The Wiley Traveler vs Really Slow Food:Food she found crawling out from under a leaf in our Umbrian Garden

UMBRIA, Italy— Escargot have always intrigued me. My first memories of them are warm. Everything is warm. I remember it being summer in Maine and sitting on the porch, the rough wood under my outstretched legs and the warm sun cutting shadows across the tops of those baby legs. I remember bare feet and my Aunt Ginny sitting in a chair above me, laughing. Then my mother would back out of the screen door calling something into the house and carrying a dish in each hand. And I was excited. Somehow, even at six, I new that escargot was crazy. For starters we ate them off the special round white dishes that were for boiled artichokes only! Then just to add to the mayhem we prodded them out of their shells using the minature ceramic ears of sweet corn shaped prongs that were only for, uh – ears of sweet corn! Now add to this that my big brother has told me that these little chewy buttery bites were SNAILS?! Do Mom and Dad know? They’re really giving us snails? Is that ok? I just kept my mouth shut and hoped they didn’t notice what they had done while I savored the warm melty garlicky snack.


Flash forward to Italy almost 20 years later and here I am after a few spring rainstorms with a garden teeming with lumache (snails, in Italian). They must be rappelling down our back wall. After a rain they are everywhere. Chrunch. Opps. Another one bites the dust. I have heard from people in town that you can prepare them, and again I am intrigued by these cute little buggers- I can prepare snails myself can’t I? Well, lets just see about that.

I had thought about DIY snails for days when it became necessary to sweep the garden steps of the drifts of Wisteria petals; but in every step corner are groups of lumache and without thinking I grab a bowl and don’t stop until the bowl is full and I have about 45 snails. It’s only then that I realize I have no earthly idea what to do with them. I leave the bowl and race up to the computer to figure something out.


There are actually lots of websites with recipes for lumache. And they all agree that before being cooked they must ’be prepared.’ This involves a fasting, so the snails can get any bad guck out. Normally this takes around two weeks, but as my snails have been in a garden without pesticides it will only take six day. ONLY six days! Ok, didn’t I tell you these suckers are crazy?

“The first three days the snails are kept in a white non-acid box with drainage and fed only dill and thyme for flavor.” Well, after trying wooden fruit boxes and baskets that the snails keep climbing out of; I find a site that says that breathable plastic is acceptable and easy to clean. So I settle on a plastic cutting board covering a plastic strainer and set on top of a flower stand. Ok, now that the escape routes have been covered what about that dill and thyme- ok yes – for escargot that’s great, but these are lumache and my garden is filled with sage and rosemary- so I guess that’ll do.


For three days I take the snails, wash the strainer and each snail individually and give them more herbs to eat (I feel slightly like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, but I placate myself with the knowledge that otherwise the cats get them or they’ll be thrown out with the garden clippings). From the 4th-6th day I continue the daily washing, but stop including herbs.

Then comes Sunday- the day of reckoning. I am following the traditional garlic and butter snail recipe, but can someone tell me why something so ultimately simple has so many steps?

First, the snails are boiled for 3 minutes. Then you remove the meat from the shell (interestingly most of the meat still holds the spiral of the shell). The meat is then left for an hour in cold water saturated with salt, while boiling further disinfects the shells.

During this time I prepare the “Court Bouillon”. (Editor’s note: there must, must be a reason for this title. Do not know what it is. The Wiley Traveler is traveling right now. Will ask her to explain the royal terminology later) I will be simmering the snails in a mixture of: white wine, water, carrots, onions, garlic, shallots, sage, rosemary hot peppers and the kitchen sink, for an hour. The mixture is beautiful to look at and lovely to smell and I wish I knew something else to do with it, besides boiling snails.

While it is simmering (mind you this is now onto the 3rd almost 4th hour) I am creating the garlic butter, by kneading finely chopped garlic, shallots and Dijon mustard into sticks of butter. Once that is done I place a small amount of the butter inside each of the empty shells that are now on a cookie sheet. I then place a single lumaca in each shell and with each one I realize too late that I have pushed too much butter in the shell and that I have no real idea which one should go in which and the butter keeps squidging out everywhere. But once I finally get them all in I cap each one with more butter. The tray is then placed into the oven (along side crusty bread I have toasting and vegetables I have roasting) for all of 3 or 4 minutes, long enough to make the butter bubble and the kitchen smell like heaven.

