Be inspired to enjoy your meals with Italian style!

Be Inspired to Enjoy Your Daily Mealtimes… Italian Style!

When I spent my gap year as an au pair in Italy, the family I worked for happened to live in and run an hotel. A rather historic, opulent hotel that Italian royalty used to holiday at in the distant past and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor have stayed at.

Restaurant Dining Every Day

During the first couple of months of my stay (still classed as summer season), my host family chose to eat their meals in a corner of the main hotel restaurant in which the hotel guests dined. This allowed me to indulge in my people-watching hobby very well, as I (inconspicuously, of course) observed the comings and goings of couples and families that were staying at the hotel. Many of them were wealthy, with luxury sports cars parked outside the hotel and often were dressed head to toe in designer clothes. Guests from multiple nationalities came to stay, and I enjoyed trying to figure out where they were from based on their appearance and trying to identify the language they spoke. Anyway, I digress.

The restaurant was a truly stunning room, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the azure Mediterranean sea. The tables were simply dressed with pristine white tablecloths, pure white crockery and polished silver cutlery. Each diner was provided with a starched white linen napkin. A vase of fresh flowers, usually roses, was placed in the centre of each table.

Italian style mealtimes

From the first day, despite being seated in a restaurant, it became apparent that my host family followed pretty standard Italian meal traditions (at least for the region I visited), which I shall describe for you.

There was a bread basket placed on the table almost as soon as we were seated. For my host family this included breadsticks (grissini) and locally-made fresh, crusty bread which was eaten plain, never spread with butter or dipped into oil or anything. On my first day, I almost asked for butter but stopped myself after observing that the other members of the family, even the little boy, ate it plain. There were large bottles of mineral water, always a choice of either still or sparkling. The family would usually eat a piece of bread or perhaps two each and sip water while waiting for the first course to arrive.

About the Courses…

The primo (first) course, almost always consisted of pasta, or occasionally a risotto (made from arborio rice) or a polenta dish. Fortunately, I’ve always been a fan of pasta so it didn’t bother me to eat it every day, but they successfully varied it by cooking many different shapes and types of pasta, from long spaghetti to shorter penne and orecchiette to tiny orzo. Plus, different sauces were added to the pasta. Most often, it was sugo al pomodoro, a basic but delicious homemade tomato sauce, and sometimes meaty bolognese. During my stay there, I had my first ever taste of green pesto sauce (made from pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmesan). No exaggeration, that first bite of pasta al pesto was sheer, unadulterated bliss and I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on it my whole life! Sadly though, no pesto I’ve had in back in the UK can compare.

There was always freshly grated parmesan in a bowl with a tiny spoon to sprinkle over the pasta ourselves. 

The main course, known as secondo, comprised a piece of meat or fish, maybe steak. The fish usually had bones, sometimes was a whole baked fish so I had to learn quickly how to deal with removing those bones. Sometimes they even had an omelettte or a couple of fried eggs with a side dish of vegetables (contorno) or salad. For every meal, olive oil and/ or balsamic vinegar was present as the salad dressing and often drizzled over other vegetables, too.

Sweet Treats

With regards to dessert, this was usually just a bowl of fruit from which we all helped ourselves, sometimes to several pieces. This is a ritual I’d like to start with my own kids as it certainly helps ensure the five-a-day get consumed. Only occasionally, perhaps once a fortnight, would there be a different type of dessert such as creme brulee or a selection of choux pastry delicacies purchased from a local specialist shop. However, plenty of Italians  clearly do possess a sweet tooth, as lots of them buy a gelato (ice cream) from one of the many gelaterie in town. It was often an afternoon treat for me to buy one, too, when I wasn’t working (between 3-6pm).

What I’ve detailed above was standard procedure for both lunch (starting at 1.30 or so) and dinner (from 8.00). If people were feeling less hungry, they sometimes opted to have a very small portion of pasta. Perhaps it sounds like a lot of food, but Italians are not big breakfast eaters. Adults often consider coffee a breakfast in itself, perhaps with a croissant. Plus, generally speaking they do not snack a lot between meals. When I was invited to eat at several friends’ homes during my stay, I found the types of food and number of courses to be similar each time.

When the main tourist season finished and the restaurant closed (apart from breakfast time), my host family instead opted to take their meals in a small private room. The types of foods consumed and the courses remained the same, though. As did the beautifully laid table complete with fresh flowers and starched napkins.

Inspiration for my Family’s Mealtimes here in England

When I make the effort to set our table at home in an attentive, beautiful way, it sure seems to make the meal more of an occasion and makes me feel as though I want to slow down and enjoy the experience more. When we eat outside al fresco in the summer, my eldest daughter enjoys picking a few flowers from the garden to place in a vase and fills a jug of water with ice cubes and lemon slices. This, along with a pretty tablecloth really enhances the experience for all of us, even the children (as a bonus they tend to eat better, too).

Even though we don’t manage to sit down and eat an evening meal together as a family every single night, reminiscing over the mealtimes I experienced with my host family has inspired me to renew my effort to make dinners a more positive and pleasurable experience for my family, too.

