Monthly Archives: June 2016

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)