I came, I saw, and I ate ricotta cheese at Vizzini’s 38th annual ricotta cheese festival. I’m not a huge fan of ricotta in general, but when there’s a food festival in Italy it’s usually not to be missed. There are festivals (called sagre) almost every weekend from spring through the fall, celebrating everything from artichokes to zucce (pumpkins) and just about everything in between.
The trip was planned through the base at Sigonella and almost 40 of us made the 1 ½ hour trip. The bus made a brief stop in Vizzini’s main piazza, and we were told to be back at quarter to 3, don’t be late. Looking around at the very tiny little town, I couldn’t imagine what would keep me busy until almost 3, since my ricotta limit is about two spoonfuls, and one can only eat so many cannoli.
The festival was just getting going as we arrived and vendors were setting up their various wares. A funny Sicilian guy named Sebastiano told me there was a city tour at 10 and that it might be a good way to start the day since the ricotta wasn’t quite ready. The tour was in Italian so I gleaned what I could from it, with help from Sebastiano who spoke English well. The highlights: a sea of nopales cactus growing on the hillside as well as on the roofs of the lesser used churches, a church that is open only once a year (not our day!) and a gorgeous kitchen garden with fave and pomegranates growing in what once was once a little palazzo.
And to the main event! Waiting to taste the freshly made ricotta turned out to be a brilliant idea, since when we arrived for our sample (a 20 ounce vat of steaming ricotta and whey) the line had disappeared. Somehow nobody wanted to eat molten ricotta in the sun on an 80 degree day. We persevered. We found a table in the shade and did like the locals, breaking the stale bread into bite sized portions, and scooping it up with a spoon. I can’t say I really liked it, as dairy has never been my thing, but I can say it was the best and most interesting ricotta I have ever tasted. It was creamy, and salty, with the full flavor of the sheep’s milk, but without any gaminess.
I asked the man at copper cauldron, who was stoking the wood fire and ladling out bowls of soupy ricotta, how the cheese is made. He told me that they boil the milk and add some portion of the sheep intestine to curdle it. Then they cook it slowly for about an hour to thicken it and to develop the flavor. That’s it! Simple, but so unlike the tasteless, gritty white cheese that passes for ricotta in the states.
By the time I had eaten my requisite 2 spoonfuls of ricotta it was almost 2 o'clock
and I’d yet to really explore the food vendors and their offerings, nor buy the cannoli that I had promised to Nick and his roommate, Ryan. The food vendors offered incredible sweets, pastries (both sweet and savory) and interesting things from the grill. Horsemeat is a local specialty, but after all of the cheese tasting, I didn’t have room for any carne di cavallo. I would like to try it though. I wonder which village hosts the sagra di horsemeat?
I had to hurry to get back to the bus, buying a 2 euro grocery sack full of mandarins on the way, which were taken care of by Nick’s marines upon my return. Nick, Ryan, and I took care of the cannoli. Delicious!
The Dover tarmac must be slathered in Vaseline. Flights keep slipping right off the schedule, including the 8:40 the 10:40 and the wee hours flight. After calling this morning at 3 am to check on our 5:15 show time, I caught a ride from the hotel only to find out the flight had been delayed until 12:55, then 1:55, then I got a boarding pass, and now it’s maybe leaving at midnight, or later, or tomorrow. I’ll likely be too late to catch any of the flights from Rota, Spain to Sigonella, Italy and there aren’t any more flights until Sunday. Sunday is officially a week after I started on this Space Available adventure. As much as I’ve been chomping at the bit to get moving and there has been one frustrating delay after another, I’m not sure I’m willing to call it wasted time. Sure, I’d rather be in Spain, or in Sicily, or at home for that matter, but I don’t regret my travel decision. Not if I get to see Nick.
My poor parents had to make three trips to Travis before I ever made a flight. Although I wasted lots of their time, I enjoyed our time together driving, and talking, and having an early breakfast in Davis, and cruising the back roads through the farm fields of Dixon, Sammy sleeping in the sun on the back seat. How is that wasting time? Wasting gas, maybe, but time, not at all. And I met lots of interesting people along the way. Dan and Will, two retired military guys became my travel buddies. We got food for each other, watched bags while the other napped, or took a walk, or relaxed in the USO lounge. We could all be tired and miserable and bored together. It made the waiting easier.
So I did finally make it to Spain on that flight from Dover- we took off only 13 hours after receiving our boarding passes, and 7 hours after going through security. We were indeed very late to Rota but lucky enough, the last flight to Sigonella was still on the tarmac. The Spanish terminal employees, civilians all of them, whirled into a flurry of bureaucratic activity and after running through a perfunctory security (unzip the bag, zip it again- no time to let the scanners warm up!) they whisked me off to the waiting bus and out to the plane, where I ran up the stairs, sat down and burst into tears. I didn’t even have time to thank anyone except for the man who took me to the plane. He said it was the fastest anyone had ever changed planes and that it was my lucky day that they hadn’t already left, which was true of course. But as my luck has gone so far this trip, it went, swiftly and completely. After an hour of flight we turned around and headed back to Rota which is where I sit as I write this, three days later. The ill-fated C-9 is still broken and I’ve given up calling every two hours to see if it’s fixed. Chained to the hotel phone is no way to experience a beach town on the Spanish Mediterranean. Flights to Sigonella last week were more than one a day, but somehow, not one plane has left for Sigonella since I arrived on Friday. Every day I pack my luggage, just in case. Today I even checked out of the hotel, only to check back in again a few hours later. Así es la vida!