Actions I plan to implement:

  • Move the vase of fresh flowers that I usually have on the kitchen worktop to the kitchen table before I serve dinner.
  • Cover the table with a clean, pretty tablecloth just before family meals (rather than the scruffy one that protects the table from my eldest daughters’ glue and sticker attacks).
  • Make dessert be a ‘fruit course’ similarly to what I experienced.
  • Experiment cooking different types of vegetable side dishes.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into eating meals the Italian way.

I’m fascinated by how people live their lives in different countries and cultures, so if you live outside the UK, or have lived elsewhere, I would really love to hear what mealtimes were like there, please do leave a comment. I really love hearing from readers, whether you read my blog regularly or it’s your first visit here 🙂

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Do you prioritise your priorities?

Do you Prioritise your Priorities?

I know already I’ve blogged about to-do lists and getting stuff done fairly recently. But a couple of weeks ago it dawned on me that the days and weeks are zooming by, the year doesn’t feel at all ‘new’ any more, yet I didn’t seem to be making much progress on anything that I really wanted to. The sense of dissatisfaction and annoyance that resulted at the end of most days prompted me to find a solution.

Writing

One of my priorities this year is to write more. Both continuing to write blog posts once a week, as well as working on a lifestyle book. I’d been just about keeping up with the blog posts, but had barely spent any time on the book despite having planned out all the chapters.

Part of the challenge is that I don’t have any childcare for my fifteen-month-old baby, but it was time to stop using that as an excuse and work around it. Thankfully, she has been sleeping much better recently and has set nap times. I have now allocated morning nap time to write every day. Perhaps it’s not the best way to do it, but I aim to write 500 words daily. That may sound paltry to full-time writers, but if I manage it consistently from Monday to Friday it equates to 2,500 words a week or 10,000 words a month. Well on the way to completing a whole book within the space of a few months. From acorns great oak trees really do grow!

Exercise

Although I’m not completely sedentary, I hoped to increase my exercise levels a little this year. On weekdays I always achieve 16k steps minimum just from doing the school and nursery runs as well as generally running around after my toddler. I decided to make the journeys a little more effective by sometimes adding a little sprint (with the pushchair) from our house to almost the end of our road. To ensure I don’t get lazy and opt out of the sprint I often deliberately leave the house a couple of minutes later than it would take to walk it. Sometimes I add an additional short sprint a couple of minutes after the first one, creating my own interval training in a way.

Reading about Jennifer L Scott’s rebounding at home post recently instantly appealed. Like me, Jennifer has three young children and she admitted that finding time for regular exercise can be tricky. She explained how she had recently bought a rebounder (or mini trampoline designed for exercising) and found it was perfect for fitting in short bursts of exercise into her day.

I was instantly convinced after reading her post and ordered a rebounder. Often I simply jump for a couple of minutes, but have found numerous rebounding workouts on YouTube which are good to follow sometimes, too.

Sometimes I jump whilst watching a film or TV in the evenings to make it more of a productive use of my time.

Getting  everything else done…

Before I stared planning for my priorities, I tended to do house-related chores such as hang out loads of washing and put dry washing away as soon as I noticed it needed doing, ditto for making phone calls and sending emails. But now, these chores simply have to fit in around sacred writing time. Who cares if there’s a pile of dry laundry to be put away? It can wait. I won’t feel any worse for leaving it a couple of hours as it can be fitted in at any point during the day while my kids are awake, but the same can’t be said for my writing which is why I have to carve specific time out for that.

How about you? Are you managing to find time for the things you decided were important on the first of January? If not, perhaps it’s time to take stock and revisit your priorities so that you can be sure you really do priorities them.

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celebrate Valentines day

Valentine’s Day (my take on it)

Do you celebrate Valentine’s day with your loved one?

Perhaps this post should come with a warning that it definitely won’t be all gushing about how wonderful the fourteenth of February is. That way, you have the choice to skip reading it!

I’m in two minds about it, really. On the one hand, I dislike how hugely commercial it has become- even our local florist shop replaced their Christmas window display with a Valentine’s display in the first week of January. Although, to be fair, flowers and plants as gifts don’t bother me, unlike the piles of tacky soft toys and plastic tat that grace the pound shops and supermarkets at this time of year. Contemplating the environmental impact that many of these quickly discarded, mass-produced items will have is a concern in itself. It goes without saying that prices of flowers and restaurants are inflated sky-high around this date, too.

My other issue with it is the ‘enforced romance’ aspect. Should people really need a specified day to prompt them to treat their loved one? Do they buy gifts and make an effort because they feel they should, because society dictates so? It seems far preferable to me that partners choose to surprise each other with little gifts on random days because they spontaneously feel like it, perhaps they spot something that reminds them of their loved one.

