I am wrestling with the burning question, "Why Does Life in Italy Seem So Much Better?"
Is it because Italians value the little things, take pleasure in the slow and the delicious, live simply and large at the same time?
Maybe. I’m only on day 5 so I am just scratching the surface. I am hunkered down in the hills of Umbria for a month, tucked into a little farmhouse within a cluster of a few homes and barns which are part of a former tiny, ancient, Etruscan village near the Tuscan border.
Life in this area is slow-paced, far away from city air or noises and charmingly beautiful. A bread truck lumbers up the road once a week to deliver Tuscan loaves of any size, and farmers and neighbors who take the shortcut to the next village over putter up and down the hill at random during the day. The neighbor nonna walks slowly out to her garden daily to pick a head of lettuce for dinner and rinses it under the cistern faucet before returning to her kitchen.
From here I can see green hills where at least 10 different things or creatures are being grown or raised: olives, grapes, wheat, farro, lentils, canola, chestnuts, sheep, honey, and chickens. That’s about it for excitement, which is pretty exciting. It means not only do you get chestnuts but you get chestnut honey, not only do you get sheep but you get pecorino cheese, olive oil, etc. You get the picture, and it is pretty abundant.
So, I am enjoying being where I am and living in the question. In the meantime, I am keeping busy looking after the farmhouse and gardens, as well as writing, walking, painting, learning Italian and of course, cooking and eating. Healthy eating is simple when so many delicious vegetables are grown nearby, many raised from heirloom seeds which favor flavor over traveling ability, and sourced from the garden or the village vegetable store.
A quick chopped salad below is what I made to eat after the thunderstorm last night, along with a starter of pan-fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with homemade yogurt cheese and herbs. This is a nice main dish salad consisting of a little raw zucchini, which is sweet and crunchy when it is young and fresh, contrasted with a little bitter radicchio - a member of the chicory family and a beautiful purple-red - plus some sweet cherry tomatoes and chopped romaine. To truly taste the vegetables, you barely need any dressing - just some good sea salt and a little drizzle of excellent quality olive oil. And maybe a nice glass of Chianti for the full effect.
Zucchini and Radicchio Chop Salad for One
5 large cherry tomatoes or 8 small cherry tomatoes
1 small clove garlic, minced
large pinch sea salt (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 baby zucchini (no longer than 5 inches)
1 baby head radicchio (about 1 cup chopped)
2 inner leaves of romaine (1 cup chopped)
1-2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced herbs - I used lemon thyme, parsley and chives
Quarter the tomatoes and place in a small ceramic bowl that can hold 2 1/2 cups of chopped vegetables. Toss them with the minced garlic and sea salt and let that macerate while you chop the rest of the vegetables into small, bite-sized pieces. You’ll end up with a salad that looks like you can eat it with a spoon - and you can, if you like. As you chop each vegetable toss it in the bowl on top of the tomatoes but don’t stir until you’ve got it all done. Once everything is in the bowl and it has been about 5 minutes, give everything a stir. Taste it for salt - it should be nicely seasoned - and then drizzle with a little bit of excellent olive oil, about a teaspoon or so. If you have some herbs growing on a pot outside your door or on your balcony (hint: this is a really good idea, whether you’re in Italy or not) then pick a couple sprigs at random and tear them into the salad. Serve immediately, with or without the Chianti.
Heirloom zucchini, cherry tomatoes, fresh rosemary and radicchio. Photos © Anna Dvorak