Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book editor selection is small step forward for my publication hopes

My long, slow effort to publish a book about our experiences in Italy has taken a step forward, as I recently chose an editor from among three that I was considering. All of them did a sample edit of about half of my first chapter, and I basically went with the editor that I felt was the most ruthless when it came to suggesting changes and additions.

The first editor to respond gave me glowing comments, but she didn’t really do much editing. The second editor made some good stylistic and grammatical changes, and she had excellent credentials. I was poised to chose her, but I decided to wait for the third editor, who had told me that she couldn’t get back to me with a sample edit for about three weeks because she was busy on another project. I told myself she would have to really knock my socks off to beat out editor number two, and then she did it.

Having been a journalist and journalism teacher for much of my life, I am accustomed to the editing process and know how much a second pair of trained eyes can improve a text. I know my own writing is not above criticism; in fact, every time I re-read one of my blogs, I find mistakes or wording that could have been more effective. I didn’t want to hire an editor who would tell me only what she liked about my writing.

However, the editor I selected, Lizzie Harwood, had other factors in her favor. She also has written a memoir about her experiences in a foreign land, Xamnesia: Everything I Forgot in my Search for an Unreal Life. I downloaded and read this while I was waiting for her sample edit, and it was well done. She is currently living in France and once spent part of a year studying in Italy, so I knew she could relate to our experiences of living abroad.

However, perhaps the most significant consequences of my choice may be that Lizzie is adept at book publicity and publishing through the new avenues of print-on-demand and e-books, and for a little extra, she will guide me through these experiences. I may well need this help, because I have almost given up on trying to find a publisher through the conventional methods of querying an agent and then a publisher.

I have resisted looking into any kind of self-publishing because of a sense that there is still some stigma attached to it. I would be saying, “My book isn’t good enough attract a real publisher.” But darn it, I’ve read at least 20 other books about foreigners living in Italy, and my book is better than most of them. How did they find publishers when I haven’t been able to?

However, in the past month, I made a list of books printed in the last 10 years about living in Italy and France and then looked at the names of their publishers. What I discovered opened my eyes: Nearly 90 percent were self published; most used Amazon Digital Services. A few found small or specialty publishing houses. Almost none were printed by mainstream publishers.

This is probably because mainstream publishers—and agents as well—are hoping to land something that has the potential to be really big. “99 percent of titles printed will never sell enough copies to recover all the costs associated with creating and publishing them,” book author Lee Ballentine wrote in Forbes magazine in May 2014. That means that the other books have to sell well enough to pay for the money-losing 99 percent that publishers have taken a chance on. The odds that my memoir about living in Italy is going to be a runaway best-seller are about the same as a pig flying over the moon. Travel memoirs are a niche field that have dedicated fans who will always generate some sales, but the novelty and fanfare that made Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun so popular has cooled.

I may still find a boutique or specialty publisher, but the odds are long, and likely I will have to find another way. Fortunately, views are changing, as the authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published have noted: “The fact is, self publishing can be a ball. The onus of the ugly duckling is gone . . . people are publishing books on their own because they choose to. Because they see opportunities in the market and want a bigger share of the pie than publishers offer; because they want full control of their book; because they don’t want to have to wait for the sloooooow publishing machine.”

Now I have to wait for the editing process, and afterward I’ll have the difficult task of re-writing based on my editor’s suggestions. But I’m encouraged with the knowledge that I’ll come out with a better manuscript, that I’ve found a way forward that is ultimately under my own control, that I will eventually have a book to show.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A perfect day for the first of our 50 hikes in the hills of Tuscany

Almost there--We take a selfie while gathering strength for the final assault. 
The predicted warmest day of March and a book called “50 Hikes in and around Tuscany” both shouted at us yesterday, saying we should take a hike—and so we did, spending a good part of the Saturday before Easter taking the Monte Pisano loop. It is listed as a moderately easy five-mile hike that takes about three hours, and experienced trekkers that we are, we knocked it out in a little more than five hours—we like to stop and smell the flowers, eat the chocolate chip cookies and M&Ms from our backpacks, and take various breaks for photos and to catch our breath.

We had a little trouble finding the way to the trail head, because our GPS device couldn’t find the address we put in, and the guidebook gave directions from Firenze and Pisa but not from Lucca. After fussing with the GPS for 15 minutes, we gave up and just decided to go through Buti and pick up the guidebook directions from there.
It cost us an extra 10 minutes of driving time, but hey, who wouldn’t want to go through a city called Buti (understand that the Italian “u” is pronounced like the “oo” in boot). Of course, I had to stop and have Lucy snap a photo of the sign, and she said point to the “Buti,” and so I did.

We found this a perfect time of the year to hike, because the deciduous trees still have no leaves, the plants and flowering trees are blooming and the temperature is perfect. The only problem is the perpetual haze in this area of Tuscany that prevents long-distance views. I think some of the haze is naturally occurring, but most of it is likely caused by the burning of olive branches and smoke from the paper manufacturing factories that are abundant in the region. Each of the 50 million or so olive trees of Tuscany has to be pruned to be fruitful next fall, and then the branches are burned throughout the winter and early spring. The day had almost no wind, so the haze deepened throughout the day, preventing us seeing more than about 40 miles.
A nice photo taken by Lucy. See what I mean about the haze?

