Saturday, February 26, 2011


(Read here for details on how to win!)

Altamura is an interesting little city located 45 kilometers inland in the province of Bari. It has various claims to fame. 

These include Altamura Man, the perfectly preserved 400,000 year old skeleton of a pre-Neanderthalian hominid discovered in a limestone cave near the town. 

No less important, however, is its renowned bread (click here for the recipe). According to the Latin poet Horace, "...for water is sold here, though the worst in the world; but their bread is exceeding fine, inasmuch that the weary traveler is used to carry it willingly on his shoulders." You may not often be obliged to carry your bread on your shoulders, but in Altamura the bread is made in round forms of various sizes, small, medium, large and extra-large . . . like as large as the wheel of a car!

Let's take a walk through the historic center of town . . .

The gateway into the walled old town

A loggia tucked away in the courtyard of 15th century Palazzo Viti

The entry to the Cathedral, built in 1232, another of the city's bragging points.

What the lion and I saw across the piazza from the Cathedral

Detail of the Puglian-Romanesque style cathedral's intricately carved portal

The cathedral's golden interior

Angels are watching over you!

Detail of the cathedral flooring - kind of Escher-like!

Caffè Ronchi
Don't forget to stop in at Caffè Ronchi, located right next to the cathedral, not only for an espresso, but to try their famous Padre Peppe walnut liqueur. It's made by distilling walnuts in pure alcohol for 3 years, then filtering them and leaving them to age for another 2 years. It's worth the wait, though, quite delicious!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Top 5 Puglian Recipes

Italian cuisine is famous around the world for simple, fresh ingredients and lovingly prepared home-cooked meals. But did you know that what you consider "Italian" food might only be one version, eaten in only one particular area of the country? Regional variety is what makes the Italian take on the Mediterranean diet even more exciting. While you can get pizza from the tip to the toe of the peninsula, the local definition of "pizza" may vary from place to place.

Wondering what we eat down here in the heel of the boot? In an article for Charming Italy I choose the 5 recipes I think most clearly identify Puglian cooking and give you the recipes!

Orecchiette con le cime di rape (Orecchiette Pasta with Rabe Broccoli)

  • Patate, riso e cozze (Potatoes, Rice and Mussels)

  • Braciole (Meat Rolls in Tomato Sauce)

  • Fave e cicorie (Fava Bean Puree and Chicory Greens)

  • Bari Focaccia (Pizza Bread)
  • Follow this link to discover all  the recipes in my article! 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Italian Music Festival

Every year around this time, all the TV sets in Italy are tuned to the same channel watching the Sanremo Italian Music Festival. It's an annual competition to choose the best of current Italian pop music. Both new and established artists can enter, but they must present a brand new song that has not been performed anywhere previously.

I'm not a big fan of the festival personally, although expressing this minority opinion publicly usually gets me a lot of grief from my Italian friends. How could I not love the Festival? I guess just because I'm not a big fan of shows where famous people make fatuous fusses over other celebrities. I hate the fake smiles, the forced hilarity of these programs. And this festival goes on and on for always seems to me like it's never going to end! Just change the channel, you say? I can't because my family is hooked and they want me to watch with them and comment on all the songs and annual form of torture for me!

So, after that negative build up, do you want to know who won?

First prize went to Roberto Vecchioni, a 68 year old Renaissance man. He is not only a singer-songwriter, but also a university professor of music and poetry. He is the author of several books ranging from poetry, fables, to tales of the lives of historical figures. And he is a photographer... I like his song because it speaks of the difficult times we are living in and calls for a return to love, poetry and the more positive aspects of life.

Second prize went to a young singer who is new on the Italian music scene, Emma Marrone, accompanied by the group Modà. Emma has a more upbeat, rock and roll style which blended nicely with the pop rock sound of Modà. Their song is about the hope for a better future after a love story gone wrong.

