Sunday, July 11, 2010

Acqui Terme

Thursday was a free day, as I had no plans for traveling. I ate some breakfast and headed to the supermercati for some grocery shopping. By Paola’s request, I was making “American hamburger” for lunch and had to pick up some supplies. As I left the hotel, Paola stopped me, handing me a 20 euro bill. I tried brushing her off, but as always, she insisted I take it. The store was only a couple of blocks down, so it was a short walk. Thankfully, I have had the good fortune of being introduced to the Italian grocery store by my parents. The produce section happens to have a very specific structure. For one thing, the Italians are very particular about picking out their fruit and vegetables. Gloves are provided so the picky Italians can dig through the cases to find the perfect specimen and they are very wary of those who don’t use them. After taking care not to touch the vegetables directly, you face the confusing task of pricing. While the process, once learned, isn’t too difficult, a first time shopper is likely to get scolded at the register because of their ignorance. The procedure is simple if you posses the knowledge- you simply pick out the fruit or vegetable desired, note the number clearly (or sometimes not so clearly) marked on the corresponding sign (make sure you have your Italian dictionary) go to the nearby scale, punch in the number and viola, your price tag is printed. Once you stick it onto your bag, you are set! I picked out my few needed items, along with a conveniently packaged twosome of Moretti beers, paid, and headed home. I casually slipped the 20 euro bill onto the front desk and went into the kitchen to begin cooking. Paola presented me with a plate of lardo which I fried up as a topping for our “American burgers.” Paola had purchased pre made patties and genuine buns and I got to work cooking the burgers and toasting the poppy seed topped buns. As we sat down to eat I couldn’t help but giggle at Paola’s childlike expression of giddiness. “It’s like Burger King!” she explained joyously. We even enjoyed some refreshment together, pairing our burgers with some ice cold Nastro Azzurro. It was my first drink since a glass of wine I enjoyed on the night of my arrival! After lunch, Alice popped by to say hi and talk business with Carlo. We set up a date for later in the afternoon and I took advantage of my free time, doing my laundry then hopping on Carlo’s bike. I journeyed even farther this time, making it to the next town over, which was even tinier than Cortemillia. Traveling away from Cortemillia, you encounter a slow uphill climb which leaves you breathless. But the ride back is always enjoyable, a fast downhill cruise that leaves your adrenaline pumping even after you’ve jumped off the bike. Shortly after I changed, Alice arrived and we departed the hotel. We took a slow, leisurely walk around Cortemillia and stopped to get some gelato. Conversation with Alice is becoming more and more comfortable. We are getting to know one another and discussing the culture and politics of our countries, which is not only interesting, but informative. We set up a plan to email each other, me in Italian and her in English, so we can both improve and I don’t have to suffer the embarrassment of speaking just yet. I had time for a shower before dinner and entering the kitchen was grateful to find Poala had already prepared me a plate of prosciutto, braesola and parmeasan along with a green salad for dinner. It was a slow night in the kitchen but Carlo made an a traditional Piemonte dish for special guests who were dining with us. The sauce was a simple one, ground veal sauteed with onions, sage, rosemary, oil and butter, with a little white wine and seasoning for good measure. He poured it over a fresh spaghetti and topped it with white truffle shavings. To my delight, Carlo instructed me to get a fork and offered me what little was left in the pan. Belissimo! One of the best dishes that I have sampled from the kitchen of Carlo Zarri!! Paola seemed excited about her discovery that I enjoyed alcohol, a fact which anyone who is acquainted with me knows well. She had Elena make us mojitos and we sat on the porch with Carlo to enjoy them. The nights are cool here and in the pleasant weather we chatted, sipping on mojitos which Paola informed me were enhanced with Cognac. Paola made a comment about me getting drunk and Carlo snickered, stating “it would take her 10 of those!” I was quite amused by this but in my mind I contemplated... By the end of this trip, at the rate I’m drinking, I will probably have readjusted to a tolerance of one drink, just like the good old days.

