Category Archives: Food

The Cappuccini Catacombs – I See Dead People!

catacombs-3In a northern district of Palermo, surrounded by ugly concrete apartment blocks, hides the church of Santa Maria della Pace where, in tunnels beneath the church the Capuchin monks have been storing the preserved bodies of the dead for nearly 500 years. It all began in 1534 and it was initially only the bodies of the monks who were left in the colatoio (preserving room) to dry out. Later, local prominent families bought their dearly beloved here for storage.

catacombs-1I’m alone for my visit and it is quite creepy down below. The corridors are literally lined with bodies, some mere skeletons clothed in their Sunday best, others with leathery skin and hair. They are segregated into sections: Clergy, soldiers, professionals, virgins and babies. Indeed, it is the children who are most scary, still wearing their best bonnets. In the furthest corner I find one of the last to be interred in the catacombs and one of the best preserved. 2 year old Rosalia looks like she is asleep in her glass-topped coffin. Doctor Alfredo Salafia had trialled a new process in 1920 which seems to have preserved her features perfectly. Luckily he died before he could work his magic on more cadavers or the catacombs would have ended up looking like a wax museum.

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catacombs-5Out of respect for the dead there are signs asking for no photos to be taken, so those illustrating this blog post are taken from the internet.

capuchin-monks-2You may be asking yourself if the Capuchin Monks had anything to do with the delicious cappuccino coffee that has become very popular all over the world. Well there is a connection but the exact truth is hard to decipher.

Some people believe it is because the colour of the coffee matched the colour of the monks’ robes. The word ‘cappuccino’ comes from Latin caputium and the Italian form means ‘hood’ or something that covers the head, and it is the hooded robes worn by monks and nuns of the capuchin order that it is named after.

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Others think that a monk invented the drink in the 17th century and named it after his order. Legend says that in 1683, following a victory over the Ottomans in the Battle of Vienna, soldiers fighting for Marco d’Aviano, a monk from the Capuchin order, found a hoard of coffee. They found the coffee alone too strong and so they diluted it with cream and honey creating a new version of coffee drink.

 

Chocolate Tasting in Modica

dscf4876Like Noto, Modica was greatly affected by the earthquake of 1693 and had to be reconstructed, though it doesn’t quite have the same architectural impact as Noto. The main street is choked with traffic and lined with shops, but among the more mundane buildings, there are a few lovely Baroque churches, such as San Pietro with its wide flight of steps guarded by life-sized statues of the twelve apostles.

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dscf4883Armed with a map and lots of useful information provided by the local tourist office, I set out to discover some of the more hidden corners of the town, starting with the tiny 12th century cave church of San Nicolo Inferiore. Easy to miss, down a side alley beside the church of San Pietro, it was discovered by accident in 1987 by two young boys playing football. Inside are some lovely byzantine frescos, though how much longer they will survive in the damp conditions is anyone’s guess.

dscf4869Down another alley, I locate Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where chocolate has been produced since 1880. The interior feels like it hasn’t been changed since that time, with dark wood, glass-fronted cabinets lining the walls and a wide counter covered with tasting bowls of the various chocolate on offer. Orange, lemon, vanilla, cinnamon and coffee are used to flavour the chocolate bars along with more unusual additions of salt, chilli and jasmine. There are so many options that it’s hard to choose and by the time I’m done tasting I’m experiencing a sugar rush.

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dscf4891Luckily the extra energy helps me to scale the 250 steps up to the cathedral of San Giorgio. Inside I find another marble calendar inset into the floor and although I arrive at midday, there’s no sun to shine through the hole in the roof and mark today’s date. There is also a rather magnificent organ and a lovely nativity scene with buildings resembling those in Modica.

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Boldly Baroque – Noto

dscf4836On the 11th January 1693 a massive earthquake flattened many of the towns in south east Sicily, including Noto. Luckily, Giuseppe Lanza, a Sicilian-Spanish aristocrat was on hand to supervise the rebuilding, utilising a new plan to separate the political and religious buildings from the commercial and housing area. In a very short time, he had created a Baroque masterpiece of palaces, churches and steep steps.