Lucy coming up the trail just before we stopped to take a cookie break.

The guidebook says, “From the summit you can clearly see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the mouth of the Arno River, as well as the Tuscan Archipelago to the west, the Tuscan hill country to the south, the Alpi Apuane, Cinque Terre, and Lucca to the north. On an incredibly clear day, particularly in the winter, you can see the snow capped French Alps across the sea.” We could, with great difficulty, make out the Leaning Tower in Pisa and the towers in Lucca, but we could only see as far north as Viareggio—only about a third of the way to Cinque Terre. We didn’t even try to take long distance photos, because of the haze and the fact that we don’t have a telephoto lens and a polarizing filter.
We did see this view of Lucca, but not as clearly as the one another blogger captured and I have borrowed.

We noticed that even the scenic photos from the guidebook were hazy. However, I later went online to some other blogs and tourism websites and grabbed a couple of photos of what we might have seen on the right kind of day and with the proper equipment. We couldn’t see Montecarlo because it was either too far away or blocked by Monte Serra, the highest of the mountains of Pisa and the one with all the telecommunications antennae that we see every day from our terrazzo. We did enjoy watching three hang gliders sailing over Lake Massaciuccioli, although they were pretty far away.
See the Torre di Pisa down there? Neither do I, but we could just make it out as a little speck in real life.

Lucy commented that what impressed her the most were the bicyclists, who rode their mountain bikes all the way to the top of the mountain. “They had great stamina and fortitude, as well as giant leg muscles,” she said. “Riding down would be scary, too, with the gravel and rocks. And won’t their brakes overheat?” I told her that their bikes were probably worth more than some of our cars. Two bicyclists had bikes with electric motors to help with the climb. There were a few other hikers, but we were by ourselves for the most part. Monday is Pasquetta, a traditional day in Italy when families take hikes and picnic in the countryside, so it probably will be more crowded then.
This is also a borrowed photo. Le Cinque Terre would be just about where the sun is setting, although on the seaboard side, so on a clear day, one can see as far as the Cinque Terre, but not actually see them. In the foreground is Lago di Massaciuccioli, the lake which mostly famous because Giacomo Puccini had a home nearby and often went huting and fishing there. Behind the lake is the beach-side city of Viareggio.
Lucy refused my challenge to engage in
a pine cone fight.
We hope in the weeks and years to come to take more of the 50 routes listed in the book, especially some in the nearby Alpi Apuane—even if most of those promise to be more strenuous. We’re thankful that we’ve chosen to come to Italy while our health still permits us to take hikes like this.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What is so good about Parmigiano-Reggiano? It’s so scrumptious that a new word has to be invented

I'm hooked by the golden grainy goodness
of Parmigiano-Reggiano
Parmigiano-Reggiano has long been cherished by chefs and gourmets because of the way it improves so many dishes. It is the best cheese in the world, according to no less an authority than my own taste buds, which, to me, are the most important experts. After my recent visit to a cheese factory, I decided to do some research on the health benefits of the cheese, which are numerous, but I also chanced upon fascinating information about its taste. Food scientists have isolated and officially recognized a fifth taste (the first four are widely known: sweet, sour, bitter and salt) and given it the name umani,” a word borrowed from Japanese, since it was a Japanese chemist who first wrote about it in 1908.

Umani has been variously translated as “savory,” “meaty,” “good flavor,” “yummy” or “scrumptiousness.” However it’s described, it turns out that Parmigiano-Reggiano contains more umani elements than almost another other cheese—or any other food, for that matter. Wikipedia says that Japanese scientists described the flavor as “a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth.”
Cheese being tested with a special tool.

Food scientists have also noted that the optimum umani taste depends on the amount of salt, an ingredient that is infused in Parmigiano-Reggiano, apparently in just the right amount. Taste tests have found that low-salt foods can maintain a satisfactory taste with the appropriate amount of umani flavor: Ratings on pleasantness, taste intensity and ideal saltiness of low-salt soups were greater when the soup contained umani, whereas low-salt soups without umani were less pleasant. Other tests have shown that elderly people may benefit from umani taste because their taste and smell sensitivity is impaired by age and medicine.

Returning to the health benefits, Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered so nutritious that it is the cheese of choice in space, selected for both U.S. and Russian astronauts. Skiers, mountain climbers and cyclists often carry the cheese when training because it keeps well and is packed with protein and nutrients. When compared to other cheeses, it is lower in fat and sodium and higher in vitamins and minerals. It contains nineteen of twenty-one amino acids the body needs, and a 1-ounce serving provides as much as 30 percent of a person's RDA for calcium. A 2-ounce serving of Parmigiano-Reggiano contains about 20.3 grams of protein, which is 41 percent of the daily value set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Doctors prescribe the cheese for the elderly and infants because it is easily digested and lactose-free. Athletic trainers and sport dietitians recommend it for athletes because it is nutritious even in small amounts and is easily digested.

