Our good friend (our “adopted” daughter) has a birthday today, on Halloween, and so after a good rest in our own bed last night, we called to sing to her and to catch up the last two weeks on both sides. She is pregnant and we are all expecting “little Holly or Jorge” to make an entrance in March. (they want to be surprised) Anyway, we hung up and promptly got a text from her; everyone under 40 seems to use this as the perferred method of communication these days! Anyway she said we sounded relaxed and very happy, more so than she’d heard for awhile. Well, that’s what it’s all about! We have much to be happy about and we are happy it shows! It was wonderful to arrive home 27 hours after leaving Florence yesterday!
Our bus ride to the Florence airport started around 4 AM from our villa and a majority of our guests left with us. Once at the airport, after saying “arivederci” (till we meet again) with hugs and Italian kisses on each side, we all scattered to our check in gates, promising to stay in touch. We knew our bag to check would be overweight after adding 5 kilos of cheeses, but gee, every bag needed attention as we stood in the check in lane. They were actually weighing our carry-on! I lighten the carryon by distributing to three bags which would be checked. And guess what, our main purchases are yet to be shipped directly. Anyway, a few souvenirs and some tasty cheeses and a few good chianti’s are here now!!
This morning we unpacked the seven, yep, 7, suitcases. We normally pack so light we each get by with a couple carry-ons, but not this trip. The souvenirs ranging from olive-wood kitchen gadgets to tee-shirts actually fills our diningroom table (it serves 12). Nice loot, I told Lenore! She, of course, arranged them into piles for who gets what! A by-product of a vacation of this nature is the opportunity to re-live it over and over as we hand out our little momentoes.
OCTOBER 29, 2011 First let me tell you that we have just completed two incredible weeks in Italy. Contributing were the incrediblly unseasonal weather; our wonderful tour guide, Paola; our hosts, Stefano and Sergio, at the castle-villa Fabbroni; the artisans who welcomed us into their worlds and in some cases their homes; and lastly our guests and fellow travelers. One more mention is our guide’s mother, who hand embroidered an EVOO logo in yarn on a “memory tote bag,” that she first sewed together! Paola’s mom is in her 80’s and she was already asking Paola what she might do for our next culinary tour. The totes were presented on our first night together and used daily by our guests. Every aspect of our tour here has been greater than we imagined.
Our farewell dinners served to reinforce our opinions because each person holding the olive branch had to share something they were thinking. But perhaps I should start from the beginning. Our little group of 17, including Paola, our guide, and us, were called to breakfast daily around 8 AM. We would be greeted with American coffee, assorted fresh bakery pastries, a veggie omelet, sliced or baked tomatoes, fresh whole fruit, choice of three cereals, yogurt, salami, ham, and orange juice. The bus would arrive about 8:45 and we were to be aboard by 9 or 9:30. Anyone late to board was to supply the group with gelato! (Lenore was a few minutes late one morning herself–and she paid up with chocolates at the farewell dinner.) Typically we would drive to our destination for a tour, lesson, and before long, lunch, after which we would purchase products made by our hosts. Back at the villa we would enjoy about an hour of free time to explore, nap, or refresh for dinner. We had two dinner classes in which we prepared recipes under our chef-hosts’guidance; or it was a dinner prepared for us by them. Only once were we on our own for dinner, and that night Lenore and I prepared the sausages we made during our visit with a butcher as well as some steaks and burgers. Food was ample and “typical” the entire week.
On our last night, after a full day in Lucca, shopping and having a bakery lesson and lunch, we got back to the villa about 5PM. It was enough time to refresh for the farewell dinner that our hosts prepared for us. Without going into detail, let me just say that our guests and I really wanted to see some veggies by the end of the week, so we asked for a vegetarian menu. Eggplant parmesan fried stuffed celery, artichokes, salad, ricotta pie, and a fruit salad dessert. Just right. Since our farewell dinner was on Saturday, our villa happened to be hosting several other groups, so we shared the dining room with them. But they were amenable or at least tolerant with our olive branch game.
You see after each dinner at the villa, Lenore would place the olive branch (plucked from the orchards on the first day) over a guest’s head. She then asked a question or requested some information about themselves or what they were thinking. Each person then shared their thoughts. On the last day each week, we passed the branch around so that each guest could tell us one “take away” from the trip. This is when Lenore and I truly knew we had a successful tour. Our guests shared that the greatest part of this tour is that it is one of a kind. We went where tourists do not go. We were told that the passion exhibited by our hosting artisan vendors was priceless. That the friendships forged during our time together were unexpected. And that we as a group of people going through this life have a shared a one of a kind experience during this our first culinary tour of Italy.
