Have you ever wanted to write down that memory of your mom making jam from backyard berries, or the time you went deep sea fishing with dad? Maybe it’s not a food memory, but a travel adventure, or a life-changing event that you’ve been thinking about getting down on paper. Now, how about doing just that in beautiful Varenna, Italy this fall, with expert guidance from a talented writing coach and author (Kathryn Abajian) and afternoon excursions by none other than me, Ciao Chow Linda?
Sound tempting? Then come join us this September 20-26 in Varenna, a picturesque town on Lake Como, surrounded by the foothills of the Alps.
Its narrow streets will beckon you to meander and explore. Maybe you’ll get inspiration from its picturesque charm and come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of before.
You can stroll down to the water and enjoy a drink or a meal at one of many restaurants and cafés overlooking the lake, while waiting for the muse to strike.
We’ll be staying right in town, at the Villa Monastero, a noteworthy attraction in its own right, that dates back to before the 12th century when it was founded as a nunnery. It later fell into private hands and today is the setting for international scientific conferences — and this year, our conference — “Italy, In Other Words.”
Some of the rooms are open to public viewing, and visitors walk among the spectacular botanic gardens that you will have all to yourself after hours.
As a participant in our writing workshop, you’ll feel like lady or lord of the manor, overlooking the lake and mountains in the distance.
Inspiration is bound to strike you in this unforgettable setting.
The writing and instruction workshop is held for five mornings, and also includes two personal consultations, all conducted by Kathryn, a retired college professor. She has given writing workshops in California and in Abruzzo, Italy, and is also the author of a book entitled “First Sight of the Desert.”
Bedroom furnishings vary, from modern to rooms furnished with antiques. Those who sign up first will be offered priority. Most rooms have a view of the lake.
Afternoons are free for writing or exploring. For those interested, I’ll take you to a few places of interest, including the ruins of this 12th century castle nearby.
The area is known for its taleggio and gorgonzola cheese, so we’ll most likely take a short trip to visit someplace where it’s made, or aged (and sample some, of course.)
You might want to join me for a boat trip across the lake to Bellagio, a scenic village oozing with charm, and a great place for some shopping.
You’ll find lots of restaurants tucked into the little streets and staircases in the town.
For those interested in watercolor or cooking lessons, they’re optional, but can be arranged too.
We can’t talk about Italy without mentioning its food, and the food in Varenna is top notch. Here are a few samples from my visit last year – eggplant parmigiana:
I don’t normally start my day eating tarts filled with freshly made ricotta cheese and topped with amaretti cookies. My weekday breakfast also doesn’t typically include a crostata made with fruit jams, marble cake, apple cake or any other number of sweet treats either.
Ditto for prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese and practically still warm-from-the-cow giuncata cheese.
I’m usually not lucky enough to have Emanuele asking me every morning if I’d like to have a freshly made frittata either.
But for one week in June I was. These were all part of the daily breakfasts served in a cavernous room called the “cantinone” (big cellar) that could have doubled as a backdrop for a movie set in the Middle Ages.
It’s also where I popped in occasionally before dinner for a glass of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and some munchies.
I wasn’t alone during the week. I was one of a group of five writers from California, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico taking part in a workshop in Santo Stefano di Sessanio called “Italy In Other Words.” The group was led by Kathryn Abajian and Helen Free, two gifted teachers who helped us find our writing voice and discover the treasures and traditions of Abruzzo.
Kathryn conducted the writing classes each day, focusing on first person writing. Although I had worked as a journalist for decades, and write a food blog now, memoir writing is an entirely different genre and I had a lot to learn. Kathryn gave me the tools and the kick start I needed to get me moving in the right direction, in a teaching style that was both firm and generous at the same time. Sadly, she lives on the opposite coast from me. Otherwise, I’d be signing up for any classes she teaches. Listening to the other women’s own stories and receiving their feedback was an invaluable part of the week as well.
Top row, Julie and Lori and Cynthia. Seated, Linda, Kathryn and Diane
Helen instructed the group on Abruzzese traditions that link us with our past, regardless of nationality.
We read the words of Italian writers such as Ignazio Silone, who wrote about the long-ago struggles of peasants in Abruzzo, struggles that are still relevant around the world today. We walked in the footsteps of shepherds who led their flocks in a twice-yearly migration over hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous paths in search of warmer climes, a custom known as “transumanza.”
Near the Gran Sasso mountains we ran for shelter as the rain fell, while the cow nearby didn’t budge:
We returned on a sunnier day to climb higher on the path through the town of Calascio.
Lori, Diane, Juli, Linda, Helen and Cynthia
Until we reached the ruins of a fortress built in the 10th century, once owned by the Medici family.
Nearby in isolation overlooking the mountains stands an octagonal church erected between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a site where legend has it, locals fought and won a skirmish with brigands.
Santa Maria della Pieta
We also had time to think, in a place with few tourists, and no television or telephones in our rooms. We had time to roam the village and reflect on its quiet beauty and on our purpose for being there.
Time to explore the mysterious narrow streets and pathways.
Time to wonder who lived in houses like these:
And wonder how long ago someone rode this old motorcycle.
Even time to let Federica, who lives in the village, have a go at painting with my travel watercolor set.
We had time to walk below the town where poppies bloomed beside a church boarded up since the 2009 earthquake:
Where fields of yellow mustard greens swayed in the wind beside stalks of wheat and more poppies.
Where road signs indicated the distance it took to ride between towns on horseback:
We had time to transfix our gaze on the broad, open views to other hill towns in the distance.
Naturally, we had time to eat too – from restaurants where the atmosphere was funky-
and the food traditional like these gnocchi:
To restaurants that were more formal –
And that served modern interpretations of food, like these veal cheeks and potatoes with citrus flavors:
“Italy, In Other Words,” gave us time to slow down, to appreciate all the beautiful sights, sounds and tastes around us, and to write about what was important to us. Thank you to Helen and Kathryn, and to all the friendly townspeople of Santo Stefano and to the employees of Sextantio, the hotel where we lodged, including Gabriella, who offered me the recipe for the luscious torta shown at the top of this post.
Arrivederci Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Alla prossima!
This recipe was enough for a very large pan – probably 10 to 12 inches in diameter.
for the dough:
2 1/4 cups flour
2 sticks butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. baking powder
For the filling:
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
grated peel from one lemon
1/2 cup to 1 cup ricotta, depending on taste
amaretti cookies crumbled on top – about 1 cup or so
Blend the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the softened butter by hand or put everything in a food processor until it forms a ball. Roll out and place into a buttered 10 to 12-inch baking dish or tart pan.
For the filling:
Bring the milk to a boil with the lemon peel. Meanwhile, beat together the eggs, sugar and flour. Slowly add the mixture to the hot milk, stirring together for two or three minutes until it is thick and amalgamated. Let it cool slightly, then add the ricotta, using as little or as much as you like. Crumble the amaretti cookies on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes
Procedimento: Impastare il tutto e intanto preparare il ripieno:
per il ripieno:
150 grammi zucchero
75 grammi farina
buccia di limone
500 ml latte
100-150 grammi ricotta
Procedimento: Far bollire il latte con il limone e intanto sbattere le uova, lo zucchero e la farina.
Stendere la pasta e metterci la crema e la ricotta. Sbriciolarci gli amaretti sopra. Cuocere a 180 gradi per 25 minuti.