Nella Cuci

As advised by Elisa, I woke early to find the sun already beaming down on the many beautiful fiori e piante in giardino.imageAnd on il cane di famiglia, Stella.image image The famiglia once again gathered in the garden to enjoy a typical italian breakfast.imageimageAfter breakfast and morning conversation, it was time to walk the short, short distance to the stores to gather the freshest ingredients for the day.image

Pane

Pane

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panna e cioccolato

image And into this small store carrying only a few items like fresh herbs, olive oil, canned vegetables (fatta in casa) and pinoli.image And then we made another trip back to get something else, that I do not remember.  Unlike having to make a return trip to HEB, these outings were a pleasure.  During each visit, the same signore was sitting   sentinel. image Back in the casa, Anna was preparing the vegetables for both the ragu and the crostini  toscani-  leeks, carrots and red onion.imageimage After each visit to Italy,  there are additions to my cucina that must be purchased.  A mezzaluna is on the list. Now to discuss the Crostini Toscani. We first had to cut the spleen  into small pieces…and then do the same to the chicken livers….both of these jobs became mine once they were demonstrated.image The meat was then was browned with the vegetables at this point, if you have fresh anchovies, add now…if not, Mara uses from a tube.  After all ingredients cook together, it is time to put through a food mill.  This process combines all to create a grayish brown paste to be put on crostini (The difference between crostini and bruschetta I also learned).  Crostini is smaller, toasted bread that can have a variety of toppings and bruschetta is larger toasted bread with olive oil and salt (you had me here) and usually pomodori and basilico.  I am personally a member of Team Bruschetta. image The ragu was made as I have learned before,, beginning with the vegetables,, adding the freshly ground beef from the butcher,, tomatoes  and Anna says, “Quando cominicia a cantare, vuole il vino..”  When it begins to sing, it wants the wine…Understood! Now it is time to prepare the pesto…because for lunch, un tipo di pasta non e sufficiente!image Mara steps right outside to gather the basilico fresco.  To this,  fresh parmigiano,  fresh aglio and pinoli from down the street are added.   Oh and let’s not forget the freshest and best of  olio d’oliva.image And for dolce, tiramisu, naturalmente.  But as Mara and Anna added, this was to be tiramisu leggero, tiramisu light…no uova.

We had set up the table to dine in the garden, but a threatening cloud with loud claps of thunder, changed our plans.  In our Italian and English we discussed the common sayings, “Better safe than sorry”  (in english) and “Better to fear than to be beat up”…or something like that (in Italian).  The latter had, had of course, a hand motion to accompany.image At  the last moment, Mara prepared what was to be il mio preferito, salvia fritta.imageimage

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Salvia Fritta…molto buono! And check out the size of that salvia!

With the table set for pranzo tradizionale toscana…we begin. imageimage Somehow, perhaps gluttony, I forgot to capture the Tiramisu Leggero…but not to worry, there was molto after that!  Biscotti di Prato with Vin Santo and finally espresso…certo.imageWords and photos cannot sufficiently describe this day.  Elisa’s family was so open to this new experience.  The language barrier actually added to the fun.  Anna, who speaks no English, warmed quickly and would look between Elisa and myself for translation.  Her eyes excited about what my reaction would be to her words.   At one point, Elisa was telling me something and Anna corrected her.  Elisa gave an exasperated  glance and I said, “Anna knows best.”  Elisa translated this, to which Anna replied with a strong, “Certo!” (sure!) I have a priceless video of Anna sharing her recipe for Tortelli Mugellani with me.  Anna seems shyish during the filming but afterwards asked to watch it again and again.  Each time she would throw her head back laughing and laughing.  I told her she was going to become famoso in America and could have her own cooking show.  We would title it, “Anna Knows Best”  with “Certo” coming across the screen many times through the episode.  I am currently arm wrestling with my phone and wordpress to attempt to upload the video to the blog.  So once you read this post and later see an update…don’t disregard.  That will hopefully mean Anna and I are the victors. Let me recap the lunch menu in Italian for you. Oggi (10.6) Pranzo: *Antipasto=sottoli, affettati, crostini toscani = (pane, pegatini di pollo, cipolla, milzadimanzo) *Pasta al Ragu- Ragu= carne di manzo, odori (sedano, carota, cipolla), passato di pomodoro, vino. *Pasta al Pesto *Tiramisu Leggero= pavesini, panna, cioccolato fondente, caffe *Bevande= Vino Rosso Chianti BUON APPETITO! And now, posso presentarvi, Anna of Anna Knows Best…Certo!

