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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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.

Autumn Style – injecting colour and texture to my outfits

Personally, I do enjoy the colourful aspect of dressing for the spring and summer seasons. Now, I know that French and Italian women tend to stick to black, white, camel and navy, perhaps using bags and shoes to add a dash of colour. I certainly take inspiration from their styles but prefer to wear more colours myself, especially in warmer weather. Some of my T-shirts and dresses have floral patterns, and are shades of pinks, blues, yellows etc. But when the weather starts to turn and I swap my summer for my winter wardrobe, it’s striking how plain and colourless my replacement garments look hanging in my wardrobe. In turn, I think this influences my mood and can make me feel less cheerful. Somehow, it’s impossible to look in the mirror wearing a red or pink top and feel glum, don’t you think?

So, I decided to make an effort to brighten up my winter wardrobe a little I bought a few brightly coloured long-sleeved tops to wear under my pinafore dresses. I admit I love pinafore dresses, at the moment I have several cord dresses (in black, camel and burgundy colours) and have been wearing a red or olive green top under the black dress. So far, I haven’t strayed from cream or black tops under the other coloured dresses because I can’t confidently think of a colour that won’t clash!

I have quite a few scarves in my collection, in varying colours and enjoy wearing these to inject colour into plainer coloured outfits. Somehow, just arranging a scarf around my neck makes me feel instantly more chic and presentable. I noticed a lot of Italian women worse fashion scarves when I lived there. I’m making a conscious effort to select more colourful ones if my clothes are already in duller colours.

I’m hopeless on the bag front at the moment, because in the last 6 years I’ve constantly had either a baby or a toddler (or both!) and practicality has won over style- I still have the same black and white printed change bag that gets taken everywhere. I dream of the day that I can choose a small handbag to take out, in the colour of my choosing, rather than the clunky old thing I’m stuck with for now…

At the moment, I’m quite interested in different textures too. My aforementioned dungaree dresses are made from corduroy fabric which I like. In a shop recently, I was looking in the tights section to buy a few new pairs. Automatically, I reached out to grab the usual smooth black, high denier ones. Then I stopped to glance around at the other tights for sale. There were some in different colours, but I was most attracted to some cable-knit tights with a thick cable knit pattern running down each leg in a soft-touch, textured material. I bought a couple of black pairs and have to say that I love them! They are so warm to wear and I love the pattern on them. Sometimes it’s good to stop and try something different.

Lastly, another way of injecting a little colour is by simply painting my fingernails. In Autumn I love shades of bright red and burgundy. Seeing a flash of newly painted colourful nails gives an instant boost.

Do you have anything that you do to brighten up your autumn/winter wardrobe? I would love to hear about it!

 

Life in Italy and the Bella Figura concept

Living in Italy and my Introduction to the ‘Bella Figura’ Concept

A Gap Year in Italy

As an eighteen year old, I decided to take the opportunity during my gap year before starting university to spend time in Italy as an au-pair for seven months. Italy had long held an allure, based on what I had seen on travel programmes on TV, the sound of the language (not that I’d ever had a single Italian lesson, mind), not to mention that pizza, pasta and ice cream were amongst my very favourite foods.

It was an incredible experience to spend seven months in il bel paese and immerse myself into the lifestyle. It was certainly the experience that really opened my eyes to ways of living a more chic existence through incorporating a number of small yet significant changes into my daily life.

An Unusual Home

The family I stayed with didn’t have a typical set up from an au-pairing perspective; they owned a hotel on a promontory almost completely surrounded by the sea and took residence on the top floor. The family comprised three generations- the seven-year-old boy I had to look after and teach English, his parents and the paternal grandmother, great aunt and uncle. Although an au-pair typically lives with her host family, I was allocated a room in a small annexe on the hotel site. Alas, it was on the ground floor so was missing the incredible sea views that the family enjoyed, but I could hardly complain as the sea was virtually on my doorstep. The hotel was located on the edge of a large, historic town full of beautiful old buildings, quaint cobbled streets, a cathedral and a harbour- see the photo above. Yes, I felt sure  that I’d chosen a great placement the day that I arrived!

Gregarious, Welcoming Italians

It’s true that I’m a little introverted and tend to avoid large group situations and most very noisy places, but had to overcome these natural tendencies as I found the Italians in general to be very sociable people who love large gatherings with family or friends. Perhaps because of the groups often being large and needing to be heard, people often spoke quite loudly and gesticulated with their hands a lot. I found the gesticulating with hands to emphasis points quite endearing and found myself doing it too, after a while! Despite my natural preferences I was pretty grateful that the Italians are a sociable and welcoming bunch on the whole because it made it easier for me to pick up the language, make friends and build up a social life, without which my time there would have been pretty lonely.

Fare la Passeggiata– more than just a stroll

The same day that I arrived, after unpacking my belongings, I was invited to join the family to ‘fare la passeggiata‘ – this transpired to be a late afternoon/ early evening walk around the neighbourhood. It didn’t take long before I realised that everybody else seemed to be out doing the very same thing- this daily walk was a chance to socialise (as various friends and often extended family members would be encountered during the stroll) and everyone made an effort to present their best self. Even though the majority of people had probably been at work all day and they would just be heading back to their own homes for dinner after the passeggiata rather than to a restaurant, they all looked very smart, with women wearing either dresses, skirts or a nice blouse with trousers or jeans. Men invariably wore shirts or polo shirts with trousers or smart jeans, no shorts. A lot of women wore a noticeable amount of jewellery- not in an excessively flashy way, but enough to be noticed. The shoes that people wore were smart, mostly leather rather than trainers. Even though it was the end of the day everyone’s hair looked immaculate so they had probably re-done it specially before leaving for their walk.

The start of my education on La Bella Figura

I can’t deny that this experience of ‘fare la passeggiata’ was quite an eye-opener for me, who was still wearing a printed sundress more for daywear than evening wear (and not the sort of dress I spotted the Italian ladies wearing). I felt distinctly underdressed and wished I had made more of an effort with my hair (more than a little windswept from not having been brushed since that morning) and worn a bit of jewellery. Still, at least I knew for next time!

This evening passeggiata was my introduction to the Italian concept of creating ‘la bella figura‘, loosely translated as ‘looking one’s best’ or making a positive first impression and extends to putting one’s best face forward in any situation. Kristi Belle explains this concept and much more about living an Italian lifestyle in her wonderful book. I would highly recommend a read of it if it interests you.

There will be more posts about my experience of life in Italy and what I learned about how Italian women create la bella figura. Please add your email to the box on the right to follow my blog and be notified of future posts —>