It is also produced naturally and comes from cows whose diets are also natural and strictly controlled. Made from only milk, natural calf rennet and salt, it contains absolutely no additives, and the milk used to make it is ultra-fresh: It contains no antibiotics, no steroids and no growth hormones. What the cows eat is well documented; it is a diet consisting primarily of vegetation grown in the carefully delineated Parmigiano-Reggiano region, with no silage.

“The micro-climate is a factor of great importance for animal welfare, as it can deeply affect not only the productive and reproductive performance of cattle, but, also and above all, the quality of the milk produced,” said animal expert Emanuel Bonetto, writing in an Italian technical magazine. This is one of the main reasons that Parmigiano-Reggiano can’t be duplicated anywhere else. If one took cows from Emilia-Romagna to another country and tried to feed them the same diet, it wouldn’t work, because of differences in the quality and balance of the vegetation, the temperature of the air, the chemical composition of the water and a variety of other subtle but important factors. And one would also have to try to simulate the temperatures and humidity of the region during the long process of fermentation, which can take anywhere from twelve to seventy months.

The region’s cheese consortium website explains why it is important to prohibit silage: “In the 60s and 70s, highly-productive agricultural methods were being established, and the maize silage technique certainly met these needs of high productions at lower costs. However, this also caused qualitative problems in the production of long maturation cheese. The anaerobic environment of silage develops a kind of bacteria, butyric clostridia, that reproduce via spores, i.e. tiny capsules where bacteria are quiescent. These spores are highly resistant and can easily survive at cheese making temperatures. They end up in the milk through environmental contamination and hence in the cheese. When certain conditions occur, spores open and release bacteria that start to grow and develop gas with the resulting presence of cracks and holes in the cheese paste. These bacteria can be kept under control by means of certain additives, which may be harmless or natural, like lysozyme, but which in any case are used to correct a lack of quality of the milk.

Tullio Ferrari
“Parmigiano-Reggiano has adopted a radically different strategy, that of preventing the occurrence of problems. It was decided to ban the use of silage to keep the level of clostridia spores minimal in milk. Therefore, in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, naturalness means using a milk that has its own microbiological balance. It means that its microbiological base consists of the lactic bacteria that are naturally present in milk, that are typical of the area of origin and the development of which must be favored by the dairy process. These are the reasons why Parmigiano-Reggiano is a true combination of nature and knowledge.”

Or, as the head of the Caseficio Il Battistero, Tullio Ferrari, told me: “It is not manufactured; it is made. It’s a miracle of nature.”


Monday, March 21, 2016

Smells, sounds and flavors of our visit to Parmigiano-Reggiano factory cling to clothes, taste buds and memory

The signature dotted impressions that show authenticity.
As much as I enjoy living in Italy, one would think I must be crazy about the great wines that are so readily and cheaply available. Or maybe I crave the espresso and cappuccino that Italians swear by. Not so. I enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner, and I enjoy a coffee when offered. But there is one local specialty that really does make me drool, and that is Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, often called the “king of cheeses.” Every time I grate some over my soup or pasta, I nip little bits of it straight off the block. Even one little shaving makes my taste buds sing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. And then one day, it dawned on me that we live only two hours from Emilia Romagna, where this heavenly formaggio is made. Why not go and see this miracle of nature up close and personal?

Our friends Steve and Patti Gray were coming to see us, and we always like to plan an outing during their visits, so I checked online for guided tours in English. I found many possibilities, but we decided to settle on a less expensive option and go directly to one of the cheese makers. Why pay for an interpreter when we have our bilingual friends, who are celebrating their thirtieth year in Italy this year? I contacted the Caseificio Sociale Il Battistero, a cheese-making farm located in Varano De’ Melegari in the province of Parma. A tour in Italian, led by the director, would cost only 5 euros per person, so I signed us all up, including new friend Michele Jones, who has come to Italy for a few months to work in the Gray’s church in Padova.
Tullio shows us the large trays where the evening milk separates.

We left Montecarlo at 7 a.m. for a two-hour drive. It is important to view a cheese factory in the morning, because that’s when most of the work is done. Our GPS led us astray once, and we arrived a half hour late, but it didn’t matter. We were greeted by Tullio Ferrari, and we asked if he was the boss, the capo. “No, sono il risponsabile (the person in charge).” We shouldn’t say he is the capo because that’s what the heads of mafia families are called, he explained. Tullio provided us with cups of espresso while we donned sanitary gowns, gloves, hair coverings and face masks to prevent any contamination of the caseificio, the dairy factory.

A modern spino in the hands of a skilled worker.
The first written records of the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese come from the 13th century, when it was called “caseus parmensis,” but in all likelihood, it’s history long precedes that era. Cheese is mentioned in the Old Testament at least five times and is also found in other books of antiquity. In the last 100 years, the Parmigiano-Reggiano process has become much more formalized and controlled. Now, Tullio’s factory is regularly inspected by experts from at least four levels of government, as well as those from a cheese-making consortium. Times, temperatures and sanitary standards must be strictly observed. Inspectors may come at any time. “Here, we are nobody, but we’re never alone,” Tullio joked. He apologized for the factory noise, but he added that “we we can’t stop for even a minute.

