Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Real Licorice from Calabria

For Americans, licorice most likely means chewy candies called Red Vines or Twizzlers, which have no actual licorice in the recipe (corn syrup, wheat flour, citric acid, artificial flavor, red 40). (Red Vines also comes in Black Twists (molasses, wheat flour, corn syrup, caramel color, licorice extract, salt, artificial flavor).) Real licorice (liquorice to the Brits) comes from the root of a herbaceous perennial legume native to southern Europe, including Italy and parts of Asia, such as India.

Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra
Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra

In Italy, licorice is enjoyed as a hard or soft candy, usually button-shaped or tiny squares, with no added sugar because the licorice root has its own sweetness. In fact, the woody root itself was used (and for some, still is) as chew stick or toothbrush, prized for its anti-bacterial and breath-freshening qualities.

Licorice sticks for chewing (photo authoritynutrition.com)
Licorice sticks for chewing (photo authoritynutrition.com)

The history of licorice in Calabria begins in the 11th century. Old records testify that in the 16th century the Amarelli family and others were interested in the roots of a particular plant that grew wild on their extensive Calabrian estates (then in the Kingdom of Naples). Its name was liquirizia, scientifically called glycyrrhiza glabra, which means “sweet root”.

Map of Amarelli Museum and Factory in Rosano (photo amerelli.com)
Map of Amarelli Museum and Factory in Rosano (photo amerelli.com)

Today, visitors taking a road trip in Calabria are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience because the Amarelli family, licorice producers since 1731, has opened the Giorgio Amarelli Museo della Liquirizia, in Rossano near Sibari in the region of Calabria. The Licorice Museum  was awarded the Premio Gugghenheim Impresa & Cultura (Guggenheim Culture and Business Prize) in 2001 and in 2004 Poste Italiane dedicated a postage stamp to it, part of the series Il Patrimonio Artistico e Culturale Italiano.

Licorice Museum depicted on Italian postage stamp
Licorice Museum depicted on Italian postage stamp

The Museum is located in the late 15th century historic residence, which was both home and production plant of the Amarelli family. The family’s history is presented through a series of engravings, documents, books and vintage photographs. The center gallery exhibits the history of licorice and the traditional system of its production, from the root bales, to the manual tools, to the bronze and porcelain molds and the first experimental machines. There are also documents about administrative procedures from the 18th and 19th centuries: manufacturing trade journals, accounting books, payments records and correspondence between manufacturers and government authorities. An old shipping office is reconstructed.

Amarelli Licorice Tablets (photo amarelli.com)
Amarelli Licorice Tablets (photo amarelli.com)

Visitors can also tour the production of Amerielli licorice, which still takes place in the historic eighteenth-century Concio, the original production site, across the road from the museum. In 1731 Amarelli’s established the concio, one of the first pre-industrial factories in the area to extract the juice of the licorice plant roots. The shiny, black licorice produced was not sweetened beyond the sugars naturally found in the root.

Licorice root ready to be pressed (photo pleinair.it)
Licorice root ready to be pressed (photo pleinair.it)

Historically, the roots were gathered and stored outside the factory (as they are today). The process began when the roots were milled by a big grindstone, then boiled (no grindstone today, but still boiled). The juice obtained was put through a sieve, cooked in great pots until the mass was reduced and thickened. While still warm and soft, it was hand-worked into licorice sticks and tiny buttons or squares. Find videos of the process here and here.

Ancient Licorice Factory (photo uisitalia.org)
Ancient Licorice Factory (photo uisitalia.org)

In 1907, steam boilers were installed. In 1919 the design of the first metal pocket-sized carrying cases for licorice drops was complete. These served to preserve the quality and in the following years became important for marketing with art-decò images still popular today.

Cooking the liquid from licorice roots (photo uisitalia.org)
Cooking the liquid from licorice roots (photo uisitalia.org)

In the present day, the process of root selection, juice extraction, boiling and reduction in modern facilities, in compliance with all the current regulations, computerized and automatically controlled, but the final product is controlled by the mastro liquiriziaio.

Amarelli Museum in Rosano
Amarelli Museum in Rossano

After three centuries the Amarelli Company, a member of the exclusive Les Hénokiens (an association of companies who have been continuously operating and remain family-owned for 200 years or more, and whose descendants still operate at management level), still produces a very high quality licorice, which can be eaten pure or soft or sugar-coated or tasted as delicious liqueur in candies, brandy and spirits. Amarelli licorice is even used in a Florentine toothpaste.

So give up the sugary fake chews and buy the real Italian licorice. As one reviewer said, “It’s not your father’s licorice, but it IS your grandfather’s licorice. (His grandmother is Calabrian.)

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part Two

If you have been following Tuscan Traveler’s Best Day in the Chianti Classico Region, Part One, it should be about 1pm and time for lunch. Time to take the Strada del Vino (SR222) from Greve to Panzano to a very special butcher shop..

Stop Four: Panzano

Leave Greve, following signs for Panzano. You will wind up the side of a ridge. About half way up you will see on the other side of the valley (on your left) a large pink villa surrounded by cypress trees. This is Villa Vignamaggio, the home of Mona Lisa before she moved to Florence, got married and sat for Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait.

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Just before you arrive at Panzano’s town square you will see the driveway to a big parking lot on your left. Park here – it’s free.   If you get to the town square, drive around it and go back to the parking lot.

In Panzano, walk around the shops on the piazza. See the water colors by Carmine in the gallery called Artemisia. Explore the local wine selection at the enoteca.

For lunch, go uphill off the square (if you are looking at the door of the enoteca, the street is to your left) and find Antica Marcelleria Cecchini, Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop. On the candy-striped façade there is a marble plaque with a rose above it and the picture of a T-bone steak on it. Inside, you will frequently find Dario behind the raised counter. Introduce yourselves.

