Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why I've been soap business!

Sorry that I've been away!  There are many wonderful things to write about, but I haven't had a spare moment. 

In a nutshell, I've finally started up my handmade soap and natural body care business here in Italy!  It is called 'Fleur de Lune', and it's going even better than I anticipated.  Unfortunately, I can't sell outside of Italy for the moment, but for anyone within Italy, you are in luck!  My website is still under construction (I'm too busy making soap, I don't have time to work on it), but you can visit and like my facebook page at

One of the things I really enjoy about what I do is working with local small farmers.  I took what I call my 'farm girl class' two years ago; it was a class made for unemployed women to learn to to start up a small farm.  I didn't become a farmer myself, but it connected me with a network of wonderful and talented young female farmers, and I am buying as many of my ingredients as possible from them.  I get goat milk from La Chèvre Heureuse, herbs (lavender, thyme, rosemary, calendula) and beeswax from Genuinus, beeswax and honey from Naturalys, which is also where I produce my products, and chamomile from Artemesia.  My wine used in my mulled wine soap is also local, but not from a small producer.  I get it from a nearby cooperative vineyard, Cave des Onze Communes

I try to make my products as sustainable and natural as possible; I don't use palm oil or essential oils from endangered plants, and my packaging is all recyclable or compostable.  All of the scents are from essential oils, and the colors are 100% natural!  The products I produce include lip balm, bar soap, liquid soap, whipped shea butter, exfoliating sugar scrubs, mineral deodorant, lotion bars, and an organic herbal balm. 

I was also just featured on the blog, "You Always Have a Project", where I wrote about my business and gave a recipe for a lotion bar! 

And I promise I'll be back soon with more Alpine adventures.  But for now, I need to go strain a calendula infusion.....

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Désarpa, AKA Cows with Flower Towers

Get excited or run away, but it's time for yet another post about one of my favorite subjects.... cows!

I don't know what it is about 'cow culture' that fascinates me.  More than anything, I guess it is that I am fascinated with the local fascination with cows.  You could say cows are a way of life in Valle d'Aosta.  Cheese and other milk products are an important part of the local economy, but maybe are even more important in local traditions and culture.  Wood carvers often carve cows.  There is a 'cow dome' where the finals of the pregnant cow battle, 'The Battle of the Queens' takes place.  There is a raw milk vending machine, where people can get fresh milk and cheese 24/7.

And there is the Désarpa, which is a massive celebration welcoming the cows back from their summer holidays in the alpeggio, the high-altitude mountain pastures that contributes to the distinctive flavor of Fontina cheese. Today, my friends, was the Désarpa.  It's really  important, and other people must share my bovine fascination, because people come from all over to experience this cow party firsthand; I recently saw a massive billboard advertising it as far away as Genova.

Once upon a time, the farmers walked all of their cows up, up, UP near the tip tops of the mountains at the beginning of the summer, and then walked all their cows back down at the end of the summer.  Thanks to modern technology, most farmers transport their cows in trucks nowadays, but they still celebrate the return of the cows.

I was shocked by the sheer number of people crammed into the historic Roman center of Aosta.  There were marching bands, a giant stage, a cheese market, and many thousands of people lining the cobblestone streets, craning their necks to look at the cows walking by.  Many of the farmers dressed up in historical garb, and lead their bedazzled, flowered, and ribboned cows through the ancient streets.  It's a cow beauty pageant!  Most of the cows have ribbons around their bellies, on their tails, and wrapped around their horns, and a massive, towering flower arrangement on their heads.  It's simply fabulous....

Some of the cows were wrapped up like they were a birthday present

Children dressed up in traditional clothing and carried a sign naming their village
Oh, and the market.  Oh my goodness.  More cheese than I've ever seen in one place in my entire life (and I've seen a lot of cheese), and there were free samples at every table.  I visited every table.  This is a good reason to love October in Valle d'Aosta!

Various cheeses stacked sky high

Goat cheeses from my friends at the Chevre Heureuse

Fontina from the alpeggio

Bleu d'Aost that won the 'gold medal' in the cheese olympics!