Milk in one of the large flat vats.
The real process had started the day before, when the cows were milked and the milk was left to rest in large vats overnight. During this time, the fatty parts, which are later used to make butter, rise to the surface and are skimmed off. When the morning milk arrives (the Caseificios 225 cows are milked twice daily, and each cow has her own milking stall and machine), it is combined with the evening skimmed milk and poured into large copper cauldronscaldaiaeshaped like upside-down bells. We saw six of these cauldrons in use, each with about 1,100 liters of milk, and Tullio explained that the milk had been placed in each caldaia at intervals. That means that the workers have about ten minutes to work with each caldaia before moving on the next, and then starting back at the first caldaia for the next step.

Six large cauldrons are filled each morning,
365 days a year.
With the milk heated to around 33 to 35 degrees Celsius (91-95 F), a “starter” whey—rich in natural enzymes and lactic acid bacteria, and obtained from the previous days processing—is mixed in. This can roughly be compared to adding yeast saved from an earlier batch of bread to new bread dough, because the old has the right bacteria needed to initiate chemical reactions in the new.

Then natural calf rennet is added, which makes the milk begin to curdle after about ten minutes. While the history of cheese-making predates recorded history, anthropologists speculate that cheese was accidentally discovered when people used cow bladders, the source of rennet, to transport milk; the rennet caused the milk to turn to cheese. Once the curd began to form, we watched the workers break it into tiny granules about the size of rice grains using a spino. Now this is a modern-looking tool, but a spino was once made from a tree branch with many small branches protruding from it, Tullio said.

Solid granules of cheese are captured in a muslin cloth.
The curd is then cooked at the temper-ature of 55 degrees Celsius (131 F) and left to settle for about forty-five minutes to an hour. At the end of this process, the granules sink to the bottom of the caldaia and aggregate into a single mass. After about fifty minutes, the mass is extracted with skillful movements into a muslin cloth and cut into two sections. Each section is put into a stainless steel cheese mold, which gives it the characteristic wheel shape.
Fascia marchiante
After a day or two, the cheese is removed from the mold and wrapped with a casein plate—the fascia marchiante—which will stamp each cheese block with a sort of identity card which shows, among other things, the date made, the factory number, from which stalls the milk came and even how long it took to make the cheese. “By our rules, the process can’t take more than two hours,” Tullio said.
Cheese molds with salt brine baths in the background.

Each wheel of cheese is then put into a brine bath to absorb salt for twenty to twenty-five days. After brining, the cheese is transferred to an aging room, where it must remain for at least twelve months and sometimes as long as 70 months, my favorite part of the process. The wheels are positioned in rows upon rows twenty shelves tall in a tranquil but incredibly fragrant storeroom. Each of them weighs about 38 kilograms (84 pounds) and takes about 550 liters of milk to make. They gradually turn from creamy white to straw yellow, and they have more in common with gold than just the color. A full wheel currently sells on Amazon for $1,110, and the longer they cure, the more expensive they are.
Cheese wheels 20 shelves high.

The two things I loved about the aging room: The deep, pungent, mouth-watering odor, and the amazing robotic machine that constantly cruises the room, reaching out and lifting, flipping and rotating each wheel of cheese every seven days while also cleaning the shelves. Tullio said that when he started working in the caseificio at age 14, he had to do this work himself. “I was three times as big then from all the lifting,” he said.

The cheese-flipping  robot at work in the background.
After the experts of the cheese consortium examine each wheel to determine its quality—they weigh it, examine its surface and rap on it with a special hammer and listen to the sound it makes—the wheels that pass the inspection receive a certificate of guarantee and are fire branded to show the meet PDO (protected designation of origin) standards. Cheese aged for eighteen months instead of twelve can receive the higher marks of “extra” or “export.” Cheeses that don’t meet the standards must have all the marks and dotted writing removed by a grinding wheel.

“At times, I am ashamed to call myself Italian,” Tullio said. “But knowing all that goes into the making of this cheese—the high standards, the careful quality checks, the long history, the worldwide fame—I can be proud to be Italian.” In fact, Tullio’s farm won a Gold Medal for the third straight year in the 2015-16 World Cheese Awards contest in Birmingham, England, held last November.

On the way out, we passed Tullio’s son, who was making ricotta, but we didn’t stop to see the process. Tullio said he was “ashamed to say that we make a much bigger profit on ricotta,” which can be manufactured and sold almost immediately. “Within 48 hours, we can turn a profit,” he said. “It actually subsidizes the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which takes years before we can make a sale.” The farm also produces butter, mozzarella, yogurt, caciocavallo and some other types of cheese I have not tried.
Two workers pull out the cheese granules. What remains is whey, but nothing will go to waste here. Some of the whey is
used again the next day. The rest of it is used to make other types of cheeses and even as an ingredient in sports drinks.

