Museo Piana delle Orme

My continuing quest to visit Italy’s nuttiest museums brought me to this place a few weeks ago and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. But first, some backstory. The Upstairs Vegetarian has a friend (who is now my friend too!) named Stephanie Malia Hom who is a professor of Italian, anthropologist, Italophile and many other things too. Her latest book is The Beautiful Country: Tourism & the Impossible State of Destination Italy. Doesn’t that sound interesting? Can’t wait to read it. Anyway, a few years ago Stephanie was visiting from the US and we all had dinner. She started talking about this museum she had gone to in Latina, which is 43 kilometers from Rome. As Stephanie described it, the museum seemed like the most interesting and eclectic place and the UV and I decided we must go there IMMEDIATELY. That was like three years ago and we never did go. The subject came up from time to time but we could never quite remember what the place was called or where it was. Fortunately, Stephanie came back to town and was happy to go again.

First you need to know a little bit about Latina. Mussolini founded the city in 1932, calling it Littoria. That name comes from the fasces lictoriae, a bunch of wooden sticks and usually an ax (fasces means bundle in Latin) that symbolized a magistrate’s power in Ye Olde Roman Days. Mussolini, a great hearkener back to the days of Empire, liked the image so much that he named his political party after it. Other people liked it too and tons of things feature the image of the fasces, including the Great Seal of Harvard University and the seal of the US Tax Court. I will make no further comment than to say “Isn’t that interesting.”

Renamed Latina after the war, the city’s catchy motto is Latina, Olim Palus (Latina, once a swamp). That’s because Latina was located smack dab in the middle of the Pontine Marshes, swampland since Roman times (today the area is known as the Agro Pontina). Fascist ideology was all about the noble farmer and Mussolini orchestrated a huge land reclamation project (the bonifica integrale, 1922-1935) to free up more agricultural land and combat malaria, by the way, destroying a whole load of wetland ecosystems in the process. The marshes were drained, homesteads were built and land parceled out, mosquitoes were killed and health services were established. About 2000 (Fascist, mostly from the North) families received a farmhouse, some land, a plow, tools and a couple of cows.  That all sounds pretty good, but this being Mussolini, it was all done a bit brutally.

The project employed 124 000 men at its peak. Workers lived in overcrowded  camps surrounded by barbed wire. Wages were terrible, hours were long, the food was bad, sanitation was poor and there was no healthcare. Many of the workers were infected with the malaria they were trying to eliminate.

Welcome to Il Museo Piana delle Orme. That's me on the left trying to look as short as everyone else.

Welcome to Il Museo Piana delle Orme. That’s me on the left trying to look the same height as everyone else.

Which brings us (finally!) to Museo Piana delle Orme (Museum Plain of Footprints), which totally lived up to its rep of being nutso. First of all, the place is absolutely enormous (50 000 square meters). There is a lot of outdoor space but most of the park is occupied by 13 airplane hanger-sized pavilions devoted to different aspects of early to mid-20th Century Italian history. The museum was established in 1996 by Mariano De Pasquale (1938-2006), a grower and seller of roses. Apparently he somehow acquired the wreck of an old US Army jeep in the 1960s and caught the hoarding bug. He collected everything he could find about the lives of local farmers, the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes and the battles of World War II. Mariano may have had a bit of ADD. The museum grew out of his collection. (Can’t you just hear his wife? “Mariano, you have got to find somewhere to put this stuff! If I see one more tank parked in our backyard…”).

The pavilions are filled with life-sized dioramas. There are explanatory signs in Italian, English and German (the English is remarkably lucid for an Italian museum) as well as (fairly squawky, difficult to understand) audio displays. There are buttons to push in the war pavilions and explosions ensue.

Many photos follow (Lots of these were shot by the UV, duly credited, as hers were much better than mine).

An F-104 jet greets you on arrival.

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There was a pavilion devoted to toys and models (planes and boats, not the human variety).thumb_IMG_1125_1024

Two pavilions are devoted to the bonifica.

The high rate of malaria in the region was one of the reasons for draining the swamp (a task that by the way had challenged government leaders since Roman times). Malaria means 'bad air' in Italian.

The high rate of malaria in the region was one of the reasons for draining the swamp (a task that had challenged government leaders since Roman times). Malaria means ‘bad air’ in Italian. Credit UV.

The bonifica took place in three stages. First, workers drained the swamp; next, homesteads were constructed and land parceled out; the third stage, took measures against the mosquitos.