Slowing It Down….un po

As I wake Tuesday morning, I know there were several things on my Firenze List that I failed to accomplish, but I have to also say, there were things NOT on my list I experience….
Let’s see…well, looking back…there are actually just two items that I have not gotten to check off and that is eating at Osteria de Benci….it could never have surpassed my sandwich experience, so I am ok with that, and visiting the gallery down the street that Roberto suggested.

Those of you who are comparing notes might say, “Wait Paj, what about the schiacciata? You wanted to try that saltier, crunchier, oilier stuff.” And you are indeed correct, but I did and just forgot to tell you. I stopped by a different Pugi locaction (later found out the one I went to that was closed is NOT the original…when the person was trying to explain that to me, I tried to assist and added the work “Fake?”….they laughed and said “Yes-a…eeeta eees-a a fake-a Pugi”. Come to find out it seems to be a franchise…
Anyway, I got a slab of schiacciata and packed it up to my sunset point. Picnic Tip….molto buono with champagne!

So with 2 hours before my train is scheduled to depart, I decided to walk down the street (literally) 4 or so doors down and check out Roberto’s suggestion.

I walk in, two little, old italians are sitting there, they ask you to sign in and that’s it…no fee, no warnings, just an intimate, impressive collection.
I know you are probably tired of art by now, but this is a good example of the caliber you can find off the beaten path….as I have said before, there is so much art in this country just lying around.

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20130718-173352.jpg Lorenzo di Credi, Firenze 1459-1537

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20130718-173655.jpg Ridolfo di Ghirlandaio, Firenze, 1483-1561

20130718-173938.jpg And more by Credi.

When I return to the B, Roberto seems pleased that I took his advice. Many locals get frustrated by the fact that tourist come in and just want to check the major sights off their lists. Much like the major cities. One person mentioned that all Americans want to do when they visit Toscana (TOOskana) is come to Florence then San Gimignano. I lowered my head at this because my next stop is right outside San Gimignano….Next trip, I will research more…

Now with the hood on the Ferrari zipped and ready to roll…I am off.

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20130718-174512.jpg Time to Uscita Firenze…
addio, ci vedremo presto…

This was a very short train ride, right about an hour. My station is at Poggibonsi…fun to say, not so much to visit. My train departed 10ish minutes late so I had called my taxi, Sonia, to let her know.
When I exited the station, there was Sonia ready to take me to the farm. 30 euro later, we arrive.

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As I gazed at San Gimignano in the distance, I felt like I was looking at OZ.

Allora, my room…

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Adesso, a bit of the grounds…

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Let me give you a quick background of how it was decided I would visit Fattoria Poggio Alloro. Sarah, whose family owns the farm, visits Texas often. She has written a book/cookbook about her family’s farm and does guest appearance and classes at Central Market and the like. As friends heard about my future plans, several mentioned Sarah, her book and the farm to me. A couple of friends even gifted the book to me (her publisher is out of Fredericksburg). Mom, having read the book, thought it might be a place they would want to visit on a future trip. I imagined it as a place where I could again take some in depth, personal cooking/wine classes….so, I cut Firenze a bit shorter and made reservations here for 3 nights.

Up until my arrival, I would email Sarah, reminding her that if there were any cooking classes scheduled during my visit, I would love to attend. Each time I was politely told that unfortunately none were scheduled. When I arrived and paid the 30 euros for the taxi, I worried what I would do for the next couple of days. With no car and transportation being expensive, I felt kinda stuck.
I know most of you are rolling your eyes and saying “Sure!! Poor Paj. I would LOVE to be stuck in a place like that.”