We had a long drive through the colorful scenic Tuscan hills this morning after breakfast on the way to the sheep farm where we were greeted by Giuseppe and his family. He raises sheep and makes prize winning cheese. He starts by taking us to a pasture to see the sheep; explaining that sheep give birth twice a year at Easter and Christmas, and so they have lots of milk from which to naturally and organically produce the cheeses. He has the trophies to prove the quality of his cheeses on display in his great room and its large corner, almost “walk-in,” fireplace with a cozy sitting area in front of it. Adjacent is a built-in wood fired oven and wood storage bin. Our table was set for a few more than the size of our group, the first hint that the family would be joining us.
But first the fourth generation cheese maker asked us to gather around a table to watch him make a small batch of cheese. He explained he was making the cheese using a vegetable enzyme from the Cardone plant from the artichoke family. It appeared that the flower of the plant was dried and then the “choke” pulled out and soaked in water to extract the needed enzymes. After soaking it was strained and the liquid added to the milk. In less than 30 minutes, the cheese began to form. It looked like milk jello as it was firm but still wiggly. Giuseppe used a knife to make vertical cuts, crosswise then lengthwise through the gelled milk. But as he did this he explained that from this one batch of milk he would make three kinds of cheese. The first was this milk jello substance that he harvested from the top, skimming carefully to get only the best of it, called roveggiolo. Next he continued cutting to separate more and more of the whey from the curds. When the curds became much drier, he pull it from the whey, placing handfuls in small plastic cups pierced with uniformly placed holes all around and on the bottom. These, he put into a pan to collect more whey as they sat weeping. Once all the curds had been cradled into the cups, he asked us to start squeezing the cheese. We were told to remove the cheese from the cups and close our hands around it and gently squeeze. Those of us with warm hands would warm the cheese and allow more liquid to escape, creating a smooth texture. If we had cold hands, the cheese would take longer to evacuate the whey and the resulting cheese would be coarser. Since it was a small batch we had this task done in short order.
The third cheese we would make from this batch would be ricotta. This is made by heating the whey that was left taking care not to stop the enzymes, but to encourage the last of the curds to form a soft, by now very tart pudding consistency he called ricotta. Quite a contrast to the way we have made ricotta back at school, using lemon juice in heated milk to separate the curds and whey. But learning that ricotta in this case was the second by-product of making a batch of cheese, reinforced the Tuscan way, that of using every part of the food source and in this way stretching it as far as possible to feed more people.
Before we actually finished our cheese making, our next task was to make the gnocchetti for our lunch. The kitchen was a white room with stainless tables and sinks and a stove. It was barely large enough for the group of us, but that didn’t seem to matter. The dough was already started by “mama” and the wives of the two “best friends,” Giuseppe and Paolo. Hand kneading had already begun, but we soon learned that was not step one. After mixing the flour, eggs, water and a touch of oil, the crumbly mixture was place on a wooden piece of equipment that appeared to me to be an antique “high chair” equipped with a revolving square peg that worked the dough as it was threaded by hand through it over and over again. You could tell that at some point there had been a hand crank to do the turning and whoever invented and made this thing, was probably not still around to see it run by an electric motor and a couple of pulleys.
When the machine did its job, the dough was cut into smaller pieces and picked up by the women who began shaping snake like ropes with it. We were all invited to jump into the operation at this point. Once the rope was just right, it was fed through a more modern gadget that spit out perfectly shapped gnocchitini (thin gnocchi, not made with potato). One person cranked while one fed the rope of dough and another would flour and place in the pan. (note-we made pasta at another small store where we used rice flour for keeping them from sticking together and it worked very nicely).
Meantime Mama was busy demonstrating the old fashioned way to form the shape this pasta. She would place a round of dough on the end of her thumb and pressing in a particular motion would yield the shape of a “lambs ear.” These didn’t exactly match those being produced by the machine, but nobody seemed to care. We wanted to see Mama in action and try a few of our own. Soon we were forming the characteristic texture on them using a small grater turned upside down, sort of a makeshift gnocchi paddle. (wish we had known because we may not have bought a few olive wood gnocchi paddles)
When finished, the gnocchi was ready to be dropped into the boiling water that had been simmering on the stove. The kitchen ladies took over as we were invited to sit at the long communal table that had been set in the common area. Each table with bottled water, jugs of wine, and with colorful chargers of red, silver and green, to match the colors of the line of small Italian flags that were stretched from the ceiling over the table from one end to the other. Each place setting had a bowl for the pasta and a plate to sample the cheeses. Several bottles of “new” olive oil, baskets of bread, jars of pepper jam, and honey were placed at intervals down the middle of the table. The wine was poured as the platters of pasta were placed. They had prepared a cream sauce using their only Gorgonzola style cheese and bits of zucchini, reflecting the late harvest from the garden. It was delicious! We were reminded that this was our main meal so enjoy a second serving.
