Valentino With a Side of Fries

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In the heart of Rome can be found the most exclusive shopping in the world.   Italian
designers Armani, Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana and Cavalli have stores that line the streets at the base of the Spanish Steps.

You can imagine the uproar when on March 20, 1986, McDonalds opened its first restaurant in Italy located at the Piazza di Spagna. One designer in particular protested the American fast food chain. The Rome headquarters of Valentino backed up to the restaurant and reported that an unbearable smell of fried food was fouling the air. Valentino was one of many Romans that objected to the opening of the American fast food chain. Thus the Slow Food Movement, founded by Carlo Petrini was created with the initial aim to defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life. The movement has since evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognizes the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture. Today, Slow Food consists of 100,000 members around the world that are part of local chapters that bring the Slow Food philosophy to life through the events and activities they organize in their communities.

IMG_2111Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the chairman of the Slow Food Ventura County chapter, Chuck Barth. Chuck and his wife and daughter, opened their home to a gathering of passionate and hungry foodies bringing together food suppliers, farmers, publishers, chefs, cattle operators and educators to highlight the new Ventura chapter of the expanding Slow Food movement.IMG_2109

During a brief stint as a raw foodie, Chuck became deeply connected to his food sources and dedicated to Farmers Markets. When he added meat back in to his diet, he connected with Watkins Cattle Company. They were present at the local Farmers Market, but their sales volumes were too low to remain. That’s when arrangements were made to begin home sales from the Barth garage, complete with a new freezer provided by Watkins. Three years later the freezer is stocked weekly and two new accounts, Pedalers Fork and Apricot Lane Farms, now purchase their pasture-raised meats.

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With sales growing it soon became evident that a business plan was needed. In July, Chuck reached out to Renee Rock of CLU for her assistance. It was during their dialog regarding regional foods that Renee recommended they start a local Slow Food chapter. Chuck explained that his previous experience with Slow Food had never left a meaningful impression. Its presence was absent from any worthwhile activities in the greater LA area. After reading the Slow Food’s chapter handbook realized it was the energy of the members that made for its success.

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With a knack for connecting people and a passion to deliver awareness, Chuck’s excitement for his new venture was contagious. In less than a year, he successfully gathered a large group of foodies to support the motto of Slow Food International: access to good, clean and fair food for everyone.

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Chuck infused the spirit of the Slow Food movement into our gathering. Those at the table understood the significance of the evening and embraced the future of the Slow Food Ventura County Chapter.

 

Today, McDonalds has expanded to over 500 locations throughout Italy, with the original restaurant still operating at the base of the Spanish Steps. While Valentino’s efforts to remove fast food from Rome were unsuccessful, it spawned a movement that is changing the way we view food and the way it is grown, prepared and processed.

 How can you get involved?

You can support Slow Food’s efforts by joining Slow Food USA and choosing the Ventura County Chapter for as little as $30 for an annual membership. http://www.slowfoodusa.org

“Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.”

― Michael PollanThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

From Toronto to Florence

IMG_0260Michelle Tarnopolsky, originally from Toronto, Canada, has lived in Florence with her Italian
husband and young son for 14 years.  Her blog, Maple Leaf Mamma describes what life is like being a young feminist mother raising a son in Italy.  I can only imagine.  She has been on an interesting career path that has had her juggling 3 jobs for a long time.  This is a girl who likes to keep busy and maintain mental stimulation.

When I met Michelle in September at The Art of Writing workshop, I recognized from my own experience the internal struggle that so many young mothers experience.  One that has us in constant conflict between loving our babies and wanting to be there for every new stage, yet having the need to create and be challenged in a dynamic way.  Michelle definitely rose to the challenge during our writing sessions and produced captivating stories that gave us a glimpse in to her powerful mind.

Michelle has embraced the Italian culture with a clear passion for its art, beauty and food and openly shared her knowledge and experiences.  All the more impressive to hear her speak Italian with such ease.  Something I dream of doing someday.  I had to know how she felt about Christmastime in Florence and was thrilled when she quickly responded to my questions.

E:  What is your favorite part of Christmastime in Italy?
M:  Like Penny Howard, I definitely enjoy the lights in downtown Florence. When those go up the season has officially begun. There’s something so magical about those twinkly boughs framing your stroll through the streets.

E:  What is your favorite traditional Christmas food?
M:  Well, it’s technically a New Year’s dish in Italy, but I’ve grown quite fond of cotechino with lentils. The taste and texture of the two match beautifully.

E:  What do you miss most from home during Christmas?
M:  Snow! Never thought I’d say that, and for the rest of the winter I don’t complain about the lack of snow at all, but it sure is nice at Christmastime.

Thank you Michelle and Merry Christmas.

Check out her blog at http://www.mapleleafmamma.com

Sneakers in Italy? A Day at the Palio

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Trailing the petite Italian woman, we navigated our way up the stairs, through narrow hallways and in to the fresco adorned rooms of the historic Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.  Our guide demonstrated the art of gracefully walking in heels.  A skill I’m convinced every Italian woman is born with.  I guess when you are forced to master walking on ancient cobblestone streets and handling a vespa in not so sturdy shoes, for the sake of fashion, a few flights of stairs on slippery marble would be a walk in the park.

