Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Best of Days

Me with Novelia, Peppe and Andrea

"Italy will always have the best food."
~ Diane von Furstenberg

"Why can't you fix a lunch like that for us every day?" a husband who shall remain nameless asked me tonight after we returned to the flat from a long day in Abruzzo. While I didn't give him the stink eye, I didn't answer, either, and that spoke volumes.  "If you did, we could eat just the one meal and not worry about supper."  Ain't happening anytime soon, Zippy.

I guess I should start at the beginning, though, so you know what he was talking about.  In doing so, I have to sidetrack a bit, so please bear with me while I first tell you about our hosts in Sulmona.  Being familiar with them will make all of this a bit clearer.

If you've followed the blog, you know that I found Novelia's Penthouse (aka House of the Heart) about 10 months ago when I was researching places to stay in Sulmona.  I felt a relationship with Novelia almost immediately even though we "met" through emails.  I could tell that she was passionate about Abruzzo, the history, the people, the culture.  I was right.

Both Novelia and her husband, Peppe, want their guests to experience life in Abruzzo.  They do not just hand you the key to the apartment and tell you they'll see you when you check out.  They have not only given us suggestions for things to do, but they have also taken us on a tour of the historic abbey where they work, to towns we didn't know existed, and to dinner at Novelia's sister's house.  Both of them took a day off of work today to take us to Rocca Calascio and Santo Stefano di Sessanio, both lovely mountain towns in Abruzzo.  In Santo Stefano, we were to meet their friends, Amalia and Enrico.

Amalia and Enrico

I'm not going to talk about the towns today because that's not what this story is about. And, while food plays a major role in this story, what the day came down to was the kindness of our friends and the new friends we met this morning.

When we got in the car to head to Rocca Calascio at 9:30, Novelia told us that Amalia and her mother were going to cook us lunch.

"She doesn't have to do that," I said.

"She want to meet you," Novelia said. "They want to share with all of us."  In addition to Peppe, Novelia, Mike and me, their son, Andrea, and two Australians, David and Sharon, were making the trek to the mountains.  "Mama Aida wants to be there, too. She is going to make pasta for us."  (Aida is Amalia's mother.)

Mama Aida

We went to Rocca Calascio first and hiked up the hill to the castle. You can see it in the background of the photo at the top of this post.  When we got down to the car park, Novelia called Amalia to let her know we were on our way.  I think it took about 15-20 minutes to get to Santo Stefano, but the drive through the mountains was beautiful.

After Amalia greeted us and showed us the B&B that she owns in Santo Stefano, we went into the kitchen where Novelia helped with the pasta.  Aida was not yet home from the dentist, so Novelia kneaded the dough and rolled it out so that Mama could cut it when she arrived.

Novelia kneading the dough

(If you are not used to making pasta, it's relatively simple.  The recipe is basically eggs, flour, and a little water.  Some people add salt, although we never do.  When I make it, I use a pasta machine to roll it out and cut it, but here they use a chitarra or knives.  A chitarra is a wooden board strung like a guitar.  Once the dough is thin enough, you place it on top of the chitarra's strings and roll it.  The strings cut the dough.)

Novelia rolling out the dough

Novelia rolled three large circles of dough, and Aida cut each into wide slices.  She piled about five of the slices on top of each other and then cut them into strips.  Once she had the strips cut, she cut each strip into little squares making quadratini.  (quadratini means little squares in Italian.)  If you look at the photos that follow, you can see what I mean.

Dough ready to cut

Once Aida finished cutting the quadratini, Amalia cooked them and added them to a sauce that featured lenticche (lentils).  It is a simple dish, but absolutely delicious.  Amalia told me that she boiled the lentils until they were soft.  As they finished cooking, she fried a little garlic in olive oil and added it and a bay leaf to the lentils.  I think she also added tomatoes although I don't recall that she mentioned it.

Mama cuts the dough in strips

Once we finished the pasta, Amalia brought out fresh mozzarella (made this morning) that Novelia had brought, an egg omelet, fresh tomatoes and panzanella (bread salad).  When we finished that course, Novelia served us her famous chocolate cake, and we finished with coffee and genziana. (Well, they all had genziana.  i tried it the other night, and once was quite enough for me, thank you.)  

Mama stacks the strips of dough

We all rolled out of the house and walked around Santa Stefano through a light drizzle.

"I think that was one of the best meals we've had since we got to Europe," Mike declared at some point.

I didn't want to bring this up, but at home he claims he doesn't like lentils.  Since he says that, I've never cooked them for him.  Truth be told, I don't think he ever had them cooked correctly, and today may have changed his mind.  I guess since he enjoyed them so much, I can now make quadratini with lenticche once we're home. . . but not for lunch.

Mama cuts the dough into narrow strips

My point in telling you this story is two-fold (or maybe even more, in the long run).  The first is that I am constantly amazed by the kindness and generosity of the Abruzzesi in particular and Italians in general.  They do not have to invite us into their homes.  They do so because they are kind and generous.  It reminds me so much of my beloved grandmother who would share her homemade bread and pasta with neighbors and friends.  

Further, because they love their country and their culture, we have discovered things we had no idea existed. My grandmother has been gone about 40 years, and I still remember how she talked about her beloved land.  It's in the blood, I tell you.


The other reason I bring it up is because I think it's one of the reasons why I love this place so much and am not as homesick as I could be.  It's in my blood. 

"What are you going to do when I win XXXXXX and get to spend five months in XXXXX?" I asked him last night.  "I don't have a chance, but what will you do?"

"I'm not spending five months in XXXXX," he snorted back.  "I'll come for one month...maybe."

"What would you do if I got to spend five month in Sulmona?"

"Totally different story.  You wouldn't have to twist my arm.

think it's in you-know-who's blood, too

Quadratini with lenticche

"Peppe is going to take the long way home so you don't get sick, Chris," Novelia said to me as we headed down the mountain.  She noticed the other day that I get queasy if I sit in the back seat, and she insisted I sit in front today.  "The long way will not have so many curves." 

Thank you, Lord. They were more concerned with not making me sick than hurrying home.  I had no idea what time it was.  For some reason, clocks are not important things around here. I knew it was late, but I didn't want to ask and seem anxious.  That is too American and not quite Italian. Life is to live not to worry about time.

Novelia's famous chocolate cake

I don't know that I can ever thank these wonderful people enough for spending their time to show us Italy today and last week.  We may not be related, but we are certainly family.

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