Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Donut Beauty Pageant.

Few of you will be aware of this, but in the midst of Christmas celebrations in Positano, a very special Festa takes place with contestants vying for a prize for sponginess, taste and hole-liness.

La Festa della Zeppola in Positano is a winter get together on the main beach which in amongst the organized games of football and treasure hunts, homebodies hibernate in their kitchens levitating dough and frying, dipping in sugar or dribbling honey in order to put their best donut forward to the judges.

But the donuts or Zeppole in Positano, which were once offered in a basket lined with lemon leaves, resemble not their industrial American counterparts, but are an ingenious way of putting together that which the Coast has best to offer.

Lemon zest, orange peel, pine nuts, and raisins grace the interior of these spongy delights, and local honey sweetens the exterior. Some add potatoes or milk to the mixture, others keep with the tradition of turning the dough over in the oil with a twig off the lemon or orange tree rather than the usual cooking implement, but most connoisseurs will agree that a hole in the middle is essential.

So when the proud ladies with their head held high present their wares to the judge and offer some to the bystanders what do I do? I skulk to the back of the crowd in shame, comparing these perfect beauties with my lot back home. Loving prepared, after an afternoon spent frying and filling oneself on oil fumes so that my husband has his traditional Positano donuts, I wonder how the heck do they get that hole to form so neatly in the centre. For if I were to present my Zeppole at this festa, they would be sure to get the ‘Ugly Betty’ award.


My zeppole look as if they’ve been dredged from the bottom of a swamp (after being there a long time). With no hole to speak of they sprout antennas and feelers in all directions, their bloated bellies extending in defiance where there should have been a cavity. As they hit the hot oil, the yeast takes on a life of its own, a growing blob of dough reaches out gasping for air and then, like the sorry life forms at Pompeii, stays that way.



But I haven’t given up on my Zeppole alla Positanese. My multi-limbed mutations still taste quite good, and despite the sniggers smiles from the kids, disappear as soon as I make them proving that you can’t judge a book by it’s unappetizing cover. Zero on presentation –ten on taste.

If anyone wants to give me lessons, I know I have a lot to learn.



 Basic Zeppola Recipe:

Put 50gms of yeast to rise with 600-700gms of flour, add enough milk and water to create very soft sticky dough. Add a tablespoon of sugar, a good handful of raisins, grated zest from a lemon and an orange, pine nuts and a pinch of salt. Let it rise for an hour. Deep fry in small spoonfuls. Drain on kitchen paper. Drizzle with honey diluted in water or dust with icing sugar. Serve on the same day.


Merry Christmas from Positano! Buon Natale a Tutti !

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Gift. Italian generosity and the Positano hearts.


I was in the kitchen and I discerned the thud of a soft tread of footsteps running down the stairs past my window. Not having heard the wrought iron gate clank on opening, I was sure it would be someone familiar with the house. As I pulled the ancient front door open, a bundle of leaves appeared round the corner of the stone wall and our gardener followed them to the landing. He was holding a big bunch of orange blossom. “I’ve just been pruning the neighbours trees” he said, “and I thought ‘La Signora’(me) might like them.”


This was not the first time we’d been offered an unexpected gift from him. Often I’d get phone calls saying to send my son up to the Grotta di Fornillo to pick up something he’d freshly picked from his garden in Montepertuso. He’d arrive at the Grotta on his Vespa, with a big box or large bag of tomatoes, strings of onions, peppers, white eggplants and entire plants of basil all tucked between his legs.


For in Positano and probably in Italy in general, one of the most appreciated and loving gifts involves home grown, home bottled or (in Positano’s case) freshly fished food.


Our favourite car service, long since become friends of the family, drops off pastiera, homemade struffoli and whoppers of tomatoes from their garden when passing through town.


Over the years, fresh local fish like tontani or palamito (great with pasta); local artisanal panettone and home-baked cakes; crisp string beans; colourful fresh borlotti beans; sweet peppers; homemade limoncello and other liquors; the most tender home bottled tuna and mixed giardiniera; jams; fresh eggs and delicious dried figs stuffed with chocolate and walnuts then soaked in sherry have also featured frequently in offerings from other locals.


I’ve even received handmade Positano soaps from Saponissmo made from local ingredients. And I’m sure I’ve left things out.


There is a whole nurturing relationship between Italians and their food. It has to be locally produced and the simplest to present at the table. Zero miles to get from the garden to the plate. Prepared lovingly, each meal is savoured, discussed and complimented, with suggestions for later preparations and improvements. It’s no wonder that this exchange of homemade or home grown gifts is so appreciated in Italy and that Italian hospitality almost always involves a meal, or coffee with a food offering.

My Italian grandmother used to say ‘mangia, mangia!’to me every night at the dinner table, and when an Italian to tells you to eat, they mean it as a gift of love. 

So I thank you Positano, for your generous gifts of welcome to this beautiful town. And prego, have some oranges!



This post is part of the Italy Blogging Roundtable’s invitation to post on this topic.

