Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cortina versus Umbria

These are two areas of Italy that I love.  The mountains that surround Cortina, and the gentle, green rolling hills of Umbria.  They are both in Italy, but the fact is they might as well be different countries as they were up until about 100 years ago.

First Cortina. (I must be influenced by Italians here for I feel compelled to say these observations are "seconda me" or my opinion.)  Corina is not the modernized world of Milan.  It is still old school, but that means something very different than old school Umbria. There is a formality in Cortina, a way of holding oneself that is a bit stiff at first glance. Their posture seems better.  Very upright, shoulders back, firm steps, firm handshakes ready to meet whatever hardships life or the weather dish out.  They are very accustomed to tourists, but not particularly to American tourists who speak Italian.  Every time I spoke Italian they seemed flabbergasted and asked where I learned it.  When I told them my grandparents were from the Cadore area, they totally changed.  Big smiles, how wonderful, where did they live, when did you come back, etc.  Very different reaction then when I tell Umbrians I am from the North.  In Cortina, I am greeted as their long, lost child.  Cortina feels competitive with the modern world and feels that they are on the losing side.  What does that mean?  So I had on a pair of Nike light shoes.  If you have never had a pair, you must try them.  OMG.  They weight about 3 ounces.  Anyway, I took my shoes off in a shop in Cortina, the woman examined them, and then said, "Oh.  We always get the fashion after everyone else."  I guarantee you, no one in Umbertide would even think such a thing, it is so far out of their milieu.

Another major difference in Cortina and Umbria; food, my favorite topic.  The food in Cortina often contains, game, which sometimes you get here.  Polenta is in the place of pasta.  You can get pasta but it is really not "of the region".  The biggest difference, however, is in how it is served.  Your meat and vegetables come on one plate, like the US. You get a primi, and then your secondi comes plated.  This never happens in Umbria.  There is also a formality in how waiters wait on you.  In Cortina there is a always a maiter d' who not only takes you to your table, and takes your orders, but he (always he) orders the wait staff about.  This happens even in the cheaper restaurants.  This doesn't happen in Umbria that I have seen, maybe in very large restaurants, which I don't go to.  Then I must say, sadly for my Umbertidese, that the bread in Cortina is so much better.  They also serve it with butter, which we never see here.  As a matter of fact, butter is often used there where here we use olive oil in most things.  Also the desserts in Cortina are excellent.  I think it is the Austrian influence.  There is also a much larger variation of cheeses.  The wines are all from that region and ones we don't know, but were equally delicious.

The food in Umbria, as the photos attest, is delicious.  Simple food, always in season, and always seasoned properly.  We have grilled meat, ravioli, spinach and now, in season are green beans. Vegetables are always served on a separate plate. There is fish on the menu here...I don't always no where it comes from..sometimes from Lake Trasimeno...other times flown in I suppose.  I eat fish here with caution, always asking about it first.  Umbria is known for its grilled meats: lamb chops, sausages, young roosters (called cockerels,) which I have never seen on a US menu. Desserts here are plain, Italians usually go out for ice cream during the day.  The bread, as I have described before, is difficult for an outsider to enjoy; without salt, and to our taste buds very dry.  It does make lovely crostini!

In Umbria, people might seem standoffish but it is because they are shy or they don't speak English. Once I speak Italian with them they don't seem surprised, they seem relieved. There is a sweetness to the people here.  Simone says it is because they were protected by the church for so long and never really had to fend for themselves. Could be.  They are a bit like children, more carefree, more irresponsible. People in Cortina hop to.  I can't imagine anyone from Umbertide hopping!

I commented to the man at the desk in Cortina about how many hours he worked.  He said it was necessary.  He said in the old days they could take time off, but now no.  They must work like Americans!  This concept has not made its way down to Umbertide for better or for worse.

The one thing that people from Cortina and Umbertide have in common is a caginess, a distrust of ALL institutions (government, church, press). In Cortina, I asked the owner of one of the shops about the financial crisis and if it had effected the area.  He said yes it had, but he thought it was overblown by the media and one more way for the government to raise taxes.  I said yes that it was governments are for and he said yes and that is why we as Italians must be smarter!  A similar attitude would prevail in Umbertide. Another thing that unites all Italians besides love of food, love of Mama and language is soccer or futbol.  It is an obsession.  They are playing Germany tonight and I can only imagine how the piazza will behave. The Italians I have met believe the Americans are naive and potentially dangerous in their naiveté.  Still, for some reason, people from Cortina and Umbertide are delighted by Americans.  Once you say you are American, their faces light up.  If you say you are Italian American they may hug you.  Once you say you are from California they turn wistful.  Their faces get a look of far away longing, as if what would it have been like for me if my family would have immigrated to America. They have no idea...really they have no idea.

Cortina Flowers

Waiters in Cortina.

Sea bass with skin on (Adelle requested it that way) and spinach on the plate!

Back in Umbria, and our lovely ravioli; pinenuts, spinach, filled with a little burrata cheese and very thin slices of pancetta.

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