So I spent 10 days in early May in Salo and Brecia, Italy, and in Amsterdam. It was mostly a business trip, but there were some touristy bits on the side, too.
My hotel room (suite, actually) was very nice, and had a fully-stocked kitchen. It was fun to see what’s considered essential in an Italian micro-kitchen: good knife and cutting board, mezzaluna, bread knife, poultry shears, corkscrew, espresso maker, colander, two sizes of coffee cups and saucers, wine glasses, plates and silverware. No bowls at all, and no glasses over about 6 ounces. The kitchen itself was a very clever built-in unit with the fridge underneath, and a dish drainer built into the cabinet above the sink so you could put wet dishes “away” and they would drip dry into the sink. The sink water was hot enough to steam; it was very nice for filling the hot water bottle (which was a terrific travel accessory, I must say.)
Naturally, I hit the market as soon as I was able. The market in Salo is mostly clothing and everything is vended from camper trailers with big awnings. It reminded me of an American fair, as opposed to a market. I’m going to go ahead and show my local pride and say that the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market is far and away a nicer market – better selection, better layout, no underwear. I picked up asparagus, garlic scapes, carrots, an onion, a cabbage, a basket of strawberries, and half a dozen eggs – then I realized I had no fat or salt back at the hotel. Sausage to the rescue! It turned out to be a very bland type, but it was OK. This became my breakfast each day, and a good thing, too; side dishes (i.e., vegetables) are ordered separately from the main course in Italy and tend to be very expensive ($10 for a side of grilled vegetables). On the last day, I cooked my boss a vegetable fritatta but we couldn’t quite eat up all the leftovers.
On our first day “off,” we went to Verona. I saw many of the sights and had a very interesting lunch that included horse, donkey, and rabbit. The rabbit was not to my taste; apparently, Verona-style rabbit is cooked (dried?) until it resembles jerky with a bone in the middle. I found it basically inedible. The horse and donkey, on the other hand, were quite good. Two of the dishes had stewed equid (one on pasta, one with polenta) and they were quite tasty. I honestly could not tell it apart from beef. There was also a salad of arugula topped with finely shredded dried horse. I liked the horse but I just can’t develop a taste for arugula.
The next day, we took a boat up Lake Garda to the city of Limone. Along the way, we saw the ruins of some curious structures – lots of columns, but no walls to be seen. When we got to Limone, we poked around and saw some still in use as trellises in people’s yards. (Or as people’s yards; it’s a tightly-packed town on a steep hillside, pretty much carved out of the rock.) A little more searching and we discovered the Lemon Greenhouse and Museum – and lo! It turns out the structures are about 250 years old and, with some rafters and glass added, serve as greenhouses for lemon trees. Not surprisingly, limoncello was available in the gift shop. 🙂 I’m sure none of you were surprised that I managed to find a greenhouse where I landed on a business trip!
The last part of the trip was spent in Amsterdam, and I found that I liked it better than Italy – just a better fit for me, I think. It’s a very livable place – tidy and orderly without being stifling. Italy creates identity through a strong commitment to preserving the past in the forms of traditional foods, ancient buildings, and fierce city-by-city differences. For example, Brescia and Verona – perhaps 45 miles apart – have “completely different” styles of carpaccio – one has some mustard in the dressing and the other doesn’t, but it’s a matter of pride that those differences are there. The Netherlands seems to embrace variety: walking down a street in Amsterdam, you’d easily see cuisines from twenty or more different regions, and preparations the same dishes at each would be somewhat different.
Food notes on Amsterdam: Definitely loved Indonesian food at Kantjil & the Tiger – we got the “try everything” meal with a dozen dishes of wonderfulness. Coconut curry beef was probably my favorite, but there was nothing bad on the table. I found I prefer the small pancakes (Poffertjes) to the large ones (pannenkoeken, more like a crepe; very thin and eggy). Meals typically end with a small dish of amazingly good chocolate (slabs of dark chocolate rolled in cocoa) and I believe this is the most perfect end to a meal I’ve ever tasted.
A few things got to me food-wise on this trip. The first was, WOW. I am really not a wheat person anymore. After three days in Italy, I was desperate for some rice. The bread and pasta were fantastic, but I really appreciate a lot more variety than I was getting at my string of restaurant meals. I gotta say, if I don’t see another crusty roll with salty meat on it for a month, I will be perfectly satisfied. And while I think Americans often rush through meals, I do appreciate being able to complete a restaurant meal in under 2.5 hours. And in one final surprise, I think I’m getting hooked on sparkling mineral water – which is also surprisingly good for a stomach that’s feeling wonky due to an overabundance of wheat, too long between meal times, and an overcooked rabbit.