It was July 2nd and the day of the Palio, a horse race that has been held twice a year since the 16th century.  The city of Siena, divided in to 17 districts known as Contradas, competes for a hand painted silk banner called the Palio.  For this special occasion, the Sienese go all out donning their finest, colorful linen, stylish sunglasses, magnificent leather bags and belts, sockless loafers and of course, strappy heels.  Their golden tanned skin only accentuates their fashionable attire.

Outside on the loggia to our delight were beautiful tables garnished with Tuscan bread, prosciutto, pecorino and olives.  Spying the gelato bar our eyes grew wide with excitement.  The delight hadn’t registered before we were handed a cool glass of Prosecco.  Is this for real?  My sweet bubble of La Dolce Vita suddenly burst when I noticed a glare coming from the direction of my feet.  I’m mortified to realize that the afternoon sun was bouncing off my bright white, big, American sneakers.  I may have the tanned legs, but the casual shorts and shoes are an embarrassment.  I was dressed for pure comfort and function, doing nothing to dispel the stereotype of the sloppy American in sneakers.  I did not represent well that day.

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Having been to a few races, I was well prepared for the challenges that the day may bring.  It is always hot, there are crowds of people and if you are not walking over the packed dirt track then you are climbing the extremely small, almost ladder like, steps of the bandstand, only to squeeze in to the tiniest of seats that by American standards would qualify for a child’s seat.  It is the ONLY day I ever wear sneakers while visiting the country that is known for its fashion.

Finishing my first Prosecco, I relaxed and let my embarrassment go, counting the good fortune to be viewing the event from a place where royalty usually reside. We have observed the spirited race from many vantage points and each offered a different experience.

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First Palio. Front row at ground level.

At the ground level, squeezed in the enclosed center track with thousands of spectators, you feel the soul of the Palio.  From the beating of the drums, the enormity of the oxen pulling the cart that displays the Palio banner, to the rumble on the ground when the legion of mounted carabinieri charge by.  Only from this position can you see the intense concentration on the flag bearer’s faces as they hurl their flags  while competing for the judges.  When the race begins and the horses blast 3 times around the track, the energy and excitement are unbelievable.  Finally, pandemonium breaks out and the tears of both joy and sorrow flow passionately.  Keep in mind that to obtain the optimum vantage point at the edge of the track, you must claim your spot hours before the procession begins and bear standing in the hot July sun for what feels like eternity.  It may be free, but be prepared for a long day.

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Ox-drawn wagon bearing the Palio banner.

Rushing the winning horse and jockey.

Rushing the winning horse and jockey.

The passion!

The passion!

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Supporting a balcony on our backs in the bleacher seating.

The second Palio was beheld from the luxury of bleacher seating known as palchi.  This perspective allows for the best viewing of the historical procession of Contradas.  Dressed in medieval costumes, each district displays their pageantry and skills.  This is also good placement for obtaining beautiful photos and naturally, people watching.  Added entertainment is witnessing the poor, fair tourists in the center track succumb to the heat and have to be carried off by stretcher.  Although there is a hefty fee for obtaining  bandstand seating, once you have found a seller, you have the convenience of arriving to your reserved seat at the last minute.  Just make sure to have photos taken of your seat before committing to the purchase.  One year we sat crouched on the top row with a medieval balcony resting on our shoulders for 3 hours.

Not wanting to support another balcony the next year, our ticket buyer made sure to have photos and written word insuring we would have plenty of head room.  This time we had a larger group and a few first time guests.  To our dismay, our ticket numbers led us to the very same seats we had the year before.  Phone calls were made, ticket seller and originator arrive and tense conversation ensues.  After much hand waving and drama, we were prepared to walk away from the deal and observe the race from a big screen at a nearby bar.  We headed to our favorite lunch spot to ease our disappointment with some wine and a good meal.  To our surprise, our trusted ticket broker arrived announcing that an arrangement had been made and he was ready to show us to our seats.  As we enter the historical building with looks of question and astonishment, we are assured that for the sake of the reputation of Siena and the Contrada, we will be taken care of with better seating.  The city and the neighborhood surpassed their promise and delivered us to luxury.  This is how we came to view the Palio from the Palazzo Pubblico, surrounded by elegance, sipping Prosecco and enjoying all the gelato we desired while wearing our big, white, casual, sneakers.  A day we will never forget.

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Benvenuti!

Espresso in Italy is dedicated to my love for all things Italian.  Since 2004, I’ve had the fortune to travel to Italy almost annually.  I cannot get enough of her culture, food, style, wine, coffee and people.

The page is still in the works, but soon I will be sharing what I have learned over the years from the must see places and events to amazing meals.  I can’t wait to introduce you to the helpful people who can bring it all together when you are ready to go.

Watch for interviews with many expats who have chosen to make Italy their home and place of business.  And there’s the myriad of books written about Italy.  They will be highlighted here.

Next month I will be back in Florence and visiting Venice for Carnevale and I’m looking forward to sharing the adventures with you!