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If there are snacks set out, have a glass of wine and some of the tidbits. Notice the great products Dario has for sale. He will vacuum pack meat for you to grill up at your apartment in Florence or villa in Tuscany. The salami, sausage and porchetta are fabulous and easy snacks. Pick up a jar of the red pepper jelly, made in the butcher shop kitchen. The fenel pollen and Chianti herbed salt make great gifts to take home to the cooks you know.

 Have lunch upstairs at Dario DOC where the best burgers in Italy are served or across the street at Solociccia. Both places were created by Dario. For true lovers of grilled meats the Officina della Bistecca serves up a set menu that includes three different cuts of steak.Come hungry.

A vegetarian menu is available at each of Dario’s places, but this is a butcher shop. If your group wants lighter fare, have lunch at Oltre il Giardino (across the town piazza and to the left) or at Enoteca Baldi on the piazza.

After lunch, take a walk to digest before getting back in the car. Straight across the piazza follow the street toward the church at the top of the hill. Before you start to climb you will be at Verso X Verso, a shop of hand-made shoes, purses, and other wearable art.

Now it is time to make a choice: More Chianti countryside or wine tasting. You don’t have time for both. If you want to explore more of the Chianti Classico region head on to Volpaia. If wine is your goal, go back to Castello di Verrazzano.

Stop Five: Volpaia

Leave Panzano on the same road (left out of the parking lot) and in the same direction (don’t go back to Greve). Watch for signs to “Radda”. You will come to a left turn where you have a choice of going straight to Castellina in Chianti or to turn left to go to Radda. Before Radda you are going to look for signs to “Volpaia”. If you get to Radda you have gone too far.

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The left turn for Volpaia will be on a very sharp left curve in the road and the left you take will be even sharper. After that, watch for the Volpaia signs and follow them. You will go down hill a bit and then you will climb, climb, climb up a winding road. Volpaia is the highest hill town in Tuscany.

As you enter Volpaia you will see a sign for the parking lot. Park there – it’s free. If you get to the town center, turn around and go back to the parking lot.

Castello di Volpaia owns the entire hamlet and inside all of the medieval walls is a modern winery and an olive oil press. Contact them a month before your visit and schedule a tour of the winery.

 Stop Six: Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm

If you want to visit Nora Kravitz at Chianti Cashmere contact her a month beofore your visit to get permission.

Leave Volpaia by the same road and at the main Radda road turn left to Radda (be careful, you are turning into a sharp, blind curve).

Before you get to Radda you will go under a bridge made of terracotta brick and then come to a stop sign. You will turn left to Radda at the stop. You will then pass an industrial building and the road will curve to the left over a bridge. Don’t go over the bridge but take the hard right onto a road that ends at that curve with a stop sign.

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Drive slowly along that road constantly looking to your left for a metal sign with an image of a goat cut out of it. You will take a left at the sign and end up on a narrow rocky dirt road that goes sharply downward. Follow the road to the end and park at the house.

Look around for Nora Kravis and the goats and the Abruzzo guard dogs. The farm, known as La Pensola, is where Nora, originally from New York, spent over thirty years building her dream of operating the only privately owned cashmere goat farm in Europe. In the spring forty to fifty baby goats scamper up the hillsides, cavorting among the trees.

There is a store, open from 12pm to 4pm, where Nora sells cashmere goats’ milk products and scarves, shawls and stoles, and blankets and throws made out of the cashmere fiber.

Stop Seven: Rampini Ceramics

You may have had a long enough day by now and want to go back to Florence or you may want to see a small family-owned ceramic factory, Ceramiche Rampini. Leave Nora’s farm the way you came, but before turning right to go under the terracotta bridge, turn left and follow the signs to “Gaiole”. You will go through La Villa and come to a right turn with a sign for “Gaiole”. Take the right turn.

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On the ridge to your left you will see a  large villa with a fabulous façade, the Villa Vistarenni Winery. Very soon after you will come to a sharp left turn in the road and a short driveway on the left of the turn that has a sign for Rampini Ceramiche. Turn in at the gate and park. The showroom is up the stairs. IThe kiln is in the big brick building to the left of the showroom. Over the kiln is the artists’ workshop. Ask if you can see the workshop.

Alternative Stop: Castello di Verrazzano Winery

To get to Castello di Verrazzano you will return from Panzano to Greve. If you didn’t see the main piazza of Greve, stop and see it now. As you leave Greve, watch on the left side for the Castello di Verrazzano wine tasting room with a big sign. It is in the hamlet of Greti. Turn left at the tasting room and follow the small road across the bridge and up the hill. It will wind and then turn into a dirt road, but keep going.

cantina_2You will come to a widening in the road with a big tree and a school bus stop sign and the road in front of you will split. Stop here to look at the castello from a distance.  Walk down the lower road (right side) a bit to view two villas on facing ridges. The closest is Castello di Verrazzano. It was the home of of the family of Giovanni Verrazzano who discovered New York harbor in the 1400s. On the far hill is another walled villa winery that is called Castello Vicchiomaggio.

If it is either 3pm or 4pm, there will be a tour offered of the winery. It is best to reserve a space a month before your visit.

Returning to Florence

From Rampini, Radda or Vopaia, return to Panzano, then on to Greve.

From Castello di Verrazzano, go to the main road, turn left and almost immediately you will come to a left turn which should have signs to “Tavarnuzze” and “San Casciano” and, maybe, “Galluzzo”. Take that left. You will go back through Il Ferrone. You will pass the American Cemetery on your left and come to that round-about. Here you take the exit to “Firenze” and “Certosa” (the first exit off the round-about to your left). (Do not go through the tollgates and get on the freeway!) You will soon come to the Galluzzo village center and then follow the signs back to Florence.

