If you are like so many people with a limited amount of vacation time you probably find yourself in a frenzied hurry when traveling. Rather than taking time to experience the culture of a place, you hustle from site to site trying to see it all.
I know this is true of a recent trip my husband Bill and I took to Rome. It was our first time in Italy and we only had three days before embarking on a Mediterranean cruise. We saw an awful lot in the few days we had (mostly through a camera lens) but this left little time to immerse ourselves in the culture. Yes we enjoyed the food and spending time in street cafes but we did not dedicate much time to talking with the locals.
After our trip we knew we would one day return to Rome and spend more time enjoying the city and the culture. But this summer, we decided to bring a little piece of Rome to us in the form of a 16-year old girl who was part of a cultural exchange program.
As soon as she arrived the cultural exchange began. She came bearing gifts from her homeland. The first item she presented us with was the largest wedge of Parmigiana Reggiano I had ever seen outside a cheese store. Then she gave us a Moka Express Espresso-maker and espresso. And her final gift to us was a set of hand embroidered napkins and a small café tablecloth. Before she came here she asked if she could bring us anything. I told her that I did not buy any souvenirs in Rome and I would like a small trinket made in Italy. She went far beyond my expectations.
The morning after Camilla arrived she showed me how to use my new espresso maker. She also taught me how to whip the sugar and espresso to get the little bit of froth on top like you get in Rome at the “bars”. There is a bit of a knack to getting this right.
One of the biggest challenges we had with our Italian guest was finding foods that suited her palette. At first this was a source of frustration for me.
Breakfast was never a problem as she preferred American breakfast foods over the traditional Italian meal. Ironically, before she arrived, this was the meal I was concerned she would find most displeasing.
However, the mealtime irritation was quickly turned around when Camilla asked if she could cook for us. At first I thought this was going to be a problem because I assumed she would want fresh pasta or to make pasta. I was not equipped to make it and I was not sure where to buy it fresh. But we were able to get everything we needed at the local grocery store.
While she was here I learned to make a true Italian-style pizza. We made the dough for the crust and when it was time to let it rise Camilla said the cutest thing, “Now we wait and hope.” The hope was that the dough would actually rise. It did.
We also made my favorite meal, Lasagna. We used her mother’s recipe which was much different from the American way. The biggest difference between the two is here in the States we make it with a lot of cheese. The Italian recipe has almost no cheese at all. Where we would use Ricotta the Italian’s make a Besciamella.
I think what surprised me most about Italian cooking is the absence of a lot of spices such as oregano and garlic.
While Camilla taught me about Italian cooking, I had the opportunity to expose her to some regional favorite such as authentic Philadelphia Cheese Steaks, soft pretzels, Maryland crabs, lobster, fudge and I think her favorite was the Cinnabon®. If I had known the reaction she was going to have to this sweet treat, I would have had my camera ready. Her response was absolutely priceless.
I’ve discussed a lot about food here because in Italy meals are something of an event. Eating is not just for the purpose of sustaining oneself. Mealtimes is where family and friends come together and share ideas, discuss sports, politics and other issues. The Italians take their time preparing meals and cleaning up afterward as this is all part of the experience.
Originally Written for Gypsytales01.wordpress.com on August 16, 2012 by Susan Decoteau-Ferrier