The cheese tasting plate was next. A medium sized plate covered with wedges of cheeses, from softest to the hardest, we sampled counter-clockwise around the plate. Each cheese was given due time to savor and enjoy as Giuseppe described what how each were made. Right away I had a favorite. It was a soft cheese flavored with white truffles. I was so certain I would like it, but didn’t know how much. Lenore called it “cheesecake.” It was nutty and sweet and creamy and light. We tried hard not to like it knowing we’d not be allowed to take any home with us. Only hard cheese can be taking into the USA. But never mind, the memory is strong and I will look for it from our distributors. As it is I saw many things this trip that are already available in the USA, and it made it easier to pass up this special cheese. We settled on four varieties of the aged semi hard and hard cheeses, one of which was Giuseppe’s father’s recipe that had won lots of recognition. In fact, others in our group seemed to pick allot of the same cheeses that we did.
Our day in the town of Greve in Chianti began yesterday after another night of power dining; it was our last class at the villa and we cooked several items including dessert, and went to bed after a long evening of food and wine. Of course we had to begin the new day with a cappuccino when we arrived in Greve, even though we had a huge breakfast with coffee Americana already.
Some of you know that what we mean by power dining is experiencing as many dishes as we can in a small period of time in an area we want to know better. Our plan for this trip was to immerse ourselves into the Italian cuisine culture as deeply as we could, and we are doing a pretty good job so far. Let me put it this way, no one has been “starved” before sitting down to the next meal. Or perhaps better said no one has been even mildly hungry. That said let’s talk about the food.
From the appetizer spreads for bruschetta to the tiramisu, we have savored every morsel. The Tuscan way is what we signed up for and it is what we are getting in every venue. We hear the words, “this is the typical way of the region.” Or we may hear, “the north makes their tiramisu this way, no alcohol!” Only in the south will you find it with alcohol. So after 150 years of a united Italy, they still do battle on the plate. The competition between the regions can be seen in the way the different areas produce the same dishes.
Osso Bucco was the star of our cooking class last night. We enjoyed the gentle braise with some veal stock and a little tomato sauce finished with a gremolata, which was also put back on the heat to warm it. Chicken liver on our bruschetta was prepared in class last night as well, and the story around why it is so popular here in Tuscany also begins with, we don’t waste anything. And of course, since Paola loves chicken liver, we did see it a few more times on the menu, too!
Despite the wonderful abundance of food our Italian hosts are lean and fit and we are trying to put great dining together with that. (maybe running a villa, giving cooking classes, attending an olive orchard and grape vines and full culinary garden with chickens and turkeys might answer this mystery) Our hope is to learn more than just how to cook while we are here in this proud deeply rooted culinary country. Images: top:Bob, chef hosts, Sergio, Stefano, and Lenore; right: one of the castle’s many courtyards overlooking the country side; bottom: a typical cookie platter
We arrived into Florence airport and were greeted by sunshine and our guide met us with her sunny smile as well. It was a wonderful flight over Greenland into Amsterdam and then a short trip to Florence on a connecting plane. After driving to our villa we were invited to go to the vineyard we are visiting in a few days with our guests. We said sure, knowing we had not slept a minute yet and it was just morning in Italy the next day. We thought we could make it back by 5:30 and get plenty of rest for the next day. We didn’t arrive back to our room until 9:30 and finally got to go to bed—this was about 30 hours of being up starting in Portland.
After a very quiet night, we woke refreshed and ready to go to Paola’s prearranged appointments. She is looking already for our next tour. We visited the Butcher, a small business that has taken off—he now operates a full restaurant with his meats. He is famous for his McDario hamburger was a half-pound of well-seasoned ground beef with a quick sear and served on a pile of lightly sauted onions, some fresh tomato slices, and some Tuscan bread and fried potatoes. He dubbed the “Mc” prefix to emphasize it is not a McDonald burger. He is not fast and doesn’t want anyone to eat it fast either! He and his wife, Kim, an American, have become one of the most sought after tourist locations. We walked into the butcher shop to be greeted with wine and bread and olive oil and their salty-peppery blend. They through in some wine and it was almost as good as a lunch—but it was just their way of saying welcome and let me show you what you can enjoy in our restaurant upstairs. Of course the first time we went it was too busy and we were to leave after our tastings disappointed, but happy this passionate man and his wife have carved out a very successful lifestyle while making a living. Sound familiar? Lenore and I are seeing allot of this. People have told us they first made wine for a hobby and finally decided to go into the wine business. There was the pasta lady, Willma, Tavernelle, who told us she just made pasta and sold it until one day a visitor asked if she would teach her how to make the pasta. She did and then it was the beginning of her newfound business of cooking classes. She handed me an apron and I got to work making her Chianti style pasta.