Third place was awarded to Albano Carrisi, another 68 year old singer, born in Puglia...yeah! He sings in a classic Italian melodic style, with a big and powerful voice. His song tells the story of the short, tragic life of a young prostitute.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mighty Aphrodite

I've got far too much time on my hands these days, as it seems I've got pneumonia and haven't even got the energy to get up out of bed much. Luckily, I have my portable pc as a faithful companion here in the bed with me. It brings the world to my fingertips. I can check out blogs, visit my favorite fashion sites, do imaginary shopping where I fill up my wishlist in my favorite on-line stores...knowing that I'll never buy any of it! I've been catching up on years and years of old Desperate Housewives episodes. It's no fun being stuck in bed, but at least I have company!

My favorite image of Aphrodite
A friend called to check in on me today and chatting about this and that she mentioned her goddess archtype. Her what? was my first reaction. She said, yeah, that each of us is represented in some way by one of the ancient Greek goddesses. Kind of like your zodiac sign, but just for us girls, get it?

Perhaps the most famous image of Aphrodite in Raphael's painting Primavera

Well, I'm a sucker for a quiz or a personality test, so I started poking around on-line. I found a Find Your Goddess Archetype site that has this to say about the concept:

Understanding goddess types offers a woman very specific means of increased self-awareness of herself, her relationship to her lover, partner, her way of parenting her children, her inner urges in her self-expression and creativity. New ways of understanding feminine psychology have been emerging in the past twenty years--from a feminine perspective. In a society that has trivialized the Goddess concept, learning of the significance of Goddess qualities/energy can be instructive for women and men. We are aware that women's and men's behaviors, attitudes, likes and dislikes do appear to conform to particular typologies.

A rare image of our gal with her shirt on
Hmmm...ok. Of course I had to take the quiz. Of the various ones I have tried on-line, this site has the most exhaustive quiz, but on all of them my result was exactly the same. I'm a mighty Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty! Here's some of what that is supposed to mean:

Aphrodite - possesses an extroverted temperament and focuses on relationship/love - her primary concerns/interests are mature, adult relationships, romance, sexuality, beauty and the arts. Her domain embraced all of nature: vegetable, animal as well as human. Among her powers were fertility and growth/harvesting of crops, war, descent to the underworld, birth/life/love/death and fate. Although an independent figure in her own right, this independence does not preclude emotional involvement with others.

Love the way Aphrodite's about to hit Pan over the head
with an old shoe sole to protect herself

Who knew? I can tell you that right now I feel anything but mighty or goddes-like, but as soon as I get better, I'm going to have to start living up to my archetype! ;-)

Which Goddess are you?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chiacchiere - A Carnival Treat

One of the things I love about Italy is how every holiday has its traditional sweet. I have a real sweet tooth and love to eat any kind of cake, cookies, candies, you name it! That's gotten a lot harder since I discovered that I'm intolerant to both gluten and lactose. There are some commercial products available without those ingredients, but for the most part I think they're pretty blah, taste-wise. So, if I want something sweet, I pretty much have to make it myself.

Luckily there are lots of sites on the Internet offering recipes for people with dietary limitations (see my sidebar for some I love). But, it's not always easy to reproduce my Italian holiday favs. As it's Carnival season I've been craving the light, crispy, sugar-coated delights called "Chiacchere." Well, they're called chiacchiere down here in the heel of the boot, in other areas they have all kinds of different names. 

I got lucky and found a great gluten and lactose-free chiacchiere recipe and thought I'd share it with you.

First of all, for any of you who don't know what "Chiacchiere" are, take a look at these yummy creations . . .

Photo from Flickr

  • 300 gr gluten-free flour 
  • 60 gr sugar
  • 2 large eggs 
  • 25 gr vegetable margarine
  • 1/2 glass of liqueur (for example: Martini bianco) 
  • Oil for frying

1. Sift the flour and add the sugar, eggs, softened margarine, and liqueur.
2. Blend well until the dough is smooth and compact. Add more flour if necessary.
3. Wrap in a soft cloth (a clean, dry dish towel will do fine) and set aside to rise for about 30 minutes.
4. Roll a section of the dough out to a thin layer, then use a pastry wheel to cut it into the shapes you desire. (I found my dough to be a bit sticky. It helped to roll it out on floured waxed paper.)
5. Fry the pieces of dough in plentiful hot oil. Be careful not to let the oil get too hot, or the chiacchiere will darken too quickly.
6. When golden, lift the chiacchiere out of the oil with a slotted spoon and lay them on blotting paper to absorb the excess oil.
7. Finally arrange them on a serving dish and sprinkle with powered sugar.
8. Enjoy!

