A few days ago I said goodbye to an Italian farmhouse nestled in the hills of Umbria. There I watched two little girls, ate more olive oil then ever before, and saw the leaves tinged yellow. I observed a few things about the Italian household while I was there... 1. Condiments They kept a tray of condiments and sauces on the table at all times. This included olive oil, salt, half clove of garlic, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and apple cider vinegar. For example when eating rice, they doused it in olive oil, sprinkled salt, and added a dash of soy sauce. On bread, garlic would be rubbed before a generous amount do olive oil and some salt. On salad they would sprinkle balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Do you see a pattern? Whenever eating anything olive oil was a necessity.
This was partially because they were Italian and also because they grew their own olive trees and harvested them for oil. In this area, outside of Assisi, olive oil is the major crop, thus the hillsides are covered with groves. This year was an extremely hard year to harvest olives as the rainy weather brought many insects. So the olive oil is especially precious--though used just as heartily.
2. Sweets for breakfast
I was staying with a family that was health-conscious and organic, but true to Italian tradition, sweets were served at breakfast. Whether it was biscotti (cookies) or torta (cake) it was more often consumed before 11am then after. These treats were not usually super-sweet, more suitable for having with tea or coffee.
That leads me to an area of much passion for the Italians: coffee. When you are in a cafe and order 'caffé' you will be served a tiny shot of strong espresso. With my Italian hosts, they brewed espresso after lunch and sometimes at breakfast, using this little stove-top percolator that is all the rage in Europe.
If you want a big cup of weaker coffee, you can order a caffé americano, but be warned the locals may make fun of you for drinking "coffee-flavored water." If you like your coffee with cream or milk then I suggest you forgo the americano for a cappuccino or macchiato. You can thank me later.
In Italy there are two ways of eating pizza out: buy a whole pizza or buy pizza a taglio. This second option is when they cut pizza with scissors to the size of your choice and then you pay per weight. Fortunately for me, my host family made pizza one night. I saw a peek off dinner when the mother checked the rising dough at lunch time. Later, I saw the father stretch and pull it to be about the size of a plate and then top it with many variations before roasting it in a clam-shaped oven that left the crust crispy and brown. We split many pizzas this way, each taking a slice of arugula and parmesan, red sauce with olive oil, mushroom with sauce and mozzarella, four cheese, pepperocino and tomato and gorgonzola, rosemary and oil. It was amazing. Pizza heaven--hot, crunchy, and cheesy.
For some reason, nobody in Europe owns a clothes dryer. This may sound like an overstatement, but other travelers with damp clothes in their suitcases will back me up. This means there is always a photo op of picturesque laundry hanging out the window. This also means that your room may look like a second-hand clothes store when it rains and you just did laundry.
I immensely enjoyed my time living with Italians and seeing their way of life. It was interesting in this house in particular because the parents spoke english, the mother and oldest daughter (4) and the other workawayer spoke german, and everybody but me spoke italian. This meant that dinner conversation was often muddled between the three languages and very often it all went over my head. Also, playing with the little girl was challenging as she knew about 25 words in english when I arrived. But with many charades we communicated and learned words of the opposing tongue quite well (except for the time she spent half an hour trying to mime 'Pippi Longstockings.')
I loved being among the rolling countryside surrounding Assisi, although the nearest village was just short of an hour's walk away. Luckily the beauty of the location made up for the fact that I only made it to Assisi twice. Keep your eyes peeled for some photos of the stunning churches and winding cobblestone alleyways that I found in Assisi.