Great Foods and Natural Delights Throughout Italy and Turkey
By RICHARD VIGNOLA
It was long overdue. Sue had been yearning to return to Italy ever since she and her sister visited many years ago, venturing for the first time away from their native London. Finally the flights were booked, and for a busy three weeks beginning in mid-May, we travelled from Rome to Venice in a twisty tour of the country’s historic cities and rural regions. As Canadians, we were so impressed to be walking through streets that have seen well over two thousand years of civilization: war, peace and everything in between. Looking at these ancient buildings, we marvelled at how magnificently preserved they are and wondered at the stories they could tell.
Sue is ready for the day's adventures!
After a couple of days visiting Rome’s historic sites, with our food focus firmly in mind, we arranged a culinary tour with local guide Veronica. Beginning at Piazza Farnese, we strolled through the morning market, where Veronica introduced us to popular street foods, like fried zucchini blossoms and rice balls. The tour continued with a walk through the Jewish quarter, crossing the Tevere (River Tiber) into Trastevere, long considered an eclectic food area of Rome. Lunch was a simple but delicious pasta (with wine of course!), and the tour ended at “the best gelato place in town!” We were both left feeling well-initiated into Italy’s food culture, with its focus on fresh, local ingredients eaten in season.
Richard gets into the spirit of Italian cooking at Antico Uliveto.
From Rome, we took a bus to Siena, in the heart of the Chianti region of Tuscany. In search of more rural accommodation, we booked into a working organic farm, which we found through the Agriturismo (Agri-Tourism) website. Our Tuscan paradise, Antico Uliveto (Ancient Olive Tree), is a small organic farm where we learned about the simple natural ingredients that make Tuscan cuisine so delicious and healthful. The farm is a mix of olive groves, grain fields and vineyards, producing wine, olive oil and a variety of grains - all certified organic. At the centre of this incredibly picturesque property sits a cluster of Tuscan-style buildings: the old family homestead, barn and workshop buildings, plus guest houses and a small swimming pool. During our all-too-short stay, Sue experienced a relaxing massage, while I attended a cooking class in the farm’s beautiful outdoor kitchen. Using fresh eggs, flour and olive oil (all from the farm), our small group learned to make pasta and biscotti by hand as we happily sipped Prosecco (Italy’s popular sparkling wine). Delicious in its simplicity, there’s nothing like fresh pasta! We promised ourselves we’d attempt both the recipes again at home.
Visit Rancho's YouTube channel
for our Rancho Kitchen videos, featuring Mardelle’s Tuscan-Style Biscotti recipe - or find it in our website's recipe section.
Sue and Richard navigate the steep and winding paths of Cinque Terre.
Saying goodbye to our new friends at Antico Uliveto, we took a train to Cinque Terre (The Five Lands), a rugged stretch of coast in the Liguria region of Italy, comprised of five picturesque villages. The residents have carefully built garden and vineyard terraces on the steep landscape right up the cliffs overlooking the sea. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. With most of its food and wine produced locally, Cinque Terre is definitely a slow-food paradise!
A warm welcome at Florence's Central Market.
Moving on to Florence, we settled into our hotel and began to take in the historic sights in this ancient city, the jewel of Tuscany! Ready for another food experience, we arranged a cooking class with the local chef, Riccardo, who first took us to Florence’s Central Market to buy ingredients from all his favourite vendors. A highlight was sampling truffle oils, cheeses and aged balsamic vinegar drizzled on fresh bread, surrounded by the bustling activity of the busy market. We learned that Florentines are quite strict about when specific foods should be eaten. It’s said you can often tell the time of year from items featured on a restaurant's menu. Fresh and in season is always the focus! Together with the group’s eight other participants, we had a delightful class in the fifteenth-century building which houses Riccardo’s cooking school. On the menu was bruschetta, the inevitable pasta, this time with pesto sauce, followed by traditional apple cake and gelato, all using fresh, natural ingredients. After preparing, and then consuming, our fabulous lunch, we exchanged emails and headed out into the hot sunshine with full stomachs and glad hearts.
Learning to cook in the Italian style, using fresh, quality ingredients in simple recipes, brought me once again to my deep appreciation for being in the whole food business. This is what it’s all about: people growing, preparing and eating food together.
Our final Italian destination was Venice, where exploring the ancient cobbled streets often resulted in us getting lost, yet always finding something to marvel at! With no cars, motorcycles or even bicycles, Venice was the perfect way to end our Italian journey and begin the second leg of our trip.
Istanbul: where East meets West. After the relative serenity of Venice, landing in Istanbul was like being thrown into Dante’s inferno! A sprawling city of 17 million (the unofficial number is said to be closer to 24 million) straddling the Eastern and Western worlds, Istanbul is a huge melting pot of cultures and civilizations. With our hotel located in the ancient and historical Sultanahmet neighbourhood, we were within walking distance of iconic landmarks, such as the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia Mosque and the incredible Grand Bazaar.