For more info on chiacchiere read my article at Charming Italy.
By the way, besides being the name for these delicious sweets, "chiacchiere" means "chit-chat" or "small talk" in Italian!
Photo from Flickr

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day Giveaway


It's high time I offer my dear readers another giveaway and seeing as how it's the season for romance, I thought nothing would be more perfect than an autographed copy of FADE TO MIDNIGHT, the most recent romantic suspense novel by my favorite romance writer (and good friend), Shannon McKenna.

If you are not familiar with Shannon and her work, let me introduce you . . .

"Shannon McKenna is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous romantic thrillers and several novellas. After a bizarre assortment of jobs, from singing cocktail waitress to medical secretary to strolling madrigal singer, she decided that writing hot romantic suspense suits her best. She lives with her husband and family in a small seaside town in southern Italy."

And to find out even more about Shannon, I asked her a few nosy questions . . .

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?
It was a story I wrote back in the fifth grade. From the feel of the first few chapters, it wanted to be a novel. A fantasy coming of age story about a maladjusted twelve year old girl who discovers she has magical powers and gets recruited by a wizard and sent to a school for witchcraft. Hmm. Too bad I didn’t know how to finish a story back then or I might have started a global bandwagon before the exalted Ms. Rowling did! But alas, that was not to be my destiny, the wealth and the fame and the movie franchise, and taking tea with the Queen and all that. 

Do you have any rituals or routines when you write?
Well, it takes a long time for me to get revved up, that’s for sure. I scribble ideas in a notebook for literally months until I hit on something I think of as a decent starting place. And once I get that starting place, the first few chapters are an eternity, because everything about the story is still up in the air, and everything that happens is a decision that I have to make that could determine the whole story, and the omni-potentiality of it all is absolutely crippling!

What draws you to write in this genre?

Oh, I just love romance. I always have. I used to gobble up regencies and Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland novels by the dozens per week, from age ten onward. So I had the necessary shape of a romance burned into my brain at an early age—the structuring, the way that they are carefully calibrated to give the reader an emotional high, and satisfy all of those clamoring but otherwise unsatisfied desires and fantasies. Those fantasies may be unrealistic, but we all still have them, and romance novels really feed those secret cravings. It’s better than drugs, or chocolate or overeating, that’s for sure. 

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Well. Hmm. I’m a mother of small children, so right now I have just made a bargain with my daughter that as soon as I finish these questions I will go and play paper dolls. So what I do is very much conditioned by what they’re doing. I LOVE to read. I love to see movies. I am a singer, and I love to make music. I have done very little of all this since my kids were born. Plus, I live in Italy, which can be very all encompassing. It’s hard to describe it without writing a book, and who has the time with my schedule? So, all I do really is just get from day to day. I love the sun, I love cooking, I love the food here, I love the coffee, I love my kids. It keeps my mind flexible to juggle languages and cultures. 

And now, a little bit about FADE TO MIDNIGHT to whet your appetites . . .

Gone But Not Forgotten
Davy…Connor…Sean… Three brothers who have conquered their demons, but they’ve never forgotten their long lost brother, Kev, whom they believed to be dead. When the McCloud brothers discover Kev is alive, they won’t rest until they find him...
Beaten and tortured almost to death, Kev Larsen was found eighteen years earlier in a warehouse alley. He survived his brutal ordeal, but his memories before that night were completely erased. When he nearly dies from trying to save someone from drowning, the brain surgery he has to save his life triggers fragmented, terrifying memories. With only these memories and the name of his torturer to guide him, Kev is determined to unlock the secrets to his past.
Edie Parrish has always been good at not letting anyone get too close to her. If someone were to learn of her unusual gift, her life would be immediately jeopardized. But when Kev Larsen discovers who she really is, Edie has only one choice: to trust him. And soon, Edie can’t resist her consuming desire for him—even though she knows she’ll have to pay a price for it.
Now Kev and Edie must race against time and place their faith in each other to stop a deadly legacy...