This is what I refer to when I ask if people like stinky cheese.  Fontina aged two years....

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pasta e Fagioli..... yum!

Pasta e fagioli.... according to my very Italian husband Gianluca, 'It is simple and tasty.  I can tell you I've seen business men eating their pasta e fagioli in their suit and tie, just to tell you how good it is.'

Pasta e fagioli translates as 'pasta and beans'.  Sounds pretty boring, huh?  Gianluca proved to me otherwise.  On a whim, I planted borlotti beans in  my garden this summer.  They recently were ready to pick, and my husband declared that it was time to eat pasta e fagioli.  I've heard Italians talking about this dish for years, but I had never encountered it.  It is one of the very few dishes that is ubiquitous in all of Italy, and many refer to it as 'Italy's national dish'. 

Oh. My. Goodness. 

It is fabulous.  Simple, wholesome, and delicious.

Tonight Gianluca walked me though his family's method of cooking pasta e fagioli.  As he said to me tonight when I asked him how he learned the recipe, ' I have expert in my family... there is Paolo!  Paolo is the expert of squishing beans.  It is typical of where we are from.'

So there you have it, and here is how it's made.  If you can find fresh borlotti beans, it is much much better.  I honestly haven't tried it with anything other than fresh beans, so try not-fresh-from-the-garden beans at your own risk!  If you substitute in dried beans, you need to end up with about 2 cups cooked beans, with enough of the water they were cooked in to cover them.  This will be a waste of ingredients if you use canned beans, most likely.  Gianluca says to make sure that I explain that there are many different versions of this dish, and this is his take on it. 

2 cups fresh, shelled borlotti beans (can use other mild tasting beans.  Some regions of Italy use white beans)
6 cups of water
1 1/2 cups dry pasta (spaghetti broken into 1.5 inch pieces, ditalini, or elbow macaroni)
1/2 onion
2-3 cloves garlic
2 carrots
2 sage leaves
2 tomatoes (or one giant one, like I did)
oil for the pan
salt, pepper, marjoram, red pepper flakes

Shell your borlotti beans, put them in a pot along with 1/2 tsp salt, and cover with your 6 cups or so of water.  Boil them until tender... it should take about an hour, but all beans are different so watch them.  If the water evaporates too much, you'll want to add in some more.  Later you will boil your pasta in with the beans and the water, so there needs to be enough to barely cover the pasta. 

Gianluca showing how a real man breaks spaghetti
When the beans are done, take a slotted spoon and scoop a slotted-spoon's worth of beans out of the pot, letting the liquid drain out.  Put the beans in a bowl, and squish with a spoon. 

smashed beans

Chop up your onion, mince the garlic and sage, cut the carrot into small cubes, and cut the tomato into cubes. 

Heat up some oil in a pan, and saute the carrots, onion, and sage over medium flame.  Add in a pinch of salt, some fresh ground pepper, and a pinch of marjoram.  Saute until tender, add in the garlic, and cook for a minute. Add in your squished beans, and stir well. Now add in the tomato , and cook for about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat. 

Bring your beans to a boil, and then add in your pasta.  Gianluca breaks spaghetti up into 1.5-2 inch pieces.  We used a great gluten-free spaghetti that is nearly indistinguishable from the real deal.  Traditionally, 'ditalini' are used, but you can also use elbow macaroni.  Cook for the amount of time your pasta needs to cook, and then when it is done, add in your sauteed veggie mixture and gently stir.  Serve into shallow bowls, top with some nice extra virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, and fresh ground black pepper.  It is extra delicious sprinkled with some fleur de sel.... not traditional, but great nonetheless. 

Enjoy! Traditionally, it is best with red wine but this version is good with a white wine, as well. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fresh Figs Topped with Bleu d'Aoste, Balsamic & Caramelized Onions

I really need to stop making posts about using seasonal foods right when they are going out of season.  But this is too good to not share!  My excuse is that I was busy eating and creating recipes like the one below, and not writing.

