Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017

© Dr Rosenberg

The group took day trips along the Adriatic south of Lecce, including one to Santa Cesarea Terme.

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I prescribe a trip to... Puglia

A Quebec GP and her husband head to a baronial castle in Italy for a little cooking and plenty of great eating

It's not easy to find a vacation for a country GP, who needs to book time off months in advance, and a sheep farmer who has to time his holidays to lambing and crops; a woman who likes to go somewhere and do something, and a man who likes to wander around where he has never been before.

What do we have in common? Good food! A one-week Italian cooking course in Italy seemed ideal. We read about the class run by Stile Mediterraneo in Puglia, Italy; the timing worked for us and the prospectus looked wonderful.

They should actually call it a cooking and eating tour, because we spent more time eating than anything else — two or three hours at each meal, except breakfast. There were only six guests: a mother and daughter from Australia, two women from Quebec, and my husband Hugh and me.

All bottled up

Our hostesses/teachers/organizers were two beautiful multilingual Italian sisters, Cinzia and Marika Rascazzo. Marika is a cardiologist, so she was not with us all the time as she had clinical work to do. Obviously, we could relate to that. Her profession also impacted her recipes: instead of frying food in olive oil, she drizzles a little on top, for taste. Polpettes (meatballs) were dropped into the tomato sauce without browning in oil first, a recipe that worked just as well when I tried it at home.

We discovered that pasta is not a meal in Italy, it is the first course, after the appetizers and before the second course. And of course the wine — we had small wine glasses, but they kept getting refilled. One of the first things we were taught is that when you clink glasses with someone, you have to look them in the eye, otherwise you will have seven years of bad sex. An excessive punishment, it seems to me, for such a slight offense.

With our hostesses, we were eight at the table and together we would put away three or four bottles of wine at each meal (again excepting breakfast) and sometimes we had a few glasses while we were cooking. Hugh pointed out that eight bottles between eight people works out to a bottle each, which took me aback because if a patient tells me she drinks a bottle of wine a day, I tell her that is excessive. I was never hungry and I ate till I was full, but I never got indigestion like I do at home when I eat too much — maybe because we ate slowly, or because the food was less greasy. And by the end of the week, I had gained only half a pound, which was even more amazing.

Castle life

We stayed in a baronial castle in a small village of Squinzano near Lecce in Puglia, which is on the heel of the boot that is Italy. The baron lets out one wing of this huge rambling ancient building with modern plumbing. Flowering vines cascade over the stone walls in opulent abundance. We were free to wander the grounds, under trees and vines, around trellises and stone structures, and to use the swimming pool, which had wide shallow steps at one end and stone urns around the perimeter.

There were bicycles we could borrow, but I was too nervous about dealing with the traffic in the narrow streets. We walked around the village, where all the old people sitting outside their houses said “Buongiorno!” or “Buona sera!” and we replied in kind.

It was hot and sunny every day. But the bedroom A/C worked, as did the ceiling fan, and we had the pool to cool off in. Our room and bathroom were enormous, with 4.5-metre ceilings and white tiled floors.

We didn't cook every day and there was a cook on staff. But when we did cook, it was a lot of fun. Everything was prepared and laid out in advance, and all organized, so as one thing simmered we started on something else. You could tell that a lot of forethought and experience had gone into the preparation.

We broke off into two teams of four, and competed. We grated and measured and kneaded; we made risotto and focaccia, tiramisù and pesto, bread and pasta, and more. There never seemed to be any pressure: if we were late getting started, well, we would just eat later. If it got too hot in the kitchen, we would help ourselves to cold water from the fridge, or Cinzia would open a bottle of chilled white wine.

Despite the fact that the fresh made pasta was awfully good, I do not intend to start making my own at home. I make enough things — mayonnaise, bread, yogurt, granola — that don’t take much time and taste much better than store-bought. But it all adds up, and I am not going to add home-made pasta. Though, from now on, I will grate fresh Parmesan cheese instead of buying the pre-grated stuff.

A little knowledge...

Nearly every day we went on an outing in a little air-conditioned mini-bus. The streets were so narrow, I was amazed at how Luigi, the driver, managed to turn it around. I once asked Luigi about his tracheostomy scar, but it was from a motorcycle accident, not from bussing tourists. The view from the bus window was of Puglia's rocks, dry ground and sun-scorched grass.

Everywhere there were drystone walls that appeared to be centuries old, undulated with areas of neglect, as well as modern drystone walls with cement caps. The buildings were all stone or concrete. And there were groves and groves of olive trees.

I had been trying to learn Italian on my computer, with Rosetta Stone. The program is a lot of fun: it is full of positive feedback, and you can do it in your own time: 20 minutes or half an hour in the evening after checking emails, instead of playing Minesweeper. I found I had learned a lot of words, enough to make some wonderful mistakes.

The sign on the winery wall, for instance, said: “Vietato l’ingresso ai non addetti ai lavori.” We had just been wondering about whether they still trod the grapes, so I confidently translated: “You’re not allowed to come in without washing your feet.” But no. Turns out lavoro is work; lavare is wash. The sign said no entry for unauthorized personnel!

Just beachy

We took a tour of a vineyard (where they had the sign about washing your feet) with a wine tasting afterwards; a trip to Lecce to see the ornate sandstone carved buildings and to shop; trips to the coast to swim, and to see where the Ionian sea meets the Adriatic, and stops for meals in restaurants.

At Otranto, after admiring the mosaic floor in the old church, we had a picnic lunch on the beach and spent a few hours on deck chairs under umbrellas in the sand. I’m not much of a beach person, but the water was great.

We learned a lot about wine (which is remarkably cheap in Italy) and also about olive oil. Cinzia is an official olive oil taster, and gave us a lesson. I un-learned a lot of the misconceptions I had: for instance, “virgin” and “extra-virgin” refer to the lack of off-taste. A bottle can start out extra-virgin, and deteriorate to virgin by sitting around open. And all cooking oil is first-pressed, otherwise it is lamp oil.

We also learned some important Italian hand gestures, like the finger-to-cheek gesture that means “this is delicious!” and the gesture for “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It was so relaxing and laid-back! You ask yourself: why can’t I be like this at home? And then you remember — oh yes, work. And oh yes, organizing and cleaning up after yourself. But a week of fun and relaxation and good food is great while it lasts.

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