*  *  *  *  *

One lucky Amid the Olive Trees reader will win an autographed copy of FADE TO MIDNIGHT

Giveaway Rules
Open to everyone!
Contest ends February 262011 @ midnight CET.
The mandatory entry must be done for any other entries to count.
(leave a comment saying you have completed this step)
Follow Amid the Olive Trees publicly through Google Friend Connect (see righthand side of page) and visit Shannon McKenna's website and tell me one thing you learn about her or her books.
Optional extra entries (make a separate comment for each)
Follow Amid the Olive Trees on Networked Blogs
Like Amid the Olive Trees on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter
Blog about the giveaway (leave a link to the post on your blog in your comment)

* Be sure I can find your email in your comment or profile so I can contact you when you win! *
Winner will be chosen using and will be contacted via email. The winner will have 48 hours to respond or another winner will be chosen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dandelion Greens

If someone had told me, almost 20 years ago when I first moved to southern Italy, that you could just walk along the side of the road gathering the weeds that grow there . . . and then take them home and eat them, I never would have believed them. I'm a city girl, you see, the kind who thinks of going to the supermarket for food rather than going directly to the source.

My mother-in-law Eva, who is now practically bed-ridden, never went anywhere without a plastic bag and a small knife in her pocket. Just in case she sighted some good-looking plants along the side of the road. She would cry out, "Oh, look, some nice dandelion greens!" and get busy choosing the good ones, discarding the bad, and filling up her bag with her treasures.

I thought she was nuts. I'd never seen anyone do anything like that before!

But, she is from a different world than me, completely. She was born in 1923. People in southern Italy still travelled in horse-drawn carriages for the entirety of her youth. She was a young woman when her town was occupied first by the Germans and then by the Americans during World War II. Her family were large-scale farm owners and over her lifetime she has been both relatively rich and relatively poor. She is accustomed to southern Italian rural logic, often rooted in ignorance and superstition, but also based on solid values like waste not, want not.

Eva - circa 1943
We can no longer take those walks in the country with her like we used to, but sometimes we go out into the countryside behind my house with our plastic bags and little knives to look for dandelion greens. I know it makes my husband happy to be doing something that he used to do with his mother, and my sons enjoy having that connection, too.

I'm still hopeless at identifying the weeds from the edible greens, but our sons seem to have inherited her eye for it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Search for a Good Book

Reading is one of my great passions and I'm always on the lookout for a good novel to read. When I first came to Italy, getting my  hands on a decent selection of high quality books in English was a real problem. There were some titles available at the Feltrinelli in Bari, but they were mostly the bestsellers (not always synonymous with "good reading" in my personal opinion) or language teaching reference texts. 

Imagine my joy when I discovered Daedalus Books & Music, "Quality Books and Music at Up to 90% Off." They carry overstocked items and sell them at fantastic prices, plus somehow their taste and mine are really a perfect match. Back then I would receive a paper catalogue in the mail, peruse it passionately for days and days to make my selections. Mail off my order and then wait months until my precious box of books would arrive from the US by ship. Now you can find Daedalus on-line and all shipping is by air, such a luxury!

For the last several years my recreational reading choices have been determined by the monthly selections of the book clubs I've belonged to. Since a different club member chooses a book each month, we have had some real highs and some real lows. I really hated both Where Rainbows End, by Cecelia Ahern, and Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace. Two wildly different books, one a saccharine-sweet romantically improbable bit of fluff, the other the mind-grinding observations of a neurotic and overly analytical, deeply unhappy genius (in fact, Wallace committed suicide in 2008). 

Book club has, however, brought me such treasures as A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, and introduced me to the magical dreamlike world of Toni Morrison. But, in all honesty, one of my favorite things about the book club group's choices is this very aspect of its nature . . . I never know what I'm getting myself into when I start reading each month. The book may be a gem, or it might drive me crazy, but either way a friend of mine thought it was worth reading, so I'm willing to take a gamble on it.

I have recently screwed up my courage and taken a dive off the deep end into reading novels in Italian. 

