Yesterday I mentioned cooking dinner. The parish hostel in Valpromaro is an entire house, with a complete kitchen (plus washing machine). All the pots, pans, plates, utensils, and glasses were provided. Even basic staples such as pasta (multiple types), bread, flour, sugar, olive oil, tomato paste, milk, juice, jam, tea, coffee (and several sizes of Italian coffee pots), and fresh fruit were stocked. It was a very well-kept hostel. And yes, there was toilet paper in all three of the bathrooms! (Sad that I have to mention that, but it's not something one can take for granted in the parochial accommodations along the Via Francigena.)
But what about days like today? I arrived in Altopascio, having phoned last evening to ensure they were open and to let them know I was coming. I went to the public library to present my documents and check in, and Valentina was most hospitable. She walked the few blocks to the municpally-run hostel and showed me around. (She's been taking an English course for a few months, and was glad to practice her skills.) It's clean, the hot water works, there are a dozen beds for me to choose from, but it's not set up for anything other than a place to sleep in the summer months (i.e., there's no heat and no kitchen).
My solution to the cooking situation is pictured above. I'd bought a Trangia mini camping stove kit, which includes a 900 mL capacity pot, a lid which also serves as a frying pan, an aluminium wind screen, a handle for both pot and pan, and a solidly-built brass alcohol burning stove. Someone at a Toronto meeting of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims had recommended this, and it was compact, lightweight, and ridiculously cheap compared to the options.
Then in the course of my research, I came across the very simple and elegant penny stove. Made out of two aluminium drink cans (beer or pop, I won't judge), it has several advantages over the Trangia.
First and foremost is its weight. You could probably drop a Trangia stove off a cliff and have it survive, it's that rugged. The penny stove weighs less than a single empty pop can. It may not be bullet proof, but with proper care it doesn't need to be.
If, through carelessness or misfortune, I do damage my penny stove, with my Swiss Army Knife and two Coke cans, I can simply build a replacement stove. (I've done this and successfully tested it, although the one I brought with me was made using a Dremel, a razor blade, and sandpaper.)
Finally, while they both use alcohol as fuel, the penny stove is pressurised. That means it will light and burn at higher altitudes and lower temperatures than its heavier, more expensive sibling. When I camped out at 1200 m above sea level in the Alps at temperatures just barelt above the freezing point, I was able to enjoy a piping hot cup of tea while I watched the sun rise. Maybe the Trangia would've worked under those circumstances, I don't know. But with my nifty little penny stove, I had full confidence. It's science!
Here's a link with more info about these practical little stoves: http://www.jureystudio.com/pennystove/index.html
With the Trangia cookware, and the penny stove, the only other items needed are fuel and a source of ignition. A mini Bic lighter serves for the latter, with strike-anywhere matches in a waterproof container as backup. If one looks into the arcane world of minimalist camping and penny stoves, there is a surprising amount of discussion about what fuels work best.
Petroleum products are impossible to use with a penny stove without an explosion that spews flaming petroleum in every direction. Not good.
However, there are some very common fluids which work in an alcohol stove. Paint thinner (but read the label to make sure it's alcohol-based!), gas line antifreeze, rubbing alcohol available in any drugstore -- there's quite a list.
What I've been using is something which can't be bought in Canada. This one litre bottle of 95% alcohol cost me €16 in a supermarket, where it was located in the liquor section. With that, I have enough fuel for a cup of tea and a hot meal once a day for at least two months. Plus, it can be ingested - for medicinal purposes only!
So that's how I cook. But what do I cook? Mostly I've opted to heat up tins of soup, but tonight I had risotto (from a Knorr's instant mix) and I have made pasta. Once the Nativity Fast is over, I can fry, scramble, or boil eggs, fry up bacon or a minute steak, make pancakes if I really get ambitious! When that's combined with fresh bread, fresh fruit, maybe a bit of chocolate, and some nice cheese, I'm eating rather well. I need to get some veggies in my diet, though. (Good excuse to have a restaurant meal tomorrow, I suppose!)
And now I ought to do the washing up and prepare for an early night. Tomorrow I'll either walk 26 kms or 37 - there are absolutely no overnight accommodations of any sort between those two points. I'll let my body decide tomorrow once I get to the first of the two possibilities...