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Panorama Italia – Published by Laura Maragnani (translated by Isabella)

They come from their countries, put down roots and write about our traditions, our food, and love. But their books are best-sellers, above all, in the foreign market.

At our meeting, the only ones missing are people like Amelia and Bruno, who once lived next door to Isabella Dusi, but who, by and by, came to rest side by side in the same cemetery, just as they had at home in bed.

All the others invited were here. The footballers Vito, Fabio, Mirko, Giacomo, Bocci, Arrigucci. The Mayor Massimo Ferretti and the archer Massimo Bovini. Antonio from Enoteca Pierangioli came, and Maurelia and Roberto from Pharmacy Salvioni. Maurizio the postman and Bruno, capo of the hunters were here as well. Practically the entire population of Montalcino, all arrived at Teatro degli Astrusi for the presentation of Montalcino, Bel Paese (Vanilla Beans & Brodo) the first book by the illustrious citizen, Isabella Dusi. The protagonists were all the locals.

What could be more annoying, you ask? You are wrong, because Isabella Dusi is the same as Isobel Best Dusi, a blonde signora who was an interior decorator born in Scotland, raised in Australia. She arrived in Montalcino about 10 years ago in a Maserati driven by her husband Lou (Luigi). Isobel, after a while in Tuscany, began to make copious notes, and these notes she wrote into Vanilla Beans & Brodo, which when translated into Italian became Montalcino, Bel Paese, and it has practically circled the globe, published by Simon & Schuster in London and distributed in Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, UK, America, Holland and even translated into Chinese. It has sold more than 100,000 copies and sat proudly on the shelves of Barnes & Noble in New York.

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Clasping bone handled knives and silver forks, Marina hurries along the loggia carrying a wooden tray bearing a pile of prickly Figs of India. She forbids us to eat the chick pea panelle or battered sage leaves until she demonstrates how to reach the heart of a Fig of India. Securing the fig with a fork, she tops and tails the oval fruit and makes a cut lengthwise through the thick skin. Deft fingers lever pulp from skin and orange flesh rolls onto a plate. We had been warned, but even so, we had carelessly picked these figs from a wild tree beckoning along the cliff path wandering high above Taormina. Thousands of hairy prickles stuck in our hands and arms which led to Marina’s demonstration. Her grandmother approaches unfolding from her flowery pinafore two bottles of hazy liquid which she rigorously shakes, turning the liquid milky white. “Try my Latte di Mandorla,” she implores. None of us has ever tasted fresh almond milk before.

Marina’s husband, Salvatore, whose family have owned Azienda Trinità organic farm and orchard for more than eight generations, guides us around this exotic oasis on the volcanic slopes of Mt Etna, demonstrating irrigation canals inspired by Arab gardeners which change the direction and flow of water on an island where rainfall is meagre and the sun relentless.

After a glass of Mount Etna wine we are encouraged to peel our own Figs of India and Isabella talks about the destruction of the French fleet in the Straits of Messina. The Sicilian Vespers at Palermo was a vast conspiracy plotted by the Emperor of Constantinople, the medieval Papacy, Queen Constance of Spain, the Barons and rebellious men and women of Sicily against French Charles I, King of Sicily, in 1282.

Our hotel at Taormina clings to a cliff thick with exotic palms and cacti, frowned upon by menacing Mt Etna volcano and overlooking the Ionion Sea. Coastal land is a patchwork of citrus orchards and olive groves. Near the Greek stronghold of Syracuse almond groves multiply and papyrus grows wild. On the Island of Ortygia at Fonte Aretusa fresh water gushes from the sea just as it did 2,500 years ago.

Greek playwrights premiered tragedies here in the 5th century BC. Sitting on slabs of marble our necks prickle as we ponder Aristotle, Pindar, Theocratis, Sophocles and Euripides. Wisdom lost to mankind for two thousand years, tied up for centuries in knots of his own making.

Medieval Castelbuono is a cluster of stone houses secluded in a valley in the Madonie mountains. For those like Queen Constance of Sicily, who prefer to bed down away from the frenzy of cities, Castelbuono is a real treasure; its Italian-ness is evident in the unwritten rules as we fall into step on the evening passeggiata. Smartly dressed village folk, chattering teenagers, mothers with prams, farmers and their black-scarfed wives parade and mingle, exchanging gossip and news, as curious about our presence as we are in their evening ritual.

Dinner at Quattru Cannola is splendid. Mountains of baked pecorino cheese, truffle of Madonie shaved over tangled pappardelle served in giant terracotta bowls is followed by hand made veal sausages. We finish with a Castelbuono dessert; Testa di Turco – head of the Turk. Grandmothers in Castelbuono have been baking Testa di Turco for a thousand years and see no reason to cease the tradition. Our host recounts the Saracen legend as we savour dessert served with home-made mandarin liqueur.

