ou’re likely to find lots of people out shopping for holiday gifts at this time of year. Not me. It’s not because I don’t enjoy giving. Generally speaking I love celebrating my fellow humans.
But put me in a crowded department store decked out in plastic reindeer and plastered in Christmas red and I’ll throw a panic attack and make a run for my tranquil mountain home where the only furry animal is Google the Dog, who isn’t very fond of reindeer.
If I need gifts, I prefer getting them directly from people who actually make them, whether it’s an object, food, or drink. This gives me joy because I feel that I’ve somehow created an emotional connection between those who give and those who receive.
Umbria can seem stuck in a time warp. You won’t find any corporate headquarters with large staffs busy churning out innovative product lines. Instead, the region has countless highly skilled artisans who produce wonderful crafts by relying on centuries old knowledge and materials. To me, these people are heroes. They preserve ancient arts and infuse them with new ideas, despite struggling to make a living off their efforts.
My resilient and passionate friend Antonietta Taticchi is an excellent example. Raised in the countryside near Perugia, she decided at age 16 to learn how to decorate pottery, an unusual choice for the member of a family of agricultural landlords.
She’d always dreamed of illustrating pottery with local pastoral scenes: medieval villages, rivers, lakes, olive trees, vineyards, and fields of sunflowers. She persisted, persevered, and continues painting even now, decades later, in her small pottery workshop in the historic center of Perugia.
Her methods are painstakingly unique. She decorates glazed terracotta by painting directly on pots, cups and other items, much like an artist working on a curved canvas. The result is luminous, even dreamy, her serene panoramas stretching effortlessly around a plate or a vase. Every piece is loved and each scene given the time needed to make it perfect.
Taticchi’s work begs to be bought. Not just because it’s beautiful but also because it wears its soul in the open. It’s a purchase that helps bring the past into the present, and to keep it alive for the future.
Zuccherini di Bettona
These cookies were once made with sweetened bread dough enriched with nuts and raisins. This simplified version uses baking powder but the result is every bit as enjoyable, especially if served on a beautiful hand painted plate.
- 500 gr stone ground whole wheat flour.
- 150 gr light brown sugar.
- 100 gr of nuts (as in hazelnut, almonds, walnuts, you choose).
- 30 gr candied citrus peel, very finely chopped.
- 150 gr raisins.
- 100 gr milk.
- 2 tablespoons orange liqueur.
- 2 tablespoons anise seeds.
- 2 tablespoons fennel seeds.
- 1 egg.
- 2 teaspoons baking powder.
— Preheat oven at 160 C (340F). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
— Place flour, seeds, sugar and baking powder in a food processor bowl. Set it to high speed and add the liqueur, milk and egg and blend until most of the mixture forms a soft ball of dough, about 2 minutes. Add raisins, nuts and peel and pulse briefly to incorporate.
— If you don’t have a food processor or mixer, make the dough in a large bowl by hand and transfer to a lightly floured worktop.
— On your worktop, roll the dough into 1.5 cm (1/2 inch) thick cylinders. Cut each cylinder into 10 cm (5 inch) pieces and roll them into ring cookies or weave into small braids.
— Carefully arrange the rings on the baking sheet. Bake for 30-35 minutes until just golden around the sides.
— Cool on a wire rack and serve with a dessert wine (vin santo, passito or marsala) or a mug of herbal tea.
Before serving, get out the hand-painted plates and give thanks to artisans everywhere.