I hope you had a great day in my favorite part of Tuscany!

Photo Credits:

Panzano – chiantiworld.it

Officina della Bistecca – oliveintuscany.com

Castello di Volpaia – castellodivolpaia.com

Chianti Cashmere – witaly.it

Rampini Ceramics – rampiniceramics.com

Castello di Verrazzano – verrazzano.com

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part One

Days in Florence are full and rich in art and history, but in this city of stone it is difficult to find the soothing color of green provided by plants and trees. After a week in Florence you may wish to rent a car and take off for the Chianti Classico Region. Only minutes out of the historic center you will find the first olive groves and vineyards.

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This is Tuscan Traveler’s favorite day in Chianti. You should start out by 9:00am.

Leave Florence via Porta Romana. At Porta Romana (traffic circle with “Headache Lady” statue in center) follow “Siena” and “Galluzzo” signs. Once you get to the suburb Galluzzo, follow the signs to “Siena” and “Greve” (sometimes you will see one town named, sometimes both). As you leave Galluzzo, you will see a large monastery, Certosa, on a hill in front of you. Watch for the sign to “Siena” and take a left.

After the left turn, you will cross a bridge built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during WWII after the Germans blew up the bridge to slow the Allies’ advance on Florence. You will now have a better view of the Certosa Monastery on your right.

Certosa di Firenze (Florence Charterhouse) was one of the most powerful Carthusian monasteries in Europe and exhibited, until Napoleon’s spoliation, 500 works of art. The building was erected on Monte Acuto, a low ridge south of Florence, financed by Niccolò Acciaioli, a powerful Florentine citizen who commissioned it in 1341 with the aim of creating both a religious center and a school. In the past, the Certosa was famous for its lavish library.

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The monastery is open every morning and afternoon for a few hours (except for Mondays) for group visits (in Italian) in the company of a lay brother acting as guide. Once the home of hundreds, there are only a few monks living at the monastery now. The monastery is still alive as a religious community, even if the original Carthusian order departed in the 1950s. The Cistercian order has lived in the monastery since then, restoring many areas. Donations from the tours help maintain their enclosed monastic life as well as the monastery itself.

Turn right at the top of the rise after the bridge. Follow the road to the round-about with a fountain in the center (it may not be flowing). As you go around the circle take the third exit to Siena and Greve. (Do not want to follow the blue sign to Siena (4 corsie) that leads to a four-lane highway to Siena.)

Stop One: American Cemetery of Florence

After the round-about, you will travel through Tavarnuzze and continue until you see a river on your right and then, green lawns. Slow down and look for a gate with a sign that reads “American Cemetery of Florence”. Drive through the gate (there are two entrances, so if you miss the first one, use the second). Go to the center of the curve drive and then drive straight through the entrance between the two small offices. Head over the river and at the flagpole turn right and follow the signs left up the hill to the very top. There is a parking lot (and great bathrooms). Get out and walk around.

The headstones of 4,402 of American military dead of World War II are set in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39 percent of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennines Mountains shortly before the war’s end. On May 2, 1945 the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered.

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Above the graves, on the topmost of three broad terraces, stands the memorial marked by a tall pylon surmounted by a large sculptured figure. The memorial has two open atria, or courts, joined by the Tablets of the Missing upon which are inscribed 1,409 names. The atrium at the south end serves as a forecourt to the chapel, which is decorated with marble and mosaic. The north atrium contains the marble operations maps recording the advance of the American armed forces in this region.

Walk around the grave sites – the marble was quarried near the Austrian border because the whitest marble comes from there. Notice the classic Chianti view of the town of Impruneta on the opposite ridge.

Stop Two: Montefioralle

As you leave the cemetery, turn right onto the main road and drive through the towns of Il Ferrone and Passo dei Pecorai. Always look for signs the say “Greve”. There will be one place, soon after the cemetery, where on a soft curve you cross the oncoming lane of traffic to go straight, following the Greve and Il Ferrone signs.

This is an area of clay pits and terracotta ovens. You will see lots of pots and floor or roof terracotta tiles piled high.

Follow the road on to Greve. Before you get to Greve you will see the Verrazzano winery roadside tasting room in the hamlet of Greti. Remember this spot because you will come back to it later in the day.

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Enter the town of Greve, the center of the wine-making industry of Chianti Classico. Before you get to the middle of town, you will see on your right a small yellow sign for “Montefioralle”. The right turn to Montefioralle, will be soon after a stop light that is just after a new housing development (on the left) that has slender bronze sculptures near the road. (If you see the COOP supermarket on your left you have gone too far and have missed the turn to Montefioralle.)

Once on the road to Montefioralle, go straight for a bit and then the road narrows and you climb the hill. Remember to go slow because it is a two-way road. The road winds up the hill through an olive grove.

Notice how the olive trees are like bushes. You may even be able to see the stumps near the ground where they were cut off in 1985 after a hard freeze that killed the wood, but not the roots. The trees were sawed down, but new branches grew from the stumps to make these odd short three- or four-trunked olive trees.

Montefioralle is the best preserved medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. Start your tour at the end of the parking lot near the newly-restored tower gate, just up the slope from the stoplight. Walk along the village street that circles between the two walls. About five doors along the walk look for a design above the door with a V and a bumble bee.

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This is one of the homes of Amerigo Vespucci, who was a mapmaker in the 1400s and gave his name to America. Amerigo Vespucci was born (1454) and raised in Florence.