I know I said the aging room was my favorite, but perhaps a close second was the tasting room. It is nothing special in itself, except that we could eat all the samples we wanted of various ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I could already smell the odors of the aging room clinging to my clothes when I walked into the tasting room. After handling and tasting the cheese, my hands smelled of cheese for hours afterward, and the taste of the samples lingered on my tongue. Of course, we bought three large pieces of cheese, as well as butter and yogurt, so I will enjoy the memories of this tour for months to come each time I unwrap and cut off another slice.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

We celebrate our first open house, and afterwards my residency is confirmed

We had a little rinfresco at our house yesterday evening, an open house. We decided to keep it small and invite primarily Seghieri relatives, partly because Don Seghieri from California is still visiting, and it gave him a chance to meet some of his cousins. Keeping it small also helped because Lucy and I need to concentrate every ounce—err, gram—of our energy on understanding what is being said by the Italian guests, with our language skills still not being where we would like them to be. We will have a separate open house later for the Spadoni side of the family.
Ivo (far right) proved to be the life of the party. Note the big smile on Elena's face.

Gilda, Roberta and Marilena from the Casolare dei Fiori came first, actually a day earlier than we had expected, but that was entirely my fault for putting the wrong date on the written invitation. When I had passed the invitations out, I said the event would be on Saturday from 4-6 p.m., but I had written Friday’s date, causing some confusion, naturally. I was able to send Facebook messages to most of the people to make a correction, though not everyone on the invitation list has a Facebook account.

Cousin Ivo showed up first, right at 4 p.m., with some homemade fried zucca (yellow squash) and biscotti fatto con granturco, the latter a creation all his own—cantuccini made with corn flour. The squash, corn and eggs all came from his own orto. The fried squash was particularly good.

Ivo is a fantastic character, a throwback to the times of the country’s past, a true gem. Raised in the simple life of a contadino and educated only through elementary school, he gives us a glimpse of what life was like here in the times of my grandparents. He grows and cooks his own food as much as possible. He forages in the woods for wild herbs, mushrooms and berries. And best of all, he is a friendly and free spirit who can talk and entertain with ease. Lucy asked him about jobs he has done in his lifetime, and he launched into story telling mode with vigor.

I showed Matteo some of my family tree
research on the computer.
While some of my other Italian cousins seem a little cautious, even nervous, in their conversations because they know I can’t understand everything, Ivo charges ahead, carrying on long, one-sided conversations. If I indicate by voice or expression that I haven’t understood something important, he will back up and re-explain (in truth, I never understand everything, but usually I’m satisfied if I can grasp about 80 percent). I’m sorry I can’t relay the conversation with the kind of depth it deserves, because all I can repeat are the bare facts: He was a farmer, he was in the Italian peacetime army, he drove a food delivery truck, he slaughtered rabbits and delivered the meat to local stores. I know that’s only four things, but I wasn’t taking notes and I have forgotten the rest of the story, which actually included a couple of others jobs that he only did for a day or two before he realized they weren’t for him.

I wish I could do a better job of relating what he said, but imagine listening to a combination of Andy Griffith and my uncle Roy Spadoni (for those readers who were lucky enough to know him) telling some of their life stories, and you can get a picture of what it’s like to listen to Ivo.
3 Seghieris: Flavia, Davide and Ivo.

After a little more than half an hour, Don and his party showed up, and I introduced them to Ivo. Luckily, moments later, Elena, her husband Davide and their daughter Flavia, age sixteen in a few days, arrived. Elena was desperately needed to serve as interpreter. A few minutes after, Matteo, Ivo’s twenty-seven-year-old nephew, also came. He and Flavia speak some English, so with Lucy and me included, we now had four amateur interpreters and one professional.

Even with a fairly large group, sitting in a circle in our living room, Ivo continued to take center stage telling stories from his past. Elena could translate, but we could tell that even she had difficulty. A couple of times she laughed hard enough to turn red in the face, but the interpretation couldn’t do justice to the manner in which Ivo had delivered the anecdote. The story that made her laugh the most concerned an incident when Ivo had been asked to try out for the army choir. They asked him to sing the note A. “Do you want me to sing B too?” he had asked. “No, we’ve heard enough; you’re dismissed.”

Our friend Davide Lucchesi
All in all, the open house went every bit as well as we had hoped. Lucy’s dolci had been a big hit, and nearly all of what wasn’t consumed on-site went home in plastic bags with guests. I wish a couple of other family members could have come, but we were satisfied and pleasantly exhausted when everyone left around 6:15 p.m. And then one latecomer dropped by, Davide, from the Bar alla Fortezza just down the street. Before we had wi-fi installed in our house, we had gone there regularly to use the Internet and had made his acquaintance.

Just as Davide left, we had still one more visitor, a policewoman from the city hall. She had come to verify that I have truly established residence in Montecarlo. While she declined to accept any sweets (insert favorite joke about American donut-eating cops here), we were happy to know that I had passed the last hurdle for my residency requirement. When she left, we sat down and ate the last two pieces of cream cheese pie while watching a video, entirely in English this time, as we were too tired by now to listen to any more Italian for the evening.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Donald Seghieri peers into the past in a visit to the home of his grandfather

Don and Kathy in front of an original wall and an old window
that has been decorated and converted to a mirror.
I kind of took my cousins for granted in my younger days. Of the seven families in our neighborhood, six were related. The cousins that didn’t live in my neighborhood I saw at school or family gatherings, or just ran into them around Gig Harbor. Now that I’m much older, I realize how special it was to have an extended family, people who grew up with a common heritage. Some of my cousins lived farther away and I didn’t even know about them until recently, such as third cousin Don Seghieri, who came up from California for a family reunion a few years ago (see Finding a lost Seghieri and solving questions of mysterious visits). Now Don and some of his family have now come to Tuscany to see where Don’s grandfather came from.