I understand where you are coming from, but there is something that I have learned about myself over the past 12 years or so….I do better with a purpose. I love my down time, do not get me wrong, but true relaxing is difficult for me…I am better with a goal.
I think my “ah-ha” moment on that was having the honor and sheer pleasure of being part of the amazing group of people behind the FRED party. The planning I LOVED. The set up I LOVED….the party itself….I felt lost, without purpose.

I, of course, was hungry when I arrived. They were in the middle of the tour bus groups that stop daily for lunch, but after their frenzy died down, was seated on the patio.
The food just kept coming!!

20130718-181628.jpg Bruschetta…so good with a bit of garlic rubbed on the toast…and of course the house-made olive oil.

20130718-181738.jpg PAAsta with ragu

20130718-181811.jpg salad, a meat and cheese board….THE BEST salami (made here) I have ever had!
And then when asked if I liked the tomatoes, I said yes….and got another….with the 12 year old balsamic!
Remember…this is LUNCH and it is 2:30 or so. Dinner is at 8:00 and before this I had told them to count me in!!!
Needless to say, the food here is abundant and good!
Truly, in no time, the sun was setting along with the table for dinner.

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I will give you a brief rundown…
Red and White wine…I stuck with Red at dinner.

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To start, figs (my first ever….are you proud of me Daddy?), bruschetta, polenta fritto with ragu, meat trays (yes….I said to start….I could have/would have/should have stopped here.

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Then salad, a wonderful sautéed zucchini and beef with mushrooms. And for dessert, an apple tart of sorts. The pink icing on it was to celebrate a little girl’s birthday here….as it was Blaine’s as well, I toasted him…
AND FINALLY…

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Vino Santo and biscotti….but wait, there was coffee after that…..
This was about a 2.5-3 hour event.
Although the food was good and the setting picturesque, it was my most lonely night yet.
It is a family style dinner, most of the people are families, only one other family spoke english. The couple I was seated with spoke italian only and were not interested in trying to open their conversation to me…it was an awkward night.

The next morning at breakfast when asked if I would be attending the dinner, I declined. I thought with the 35euro saved there, a taxi to a nearby town might be an option.

So now we are to Wednesday…stay with me, I can make this kinda short.

Spent the morning at the pool.

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I enjoyed watching the butterflies flit here and there. They looked like rose petals dancing in the wind. I took quite a few photos trying to catch them in the frame.

I tried to schedule my lunch as late as possible, if worse came to worse, I could make it the only meal of the day. Around 2:00, I left my belongings on my pool chaise and headed up.
During this meal I was fortunate enough to be seated near a group from Texas. Now you know I did not come here to seek out my own, but having some nice, 2 sided conversation, I welcomed. There was a couple from Austin, one from Houston and one from Louisiana.
One of the men turned to me and asked if I spoke english, “Yep.” I said.
Anyway, it was fun to compare notes. They were traveling together in a “bus”. They had rented a villa and were doing dayish trips. Tomorrow they were headed to Florence. They asked if I had any suggestions. I inquired as to how long they would be there…about 6 hours….hhhhmmmmm…..that’s a toughie.
They chose to visit the farm because a dear friend had recently passed away. Although he had traveled with his family extensively, this spot was his favorite. They came to Poggio Alloro to toast his life and memory.

During our conversation; Texas, Austin, Houston, Louisiana, Bama, MSU, LSU…I mentioned my mother’s side of the family is from Abbeville, Louisiana. “Abbeville! Boudreaux?! Guidry!?” It was decided at the end we were probably all family. piccolo mondo!

After lunch, I headed back to the pool…but wait, my stuff had been relegated to a small chair. Strange…of course no one around gives a hoot or a help…no, no, no…is about all I got. The other woman from the US, the same one that at dinner last night informed the family from Belgium that Californians are are more sophisticated than Texans…just turned away. So…what to do…back to the room I guess.
After that turn of events, I did decide to call a cab and head to Certaldo (Chairtaldo). Word from workers here at the farm is that a Medieval Festival is starting there tonight…that might be fun.