The bonifica took place in three stages. First, workers drained the swamp; next, homesteads were constructed and land parceled out; during the third stage, the government took measures against the mosquitoes. Credit UV.

Draining the swamp.

Draining the swamp.

There’s an entire pavilion filled with farm equipment. We scooted through that one — sorry, no photos. If you ever wondered whether it is possible to see too many tractors, I can assure you that a little goes a very long way.

The next pavilion is devoted to country life in the years after the bonifica.

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I guess it was common for farm ladies in the 1930s to walk around with turkeys on their heads. Who knew?

I guess it was common for farm ladies in the 1930s to walk around with turkeys on their heads. Who knew?

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Kickin' back at the local bar. Ah, country life.

Kickin’ back at the local bar. Ah, country life.

Then we moved on to the war years. Deportation and internment in concentration camps.
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Credit UV.

Credit UV.

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The names of all of the Italians sent to concentration camps are pasted on the wall.

The names of all of the Italians sent to concentration camps are pasted on the wall.

A pavilion full of tanks and the like followed (see above comment on tractors).

Two pavilions on Italy’s entry into the war, the Battle of El Alamein and the Allied landings at Messina and Salerno. thumb_IMG_1164_1024The Allied landing at Anzio rates a pavilion of its own as does the battle for Montecassino.thumb_IMG_1170_1024

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Apparently Mariano actually gathered actual rubble from the ruins of the abbey at Montecassino to use in this exhibit. Credit UV. 

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Finally, there is a pavilion devoted to the peacetime use of war paraphernalia, i.e. helmets attached to sticks can be used to dredge cesspools.

There were also some peacocks, ostriches and chickens hanging around (well, they were fenced in) between the various pavilions — I guess to keep the kiddies entertained.

Hello there!

Hello there!

In addition to the usual postcards and guidebook, the museum shop sells loads of uniforms and bayonets.

All your gas mask needs can be met right here!

All your gas mask and helmet (and cesspool deredging) needs can be met right here!

I didn’t go into the bar/restaurant because I was in charge of the dogs but by all accounts it was clean and served various hot dishes.

Remember this: Il Museo Piana delle Orme. A must see if you’re are in the ‘hood.

Dining out in Umbria

My birthday was a few weeks back and to celebrate my friend Susan kindly invited me and some other friends to her spectacular country house outside of Orvieto for the weekend. It’s seriously bellissima — and available for rent. I stayed there with my whole family several years back and have very fond memories, except for the part where my dog ran away but that’s another story. Susan had planned the weekend like a champ and we did many memorable things, most of which — surprise, surprise — centered on food.

Here are some highlights.

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Play with meeee!!

Baby goats! We went to the Fattoria Il Secondo Altopiano to taste some cheeses and play with the world’s most adorable baby goats (there were also sheep, donkeys, a handsome rooster and a Little Sebastian-style mini-horse but the goatlets were the cutest). We also tasted (and bought) some delicious and super fresh goat cheese and yoghurt made right on the premises. Whenever I am fortunate enough to O.D. on cheese, I always think of this (from the 1.30 mark).

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Yoghurt tasting at the Fattoria dell’Altoplano. There is no comparison between this and the store-bought stuff.

Dinner the first night was at Trattoria del Conte. Unpretentious local spot with unpretentious local food with a twist. Really great. The first thing we ate was fagottini al formaggio e pere al burro ed erbe cipolline – little pasta sacks stuffed with a creamy cheese and pears in a buttery sauce. They were exceptional — and that really should mean something coming from me because I’m no great pasta eater. The most impressive thing was how they managed to tie up the tiny sacks with a sprig of chive. I’d never have the patience — or the dexterity — to do that.thumb_IMG_0921_1024

Next, I had guanciale al’aceto and puntarelle in salsa di alici. Guanciale is hog jowl (la guancia is cheek in Italian) and is a major ingredient in such things as carbonara. In this instance it was cut in long slices, like bacon, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and draped over toasted bread. Very melt in your mouth stuff, the richness of the guanciale offset by the tang of the vinegar. thumb_IMG_0927_1024Puntarelle, a member of the chicory family, is named for the pointy-tipped stems hidden within spiky outer leaves. It’s super crunchy and fresh tasting and I love it but it usually comes swimming in a sea of anchovy vinaigrette. My salad was perfect: just enough dressing to give it a flavourful punch, not enough to weigh it down. thumb_IMG_0931_1024My dining companions were more reserved (but, hey, it was my birthday weekend) and ordered plates of greens for their next course. I know, good for you, but kinda boring, right? Jane, bless her, had a giant pork chop. Jane loves pork chops.thumb_IMG_0930_1024

