05 July 2015

LIFE: Celebrating Freedom

CHIAVARI, Italy - The photos in this post were taken at the border between France and Italy last week.  They show the plight of French speaking migrants trying to leave Italy and enter France, only to be refused entry.
Migrants on the French-Italian Border  

As Americans celebrate 4th of July this weekend, a date that represents the birth of the United States of America as an independent nation, there are many people around the world for whom freedom is still only a dream. 
France - So Near and Yet so Far 
The dream of the migrants arriving in Sicily and other parts of Italy, is to travel to France, Germany, Britain or Sweden and request asylum. But French border police have been ordered not to let them through. Their fear is they will not pass through France but will chose to remain there, as the majority of them speak French.
They Sit and Wait For a Solution 
The European Union recently suspended the 1986 Schengen Agreement, which abolished all internal borders allowing for the free movement of people within Europe. This allowed the French border police, to refuse entry to 200 migrants.  
They Protest in Silence
The angry migrants decided to go on a hunger strike while others organized a sit-in at the border crossing and tried to block traffic.

“We are not going back, we need to pass,” read one large banner, while another read, “We need freedom.” Before the Italian police could act, the migrants sat down on pieces of cardboard and sheltered under trees and buses. The women and children accepted the food provided by the Italian Red Cross, but the men did not.
Sometimes They Raise Their Voices 
 “We won’t eat,” said one 20-year-old man. “ We spent all day yesterday in the heat and last night in the cold and rain. If we are going to die here, there is no need to eat.”

A record number of 1,439 migrants were intercepted last week by the French police in the mountainous Alpes-Maritimes region of southeast France, and 1,097 were returned to Italy. They were the ones who had slipped through the border   made their way into France.
They Go on Hunger Strikes  
In Italy the influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa is reaching critical mass. An average of 10,000 people a week are being rescued from the Mediterranean and there have been warnings that as many as 500,000 refugees could try to cross over to Italy this year.

While there is sympathy for the plight of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty, Italians say they cannot be expected to shoulder the burden without help from Europe, but so far all the European Union has offered is bad advice.
They Plead for Solutions  
Italy was required to terminate its search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, last October and replace it with a much smaller operation run by Frontex, the European Unions border control agency which has to rely on help from merchant ships. Last year, merchant ships rescued 44,000 migrants, out of the 170,000 who reached Italy from North Africa.

One Italian tugboat, which normally supplies oil rigs in the Mediterranean, claims to have assisted in 60 rescues last year and 22 so far this year.
The Italian Red Cross Helps Where it Can  
“The situation is unsustainable,” said one Italian tugboat owner. “Taking part in rescues is no longer unusual – it has become routine. Like other merchant ships we are being called on to help out on a daily basis, but our crews are not trained to deal with these operations. We can’t provide medical care, thermal blankets or emergency food.”
Kind Words and Understanding 
Italy is simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of migrants crossing from the North African coast in search of a better life in Europe. Italian Intelligence Reports state that there are up to 800,000 additional migrants waiting in Libya and other parts of North Africa to make the crossing to what they think of as the “Promised Land”.
Sometimes More Than Words are Needed as Migrants Confront French Border Police
Realizing the bad impression they are giving the rest of the world, the French government is slowly accepting the demands of the Italians and allowing some immigrants through. When asked about it, the border police merely shrug and say, “C’est la politique,” “it’s politics.” But the reality is that many migrants are still being driven back at the French-Italian border.

And So They Wait 

But the Italians are holding their ground and last week, when the French wanted to return 40 migrants to Italy, the Italians would not accept them.
The Dream - So Near and Yet so Far 
The sad news is that there are no winners or losers in this game of human ping pong – nor does there seem to be a sustainable solution.

02 July 2015





28 June 2015

LIFE; Up on Montallegro Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – After my brother’s first visit to the Italian Riviera, I was curious to know what he had enjoyed most.  I was a little surprised when instead of naming one of our famous seaside towns like Santa Margherita or even historic Genoa, he said Montallegro.
 Church of Montallegro
It must have been the part when we were having lunch under the leafy trees looking out over the harbor and town of Rapallo far, far below us that he liked. It surely couldn’t have been the harrowing ride up the side of the mountain in the cable car because I saw him gripping the handrail as we sailed high above the trees.  Nor could it have been the part where we were climbing the steep slope to get to the Basilica of Our Lady of Montallegro either, because I wasn’t the only one gasping for breath at the top of the stairs.

