The Visual Diary of Summer in Puglia, SAVEUR Blog Awards Nomination & A Salad with Watermelon, Tomatoes and Local Herbs

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I. The Heat and The Gratitude 

The distance between the desire to lay on a white beach on a hot summer day with a cool beer in hand, and the first hot drink during a rainy day that already smells like Autumn, might feel like a blink at times. In Italy though, that blink can last for several months. Several, hot, exhausting months of merciless summer. I guess at the age of 32 and long after school holidays I should be mature enough to confess that no, summer is not my favorite moment of the year, thank you very much! 

In fact, I believe had it not been for berries, stone fruits, melons, figs and fresh sea food, I would not even enjoy summer. And I am sure, that if it wasn’t for frisa (Pugliese hard bread to be soaked and seasoned before serving with fresh cherry tomatoes) I would probably starve in hot, humid days that cooking, along with any other activity seems plainly impossible. 

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Please accept this rant about the unacceptably hot summer as a justification for my absence here. Complaints and nags aside though, I have been quite busy. Determined to swim against the tide during August, when all Italy literally shuts down to go on vacation (read “to the beach”), I decided to stay in Rome and work. And work I did! But before August, the month of limbo and transition in Italy, I headed south towards my beloved Puglia, for a brief vacation.

In this post, I try to write only a few words to set the mood and leave everything else to the images, as a visual diary. As you can see there are tons of them, and it took the great part of summer for me to select and edit them (I listened to the whole series of Harry Potter audiobooks in the meanwhile! An utter delight!).

I also add the simplest, most refreshing non-recipe for a summer salad with watermelon chunks, a variety of tomatoes and tons of aromatic herbs.

Of course, the post can’t be completed without thanking you immensely for having nominated me for the prestigious SAVEUR blog awards for Best Photography! The news came as the most pleasant surprise just when I was about to leave Puglia for Rome. I am still speechless and drenched in bliss for this. There’s still a little time to vote, so please keep supporting me! (Update: Voting time is over! Thanks for the support.)

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II. The Pugliese Diary

I stayed in the same country side home that I have been visiting for the past two years; old, authentic and rustic. Built in a dry yet fertile land where ancient olive trees have deep routs in the red earth, grey and white Trulli host guests and a small garden provides the necessary vegetables to feed us all summer long. The eggplants, zucchinis and green peppers are satuèed in local extra virgin olive oil, tomatoes end up in jars of “sala” (tomato sauce) to dress pasta dishes all year long, and even grapes are conserved in alcohol with anice seeds to served as post-dessert after a long meal. 

Meals were often simple and fresh. Local cheese (read tons of burrata and a lot of mozzarella nodini) from nearby masserias (Pugliese farm houses), taralli and olives. Of course, frisa were in the order of the day, and we ordered fresh orecchiette and panzarelli (fried dough filled with tomato and mozzarella) from another nearby masseria. 

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Speaking of these typical Pugliese farm houses, I went for a visit of the dreamy Masseria Potenti too! Masseria Potenti, a remodeled fortified-farmhouse-turned-into-hotel, is our venue for The Puglia Encounter Workshop that I will host at the end of October together with Emiko Davis and Alice Adams. I can’t wait to be back there, to chill by the pool, to wander around with my camera and to go treasure hunting in Grottaglie, the land of magical Pugliese artisan ceramics.  Continue reading

The Layoff, A Praise to Creative Work & Gradara Workshop Recap

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Read Betty’s recap post about Gradara Workshop here | Read Zaira’s recap post here | Valentina’s post coming soon. | My recap starts at point 2 of this post.

I. The Gentle Layoff or a Note to Self

After the huge ups and downs that started in my life last year, early this Spring, it started to feel more steady, workwise speaking. After a six month internship in an startup office, I was hired as the content manager; I’ve worked on the blog and the social media of an interior design website. An exciting adventure and a very full time job, that demanded for almost all of my energy.
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However the euphoria of the new job did not last long. Soon I started feeling restless, as what I did, although thrilling, was not much creative. I started missing working in the the creative/artistic/culinary world. 

Now that I look back to the end of July, I can see clearly how attending the Gradara Workshop —hosted by talented ladies Betty, Zaira and Valentina— was a turning point. I had never met these girls in person, and it was my first time at Valentina’s home, but somehow I felt at ease with whatever was going on, things came naturally to me, I was at the right place at the right time. 