The next night we went to La Locanda di Colle Ombroso. Open on the weekends, this tiny restored farmhouse has only about five tables. And a roaring fireplace. It was enchanting. All of the ingredients are either produced on the farm of the restaurant’s owners — a charming young couple, Igor and Eleonora — or sourced locally. thumb_IMG_0979_1024

First, they brought out an array of meats and cheeses. A particularly delicious thing was the carpaccio di lombetto (cured pork loin). And some boring little chickpea cake that I gave to the Upstairs Vegetarian in exchange for some porky bits. The bread (which I don’t have a photo of, sorry) was homemade using wheat from the farm. thumb_IMG_0981_1024

Lombetto with fresh goat cheese and chickpea whatnot for trading.

Lombetto with fresh goat cheese and chickpea whatnot for trading.

The next course was a cream of leek soup (the Italians call it vellutata or ‘velveted’) with a gorgonzola cream and a hearty chickpea one. Both super yum. thumb_IMG_0984_1024

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Next up was thinly sliced roast beef with two sauces (one béarnaisey, one more of a vinaigrette); roast pork with a creamy sauce involving mandarins and, for the U.V., a flan involving lentils with a curry sauce. thumb_IMG_0990_1024

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Dessert was a chocolate torte with sour cream. Yes, we did push the boat out that night. thumb_IMG_0993_1024

Dinner was lovely, but it is really the atmosphere that makes La Locanda di Colle Ombroso such a special place. thumb_IMG_0978_1024

The next day, we visited Cività di Bagnoregio, which if you haven’t been, hie you hence at the first opportunity. It’s beautiful and dramatic and also reminded me how incredibly unfit I am (much walking uphill is required to get there). thumb_IMG_1010_1024After visiting the wonderful painted egg museum, we moved on to Orvieto to check out the shop of Marino Moretti, a friend of Susan’s, who does the most extraordinary ceramics. Check this out (you might want to turn off the sound, which gets old fast).

Then it was lunchtime. I have to say that by this time I was fairly convinced that I need never eat again (of course, in between the meals I’ve described there was plenty more eating of cheese, and bread  and cake). However, I bravely gave it the old college try.  We went to Hosteria Posterula, which was suggested by Marino Moretti. A cosy family-owned joint. The food was excellent and not pricey. I had a delicious dish of prosciutto over melted mozzarella covered in black truffle shavings. thumb_IMG_1076_1024Another offering was gnocchi with truffles and cacio and a third was umbrichelli with egg yolk, truffles and anchovies. There was a bit of a truffle motif, true. But it was a great place for lunch and I will go again for sure. thumb_IMG_1077_1024thumb_IMG_1078_1024

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Bye Orvieto! We’ll be back!

Trattoria del Conte. Localita’ Buon Respiro, 18. Orvieto. Tel: 0763 217046

La Locanda do Colle Umbroso. S.P 55, km 4.8,  Porano. Tel: 340 2714727

Hostaria PosterulaCorso Cavour 312, Orvieto. Tel: 0763 341245

Ovo Pinto

Easter greetings, my peeps (get it?)!wpid-20120223__120226-peeps

One thing I love about Italy is the weird and wonderful museums. I’m not talking about the typical ones that everyone comes here to see like the Capitoline Museum, Villa Borghese, Palazzo Barberini, etc. etc. forever. No, I’m talking about museums that are a bit off the beaten track and decidedly lacking in Caravaggios. I’ve written about some of them in Rome, like my beloved Museo delle Cere (featuring what appear to be department store manikins and only one female figure — Sleeping Beauty — whose chest moves when she breathes); the Criminology Museum (known to its chums as MUCRI and highly recommended); and Il Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio (the Little Museum of Purgatory, also highly recommended). Today, fittingly as it’s Easter, we’re going to talk about Ovo Pinto — the Museum of the Painted Egg.

Before we go on, let me just point out that I am not saying that Italy is unique in having offbeat museums. I am sure they are everywhere (she said, harking back to Graceland — been twice, it’s awesome — and that big ball of twine in Kansas). It’s just that there is soooo much art here and the Italians are so serious about it. Kinda makes the offbeat feel a bit more unusual than it normally would.