With plans to head to Acqui Terme, I was up early again on Friday. I love Italian breakfast; it is perfectly acceptable to eat cake first thing in the morning and the Zarri’s serve a different one every day. I sliced myself some pinoli cake and spooned out some soft sliced pears that were marinating in their own juices. The drive was short, with the usual incredible views and Carlo and I maintained lively conversation for the duration.
Carlo dropped me at a roundabout where he would later pick me up. He was headed to a screening, picked to be on a cooking show that travels to different areas, showcasing chefs and their creations. The dishes are meant to represent the region where the chef hails from and Carlo would be making the very dish I had the opportunity to sample the night before! Before dropping me off, Carlo explained why this dish was so important to him and Piemonte. It is a simple, but classic dish with few ingredients that requires little preparation. To Carlo, this embodies Piemonte cooking but there are chefs that go against the idea, insisting on complicating their dishes and fluffing them with unnecessary additions. The show was giving him a chance to express these views and prove the merit of the belief that simple ingredients, when they are of good quality, are best left uncomplicated to let their true flavors shine. With my sneakers and backpack, I was looking like a total tourist, but I was undeterred. I have learned from the decades of traveling I have done in my life that comfort is more important than appearance. Although I hate blatantly appearing like an American tourist, it is an apprehension I’ve overcome. It was market day in Acqui Terme and the city was full of Italians doing their shopping for the week. The tents were strewn throughout the streets with people crowded on either side and I followed along in the flow of pedestrian traffic not stopping very often. I usually only pause at a stall if they have something that really appeals to me. The tents selling clothes and shoes often are overcome with Italian women searching for the perfect deal so I avoid them. But it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the ones selling kitchen supplies often grab my attention. It was no different on this day and I stopped to peer into compartments full of useful tools, priced fairly cheap. As a rule, when traveling abroad, I try not to purchase things unless they are impossible or difficult to find in the America. I came across a ravioli cutter and an awesome veggie peeler which is so simple it’s illogical to me that I have never seen one in the US. I purchased both, spending under 10 dollars and considered it a fair deal that fulfilled my self-made rule. I wandered into the indoor section of the market where they were selling meat, seafood, cheese and freshly baked bread. I was filled with longing, a feeling I’m used to here in Italy, wishing that these things were available in the US, much less Orlando. Satisfied with my market experience, I set off to explore a little, venturing into less crowded streets. I came to a square where a fountain bubbled. I dipped my hand in, seeking some relief from the heat of the day and I was momentarily surprised by the hot water I encountered. Acqui Terme is built over hot sulphur springs, and this is where it gets its name. I had found La Bollente spring, a pavilion built in 1870 in the center of the town where citizens could access the hot water. Steam rose from the fountains where the water flowed and came into contact with the cooler air. It was all very fascinating! I continued on, passing by an outside theatre and I encountered a little castle, called the Palaeologi Castle. It was set on a hill and from the top I had a beautiful view of Acqui Terme. There was also a pretty bird garden inside and I enjoyed a walk through it, thankful for the shade. During my walk I was also scoping out restaurants, of course! I had already spotted a promising restaurant near the theatre appropriately named Osteria del Teatro. Although it was early, only 12 o’clock, I was hungry so I took my chances and headed in. An older woman seated me, informing me the chef would be in soon, and gave me a pitcher of blissfully cold acqua naturale. I also ordered a quartino of white wine, a little pitcher that holds about 8 ounces of liquid. I was happy to be sitting in the shade, drinking my cold beverages and reading from my Kindle, so I didn’t mind the wait.As soon as I was seated a young Italian girl, delighted for company in the restaurant, approached my table with a tentative smile. She took my greeting for an invitation to keep me company and rarely left my side throughout the meal, although her mother came over repeatedly ordering “vieni, vieni!” I placed my order opting for a traditional Piemonte antipasti and agnolotti con sugo di brasato di barolo, a ravioli with a sauce of beef braised in Barolo. As I waited for my food to arrive and munched on breadsticks flavored with olives, people came in and out, obviously a part of the family that owned the restaurant. It is so comforting to know even with changing times and modernization that the traditions of Italy remain intact. Family restaurants are still very common and they remain the meeting place where members join for meals and socialization. My antipasti arrived and I explored it with my fork and my taste buds, attempting to figure out each ingredient that made up the dish. There was an asparagus souffle that resembled a fluffy omelette full of shredded asparagus. Next was an onion concoction, a mixture I can only deduce contained onion, egg, and cheese with a texture resembling ricotta stuffed inside the peel of the onion and roasted. Also on the plate was a piece of crispy, toasted cheese and the tradition vitello di tonnato, a thin slice of veal topped with a mayonnaise like sauce flavored by the addition of tuna, capers, and anchovies. I am very familiar with this dish as we serve it in the restaurant and I have learned how to make it, but I am still unsure of the combination, the sauce being a bit overwhelming for my personal tastes. My plate was swept away and replaced with agnolotti. It was incredible!! I savored every bite. The ravioli was stuffed with the braised beef and the sauce was thick and rich and made my mouther water just smelling it. This was one of the best meals I have had since arriving in Italia! I finished my ravioli and lingered a bit longer, finishing off the last of my wine and drinking an espresso. After paying my bill, I strolled through the city and found a bench in the shade back by our meeting place. I settled down with an Italian newspaper and attempted to translate it with the assistance of my Italian dictionary. It was an article about politics and the strife over the Berlusconi budget crisis here in Italy. Berlusconi is proposing a budget and if he is refused, he proposes a new election. But, this was not what I gathered from the article, simply what Carlo has educated me on. I only got through about a paragraph, struggling with the large words I had never read before and attempting to interpret their definition. It was very difficult but I think it is a good way to learn new words and correct grammar. I am deriving the necessary conversational skills from my interactions with Italians so I think this is a different approach that could broaden my knowledge. I tired of the mentally draining exercise and sat to observe the roundabout I was seated by. It was far from boring watching the Italian bikers and drivers fly around the circle, driving straight over the stone center as if it didn’t exist. Before long Carlo picked me up and we headed back to Cortemillia. Back at the hotel it was the usual routine, showering and prepping for dinner. It was a light night but I enjoyed it as I am finding my place in the kitchen and get to do more and more each night.

Images top to bottom
American hamburger
No dryers here- my skivvies in the open for everyone to see
Carlo's specialty, pasta with veal and white truffle
Herbs and plants on sale at the market
Fish in the market
Acqui Terme from the top
La Bollente spring
Adorable Mia, the girl who kept me company during lunch
Agnolotti con sugo di brasato di barolo

This cheese cart needs to move to my neighborhood, I would go every day!

Beautiful fresh berries

The bird garden

Osteria del Teatro

The roundabout the Italians drive all over

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