After finishing Io e te by Niccolo Ammaniti in one day (it was that good!), at the moment I'm reading his Che la festa cominci. I am a big fan of Ammaniti because he writes in a clear, immediate style. His characters speak the way Italians really do today. His stories and characters accurately reflect contemporary Italian social issues, people and their real lives . . . he exaggerates them just enough to render everything absurd and laughable, but in a sort of bittersweet way. You laugh because he takes people and situations that you recognize, but then pushes them just one stop beyond "normal." So they are funny, but they are so close to real that it's a funny that's not really funny . . . painfully funny, if you know what I mean. They also have an emotional depth and punch that you don't find every day.

Che la festa cominci (published in Italian in 2009) is not out in an English translation yet, but several of his others are. I'll Steal You Away, I'm Not Scared and As God Commands are all brilliant. So far, this is not my favorite of his books, it's a little bit silly, a little bit too wild and wacky, but I haven't finished it yet, so I can't pass final judgement.

What are YOU reading right now? Do you have any suggestions for me? I love to read books recommended by a friend!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Valentine's Day in Puglia

Looking for a different way to celebrate Valentine's Day with your sweetie? Check out the festivities in Vico del Gargano, a lovely medieval town overlooking the Adriatic Sea, where Saint Valentine himself is the patron saint and the town goes all out to celebrate this special day.

Kissing Alley

Read all about the town that even has a special street dedicated to kissing in my article at Charming Italy!
How romantic can you get?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Social Photography

I'm so excited, and I have to tell you why . . . I am taking a photography course! And not just a plain old, run-of-the-mill everyday photography course. No, no! This is a social photography course. At first I was wondering whether that meant a "social" photography course, where we all get to be real good friends and take pictures of each other and our loved ones?

Instead, it turns out that it is a "social photography" course, in that our photos will be of some social value, meaning they will bear witness to various important issues and problems in the social fabric. Like poverty, illegality in its various forms, garbage in the streets, what to do with all the hordes of unemployed escorts  running rampant now that Berlusconi can't cavort with them secretly without everyone and his brother intercepting their phone calls and sms messages! Yeah, social issues, you get it . . .

Tuesday evening I went to the first of the 12 lessons being offered by a local group called Camera a Sud. The course objectives are to help each of us "discover, through our own sensibilities, how images can communicate ideas and cultures, projects and passions, and become the visual memory of our own times."

photo by: Camera a Sud
My husband, who knows both the photography teacher as well as another member of the association, told me to expect to find "alternative" people. Now, I just have to tell you that "alternative" is a word that has hounded me throughout my whole life. My mother and step-father were "alternative" types, choosing to live in communes, grow a long beard (him), wear long skirts (her), make our own clothes, recycle (kind of a radical idea back in the early '70s), eat vegetables from our own garden . . . I was even briefly a vegetarian at age 10.

In those days my mother sent me to "alternative" elementary schools. At one school "alternative" meant we just ran around in the woods all day and built the occasional geodesic dome. At another, things were a bit more structured, but run by two ex-Peace Corps volunteers who taught us how to play Wari, an ancient African board game, and cook peanut butter chicken (sounds odd, but you'd be surprised at how tasty it is).

Things were fairly mainstream for me for a while, until I chose an "alternative" graduate school in the late '80s. One with no grades and an emphasis on "experiential" learning. I found myself immersed in a familiar environment: beards and long skirts all over again. We spent the first week getting to know our classmates and professors by playing "cooperative games." Holding hands and running up and down the green hills of Vermont, you get the picture.

So, I was curious to check out these "alternative" provincial southern Italians. And what do you think I found?

Beards! Lots of beards, long beards, short beards, beginner beards, expert beards . . . but beards all around! I joked with my husband that growing a beard must be a requirement for membership in the association. No beard? Sorry, come back when you've got at least a 5 o'clock shadow, buddy!

But, curiously no long skirts. Hmmm. That will, no doubt, soon be remedied by the fact that this spring long skirts are in the fashion forecast.

But seriously . . . the first lesson went exceptionally well. The (bearded) instructor was kind, patient, clear and humorous. I was sooo glad about that, because as a teacher I expect a lot out of anyone who thinks they're going to teach me (aren't I terrible?), but Cosmo, with his long, purple flowered scarf and miserable head cold, was perfect.