We all associate painting eggs with Easter but apparently the pursuit has been around a lot longer than Christianity. Decorated ostrich eggs have been found in Africa dating back 60 000 years! The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, and Hindus believed that world hatched out of an enormous egg and saw the egg as a symbol of new life. Also death. Also kingship. It’s confusing. But some of them put decorated ostrich eggs in graves 5 000 years ago.

It appears that Christianity may have pinched yet another pagan custom. The early Christians of Mesopotamia  dyed chicken eggs red to symbolize the blood of Jesus. And so on down the centuries. That’s enough history for today!

Now, on to the Egg Museum. It’s basically two rooms in a tiny building in a tiny medieval town in Umbria, Civitella del Lago-Baschi. The whole thing started with an egg painting competition between schools, back in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later there were about a million painted eggs in someone’s basement (I’m guessing) so someone got the bright idea to put the best ones in a museum.

And it was a bright idea. Pinto Ovo is adorable and charming. The contest continues. In recent years it has been opened up to adults as well as the kiddies. and it’s international now — eggs come in from all over the world (that must be a bit nerve-wracking for the sender!). You can see entries from Bali and Brazil below. Any kind of egg can be used but it has to be real. No cheatin’ with plastic eggs. The contest takes place around Easter and each year has a different theme (for the adults, I think the kids can do what they want). This year it was the plays of Pirandello. I thought about entering but 1). I’m no artist and 2) I’d have to read the plays of Pirandello.

I took tons of photos, many of which follow. Some of these are pretty amazing.

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I love this one. It’s called ‘Free at last.”

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Ovo Pinto, Piazza Mazzini 9, Civitella del Lago – Braschi, Tel: 3408995074.

La Renardière

Whenever I am in the Circo Massimo area, which I often am because of work and also because my bank is there, I try to make it around lunchtime so I can keep up to date with the globalization of the Viale Aventino restaurant scene. I have written about this before. In a few short years, this major artery — overlooked by the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations — has gone from hosting a decent Asian, a fly-by-night Mexican and a handful of so-so (and one very good) Italian places to being festooned with restaurants featuring cuisine from Japan, Greece, Mexico, China/Singapore, the US of A and France as well as a couple of high end sandwich places. I’ve been working my way through the newer additions over the past year and the other day it was the turn of France.thumb_IMG_0903_1024

I love French food. Probably because I love cheese and French cheese is the best, whether in its natural state or melted over something else. My chief rule for being a popular and in demand cook: fry it, melt cheese on it or dip it in chocolate and it’ll be a winner, no matter what it is. The Italians have a mad ordinance about not mixing cheese and fish in the same dish. Believe you me, I would not have made it through grad school without the help of the humble tuna melt and I’ll warrant the French would thumb their nose at the no cheese and fish rule themselves, e.g. to partake in mussels in a blue cheese broth spiked with white wine and garlic. Oh yum.

La Renardière (the fox’s den) is a friendly little bistro with about ten tables that features traditional French dishes (the owner is from the Champagne region). Here are some of the things on the menu: Quiche Loraine, escargot, oysters, raclette (melted cheese, yay!), onion soup with melted cheese (yay!), steak frites, steak tartare, coq au vin, plates of cheese and pates and various crepes and omelettes. The dessert menu includes the usual suspects: chocolate mousse, tarte tatin (spellcheck turned that into taste satin!), floating island and coffee with four mini desserts.thumb_IMG_0902_1024

I myself had the beef fondue (there was fish fondue as well, which sounds interesting). This was purely a nostalgic choice. In college, my roommates and I used to make beef fondue a lot. When one of us liked a boy we’d invite him and his roommates over for dinner so we could all check him out. The fondue was an easy but visually impressive dinner option. Wait, am I remembering this correctly? Is it possible that we had a fondue pot in college? Anyway, at La Renardière they bring a little fondue pot to your table filled with boiling peanut oil. Then your plate arrives: a pile of filet bits and five different sauces, each with a heavy cream or homemade mayonnaise base (gotta love the Frenchies for consistently throwing ze caution to ze wind on the cholesterol and waistline fronts). After you’ve cooked the meat in the boiling oil, you dip it in the sauce. Sacré bleu! Tasty and good fun! thumb_IMG_0900_1024

thumb_IMG_0898_1024Unfortunately I was on my own so I wasn’t able to try more than one main course (I draw the line at eating off the plates of total strangers). But I’ll be back. I’m excited about the coq au vin, the escargots and all that melted cheese. Not to mention the taste satin. Extra points for the real French dressing and pomegranate seeds in the tossed salad and the piping hot baguette.