The good news here is that Sonia, the cab driver, asked if I wanted to be let off sopra o sotto. Above was the old town, below the new. Sonia’s english is so-so, so instead of inquiring of which she thought best, I figured the festival would be in the above, historic part…so I said, “Sopra”.
We arrive and streets leading sopra are closed off. Sonia turns to me and says she had forgotten there was a festival. Again, our communication is not that good, so I can’t just say, “oh, don’t worry about it. I am sure I can figure out how to get from sotto to sopra”. So I just sit back as she talks our way up the hill. People would stop her, and she would go into some explanation involving “la signora” this would prompt them to put their head in the window and look at me….I just sat and smiled….they’d wait a second then wave us on. This happened all the way up the hill.
Works for me….I got let off right in the middle of things. Problem is…Sonia says for me to call her 20 minutes before I want to come home and she will meet me at the bottom. And with these beautiful surroundings and not much of a crowd, I say, “Sure” as I take her card.

I guess it is about 7:15, 7:20 when I arrive. It really was beautiful.

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It was obvious that I was a bit early. Vendors, artists, musicians were just setting up. Acting Troupe’s were rehearsing in partial costume.
I roamed about admiring the level of offerings. This was no Country Peddler or Trade Days. This was like going back in time and seeing artist creating their wares.
Forming hats for individuals, weaving cane around bottles, throwing pottery, it truly was impressive.

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20130718-192652.jpg I loved these simple benches…Daddy could whip these out easy!! He has a passion for rebar.
As a few more people trickle in, I decide I might want to get a bite to eat. My kind of festival that has coccoli in a paper cone AND an aperol spritz!! (BTW, this is going to be what I serve at our next “festival”)

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This wood worker creates beautiful chairs. I loved the way the evening sun played with his display.

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The threat of rain was in the air throughout the evening. The breeze on this ivy made it look like it was choreographed.

To add to the old world charm, there were little vignettes sprinkled about.

20130718-194623.jpg This was a woman, all in white. She would appear in the castle window in different poses.

20130718-194722.jpg I think this guy was advising us to repent, but I am not sure (see the moon up there).

20130718-194828.jpg This was like something from the movie Chocolat.

20130718-194938.jpg Loved this box to set your secrets free!

And about now…the flood gates were opened! It went from being able to walk and look to not being able to see a thing in NO TIME!! At this point it was about 10:00 or so and I think it is time for me to leave….easier said than done.

From about 10:00-10:45 I walk in circles….I CANNOT find out how to get out of here. Sonia mentioned there was a funicular to take you to the lower part of town….I look and look for signs. Earlier I thought I would just observe the flow of people to figure out where the entrance was…but now, there is no flow….we are wall to wall people. And I think they are mostly locals…I hear zero english.

Another funny thing I did hear/see during my search for the uscita, was this…

20130718-195452.jpg I took the photo from a balcony looking down…but it confused me when I hear “On the Bayou” coming from this “one man band”….how on earth did he choose this song…..and what are the odds after just talking to my Louisiana kin, cher! It really made me laugh…His english/cajun wasn’t that great…but at least he pronounce pirogue kinda right.

So long story short, the search continued. I finally found an information booth…but she spoke no english. So I started with, “uscita and andiamo and funicular” FINALLY, something clicked. What I could get from her was “castello…inoltrare, inoltrare, inoltrare e destra.”
Good enough. I’ll head to the castle and hang a right….

Allora!!

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So I find the funicular, figure out how to buy a biglietto, make the car after the next and arrive at the bottom…..that is when I started to get REAL nervous!!

It is PACKED down there as well. I have never been here before so I have no clue which direction to head. I cannot get my phone to dial the number Sonia gave me (I tried at least 8 times).
I kept telling myself, “It’s going to be fine, it’s going to be fine.” Then my other self would say, “And how’s that? You can’t call Sonia, you don’t know where you are, you don’t even know the REAL name of the farm (I know….that was stupid…Io stupido!)
So I choose a direction and start walking….through tents, around performers, crowds of festival goers (and you know the later it gets…the scarier festival goers get).
I finally make it a few blocks to the end of most of the hoop-la. I go in a little cafe, decent crowd. I ask a woman for help, she helps me dial Sonia…..please pick up, please pick up….Sonia picks up….asks me where I am…..HOW IN THE HE………I look around and as luck would have it….ta–dah….I am in front of the train station……Sonia says she is on her way.
Suffice it to say, I was SUPER relieved when she pulled up and I was safely inside her silver van.