Earlier this summer, I had what felt like a stroke of genius while making homemade pizza.  Caramelized onions, figs, and bleu d'Aoste cheese.  It was unbelievably good, and I recommend trying it.  However, when I took the next step, by combing those ingredients without the pizza and adding in a drizzle of 12 year old balsamic, I knew I found a winner.  Simple, elegant, seasonal, and delicious!  I use 'bleu d'Aoste' made by my neighbors (of the raw milk vending machine fame), and it is mind-blowingly good.  Somewhat strong, but not stinky, and a nice balance of sweetness and 'blue' cheese taste.    This should work with any good quality, sweet blue cheese. 

4 fresh figs
1 yellow onion
pinch of salt
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
a few slices of a good quality, 'sweet' blue cheese like Bleu d'Aoste
good quality, aged balsamic vinegar  

First, caramelize your onions.  This will take 30-40 minutes.  Thinly slice your onion, sprinkle a little bit of salt over it, and let it sit for a few minutes. 

Melt butter in a skillet over low heat, add olive oil, and throw in the onion slices.  Stir often over low heat, so as to not let the onions burn.  This is what the onions will look like as they cook:

Almost done at this point

These are done!

Now slice your figs in half, put a thin slice of blue cheese on the open sides of the figs, and pile a little bit of your caramelized onions on, and drizzle with your balsamic.

Enjoy! This is great as an appetizer for a dinner party.  Or you could just eat a plate of them by yourself.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Cornmeal Crusted Zucchini and Tomato Tower

Soon after planting my garden this year, I realized I made a mistake.  Four zucchini plants are far too many for a household of two!  We soon became very sick of zucchini.

That is, until a couple of weeks ago when I came up with a spectacular use of the veggie, inspired by a delicious meal at my favorite local restaurant, La Vrille.  My husband calls it 'The Tower', and requests it for dinner every single night.

It's a tower of pan fried, stone ground cornmeal crusted zucchini and raw tomatoes.  With a lot of thyme.  It is seriously delicious.  It is also extremely quick to prepare, and makes you look fancy. Although I've been making this nearly daily, I haven't measured any of the ingredients, and you don't need to, either.  If you feel like you really need to have measurements, here are some approximations:
1 zucchini
2 tomatoes
1/2 cup stone ground cormeal or polenta
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup milk
2 T olive oil
a few sprigs of fresh thyme for garnish

What you need is a zucchini and a tomato or two, depending on how many towers you want to make.  It is important that the zucchini and the tomato have approximately the same diameter!  This works especially well with large zucchini...but by the time I got around to taking pictures I had used up all my large ones.  You don't want MONSTER zucchini, but ones that are on the large end of edible, before they go all seedy.  This is only worth doing if you have a really nice tomato, as well. 
These are about the same size, even if a bit small.

Thinly slice the zucchini and the tomato.  

 Next you want to make your cornmeal mixture.  I like to use whatever lovely stone ground cornmeal or polenta that I can get my hands on.  It's important that it also has the germ in there, and I don't think this would be worth doing with cheap supermarket cornmeal.   I put some cornmeal in a small bowl, with some salt, pepper, and chopped thyme.  In another bowl, I put the milk.

Heat up two tablespoons of olive oil in a cast iron skillet, on medium flame.   Dunk the zucchini rounds in the milk, and then coat with the cornmeal mixture.  Set them in the heated, oiled pan.

When they start to get golden, with tiny bits of black on the bottoms, flip them.

Cook til golden on both sides, and the zucchini are tender.  Sometimes I splash a little bit of extra oil in the pan when I flip them, so that they get nice and crispy. At this point, put a cooked zucchini round on your plate, then a tomato, then a zucchini, etc, until you reach the desired height.  If you use small diameter veggies, you won't be able to go as high.  Obviously, if you slice them thinner you can get in more layers, as well. I like to sprinkle additional fresh thyme  between all the layers, as well.  And on top.  I do love thyme with zucchini and tomatoes!  It's also delicious with some goat cheese crumbled on top.

Serve hot and enjoy....