During a couple of hundred years of Arab occupation Palermo boasted 300 mosques. Arabic signs and street names are everywhere. Wandering through the markets we marvel at gleaming fruits, nuts, spices, squirming snails, tripe dangling like rubbery foam, slabs of swordfish, velvety skinned tuna fish, skinny lambs strung from a wire and goat heads looking at us with glassy eyes. Palermo’s markets are legendary, the best in Italy. An aproned Sicilian dips his hand into a cauldron darkened by layers of tea towels. Retrieving a handful of something steaming he quickly pokes it into a bun. Ordering one resolves the mystery; broiled intestines. We forgo this culinary opportunity.

Ever watchful, Isabella nudges us and we see the outstretched hand of a passing man snaffle a wad of notes offered from the side of a cheese stall. Dirty money disappears into a pocket. The market lanes are narrow and the roadway littered with cauliflower and cabbage leaves and all manner of discarded produce. Now alerted, understanding what to look for, our heads turn to a man on a swivel chair sitting in the middle of a narrow alley. His chair swivels and his leathery hands are in and out of jacket pockets with astonishing frequency. Every vendor in Palermo market pays pizzo – protection money. An in depth discussion about the Sicilian Mafia must wait until we are out of the market.

Lunch is at award winning Caffè Spinnato. We indulge in delicious cassata and cannoli prepared in front of our eyes. A marvellous afternoon at the Palatine chapel in the Palace of the Normans and the tombs of the Kings and Queens of Sicily is followed with a viewing of the sublime Annunciation by the master Antonello da Messina; a true Renaissance treasure.

The story of the Sicilian Mafia, in depth, occupies the early evening. Isabella’s story holds everyone captive, attention riveted as she discloses the story piece by piece, episode by episode, giving us a picture of a Sicily at the mercy of Mafia power. The discussion that follows is heated, indignant, almost disbelieving, but the myths have been  destroyed  –  we were witnesses this very morning to the disturbing reality of the Sicilian Mafia.

An interior road winds through barren limestone ridges. Spying a whitewashed village we chance a detour looking for a snack lunch. Our driver peers anxiously into every hair-pin bend as we ascend into a rocky ravine. He’s worried about being able to turn this bus around when we need to descend. School children stop in their tracks and stare, unable to fathom our delight when we photograph a rather weathered and crumbling stone fountain, shuttered stone houses and an upward cobbled alley.

“We don ‘ave ‘otel ‘ere”, an ebony haired girl ventures. Explaining we are hungry, the children signal for us to follow them up the cobbled alley and taking an elliptical route for a hundred metres we climb a stone stairway and emerge in a tiny piazza of the village of Sutera. “Yous stop ‘ere,” we are instructed. Curious mothers and grandmothers, all dressed in black, appear; our gathering grows alarmingly as curious villagers arrive to inspect us. Seated at Formica tables outside what seems to be the only shop in Sutera we hope for panini and prosciutto, but visitors to Sutera are rare and beaming mountain folk determined to create a bella figura. For an hour we savour hospitality and food in abundance. Purple wine is served from chipped double handled jugs, chick pea and fava bean paste is slathered on sesame seed bread, colourful caponata shining with purple aubergine and a platter of crescent shaped almond biscuits are all laid out. The children are learning English at school, but the women chatter excitedly in indecipherable dialect.

The Valley of the Temples at dusk. Majestic temples built by ancient Greeks to deities uncertainly named by archaeologists. Fading light on the Temple of Concordia washes translucent pink into apricot, to peach, to terracotta, to brick…. to darkness. Mystical deities feel close.

Our last dinner is at Ristorante Margòz. Threading our way through poorly lit alleys in a decrepit neighbourhood of Palermo we find the place shrouded in scaffolding, and the door seems to be locked. We bash on the door and a small square of wood at eye level swings inwards. A shadowy face inspects. Uncertainly, we follow Isabella inside, and the night fills with incredible food and black Nero d’Avola wine. Splendidly dressed Palermitani arrive, most kiss the hand of a bronzed gentleman sitting with an extraordinarily glamorous not-so-young woman. Both are heavily laden with gold. The rituals, customs, exuberant displays of affection, hand-kissing, vitality and unfailing joy as plate after plate is ceremoniously borne to their table results in our meal being eaten in amazed silence. With a few clues from Isabella, we realise we are witnessing the dark side of Sicily few people get to see, let alone participate in.