And then after 6 days and 6 hours I sit down and eat my snails. I’m on our terazza in Italy, not our porch in Maine. And I am not laughing as I take the first bite- I am praying that it was in some way worth all the time and effort- and feeling as though my crazy gene has won and understanding why they cost so much at restaurants and here goes the first bite… and… they’re good. And yes, after a week of preparation they are slightly anticlimactic, and I need the ooohs and ahhhs I get a few weeks later from my family to really send the point home; but they are good, really good in fact. I wish they were a little chewier but I’m probably the only one who wants anything chewier. And I think the step of saturating the snails in salt is a bit much for something that takes on flavor so easily, but come on; garden snails? Butter? Garlic? How wrong can you go?!

Whether I’m telling friends in the States or in Panicale they look at me like I’m nuts, the Italians think I’m saying the wrong thing and desperately search for what I could possibly be going on about; but you know, it feels good to use our city garden for sustenance. In the fall it’s figs and in the spring it’s Lumache and although you can tell me I’ve lost my mind no one’s gonna tell me that that’s not the way it should be!


This is a photo of the big decorative plate that hangs over the mantle in our kitchen. We are suckers for the colors of the Contrada Chiocciola in Siena. The neighborhood of the snail. This is the symbol that our friends at Spannocchia rally around for the madcap, bareback horse race through the Campo every summer. When I think of all the names I could imagine wearing on a sweatshirt, I think Panthers, Tigers, Broncos, Cowboys, Patriots. Even the Mighty Ducks. But The Snails? Don’t know if I would ever come up with that. I will admit snails really make a plate.

See you in Italy,


One way to spend a day

9 AM PANICALE— what is that ringing in my ears? Office on the phone, ok. Wait still ringing. Door bell too now. How often does it do that? But it is good fun, while I am still on the line, Midge comes up from the door waving a bottle of wine with a box of Bacci chocolates tied to it with festive gold bow. From the sweet, pretty lady who makes the house sparkle. Why did she do that?

She leaves and the door bell rings again. Hey. I haven’t even had coffee yet. It is Bruno. Cerco Stee—oou. Do we need wood? Heck yes, thank you. Cold spring this year, but we have a fine, fine, mighty fine woodstove. Thanks to Bruno for that, too.

We do not deserve friends in a foreign land that would think about us. And act on the thought, too. Five minutes later, Bruno is back, the rear of his red Fiat loaded with wood, split and laid out in neat, stackable wooden boxes. Kindling tied up with a piece of grapevine. And a bottle of his own white wine that had a fair chance of being grown on that very vine. Grayson says Look, Dad. No label. Well, sure. That is the good stuff. And the cherry on top? Bruno says The his ciliegi are ripe (actually, the say mature) in his yard, and we should come sometime this weekend. Might just do that. Hope I do. So much fun, so little time.


Later that night, reading quietly by the fire. A sharp BANG. Oh well. I look around. Nothing else transpires, so I continue reading my book, totally engrossed in the life of that quintessential bad boy of the Renaissance: Carravaggio. Ignoring the noise that night cost us our primo piatto the next day. The meat dish ran away. We’d been daily washing and rinsing and feeding herbs to our big garden snails. For several days, almost a week. Lumache on their way to becoming escargot in garlic butter.

Evidently, the big bang was a cat tipping over the heavy lid of the collandar of snails on the porch. By morning, all but half a dozen slugabeds had “run off”. So, it was like a week at the spa for all of them. Sorry to have missed out on doing the whole process, all the way through, with Wiley. We had people invited for lunch and everything. Peccato. The last batch was great that she had ready for us when we arrived. Who knew you could freeze escargot from your garden. Oh, we are living on the culinary edge now.


The next day: yawns, bright and early. Sunlight streams in the window (I left it unshuttered for that very reason) and it wakes me up and it pulls me out of bed, vacation or not. Must be first in line at Biano’s for my long, long overdue haircut. Quick, shave, grab Carravaggio and go off at a trot to the piazza. Whew. Non c’e nessuno. Found a sunny spot on the stone bench hard by the door to Biano’s. Not too much sign of pidgeon poop. OK, OK, I’ll sit here. The town is awake and from Google Earth probably appears to be a proper anthill. People pop out of one door and scoot into the next and back out again like a stop action film. One pair of frisky ants was Linda from the grocery store and the lady butcher from the across the street.