We spent a few unforgettable days exploring the sights, experiencing the rich and diverse culture and learning the history of this fascinating city. Eager to begin our Turkish food adventures, we booked a cooking class with the renowned Selin Rozanes, a native of Istanbul who specializes in Turkish culinary experiences (TurkishFlavours.com
Selin arranged to meet us at the entrance to Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar. Once the largest spice trading venue of the mediaeval world, it now contains over 4,000 booths. Selin took us straight to her favourite - No. 51 - which is operated by a charismatic young woman called Bilge (bil-gay) who, along with her brother, inherited the booth from their father. During her early years running the booth, Bilge was mocked by the mostly male spice vendors, who anticipated her very quick failure. Instituting new hygienic practices to protect and prolong the potency of their exotic spices, Bilge and her brother quickly proved them wrong. No. 51 is now one of the most popular booths in this busy market, with the other vendors trying to emulate their practices.
Richard taking a lesson in Turkish cuisine from Selin Rozanes of Turkish Flavours.
After purchasing spices and essential oils, Selin brought us to her home, where she holds her cooking classes. During the next two hours we learned to make many traditional Turkish “meze” (appetizers), such as muhammara (a spread featuring red peppers and toasted walnuts), hummus and börek (a Turkish staple which is essentially layers of filo pastry filled with cheese, meat, spinach and/or other delights). Baked sea bass in a fresh tomato, herb and onion sauce was the main dish, followed by a simple but delightful dessert of reconstituted dried apricots stuffed with clotted cream and covered in chopped pistachios. The best part of any cooking class is not only trying new recipes, but also learning the cooking style and special flavours of the country or culture you're visiting. Selin is an expert in her craft, and we enjoyed discussing food and culture as we cooked. Another delicious day was completed by sitting down to enjoy everything we’d prepared. (Watch for these recipes and other tantalizing dishes in the recipe section
of our website.)
Izmir: visit to Nimeks Organics. Flying to the city of Izmir on the southeast coast, we arranged to meet with representatives of Nimeks Organics. Nimeks Organics is a large agricultural company involved in the production and processing of organic fruits and vegetables, primarily apricots from the Malatya region in eastern Turkey and figs from the Izmir province on the western coast. Nimeks, and their partner firm Mapeks, operate several farms and processing plants throughout Turkey and are a major player in Turkey’s organic food production.
Upon our arrival, we were served a glass of the traditional çay (pronounced chai), a mild black tea produced in the Black Sea region and served in a fluted glass. We were soon joined by Nimeks’ sales and marketing manager, Cigdem Cerci, who used her proficient English to introduce us to the company's president and operations director, brothers Omer and Niyazi Memur. The Memurs' father was one of the first farmers to begin growing apricots organically 25 years ago.
Handing out bags of Rancho’s organic Super Antioxidant Goji Mix, we introduced ourselves by describing Rancho Vignola’s commitment to deal in only fresh, new crop products. We pointed out that our core value has always been to help establish a link between the farmers who grow food and those who consume it. Sharing the stories about the lives of farmers in other lands, and in turn the appreciation of those customers who love to purchase these delicious products, creates a mutual sense of nourishment that unites us. Despite the language limitations, we felt our message was well understood and appreciated.
Apricot crop failure. We learned from Niyazi Memur that 2014 has been particularly devastating for apricots, as the Malatya region was hit by a heavy frost in March which destroyed approximately 90% of the blossoms. The current estimate is that the crop will be roughly 10% of the usual tonnage, making this year one of the worst on record for apricot production. Nimeks is confident they will be able to bring in apricots from other nearby countries such as Iran and Iraq, as well as some countries in the former USSR, so we are hopeful of securing a supply this year. However, we can expect prices to at least double from those of last year. More will be known closer to harvest time.
This news changed our plans, so instead of travelling east to the remote Malatya region to visit the apricot orchards, we were encouraged by our hosts to stay in Izmir province and visit their fig-farming projects.
A village of farmers. Making our farewells to the Memur brothers, we were introduced to Nimeks' system coordinator, Duygu Oylum, and her father Fikret, the agricultural plant manager, who were to accompany us to the fig plantations. We drove through the vibrant countryside, passing numerous olive groves, and were treated to lunch in the historic village of Ephesus-Selcuk. Continuously climbing higher, we eventually reached a small winding road that led us to Arpadere Village. There we saw first-hand a 200-hectare organic fig plantation set in a steep and narrow valley. The views were absolutely breathtaking, with figs and olive trees planted in neat rows way up the hillsides.
We parked in the town square and emerged from the car to be greeted by about twenty men, all sitting outside the café drinking tea. There are only about 100 people living in this remote village, and everyone is involved with the fig plantation. These farmers rarely get visitors, let alone people from Canada, so needless to say, we were quite the attraction! Sue and I shook hands with everyone there and sat down for rounds of çay. As best we could, and with help from Duygu, we explained where we lived in Canada and how our customers really enjoyed organic Turkish figs. In turn, our new friends explained to us, in a mixture of Turkish, hand gestures and some translation from Duygu, the process of growing figs as it has been done since before anyone can remember - without irrigation or any help from the Monsantos of the modern world!
It was a long and interesting day, and we were exhausted when we arrived back in Izmir late in the evening.
Yet we were filled with such joy at meeting these simple farming folks living far up in the ancient Turkish hills, working the land as their ancestors have done for centuries! The story of these good-hearted people producing foods that nourish and sustain us truly fuels the human spirit and expands our global community. Share and enjoy!