We were able to tour the left side of the old house of Egidio Seghieri and his parents Egisto Seghieri and Virginia Giuntoli.
Don and his wife Kathy, along with Kathy’s brother Jay and Jays wife Cathy, are staying at the Casolare dei Fiori agriturismo, using it as a home base to explore the area. We went with them Sunday afternoon to see the house where Don’s grandfather, Egidio Seghieri, lived before he came to America in 1905. Don had sent me the address two years ago, and I had gone to the house then to take some photos to send him. At the time, I noticed some construction starting on one end of the house.
The same house, viewed in April of 2014.

Don touches an old beam.
We drove into the yard to take some photos of the exterior, and immediately we felt self conscious, because there was a girl playing in the yard, and her dad was working outside. Don turned the car around to get ready to make a quick exit in case they shooed us away. Meanwhile, I hopped out of the car to explain what we were doing. The man, Signor Annibale (I have forgotten his first name) and his wife Barbara immediately invited us all inside, so I relayed the message to our group, and we took a twenty-minute tour hosted by one of the friendliest Italian families we have ever encountered.

Jay, Cathy, Lucy, Kathy, Paul, Don
They had purchased the western half of the house about three years ago and have been working on their part ever since. The yard and house exterior have been completely made over, and it looks sensational. Inside was just as impressive, with new wall surfaces and new windows, and floors cleaned up. Where possible, they left parts of the old walls and fireplace visible out of respect for their history. The roof tiles are all new, but the original beams, rafters and joists are still in place and visible. Barbara even saved one of the old window frames and expertly repainted it and put a mirror in place of the glass.
Knowing that my grandfather lived in this particular house had special meaning to me,” Don said. “It gave me chills to pass through the same rooms, walk the same long dirt driveway and see where he cooked his meals. My grandfather passed away before I was born, so all I knew of him was by word of mouth, but I felt closer to him being in his childhood home.” 

From there, we went to the cemetery in Chiesina Uzzanese, where I had located the grave marker for Delfina Seghieri, the younger sister of Don’s grandfather. The next day, Don went with Elena, the bilingual wife of Davide Seghieri, to visit 92-year-old Mario Seghieri. Visiting my great Aunt’s grave site and to visit in person with my father’s second cousin was beyond anything I had imaged possible,” Don said. “I found family members very warm and hospitable.”

A few days later, we also went to the cemetery of Montecarlo, where we found graves of a couple of dozen members of the Seghieri family, although many I am not yet able to place directly in the family tree. A few were knights, some were lawyers and judges, and a couple were army officers—but most were probably farmers, the most common occupation here through the ages. We have not found the graves of our great grandparents and probably never will. Weather has taken its toll on the older markers, which are now unreadable. In addition, as Italian cemeteries fill up, the old graves must be removed to make room for the new. This may sound callous, but cemeteries can be 500 to 2,000 years old, and they can’t just keep expanding: Otherwise the dead will take up more space than the living.

Visiting old houses and cemeteries inspires in me a reverence for the past as I ponder the sacrifices made by parents to improve their own lives and especially those of their children.
My grandfather had passed away before I was born, but as a child I heard stories of where he lived and grew up,” Don said. “Once I started to research the family name, I just knew that one day I would visit the area. Seeing beautiful Italy, visiting my grandfather
’s house, to be in the geographical area known as Marcucci (named after Marco Seghieri) is amazing.”

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

I have no success finding a book agent, but I am close to having an editor

Lucy and I have been rather reclusive during our first month back in Italy. This could be attributed to the winter weather in Tuscany, which is nearly as rainy and cold as it is in Western Washington. But it’s more than that: We are residents here (though officially still waiting for my paperwork), not tourists, so we’re just living our lives. Lucy is already working on a second quilt. I am revising a book manuscript, which has kept me happily busy.

Over the last couple of years, I have written and revised a 141,000-word travel memoir on our experiences in Italy, beginning with our year in Padova in 2001-02 and ending with our adventures of living in Tuscany and eventually purchasing a house in 2015. Last year I started seeking an agent, as the advice I had read about being an author said this was the best way to go. An agent would have a better chance of catching the attention of a publisher. In fact, most publishers won’t even consider query letters from new authors who don’t have agents, because publishers know that agents won’t represent a manuscript unless it shows promise.

The book publishing industry has undergone massive changes in recent years, and part of this is because of the ease of word processing programs, and especially the ease of electronic communications. I was able to send queries to 50 agents that included sample chapters of my manuscript. In a previous age, this would have meant a large outlay of money for copies and postage. My queries cost me nothing but time.

However, it’s not easy to obtain an agent, because thousands of other hopeful authors are seeking them in the same way. Writerstype.com notes that an agent could receive 15,000 query letters a year, adding that “only a few dozen might be accepted and forwarded to a publisher, with only 15 or so to be accepted by a publisher for printing. Thus, in this example, an author has only a 1 in 1,000 chance of being published.” These are not encouraging odds, and I had no luck getting to first base in my attempts to attract an agent.

