When we spent some time on the Amalfi Coast, one of our goals was to visit "the" ceramics town--Vietri sul Mare, just west of Salerno. One of its must-see places to visit was the amazing Ceramica Artistica Solimene, one of the most iconic artisan shops for Vietri ceramics. Rather than the geometri, Renaissance designs of other ceramic design shops, Solemene's designs are childlike, with free-handed strokes and creatures and colors of the life along the Amalfi Coast... fish, octopus, pigs, chickens and donkeys.
The building which houses the "factory" (if you can call it that, since all the ceramics are made by and painted by hand), is itself a work of art, commissioned by Vincenzo Solimene and completed in 1954. Architect Paolo Soleri designed this masterpiece of architecture, a mid-century modern homage to ceramics, with its inverted, cone shaped exterior covered with terracotta discs.
The interior houses a sales area on the first floor open to the skylights on the roof, with a ramp that spirals upward (no stairs, but there is a small elevator) to different levels where the clay is formed, sculpted and then painted. The spiraling design is similar to modern parking garages.
Chain smoking artisans welcome visitors and will even give short lessons on their techniques (our son--then 11--was shown how to attach a handle to a cup). Visiting the Solimene factory can be considered the highlight of spending some time in Vietri sul Mare's ceramics district--there are scores of ceramic shops within a few blocks.
The family business has been creating ceramics for more than a century and has produced tableware, garden ceramics and pots, sculptural pieces, floor and wall tiles--all worked and painted entirely by hand, using a combination of modern and ancient techniques, such as the potter's wheel. Their tableware is food safe (they utilize lead-free glazes) and can even withstand dishwashers. In our own Pennsylvania villa, we serve our meals on Solimene ceramics. So far, in about 5 years, no chips--just compliments.
Random pieces decorate the outside of the Solimene building
I never was interested in an inheritance from my parents. Not that I couldn't use some extra financial help when we had our son late in my life (I was 53 when he was born). After my Dad passed, my Mom didn't have all that much anyway... besides, I always felt strange about even discussing such things. When my Mom finally passed on some years ago, I actually refused to deposit the meager check my sister sent along after her affairs were supposedly "finalized".
But when my Mom was alive she did "will" me some things in person when she was moving from her tidy suburban home to a senior citizen's apartment complex. I treasure these simple things.
One treasure was her scolapasta. The literal translation of this essential kitchen tool is "dripping pasta", a very descriptive name for her colander. It might even me called scola maccharon' (macaroni drain) in southern dialect. My Mom would grab a mappine (pronounce mop-EEN, meaning dishtowel), pick up the boiling spaghetti pot and then dump the steaming pasta into the scolapasta to drain the water.
I remember when she offered it to me... "Here, you take this home". It was like she was passing the culinary baton to me and my cooking. No fanfare. But with that simple statement, I was honored all the same.
She must have poured several tons of pasta through that beautiful piece of aluminum for decades before I got it. It's a large one, too... holding two pounds of pasta. I've been using it every time we make pasta in the new Casa Finzi for over a decade now. It's amazing to think that this tool must be over 60 years old--at least--and still going strong. Try that with one made of plastic or from cheap Chinese steel. We actually have another colander that we bought in the famous Dehillerin kitchen shop in Paris, but somehow we always reach for Mom's scolapasta first...
Olive oil has been used in many other ways over the millennium... greasing wheels, cleaning the body, lighting ancient homes in lamps, polishing furniture, but the most important use for the golden elixir throughout the ages is in la Cucina.
But we don't always give our olive oil the respect and care it deserves. After all, we should respect an oil that I've witnessed with my own eyes still coming from trees hundreds and even thousands of years old. Olives are a gift from the gods... a gift of Mother Nature herself. They are a link to our past and a healthy path to our future.
Here are some ways you can give respect to your olive oil...
Someone get me a chair and a cool glass of water... Jeepers, this thing is sexy!
Find out more...
When we traveled through Italy, we fell in love with the style of la Cucina Rustica (the Rustic Kitchen), which still influence modern kitchen layouts. Stone, brick, tile and terracotta are the main materials used for sinks, counters, floors and other structures. If there is stone or brick in the structure, exposing them adds to the feeling of warmth. Wood beams on ceilings of above a hearth is almost a requirement. Often a modern cooktop and small oven (by American standards) are complimented by a propane tank and gas burner set into iron legs or an wood coal heated grill built right into the walls of the structure. There are many Cucina that have large and deep cooking hearths where pots would hang for cooking and baking. Modern farm style apron sinks popular today are mere great-grandchildren of the one piece carved and decorated marble or travertine sinks found in vintage Italian country kitchens.
The two photos above were taken in Trullo Gallo Rosso, a wonderfully restored compound of trulli that he runs as a B&B in Puglia. Our host Hugo prepared fantastic breakfasts in his own version of a Cucina Rustica. The property was originally owned by his grandparents and still contains treasures from his Nonna's cucina as well as well as keeping alive the traditional food.
The photo above was taken in the Cucina of our hot air balloon pilot's home in Tuscany (Idea Balloon Tuscany). Gianna and Stefano made us feel right at home, sharing wine, sausage, bread, cheeses and other treats... along with being able to scratch the bellies of their many pooches. Stefano told me that he had done much of the carpentry himself--the hand hewn thick walnut counter in the foreground can rotate to the other side of the kitchen via a floor-to-ceiling huge pivoting post. And just take a look at the kitchen table he built.