In March 1492, the Medici dispatched the thirty-eight-year-old Vespucci as confidential agent to look into the Medici branch office in Cádiz, Spain. In April 1495, the Crown of Castile broke their monopoly deal with Christopher Columbus and began handing out licenses to other navigators for the West Indies. Vespucci first worked as a provision contractor for Indies expeditions and then, became an explorer, navigator and the cartographer, who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass, hitherto unknown to Europeans. Colloquially referred to as the New World, this second super continent came to be termed ‘America’ on Vespucci’s maps, deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of his first name.

Enjoy the “Kodak moments” of Montefioralle. Be sure to walk a ways down each of the small alleys that branch off the main village road – there are great views to be seen.

Stop Three: Greve

Leave Montefioralle by going back the way you came and continue on into the center of Greve. After the COOP supermarket, at the next stop light see if you can turn right into the main piazza of Greve with the City Hall at one end and a church at the other. A covered porch (loggia) surrounds the plaza. If allowed, drive in and park. (Be sure to go to the parking toll machine and put in an euro or two and get a slip of paper to put inside your windshield.)

If you aren’t allowed to drive into the main piazza then turn left at that same stop light and go across a bridge and turn right into the big parking lot. (I think it is free, but look around for a toll machine or an attendant.) Walk back to the main piazza with the statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano (another local boy who became an explorer) and tour the shops around it.

It’s lunchtime! Find Tuscan traveler’s Best Day in Chianti Classico Region, Part Two.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Cats of Venice

Shakespeare’s Shylock declared that the cats of Venice were “both necessary and harmless.” Venetians believe that cats helped save the city from the devastating plague of 1348 by killing diseased rats. However, from time to time the municipality has tried to reduce the teeming feline population. Each time the citizenry has been up in arms in protest. In 1960 there were over 12,000 stray cats in Venice. The cat ladies, known as gattare, provided food and water to colonies located in almost every neighborhood in the city.

Bridge Cat (photo by Bethany)
Bridge Cat (photo by Bethany)

Largely due to the efforts of an organization, oddly named Dingo, the number has been reduced to 2,000 without killing a single healthy cat. Founded in 1965, Dingo was started by British-born Helena Sanders and Venetian Elena Scarpabolla as a cat and dog rescue society. (Dingo was the name of the first rescued dog.)

Venice BridgeCat (photo by B&J Drum)
Cat on the Water  (photo by B&J Drum)

It took Dingo 20 years, but finally Venetian authorities gave them a designated space, a gattile or cattery, on the abandoned island of San Clemente, an ancient pilgrimage site that in the 19th century served as an insane asylum for women and was finally closed down after World War II. Imposing 19th-century buildings were still intact, as was an exquisite Baroque church, though it was stripped of its most precious art works by thieves when the island was uninhabited and unguarded. The cat sanctuary brought people to the island again.

But in 2005, Isola San Clemente was sold for redevelopment as a luxury hotel and resort. Almost 250 cats (stray dogs were not part of the mandate by this time) were transported to Malamocco, a fishing village on the long sandbar that is the Lido of Venice.

Cats by the Canal (photo from venessia.com)
Cats by the Canal (photo from venessia.com)

Dingo is now part of the Anglo Italian Society for the Protection of Animals, a British based charity which raises funds worldwide for animal welfare organizations in Italy. AISPA was started in 1952 and has branches all over Italy. AISPA is concerned the welfare of all kinds of animals, from cats and dogs to livestock and circus animals.

The gattile is housed in a small group of buildings in Malamocco. There are cat dormitories with individual cages, a surgery, and a series of outdoor enclosures where most of the cats hang out. There are also quarantine huts and a convalescence ward, for short- and long-term care of the injured and ailing residents. The farthest building houses the isolation ward for cats suffering from infectious illnesses like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and panleukopenia (feline distemper) and a maternity ward for those about to give birth.

One of the Cat Ladies of Venice (photo from venise-acqua-vite.com)
One of the Cat Ladies of Venice (photo from venise-acqua-vite.com)

There is an ever expanding and contracting population of about 200 cats. Unwanted, sick or stray cats are brought to Dingo, either by Dingo volunteers or Venetian residents. Each new resident is given a medical exam and a determination is made whether they are lost, abandoned or feral. When its needs have been assessed, it joins the colony, some only for a short while. The gattile has an active adoption program and most of the captured feral cats are returned to their original colonies throughout Venice once they have been spayed or neutered. Unlike the U.S., where strays may be euthanized, Italy has laws to protect animals, wanted or unwanted. Most cities have TNR programs to trap, neuter and release feral cats. Venice was the first Italian city to pass an animal rights act, in 1987 (adopted nationally in 1991), and it guarantees stray cats an area to live in freedom.

Cats Valued in Venetian History (venetostoria.com)
Cats were valued in Venetian history (venetostoria.com)

On Robin Saikis’s website TheVeniceLido.com one can find this interesting snippet of history: “In Gaetano Zompini’s 1789 book about Venetian street traders we learn about knife-sharpeners, candle-sellers and wig-makers, but there is another intriguing trade, that of the castragatti, the cat-neuterers. The cat population of Venice had always been a problem but Venetians, as animal lovers, were always ready to try and compromise with their feline friends: cats kill rats, rats spread plague, so neutering the toms would have seemed a good way of keeping a useful ally under control.

Kitty Condo by San Lorenzo Church (photo by AnnieNC)
Kitty Condo by San Lorenzo Church (photo by AnnieNC)

Dingo also maintains some kitty condos in various neighborhoods in Venice for the free feral colonies. Londoner Jeff Cotton keeps track of the colonies on his website FictionalCities.