So what next? I met in January with local author Elizabeth Murray, who did successfully find a publisher for her travel memoir A Long Way from Paris (although she too first tried unsuccessfully to procure an agent). Her advice: Hire a professional editor to refine my manuscript. Then, if I still can’t find an agent, try querying small publishers who will consider works from authors without agents. It worked for Elizabeth.

Now that I am living the slow life, I have had time to look online for potential editors. The first one I queried suggested cutting my manuscript down to 50,000 words.

Id say straight off that 140,000 is too long for one book,” she wrote, “so you may have two books on your hands or even three if there is enough of narrative arc going on to create an exciting one or two end points. Many memoirists are going this route so that they have two or three products to sell; they even offer book one for free or a low entry price in order to find fans who then buy the subsequent books at regular prices.”

I knew she was right. Lucy had already told me this, and I knew it made sense, but a big part of my story had to do with seeking my family’s origins. The first quarter of my manuscript, about 34,000 words, only told the story of my year teaching in Padova, before I even started any genealogical research. I had thought of leaving Padova out, but I would still have more than 100,000 words without it. In addition, the first few chapters included some of the most interesting incidents, and I didnt want to cut those out.

Now I took a new look at the manuscript. By adding a few more details and moving some observations about life in Italy from the latter pages of the manuscript to the earlier pages, I was able to bring the Padova experiences up to 42,000 words, or about 150 pages. That might be enough, so I queried two more editors, and they did sample edits of my first 10 pages. The results were encouraging.

They made some minor but helpful suggestions for improvement. One wrote: “You have a really nice, flowing writing style, and I just love the subject matter.” The other was even more positive: “ . . . what I’ve read so far seems as though it might fit the 'uniqueness requirements that the market is demanding. Your voice sounds very original, indeed. Through self-deprecating humor, you’ve managed to make us care about you and your story in only a few pages. Youve opened the book with great use of language and thought and haven’t bogged it down with back-story, a common mistake. Your writing is solid. I don’t hand out false praise, because I never want to set anyone up for disappointment, but I feel your writing will be well received.”

Im still waiting for a sample edit from the first editor, the one who suggested dividing the book into three. She wrote that she would not be able this for at least another week. I’m not happy having to wait this long, but I feel I owe her this for her suggestion to split my book. Besides, I just read her own memoir, and it was really, really good.

Once I pick my editor, I’ll have a month-long wait for results, so I’ll be able to enjoy the soon-to-come spring weather here and start getting out more.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lucca city elders took the advice of writer/diplomat Machiavelli seriously

The best defense is a good offense. This axiom has been made famous by its use in sports, diplomatic encounters and, of course, war. However, the inhabits of Lucca could make a good point that the best defense is . . . well, the best defense.

The Baluardo di Santa Croce beckons us to enter.
Anybody who has visited Lucca has immediately noticed its massive outer walls, made of brick, stone and dirt. While fiefdoms on all sides of Lucca were yielding to foreign aggressors before, during and after Renaissance times, Lucca maintained its freedom and independence through these turbulent years without actually having to defend itself, for the simple reason that opposing armies realized that these walls would be nearly impossible to breach. The Lucchesi made the task of breaking through the walls more difficult by installing eleven baluardi, projecting parts of a fortification built at an angle to the line of a wall, so as to allow defensive fire in several directions, and known in English as bastions.

In building these fortifications, they could well have been following the advice of renowned political adviser Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote in 1512: “Who fortifies his town well . . . and looks after his subjects, will never be attacked without great hesitation, for men are always adverse to enterprises where difficulties are obvious, and it will be clear it is not to be an easy thing to attack one who has his town well-fortified.”

Expert guide Elena Benvenuti explains the history of the walls
and the recently reopened bastions of Lucca
Yesterday Lucy and I heard the story of the walls of Lucca, told by one of the city’s premier tour guides, Elena Benvenuti. Even better, we were able to go inside two of the three baluardi which have recently been reopened for public viewing, San Paolino and Santa Croce. The tunnels and inner rooms are now well lit to permit visitors to visualize how the spaces could have been used to store ammunition and fire guns and cannons at invaders. This was the first time the tour has been offered, and it was entirely in Italian, so we missed many of the details. However, in the months to come, Elena hopes to repeat the tour many times and include a version for speakers of English.
Inside the long tunnels of the Baluardo di San Paolino.

Elena adds interesting details on the
construction process.
Elena explained that the original city walls were built by the Romans in the second century before Christ, but when the city expanded in size, new walls were built outside the Roman walls. The first expansion was built between 1000 and 1100, and a further extension was added between 1380 and 1420.

The Renaissance walls that currently surround the city are the result of the last campaign of reconstruction, launched in 1503 and completed a century and a half later, in 1650. They were built even further from the center, so that they enclose remnants of both the Roman and medieval walls—which can still be seen today, if one knows where to look.


These outer walls are the second largest example in Europe of walls built according to modern principles to have survived completely intact in a big city. The outer walls of Lucca are 4.195 kilometers long, and Elena explained how the city elders, fearful of outside aggressors, required every male citizen ages eighteen to fifty to contribute time or money for the city’s fortification. It is likely that women and children also aided in the construction by providing food and other support, in addition to sometimes working alongside the men.


