I love food and I love wine, so feeding my belly in Tuscany should not be a difficult task. I have two or more months in Italy and I have spent one of those months in a little house in a little Tuscan village called Montisi (Siena province). I have no macchina (car), there is no treno (train), and pretty much no autobus either.
Montisi has one tiny grocery store that stocks the very basics; a small bakery; one main restaurant, which is also the local bar and the centre of town (“Il Barrino”); and there are two other restaurants open by reservation only. Restaurants are not cheap these days; lunch for two cost me $100 (and that was on the day of my arrival)! I learned very quickly that I would not be able to frequent the restaurants for meals (but I can frequent Il Barrino for items of the liquid type!). Unlike most other visitors, I am not on a short-term “holiday;” I’m living abroad for 10 months, and I have to watch my indulgences.
With limited access to food supplies and restaurants, how was I going to feed my belly? Fortunately, I have met some very kind individuals and new friends, and have been able to go with them to the neighboring town of Sinalunga to do grocery shopping or to visit the local market on Tuesdays. If possible, I try to get to town once a week. (See the video of the market below).
Not only am I limited with food options and access to food, but I am also limited with my cooking implements. My cucina (kitchen) has only 2 gas burners and a small toaster oven. There is no microwave or oven. Fortunately, I am resourceful; I know how (and love) to cook, and I know how to use leftovers. See me in action in the video below…
So far, in the month that I’ve been here, I’ve been invited over to twice (both times by non-Italians); I’ve eaten out locally here in Montisi for lunch or dinner 6 times, and 6 times elsewhere (Castelmuzio, Torrinieri, Montalcino, Trequanda, Pienza). Every other meal I‘ve made on my own. Not bad!
A new friend who just returned from Sicily spontaneously stopped by my house this evening (only a short while ago), with ingredients to make dinner! In fact, he is inside right now making the sauce for grilled Grouper (fish) from Sicily, just like he ate yesterday on the Ionic Ocean! What a pleasant surprise!
Even with my challenging circumstances, I have managed to impress myself with my ability to prepare very tasty meals, not only for my own belly, but also for others whom I’ve had the pleasure to cook for. Sometimes it is purely a spontaneous affair! On a couple of occasions, I’ve met someone just by walking down the main road in the village and ended up inviting them over at that moment and made dinner. Life is what you make of it; and recently, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the spontaneity in my daily life…
Prior to coming to Italy (this being my 4th time), I had hopes of being in an Italian kitchen, with Italian people….but sadly this hasn’t happened (on this particular visit). From my experience thus far, it seems that the Italian culture isn’t as openly sociable to “outsiders” as North Americans are (in terms of inviting people over for dinner). One of the ex-pats I met told me he lived here for 10 years, and I think he said he was invited to an Italian’s house only once.
I guess if I want to learn Italian cooking, I’ll have to sign up and pay big bucks for cookery lessons and hang out with other tourists. (While I’m sure the cooking lessons would be very enjoyable, it is just not the same as cooking alongside a nonna (grandmother). Perhaps it was wishful thinking! Instead, I make my own Italian creations in the private company of Pavarotti….using the ingredients on hand, the herbs in the garden, the wine on my shelf (which is always well-stocked!) And I get great pleasure out of this, even if it is just for me! (Although having company is much more enjoyable).
A FEW TIPS (for cooking in Italy)
- If the bakery is open, and you need bread, get off your butt and go pick it up. I learned the hard way. I needed bread for dinner one evening (for 2 people), but I had a bad case of distractionitis, due to the good old Internet. The bakery was open right in front of my eyes, only 20 seconds away. Due to my severe condition (distractionitis), I wasn’t paying attention to the time…. And around noon, the bakery closed and did not reopen that day. It also turned out to be the day that the little grocery shop was closed (Wednesday)…so my last resort was going to the restaurant, where I was charged the equivalent of $5.60 for a small chunk of rock-hard tasteless and saltless Tuscan bread (which believe me, is nothing to write home about!) And when the time came to use it at dinner, I was completely distracted and forgot all about the bread! (But remember I’m resourceful; I later used the stale bread as a key ingredient in another recipe…. as seen in this video below…)
- Add more water to the pot than necessary when cooking fagioli (beans); you might get side tracked (i.e. “distracted”) while sitting outside enjoying a glass of wine, and forgetting about the pot on the stove! (Alternatively you could set a timer, which would also work. But surely don’t forgo the wine!)
- Be very careful with your teeth when biting into a Tuscan panino (sandwich); the bread is seriously rock-hard and can damage your teeth if you’re not careful. See my video below on how to eat a panino…(Note: I am no expert; I have to continue practicing).
- Do not handle produce at the market – indicate to the salesperson what you want and they will pick it out for you. If you don’t do this, you will quickly learn that you just did a no-no. At the grocery stores, you will most often find a box of disposable plastic gloves; those are for you to wear when handling the produce.
- Always have more wine than you think you need, as you never know when you’ll have company (or in my case, you never know when you’ll get your next ride into town, so it’s important to stock up).
Key Ingredients to Have on Hand:
If you plan on having an extended stay in Italy and will be cooking for yourself (and possibly others), I find that the most common staple ingredients to have on hand include: wine (of course); fresh herbs including basilico, oregano, rosemarino; pomodori (tomatoes); cipolle (onions); vegetables such as zucchini or green beans; fagioli (dry white beans); formaggio (cheese), here in Montisi I buy local Pecorino cheese and fresh mozzarella (mmmm!); green and black olives; for meat eaters, chicken, beef, Italian sausage and salami/proscuitto, and pick up some salmon once in awhile; different varieties of pasta; farro (a type of chewy wheat); pesto sauce; tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes; and of course, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper.
These are just the most common recurring ingredients that I use in my cooking. You’ll find that with these ingredients you can make countless dishes!
Why Do I Photograph My Food?
Some people think it is strange that I photograph my food. I do this because I get pleasure out of cooking and creating, sharing and eating. On this round-the-world journey, oftentimes I find myself eating alone. I take the photos so that in a small way, I am able to share the experience with you and possibly inspire you to travel, cook, eat, and enjoy the company (whether with others or yourself).
Feel free to leave a comment below; I love hearing from visitors!
Ciao for now,