Available from Amazon.com (eBook)
Available from Amazon.com (eBook)
Available from Amazon.com (eBook)
Available from Amazon.com (eBook)

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Death at the Duomo, 5 questions for the author

Death at the Duomo is the first book, just released, in a new series of mystery/thrillers set in Florence, Italy. The Renaissance City’s fictional murder rate is about to rise, requiring the pairing a young Florentine detective, Caterina Falcone, half American, half Italian, with Max Turner, an agent from the American Embassy. The first novel begins with an explosion outside the Duomo on a festival day.

Death at the Duomo High Res Front Cover 1500 PIXELS

(Most long-time readers of this website know that the author of Death at the Duomo and Tuscan Traveler are one in the same. So this is the semi-strange situation of a self-interview to announce the book’s launch.)

Where did you get the premise for Death at the Duomo?

I love mysteries of all kinds, but especially those set in countries not my own. My favorites are by Donna Leon, Fred Vargas, Jason Goodwin, Daniel Silva and Joseph Kanon. After I had lived in Florence for a few years, I kept discovering places or events that I thought would be perfect for a murder. One was the exhibit of anatomical waxes at the La Specola Museum (the site used in the upcoming Caterina Falcone mystery) and another was Scoppio del Carro (literally, the Explosion of the Cart), the event at the beginning of the first book. With the colorful history of Florence there are unending possibilities for intriguing plots.

Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Do you prefer to write a novel or a non-fiction book?

I started Tuscan Traveler to keep my writing “up to snuff”. The website provided the basis for my first books, Italian Food Rules and Italian Life Rules, as well as giving me bits of information for my touring clients. I found, however, that it was more fun to incorporate the scenes from Florentine life, information about Tuscan food, and tidbits from historical Florence into a novel. So I gave Caterina Falcone a father who is a chef and restaurant owner. I learned that FBI agents are stationed at most US embassies, but have restrictions placed on how they operate in foreign countries, and Max Turner came to life. I especially enjoy exploring the experiences, good and bad, of foreigners when they encounter the Italian food and life rules, so each of the mysteries will involve tourists and expats in Florence and Tuscany.

Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
What was the best part about being a writer in Italy?

I have a great group of writing friends who meet two times a year in Matera, a fascinating town in the Basilicata region. In the spring a small group meets for a brainstorming session. Death at the Duomo was born there. In the fall the Women’s Fiction Festival takes place. The second year I went the speakers included experts in forensics, cyber-crime and investigations of international crimes. The third or fourth edition concentrated on food writing. Recent years have been rich with information about indie publishing. Every year, literary agents and editors from major publishing companies are available for pitches from authors and staff panels on what’s new in the world of publishing.

matera-womenAre you going to write a memoir about your sixteen years in Italy?

No. Others have written much better books than I could, ranging from the more standard “under the Tuscan sun” narratives to innovative memoirs, such as Dianne Hale’s two books on language and Mona Lisa.

What are your favorite Italian-theme books?

Besides my own, I would pick any book by Donna Leon, The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev, any book by Beppe Severgnini, The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey, any book by Conor Fitzgerald and Medici Money by Tim Parks. Other books that I like can be found here.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Renaissance Beauty, It was Work

Caterina Sforza's Gli Experimenti
Caterina Sforza’s Gli Experimenti

Today, women turn to magazines—Elle, Vogue, and In Style—to learn the best hair and cosmetic tips. They also visit their favorite dermatologist. In Renaissance Italy, cosmetics and hair care were very much part of the conversation of the nobility. Caterina Sforza, after she retired from defending the castle and married a Medici, developed her own line of herbal cosmetics and put them in a book, Gli Experimenti (1490).

I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese
I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese

Isabella Cortese, an Italian Renaissance alchemist, wrote her own book in 1561: I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese (The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese). But before Caterina and Isabella there was a doctor in Salerno who did the research and wrote a health and beauty treatise that was followed for four-hundred years, De Ornatu Mulierum, one section of what became known as the Trotula Minor.

Trotula de Ruggiero, also known as Trotula of Salerno, was reportedly born around 1090, into a wealthy family, which must have encouraged the education of women. In a lucky accident of historical timing a new medical school was built in Salerno in place of a Benedictine monastic dispensary dating back to the late 700s.

De Ornatu Mulierum by Trotula
De Ornatu Mulierum by Trotula

La Scuola Medica Salernitana condensed the knowledge of old treatises of Latin, Greek, Arabian and Hebrew medicine. It was the most important school of medicine in Europe in the Middle Ages, the predecessor of the modern medical university. It was the first academic institution to offer degrees and boasted a very inclusive approach to medicine, fusing three scientific traditions—European (based on the classical Greek and Roman knowledge), Islamic and Jewish.

Its most progressive feature was that, unlike other schools at the time, women were permitted to study there and even teach. Trotula stood out from her contemporaries. She became a professor at the school. She reportedly wrote the Trotula Major and Trotula Minor, a group of treatises on women’s medicine. (Recent research questions the attribution to one person.) Over 100 manuscripts of the De Ornatu Mulierum, devoted to beauty maintenance,  were circulated throughout Europe for several centuries.

Portrait of a Lady by Neroccio dei Landi (1485)
Portrait of a Lady by Neroccio dei Landi (1485)

Being blonde was better in Renaissance Italy. Just step into the Botticelli and the Filippo Lippi rooms at the Uffizi to see that there is rarely a depiction of a brunette. Trotula provided the recipes to achieve the look:

Bleaching and coloring hair took five days. The bleach was made from walnut shells and the bark of the same tree, boiled in water to which “alum and oak apples” were added. The mixture was smeared through the hair, then covered with leaves, tied with strings and left for for two days (except when exposed to the sun, see below). The excess was combed out and for three days thereafter the hair was colored with a paste made from “oriental crocus, dragon’s blood, and henna mixed with brazilwood.” The final step was a thorough rinse with hot water.

Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza)
Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza)

Lengthy hours in the hot sun served as the heating mechanism that activated the “bleach” (the concoction described above for the first two days), were necessary. The process was difficult because upper-class women also wanted to keep their skin paler than pale. Therefore, they had to sit outside for hours fully covered to protect their skin with hats to protect their faces. The hat, called a solana, had the crown cut out in order to allow exposure to the sun’s rays to bleach the hair.

To cover the gray in black hair, De Ornatu Mulierum said to apply a mixture made by cooking “a green lizard in oil without its tail and head.” Then, oak apples were to be placed with oil in a dish and “let them be burned.” The ingredients were pulverized and mixed in vinegar with “blacking made in Gaul.” The paste was applied to the hair and left until all the gray was gone.

Portrait of a Women by Filippo Lippi (Uffizi)
Portrait of a Women by Filippo Lippi (Uffizi)

To encourage hair growth the  treatise said “take barley bread with the crust, grind it with salt and bear fat. But first burn the barley bread. With this mixture anoint the place and the hair will grow. In order to make the hair thick, take agrimonies and elm bark, root of vervain, root of willow, southernwood, burnt and pulverized linseed, and root of reed. Cook all these things with goat milk or water,” and apply to the head.

It was believed that seborrhea and dandruff were produced by worms growing under the scalp. To eliminate them Trotula recommended washing the hair with vinegar, rosemary water, nettles, mint, thyme and other herbs. And lice and mites were frequently a problem, even for the well-born: “For itch-mites eating away at the hair. Take myrtleberry, broom, [and] clary, and cook them in vinegar until the vinegar has been consumed, and with this rub the ends of the hair vigorously. This same thing removes fissures of the head if the head is washed well with it.”

Portrait of a Woman by Filippo Lippi
Portrait of a Woman by Filippo Lippi

Another recipe described the ingredients for a perfumed hair powder. “Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress, and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that [her hair] will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder, and it will smell marvelously.”

The upper-class Renaissance woman sought a high hairline, since a wide and high forehead was thought to be trait of intelligence and beauty during that era. Those who were not blessed with a naturally high forehead plucked their hairlines in order to get the desired effect. Then the area was rubbed with a pumice stone to hide any evidence of tweezing and to assure that no lines marred the brow. Thin light eyebrows were mandatory, so they were tweezed and bleached or cut to make certain that they were not too prominent. (Check out Mona Lisa’s lack of brows.) Eyelashes were to be short and thin, certainly not lush and long as is popular today.

Portrait of a Lady in Red, 1460-70 Italian School (National Gallery)
Portrait of a Lady in Red, 1460-70 Italian School (National Gallery)

Trotula’s work was translated to English in 2001 by Monica Green. (A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Edited and translated by Monica H. Green. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001).

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Italian Food Rules Goes On Sale

If you or your friends and family are going to Italy this year. Or if you want to do some armchair traveling, you should pick up Italian Food Rules and Italian Life Rules that I wrote after living in Florence for fifteen years. I broke every one of the “rules” before I learned to live like an Italian. I didn’t always agree with the rules, but I finally understood why they stood the test of time.

Beach Scene In Italy
Beach Scene In Italy

Did you know that Italians never drink cappuccino after 10 o’clock in the morning? Do you know why they never eat pizza for lunch? Why does the fruit vendor in the market yell at you when you check out the ripeness of the pears or the freshness of the green beans? I wrote about the rules and the reasons in Italian Food Rules.

Seen at the Florence Central Market
Seen at the Florence Central Market

Did you know that Italians don’t like wall-to-wall carpets? Why are they only allowed to have shutters in four colors in Tuscany? What’s the danger of air conditioning to Italians? Why are they carrying a neck scarf in the middle of the summer? Why is the Italian beach scene so different from the rest of the world, but exactly the same everywhere from Rimini to Calabria to Forte dei Marmi to Portofino? I tried to provide some insight in Italian Life Rules.

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From May 15 to May 22, the Kindle version of Italian Food Rules will be on sale for $1.99.

Italian Life Rules will go on sale at the Amazon Kindle Store for $1.99 from May 22 to May 28.

Digital books make great gifts and the paperback is the perfect size to carry in a pocket on your travels. Also on sale at Amazon.co.uk.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Aren’t the Spring Flowers Petaloso?

Spring flowers are much more part of gardens in America and England than in the evergreen Italianate gardens of Tuscany. But now is the time to tour the Bardini Garden of Florence to see the wisteria. It is surely petaloso. Or can we describe it that way? Is petaloso even a word?

Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)
Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)

Early this February, in the small town of Copparo in central Italy, a primary school teacher, Margherita Aurora, was in a bind when one of her students, eight-year-old Matteo, used a made-up word in a written assignment.

Matteo described a flower as “petaloso” (“full of petals”). The word doesn’t exist in the Italian dictionary, but grammatically it makes sense as a combination of “petalo” (“petal”) and the suffix “-oso” (“full of”).

12778956_10153837051207209_2566454051572083941_oMs. Aurora marked the error by writing, “1 errore bello.” (“1 beautiful error”) But as only the best teachers do, she went a step further. She asked her class, “Did Matteo invent a new word? How are words created?”

With his teacher’s help, the students wrote to the Accademia della Crusca—the institution that oversees the use of the Italian language—to ask for their opinion.

imageTo their surprise, Matteo got a supportive reply. “The word you invented is well formed and could be used in the Italian language,” one of the Crusca’s linguistic experts wrote. “It is beautiful and clear.”