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I start my exploration of the town in the upper section which is mainly residential. They are repairing the roads and the dust is being blown about like a sandstorm in the Sahara. I seek refuge in the Church of Santissimo Crocifisso which houses two ancient lion statues and some beautiful paintings.

 

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A long flight of steps takes me down to the pedestrian high street and the Cathedral of San Nicolo. It’s hard to imagine that the dome collapsed 20 years ago as it has been carefully restored and decorated with paintings of Matthew, Mark Luke and John. There are many other lovely churches in Noto, including San Carlo with a bell tower that can be climbed for views across to the Duomo and others with marvellous wooden ceilings and screens.

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dscf4790Opposite the Duomo is the huge Palazzo Ducezio, used as the Town hall and boasting a small meeting room decorated with golden stucco and mirrors. My ticket to view this also gives me access to the neighbouring Civic Museum, a strange collection of archaeological finds, ugly artwork and an exhibition of bronze sculptures and medallions by the artist Giuseppe Pirrone, who created the doors of the cathedral.

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dscf4781Also included in my €4 combination ticket is entrance to the Teatro Communale, a diminutive auditorium of red velvet seats and curtains, with cosy private boxes. It would be amazing to see a show here but sadly few performances take place, and there are none during my short visit to the town.

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My morning meander has left me hungry but, luckily, opposite the theatre are some places serving Sicilian arancini. These huge, deep fried, rice balls make an excellent snack and, having already tried the conical Catania/Syracuse version, I choose the spherical Palermo one, which is infused and coloured with saffron.

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Tartufo di Pizzo

dscf4230On my way down to the toe of Italy, I stopped at the delightful town of Pizzo. The houses tumble down the hillside to the small port guarded by a 15th century castle. Pizzo is famous for tarufo and, as I love to try all the local delicacies, I find the nearest gelateria an order a portion. It’s only 5pm so I resign myself to having dessert before dinner.

wp_20161222_16_50_35_proWhat arrives looks like a huge chocolate truffle and it tastes like one too. Layers of vanilla, hazelnut and chocolate ice-cream surround a centre of maraschino cherries swimming in chocolate sauce. The whole thing is dusted with cocoa powder and looks like a giant truffle which I guess is how it gets its name. It’s served in a scallop-shaped, white dish which by the time I’ve finished is streaked with melted chocolate ice-cream and sauce. Whilst I’m tempted to clean the dish with my finger, I resist the temptation and leave that job to the dishwasher.

dscf4247Up in the main square there are a dozen or so gelaterias offering a multitude of tartufi – lemoncello, pistachio, caramel. Even Lidl are promoting a Christmas special of assorted mini tartufi made by one of the artisanal producers in Pizzo. 

 

Life in the Mani

dscf3032Life in the Mani has always been hard. The land is very mountainous and rocky, cut off from the rest of the Peloponnese by deep gorges and high peaks. In the summer the sun scorches what little earth there is and in the winter the wind blows everything away. Despite the difficulties of this territory, it has been fought over by the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Turks and the Germans. Local clans also fought amongst themselves in Sicilian style vendettas resulting in fortified villages with tall towers, in addition to the Frankish castles which stand proud on the hilltops.

dscf2943However, the local Maniots managed to live here, making the most of what the land and sea had to offer with enterprising agricultural schemes. I learn a lot from a marvellous exhibition in the north eastern town of Gythio where displays teach me about the various aspects of life in the Mani.

 

 

 

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Salt – Down by the coast, the locals would carve salt pans into the rocks, filling them with sea water and allowing the summer sun to evaporate it until only the salt was left. This would then be placed in sacks and transported over the mountains to Kalamata or taken by boat from the small ports of Geromelinas, Mezapos or Kotronas. These days only a few people continue this tradition providing small quantities of the local sea salt for restaurants or tourists.

