . . . Read more

Ready to Launch

Our rosé glass is more than half full on the terrace in Martina Franca.

Our rosé glass is more than half full on the terrace in Martina Franca.

Just about a year ago, we left our home, our stuff and our country to live in Italy and launch a new business. At the time, we didn’t know where it would end. What would the business look like?  How would we navigate the commercial landscape in another culture? Would we get tired of Italy? We were starting from scratch: no business model, no sources, no branding and no internet. Had we totally lost our minds? Read more

Italian Potluck

The evening passeggiata begins in Martina Franca when the sun starts to set.

The evening passeggiata begins in Martina Franca when the sun starts to set.

One of the pleasures of sinking into the rhythm of a place involves meeting new people while deepening ties to old friends. It’s not so easily done as an itinerant visitor. You need to engage in the business of everyday life. So we go to the market, walk through town in the early evening during the passeggiata, visit the hardware store and cultivate friendships. When we were invited to a party at a friend’s house last weekend, we were pretty happy about it because it offered confirmation that we are starting to look like part of the landscape.

A friend's party in Cisternino where music is on the menu.

A friend’s party in Cisternino where music is on the menu.

We knew the evening would involve great music—our friend plays in a well-known traditional music group from Puglia and has another band of his own, Foré. We also knew that there would be an Italian version of potluck, which is always intriguing in another culture. Initial consternation: what to bring? Food is really one of the most fundamentally important topics in Italy, a subject on which everyone, at every age, is a learned authority.  And since potluck in the United States is usually such a disaster of mismatched dishes, we expected great things in Italy. Surely Italians have mastered the art of the gracious group meal where participants club together to pull off a stunning, crowd-sourced feast.

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Olive Oil Cake—perfect every time (Photo credit: www.bbc.co.uk).

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake—perfect every time (Photo credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk).

After an initial bout of anxiety, I settled on dessert, which is not my usual piatto forte (strong suit). Our host is lactose intolerant but loves sweets, so I happened upon a chocolate olive oil cake from Nigella Lawson made with ground almonds, bitter chocolate and olive oil that seemed perfect. Then I added an antipasto—grilled eggplant with a tonnato sauce—a summer dish more typically served with thinly sliced veal breast. This, too, is lactose-free and practically bursting with flavor and texture. I’ll share that recipe in a subsequent post.

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Olive Oil Cake is also perfect with lactose-free gelato (Photo credit: foodgawker.com).

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake is also perfect with lactose-free gelato (Photo credit: foodgawker.com).

The cake couldn’t be easier or more versatile, so you might want to add it to your permanent repertoire, particularly if you’re cooking for gluten and lactose intolerant guests. It can be served as it is with a dusting of powdered sugar or dressed up with a berry coulis. Throw caution to the wind by making a salted caramel sauce and crowning everything with whipped cream or consider serving it in a puddle of crème anglaise if dietary restrictions aren’t an issue. It’s an incredibly forgiving cake, too, so it’s perfect for a beginning baker.

Focaccia is the ever-present party dish in Puglia—everyone knows how to make it and bakeries make great ones.

Focaccia is the ever-present party dish in Puglia—everyone knows how to make it and bakeries routinely produce  great ones.

So how did it go at the Italian potluck? Lots and lots of focaccia of all kinds, which I have come to understand is the go-to item for just about any event in Puglia. It comes in all varieties from with toppings ranging from simple caramelized onions and olives to artichoke, potatoes and asparagus. But beyond focaccia, the offerings were a little less inspired and surprisingly meager. This group clearly came to dance, not eat. The grilled eggplant was inhaled in about ten minutes, the cake in five. But none of that mattered because the music and the company were absolutely brilliant. Next time I’ll bring more food and be a little less intimidated about what I choose to make. Like parties everywhere, the alchemy of great company in a beautiful setting on a moon-filled night make everything else superfluous.

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

Weigh all of your dry baking ingredients on a kitchen scale for perfect results.

Weigh all of your dry baking ingredients on a kitchen scale for perfect results.

Ingredients:

150 ml (slightly under 2/3 cup) extra virgin olive oil (plus more for greasing the pan)

50 grams (2 oz.) good-quality cocoa powder (sifted)

125 ml (1/2 cup) boiling water

2 teaspoons best vanilla extract

150 grams (1/3 lb.) ground almonds

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 pinch of salt

200 ( 7 1/2 oz.) grams sugar

3 large eggs

Coast the springform pan with the same extra virgin olive oil you're using in the recipe.

Coast the springform pan with the same extra virgin olive oil you’re using in the recipe.

Method:

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.  Grease a 9-inch springform pan with a little oil and line the base with baking parchment cut to fit.

Measure and sift the cocoa powder into a bowl and whisk in the boiling water until you have a smooth, chocolaty, still runny (but only just) paste. Whisk in the vanilla extract, then set aside to cool a little.

If you grind your own almonds, keep their skins on and grind them in the blender or the food processor. My anemic little blender does a fine job of this, but it’s still wise to pick through the ground almonds for any interloping big pieces or, worse, the odd bit of shell. If you must, you can grind skinned almonds, but why?

In another small bowl, combine the ground almonds with the bicarbonate of soda and pinch of salt.

Mixing the cacao with boiling water produces a smooth, satiny mixture you'll add to the dry ingredients later.

Mixing the cacao with boiling water produces a smooth, satiny mixture you’ll add to the dry ingredients later.