To read about the special joys of going on top of the wall, click here.
More information about Elena and her tours can be found on Discover Lucca with Elena.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pesto genovese: Accept no substitutes for this international favorite

Here in Montecarlo, we are only two hours from Genoa, the home of Cristoforo Colombo and the capital of Liguria. But more relevant today, it is also the home of pesto, a pasta sauce that has gained international recognition only in the last sixty years or so, despite its ancient origins. In honor of one of my favorite foods, I’d like to include some information on pesto gleaned from an interview with Italian cooking instructor Elena Benvenuti and online articles by chef Rosario Scarpato, Wikipedia and several other websites.

The name derives from the Italian word pestare, to pound, crush, beat or trample on, a reference to the original method of preparation, wherein the ingredients were ground in a marble mortar through a circular motion of a hard wooden pestle (a word that derives from pestare as well). Pesto traditionally consists of crushed garlic, Italian pine nuts, coarse salt, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pecorino sardo (cheese made from sheep’s milk and originating in Sardenia), all blended with extra virgin Italian olive oil.

Benvenuti pointed out that pesto is a generic term for anything that is made by pounding, and the word is used for several types of sauce in Italy. Nonetheless, she added, pesto genovese is definitely the most popular, both in Italy and in the rest of the world.

“All the other diverse variations floating are nothing more than bogus and unsuccessful aberrations of the original,” Scapato said. “Pesto is an ageless benchmark and a contemporary symbol of Italian cooking around the world.”

Pesto is thought to have two predecessors in ancient times. Romans used to eat a similar paste called moretum, which was made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar together. A variation called for the addition of pine nuts. The use of this paste spread on bread in the Roman cuisine is even described in the Appendix Vergiliana, an ancient collection of Virgil’s poems. During the Middle Ages, a popular sauce in the cuisine of Genoa was agliata, a mash of garlic and walnuts. “Seafarers ingested great quantities of it, since they believed it warded off illnesses and infections during the long voyages in conditions of extreme hygienic precariousness,” Scarpato said. “(Agliata) can be considered, in some manner, to be the predecessor of pesto.”

Troffie with pesto
The introduction of basil, the main ingredient of modern pesto, occurred in more recent times. The first documented recipe appeared in 1863, when gastronome Giovanni Battista Ratto published his book La Cuciniera Genovese in 1863: “Take a clove of garlic, basil or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil. Lasagne and troffie (a Ligurian variety of gnocchi) are dressed with this mash, made more liquid by adding a little hot water without salt.”

Although it likely originated in India, basil took the firmest root in the regions of Liguria, Italy, and Provence, France; it was abundant in Liguria, though only when in season, so marjoram and parsley are suggested as alternatives when basil is lacking. Ratto mentions Dutch cheese (“formaggio olandese”) instead of pecorino sardo, since Northern European cheeses were common in Genoa at the time, thanks to the centuries-long commercial trades of the maritime republic.

This recipe for pesto alla genovese was often revised in the following years, and it shortly became a staple in the Ligurian culinary tradition, with each family often featuring its own pesto recipe (with slight differences to the traditional ingredients). Chef Scarpato further explains: “In the 1800’s, the pasta al pesto was considered to be a working class dish, and nowadays the recipe of that time has remained substantially the same. There was and there is still in Liguria the habit of adding potatoes, broad beans or French beans, and sometimes zucchini cut into small pieces and boiled together with the pasta. Rules are not always fixed. In general it is said that in Liguria it’s difficult to find two equal versions of pesto, because of the variations, sometimes within the same family, such as the addition of walnuts, ricotta or other cheeses. This has happened with various typical Italian dishes, many of which have ‘terminated’ their evolution only within the most recent decades. In Italian cooking, the variations of a dish not only represent the wealth of diversity, but also an indirect legitimization of its generally accepted version.”

Sinatra loved both pesto and Genoa. During a concert in Genoa
in 1987, he told the audience, "Two very important and
wonderful people came from Genoa, Christopher
Columbus and my mother." 
In 1944, The New York Times mentioned an imported canned pesto paste. In 1946, Sunset magazine published a pesto recipe by Angelo Pellegrini. Pesto did not become popular in North America until the 1980s and 1990s. According to some sources, pesto reached its greatest popularity is the United States in the 1980s. At the beginning of the 90s, its popularity grew even more when Frank Sinatra sponsored a pesto sauce that carried his face on the label.

To prepare your own pesto, put garlic and pine nuts in a mortar and reduce to a cream. Add washed and dried basil leaves with coarse salt and grind to a creamy consistency. Then mix in Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino. To help incorporate the cheese, pour on a little extra-virgin olive oil. Personally, I like to add whole pine nuts just prior to serving for added texture and flavor. In a tight jar or an air-tight plastic container, covered by a layer of extra-virgin olive oil, pesto can last in the refrigerator for up to a week. It can also be frozen for later use.

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Elena Benvenuti offers Italian cooking classes in Montecarlo. For more information, see her website Discover Lucca with Elena.