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Montelparo: A slice of Italy’s best kept secret

Montelparo: A slice of Italy’s best kept secret

Anjali Venugopal August 21, 2017 2 COMMENTS

Being two souls who have never taken to the glitter and the glamour of city life (honestly quite repulsed by it) or the crowd and noise that comes along with it, the Husband and I are eternally in pursuit of places where we can be in sync with nature, far, far away from the madding crowd; where we can sip on some wine, under the blue skies or just as much as while away time under the trees while the sun shines, listening to the sparrows chirping away. If not for these spots that let us be one with nature, it has to be the timeworn, quiet townships with majestic buildings, their grey walls that have stories to tell from the innumerable winters they have witnessed and withstood; with the narrow, cobbled streets that make for countless alleyways. We have invariably turned to the peace, the quiet and the warmth of the countryside whenever we have felt the need to unwind or to get the calm in our systems restored.

It was during one of those erratic work weeks that the Husband and I chanced upon, on the internet, this tiny village somewhere on the hills in the lush Italian countryside; Montelparo. Nestled between the sprawling Apennine Mountains and the calm Adriatic Sea that reminds you of a sheet of cornflowers in full bloom, in the eastern Italian region of Le Marche, Montelparo deserves a lot more literature dedicated to her beauty and serenity than what exists currently. Here we got our share of the countryside with a side of the old, rustic, old town feel. It is not without reason that the insiders refer to Le Marche as “Italy’s best kept secret.”

A quick survey on the internet told us that the fastest way to get to this quaint village on the hills is by car, and voila! We flew to Rome and then rented a Fiat Panda, all set to discover parts of lo stivale which seemed to be unheard of even by the locals. So, with our small suitcases stowed away in the boot, a full petrol tank, route downloaded on Google maps, sunglasses and a bottle of water, we set out on our own mini adventure as early as 7 in the morn. The drive was not supposed to take us any more than three hours as per Google maps. And lo and behold, the drive was one right out of the movies; where the lead characters drive their supercars through the highways lined with the lush green grass, with the towering mountains in the background set against the azure skies with clouds that remind us of cotton candy from the carnivals. The sole difference in our case was that, we did not look anything like the said lead characters; sporting our just-out-of-bed looks, in oversized tees, sneakers and worn out pairs of shorts. So glamourous.. NOT!

The drive was easily the best we have done to date. It was my first time in Italy but no book or research on the internet had me prepared for the beauty that she is. There was this point during the drive that we realized that we were not even talking and instead we were both just gazing endlessly out of the windows as though out of the sheer desperation to hold on to every moment that was flashing by, right in front of our eyes. Talk about living in the moment. There was a stretch of the highway that ran adjacent to the coastline to the Adriatic Sea; the water so blue that it almost made us feel like we were cast in an animated Disney flick. We stopped at one of the quiet coves at Pedaso, for a short break in the sun before we started to ascend the hills to get to Montelparo. We sat by the cove with our feet in the blue water, while the warm sun shone on our bare backs. With our batteries charged, we were ready to get back on the winding road to the village we had been reading about.

We drove by vast fields of golden sunflowers (remember Sting and his gruff voice, although he was referring to fields of barley, what a pity) smiling away at us as we whizzed past, through the narrow hill roads, by the white wooden board with ‘Montelparo’ painted on it in black. We had arrived.

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A tiny village on the hills, with houses, the lone church and bungalows, all built in an identical stone that was a light brown in colour; dark cobbled streets running past all these dainty structures; a piazza to serve as a parking area for the entire village (just to shed more light on how tiny the village is); and the utterly breathtaking view. The whole village is so high up that you can see the vast expanse of the countryside laying in front of you for as far as your eye can reach; the green of the surrounding hills, the sunlight bouncing off the valleys, the stone chapel in the distance, the trees; all set against the canvas lent by the blue skies.

We had already made reservations in a cozy looking hotel going by the pictures and the reviews on the internet; Boutique Hotel Leone. Run by the sweetest British couple Madeline and Tim, our experience at Leone was not a step behind perfect, right from the moment we set foot in that cool, airy, stone structure that houses the hotel that fits the picturesque background like a well-fitting glove. The holiday hangover that I am currently experiencing, even after a good one week after the Italian sojourn does not let me keep for later the fact that the whole show behind this luxury hotel is put up by none other than these two adorable individuals. A luxury hotel, with just 8 rooms, the amount of research that must have gone into each of the factors that makes this charming little place an experience in itself, seems unfathomable.

