Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter 2011

Despite the clouds outside, it was a pretty nice day. I woke up bright and early (translation for non-students: around 10am) and leisurely got ready to head to the train station, where I would pick up the noon train to Imola. It's a quaint little town about 30 minutes outside of Bologna where the family of my roommate  (Maria) lives. I didn't eat much of anything for breakfast, as I knew that a feast was waiting for me at her parents' house. There's nothing in the world like homemade Italian food, and I wasn't about to ruin it for anything. So, I got ready, grabbed a book and Ipod for the train ride, plus a bottle of locally-produced cabernet as my contribution to the feast, and I was out the door.

The streets were pretty desolate as I walked to the train station. Italians never miss a chance for a holiday, but I'm willing to bet there were a lot more people outside the city in the hills than inside the city in the churches. It's not like I made it to church that morning either - no, I was on my way to pray at the altar of the dinner table, and my sacrifice would be the glorious discomfort of a belly too full of food. The train ride was pretty quick and uneventful, and soon I was in front of the station waiting for Maria to pick me up in her little Renault Twingo. 

The drive to her family's house is really beautiful. Imola is a small place, and about 10 minutes away from the station we were already in the countryside. The itty-bitty 4-cylinder of the Twingo brought us up through the hills outside of town, which were marvelously decorated in flowers and the greenness of spring. It was much more striking than when we came by the same route at Christmas time, when everything was still dull and gray from the harsh winter. Now, undulating hills of bright green were dotted with little farmhouses and lined with rows of grape vineyards, tall, skinny cypresses, and seemingly endless orchards of olive, peach, and apricot trees.  On the other side of the valley, the Appenine mountains rose and continued off into the horizon. It was truly a picture-postcard view of Italy. The only thing more spectacular than the scenery was the news that Maria was about to give me. "Guess what? My mom made lasagna for today!" There could be no better way to start a holiday. Lasagna original comes from the Bologna region in Italy, so it's definitely something that is made with the utmost pride and care in these parts. Maria continued, "She made it with green pasta, ragu, and bechamel" - all typical ingredients of the region. I couldn't wait. She went on to tell me about the plethora of desserts that were also waiting for us at her home, but let's get serious: there's only one star of this show today, and its name is lasagna.

We arrived at the family abode just as Maria's cousin Giulia and their grandmother were also arriving. It's a home out in the hills, and pretty big - especially when compared to the apartment homes in the city. I didn't get to see much of the outside when I was there for Christmas, but now I was able to enjoy the spacious yard and garden in full bloom of springtime. It was a really refreshing change from the drab grayness of the city, where you're hardpressed to find more than a few square yards of greenery anywhere other than the public parks. As us youngins and the grandmother (bearing a cake, of course) sauntered up towards the house, the two chubby family labradors waddled out to greet us. Maria's mom and dad were right behind them and welcomed me once again like I was a part of the family. The materfamilias returned to the kitchen to occupy herself with the oven, which was emanating an indescribable smell of cheesy-meaty-creamy awesomeness. There was also the smell of fried deliciousness wafting from several pans on the stovetop, which housed some golden orbs of pure joy that turned out to be fried potato croquettes filled with cheese. YES. 

I followed Maria, cousin and father outside and watched as they prepped some fresh fruits for dessert. Pretty soon, some more relatives showed up - uncles, an aunt, and a few other cousins around our age. The other youngins joined us, and immediately got to talking about politics - always a favorite subject among Italians. They asked me if I could arrange an exchange of Berlusconi for Obama, you know, just for a year. I told them I'd see what I could do. Suddenly there was the announcement that the potato croquettes were done, and in a flash we were all inside stuffing them into our mouths, despite their still-searing temperatures from being in the frying oil about 30 seconds before. They were simple and delicious - basically just some mashed potatoes shaped into a ball around a block of cheese, fried up until golden and delicious, and the cheese inside was nice and melty. With greasy fingers, we changed spots to the dining room, where we greedily ripped off bits of homemade bread that were sitting on the table, awaiting the main meal.

The dogs were going crazy from the smell of cooking that wafted through the house, and so were we. We didn’t have to wait long though, and the announcement that the lasagna was ready was greeted with applause. A short toast with some fizzy white wine, and we all dug into huge wedges of green, white and red lasagna. It was a divine experience that I will not sully by attempting to describe with mortal words. Just know that everything awesome you have ever eaten in your life would probably be considered puppy chow next to this. I ate it slowly, partly to savor every bite, and partly because it was blisteringly hot and fresh from the oven. I think the slice I had was about the size of my face, and I practically licked the plate clean. Seconds were proffered, but in an unprecedented exhibition of self-control, I declined so that I would have room for the rest of the meal. Next up came cuts of roast lamb, wrapped in deliciously salty prosciutto (thin sliced ham) and lightly flavored with aromatic rosemary. I was glad I had saved room. Accompanying this, we had some asparagus in a kind of hollandaise sauce, thin-sliced hardboiled eggs, and a little spinach quiche/tort kind of thing. It was all great.