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by Isabella Dusi

Using a toothbrush, Maria Pia whisks dirt from a pungent tuber which was rooted from damp earth by a hunter and his dog in a dawn raid. I witnessed this extraordinary find by rising early and accompanying my friend on this expedition even before the veil of darkness had lifted. Silently we watched the dissolving blackness silhouette oaks, poplars and chestnuts; the black night turned watery grey as the hunter and dog scratched and poked beneath the roots of trees. The hunter roughly pulled the dog away and then gently extracted an ugly tuber. Each hunter guards his territory and never uses the same path; he knows under which tree he will unearth a truffle because this ugly tuber grows beneath the roots of the same tree every season. By the time the first rays of morning sun pierced the canopy of trees, creeping across the forest floor, the prize was in his pocket, and our dawn hunt was over.

Signora Maria Pia, an outrageously colourful woman, is as completely at home in the forest as she is in the kitchen of Taverna Grappolo Blu in the Tuscan village of Montalcino. Effortlessly she shaves flakes of precious truffle onto hand rolled pasta tossed in nothing but extra virgin olive oil. This oil we collected from the mill yesterday, having first picked the olives and then, emptying baskets of black beads we watched them fall under huge rotating wheels of stone until murky green liquid streamed out, to be captured in this bottle.

Maria Pia pummels a pastry base into a tart tin. She traps the pips between her floury knuckles as lemon juice dribbles through her fingers into a bowl. She is making a Lemon Cream and Pine Nut tart. The pine nuts drop from the trees into the grass where the children play and were gathered by Maria Pia and other chatting village women, straight into their aprons. With a tiny hammer I helped the women crack the nuts out of their shells while we sat along the wall watching the children.

In Tuscany, the pleasure of gathering nature’s goodness from the earth thrives and so do the hidden tracks of the secretive truffle hunters. Not just because Italians love to source and grow their own food, but because of agricultural pride and laws which preserve forest and farm land. Most of the food an Italian eats is found near to where it is consumed – very near – and with little or no processing.

Maria Pia epitomises the simplicity of the Tuscan lifestyle and the respect a Tuscan has for the earth. She brings me into intimate contact with food. With her I’ve hunted truffles, gathered eggs from clucking chickens, picked lemons and let wood smoke waft into my hair. I’ve bumped along on a tractor carrying baskets of olives, smelled freshly tilled earth, had dirt under my fingernails and the farmer’s grainy hand in mine. Maria Pia describes it as looking after my benessere – capturing a lifestyle of well being. I have a personal attachment to this sublime truffle because I watched the snuffling dog press his nose to the ground, pawing at the earth. Maria Pia’s Lemon Cream and Pine Nut Tart is delicious confirmation that the colours, smells and tastes of Tuscany never fail to keep their promise. Being intimately connected to food at its source is one of the secrets of the Tuscan lifestyle.

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Italian Architecture and Design (Published in Luxury Home Designs)

Indulging in a tour of Italy’s architecture and design with interior designer and best-selling author, Isabella Dusi.

With its picture-postcard villages, exquisite food and splendid wines, amazing art, and a superb culture for cutting-edge design, Italy has always been a favoured destination for the world’s architects and designers, or anyone in industries that supply product to professionals in the field.

The style capital of the world, Italy produces some of the world’s most sought-after furnishings, including textiles, lighting, furniture, home wares, ceramics, kitchens, bathrooms, glass and statuary – and a lot more. For a select group of travellers, all this and more awaited on an exclusive tour designed by Isabella.

The tour had the sanction of the Italian Consulate which is naturally pleased to promote potential trade with architects and designers, and aimed to satisfy the needs of those working in the field, but the work study program incorporating leisure time was attractive to anyone interested in Italy in all its facets, including the partners of some of the guests.

Spending 4 nights at Lake Como, Isabella took the group to several important Milan based furniture manufacturers, to the Rubelli textile weaving mill, to La Scala Opera Theatre, a visit to  The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, a walk through Milan with local architects, and, complete with hard hats, an on site to visit to an interior architectural renovation project under way.  Leisure time included a visit to Bellagio and a splendid dinner at Villa d’Este overlooking Lake Como.

First Class train to Florence for the more earthy visits, such as a ceramist workshop, a sculpture workshop, a superb hard stone mosaic workshop and a fascinating visit to the marble mines of Carrara as well as a farmhouse renovation in the Tuscan countryside. A 4 night stay in our own Tuscan Villa in the countryside was something special.

