Cooking in Italy – Barley Soup from Sudtirol

barely-soup-dolomites-hiking-toursAnother regional recipe from our favorite chef from Sudtirol, Michael Seehauser. Michael has worked with several of our groups during our hiking tours and cycling excursions in Trentino-Alto Adige, and we’re including a class with him next season on our Dolomites hiking tour. An active outdoors man, he has cooked in kitchens and campfires around the world, but loves the cuisine – and amazing landscape – of his home region best. I enjoy collaborating with him, as his recipes are both authentic and approachable. This soup is a perfect warm comfort dish to finish off a great day of skiing or hiking.

orzo-barley-bike-tours-dolomitesIn the US, we are familiar with a pasta called orzo. The size and shape of orzo pasta is similar to an unprocessed grain of barley, which is what orzo means in Italian. In Italy, however, this pasta isn’t as common as in the US, and I rarely see it in dishes besides a soup. When there, and ‘orzo’ appears on the menu, it is referring to the grain, barley.

Barley has been cultivated in Italy since ancient times, it is one of the first grains consumed in its wild form. Roman legionnaires would march off to battle with a bag of barley, which they would later boil in their helmets, making a hearty porridge. Its’ reputation for sustaining fighting forces was widespread; according to Pliny, barley was the special food of gladiators, who were also known as hordearii, or ‘barley eaters’.

barley-soup-demo-dolomites-hiking-toursOver the centuries, barley was replaced by more easily cultivated crops such as maize, or corn, and is no longer a commonly found grain in southern areas. However, as we move north and east into Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, we see more barley being cultivated and consumed as it is particularly well-suited for cultivation at high altitudes and colder climates.

Photo credit: Suzanne King

Chef Michael flavored this soup with a large hunk of wonderful speck from Trentino-Alto Adige. It is common to find speck sold as a single large piece in Italy, but not so here. Just ask at the deli counter – they may give you a questioning look, but it is easily done with a large knife. If speck is not available, use prosciutto, pancetta, ham, bacon, canadian bacon. If you can only find bacon strips, or slices of pancetta, don’t abandon the recipe! These thin slices will be difficult to remove and cut up after they are cooked in the soup, so cut up before and add these to the pot with the vegetables and saute. You would not need as much olive oil.

Speck smoking room at our rifugio: Photo credit: Suzanne King

Gluten-free option: We had one guest on the tour who was gluten-free – we replaced the barley with 1/2 cup or so of lentils for a gluten-free variation.

Enjoy with a glass of Gewurztraminer, the ‘spicy’ grape from nearby Tramin.

Zuppa d’Orzo

Ingredients for 4 people

extra virgin olive oil
1/2 carrot, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 stalk of celery, cut into 1/4 inch dice
3 minced shallots
1/4 cup white wine
4 ounces speck, in one large piece
4 ounces pearled barley
6 cups beef broth
olive oil, salt, freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the carrot, celery and shallots and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the white wine, and cook until liquid is almost gone. Add the speck, barley and broth and simmer for about 1 hour
When the meat is cooked remove from the soup and cut into cubes and mix with the barley soup.Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with finely chopped chives or parsley.

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5 Tips for Dining Well – and Cheaply – in Venice

view-venice-walking-toursA destination we visit yearly on our cycling and walking tours, Venice has fascinated travelers from all over the world for hundreds of years. Built on more than 100 small islands in the midst of marshy lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, its pallazi seem to rise out of the water. There are no paved streets, and therefore no cars, trucks, scooters or bikes, just canals and boats. Tourists wind their way down narrow, maze like alleys, through small squares, often loosing their bearings several times before turning a corner to find their ultimate destination in front of them – the Grand Canal, the Doge’s Palace, Piazza San Marco. Getting lost in Venice is virtually inevitable, but also leads to some of my best discoveries.

private-venice-walking-toursI am often asked by our clients on how I find the restaurants I recommend and include on our Italy tours. Wandering off-the-beaten path is part of it, but I’ve also developed an eye for where to find those special places that offer a wonderful meal, rich in local products, reflecting the traditional regional cuisine. Here are 5 tips that may help you find that hidden, special neighborhood trattoria on your next visit to Venice.

