July 27, 2011 § 2 Comments
So here we are on the plane coming home from our family trip to Italy, and I’m not at all sure how to feel about the way No Sugar went over the last two weeks. On the one hand, you could say we did really well… we drank cappuccino while everyone around us had gelato. We drank water, water and more water. When we met up with relatives and extended family in Northern Italy they were kind enough to make special requests for us at restaurants and to engineer no-sugar versions of things like Barbecue Sauce for us when we ate in. We held fast to our individual exceptions and steered clear of so many fun European treats we would’ve loved to have: Nutella, flavored yogurts, those funny little snack cookies that Europeans do so well. We looked the other way when passing elaborate shop windows filled with pyramids of chocolate truffles, fancy meringues and exotic looking candies.
And, as I mentioned before, sugar is easier to separate out in a place like Italy, easier to spot than in America where its presence is so much more insidious and pervasive. It’s true that ordering water instead of soda is actually considered a respectable option in Europe, whereas in America it’s somehow slightly looked down upon as slightly odd or cheap. (“Oh, you’re just having water?”) And sure, I was well supplied with my big bag of Snacks For Emergencies including Larabars, coconut cookies and any fruit we managed to pick up along the way… not to mention that we guiltily threw away more sugar than I care to think about: complimentary Swiss chocolate bars, Italian Baci, a large tub of “Tiramisu” ice cream.
Yet, like some sort of mutant slime from a cheesy horror movie, I kept feeling sugar creeping back in... around the ancient marble door frames and through the windows’ bulky wooden shutters, following us like shadows along the tourist-jammed streets. Small things, mostly. Once, Steve accidentally came home from the supermarket with a large vanilla yogurt rather than plain. Once, while staying the night in a B&B I put granola on my plain yogurt in desperation to avoid the Nutella and sweet yellow cake that constituted my other breakfast options, all the while looking the other way while my kids ate Cornflakes. (Cornflakes! Horrors!) Once, in a cafeteria across the street from the Duomo, we picked out what we thought were strawberries and yogurts for the girls’ snack, only to discover all that white stuff was whipped cream… not yogurt. Once, while having our unsweetened cappuccinos for a snack, we were sufficiently crazed with peckishness that we ate the hard little gingerbread cookies that had thoughtfully been placed on the saucers. Yes, these are the things that keep me up at night: whipped cream ambushes and postage-stamp-sized complimentary cookies.
Then again, other things are bigger. Twice our whole family succumbed to the siren song of gelato- (only once, in my opinion was worth it: peach, with little bits of skin throughout.) With an average of 95 degrees each day in Florence, and an average of fourteen tourists slurping a cone for every ten you passed on the street, keeping it to only twice was quite the superhuman effort.
Once, I heard our affable waitress describe the Tiramisu dessert as “buonissima” and I- swept away by the joy of a delicious meal and the fact that I was understanding far more of the Italian conversation than I had expected to- impulsively ordered two for the girls… only to have it not be all that “buonissima” after all. Phoo.
Once, we partook of thin slivers of a delicious Crostata Ciocolatta which was the birthday dessert of our now eight-year-old cousin whose family we met up with in Northern Italy. This was in the Dolomites, an alpine region of Italy so far to the North that prior to World War One it was part of Austria… and, as it turns out, a very dangerous place in which to send my husband off to the bakery. The first time he found the bakery as if in a trance, wafted in on the scent of a fresh apple strudel, which he promptly bought- helplessly- only to then give away to the extended family we had met up with. The second time he came home with a combination of sweet and not-sweet pastry, and by the third time he was arriving home with little marzipan hedgehogs and delicately wrapped bars of chocolate embedded with animal crackers or hazelnuts. I knew we had to get out of there, quick.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that none of these “sweet” treats, when tried, yielded that sugar blast Americans are so fond of… While an apple strudel or chocolate pie in the United States wouldn’t be considered worth it’s salt if it failed to make your teeth ache, the things we tried in bites here and there truly surprised us: apple strudel actually tasted like apples; the chocolate pie tasted of pastry and cream. No explosion of sweet; no King Kong-sized portions. When we saw a Ben & Jerry’s in Florence, I wondered what the Italians thought of flavors like Chocolate-Chip-Cookie-Dough Ice Cream and Phish Food (doesn’t that have caramel and gummy bears in it?), when juxtaposed with the elegant subtlety of a, say, peach gelato? Do they think we’ve completely lost our minds?