La Renardière. Viale Aventino 31. Tel: 06 8778 5445. http://www.larenardiere.it

 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day/Italian Heroes

In 2005, the UN General Assembly designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Brief aside: when I was doing the research for this story, I was struck by how many Holocaust remembrance days there actually are. Some of them relate to national history, e.g. Poland’s falls on the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, France’s falls on the anniversary of the round-up of more than 13 000 Jews in Paris in 1942. In the US, it actually lasts over 8 days, starting on the Sunday before the Jewish observation day, known as Yom HaShoah. This is usually in April or May. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — located on the National Mall in Washington, DC (Go.) — organizes events and sends out informational materials to schools and such.

The International Day, which seems to be observed by most European countries, including Italy,  falls on the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland by the Russian army. To remind you, around 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 960 000 Jews. Other victims included approximately 74 000 Poles, 21 000 Roma, 15 000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10 000 people of other nationalities. The Russian army found about 7 000 starving people in the camp, those who were to weak to walk; as Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, the SS evacuated the camp, forcing about 60 000 prisoners to march 30 miles to board trains for other camps. But first they destroyed four crematoria, burned written records and demolished many buildings. About 15 000 people died on the death marches.

The UN urges member states to honor Nazi victims during the remembrance days and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.  To do my part (and only 6 days late), I thought I’d tell you about three brave Italians who risked their lives to save the lives of their neighbors.

Padre Niccacci

Padre Niccacci

The first is Padre Rufino Niccacci (1911-1977). Niccacci was a Father Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of San Damiano in Assisi. The Internet does not reveal what exactly a Father Guardian is, but it must be pretty important because after the Germans invaded Rome in September 1943, the Padre protected 300 Jews taking refuge in Assisi, hiding them in 26 convents and monasteries that were under his direction. He dressed many of them as monks and nuns and taught them Catholic rituals. Others lived in parishioners’ homes and, with fake identity cards, found jobs and blended into the community. The town’s printing press, which during the day printed posters and greeting cards, printed false documents at night that were sent by courier to Jews all over Italy. Not a single refugee was captured in Assisi. No one involved in the rescue operation ever betrayed it. After the war, Niccacci established a small settlement for destitute Christian and Jewish families in Montenero, outside of Assisi, and served as a parish priest in his home town of Deruta. In April 1974, Yad Vashem — Israel’s official memorial for the victims of the Holocaust — named him as one of the Righteous among the Nations. The Righteous are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca was a former fascist who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But he went very sour on Mussolini. He hated Italy’s cosy relationship with Nazi Germany and the Italian race laws of 1936. Many of his friends were Jewish. During WW2, Perlasca avoided military service by working as a livestock agent supplying meat to the Italian armed services. In 1940, he was sent to Zagreb and Belgrade and travelled widely in Eastern Europe. Here, he observed the massacres of Jews, Serbs and other minorities. He was sent to Budapest where — tall and handsome — he enjoyed a busy social life until the fall of the city to Hungarian Nazis in July 1943, when he was interned as an enemy alien (because Italy was at this point on the side of the Allies). Escaping, he went to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest where he assumed he would be given asylum, having fought for Franco. He was correct: within a day, he was given a Spanish passport with a new Spanish name — Jorge.

Perlasca learned that the Spanish Consul was issuing ‘letters of protection’ to Hungarian Jews to keep them from being deported to Auschwitz. The Consulate also employed Jews as clerks, and housed them in eight apartment blocks under its control. Perlasca volunteered to help. In November 1944, with the Russians approaching Budapest, the last remaining Spanish diplomat fled the capital. But the diplomat forgot to take the embassy seal with him and Perlasca got busy stamping documents that proved that the embassy was still open and that he was the charge d’affaires. He used the seal to issue thousands of letters of protection to Hungarian Jews and organized food, medical aid and protection for the Jews in the Consulate’s apartments, which had extraterrorial conventions that gave them sovereignty. An intelligence network tipped him off so that he could fend off Nazi searches. More than once he used his false identity to throw Nazi gangs out of the houses, when they threatened to murder or deport the Jewish residents. Perlasca saved at least 5 500 Jews from the gas chambers, constantly risking his life to do so. After the war, he returned to Italy. He did not talk about his actions in Hungary to anyone, including his family. In 1987, a group of Hungarian Jews related to people he had saved finally found him, after searching for years. In 1988, Yad Vashem recognized Giorgio Perlasca as Righteous Among the Nations.