I gladly paid her to and fro fee which ended up being about a wash between me not having the 35euro dinner at the farm and not having to pay the 25euro entrance fee to the festival.

Another one for the books!!

Chiusi

I wanted to share more about the Tuscan town of Chiusi. If I had tired of shop after shop peddling their wares to tourist in Sorrento, Chiusi was the antidote. Chiusi is a Tuscan town whose origins date back to the first millennium before Christ. In the 6th century BC, Chiusi was one of the most important cities in the Etruscan federation.
After visiting the “now historic” post office, Milena dropped me off in the historic center of Chiusi (pronounced key-oo-si). It was kind of odd. I walked the street under threatening skies with no one around. Shops were closed, restaurants battened down, churches…open.

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20130702-222309.jpg Etruscan History Museum

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The views from the edge of the old center are picturesque.

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While I roamed, I notice that shops were slowly opening, restaurants were beginning to show life by putting out chairs and setting the tables along the street.
This town actually shuts down for their riposo. I looked at many a menu posted along the streets and had decided upon one. However, they were not to open for another hour. So I found a “bar” or street cafe to enjoy a local glass of red.

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Seated along with me where locals enjoying their evening gossip.

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Although Chiusi seems to be a traditional town, that doesn’t stop some of the locals from expressing themselves….

20130702-223208.jpg You go girl! By the way, this donna was in her 70’s!
As I walked back to my restaurant, I noticed 2 holes in the ground covered with thick glass.

20130702-223412.jpg Below were the remains of Roman mosaic floors…how cool is that!?

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And now for dinner. I had not eaten since….well, I had not eaten at all except for a KIND bar I had in reserve in my borsa. I was going to treat myself to a nice, authentic Tuscan meal. I asked the waiter/owner for his recommendations.

20130702-223710.jpg He had me at the water bottle!!! I loved the colors of the glass and label!

20130702-223826.jpg Then a glass of Tuscan red. Although I just got a glass…..he let me keep the cork!

20130702-223932.jpg THE best Panzanella I have ever had; cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, anchovies, capers, basil, lettuce, rustic bread and mozzarella. Talk about fabulous.

20130702-224147.jpg And just in case you thought salt and pepper meant salt and pepper….

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Then an oh so tender “steak” with pepper and poached onions.

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20130702-224327.jpg I only wish I had had room for dessert.

At that point I tried to walk back to the B&B but got a bit confused. I asked directions from an older local woman and she gave them to me with great enthusiasm….but alas, I had no clue as to what she was saying….the directions went on for a long time. I got, “non andare al lago”. So I repeated, “No lake.” But after that it was just fun to listen to. So I turned on my cellular roaming for a minute and called Milena. Pronto, she was there! So, so sweet and thoughtful. I actually forgot I was a customer. Milena made me feel like a visiting friend.

20130702-224753.jpg The girls, Gaia and Eliona were not as comfortable…unless I had my camera out!
This morning, Milena once again went out of her way to take me to the station.

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20130702-225147.jpg Milena at her desk.
Milena, like Franco in Anacapri, has many years experience working with a major hotel in Milan. It is evident that this experience gives them their eye for little details. She and her husband just recently ventured out to open L’albero di gameli. The beautiful building was built at the beginning of the ‘900. Recently it has been completely restored and renovated saving the classical Tuscan style. L’albero di gameli and Chiusi would be an oasis as a home-base while exploring the Tuscan and Umbrian regions.
Little details that Milena attends to; a fabulous bed (“little” you say?! Well, when the other 3 you have slept on feel much like the beds at Pompeii…I read where the beds were simply stone slabs set atop a disc to keep animals from climbing up) a nice one was obviously going above and beyond, a wonderful variety at breakfast, local shampoo and body wash and one of my favorite details, the scent that wafted through my room, not strong, not sweet, just wonderful!

With two young girls and a young business as well, Milena works very hard. When hearing about my adventure she said, “Like the Julia Roberts.” I thought “Eat, Think, Pray, Eat”….the sequel.