The reason why I’ve never been a fan of being presented with a dozen red roses is precisely because they are a cliched symbol of love. Zero imagination or thought need go into them, especially on Valentine’s day as identical bouquets of them are available everywhere to pick up mindlessly. My dear husband knows very well by now that I prefer to be given almost any other type of flowers than red roses- I happen to love yellow or pink roses, though. He is fortunately very thoughtful when choosing flowers for me and always selects ones that he thinks I will particularly appreciate.

However, the end of the day, it is supposed to celebrate something positive: love. In a world that often seems to be filled with depressing news (endless violence and crime), love can surely only be a good thing to encourage. Plus I admit that I do enjoy marking special days and events, including Valentine’s day. I just prefer to do so in a low-key way. I tend to have fresh flowers in the house most of the time anyway, selected by myself, so my husband usually gives me a card and a small box of my favourite type of chocolates (which is invariably well received).

I give my husband a card, too and in recent years I have made him heart shaped chocolates in a silicone mould. Our two eldest children love helping to make them. Usually we melt large bars of milk and white chocolate then gently swirl the two colours together a little in a bowl, before pouring into the mould. This results in a pretty marbled effect in each chocolate.

Some years we put our our indoor decorative tree and decorate it with hearts and other Valentine’s themed items. We re-use the same ones each year and never replace them with new ones.

We have always made more of a fuss about each other’s birthdays as they seem more personal, special days.

How about you? What’s your take on Valentine’s Day? I appreciate lots of people love it and it certainly adds a little fun to what can otherwise be a cold and dismal month.

 

Reasons to embrace the arts

Reasons Why You Should Embrace the Arts

The older I’ve become, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the value of the arts and realise the significant effects they have on me.

Annual trip to the Ballet

For the last fifteen years, the Russian State ballet of Siberia has included our town in its extensive tour every February. The first year that I noticed an advert for it, I mentioned it to my sister suggesting it as a possible birthday present for our mother. She agreed so we booked tickets, not really sure what to expect as we had never attended a ballet before and we weren’t sure if we would really enjoy it.

We were pleasantly surprised. By chance, our tickets were down in the stalls close to the front, where the large orchestra is positioned. Sitting so close to the orchestra and their moving Tchaichovsky instrumentals, while we watched the incredibly graceful, expressive ballet dancers acting out their story on stage was mesmerising. Since then, my mother and I haven’t missed one and they all have a similar impact on us.

Other shows on offer locally…

The same local theatre offers a good range of visiting performers and we have been fortunate to have enjoyed shows ranging from the west end Cats show, Irish Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, The Sound of Music, as well as Abba and Queen tribute bands. Varied, but all thoroughly enjoyable in their own way.

The benefits of attending live theatre

Somehow, opening the mind to different types of performances has a mind-broadening effect and gives a sense of fulfilment. Sure, that’s just my subjective opinion, but interestingly Science Daily reported a few years ago that attending live theatre increased tolerance and empathy as found in a group of students who took part in the research. Tolerance and empathy are attributes that seem to be in increasingly short supply these days, so perhaps all schools should aim to take students to watch plays or ballets from a young age.

The benefits of listening to classical music

Certain types of music move me in a similar way. All through my childhood and adolescence, I grew up in a home hearing classical music several times a week as both my parents were fans of it. To be honest, I didn’t much care for it at the time, finding it dull compared to my preferred pop and rock music.

Yet now, I can’t deny that it somehow has a profound effect on me. I don’t listen to it all the time, but if in need of a little inspiration then classical music helps me find it. I find it awe-inspiring that some of the complex pieces were composed hundreds of years ago. I also find it has a calming effect on me and it seems I am not alone in feeling this way. The Readers Digest published an article featuring 10 Wondrous things that happen to your body when you listen to classical music. Amongst those were feeling more relaxed and productive. More than enough reasons to persuade anyone to give it a try. For a complete beginner’s introduction, I recommend either tuning in to a classical radio station such as Classic FM, or search YouTube for ‘best classical music mix’ or similar.

A classical Italian experience

Some years ago, my husband and I toured Italy one summer, visiting several of the major cities. While we were staying in Rome, we were taking a stroll after dinner one evening and soon after tossing the obligatory coin into the beautiful Trevi fountains, happened to stumble across a large piazza where a classical music concert was about to be performed. Chairs had been set up in rows, many of them already taken but there were still some free seats, and after a friendly lady explained that it was a free performance for the public, we sat down. It’s difficult to fully describe the atmosphere as we sat there in the moonlit, balmy July evening, with the loud, passionate sounds of of Vivaldi and Verdi echoing all around us in that historic piazza. A romantic, special evening to remember for ever.

Foreign Language Films

World cinema is another way of broadening the mind. Through my local library (as well as a small independent cinema that shows many foreign films) I have been able to access many foreign films in different languages. The ones in French and Italian have the additional bonus of helping me brush up my language skills but I have enjoyed subtitled films and series in many different languages. It’s surprising just how many countries have thriving film industries, even if they are relatively small-scale compared to Hollywood. Watching foreign language films, even if they are fictional, gives a fascinating glimpse into life in different countries.

Do you spend much time seeking out the arts in your life? I would be interested to hear which ones appeal to you the most.