1. Avoid the main tourist spots

It is a lovely to envision yourself enjoying a fantastic meal sitting in the Piazza San Marco gazing at the Doge’s Palace, or dining along the Grand Canal. But this is where everyone heads. Venice is a popular cruise ship destination, and on certain days in the summer will have passengers from multiple ships spending the day exploring the city. They head to Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal. When I wish to enjoy a glass of prosecco here, I wait until the evening when the cruisers have returned to their ship. And I accept the fact that I’m going to pay double the cost for the prime location.

harrys-venice-walking-tours2. If you wish to visit the famous Venetian dining institutions, be prepared to pay

Venice is home to several restaurants with long-standing reputations as dining destinations. At the time of my last stop at Harry’s Bar, made famous in the writings of Hemingway, a glass of coke was 13 euro, a whiskey based cocktail 26 euro, or with the exchange rate at the time, around $36. I left.

Another nasty surprise when I dined at Trattoria alla Madonna, a spot often recommended for those looking to experience a classic seafood restaurant near the Grand Canal – on top of the higher than average prices, an additional 18% ‘servizio’, or service charge. appeared on my bill. Tipping is NOT expected in Italy (there is no entry for tip income on a tax form in Italy, for example) and this servizio charge is simply to guilt tourists who are used to tipping into paying even more. I never recommend a restaurant that includes this charge.

So if your heart is set on including one of these institutions during your visit, do so – but be forewarned on the price tag. I personally want the most memorable part of my meal to be the food, the wine, and the overall experience, not the final bill.

menu-venice-walking-tours3. Take a look at the posted menu

Stroll along the Grand Canal at lunch or dinner time, and you will routinely be approached by restaurant host stationed outside the door, cajoling you to dine in their establishment (who falls for this, I wonder?) These places, and others, prominently display a large Menu Turistico, a Tourist Menu. Written in multiple languages, with photos of the dishes, and featuring items such as pizza, lasagna, and caprese salad, this type of menu delivers one message loud and clear “We haven’t changed our menu in years!”

seafood-venice-walking-toursI head away from these main tourist routes, and look for the small trattorie with a blackboard and a handwritten menu, a good sign the menu changes frequently to reflect what’s fresh and in season. I am especially intrigued when the menu is written in a seemingly strange version of Italian – the Venetian language, a Romance language still spoken by some residents of this region. The well-known local risotto with peas (risotto con piselli), is called “risi i bisi” in the Venetian language. I don’t always know what I am getting, but that is part of the adventure and I am sure this place is not catering to tourists. In Venice, it is quite rare to have a restaurant where not one employee speaks enough english to translate the menu for you, so step inside and try it out.

rialto-fish-market-venice-walking-tours4. Restaurants near the Rialto market

Since the year 1097, Venetians have gathered at the Rialto market for their fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, meats, cheeses, and salumi. Early in the morning barges arrive at the nearby port along the Grand Canal, unloading freshly caught fish and shellfish, and produce from nearby islands like Sant’Erasmo. Delivery men push handcarts laden with fruits, vegetables, cheeses. The market is one of the best food markets in Italy. An early morning visit will have you rubbing shoulders with chefs from the nearby restaurants as they figure out what their menu will feature that day. So head away from the Grand Canal into the neighborhoods behind the market to find some wonderful local spots. As the Rialto fish market is closed on Sunday and Monday, many of these restaurants are too, and those that aren’t are selling day old fish (gasp.)

cicchetti-venice-walking-toursJust around the Rialto market are the Venetian baccari, or wine bars. The locals head here after their shopping to sip a restorative glass of prosecco and sample a variety of little snacks called cicchetti or cichetti. Similar to the Spanish tapas, these snacks will feature many of the wonderful seasonal foods you just admired in the market. A walking tour of the wine bars is a great end to the morning; called a giro d’ombra, or tour of shadows, as ombra is local slang for a glass of wine. Years ago, vendors selling glasses of wine to market visitors would keep their wine cool by moving periodically to follow the shade, or shadows.