Back in Florence, on the last night, after very kindly being served complimentary biscotti as we tried to pay the dinner bill (help!) Steve and the girls had a goodbye treat of yet another gelato (that’s three, for those keeping score) while I abstained. By that time I could feel the ground moving beneath me. I agonized as I packed my suitcase. We had had so much more sugar here than we would have at home, yet so very much less than we would have had if not for The Project… What did that mean? Had we been good? Or not so good? Both, I imagine. In fact, I suppose the answer was that we were human.
Oh, and yes, we had a great time… thank you. Of course, most vacations, no matter how much fun, have to end. Lucky for us.
July 17, 2011 § 3 Comments
Our family has been in Florence for five days thus far (not counting Monday when we arrived in a state of exhaustion that can only be described as hallucinatory). I love how it seems like we left home eons ago and it hasn’t even been a week.
In some ways it feels like we’ve left the No Sugar Project at home too. This is not to say we aren’t doing No Sugar- we are. It just seems to matter less. We can go through entire meals, entire days worth of meals, enjoying incredible tastes- freshly made al dente pasta, thinly-sliced, delicately salty prosciutto, crunchy, garlic-rubbed crostini with pungent green olive oil- all without having to ever give much thought to The Sugar Problem. As long as we ignore the small table of “dolci” we pass by on our way to find the restroom, we can get along without feeling deprived a bit.
Okay, I must admit I’m not being the Spanish Inquisition here the way I am at home- by the same token, I don’t have to be. Do I actually ask if there is sugar in the freshly made “pici”? No, but I already know the ingredients of pici: four and water. Do I need to ask the ingredients of things like “Prosciutto e melone” or “Insalata Caprese” (tomatoes, basil leaves and mozzarella)? It would be like asking what the ingredients are in my morning eggs, or my glass of water.
So what’s up with that anyway? I know Italians have believed in fresh and local foods long before anyone ever dreamed up the term “locavore.” Twenty years ago when I lived in Rome as a student, I was amazed to attend the morning markets and find produce so fresh it still had dew and a little bit of dirt on it. It took me a while to get used to the idea of going to so many different places just to compose a meal: the outdoor market for fruits and vegetables, the butcher for meat, the bakery for fresh bread and pasta. Unlike us trendy Americans, Italians’ belief in such things doesn’t stem from a desire to save the planet or the polar bears or even necessarily to benefit their own health. No- food comes close to being a second religion around here for the deceptively simple reason that they know what’s good.
I got that phrase from my grandmother, who would use it to approvingly describe someone who knew how to appreciate something important, usually food. Scratch that- always food. As in: “Of course he likes the schnitzel! He knows what’s good.” Even thought she was of German heritage, not Italian, the sentiment was the same: what could be more important than really, really good food?
Now don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our share of sugar thrown at us- just not in the restaurants. On the two Swiss Air flights it took to get here the stewardesses kept trying to hand us Swiss chocolate bars- how often do you really think people say “no” to those? Then we arrived- at looooong last on nooooo sleep- at the apartment we have rented, to find a huge dish of hard candies on the coffee table, little wrapped chocolate “Baci” thoughtfully placed by the bedside, and a huge tub of complimentary “Tiramisu” ice cream in the freezer- specifically “per le bambine” our landlord explained.
Need I mention the entire supermarket rows of nothing but four million kinds of snack cookies? The fact that they have approximately three gelato stands for every one tourist? (It’s as if the people from Planet Gelato invaded years ago and no one noticed.) Sure, Europeans like their Cokes and their Nutella as much as anyone else. You can’t say they don’t have a sweet tooth… just that sweets aren’t so insidious here as in American culture. It’s a fairly easy separation, if it’s something you want to separate.