The two of them are making a bee line past the fountain, towards Aldo’s cafe when they spot me and wave me to join them for coffee. Oh, no. Grazie mille, grazie mille. Can’t loose my place in line! Biano is an hour—plus process. Get out of line and there goes the day. So. Sorry. They duck into the bar without me and two seconds later, from the other corner of the piazza comes Linda’s husband, Bruno. Stew, vieni, vieni per un caffe. Ok. We’ve been through this. No way. Not deserting the post. Where IS Biano? It is 8:15 already. Giaccomo, sitting outside the cafe, says I’LL watch for you and hold your place in line. Dai (comeonalready), come get a coffee. But, don’t leave me too long, alright?

Zip in, order coffee, apologize to Linda for taking her husband’s offer and not hers. Thank you Bruno! Yike! Why is the coffee so HOT today Daniella. The one day I want to gulp and run. Seared throat and all, I’m back out in the piazza where Giaccomo sees me and points back over my shoulder at the late Biano. There he is, there he is! What’s this? Cunning Adelmo is between me and Biano’s? Crosses his arms and says I’m First. Oh, no. Oh, yes he says Got here at 7:30. Good grief. The rascal is teasing me. Chee. Biano has been wondering when I would give over my mop to his control. I’ve got a folded up photo of the decadent, and nearly deceased Lapo Elkman from a gossip magazine called “Oggi”. Fine role model, Stew I’m thinking. We study the bad boy of Fiat’s photo for a minute, Biano claps his hands, and says No Problem. We can do this. I am an architect, I can build the kind of structure you want. And he did.

Love being at Biano’s. We talk of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax. And cabbages and kings. And Vespas and Ferraris . Sitting in the other chair is a older guy, looking out the blinds at the piazza, just observing the scene or reading the pink sporting newspaper or chiming in every now and then, when a subject arouses him from his thoughts. He’s not here for a trim, just for the company. I’m in for both.

In the photo, that’s Biano on the left, some lost Americano, and then Bruno on the right, in the café. Why do I have a plastic bag tucked in my pocket? And yet still let people take my picture? Found a plant in the garden. Weed or not? So I tucked it into a bag, trucked it into the piazza and got opinions one way or the other from anyone I found wandering about. Yep. Weed.


Bruno is still unloading and organizing groceries into the storage room of his wife’s store with a hydraulic mini fork lift. Somehow, we get on the subject of my son, Zak, who is the Invisible Man as far as Panicale goes. People know of him and know he can’t come just yet, Fear of Flying etc. But he did get to visit a bit of Panicale when he met a Panicalesi friend’s daughter in New York, thanks to our meddling slash matchmaking. Now she is back here and we spoke in the piazza this morning. Bruno and I agree she is a complete angel, like lovely saint in a painting. Bruno theatrically wriggles his eyebrows like Groucho and says Her Momma’s not bad either. HEY! WHAT ARE YOU GUYS TALKING ABOUT DOWN THERE? We look around and then, we look up. So. That’s where Adelmo’s house is. He’s hanging out a window and hanging on our every word eves dropping on us. Oh, girls, we say. He says, oh well, I would never do that. Talk about girls. I have the most perfect, the most beautiful wife in the whooole world. She’s right there, isn’t she, Adelmo? (We had to ask) He nods vigorously, Bruno and I laugh and go on about our alleged business. I can’t really say why but these mini moments are, to me, worth the plane fare by themselves. Call me easily amused, call me crazy, just call me when its time to catch the next plane to Italy . . .

See you in Italy,



OK, Where’s the Party? My place?

PANICALE, Umbria— That’s what they say today’s holiday is. Festa Nazionale. Off to a funny non-typical start for a holiday in Umbria. Well, at least one in June. Its dark and chilly, but the clouds parted a bit late in the afternoon and sure enough a tent went up in the piazza. They were selling local olive oil. Wiley says Katia’s family’s oil is part of the brand that gets sold with the town logo on it (the painting by Perugino of St Stephen). We got a tin of it for our Italian American neighbor Carlo, back in Maine. Always take presents that are heavy and/or breakable. Our one firm, unbendable Vreeland Family Travel Rule.