chef-market-wine-venice-walking-tours5. Explore outside of San Marco

Venice is divided into six areas or “sestiere”. These are Cannaregio, San Polo, Dorsoduro (including the Giudecca and Isola Sacca Fisola), Santa Croce, San Marco (including San Giorgio Maggiore) and Castello (including San Pietro di Castello and Sant’Elena). Most tourists never venture outside of San Marco, home to the major tourists attractions. If you visit the Rialto market, you’ve made it into San Polo. But the other sestiere are well worth a visit, with many interesting but lesser know sites, and eateries undiscovered by tourist crowds.

campo-venice-walking-toursCannaregio is the northernmost sestiere, the historical home of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto. Today, the areas of the district along the Grand Canal from the train station to the Rialto Bridge are busy with tourists, but the rest of Cannaregio is residential and relatively peaceful, with morning markets, neighborhood shops, and small cafés.

Castello is the largest of the six sestieri of Venice, Italy. This district is dominated by Arsenale, once the largest naval complex in Europe, and by the monasteries in the north of the quarter. After learning about Venetian naval history at the Arsanale, wander the streets and enjoy the local macelleri (meat shops), bakeries and restaurants.

Dorsoduro is located the other side of the Grand Canal from San Marco. Here you will find many of Venice’s famous museums, including the Accademia Gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Dorsoduro is a vibrant community, where foreign residents of Venice mix with the students and academics from Foscari University. Spend an evening people watching at one of the bars, cafes, and restaurants in lively Campo Santa Margherita.


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Exploring Vicenza – The City of Palladio

Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine tour group in Vicenza

Vicenza, The “City of Palladio” was home to the most important architect of the Renaissance, whose designs have influenced architecture all over the Western world. Home to the Rotunda, inspiration for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Vicenza was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. A lovely city to explore on a walking tour, with many of Palladio’s works located around the city center.

Piazza dei Signori, Vicenza

The center of activity is the main piazza of Vicenza, Piazza dei Signori. Not overwhelmed by tourists as is the case for many city piazzas, you will see locals enjoying a prosecco or gelato at one of many bars and gelaterie. A picturesque place to stop and people-watch, enjoying the surrounding architectural masterpieces including Andrea Palladio’s Basilica, the Loggia del Capitaniato, Palazzo del Monte di Pietà, Chiesa di San Vincenzo, Torre Bissara and the Lion of St. Mark and Christ the Redeemer columns.

Teatro Olimpico

Nearby, several other Palladio edifices are well worth a stop. Palazzo Chiericati, a Renaissance palace in Vicenza, is just a short walk away on Piazza Matteotti. Designed by Palladio for the Count Girolamo Chiericati family, since 1855 the building has housed the Museo Civico (‘City Museum’) and, more recently, the city’s art gallery. Across the Piazza Matteotti is the Teatro Olimpico (“Olympic Theatre”), the oldest and first enclosed theater in the world. The theatre was Palladio’s final work and was not completed until after his death. Don’t miss the interior, designed by Scamozzi, Vicenza’s other renowned architect, with its perspective scenery recreating a ancient Roman street.

La Rotonda

Just outside the city center, on a hill on the south edge of Vicenza, is Villa Almerio Capra detta la Rotonda. This palazzo will seem famililar to many because its design has inspired building design all over the world, including Jefferson’s Monticello and buildings at University of Virginia. The Rotonda is only open to the public on Wednesday, but from the road you have an exceptional view of this palazzo on its hilltop perch. Then stop by  Villa Valmarana ai Nani across the road.

Pasta with local black truffles

While dining in Vicenza, you will see dishes typical of Veneto cuisine, and a few that highlight the local seasonal products that are cultivated in the fertile Colli Berici, just south of the city. Baccala Mantecato alla Vicentina is a very traditional dish, here made with stoccafisso (stockfish), which is cod that has been air dried as they hang on sticks, rehydrated, cooked in milk, then whipped and served on polenta. There is a local consortium dedicated to preserving this traditional dish, but it is not always everyone’s favorite! Bigoli con anatra is perhaps more appealing to our modern palates, bigoli is the local pasta, a thick spaghetti; here served with a meat sauce made with duck. Seasonal dishes featuring local products include Risi e Bisi (risotto and peas), made with the first peas of the season from Lumignano, fettucine with black truffles from Nanto, or with mushrooms from Costozza.