Our final 4 nights were in Venice where we were treated to a private viewing at Fortuny Fabrics, a cocktail party on the Grand Canal, a Venetian architect led our flotilla of boats to view the latest residential and commercial projects under way in and around Venice, and we were guests of the Master Craftsmen on the Island of Murano and treated to some spectacular workshops of the glass masters as well as a Q & A session with many of the Masters.

A sensational excursion in and around Vicenza was hosted by I Palladiani, and in particular one of Italy’s foremost experts on the work of Andrea Palladio. The Professor came from Milan to host our group and the association went out of its way to make sure we had access with our Palladian Professor to all the key projects of Andrea Palladio dotted around some superb countryside. A remarkable day imprinted on our minds, as we made our way back to Venice for our farewell Gala Dinner.

(From time to time Isabella is requested to host architects, designers and industry professionals and producers on specialised Design tours of Italy)

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Isabella Dusi  author and Italy expert, guides a small group of New Zealanders through places far from the tourist hordes. (Jim Eagles – Published in New Zealand Herald)

Weary passengers weave laden trolleys towards Arrivals at Rome airport. Watching strangers gather speed for a last charge through automatic sliding doors, slowly a group of a dozen forms around me, exhilarated to be in Italy. My thoughts are a blend of emotion and reflection: how to leave a group like this with fabulous memories, wiser understanding and provocative thoughts of Italy, past and present.

We sit under the chestnut trees as Elena brings trays of purple figs and rose coloured prosciutto to the tables while 14 year old Flavio, wrapped in a floral apron, grills egg-plant and zucchini, basting it with rosemary and olive oil. Basilio, Elena’s husband, whose family have owned Casa Mara farm for hundreds of years, begins his dissertation about olive oil. Basilio is to olive oil what a sommelier is to wine.

Elena appears with a saucepan and Flavio fills our bowls with hand made tagliatelle through which a flavoursome tomato and basil sauce is mingled. A dozen of us are on a discovery tour seeking not just to enjoy the artistic treasures for which Italy is famous but to discover the country which produces them.

We wander around the farm which sits on the site of a first-century BC Roman villa and Basilio explains, while leaning on a slab of rock, that the slab was once a stone altar for sacrifices to the deity of the harvest.

Someone asks why a helmet hangs in the cellar and Basilio unfolds a World War II story. Around this farmhouse raged a bitter battle when American and New Zealand infantry sought to dislodge a German unit from the town of Frascati, where we are staying. Eyes fix on Basilio as he tells of the ferocity of the battle and we examine a bullet hole in a helmet.

Our focus is soon back on Elena and roast pork, which she slices onto our plates as Flavio carries char grilled vegetables to the table. The Frascati wine goes down a treat while we talk about our visit to the Pope’s summer residence at Castelgandolfo and the Basilian Abbey at Grottaferrata.

Flavio’s 85-year-old grandmother baked the ciambelle biscuits we dunk into the sweet Cannellino wine. Nonna waves to us from an upstairs window.

This part of Lazio region is punctuated by gleaming lakes hidden in volcanic craters. At the bottom of the crater-lakes the pleasure galleys of Emperor Caligula were discovered. The hillsides around us are thickly wooded with chestnut trees and leafy oaks. Elevated Frascati, 25 kilometres south east of Rome, was a popular weekend retreat for Empress Agrippina, mother of Nero, who built a sumptuous villa among these hills. For those who, like the Empress, prefer to bed down away from the noise and frenzy of Rome, Frascati is appealing. Hotel Colonna at Frascati, where we stay, is in the historic heart and it’s Italian-ness becomes evident in the unwritten rules as we fall into step on the evening passeggiata, observing the social ritual.

Hundreds of smartly dressed city Romans swell our numbers but as darkness falls the chattering mass drifts towards the cliff overlooking Rome. For hundreds of years Romans have come here at sunset, ordering a flask of Frascati wine and stuffed roast pork; a ritual known as the Frasca.

At the Villa Giulia, a museum stuffed with treasures – Isabella guides us through the magnificent gold jewellery, glorious sculptures, ancient paintings – we had the place to ourselves and her story telling us about the Etruscan civilisation is awesome. Twelve of us wander equally undisturbed at the tombs of Tarquinia in the Tuscan Maremma.  Windswept and unforgiving at the time of Etruscan habitation, this landscape has changed little in 2,500 years. Yellow stubble left behind after the grain harvest, dun earth now fallow, paddocks blackened by fire, it is a patchwork overlooked by cypress pine and Mediterranean scrub. But beneath this earth archaeologists uncover unbelievable riches which fill Italy’s museums.

Many questions about Etruscan origins have not been answered, and many answers are inconclusive, resulting in animated discussion as we gather on the stone steps to the tombs in Cerveteri. Why do archaeological and historical theories disprove each other? Perplexed faces question and re-evaluate as Isabella leads the discussion.