But, the linguist added, for a word to officially be part of the Italian language, a large number of people need to use it and understand its meaning. “If you manage to spread your word among many people who start saying ‘What a petaloso flower this is!’, then petaloso will have become a word in Italian.”

12671802_946244235430842_2005625424207388753_oMatteo’s teacher was thrilled by the reply. She wrote,”This is worth more than a thousand Italian lessons” on her Facebook page and shared pictures of the letter.

Cb_tAb1W8AEaoEgThis single act triggered a movement to do exactly what the Crusca had asked: make “petaloso” a widely known and used word.

10351262_1049581841766502_1159479361656688915_nHer original Facebook post has been shared more than 98,000 times. On Twitter #petaloso trended like crazy. Many tweeters used the word in context—demonstrating its wide use and commonly understood meaning, just as Accademia della Crusca had suggested. Italian companies joined the campaign, chefs created petaloso recipes, garden associations supported the idea, designers used it to advertise products, Italy’s prime minister joined the conversation on social media, the the story was reported throughout Europe, and even in the U.S. on NPR.

Life Stranger Than Fiction?

Accademia della Crusca is one of my favorite places. I’ve written about it before on TuscanTraveler.com.

51gW179x4BLImagine my joy when I read at the bottom of the letter from Accademia della Crusca to Matteo, a reference to an American author, Andrew Clements and his book, translated into Italian, Drilla.

The original American title is Frindle. The story is about an American schoolboy, Nick Allen, who likes to liven things up at school. When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, he’s got the inspiration for his best plan ever…the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word. Then other people in town start saying frindle. Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero. His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The new word is spreading across the country, and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it.

41rY2x-D1-LThe reason the folks at Crusca learned about Frindle/Drilla was because a few years ago I gave the young son of an employee of the Accademia a copy of the Italian translation of this book that I had so enjoyed.

Maria Cristina Torchia at Crusca suggested that Matteo read the book with his teacher and his classmates. “[R]acconta proprio una storia come la tua, la storia di un bambino che inventa una parola e cerca di farla entrare nel vocabolario.”  (“It tells a story just like yours, the story of a child who invents a word and tries to enter it in the dictionary.”)  As petaloso started to trend in Italy, so did Drilla. The Italian publisher wrote to Crusca to thank them for the reference.

I hope that someday I’ll be able to report that petoloso has been officially added to the Italian lexicon.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – A Duomo Doesn’t Need a Dome

For years I told friends and family that the Duomo of Florence was called “duomo” because of the dome. Finally, because I was confused by the fact that Milan’s Duomo didn’t have a dome, I did the research. I was mistaken or just completely wrong.

Florence Duomo
Florence Duomo

Even the U.S.-based National Geographic got it wrong: “The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), nicknamed the Duomo after the enormous octagonal dome [emphasis added] on its east end, is the cathedral of Florence, Italy, and, arguably, the birthplace of the Renaissance.” There are two problems here. First is the duomo/dome mistake. And while Santa Maria del Fiore is a basilica, it is not one of the four major basilicas (see below), and should probably be designated as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

What is a Duomo?

Usually, “Duomo” is a term for an Italian cathedral church (or a former cathedral church). Italian for cathedral is cattedrale. To be designated a cattedrale, the church must have a bishop and a bishop’s chair (cattedra). But to make it more difficult, some, like the Duomo of Monza, have never been cathedrals, but are old and important.

Milan Duomo
Milan Duomo

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to Lo Zingarelli, the main Italian dictionary, the word “duomo” derives from the Latin word “domus“, meaning “house.” In ancient Rome, the domus was the type of house occupied by the upper classes. It could be found in almost all the major cities throughout the Roman territories. The modern English word “domestic” comes from Latin domesticus, which is derived from the word domus.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was spoken only by members of the clergy, and so domus started to be used to address the “house of God.” A cathedral is considered the “house of God” or domus Dei and “house of the Bishop” or domus Ecclesia.

San Gimignano Duomo
San Gimignano Duomo

The most important church in each city is often called Duomo followed by the name of the city; for example, Duomo di Milano or Duomo di Firenze. This can include small towns, like San Gimignano in Tuscany, which also has a duomo, but wasn’t a cathedral, and the Duomo di Volterra, which was a cathedral with a bishop. There is, however, no church in Rome known as the Duomo or even, a duomo.

The Duomo in Florence

The official website of Florence’s Opera del Duomo tells us: “Santa Maria del Fiore, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, is the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London) and was the largest church in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century. It is 153 metres long, 90 metres wide at the crossing, and 90 metres high from the floor to the bottom of the lantern. [The cathedral] was dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin of the Flower, in 1412, a clear allusion to the lily, the symbol of the city of Florence.”

Again, having nothing to do with “duomo” or “domus”, the dome of the Florence Cathedral is known in Italian as the “cupola”, as it is for any dome on any Italian church.

Consisting of two interconnected ogival shells, the Duomo’s octagonal cupola was erected between 1420 and 1434 to a design of Filippo Brunelleschi. His innovative approach involved vaulting the dome space without any scaffolding by using a double shell with a space in between. The inner shell (with a thickness of more than two meters) is made of light bricks set in a herringbone pattern and is the self-supporting structural element while the outer dome simply serves as a heavier, wind-resistant covering.

The cupola is crowned by a lantern with a conical roof, designed by Brunelleschi but only built after his death in 1446, while the gilt copper sphere and cross on top of the lantern, containing holy relics, was designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and installed in 1466.

Monza Duomo
Monza Duomo
What is a Basilica?