Caille arlequin. This species lives in open grasslands, cultivated areas and savannahs. It is locally abundant and intra-African migrant. It feeds on varied weeds and grass seeds, plant matter such as shoots and leaves, and it also consumes invertebrates. Cette espèce vit dans les plaines découvertes, les cultures et les savanes. Elle est abondante localement. C'est un migrateur intra-Africain. Elle se nourrit de graines d'herbes variées, de matières végétales comme les feuilles et les pousses vertes, et consomme aussi des invertébrés. Famille des Phasianidés. Ordre : Galliformes

 

 

Quails – Each autumn quails migrate through the Peloponnese from the cold European countries to the warmer African climate. Gathering at Cape Tenaro before continuing on their southward journey, they were easy prey for the locals who set up nets to catch them. A lot of money could be made from the small game birds and most were exported to France where they were a popular dish. Today EU regulations prohibit the hunting of migrating birds.

 

dscf3181-2Honey – The pine forests and rocky slopes covered with aromatic herbs, such as thyme, sage and lavender, are also a magnet for bees and the Maniots would fashion square chambers in the stone walls to entice these busy little insects and then collect the sweet honeycomb that they produced. Today, the locals still practice the art of apiary but tend to use the more common wooden hives. Honey is a key ingredient of a local sesame seed candy called pasteli.

dscf2979Fish and Meat – Down on the coast, fresh fish is plentiful and nets need constant repairing to ensure a good catch. Higher in the mountains the Maniots kept goats, sheep and pigs. Sygline, popular on Christmas Eve, is pork which has been preserved by being placed in salt, smoked with sage and then stored in fat. Before eating it is usually boiled in orange water. As well as providing meat, the sheep and goats also provided milk, cheese and wool. However, these days it is rare to see anyone spinning the wool and knitting their own clothes.

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dscf3123Olives – The harsh rocky landscape of the Mani seems to be no obstacle in the growth of the olive. In fact these hardy trees thrive in such an environment. The small black fruits are harvested today in much the same way as they were hundreds of years ago. Large nets are spread on the ground in late autumn and the olives are knocked from the trees using long poles. They are collected in large hessian sacks and taken to the local olive press, once powered by mules, then steam but now electricity. Traditionally each village would have its own press but now the locals take their crop to a cooperative where the oil is produced and sold on.

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dscf2945Cereal crops – Terraces were carved into the hillsides to grow barley and corn to feed the villagers and their animals, but legumes, such as peas and lupin beans were easier to cultivate in the harsh conditions. The lupin beans look a lot like sweetcorn kernels but are not naturally sweet. They need to be left in salt water for about 8 days to reduce their bitterness. Then they are dried in the sun before being stored. Apparently they have very low gluten levels so are now filling the shelves of health food shops. A lot of the arable land now lies bare but I did see some jars of lupins and olives for sale on a table outside a local house beside the road.

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Fruit – Oranges and lemons are easily cultivated in the Mediterranean climate but traditionally figs were the naturally occurring fruit trees of the region. Harvested between August and October, they are frequently sun dried to preserve them. The hot, dry weather is also perfect for prickly pears, named by 16th century European explorers. This strange fruit contains many antioxidants and is a great cure for constipation.

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dscf3220Soap – It is thought that 7th century Arabic chemists were the first to use olive oil in soap production. In Kardamili there is a disused olive oil soap factory, easily spotted by the tall chimney beside the sea. It was founded in the early 20th century by Palmolive and was possibly one of the largest olive soap factories in the Mediterranean. Artisanal soaps are still produced in the Mani and can be found in the souvenir shops.

 

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Bread and cakes – There are some marvellous bakeries in the Mani producing fresh cakes and artisanal loaves, but traditionally the Maniots would carry paximadia. Like rusks, they could be reconstituted with water or dipped in wine or coffee. Other popular afternoon treats include tiganites (like pancakes) and lalangites which are fried in olive oil and resemble the Spanish churros. They are a popular choice during Christmas and Epiphany.

Romantic Road – Nordlingen, Harburg and Donauworth

dscf0945One of the larger towns on the Romantic Road, Nordlingen is surrounded by an almost perfectly circular defensive wall and it is possible to walk all 2.7 kms of it undercover, perfect for the grey, damp day on which I visit.

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In the centre of the town is a small market place. On one side is the 13th century town hall with a beautiful renaissance staircase and underneath is a former prison cell. Next to the locked door is a stone carving of a jester and beneath which is written the words ‘Now there are two of us’, a reference to the fool within the cell and the fool who looks in upon him.