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Madeline who was once an accountant is the one who seemingly runs most of the front desk and administrative work, while Tim is the head chef. Just as we entered we were welcomed by the two of them personally, with the warmth one would expect only from family or long lost friends. After a brief chit chat, Madeline showed us to our room and holy moly! Considering the perfection with which Hotel Leone operates, I cannot help but talk about each of the factors that made the experience arguably the best we have had in a long, long time. So here goes.

  • Décor: Boutique Hotel Leone spelt out two words for me right at the first instance; warm and tasteful. Normally, these are not two adjectives I would expect to go side by side in a hotel environment. But Leone had it all. The furniture, the rooms, the setting the cute little bar, the terrace overlooking the spectacular view, the restaurant, the indoor part of which gives you vibes from no less than an old Scottish castle with the white washed, stone walls and the beautiful dim lighting, spelt out ‘class’. Another aspect that quite caught my fancy was the common living area for the residents, painted in a beautiful hue of fresh green, furnished with a few comfortable armchairs and sofas and adorned with those classic lampshades; the bookshelves loaded with all sorts of books (cookbooks in particular) reminded me of a scene from a long forgotten storybook.

 

  • Rooms: Even if we choose to ignore the view out of the windows (as difficult as that might be), the rooms in this hotel are worth every penny you spend. It was almost like every single aspect in the rooms were taken with utmost seriousness right at the toddler stages of the hotel; be it the huge comfy beds, the classy furnishings, the spacious bathrooms or even the mini bar for that matter. I must mention the cute complimentary basket that greeted us in the room filled with fresh fruit and some homemade cookies.

 

  • Services: Out of the umpteen hotels we have stayed at, individually and together, Leone is the first place where the rooms were cleaned and the beds made, twice a day; once in the morning and once when you are out for dinner. I mean, how amazing is that! By the time you get back from dinner, your beds will be made, with a little chocolate left for you on the pillow, all ready for you to just snuggle in between the sheets for a good night’s rest.
  • Food & Drink: As I had mentioned, Tim is the head chef in this hotel and he’s a star (for want of a more apt term.) By now, if you have been following my blog for a bit, you must know as to how seriously I take my food. So, take it from me, the food Tim whips up is phenomenal. The Truffle Ravioli that made for our first meal there was just something surreal. The fresh mussles in a white wine, garlic and parsley broth, the Pumpkin Ravioli and the seafood risotto need to be given honourable mentions. As regards drinks, Madeline is a genuine case of wine connoisseur-ness (again might need to apply for an artistic license) and the most helpful of them all. The husband and I love our wine, but do not consider ourselves connoisseurs and for this reason, we kept describing to the lovely Madeline what we were looking for in terms of taste or flavour and the bottles she picked were always absolutely on point.
  • Amenities: Keeping aside the fact that Hotel Leone is situated on a gem of a property, the amenities provided leave no box unchecked. Be it the lavish outdoor pool by the trees, the terrace where you can spend hours gawking at the hills and the valleys in front of you while Madeline treats you to the finest local wine, the restaurant with a stunning outdoor area for the days when the sun is out as well as the cozy indoor area or the bar, Hotel Leone has it all.

 

I realise I can go on forever about this stellar experience that we got to experience out of sheer luck. We were unable to put our finger on even one minute flaw in the whole experience, and that I feel is the result of all the hard work these two lovely individuals have devoted into this project. They had just three staff members whilst we were there. Two lovely interns, who were so on top of their game, making sure every guest is comfortable, warm and friendly at the same time never overstepping the mark even the slightest bit and an efficient and (again) warm, housekeeper. I could not help but notice how even the music played in the restaurant was so on point. That is the attention to detail you can see for yourselves in this little gem.

In case I have left you wondering if all there is to experience in Montelparo is the silence and the beauty of nature, please keep in mind that there are a gazillion old towns in the area accessible by car which are absolutely worth a visit. Also, the beaches are not far at all. Trust Madeline to help you out with all that you will need including maps, directions, recommendations and what not to make your day trips as perfect as your stay.

If ever you do plan to make a visit to the lower part of Italy, and you are looking to spend a bit of time with your loved ones away from the city madness, under the blue skies, sipping on some good wine, head straight to Leone and let Madeline and Tim do what they do best. I promise, you will not be disappointed. 🙂

 

Butter Chicken Pasta

Butter Chicken Pasta

Anjali Venugopal June 10, 2017 NO COMMENTS

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Walking up and down a couple of unfamiliar streets in Vienna with the sun on my nose and the wind in my hair, in search of that perfect corner in that perfect café, I realized that I still have so much left to see in this city. Every nook beholds something new, something fascinating, something that has a story to tell. Be it that old record store run by that old bloke with white, wispy shoulder length hair, wearing a pair of ragged, old jeans (which seemed to have stories and dirt from the 1960s buried in its back pockets) and a black vest with arm holes so huge that the piece of cloth was barely serving its purpose; or that run down, forlorn looking piano repair outfit; or that swanky café by the sidewalk which had a few good looking blonde women sitting at wooden tables, sipping on wine, staining the rims of their glasses with pretty shades of expensive lipstick.