Truthfully other than the church and two hotel/restaurants, there isn’t much else up on that mountain, unless you count the hiking paths through the woods that lead down to sea. What it is, is a very peaceful place far from the reach of the hustle and bustle of the posh seaside towns below.  But the main reason I had brought my brother all the way up the mountain was to see the Basilica of Our Lady of Montallegro and all the ex-votos in the church.
 The Easiest Way to Get There
The Basilica is the centerpiece of Montallegro. It’s the only church I’ve ever been in where the walls are covered, practically floor to ceiling, with ex-votos, those small offerings often given in gratitude to a saint for fulfilling a vow. The ex-votos in Our Lady of Montallegro were given for help in passing a school exam to recovering from an illness to being rescued from the middle of the sea during a war time bombing. Some ex-votos are photos, others are hand drawn pictures or copies of school exams or medical results, but mostly they are little silver hearts tied with a small red ribbon. Ex-votos are part of a very old tradition that dates back to ancient Egypt, and like the Egyptians, the people of Rapallo had many reasons to be grateful.  

During the 16th century, when the church was built, Rapallo was just a small village of about 1,300 people. With easy access from the sea, the village was often attacked and sacked by the Ottomans and Barbary pirates.  With only a small civilian army, it was fairly easy for the famous Turkish pirate Alì Dragut Rais to overtake the village. During one brutal attack he sacked the village, captured many of the village’s inhabitants and then sailed away to Algeria to sell his captives as slaves.   
Delegation of Priests from Naples Visiting Montallegro 
After that devastating event, the villagers decided to build a fortress near the waterfront, and get themselves a cannon. Both the fortress and the cannon are still in place, just in case they are needed, even though the pirates are long gone.

But less than ten years after the attack by Ali Dragut Rais, Rapallo once again became a battleground. This time the war was between the two local noble families, the Bianchi and the Del Torre, who were fighting each other for control of the territory. At the same time, an equally dangerous threat was looming, the Black Plague. 
Ex-Voto Dated 1899  
The Black Plague, which had already killed thousands of Europeans, was rapidly spreading throughout Liguria, and if by some miracle you managed to avoid dying from the plague, you had a good chance of dying from small pox or TB, as both of those diseases were also spreading like wildfire. And if you did manage to avoid those diseases, there was always the threat of dying of hunger because of widespread famine caused by the fact that so many people were dying there was no one left to tend the fields, which were flooding because of torrential rains.  In other words, life was tough.

It was during this period that a farmer, Giovanni Chichizola of Canevale, claimed that the Virgin Mary had come to him while he was tending his goats in the hills above Rapallo, and told him to build a church on that site. To make a long story short, the church was built and even during the period of construction, life seemed to miraculously improve for the people of Rapallo.
After Visiting the Church, Lunch Under the Trees
The townspeople thanked the Virgin Mary for their improved fortune and began showing their thanks by bringing ex-votos to the church and putting them up on the walls. Farmers would give thanks for healthy crops, the merchants and artisans for continued success. Even seamen and fishermen would go to the church and make their vows and pray to the Virgin Mary to keep them safe at sea. 

Just because the pirates weren’t attacking the town any more didn’t mean that they were not lying in wait in one of the many coves that line the Ligurian coast, ready to pounce on the ships hauling cargo or bringing in treasure from far- away places.  And let us not forget the ever present danger of violent storms at sea and what that meant to fragile fishing boats and sailing ships out on the open sea.
Breathtaking View 
And if they survived, even salty sailors would trek up the mountain and show their gratitude with a heart or a painting or a souvenir brought back from where ever they had sailed home from. From its position high above the town, and closer to heaven, Montallegro was the perfect place to sit and give thanks to the Virgin Mary for their survival for they knew just how precarious their journey had been.  

But I’m not a sailor or a merchant or even a farmer, I’m not even a believer but there is something truly spiritual about being in Montallegro that brings me peace. I cannot think of a better way to spend an afternoon than sitting out under the trees at the Il Pellegrino hotel/restaurant, looking out over the sea, thinking about things and enjoying that feeling of renewal that I get when I’m there. It’s no wonder the Italians don’t talk about this place. They probably want to keep it all to themselves, and I don’t blame them.