Last but not least is the story of Andrea Albisetti, the station master in Tradate (a town between Varese and Milan). One of Albisetti’s tasks was to receive the mail that came in from Rome and Milan each day. During the war, this included arrest orders for dissidents and Jews. Albisetti routinely held the envelopes containing the arrest orders against a lightbulb so that he could read the names on them. He warned the potential arrestees before the envelopes were opened by the authorities, giving them time to escape. Albisetti’s story seemed doomed to disappear in the mists of time; like Perlasca, he never talked about what he had done and although there were stories out there about the station master, no one could remember his name. It was only recently that Federico Colombo, a young educator and the president of the Tradatese Historical Society, uncovered the truth while doing research for a Holocaust commemoration ceremony. Colombo had been told the story of the station master by an old man he interviewed for a high school project. He stumbled upon similar stories twenty years later while doing his research. He put  two and two together and — finally — revealed Albisetti’s role in saving the dissidents and Jews of Tradate.

I am obsessed with my slow cooker

A slow cooker — also known as a crock pot (a trademarked name often used generically, like kleenex or xerox) — is an electric cooking pot that sits on the counter and cooks slowly. Duh. Originally developed by the Naxon Utilities Corporation of Chicago, with the delightful name Naxon Beanery All-Purpose Cooker, the pot got very popular in the 1970s, when many more women began to work outside the home (it was sadly renamed the crock pot at this point).  The pot cooks at a very low heat over a long period of time and it was popular with the career gals who could just chuck some raw meat and veg in there with a bit of liquid and come home 8 hours later to find — voila! — a lovely stew. This is how it works: a heating element heats the contents of a ceramic pot to  79–93 °C (174–199 °F). The vapor produced at this temperature condenses  on the bottom of the lid and returns to the pot as liquid. The liquid transfers heat from the pot walls to its contents and distributes the flavours.

I don’t recall why or when I became interested in the slow cooker. Maybe I happened upon a recipe that intrigued me. Maybe it’s because my Italian gas stove is hopelessly unregulatable and it’s impossible to cook things slowly — the temperature is either ‘inferno’ or ‘off.’ I didn’t grow up around a crock pot so that’s not it. And by the time I started wanting one I was already working at home where the need for a kitchen appliance that would miraculously make dinner with very little input from me was far less pressing than when I was commuting 50 kilometres to and from work every day. So that’s not it either. Whatever the reason, a couple of years ago I got interested enough to idly cast my eye about in search of a crock pot each time I visited an electronics store. Guess what? You can’t get a crock pot here. Which seems nuts because it would seem to perfectly marry the Italian love of hearty soups and stews that are simmered all day with the economic reality that is forcing more and more women to work outside the home. But no. No crock pots in Rome.

Having run out of electronics stores and my idle interest having been stoked to a by the seeming impossibility of attaining its object in situ, I turned to Amazon UK. Within three days I had the cooker in my hot little hands. It wasn’t long before I was obsessed.

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Tonight’s dinner: ‘Roast’ chicken with caramelized onion gravy.


Here’s what I have made so far:

Oatmeal and amaranth porridge with fruits, nuts and almond milk: The name of this dish basically gives you the recipe. Put all of that stuff in the crock pot (minus the almond milk, which you add in the last hour) and go practice tap dancing alongside You Tube videos for 3-4 hours.  I’ve always hated oatmeal even though I know it’s supposed to be good for me. This version is a bit gloopy — I probably cooked it too long — but very tasty mixed with lemon yoghurt.

Chicken adobo with smashed sweet potatoes — Bung 2 pounds of chicken pieces into the crock pot along with a load of sliced onions, minced garlic and a couple of bay leaves. Add a cup of coconut milk and two tablespoons each of rice vinegar and soy sauce. Watch three movies on Netflix and enjoy the national dish of the Philippines.

Sauercraut and pork shoulder roast: Salt and pepper the roast and spread it with a mustard-mayo blend. Place the roast on a bed of (drained) sauercraut and go read a book and nap for 10 hours. Fantastic.

‘Roast’ chicken: Throw a few garlic cloves and a half a lemon in the cavity; squirt some lemon on the chicken and salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup water or stock to the pot. Go lie on the couch and eat bon bons for six hours. I am making this as we speak. Okay, you do miss the crunchy crackly skin you get with a real roast chicken but, on the positive side, it won’t dry out like roast chicken often does. Bonus: this chicken makes its own gravy.