I doubt if I have ever felt at home as much I do here, in Vienna. Of course, there is no disputing the fact that I miss my home and everything it stands for; the people I call my own; all the memories I have gathered whilst I spent my life in Trivandrum. But there is something in this city that makes me comfortable; at ease, at peace with my own being. The quaintness of this city somehow gives me the confidence from within to live life on my own terms; without as much as giving a fleeting thought about the expectations or the results I am obliged to fulfil; no one keeping track of the number of beers I can chug and ones I cannot; doing what I love the most, not worrying (too much) about daunting terms such as finance, security, legal career etc. I cannot help but admit that this feels new as much as it feels good. Until maybe last year, I always felt that my personal space was something so permeable which means I felt that I was constantly being monitored, being judged, my wins and falls being counted uncompromisingly. But now, a lot seems to have changed. For the first time, I have come to learn where my real passion stands with a stone foundation, ready to weather all the typhoons and the rain that may.

I finally seem to have found that perfect nook for myself in this city. Something tells me that you are going to be hearing a lot of my musings; sitting by this window next to a huge indoor plant with uncannily dark, succulent leaves, in the back end of the café (that is supposedly rather famous for its brunches, a quick scan of the place on the internet tells me) that is so tastefully done in shades of pale green accompanied by light wooden furniture. This could also mean that you are going to be bombarded with blog posts in the coming days. Just kidding, remember I have not quit law altogether. Yet.

Anyway, today I share with you the recipe to something I came up with on one (not so) fine day, buried under hundreds of exhibits for a hearing scheduled for the coming week. Butter Chicken Pasta. This is my first shot at fusion cuisine and I must say that I was pretty kicked about the results. This is penne in the thick, creamy gravy of the eternal favourite and second in line for the flag bearer status for Indian food (after Biryani, duh!), Butter Chicken. As always, this recipe of mine does not need anything more than a few ingredients within your arms reach and then, believe me, the end result is going to be totally worth it. So, here goes.

Things you will need: (Serves 2-3)

For the Butter Chicken

  • Chicken- 250 grams (boneless)
  • Tomatoes- 2 large or 3 medium pureed
  • Garam masala powder- 1 tsp
  • Kashmiri chilli powder- 1 tsp (as per heat tolerance, but not more than 1 tsp)
  • Ginger garlic paste
  • Cashews- 10-12
  • Yoghurt
  • Lime juice- 1 tsp
  • Turmeric- 1 tsp
  • Cooking oil
  • Freshly chopped coriander- to garnish (optional)

For the Pasta

  • Penne- 1 cup

 

How to go about it:

Pasta:

  1. Boil water in a large sauce pan on medium heat. Once boiling, add the penne to the water and let it cook for 11-12 minutes. After that, drain the water thoroughly using a colander preferably and keep aside.

 

Butter Chicken

  1. Cut the boneless chicken into small pieces and keep aside. Next, marinate the chicken in two table spoons of yoghurt, 1 tsp ginger garlic paste, lime juice or vinegar, quarter teaspoon of garam masala, salt and a bit of turmeric. Let it sit for half an hour.
  2. In the meanwhile, soak the cashews in 2 tbsps of water for about 15 minutes and then proceed to make a paste out of them.
  3. Next, grill the chicken till it is nice and tender and maybe a little charred. If you do not have the option of grilling, you may shallow fry the chicken instead. Once the chicken is cooked, shred it and keep it aside while you prepare the gravy for the butter chicken.
  4. Place a wok on the stove and heat some cooking oil in it. Add 1 tbsp of ginger garlic paste to the oil and fry it till the oil is fragrant. Next, add the pureed tomatoes with the salt and sauté for about five minutes. Add the chilli powder, 1 teaspoon and a half of garam masala powder and 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder and keep sautéing till the oil starts to leave the sides and the water content in the tomatoes has minimized.
  5. At this point, add the cashew paste to the wok and mix thoroughly.
  6. Add one glass of water to the wok and using a whisk, mix the gravy to make it homogeneous. Keep the wok closed for three minutes to help cook the cashews.
  7. Next add the shredded pieces of chicken to the gravy, mix thoroughly. Your butter chicken is ready!

After both the pasta as well as the gravy is done, add the cooked penne to the hot gravy, mix thoroughly but carefully so as to not mash it all up. Garnish with some freshly chopped coriander leaves and your spectacular Indo Italian fusion dish is now ready to be devoured. 🙂