As I came back to Rome, I started to feel uneasier every day at work. I tried to remain focused at my deskjob but I felt out of breath as I dreamed about cooking, shooting and creating something instead of organizing documents. 
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At a certain point, on September 1st when I woke up in the morning, I looked at the rays of the early sun outside the window, then sat on the bed and… started to cry! The mere idea of going back to that office for a long, indefinite time made me feel plain miserable.

Later when I was washing the breakfast dishes, all I could think about was the need for a big change, a revolution.

The big change arrived some hours later. On that same day, I was, very nicely, laid off.

And, odd as it may sound, I felt relieved! I felt that my chance had come, I could do whatever I wanted. This is an opportunity. Now I can dive back into creative work and start anew! 

It wrote these words down immidiately, in order to record my precise intinctive reaction to this apparently bad news; down at the bottom of my guts I was feeling lighter, content and not worried at all. 

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That night I went to bed quite late. The subconscious did its dirty job. I jetted awake, very early, feeling quite anxious.

So, I left This note to remind myself to trust my instinct. To remember, always, what my reaction was to this. To know that I can do better. This is not some self-helping acknowledgin or inspirational note. It’s what it is. 

Do not forget it. Do not forget how miserable you felt on the morning of September 1st, thinking about going to office, and how things lightened up and how you sincerely smiled, after many days, when on early evening of the very same September 1st, you were fired.”

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Here I also inform you officially that as of October 1st, I’m available fulltime for jobs for Photography, blogging, cooking lessons, workshops and graphic design, food tours in Rome/Italy and recipe developing for brands and editorial products.

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No better moment than this to finally publish this memoirs of three days of pure creativity with like-minded people, with a touch of magic that only true passion at heart and crafty hands can bring to life.

2. The Gradara Workshop, The Italian Riviera, July 2016

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It was Summer time at its peak. The Italian riviera, where Valentina lives, was hot, humid and adorable.

I got on a train from Rome’s Termini station that took me towards north one day before the workshop. There, in the station of Cattolica Valentina, Zaira and Betty were waiting for me. Though it was the first time we met, we clicked immediately; we shared the stories of our lives and a laughter or two.

That evening we had the best piadina (Italian authentic flatbread from the Romagna region, wrapped around cold cuts, cheese and vegetables), somewhere looking over the sea. A simple, incredibly convenient dinner that represented the charm of local Italian regional gastronomy at its best.

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On Friday, we harvested and arranged flowers, wrapped the gifts for the attendee (incredibly gorgeous looking Raku ceramic bowls by Freaky Raku), froze peaches for the welcome drink. Betty, Zaira and Valentina went through their keynotes and slides.

By the times the attendees arrived to the garden of the Solfrinis, the sun was low, and our beautifully styled Summer table was decorated with fresh fruit, crystal glasses, roses and flowers from the countryside and olive branches.

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We were a group of talented, sensible women from all walks of life, different religions, and three different continents; In a moment where the world is being teared apart by hatred and fear, we gathered around from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Croatia, Turkey, Lebanon, Kuwait and Iran and celebrated our similarities, while each expressing uniqueness through our personal stories.   Continue reading

The Light after the Longest Night of the Year, Olive Harvest Retreat & Banana Pancakes with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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I. Surviving the Long, Dark Night

More than a month has past since I went to the Olive Harvest Retreat at the end of October. I know I should’ve written this post a long time ago, but I didn’t. Yes, I had taken way too many photos (more than 500!), and no, I haven’t really had a moment of free time. But now I know, these were not the reason. I needed time. Time to reflect, to recover, to comprehend. Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-106 Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-77Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-69
I had recently come back from Iran, and I knew it was time for me to take an uncomfortable but necessary step in my life, when I saw that my creative friend Kat from Zero the One has organized this Olive Harvest Retreat with a friend of hers, Susie, the founder of Oreeko. The event took place in the heart of Italy, the province of Umbria, in a 100% organic farm run by mother Lucia and daughter Alina. There would’ve been the stunning Italian nature in its Fall glory, good, real organic food, handpicked and cooked with love, and a bunch talented and creative people to share all this goodness with. As Italians would say “mi inviti a nozze”, or it’d be a wedding feast for me. So how I could I not go? 
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Telling stories during long nights has been therapeutic since ancient times. In the darkest of times, people gather round dear ones, light candles, share a meal, tell stories, communicate, and together they wait for the new day to arrive. Together, they overcome the fear of never seeing the daylight again.