Even modern Italian kitchens don't need a lot of space. The fridge is small because most people pick up fresh food from markets and shops pretty much every day. There are less cupboards because Italian cuisine requires less equipment to prepare and cook and serve the foods. Their meals are simpler--small breakfasts and dinners--because pranzo (lunch) is the main meal of the day during the 2-3 hours riposa. Coffee machines are rare because most people prefer making espresso with their little Bialetti Moka pot. So open shelves are plenty for storage. One more element that might be overlooked is indoor shutters--in Italy, used to shut out the light and heat during the midday riposa.
Finishing touches and accessories to complete the
Cucina Rustica look...
To finish off a Cucina Rustica, you need accessories that not only look the part, but function well. After all, simplicity is the key in Italian cooking and kitchens. Great, long lasting pots hanging on a wall rack, good quality knives, storage jars and jugs, cutting boards and pizza peels, pasta bowls, a wall rack with your most used kitchen tools and of course, the ubiquitous Moka pot to make your espresso. I'll finish off with some ideas to inspire you in creating your own Cucina Rustica with some recommendations from Amazon products...
I've learned things in my many years of cooking... and I'm still learning lots of tricks and shortcuts in nella cucina. From time to time, I'll be passing long these Kitchen Hacks you our fellow Voyagers to help with many cooking tasks...
As you can tell, the first Hack concerns onions. There is a real science behind this Hack. Perhaps too much for the home cook to even want to understand. To boil it down: when you cut an onion, it releases sulfenic acid which then changes into other compounds as soon as they make contact with the air. These are the chemicals that burn your eyes so much.
Some people think it's the variety of onion that makes a difference, but the more precise truth is that it's where the onion is grown and in what type of soil that matters most. Sweet onions grown in less sulfur rich clay soils in places like Georgia contain less sulfur to start with.
All you really have to remember is to buy only "Sweet Onions" (this is what they are called in the U.S.). You will find them called Vidalia, Maiu Sweet, Mayan Sweet, Walla Walla, etc.
Do NOT use the bagged, smaller sized "yellow" onions. These are storage onions, and as such, their level of sulfur compounds increase as they age and when cut, they really burn your eyes.
Sweet Onions (we buy Vidalia unless making something requiring large amounts of onions, like French onion soup) are typically much larger and often a flatter, less round shape. They are also wetter than "storage" or bagged onions. As onions sit for long periods of time they dry out. The higher water content in large sweet onions help dilute the sulfur compounds. The dryer the onion, the more likely it will make you cry.
Here's a ranking with the LESS TEARFUL types on top:
Good luck keeping those tears at bay...
As an alternative, try these pro quality chef's onion goggles....
Laguiole Sommelier - Corkscrew
If you're discovering the world of fine Italian (or French, or even domestic) wines, you'll need to learn to open a bottle the way the professional sommeliers do... with a specialized device called a Sommelier. I bought my olive wood handled one in Alberobello, Puglia--the land of the magical Trulli pointed houses. One of the best to own is a Laguiole style... and this is a very good priced one. It has a cutter to slice through the foil covering the cork, a corkscrew and a two-stage lever for extracting the cork.
Click the photo or HERE to see this on Amazon for $100.
My wife Lisa gave me this as a stocking stuffer this past Christmas. It's a beautiful olive wood mattarello--a perfect small size (13") for rolling out pasta dough for hand made lasagna or tagliatelli. Being made from sustainable olive wood resources is a big plus in my book. Click the photo or HERE to see it on Amazon ($37)
Authentic, Certified Jean Dubost Steak Laguiole Knives
I have several Laguiole pocket knives. My first (with a fold-out corkscrew) was bought in Paris on my honeymoon, by my own honey as a gift to me. We had many picnics using that knife, both in France and Italy. I keep that one in my pocket every day.
These are beautifully made knives that will last a lifetime. The boxed set of six steak knives pictured above are the original style--and high quality--made in Thiers, France. They are not the poor imitations made in China from inferior steel and plastics that you see in catalogs nowadays. And these all have the little bee on the shank of the blade in fine detail.
Compare these to the cheap knockoffs and there's no comparison. The price reflects the quality. And to be clear, there is no such thing as a "Laguiole" brand... it is actually the name referring to the style (shape, design, quality) of knives made in the town of Thiers in the Auvergne region central France. The next time you try making a 4 inch thick, Bistecca alla Fiorentina over an open wood fire, you'll apreciate the feel of these blades. An investment of a lifetime, click the large photo above or HERE to see them on Amazon. ($390)
When you think of it, there's nothing as timeless as olive wood. These trees have been around since before the dawn of man. The wood is sweetly scented. The oils are precious to cooks throughout the world. And there are trees in Italy that are monuments to their long lived species.
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Whenever my wife grates Parmigiano Reggiano, she uses the same kind of cheese grater that my Mother used--a round, metal bowl with a dome-shaped grater on top. It only has fine holes--the type that grates the cheese fine enough to fit through the holes on the cap of of our glass cheese shaker jar. Watching Lisa shimmy and and shake as she grates away while I make out Saturday night pizza carries me back in time to our little apartment--Mom grating cheese while one of my sisters fills the "big pot" with water for Sunday's pasta and "Sunday Gravy" (Sugo). The nutty scent of grated cheese foretold of what was to come in the afternoon: meatballs, braciole, pork ribs and sausages.
There's something a bit old-world and romantic about grating cheese. Perhaps because it's something that's rarely done in American homes, with plastic tasting jars of phony grated cheese on their tables.
As for us, the only jar on our table is filled with cheese we've grated ourselves.... or Lisa, that is...
I like this Enrico 1005 Acacia Wood Cheese Grater and Shredder for $53 on AMAZON. Small enough to store easily, attractive enough to leave out on the kitchen counter and with the two most useful cutters included. --JF