A little coffee break (tiny cups of espresso, of course – this is Italy!), and then we moved directly on to dessert. One of the uncles made his famous vanilla flan-custard thing. I don’t know what they called it, but it was really good. There was also a pair of ‘Bavarese’, Bavarian crème desserts. I don’t know what to compare it to – it’s kind of like a jello mold, but in another league entirely. One was made with strawberries and another with pineapples and apples. The grandmother made a big cake too, but by the end of the third dessert everyone was so stuffed that it was decided to save it for later. A great fizzy dessert wine called Brachetto was passed around, and we indulged in an Italian Easter tradition: instead of lots of little chocolates or plastic eggs filled with candy/money/toys, they exchange one big, GIANT, hollow chocolate egg that has a little toy surprise in the middle. There were a few on the table, and we cracked them open and passed around hunks of chocolate to enjoy.

After that, we all went for a nice long walk. The house is completely surrounded by farmland and hills, and I couldn’t imagine a more picturesque place for a post-food-coma jaunt. All of us, old and young, with chubby, waddling dogs in tow, walked along the cypress-lined country roads next to peach orchards and dramatic, steep hillsides showing weathered clay facades.  It was a good day.

Here are some pictures from the walk, taken by my wonderful roommate Maria!

What you see: Italian guys and a chubby dog. What you don't see: The 150 foot sheer drop down a clay canyon about 10 feet to the right of the picture

Maria didn't like my 'normal' face in any of the pictures, so I had to pose

Two of Maria's funny cousins, goofing around

Maria and more goofy cousins (and another chubby dog)

Back at the house, we passed around some limoncello that was made by one of their neighbors, and had some more of the giant chocolate egg pieces.  Everyone chatted for a bit, and of course they were all curious to know how things are back home in good ol’ Arizona. I told them they could all come and see me, but it was better to come at Christmas than in the summer – they were astounded to hear how hot it gets in the summer, but were quite enticed when I told them that Christmas was usually a warmer day back in Phoenix than that Easter Sunday in Imola. As a last little morsel of food, we had a nice refreshing bowl of strawberries, lightly sugared, drizzled with lemon juice and with a few mint leaves sprinkled on top. It was amazingly fresh, and dare I say it, probably healthy. After that, the others started packing up to go. We never got to the grandmother’s cake, but she made sure I went home with a nice big slice – and I’m glad she did! I had a little bite later on at home in the evening, and it was amazing: a yellow cake, double-layered, with a sugar glaze and a vein of apricots-and-cream filling the center. Wow.

Maria stayed at her parents’ place, but her cousin Giulia gave me a ride home to Bologna along with the grandmother. It was a beautiful drive through the countryside, and we had a nice chat in the car which, like usual when you are abroad, ended up mostly being about how things are different from where you come from. When we got nearer to the suburb of Bologna where the grandmother is from (San Lazzaro di Savenna), she started telling me about the village and how she was the 5th generation of her family in that area. I thought it was pretty incredible, and couldn’t think of many instances from people I knew back home that would be a 5th generation of anything. With pride she pointed out the oldest building in the village as we passed by (a smallish villa from the middle ages); I also wondered if I could do the same back home. The town, just on the outskirts of Bologna, grew during the middle ages as a place where sick people were sent to be quarantined – hence the name, as San Lazzaro (Saint Lazarus) was the patron saint of lepers. I should also mention that the whole distance we travelled from Imola to Bologna was along the Via Emilia, probably one of the oldest roads in existence – completed in 187BC by the Romans to connect the northern cities of the peninsula to Rome. But back then they probably didn’t pass any McDonalds or Toyota dealers, like we did.

Back at home, I took the opportunity of a quiet evening to relax and study a bit. One of the reasons this blog has been lacking in updates in the last several months is that school has been really kicking my butt – who’da thunk, a business masters course that’s actually intensive! Hopefully now things will quiet down a little bit, as I only have a one-week course and test remaining, and then I have to concentrate on completing my thesis – and finding a job! It’s hard to believe that in a few months this Italian adventure might come to an end. I’m sure there will be some more adventures soon though, and I have lots of stories from between the last update and Easter to share! I just have to get around to it, now that I’m not spending 8 hours a day at the university, doing an internship, and trying to scrounge up money with side work where and when I can. Look forward to some more frequent updates soon, gentle readers!
  • rss
  • Digg
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Share this on Technorati
  • Post this to Myspace
  • Share this on Blinklist
  • Submit this to DesignFloat

1 comment:

  1. I knew you'd have a wonderful meal and day. Wish I could have joined you! Lasagna. Yum.