We are starting from the very beginning with things like shutter speed and apertures. I'll keep you posted on how it goes week by week.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


When my parents were visiting last fall, we took them to a different spot for sightseeing each weekend. I shared the photos from Canne della Battaglia with you at the time, but nothing else, so I thought I'd take you on an occasional tour around Puglia.

One of the most interesting sites in our region is the small town of Alberobello, the trullo town.

All of the houses in the historic center of this little fairy-tale town have these unique cone-shaped roofs, called trullos.

Many of them have pagan or magical signs whitewashed onto them. There are lots of theories about the meanings of these symbols - and, of course, the locals will sell you books explaining them - but really the origins of the symbols are lost in the mists of time.

What is also a mystery is why, indeed, this particular style of construction developed here, and only here. It is not found anywhere else in the world, except for those places where people from here have built themselves a trullo, perhaps to remind themselves of home.

Legend has it that due to a high tax on property back in the Middle Ages, the people of the Itria Valley created these roofs of limestone slabs piled one atop the other without any mortar holding them together so that they could be dismantled when tax inspectors were in the area. Apparently, the townsfolk were taxed per roof . . . no roof, no tax.

People were smaller back then, right?

Do you believe in magic?

There's even a trullo church!
Alberobello makes a great day trip if you are in the area. There are lots of shops selling local crafts, such as miniature ceramic trullos or beautiful handmade crocheted linens. Don't forget to sneak down the side streets, too, where you can see how the townspeople really live their lives in this fairy-tale town.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sun Therapy

Yesterday was a gorgeous sunny and relatively warm day. We took full advantage of it by inviting friends to lunch and eating outside in the backyard. Our first outdoor meal of 2011! Even Piedina, the dog, had a smile on her face.

We have all been facing various troubles recently: minor health complaints, family issues, you know, that other stuff life is also made of, although we try our best to forget. A few hours of chatting, eating good food and drinking some fine local red wine was just what the doctor ordered.

As you can see, there was a lot to eat and drink, but we had no problem making short work of it.

Piedina was happy to be cuddled and snooze in the sun.

I took the opportunity to try to figure out the camera option on my new smartphone. I'm afraid the phone is much smarter than me. I just keep poking at it, though, to see what will happen. Am I the only one who finds today's instruction manuals somewhat less than helpful? I guess I've just got to get my intuitive skills up to speed. My kids have no problems with new technology, put anything in their hands and five minutes later they know how to use it to send guided missiles to bomb the school or write them electronic notes excusing them from not doing their homework...

did you notice that boy is barefoot?!

At last, time for a nap...oops, spoke too soon...dive-bombed by a blood-thirsty 11-year-old wanna-be vampire!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Good Morning Sunshine

One morning not too long ago I stumbled groggily down the stairs to the kitchen to grab my life-sustaining first cup of tea, only to be stopped dead in my tracks by the sight you see in the photo. There was this gecko, this ANIMAL, this MONSTER lurking on the wall directly above the breakfast table. I'm not sure this photo does him justice...I mean that clock is really big, so proportionally Mr. Gecko was pretty darn big, too. And just sitting there looking like that mini-dinosaur creature that he is.

Now, I'm not one of those females who can't stand creepy crawlies and runs screaming at the sight, but you know how it is when you've just woken up. Personally, all I can think about is sitting down with my hot tea and corn cakes smeared with peanut butter and jam (my standard gluten/dairy-free breakfast, no comments, please!) and finding my way back to the real world. In fact, I always get up at least 20 minutes before everyone else so I can have this time ALONE...not with mini-crocodiles threatening to drop down into my teacup!

In Italian they have a saying, "Il Buongiorno si Vede dal Mattino," which roughly translates as something like "you can tell what kind of day it's going to be by the way your morning goes." But, I was lucky that morning. After skittering back and forth a bit, Mr. Mini-Monster disappeared. Yeah, he just wasn't there anymore. 

Now, that might make some people worry even more. Like, WHERE did he go? And, WHEN will he pop up next? And although I am fully aware that "maybe it will just go away" are the six most dangerous words in the English language...boy, was I glad when he did.

So, however this lovely Sunday begins for you, I wish that all of your worries and concerns just disappear, at least momentarily, and that you enjoy the day to the fullest with friends and loved ones.


p.s. the gecko was next spotted in the hall closet, behind the coats...