Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Becoming Italian

A Bouquet of Herbs for a Friend
Once in awhile you have the sheerest of pleasures to meet someone who, as my father used to say "fits like an old shoe." Comfortable. Someone that seems you have known in a past life. Paths that must have crossed in the long forgotten mists of time. The warmth of the greeting and common interests shared and savored as you walk the cobblestone streets together. Those of you that travel with me on my tours throughout Tuscany know her and have experienced her generous and warming spirit. There can be no other accolades that describe Judy Witts-Francini enough. She is the Diva of Divina Cucina fame ( Her knowledge and insights into Italian culture, from an American perspective, literally transform you into the Italian you long to be when traveling there. One that sits down to eat with locals willing to share their passions, be they food, wine or just some of lifes simple pleasures. Sometimes all it requires is a smile shared between two people who don't speak each other's language, and yet that smile says all that needs to be said.
At the Central Market in Florence
There are no pretenses when you're with her. What you see is truly what you get. Her curiosity is infectious. Driving with her through the Tuscan hills and all of a sudden she remembers a little dairy that is making the Marzolino cheese, a sheep's milk cheese only produced in March. We drive further and stop at a local market that is held in one of the many small towns and select our produce for our meals that day. The choices are endless, but with the seasoning of a well-heeled general, Judy helps focus her little troops with a few glorious ingredients and not the entire market stall. 
If I were to come up with only one word (and that would be difficult) to describe the way Judy cooks, it would be - Simple. Simplicity of ingredients, each contributing to the ultimate outcome and complimenting one another to paint a masterpiece in taste. 
Clockwise from Top Left - Lemon Thyme, Italian Parsley, French Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Lemon Zest, Garlic, Sea Salt
It's this time of year that I have an abundance of herbs that I begin to think of preserving for the coming months. Sage, Rosemary, Thyme. The freshness of these combined with the pungency of some garlic cloves and perhaps a little lemon zest and salt all chopped together and made into a heady melange of perfumes reminding me of the Tuscany that I love. Of the stalls brimming with the freshest produce the likes you have never seen before. The tastes given to you by vendors to feed into that complete sensory overload that you will remember and recall whenever you become "homesick" for your adopted country. An herb mix to sprinkle on your chicken or pork dishes. Maybe a baked piece of Cod or Sea Bass. Possibly some carrots pulled right from the garden, washed and tossed with some olive oil and roasted until just tender. But, most importantly, you will recall that new friend who shared this recipe with you that you swear you have known all of your life. The one who helped you "become" Italian and experience life as you know it should be lived, the Divina - Judy Witts-Francini.

The Final Chop Waiting to Dry
Tuscan Herbs
1 Cup Rosemary leaves
1 Cup Sage leaves
1 Cup Italian Parsley
½ Cup Thyme
Strips of Lemon zest
2-3 Garlic cloves, sliced
1 tsp. Salt, plus more as needed

Place the herbs, garlic and lemon zest on a large cutting board, sprinkle with the salt and using a chef’s knife or mezzaluna begin chopping until all is combined to a fine texture. About 20 minutes – really!

Once you have finished chopping and are satisfied with the degree of fineness, place in a wide bowl or on a baking sheet and leave out to dry. Depending upon the weather, this can take a few days to a week. Every time you pass by, “fluff” it and release some “Tuscany” into your surroundings. When dried, place in a jar and use to season your cooking. This mixture does not need to be refrigerated. And, remember that this mixture already has salt, so use accordingly with your recipes.

Note – Any combination or amount may be used. This is a recipe that is not written in stone and you can use what is on hand and constantly replenish what you have used.


  1. I feel a little more Italian already! This sounds like a trip to the Farmer's Market an a must do!

  2. I can't tell you how wonderful my house smells while these herbs dry. Tonight, some roast potatoes with them to compliment my roast chicken.

  3. I think I will make a trip to our farmers market this next weekend and make up a batch for the winter months. Does this keep for an extended period???

  4. Yes Dean. Keep it in a cool, dry cupboard away from heat and it will be wonderful up to 6 months. I use it on fish, pork, steaks, chicken, vegetables - almost anything. And the great thing is that you can keep adding to it when you are getting low. Extra parsley hanging around? Chop it up, let it dry and throw it in. Same with any extra herbs you have on hand that compliment the mixture.