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dscf0921On the other side of the square is St George’s Church which boasts not one, but two fabulous organs and a 90m tall tower called the ‘Daniel’, offering wonderful views over the town for anyone willing to climb the 350 steps! Each night, between 10pm and midnight, the watchman calls out ‘All’s well’ from the top of the tower.

 

 

 

nordlingen-pigsThe town seems to have an obsession with pigs and I find out from the Tourist Office that this is related to a legend from 1440 when a clever pig indicated that the town gate had been left open. The guards had been bribed by Count Hans of Oettingen so he could attack the town during the night. Official records show that two gate guards were charged with treason and executed in 1440 but no one really knows if it was actually a pig that saved the town.

dscf0928At the Reis Crater Museum I learn about how the geography and geology of the region was the result of a 1km wide meteorite striking the earth about 15 million years ago. The impact would have been 250,000 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb and life would have been wiped out in the surrounding 100kms. The museum shows how in 1961 American scientists Shoemaker and Chao proved that the Reis structure was caused by a meteorite impact. It also has examples of meteorite fragments from all over the world and a piece of meteorite which was brought back from the moon.

I complete my day with a coffee and a rather large piece of Reiser Bauerntorte, a thin pastry pie filled with applesauce and flavoured with vanilla, lemon and rum.

dscf0966Perched on a cliff above the small village of Harburg and the River Wornitz sits a well preserved Castle dating from the 12th century, though the majority of buildings within it were built in the 16th or 17th centuries. Access is through a fortified gate with an iron portcullis with openings above for pouring hot oil onto attackers. This leads into a large open courtyard surrounded by walls, towers and buildings of various styles.

dscf0962To find out more about the castle and see the interiors, I have to take an organised tour. The guide gives the information in German but an additional leaflet in English is provided which covers a lot of the same points. We start in a beautiful white church with stucco decoration, pretty ceiling frescos and tombs of the Counts of Oettingen. Then we climb up to the defensive walls to get a closer look at the loopholes which include spherical wooden balls with holes through them to assist the snipers with their aim and offer them better protection from attacking fire. In the prison tower we find a model of a sad looking peasant guarded by a mean looking soldier and further on, in the keep, is a 10m deep dungeon and torture chambers.

dscf0969More pleasant is the former granary building which in the 19th century was used as courtrooms. The floor is tiled which seems a bit out of place but presumably much harder wearing than the wooden floors and easier to clean. The wooden ceiling is beautifully painted with figures of women and there are huge treasure chests with complex locking mechanisms and a dog motif on the base, indicating bankruptcy when the chest is empty.

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The final rooms, in the Princes Building, are decorated like a hunting lodge with armoury and animal skins. After the tour I take a walk around the base of the castle walls along the top of the cliff and come across a local hunter – a white cat!

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dscf0992There is a large market setting up in the back streets of Donauworth when I arrive in the town. Stalls of clothes, spices, kitchen equipment and colourful plants line the route from the car park to the high street. Unlike most of the medieval bastides on the Romantic Road, Donauworth is focused on one long main street running from the monastery complex to the Town Hall, which is hosting a Fairtrade exhibition.

dscf0988What I’m really interested in are the bells hanging above the door of the Town Hall which at 11am and 4pm each day sound out a tune from the opera ‘The Magic Fiddle’ by Werner Egk. I wait in the warmth of an adjacent café until the time comes and find myself joined by a couple of hiking groups who curiously decide to leave shortly after the bells begin their melody.

 

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Halfway along the high street I pop into the 15th century minster which boasts the biggest bell in Swabia, weighing in at 6.5 tons and called ‘Pummerin’. Unfortunately, the tower is closed so I am unable to climb up and see it but the interior frescos are enough to keep me happy. In the monastery complex at the top of the high street is the Church of the Holy Cross. So called, because it houses a relic of the cross on which Jesus was crucified attracting pilgrims from around the world.

dscf1026I end my day in Friedberg at an aire in the car park of the Hergottsruh Church. The church is quite beautiful with wonderful stucco work and delicate ceiling frescos. There is an unusual montage called the ‘Picture of Grace’ illustrating Christ resting during his ordeal of carrying the cross, and outside is a lovely cave shrine filled with candles and a series of pictures representing the way of the cross. Unfortunately, the bells are rather loud and ring every ¼ hour throughout the night.