Caramelized onions: Slice up four onions and throw ’em in with a stick of butter. Go to bed and sleep le sommeil des justes. Twelve hours later, wake up to an amazing smelling house and a pot of lovely, sweet onions which, although they may not pass muster with the strict letter of the law element of the foodie brigade, do NOT involve the 90 minutes of stirring, heat adjusting and peeling even more onions because you’ve burned the first batch required to caramelize onions the regular way.

Bacon jam: This one involves a bit more work because it involves browning the bacon and sautéing onions and garlic before throwing them in the crock pot with cider vinegar, maple syrup, brown sugar and black coffee and going off to watch Gordon Ramsay videos for five hours. Then you have to whiz it up in the blender. The finished product is a bit weird, but not unpleasant. C’mon, it’s bacon! It reminds me of this classic Friends ep. I think bacon jam would be great on crackers with crunchy peanut butter or maybe on a burger with cheddar cheese.

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This is what bacon jam looks like when it’s cooking.

The Upstairs Vegetarian is unimpressed with the decidedly meaty nature of my experimentation. I have promised to test out some veggie thing or other at some point — apparently you can even make bread in this thing.

That bacon jam sounds good to me!

That bacon jam sounds good to me!

 

Ghost towns

Living in Italy as I do, when I think about a ghost town, my mind immediately goes to Pompeii. That must be a place with ghosts aplenty: in August (or possibly November) AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the thriving city of Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum), killing its inhabitants and burying everything under tons of ash. It is estimated that anywhere between 10 000 and 25 000 residents ( or it could have been only 2 000; there’s a lot of controversy on such details) of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were killed on the spot. The towns were completely lost to the mists of time until Pompeii was unearthed by mistake in 1599 by workmen digging an underground channel to divert the river Sarno. As the story goes, the sexual nature of the paintings and frescoes observed among the ruins led Domenico Fontana, the architect called in to assess the site, to cover them up and go away. Whatever.

At any rate, proper excavations of the two towns only started about 150 years later. During digs in the mid-19th Century, archeologists hit on the idea of injecting plaster into the spaces in the ash layers left by the decomposing bodies, which allowed the recreation of the volcano’s victims. The plaster casts are truly eerie; they include families caught trying to outrun the ash and the mudslides or who are resigned to their own deaths, with their heads in their hands. Some seem to be still protecting their babies.

I feel particularly bad for the dog. Does that make me a terrible person?

I feel particularly bad for the dog. Does that make me a terrible person?

So yeah, there be ghosts there. Earlier this year, a team of experts at the Pompeii site started to conduct CAT scans on 86 of the plaster casts to try to discover more about the victim’s lives. You can read what the Upstairs Vegetarian has to say about it here.

Then there is Ostia Antica. During its heyday in ancient Roman times of yore, this was a densely populated port city, with a bustling market and forum, restaurants and bars and high-rise apartment buildings. At its height, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the population of Ostia reached a peak of about 100 000. The town was abandoned in the 9th century due to multiple invasions and sackings. Abandoned in the sense that people no longer lived there. But, as always, the carpetbaggers were very much in evidence: for centuries, the Ostia Antican buildings were stripped, their marble facades used in Roman palazzi and various cathedrals around Italy. After that, foreign visitors came searching for statues and inscriptions to grace their private collections. And then Mussolini got into the act and it was a whole thing, yada yada. I’ve gotten sidetracked. What I wanted to say is that Ostia Antica is a ghost town too, although less spooky than Pompeii, having been gently abandoned over a period of centuries (the sackings notwithstanding) as opposed to being destroyed virtually overnight by a volcano.

Visiting Ostia Antica

Visiting Ostia Antica

Which brings us to Bodie, California, a state historic park that I visited on my trip to the US last September. Bodie is 75 miles SE of Tahoe and is actually billed as a ghost town, which to my disappointment only means that it has been abandoned but contains substantial visible remains. There don’t have to be ghosts in a ghost town (although there may actually be ghosts in Bodie but more on that later).

So here’s the story. In 1859, four prospectors found a rich vein of gold in the eastern Sierras. They agreed to keep the discovery secret until the following spring, but W.S. Bodey returned ahead of time with “Black” Taylor (so called because he was half-Cherokee). Bodey froze to death in a blizzard when he was returning with supplies in November. No word on what happened to Taylor but I hope he got some gold out of that mess.