Vineyards of Colli Berici

There are several very nice local wines from the Colli Berici DOC to enjoy with your meal, all rarely seen outside Vicenza, and sometimes hard to find even in town! For a white, I recommend the Garganega from Colli Bugano, or a Garganega from nearby Gambellara DOC. For red, do try a glass of the indiginous grape, Tai Rosso, a close relation to the Sardinian cannonau or French grenache. A Tai Rosso can range from a very light, almost rose style red to a full-bodied intense red, so inquire as to what you will get. This zone also produces some wonderful Bordeaux style reds, one I can actually find in the US is Inama’s Carmenere Piu, a blend of Carmenere with a bit of Merlot.

torengo-tai-rosso-private-bike-tours-italyThere are many restaurants to explore in Vicenza, here are a few of my recommendations. For more, visit my list on our web site.

Angolo Palladio

One of the best spots in town for dining al fresco and enjoying the bustle of Piazza dei Signori. Local dishes, including carpaccio with local truffles, and pretty good pizza. Reservations recommended.

Piazzetta Palladio 12, Vicenza

Antico Guelfo

Great place in Vicenza. Lots of interesting dishes using whole grains; local products with new ingredients like kamut, quinoa. Gluten free dishes. Dinner only, closed Sunday.

Contrada Pedemuro San Biagio, 92, Vicenza

Antico Risotrante Agli Schioppi

Local dishes, cucina veneta, baccala, fegato. Menu changes twice a month to incorporate local products. Lunch and dinner, closed Sunday and Monday lunch. $$

Contrada Piazza Castello, 24 Vicenza

Mavala Wine Bar

Located in a nice alleyway off of Piazza Signori in Vicenza, they have the best selection of local wines. Nice snacks, pleasant outdoor seating during warmer months. Closed Monday.

Contra delle Morette, Vicenza

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Honey Roasted Parsnips – Sudtirol Cooking Class

honey-roasted-parsnips-private-bike-tour-italyDuring a recent private cycling tour through Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region, we had the opportunity to learn about this region’s amazing cuisine under the guidance of Sudtirol chef Michael Seehauser. We gathered at a remote mountain rifugio north of Bolzano for a memorable evening.

grottnerhof-private-walking-tour-italyOur menu was full of traditional fare, a barley soup, handmade gnocchi with tomato sauce, roasted roe deer with an elegant sauce, accompanied by honey roasted parsnips, and apple strudel for dessert. I’ll be sharing the recipes – and hopefully a bit of this wonderful experience – here on my blog.

cooking-class-private-walking-tour-italyParsnips are root vegetables, white and similar in shape to a carrot, long and tapered. It is a relative of the carrot, as well as celery root and parsley root, with the taste a combination of the sweetness of a carrot and the herbal flavors of the celery and parsley roots. It is not a parsley root, but they are very similar in appearance and easily confused.

parsnips-cleaned-private-bike-tour-italyIn ancient times in Italy, parsnips (pastinaca) were cultivated in Italy; Emperor Tiberius brought them to Rome from France and Germany. However, today parsnips are rarely found on Italian tables. They do need a cold spell to develop their sweetness, and only in Northern Italy does the weather cooperate. Here in mountains of Sudtirol we find that colder climate. They are cultivated as far south as Emilia Romagna, but rather than playing a role in the local cuisine, they are used as fodder for the pigs in Parma.

parsnips-cooking-class-private-walking-tour-italyThis is a very simple recipe, where the cleaned parsnips – no need to peel – are drizzled with olive oil and roasted in the oven, then topped with honey and a squeeze of lemon juice. Sudtirol produces some wonderful local honey, infused with the flavors of the local herbs and flowers, from dandelion to chestnut. This recipe would work with any root vegetable or a nice winter squash or sweet potato.