The Basilica was a Roman public building, a sort of tribunal. (The term basilica comes from a Greek word meaning regal or kingly.) When the ancient Romans spoke of a basilica they were referring to a large, high-ceilinged hall with three long aisles. In the centuries after the Roman Empire, the term basilica started to mean “big church,” because the first big churches were built in the style of the old Roman basilicas. Some architectural elements that you can often find in a church (for example, columns, apses, naves) were already present in pre-Christian Roman buildings. Nowadays, many of the main churches in Italy have the formal name of Basilica followed by the name of a saint; for example, Basilica di San Pietro (in Rome), Basilica di San Marco (in Venice).

Over the centuries, the Popes have awarded the title “Minor Basilica” to churches that had unusual historical significance, or were especially sacred because of the presence of a relic or relics. There are over 1400 minor basilicas around the world, 527 just in Italy alone. These honorary basilicas include the great church at the Grotto in Lourdes, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The designation Major Basilica is restricted to the four greatest churches in Rome St. Peters, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls.

Update: During the week of 10 April 2016 the news site of La Repubblica Firenze reported that the tourist information signs at the central Florence train station had misidentified the Church of Santa Maria Novella as the Florence Cathedral.

(photo from LaRebblicaFirenze.it)
(photo from LaRebblicaFirenze.it)

Mangia! Mangia! – Tuscan Holiday Treats for Spring

Carnival and Easter are the best times for desserts in Italy, especially in Tuscany. I have a sweet tooth, but have never been a big fan of Italian dolce. (I prefer French pastries and cakes.) But that all changes every spring. In previous posts I’ve extolled the virtues of giant Italian chocolate eggs and Colomba di Pasqua (the Easter Dove). Now it’s time to wrap up the quartet of Easter delights that are found in every pastry shop and café for the next two months – schiacciata alla fiorentina and cenci.

Easter Eggs

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

Schiacciata alla fiorentina is a large, rectangular, flat, powdered sugar-dusted, citrus sponge cake. The scent of orange peel and vanilla are the predominant notes and it is traditionally served plain, but sometimes filled with slightly sweetened, freshly whipped Chantilly (my favorite) or pastry cream. You know you have the right sweet when you see the stenciled Florentine giglio, the symbolic lily of Florence, dusted over the top in powdered sugar or contrasting cocoa powder.

schiacciata-alla-fiorentina-You can sit down for a small square portion or take home a whole cake. During Carnival and Easter week, you may have to reserve your whole schiacciata alla fiorentina a day ahead of time at the best pasticceria, selecting a filling, or not, and requesting a white or chocolate giglio.

The name confused me in the beginning. In Florence, schiacciata means ‘squashed’ or ‘flattened’ and usually refers to a savory salt and olive oil drenched flat bread (similar to focaccia). There is also schiacciata all’uva in the fall, which is also a traditional bread dough, but layered with grapes from the new harvest. The only thing they all have in common is that they are flat, which perhaps makes sense.

Pellegrino Artusi (born in Forlimpopoli, near Forlì, August 4, 1820 – died in Florence, March 30, 1911), the father of Tuscan cooking talks of stiacciata delle Murate, a cake fed only to condemned prisoners of the Murate Prison in Florence “in the 1700s” before they were sent to be executed, essentially their “last bite of the sweet life.”

SCHIACCIATA-alla-fiorentina-2--525x564Other food historians dispute this since the Murate was a convent until 1808 and Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo abolished capital punishment in Tuscany in 1786. Perhaps the Murate nuns devised the recipe and were baking the cakes to celebrate Fat Tuesday each spring.

Schiacciata alla fiorentina traditionally included lard in the recipe, but today olive oil or butter or Crisco replaces this. Some recipes you might try are here, here and here.

Today’s schiacciata alla fiorentina is a delicately scented, light cake that’s not too sweet. Artusi’s rule that it be no thicker than the width of two fingers is not always followed. The characteristic flavor, marked by orange juice and zest, and soft, spongy texture, make it a favorite for a mid-morning or afternoon snack and I know people who have it for breakfast up until Lent and then again on Easter Sunday. It pairs well with coffee, tea and a good vin santo.

For the best places to find schiacciata alla fiorentina in Florence check out last year’s competition winners and this slightly different list. My favorites are Bar Pasticceria Giorgio in the Soffiano neighborhood and I Dolci di Patrizio Cosi in Piazza Gaetano Salvemini .

Cenci

The last of my favorite Tuscan Easter treats is cenci. The literal meaning of the word is “rags” and these addictive fried flat strips of dough look like rags. You are supposed to stop eating them when Lent starts, but the bakers of Florence know that is impossible to do. And, anyway, you will have them again at Easter.

CenciThe recipe supposedly comes from ancient Rome. Other parts of Italy indulge in the treat during Carnival and so there are many names: bugie (lies) (Piemont, Liguria), chiacchiere (talk) (Lombardy), crostolo, grostolo or galano (Venice), frappa (Emilia), sfrappole and sfrapla (Bologna), crespelle or sprelle (Umbria, Lazio), and meraviglie (wonderful) (Sardenia). Artusi again weighed in saying they are shaped like rags so they should be called cenci.

The dough for cenci is usually not sweet, but flavored with anise or orange liquor or vin santo or grappa. The flattened dough is cut in a variety of shapes (in Florence it’s short raggedy rectangles), fried in hot oil and dusted with powdered sugar.

Try to make your own by using the recipes here, here and here.

I love the cenci from the bakery, Pugi, in Piazza San Marco, but others have their own favorite places.

From the beginning of Carnival and for about a week after Easter you will be able to indulge in chocolate eggs, Colomba di Pasqua, schiacciata alla fiorentina, and cenci. After that you will have to wait another year — as it should be.