We are so slow on the uptake. The festive carved watermelons in town might have been a hint? It appeared to us that the one tent in the piazza was the sad sum total of the Festa. But some patient person took pity on us, took us strangers in a strange land, by the hand and pointed out there were galleries and cantinas open down every alley in town. How did we miss that? Always surprises us when these fun places open up. Day in and day out they present blank, ancient wooden faces to their alleys and we mindlessly walk by. Nope nothing there. Nothing to see here folks. Keep moving. Then, a couple times a year they unbar those doors, swing them open and start slinging wine and bruschetta at you in one and olive oil and local fagiolini (broad beans) in another and so on right around the town. Some are old wine storage places with ancient wine presses or wooden casks left behind for ambience. Some are proper pastel painted galleries with modernistic Italian lighting in their arched ceilings and views over gardens. Totally changes the feel of the town in the Where Are We sense. Once the light bulb went on in our tiny brains we knew where all these cantinas often are and passed ourselves from one to the next buying bottles of wine, jars of saffron, more wine. One place had a fish-based bruschetta which sounds rather odd but tasted rather divine. Benefits of an open mind and, in this case, open mouth. We came, we tried, we liked!

What a fun and revealing trip around town. Can we really be this blissfully unobservant? Our house sits between two tiny stone streets. We get use to using our top street. Its where our main doors are, its just the logical path of least resistance and makes the smoothest, easiest entry. But we do have an entry on the lower back street, our back alley in Panic Alley, Umbria. The trip we took through our lower street today to see all the local products on display was a real eye opener. Something has happened here. Can’t fool me. We looked away for a minute and What the Heck, we done got gentrified down there. I’d heard that Patrizia (of elegant restaurant Lillo Tattini, right on the piazza) had a rental place in town, just didn’t know where it was. Today the massive doors that close it off from the world are open and it is chic, chic, chic. But what am I talking about, the whole street is looking great. Che shock. I think it is our downstairs Roman neighbors relentless application of flowers and more flowers followed by liberal application of lace curtains and polished wood doors. We have one double set of doors there and we are polished wood and lace curtains and our garden looks ok from that angle too now that I look up at it. But Massimo and Stefania da Roma really put us to shame with red geraniums spilling out of every door and window opening. When we bought our house our “door” on that street was a mangled mess of old wood sort of shielding a dirt floored stack of moldy junk from view. Sort of. A place where soft hearted neighbors slipped in plates of food for the wildcat swatter residents of Casa Margherita. Not now. Less Cat. More Chic. The things you can find. Right in your own back alley.


Anyway, what with all this activity we shill-ied and shall-ied a bit too long and Masolino’s was fully booked so we decided to stay in and nosh. Salads, cheeses, bread and the Wiley Traveler’s outrageously fine escargot. So successful and tasty and unusual that, since it has been raining off and on all day, we went out in the garden and scooped up several dozen more latent escargots candidates (lumache) to start the next slow food event! Our garden isn’t big but it is like a game preserve for the local lumache. Big honkers too. See typical Garden Variety Big Game next to euro bill in photo for size. They are all that big. Luckily this game is somewhat slow moving, so hunting and tracking them is about my speed. The preparation is the really amazingly slow part of the process. Six days from snail to snack! Wiley is writing the story of the preparation, but now that I think of it she’s being slow too, isn’? Hmm. The ultimate Slow Food, indeed?

We settled down for a fine night by the woodstove, playing Scopa!, teaching my brother and his wife the fine points of this fun Italian card game. And somehow . . . it made us a bit thirsty and we sampled all the wines we had carried around from the festa until oh no. All gone. How did that happen?

As early sixties writer, H. Allen Smith might say “These photos illustrate the type of work the Vreeland brothers do”

Until next time,

See you in Italy!


Talk about Slow Food

This just in from Italy. Sneak peak at what’s coming up in the Wiley Traveler’s Experimental Kitchen. Stay tuned to this Bat Channel for the details!

SNAILS— Collected 30 in the garden today and am trying my hand at preparing them and cooking them- according to local experts it takes 6 days to prepare so the Drakes (visiting cousins, not feathered friends) may get Prosecco and Chiocciola Buffet in the garden . . . little buggers are cute though- and it make me feel bad cause— yup, they are cute. But I love escargot- and otherwise they just go in the dumpster- they crush them up as pests lots of places in Italy. So we shall see . . . pictures and instructions, and hopefully good results, in a week—