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Napolean Lives Here: the strangest museum in the world

Whenever I drive south of my village in Valle d’Aosta, I’ve passed by a bizarre site.  It almost seems like a junkyard, but not quite.  It is a lot on the side of the road filled with strange constructions made of scrap metal, ancient industrial fans on tall polls with brightly colored paint peeling off of them, creepy life sized dolls looking over the road, dressed in decomposing rags.  There’s a big, peeling, hand-painted sign declaring it a museum, but to tell the truth, I never really got up the courage to check it out.  It’s not a place locals tend to stop at.  

We parked the car, and cautiously approached the roadside ‘museum’.  There were crudely hand painted signs dangling on the fence surrounding the rusted fence, declaring it to be world famous.  It was filmed by some Russians.  The TV channel Sky apparently transmitted it.  Someone wrote about them on the internet.  

Oh, and Napoleon lives there.  
We made our way in, and couldn’t believe our eyes.  If it seemed bizarre from the outside, that was nothing compared to being within the labyrinth itself.  The artist had built reproductions of many of the regions 152 castles, each about the size of a car.  Exact reproductions, created with scrap metal from a condemned beer factory.  There were creepy old mannequins of children standing everywhere, some missing one or both of the staring eyes, dressed in tattered clothes from decades past.  There was a weedy flower bed that had decapitated doll heads sprouting out of it.  There were nativity scenes.  But not your standard variety, 15 nativity scenes crammed into a small space, in a small cave, with ski lifts, all covered with a thick layer of dust.  A creepy life sized Santa doll with a maniacal look in his staring blue eyes, behind a dusty and half shattered window.  There was a metal chicken on a poll that waved in the air, and fans from the insides of ancient cars spinning in the breeze.  Chickens lived in the heart of the museum, in a scrap metal structure topped with what looked like a life sized Edward Scissorhands doll, and his friend, creepy bald doll.  Photos really can’t capture what this place is like.
I think this doll needs a bath
Who knew Jesus was born under a ski lift?
The original Edward Scissorhands
After wandering around for a while, a wizened old man suddenly appeared on the path in front of us.  He was hunched, had no teeth, and slowly made his way toward us.  At this point, he introduced himself as Carlo Tassi, owner of the museum, artist, and inventor. He was thrilled to have visitors, and enthusiastically and somewhat incoherently told us about his museum, is nose mere inches from my own, spraying globs of spit on my glasses as he spoke.  
But it was so worth it.
He told us he was 84 years old, and had been working on his museum for more than 30 years.  He  asked us if we saw his castle, Fort du Bard, because his mother was born there.  We looked behind us, and sure enough, there was an exact reproduction of the famous Fort, which was built hundreds of years ago by the Savoy family.  
Fort du Bard, made from scrap metal

 He then turned is back, and beckoned us to follow him, through a locked gate that looked as if it had been wrought from the center of the earth over a thousand years ago.  I think perhaps that was the case. 
He had a series of garages, which he opened and showed us the contents.  You wouldn’t believe it.  He had larger-than-life bronze statues.  A gold cash register.  A massive bronze statue of a lion, which he affectionately petted so often that it’s nose was getting worn down.  Intricately engraved Roman helmets.  A washing machine from the 1950’s.  A *real* ball and chain, from about 2000 years ago.  One of the original espresso machines.  Oh, and about 20 lances and head-axes from the year 900.  He even showed us how to use the lance, and how to properly behead someone.  And insisted we try them out.

We got to play with the 1000+ year old weapons

I perhaps had a bit too much fun!
We were given a lesson on how to properly use a lance to stab someone
We also learned how to use a vintage washing machine.
And then we met Napolean.  He has a freaking bronze statue of a pointingNapolean, on his rearing horse.  Carlo claims it was original, from Paris, and worth a fortune.  I asked how he got it, and he responded, ‘who knows?’  Every morning he opens up the garage, and wheels Napolean to a balcony overlooking the busy road below, so that he can greet the cars as they pass by. 
The real Napolean likes to wave at cars.
 I highly recommend everyone visit Carlo Tassi’s museum.  I promise it is like nothing you have ever seen before! Thanks to Barbara Swell for the fabulous photos.