Put the sugar, extra virgin olive oil and eggs into the bowl of a freestanding mixer with the paddle attachment and beat together vigorously for about 3 minutes until you have a pale-primrose, aerated and thickened cream. I went old school because our only nod to modernity in our Italian kitchen is a basic blender (oh, and that amazing Saeco espresso machine that grinds the coffee beans, steams milk and just about serves it all to you in a sweet little espresso cup that my husband loves more than life itself).

When you use great eggs from chickens that scratch around and don't eat prepared feed, you'll get an egg mixture that looks like this: goldenrod yellow, light and creamy.

When you use great eggs from chickens that scratch around and don’t eat prepared feed, you’ll get an egg mixture that looks like this: goldenrod yellow, light and creamy.

Turn the speed down a little and pour in the cocoa mixture, beating as you go, and when all is scraped in you can slowly tip in the ground almond mixture.

Scrape down, and stir a little with a spatula, then pour this dark, liquid batter into the prepared springform pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the sides are set and the very center, on top, still looks slightly damp. A cake tester should come up mainly clean but with a few sticky chocolate crumbs clinging to it. With this cake, underdone is probably a better bet than over done.

The cake is ready for the oven. Just 45 minutes or so and you're done.

The cake is ready for the oven. Just 45 minutes or so and you’re done.

Let it cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, still in its tin, and then ease the sides of the cake with a small metal spatula and spring it out of the tin. Leave to cool completely or eat while still warm.

Note: As with all baking endeavors, a simple kitchen scale is your friend. Invest in one to ensure perfect results. It doesn’t have to be a fancy digital one; mine is pretty old school but it works for me.

Giro di Puglia

The old fishing harbor in Monopoli on the Adriatic coast in Puglia is just one of the charming towns worth visiting here.

The old fishing harbor in Monopoli on the Adriatic coast in Puglia is just one of the charming towns worth visiting here.

While we wait for Pascarosa Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil to be blessed by the FDA at the Port of Portland, we are busy cooking up something new for the fall. Maybe we’ve been inspired by the Giro d’Italia, the epic bicycle stage race now underway just next door to us in Matera, then Mola di Bari tomorrow. And so many friends and friends of friends have gotten in touch lately, wanting to know more about Puglia and its amazing coastline, cuisine and gioia di vivere (joy of living) that we have started putting together plans for some tours during the golden days of September, October and early November here. But we need your help to design the best experience possible, so here’s where you come in.

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa is one of the most satisfying Pugliese dishes you'll learn how to master.

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa is one of the most satisfying Pugliese dishes you’ll learn how to master.

Will you take a minute to check out this survey and tell us what you think? Here’s what we’re planning: three tours, focusing on three different aspects of life here, for one week each. The first is a culinary tour that offers an up-close, very much behind the scenes look at la cucina Pugliese (Puglian cooking). We’ll participate in hands-on cooking classes, olive oil tasting and evaluation, wine tasting featuring Puglia’s world-class varietals and obscure blends now experiencing international success and walking tours of the centri storici (historic centers) of some of the most charming towns and villages you’ve ever seen. This trip will take place in mid-September, 2013 and in the later spring of 2014.

The first drops of fresh cold-pressed organic extra virgin olive oil from our harvest.

Experience the flavor of the first drops of fresh cold-pressed organic extra virgin olive oil from the Pascarosa olive harvest.

The second, an olive harvest tour, provides an opportunity to participate in the olive harvest, bringing olives to the olive mill and tasting the first organic extra virgin olive oil as it drips off the press. This trip includes hands-on cooking classes focused on the use of extra virgin olive oil in every course from antipasto to dessert, visits to historic and modern olive mills, a workshop on the sensory evaluation of olive oil and visits to Valle d’Itria towns steeped in olive oil tradition. This trip will take place during the very beginning of the olive season, around the first week of November 2013.

Ride with the areas premier amateur cyclists while discovering the Valle d'Itria.

Ride with the areas premier amateur cyclists while discovering the Valle d’Itria.

The third tour is a biking tour of the incredibly Valle d’Itria countryside. From the Adriatic  to the Ionian coasts—and all the hills and valleys in between—guests will have the chance to join the local bicycle club on their weekly rides. There will be a variety of routes available to accommodate all rider levels as well as activities for non-rider partners like hands-on cooking classes, visits to artisan cheese and pasta workshops and more. This trip will take place in mid-September and in the later spring of 2014.

More detail about the trips can be found on our Pascarosa website, which will be active any day now . . . really!  But as we shape the tours and refine our pricing, your input is absolutely invaluable in creating experiences that reflect your interests.

Learn how to make handmade orecchiette from the masters—Puglia's grandmothers.

Learn how to make handmade orecchiette from the masters—Puglia’s grandmothers.

If you can take a minute to complete this survey, we can zero in on the details that will make these Pugliese sojourns memorable. All of the tours we’re planning include experiences that are not generally available to the public. Over 17 years in Puglia have given us the chance to develop deep friendships with farmers, food artisans and vintners who will share their knowledge and their home with our guests. We speak Italian fluently, so we’ll smooth the way as our guests develop their own relationships with the people of the Valle d’Itria. We’ll also take care of all the arrangements—from five star accommodations to comfortable transportation between activities.

Polignano a Mare, one of Puglia's seaside jewel-like towns to visit.

Polignano a Mare, one of Puglia’s seaside jewel-like towns to visit.

So thanks for your willingness to share your thoughts with us. And as a way of thanking you, we’ll give you a 10% discount on the cost of any tour you might decide to join eventually if you complete our survey by June 1, 2013. We’d love to see you here and hope to capture your imagination as an inaugural participant.

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