Honey Roasted Parsnips

8 medium sized parsnips, scrubbed clean (no need to peel)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Lemon juice

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Trim the stalk end of the parsnips and cut into halves, or quarters if on the large size. Drizzle with olive oil to coat, season with salt and pepper. Spread on a sheet pan. Place in oven and roast for 10 minutes.

Remove from oven, and drizzle with honey and lemon juice. Return to oven and roast for another 10 minutes, until liquid is gone.


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Demystifying Italian Wines – What is a Super Tuscan?

tuscany-vineyard-custom-tours-italyWhat is a Super Tuscan? A question I am asked often on our Italy tours, be it walking the wine regions in Tuscany, or on a cycling tour in the Dolomites. A bit of background to set the stage.

The Italian laws regarding wine production under their DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) system dictate (read my post on Understanding Italian Wines to learn more about this system), among other things, the specific varietals that can be used and origin of the grapes. This system can be quite beneficial to maintaining the quality of great wines, but can also stall progress, restricting some producers to traditional wines made from indigenous grapes according to long-standing, and perhaps outdated techniques. A very frustrating situation for Italian winemakers looking to appeal to an increasing sophisticated international audience.

Antinori Winery

One region stuck in this situation was Chianti Classico. You may recall the old style Chianti bottles wrapped in a straw covered flask, ironically called a fiasco. In the 1970s this was one of Italy’s most highly exported wines, but found itself loosing ground to other more ‘respectable’ wines based on international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

The traditional recipe for a Chianti, dictated by the DOC system. required a large proportion of white grapes – from 10% to as much as 30%. The result was a fruity, thin wine meant to be consumed young, with no ability to age. An increasingly hard sell to a wine-consuming public rapidly moving towards Bordeaux style wines.
In the early 1970s, Tuscan wine makers, frustrated by the existing system, rebelled, led by the Antinori family. Chianti producer Marchese Antinori released a new wine, Tignanello, in 1974. Instead of the Sangiovese grape, this was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from their vineyards in the Chianti region, produced as a Bordeaux style wine, and aged in French oak barrels. Antinori was no doubt inspired by his uncle, Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta, who since the late 60s had been producing small amounts of a Bordeaux-inspired wine, called Sassicaia (stony ground), in his home in Bolgheri, located near the Tuscan coast in vineyards far from the classic wine producing areas in Tuscany.
In 1978, the Bolgheri area, known prior as a producer of some not very interesting rose and white wine, jumped out of anonymity to garner international attention when the 6-year old Sassicaia beat out an assortment of Bordeaux wines at an international tasting event held by Decanter, a UK wine magazine.

These high quality wines were targeting a commensurate price, but could only be called a Vino di Tavola, sharing this name with the lowest quality Italian table wines. So the term Super Tuscan was adopted, no coincidence in English, to brand these wines, highlighting their superior quality and differentiating them from the lower quality Vino di Tavolo.

As a result of the success of Sassicaia and Tignanello, a groundswell of other Tuscan producers moved to wines based on, or including international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Syrah and others that were not permitted under the DOC. Italian law finally caught up in 1992, when the government introduced the Indicazione Geographica Tipica (IGT) designation. This designation provides deliverance from the restrictions on varietals of the the DOC and the higher-level DOCG. Still considered lower quality than DOC and DOCG, Super Tuscans now often appear under the Toscana IGT designation.

But the revolution made its mark, and today you will find newer DOC appellations bestowed upon the original mavericks. For example, the Bolgheri Sassicaia DOC was created in 1994, for wines from Bolgheri made with a minimum of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bolgheri Rosso Cabernet Merlot Blend

Super Tuscan is essentially a marketing term, not an official designation, originally applied to promote these Bordeaux style wines from Tuscany. It was incredibly successful on that front, with Super Tuscans experiencing great international renown, and commanding high prices. As a result, wine producers in Tuscany began to refer to any wine they might produce that did not follow DOC guidelines as a Super Tuscan, so now you can find Super Tuscans made from 100% Sangiovese. Many of the original acclaimed Super Tuscans, like the aforementioned Sassicaia, are now back in the DOC system. So using term Super Tuscan to describe a wine today gives you very little information, except that it is red, and the grapes  – whatever varietal they may be – are predominately from Tuscany.

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