And crazy us- we want to. Remind me why again?
July 7, 2011 § 5 Comments
I almost can’t believe it: we’re half-way through.
Today is the seventh day of July, so in fact we’re officially past the six-month mark. After an entire June of clammy wetness it’s finally starting to look more like summer here in Vermont… the marble-quarry swimming hole was full of people when I drove by this afternoon. Also, I hear strawberry season is practically over, (didn’t it just start?) so I hurried out and bought two quarts… never mind going picking.
Of course, summer in Vermont has truly arrived just in time for us to go away: we’re preparing for a trip. A big trip. We leave Sunday for two weeks in Italy.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re not thinking: “Gee, will Eve ‘s family visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa? The Vatican? The Coliseum?” I know you’re not thinking that because that’s not what everyone here has been asking me. What everyone here has been asking me is: “Oo! What are you going to do about the Sugar Project?”
Yeeeaaaaah. Good question. It’s one to which I have given much thought, but have yet to receive any brilliant revelations about. My circular thought pattern runs something like this: the Italians are serious about their food, in particular fresh, homemade food- this will be extremely helpful. Also very helpful will be the fact that the Italians aren’t too big on desserts- gelato and tiramisu notwithstanding. The first time our family went to Italy two years ago I recall more than one instance in restaurants when we had to ask if, in fact, there was any dessert to be had. It was often an afterthought, as in: “Oh! Yeah- we have dessert… Would you like dessert?”
In one of the more local establishments we ordered two different desserts and both struck my American palate as… not very good. Instead they were creamy and cake-y and lemon-y and almond-y. They were not what I would call sweet. I didn’t care for them very much- at that point I was still looking for that taste explosion at the end of a good meal to signify it’s end, like fireworks at the end of the Fourth of July festivities. I mean, you just can’t go home till the grand finale practically blows your eardrums out- or taste buds off as the case may be. We Americans are not big on subtlety.
Therefore, by comparison, we should be in good shape, right? No one will be tempting us with deep-fried Twinkies or Death-by-Chocolate Sundays… However. Gelato is good. Really, really good. Did you know that you can request “crema” on top and they will put a perfect little dollop of whipped-cream on top? Did you know it will likely be between eighty and ninety degrees our entire first week? Do you think, at the tourist-thronged landmarks we are sure to be visiting, we’re going to be encountering gelato every-blinking-where we go?
So last night we had a babysitter and Steve and I hashed it out over dinner.
My husband started out the bargaining. “How about one dessert per day?” he helpfully suggested. I about spit out my drink. I pointed out that, on a fourteen day trip, this would result in us having more desserts in the month of July than we would have in the entirety of 2011.
“How about one dessert for the whole trip- our July dessert?” I countered. The look of abject horror on his face was impressive.
“Now, we’re not going half-way around the world to torture our children with wonderful ice cream they can’t have.” Oo! The “torturing your children” card- well played!
“How about one dessert per week?” I re-countered. As you can imagine, this went on for some time.
Other ideas were floated: what about family voting on a case-by-case basis? Although this appealed to my democratic side, I’m reasonably confident that my otherwise very-supportive family, when faced with an Italian gelato stand in all its glory, would nonetheless vote the No Sugar Project out every time- possibly before breakfast.
By the end of our meal we seemed to have reached some sort of consensus: we will, of course, have our July dessert in Italy. Very likely, we’ll end up having more than one dessert during the course of our trip. Whatever we have will be rare and special. So, basically, we’re going to wing it.
On the whole, Italians seem to have gotten the sweets question right… enjoying little wonderful golf-ball-sized scoops of gelato as a special treat is a lesson we “more-is-more” Americans would do well to learn.
Then again, I’ve been to Italy four times in my life, and every time I go I’m dismayed to see that the gelato scoops have gotten a little bit bigger. Ever so gradually, they’re becoming more American.