That’s what happens in Yalda, the antique Persian holiday that celebrates the Winter Solstice and . As I said last year, Yalda shares many common roots with Christmas, Chanukah and other Winter celebrations. During the longest darkness, we keep each other company, ready poetry, break a pomegranate or two, go through the stock of dry fruit, and wait for the sun to shine on a new day.

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Something similar happened as a result of the Olive Harvest Retreat. New things arrived. I took a new professional course in Social Media and Digital Marketing, I started a new job, I have met so many amazing new people, and closed an old, crippled door behind me. It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been fun (all the time), but for the first time in more than a year, I am feeling alright. I am ready for the new day, for the new year, trusting that (yet another time), the dark night is overcome.

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Susie, is a survivor. By changing her lifestyle, she has tamed down a horrible disease that consumed her twenties in numerous surgeries and medications. She went vegetarian, and swears by all things natural, organic, and eco. That’s how she came up with her business Oreeko, a directory of all eco-friendly, green businesses around the world.

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Kat, is an explorer, I would say. She’s a multi-talented creative, who creates videos and has an extraordinary interior and spiritual dimension.

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Zara, is a physician with a passion for fashion, lifestyle and creativity, who’s trying to find a way for these things to coexist in the rigid world of medicine. She joined us from London.

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Emily and Harrison, an adorable couple from London again, are professionals of the world digital content and video, with a huge enthusiasm about nature and natural living who dream of having their own little farm.

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Agata, is a Polish girl who quit her big corporate job to follow her dream of being an interior design creative and consequently moved to north of Italy.

Ewa, another Polish girl, living in Warsaw runs an interior design blog and online shop.

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Veronique, who flew all the way from New York City to be with us, runs an online green and eco-friendly shop of artisan products.

And Nardia, the Aussie girl of Florence, tells the story of bests of Italy; the food, the wine and the travels.

We were different but we were somehow alike. We retreated ourselves together. We harvested olives, we shared our stories with little or no filters. We lived together, slowly, just for a weekend. That weekend, I left a chapter of my life behind me and moved on.

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The love that Alina and her mom put into growing, harvesting and taking care of their olive oil is remarkable; you can actually taste it drop for drop in their incomparable, organic extra virgin olive oil. No wonder they say it’s the best Italian olive oil. They have created a peace of heaven in their farm in Umbria, where you can relax, get in touch with nature and live the real Italian country, slow living. If you ever get to Umbria, you should pay them a visit. You’ll love your stay. 

II. Celebrating the Light of the New Day

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Breakfast. What better way is there than to celebrate a new day with a good breakfast? I made this unbelievably simple recipe one morning during the Olive Harvest Retreat, with whatever I had at disposal. Many eggs and bananas, and excellent extra virgin olive oil. 

There is this belief that pancakes MUST be made with butter. I don’t believe in sacred ingredients. I believe in using local, fresh ingredients. When I am at huge olive farm with fresh olive oil, I don’t use store bought butter. If I was in the Alps where they make incredible fresh butter, I wouldn’t have used olive oil.

So this is not a recipe to celebrate Yalda, the longest night of the year. These banana pancakes, celebrate the rising of the sun in the next morning. Imagine the smell of fresh coffee, early morning light, the mist of winter, looking over a field of olive trees.

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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that should be nutrient and fuel for a little nag working day. This is the basic recipe, which is 2 eggs for a banana. You can change it any way you desire. Although the egg whites give a you a fair amount of protein, you can add seeds and nut (better if ground) to enrich the pancakes. Nonetheless I don’t suggest adding sweet elements such as raisins or cranberries. You’ll be surprised how naturally sweet these pancakes are! Mashed banana releases all of its sugar (which is A LOT), And that’s why these pancakes are dark on the surface. They’re not burned, it’s the sugar of the banana that caramelizes quickly.

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My only trick is to beat the egg white separately until firm and then gently fold it into the mashed banana and egg yolk mix. A pinch of bicarbonate soda always helps too. In this version I added cardamom and nutmeg to the batter and served the pancakes with different types of apples, diced and dressed with fresh lemon juice and a lot of cinnamon. (Because there should ALWAYS be cinnamon, ya know!). A little acidity goes a long way with these sweet banana pancakes. You can of course serve them with any fresh fruit of the season. Serve them with pomegranates and mince pistachios to add a festive touch and bring in the spirit of Yalda. Continue reading