Then its on to Montefiascone, a cluster of piperino stone dwellings perched above Lake Bolsena, where we spend three nights in the Hotel Urbano, a restored Renaissance palace. So un-touched by tourism is Montefiascone that we are questioned as much about our country as about the reason for our visit. Picnicking on the shore of Lake Bolsena, we savour black olives, crusty bread, anchovies in pesto, and salami; all delicious and as soporific as the sun and wine.

At nearby Orvieto ceramics and wooden toys are on the agenda for shoppers, followed by an exquisite lunch in a cave restaurant. But the highlight is 15 minutes alone with Isabella in the Chapel of San Brizio, dissecting and re-assembling the fresco story painted by the master Luca Signorelli.

Arezzo is our next stopping place. Here we will witness the Joust of the Saracen, celebrating a battle in 1327, with a jousting tournament between young men representing the town’s quarters. But tonight we are dinner guests in the contrada, or town quarter, called Porta del Foro – Gate to the Roman Forum, where flags, heraldic banners and flaming torches surround the emblem of Porta del Foro.

The President greets us, welcomes his loyal international supporters and introduces us to five hundred members seated at trestle tables beneath the soaring walls. Our visits have brought Porta del Foro fortune in past jousts and the President is certain tomorrow will bring another victory.

Bearing two metre wooden platforms with barrow handles at either end, groups of teenagers usher in antipasta of crostini with tomato, sausage and olive toppings.

Fifty young men encourage Enrico and Gabrielle, the quarter’s two jousters, to victory; the honour of all rests on their shoulders. Their lances will be rigid as they race across the piazza at break-neck speed in encumbering medieval pantaloons and doublets, to unseat the Saracen. We join in the dancing and singing, demolish plates of risotto with asparagus and rigatoni with meat ragù, and at the end of the night an approving air of understanding permeates.

Much more than a tightly knit group of neighbourhood citizens, these people reach into the historic past and carry with them a love for their jousters stretching back centuries.

The night ends as fifty young men surround the Jousters, who stand on the table and chant, “We are not afraid to fail, but we believe in Victory.” The supporters bellow out their response, “We are not afraid to fail, but we believe in you.”

The tournament is an extraordinary spectacle. Hundreds of citizens in glorious medieval costumes, soldiers at arms, musicians with drums and trumpets, flag wavers and jugglers and the breathtaking joust itself.

Fixed in our memories is the unmoveable belief, the tension and tears, on the faces of our friends at Porta del Foro. But we must continue our journey through rolling hills dotted with stone farmhouses and ancient castles to Montalcino and its splendid Brunello wine. Rows of spent vines are turning burnt orange and fig trees bend low over walls. We pick and savour purple figs and drink splendid Brunello wine.

We visit Medieval Siena, the artisans of San Gimignano and Florence in all her richness. Over a glass of Spumante Isabella  tackles the question, provoking us to think: Where did all this artistic genius spring from, and why here?

Art includes food in Italy. Padova market has us salivating over aromatic cheese rounds, curious cuts of meat, finger-size and elbow length shiny purple eggplant, the scent of ripe raspberries contrasting with eastern spices in hessian bags, some of which we cannot identify.

Our hotel is in the walled village of Montagnana. Rustic Tuscan is replaced by Venetian elegance in Hotel Aldo Moro. Two kilometre walls and twenty four towers make Montagnana one of the best preserved military defence works in Europe. Townspeople here live in medieval houses built into the walls no more than 3 metres wide and three stories high.

Dinner is a treat at Hosteria San Benedetto. Chef Giovanni Rugolotto began preparing a goose four months ago. Stripping the meat from the bones and separating the fat, he left the flesh under salt for a week. Then he stuffed the meat into a glass vessel, sealed it with the fat and left it in the cellar for four months for the meat to cure. The goose, served with purée of peas, is nothing short of divine. Giovanni explains that the race of birds he cooks have roots in the traditions of the Grand Court of Padova and his restaurant is part of a conservation movement to protect the original characteristics of many unusual types of fowl which graced the courtly plates of the aristocrats of Padova.

Our last highlight is Venice. Comments sail around. “Venice is too crowded, tacky with tourist stalls, prices are outrageous, glass is not made here now and the canals are filthy.” At Florians in Piazza San Marco, the drawing room of Europe, a white jacketed waiter swings a silver tray laden with caffè from his shoulder to our tables. Heads turn to listen to the final challenge from Isabella. “Is this the real Venice? or Is Venice Real?”

It is a taste of Italy that few get to enjoy.

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