When it works, it works well. Yesterday after 2 days of cancelled flights and an ID card fiasco, I finally stepped aboard my first Space Available flight- a C-17 to Dover, Delaware. The process was remarkably smooth, organized, and fairly quick, once I was chosen for the flight. The terminal and security resembles that of a commercial airport, but once aboard the plane, very little was familiar. There were 27 jump seats lining each side of the plane and exactly 7 passengers. The first 7 seats on the starboard side were lowered to make room for us, (there will be no spreading out!) and besides our baggage, which was strapped into deck clips, the plane was empty. Turns out that an empty C-17 is absolutely enormous. “Free to move about the cabin” takes on a whole new meaning in an empty C-17. We could have recruited a crew member to play 4 on 4 basket ball, tossed Frisbees, and done running cartwheels down the middle. I strolled, I stretched, I peeked out the one eye level window that wasn’t attached to an emergency exit. It’s a little disconcerting flying sideways and not being able to see out.
Our flight crew consisted of 4, I think. Two pilots, one male one female, and two crew members- maybe flight engineers, all impossibly young and undeniably charming in their khaki pantsuits. Gotta love a young guy in a pantsuit.
In fact our “steward” was a young guy in a pantsuit. The flight safety info consisted of earplugs and a quick, “You guys know the drill, right?” He pointed to the water which consisted of 3 orange igloos strapped to the side, and the “lav.” Easy enough. The flight was easy and uneventful, although cold, and just as I was getting uncomfortable and the novelty of flying crab-style in a jump seat was wearing off, we landed. It was just after 1 in the morning. The bus to the terminal just took a minute and our bags arrived shortly after we did. We followed the leader into the terminal and 3 of us checked in for the morning’s flight to Rota.
There is no shortage of checking in around here. I checked in and showed my paperwork when I arrived at Travis, again at roll call, again to check into the flight, and again at security. I have learned that if they give you a piece of paper, keep it. Someone will invariably ask for it. And I have learned the meaning of the word “slipped” as applied to a flight that you’re trying to get on. It means you’re SOL. Nada. Not gonna happen. Flights “slip” to tomorrow or the next day, and the flight to Rota slipped right off the flight monitor. So here I am in Dover, Delaware, relaxing in the lovely USO lounge where I have met friendly and incredibly helpful people. I slept undetected on the USO lounge couch for a couple of hours (there is some inexplicable ban on sleeping in the prone position anywhere in the terminal) and I’m feeling ready to try for the next flight which is at 8:40 tonight. And there’s another at 10:40, and another in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Unless of course there are more “slipping” of planes clean off the tarmac.
We've been back from China for almost a week now, but I've yet to leave on my trip to Italy. I am flying space available from Travis AFB, and when they said on the recording what flight schedules are subject to change without notice, they aren't kidding! Mom, Dad, and I did a dress rehearsal at 5 a.m. this morning, and drove to Travis for a flight that had been changed the evening before to a military only flight- no European vacationers! Should have called again before we left. Lesson learned. So it looks like my 3 days on the beach in the Spanish Mediterranean, tan and all, will have to be scrapped as I scramble to try again on Tuesday to get there to see Nick before he heads back to Africa on his mission. Sammy took the news well, and I did find the time to publish the following blog post that I had written in Shanghai. Wish me luck for my flight on Tuesday! This time I'll be calling ahead.
So far we’ve had fantastic luck at finding great food everywhere in China. It’s not always an easy process asking for what we’d like, and it feels like Christmas when the dishes arrive at our table, since we’re never sure what we’re going to get (because we’re never sure what we’ve ordered)! Mongolian Hot Pot didn’t prove to be any different in that respect. I’ve been wanting to try the hot pot, which translates roughly from the Chinese into Fire Pot. It’s sort of like the European broth fondues- there is a central pot of broth into which diners place items to cook and eat. Like everything else in China, the Mongolian hot pot is a little more free form and chaotic, at least as practiced by us.
Arriving at the restaurant, we couldn’t find any sort of menu, as this restaurant usually doesn’t deal with rookies like us. Since I suggested we try it, I figured it was up to me to make some sort of food appear at our table. Our waitress handed me a light green form covered in Chinese writing, which was how we were supposed to be deciding just what items we wanted in our hot pot. Not very helpful. The sweet young girl then took my over to the kitchen window and pointed to a large, pocked metal bowl filled with bones, broth, some other aromatics, and some things that looked like noodles. Now we were getting somewhere. Within minutes a similar bowl arrived at our table and the waitress lit the burner in the center of the table to get our broth boiling. Then we toured the restaurant’s other tables, her with pen in hand and me, pointing at food items other people were eating. Baby bok choy, cilantro, mushrooms, lotus root, thinly shaved rolls of meat, romaine, and the “noodles” which turned out to be tofu skins- all arrived on a little bookshelf, each in its own little plastic basket. In another plastic basket were drinking straws and disposable gloves, but that would be for later! Once our broth boiled, we started carefully adding our embellishments. When that method proved too slow to keep up with our appetites, we just turned the baskets of food over into the boiling broth. We added some fiery chile oil to the mix and had at it. Yum! As the vegetables began to disappear and the soup bones started to poke up through the broth, our waitress came by for a demonstration of just how those gloves and straws should be employed. She donned the gloves and pantomimed chewing on the bones. OK, that was more or less a no-brainer, but the straws? I was stumped. So our waitress transferred all of the soup bones to plates, let them cool, and then used the straw to poke at the bone marrow to loosen it. Then she spooned some broth into the cavity with the marrow, and the straw was for sucking that fatty concoction out! Not my cuppa jasmine green tea. Claudina, intrepid eater that she is, chewed the soup bones dry, pumped that broth and marrow until it was juicy, and slurped it right up. Impressive! Claudina 1, Kat 0.