 

Romantic Road – Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbuhl

rottingen-sundialsHeading further south along the Romantic Road, I make a quick stop in the small wine-making village of Rottingen but, rather unusually, it is not the wine I have stopped for. I’m searching for sundials along a 1,5 km route which winds its way through and around the village. There are 25 in total and even though I don’t manage to see them all, it is a pleasant stroll through the streets and the apple orchards which line the Tauber River.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a fairy tale village filled with gingerbread houses and surrounded by towers and the inspiration for the village in Disney’s Pinocchio. It is also a tourist trap and prices are elevated accordingly. Even the Aire on the edge of town is €10 for the night and that doesn’t include water or electricity.

dscf0795My first view of the town is the Spitalbastei, a huge 16th century bastion. A Latin inscription above the gate reads, ‘Peace to those who enter. Farewell to those that leave.’ Having been formally welcomed to the town, I walk uphill to the Plonlien (little square) and copy thousands of previous visitors, and the guide books, by photographing a typical medieval house framed between two inner towers and gateways.

dscf0802I eventually emerge into the main town square with a huge stone town hall and the gabled façade of the councillor’s drinking room which now houses the tourist office. Each hour, on the hour, two windows either side of the clock open to reveal figures who re-enact the ‘meistertrunk’. Legend says that the soldiers drank a magical brew before fighting the enemy in 1631 and saving the town.

dscf0844I want to visit the gothic Jakobs Church which holds the marvellous carved wooden Alter of the Holy Blood. However, I don’t believe that we should pay to enter a place of worship so decide to spend my euros on a visit to the Christmas Museum instead, where I learn about the history of this festive period and the evolution of Christmas decorations which were previously made from cotton wool, paper, pewter, wood, wax and tragacanth (a type of resin). The museum is within a cavernous twinkling shop filled with thousands of tree decorations and sideboard ornaments as well as Swiss cuckoo clocks which seem a bit out of place.

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wp_20161004_12_48_03_proI have a hard time finding a reasonably priced place for lunch, made even more difficult by the fact that many restaurants have decided to close after a busy bank holiday weekend. In the end, I choose a tiny pub-like place where I warm up with a hearty meal of liver dumplings, boiled potatoes and the ubiquitous sauerkraut.

 

 

 

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I compensate for my filling lunch by walking around the walls, looking for more photo opportunities. At the Burggarten (castle garden), I discover the tiny chapel of St Blasius, built in 1400 and now a dedicated war memorial. Unfortunately, what should be a marvellous view down into the Tauber Valley is blocked by thick foliage.

dscf0859On the way back to the motorhome, filled with Christmas spirit (even though it’s 82 days away), I stop at a bakery and buy a snowball. Schneeballen is a long strand of pastry dough, woven into a ball and deep fried. It is then coated in a number of ways; with chocolate, sugar or spices. I opt for a cinnamon spice snowball which goes very well with a hot vanilla latte at the end of a long day.

 

 

 

40kms south is the walled-town of Dinkelsbuhl, equally as interesting as Rothenburg but with fewer tourists and without the associated price tag.

dscf0881Dominated by the 15th century St George’s Church, the town seems too small to justify the extremely tall nave which took 51 years to complete. There are 6 side alters, one of which is dedicated to St Sebastian whose clothed skeleton is interred in a glass case underneath.

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Another hidden gem is the romantic courtyard of the Hezelhof. I discover it through an open gate which then locks behind me. Luckily I am able stroll through the reception of the hotel with a quick hello to the receptionist as I escape.

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Like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, it is possible to walk a complete circuit of the town walls, studded with a variety of towers and bordered by several lakes and ponds. In a few weeks it will be the Fish Harvesting Festival featuring a market of regional products and fish specialities. I’m determined to try the local carp and so take lunch in the upmarket but inexpensive Hotel Sonne. My huge breaded carp fillet is served with a side of cucumber and potato salad and a mountain of mixed leaves. It’s delicious and relatively healthy compared to the rest of the menu.