24 June 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: The Delicious Scrippelle of Abruzzo

CHIAVARI, Italy – This post on scrippelles is one of the most popular posts on my blog, and one I thought was worth repeating.
Teramo, Abruzzo

Scrippelles are a typical food of Teramo, a small town in Abruzzo.  If you have never heard of them, you are not alone. I had never heard of them either until Debra Cardelli Cellucci of Philadelphia Pa. talked about them on an Italian-American Facebook page I follow.

Scrippelle are very thin pancakes made from flour, eggs and water. If you are thinking that’s the same recipe for crepes, you are right. They are one and the same. In fact, there is a real French connection to this dish according to an article published in a local Abruzzese magazine called The Abruzzo Enogastronomica, but more about that later.

The real difference between them is the way they are served. In Abruzzo scrippelles are served m’busse, which means in chicken broth. The basic idea is to first prepare a thin batter . . . but wait a minute, I think it’s better if Debra tells you herself. Here is her recipe from the Facebook page:
Scrippelle M'Busso
Debra’s Scrippelle M’Busso Recipe

“12 eggs, 3 cups of water, 1 cup of flour in a large mixing bowl. Beat eggs, add water, then slowly add flour while constantly mixing. Use a good crepe pan. Depending on the size of the pan you may want to cut them in half after rolling. Heat pan to medium to high heat, then lightly grease the pan with either fat back or olive oil.

I use a 10” crepe pan and add about half a soup ladle of batter and roll it around quickly so it spreads evenly.  It should be very thin. Lift the edges of the crepe and when the edges start to curl pick it up quickly and turn it over. It only takes about a minute or less on each side. Let each one cool for a minute or two before stacking them on top of each other.  1 dozen eggs makes about 40 10” crepes. They can be cut in half to double that to 80.

After they are cooked, mix grated pecorino cheese with black pepper to your taste. Take each crepe and sprinkle with a good amount of the cheese/pepper mix, and tightly roll the crepe. Cut them in half and stack them close to each other in a casserole dish or plastic container if you are going to freeze them. When you are ready to serve, let them come to room temperature. Place them in individual soup bowls and pour your favorite chicken soup over them.”
 Timballo di Teramo
And that, according to Debra, is all there is to it. In researching this dish, I found that some cooks like to roll the scrippelle tightly and then slice them into ribbons, like fettucine and then serve them with soup. The crepes are also used to make another delicious local dish called Timballo di Teramo.

This timballo is made in layers, like lasagna, but instead of pasta locals use scrippelle. And there is one other small difference; this timballo is made in a casserole dish rather than a lasagna pan. Using an ovenproof casserole dish, first put in a few spoons of sauce.  The sauce can be a white béchamel sauce with fried artichokes (spinach or peas works well too), and scamorza cheese. Or, you can use your favorite red tomato and meat sauce. Alternate a layer of scrippelle with a layer of sauce. The top layer should be sauce sprinkled with a good grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
 It All Starts Like This
In the Italian recipe it says to preheat your oven to 320 degrees F/160 degrees C and bake for about an hour until the flavors blend together and a slight crust forms on the top. You can probably get the same results with a 350 degree F/ 175 degree C oven and a cooking time of 25-30 minutes. What’s important is that the ingredients heat through and the sauce and the cheese are bubbling.

As for the French connection, the story goes back to the 16th century when the French ruled Abruzzo.  It seems the French chef in charge of the officers' mess in the town of Teramo, used to serve his officers crepes instead of bread. He though they were more ‘attractive’ than the dark coarse breads that were common at that time.

As it happened, one day when Messer Enrico Castorani, the chef’s helper, was moving a heaping plate of crepes, they fell into the soup pot that was filled with hot chicken soup. 

The chef didn’t know what to do. He decided to serve the crepes and the soup, and when he tasted the crepes in the soup, he found that it was a most delicious combination, and that, according to local legend, is how scrippelle in broth was created. 

 A special thanks goes out to Debra Cardelli Cellucci for sharing her recipe with us. Thanks Debra.