Sunday, September 8, 2013

Travels and tastes of Italy

Amalfi Coast (Part 1)

It has been nine years since I last been to Italy, but knew immediately upon arriving that nothing has changed.  The car rental wing of the Rome airport is still under construction, the drivers are still anarchists and the food and the coffee is still amazing at every single gas station along the highway.  As a matter of fact the selection in those drive-in-and-gas-up places was one of the most vivid memories of my last trip. 
You can always count on a great espresso and a full bar by the road.  You got to love Italy! -  Have a drink and take the edge of the road rage next time someone cuts you off!

Picked up by espresso and salami sandwiches we headed for Amalfi coast and all was well until we hit the beginning of Amalfi coast drive just outside of Sorrento.   This road deserves a paragraph of its own and let me jump ahead and say all was well for the entire week we drove on it, but boy, I sure am glad I learned to drive in New York city.

When the donkey routes used for centuries all along the Amalfi coast were paved, the road engineers just made the roads wide enough for two donkeys to pass.  And unlike glorious Romans two millennia ago the modern day engineers did not contemplate sidewalks.  Combine that with 360 degree blind hairpins, car drivers who think of road rules as mere suggestions, scooter drivers who believe all cars are evil and therefore should be annoyed and cutoff at every opportunity, bicyclists who rightfully adopt an attitude of “Hit me and deal with mayhem!” attitude and pedestrians who, once again, have no sidewalks therefore being forced to walk the same road – well, you get the picture.  You also have to anticipate full size buses driving on the same road, parked cars along the side and broken blind curve mirrors, all threatening to plunge you into abysses of the sea at every opportunity.  And once you get used to all of that… well you may just encounter a peacefully sleeping dog in the middle of the road.  After all, he is just resting outside his owner’s business and you are a “turisto..” so deal….

And if you are the unfortunate driver you cannot possibly enjoy the most outrageous views the Amlfi coast has to offer.  The natural beauty of the whole coast is breathtaking and can only be described as majestic.  Every time you see a view that cannot possibly be topped and you can see yourself staring at it for eternity it is bested at the next turn.  Plunging coastline with clear blue waters and little towns perched up on its shores like marltets nests.  Yachts, new, old, rich and simple, rolling gently in the Lagunas and the mooring fields.  Gargantuan rock formations adorned with lush vegetation and vertical gardens frame the skyline, the deep true blue of Mediterranean everywhere.... you could go mad seeing this kind of beauty..   

I got to see this view every day from the terrace of our apartment.  We lived in a village just above Positano called Monterpertuso.  Unlike Positano, it was not as touristy and offered a glimpse into a simpler life.  Older folks, with sun wrinkled skin sitting on the sides of the only piazza just taking in the scenery.  Little grocery store selling what the neighbors grew in their gardens.  “local, organic, artisanal” are meaningless here, they are the way of life, the only way….

We had a garden with tomatoes, eggplant, basil, grapes and plums we could pick.  Chickens to say good morning to every day and to give us fresh eggs.  Almost every house in the village keeps chickens and you wake up to fresh sea breezes and rooster calls, which I loved and strangely my city dwelling family did not…

There is something about picking only what you need for the meal from the garden, walking into a grocery store and seeing only what grows in the back right now… you know, I am a patriot, I love my country, but it is just not possible in the mainstream US… unless you are from California, in which case I am green with jealousy…  I never tasted tomatoes sweeter, pears riper or eggs fresher than I did in Italy.

The whole of Amalfi coast is plush and lush with gardens, every gaze falls upon lemon, olive or fig trees.   The artichokes are on the menus but “Scuzi,  not in season…., how about eggplant?”.  The Senior Limone is the predominate here, celebrated in everything you see… candy, dishes, artwork, liquor… Lemon is everywhere and no wonder…

 Amalfi coast grows over 40 different varieties; most memorable are the huge football size lemons that are mostly used for making Lemonchello.  And they are everywhere, on the back of every fruit cart, sold from the back of the car right in the middle of the road and gardens of them lining every road. 

 You are generously offered a frozen glass of Lemonchello at every meal, but if you grow sick of lemons, you can enjoy a nice melon or pistachio liquor or something tasting a bit like medicine… I was told it is good for you digestion… The jury is still out on that one.  Of course if you find yourself just a bit wary of any type of alcohol due to early hour or too many the night before, you can just lose yourself in a little espresso and fresh orange juice….

Amlfi coast and Island of Capri draws some of the wealthiest and sparkly crowd.  If you look down at the mooring fields you can glimpse into the shameless boasting of wealth of the owners.   There are the romantic sailboats, the obscene four deck yachts and the vintage lovers steam boats.  It is fun to observe them from ashore and imagine up stories about who the owners are and what they are doing here. 

The coastline and all the little towns are completely vertical, so every activity resembles a Stairmaster session.  When we arrived we were told that Positano is a mere 20 minute walk, only discovering that its made up of 800 steps taking you just to the upper road.  To get down to the beach is another 300 steps… oh Joy!  But if you want to eat you have no choice so we went climbing…

Every steep step is worth it, because the food here is amazing…  This region of Italy offers the simplest and tastiest staples of Italian cuisine.  Few choicest freshest ingredients make all the difference.  Starting with the pasta.  Compania region of Italy is known for dry winds so when the pasta was introduced to the region from the Middle East, this was the perfect place to dry it.  And contrary to popular belief fresh pasta is not always better, the choice between fresh and dried depends on the dish and the type of sauce the pasta will hold.  Fresh homemade gnocchi in tangy tomato broth,  mushroom and herbs pappardells were the most succulent and memorable of the fresh pastas here.  But the true star, the most memorable and unforgettable dish that I can still smell and taste was the Spaghetti and wild clams. 

This dish is a true showcase to the region’s cuisine, delicious simplicity with only 5 or 6 ingredients…we couldn’t get enough.  In fact one of us ordered it every night and all picked at it shamelessly… The dried Spaghetti cooked perfectly al dente dressed with just a bit of olive oil and garlic and the colorful wild clams taste of the sea with surprising sweetness.  Sometimes tossed with a few sugar tomatoes and a bit of parsley, I can eat this every day for eternity.  I would take a break only for other seafood from here.  It is fished daily, swordfish, muscles, anchovies… 

 Mediterranean  is a salty sea, which gives all the local fish a brinier, brighter flavor.  It was deliciously and simply prepared everywhere and in ways which I have not tasted before. 

 Adding raisins and pine nuts to a simple sauce for dressing grilled fish is a great idea… I am definitely stealing that one. 

To be continued….

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