The roundtable blogs include: ArtTrav, At Home in Tuscany, Italylogue, Italofile and Brigolante.

Thank you for inviting me.

Monday, December 05, 2011

What to expect when you are expecting …to get your licence on the Amalfi Coast.


I put down my book. I’d barely read a page. It was high summer and the cool winds were blowing hard. Distracted by the view, I got up and watched bathers hold on to dear life as the orange umbrellas fought to free themselves and wheel across the beach. My son approached and I asked how him the studying was going.


The two full days he’d spent reading a small book and doing online quizzes was not related to school or their degrees but was simply only for the written part of a driving licence test.

Sitting for your licence in Italy has nothing to do with the laws of driving in the rest of Europe.The written test, now a multiple choice on the computer, is darn difficult with very technical questions many of which you will never have any use for (unless you are going to build a road or drive a truck) alternated with bizarre ones which only the very dumbest wouldn’t know.

Based on my two kid’s real experiences, I have prepared a how to guide to getting a licence in Sorrento.


What to expect when you are expecting to learn to drive in Sorrento:

  1. Leave Positano one and a half hours earlier than the lesson, being sure to walk all the way to the first Sponda bus stop rather than Chiesa Nuova (which is twenty minutes closer) to increase your chances of actually getting on the Sita bus. Pay no attention to the crowd of harassed-looking tourists there before you. You have a purpose to the ride.
  2. After sitting in two hours of lessons, watch the bus for Positano leaving around the corner just as you get to the stop. Wait 40minutes for the next one getting home at 10pm. Repeat twice weekly for two and a half weeks then give up.
  3. Book the theory test so you can get your ‘Foglio Rosa’ and actually get behind the wheel. Three days before the test, open the book and start cramming like mad (university style), exclaiming loudly on the ridiculous things that they expect you to know before you get a licence. Start panicking when you don’t pass the online tests. Alternate reading the book right to the very end and sitting tests online until you start to pass (after approximately 50 trials).
  4. Pay for a driver to take you both to the driving school at Sorrento very early next morning. Promise faithfully to SMS home with the results. Listen to private driver wonder how lesser intelligent people can ever pass this test. Board mini bus with the rest of the driving test students and head for Naples.
  5. An hour later, arrive at the Naples Motorization Board and watch bewildered as the bus is parked directly beneath a no-parking sign. Protest with the driving instructor that you know what the sign means and that is that you can’t leave a vehicle there. Have your first real lesson in Italian driving when he shrugs and says ‘yeah but it doesn’t matter.’
  6. Enter the test room. Watch the supervisor walk amongst the contestants. Watch him talk to the girls, giving them the right answer. Watch him correcting the wrong answers for girls. Pass the test without help.
  7. Console others on the bus who have failed for the third time. Watch the driving instructor’s amazement at others who did pass due to pure luck.
  8. Book driving lessons. Arrive full of enthusiasm for first test. After an hour of road madness, return home full of fear, swearing that you will never get in the car again.


Coerced by parents into continuing lessons you go back twice a week to Sorrento:

  • You drive with scooters coming towards you in one way streets. You become very well versed with avoiding a collision with said errant scooters
  • You inch your way in traffic overtaking trucks double and triple parked in narrow alleyways. You learn to back up into tight corners so that they can get past.
  • You learn that stop signs are for stopping because your instructor yells at you not because others use them.
  • You learn to use your own reasoning when negotiating traffic where rules are ignored.
  • You learn the code for cheating in parking on the day of the test (The instructor looks back as you are reversing. When he turns his head to look forward, you turn the steering wheel in the other direction)
  • You hear all about his hernia operation.
  • You swelter in the sun waiting to catch the bus back home at midday. Once again you ignore the queue.

The practical test:

The driving test day arrives. You hear the instructor ask the examiner if he minds that he helps an older Signora with the pedals as she hasn’t gotten the hang of it quite yet. The examiner says ‘it’s fine’.

You get in the car. You rev the engine. The instructor murmurs ‘La prima’. You take off down a busy straight road totally ignored by the examiner who chats to the instructor. Two minutes later you are asked to do a U turn and go back to the school. 5 minutes have gone past. You have passed. The  short practical test was just a mere formality. Your licence is waiting for you already laminated at the desk.

My children got their licence in Sorrento without:

  • Ever having gone above thirty kilometers per hour.
  • Ever having had to stop or go through a traffic light
  • Ever having driven in a two lane carriage way. They had no idea how to overtake, change lanes, keep in the correct lane when turning or use their mirrors to check before overtaking.
  • Ever having gone in a round about.
  • Ever having driven in the rain
  • But they know how to place traffic cones correctly along the road and the regulations regarding lorries.

I don’t know whether I’ll lend them my car in Luxembourg, but when we go to Sorrento, they are going to be the only ones behind the wheel.

This post is not intentioned to be offensive nor seen as negative. Just a comic view of how things really happened in Italy.