The gold rush in Bodie (named after W.S. but supposedly misspelled on the signpost) started slowly due to other big strikes in e.g. Aurora, Nevada (where Mark Twain was trying his luck). In 1876, a freak cave-in exposed a valuable body of gold and the Standard Consolidated Mining Company rushed in with equipment and lumber. Another rich strike followed in 1878 in the Bodie Mine, which, in just six weeks, shipped gold bullion worth a million dollars. Over the next 25 years, almost 10 000 tons of rich ore was extracted from the mine, yielding close to $15 million.

The schoolhouse

The schoolhouse

A rich man's house

A rich man’s home

Bodie, CA.

What’s left of Bodie, CA.

The church

The church

The boom she was on. Bodie grew rapidly, complete with boarding houses, restaurants and more than 60 saloons, brothels and dance halls (pretty impressive for a town of 8 200). Bodie had a bank, four volunteer fire companies (not nearly enough, as we shall see), a brass band (!), railroad, miners’ and mechanics’ unions, several daily newspapers and a jail. There was a Chinatown too, built to house contract labourers from Southern China. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, and stagecoach holdups were the norm and contributed to the legend of ‘the Bad Man of Bodie.’ I can’t find out anything about this legend except that it existed and that some little girl, on being told she was moving to Bodie, reportedly prayed: “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie.” The Reverend F.M. Warrington described the town in 1881 as “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.” These quotes and anecdotes show up again and again in tales of Brodie, BTW, and seem to have originated with one Grant H. Smith, who wrote an article for the California Historical Society Quarterly in 1925.

The view across to some mines

The view across to the mines

Also? There was Madame Mustache. Bodie’s most celebrated personality, Madame Mustache started out as Eleanor Dumont, a pretty 20-year old Frenchwoman who established large gambling parlours in the mining camps. Extremely popular, Eleanor did quite well until she married a worthless miner who squandered her earnings and left her in the lurch. She moved around from city to city, gambling and building up her money again, including by managing a brothel. According to her obituary in the Esmeralda Herald, “Of late, what was years ago only an infantile fuzz on her upper lip, had developed into a growth of unusual proportions for a woman; hence her sobriquet—Madame Mustache.” One night while gambling in Bodie, she misjudged a play and found herself owing a lot of money. Later, she wandered outside of town and was found dead on September 8, 1879 of an overdose of morphine.

The boom wasn’t all lust and passion of course. There were savage winters, disease and mining accidents that claimed victims by falling timber, the explosion of a powder magazine, and other means. By 1881, Bodie had already begun its slow decline. The mines were depleted and mining companies went bankrupt as the miners and business owners went off in search of better opportunities. A disastrous fire struck in 1892 and destroyed a number of homes and businesses. Bodie had a brief uptick in the early 20th century when the use of cyanide to extract gold from mine refuse and electricity as a cheap source of mining power brought short-lived profits to the town. In 1932, another devastating fire, caused by a 2 ½ year old boy playing with matches, destroyed 95% of Bodie’s buildings and that was pretty much it. At that point, only six people were left in the town, five of whom would meet ignominious ends. One of the men shot his wife and, after she died, three men killed him. One can only imagine what that was all about. According to legend, the ghost of the murdered man visited the three men, shaking his fist. Soon, all three died of strange diseases. No word on what happened to the sixth person, who must have been mighty freaked out.

Bodie today

Bodie today

The last producing mine — the Lucky Boy — shut down after World War II. People left and, because there were no moving companies in the area, they only took what they could carry. The result is that many buildings are still full of the belongings that were left behind.

The things they left behind

The things they left behind

Today, Bodie is preserved in a state of what historic park people call arrested decay. Only a small part of the town survives. Interiors remain as they were left, stocked with goods. I mentioned ghosts. According to legend, the ghosts of Bodie patrol the town to guard against thieves: anyone who takes anything from Bodie is cursed. You can read letters from repentant thieves in the little museum. One thief who took a nail from Bodie wrote,  “Life since then has been a steady downward slide. It’s possible that all the unpleasant events of the past nine months are a coincidence, but just in case the Bodie curse is real I am returning the nail.”

By the way, I learned a new word while researching this story: ‘friggatriskaidekaphobiologist,’ which is a person who studies the fear of Friday the 13th. Thought you’d want to know.