Our guests finally arrived in Florence on Monday October 17, 2011; we met and boarded our 20 seat bus and took off for our Castle in the Tuscany Hills. It was a little like taking a ride through a wormhole and back to the middle ages as we went from the skinny paved roads to the dirt and dusty Roman road that leads to the Castle. Our guests commented on the scenery and fresh cool air as they filed off the bus. Next they were shown to their rooms in this thick stone walled building that has been home to many before but perhaps none who loved it more than its current owners. Sergio and Stefano are chefs from a former life, but now the proud hosts in this beautiful place. Our rooms are furnished typical of the country side homes in Tuscany. Furniture is not new but rather handed down from generation to generation. Each room has an old armoire and two twin beds under one double headboard, pretending to be just one bed. Every room but ours has its own bath, and our bathe is just a short distance outside in the hallway. There are two common areas—one for three bedrooms (where ours is) and the other for five bedrooms. All rooms are spacious and clean with the sheets and towels smelling of fresh air. Dryers are not used in the country side of Tuscany.
Dinner tonight was long and lovely. To watch our hosts in their element and treat us to their beloved recipes of a black cabbage soup, made with white beans, and bread—one of the many ways Tuscan’s
October 29, 2011 Another stunningly beautiful day in Italy! We are off to some free time in Lucca, the completely walled city slightly north of Florence. Paola, our guide, said she thinks it is the best place to experience shopping because it is slightly out of the way for tourists. The drive was a couple hours from our villa. The freeway was thick with traffic and they all seemed to be going to Lucca.
Today is Saturday, the start to a long weekend for Italians to celebrate “All Saints Day.” So the traffic was noticeably more than last week the same time. Our guide was saying that cannot be the reason we see so many cars pouring into the city, though, and she called a friend who explained that there is a comic book convention in town. Seems attendees dress up in their favorite comic book characters. Some are recognizable but many just seem to be characters one might see back home for Halloween; renaissance characters and TV/movie personalities seem popular. So we, of course, picked one of the best days to see local color without knowing in advance. We took many pictures of the characters as they passed. All we needed to do is to raise our camera, poised to take their picture, and they would stop to pose!
As we sat drinking coffee watching the parade of sorts, I jumped out in front of a small child dressed like a knight of the round table; when he saw me his posture straightened proudly taking on the persona for the picture. After an espresso and gelato and a couple hours of people watching and shopping, our group gathered at the meeting place to board the bus for our lesson at a family owned bakery located in the outskirts of Lucca in a small neighborhood.
We assumed the family of bakers provides the bread for this small area.
But first there was a lovely buffet table set outside under one of those large umbrellas we have seen everywhere here in Italy. The centerpiece of ornamental corn and fresh roses for a Tuscan fall arrangement with platters of many of the “usual suspects” on our visits, included the mortadella ham, Tuscan salami, four kinds of breads, and even pizza and sort of a focaccia sandwich of “lardo,” which was soon declared a favorite. Of course there always seems to be wine, too, and after antipasti, the pasta comes to the table, this time called “macaroni” that looked like uneven pieces of thick flat pasta with a fresh tomato and garlic sauce, topped with parmesan regianno.
After lunch as each of us “aproned-up” and washed hands we headed into the small kitchen behind the even smaller retail store front. Italian store fronts, especially for food, seem to be only a garage door wide. The head baker had already prepped a batch of whole grain dough and shaped them into rounds, baguettes and some round loaves with sunflower imprints. All were placed onto a canvas conveyor belt that with one complete turn landed the 10-12 loaves on the deck of the large wide deck oven. They would bake about 30 minutes; just time enough to produce a second batch of Tuscan sour dough with his “biga” starter.
Divided into two groups, we each shaped bread and made some biscuits (also known as cookies). Lenore’s favorite cookie was the one coated in corn flakes before baking, with raisins and a dusting of powdered sugar when cool. For our guide, Paola, our baker hosts made her favorite dessert, a tart made with chestnut flour, rosemary, pine nuts and lemon zest. But for me, I was intrigued by the amaretto tart made with a wonderful shortbread crust rolled and cut in a way I had not seen before, and I will definitely be doing this one when I get home. We were rewarded for our work with a large pastry assortment of their specialties: almond paste crescent, cornflake cookies, chocolate pie, and amaretto tart. We finished production by bagging up all the baked goods to take with us!
We left with more than we came in with, that’s for sure. We each received a cookie bag tied in a bow along with a hand written recipe book, which we will need to translate after we get home. Obviously, this is not the type of activity they do regularly, but judging from the “polish” and enthusiasm of our second week, we think these artisans may like the opportunity to “teach” more often. The organization of the second lesson was noticeably improved and the shy demeanor of the bakers noticeably more relaxed and talkative.
That we are actually meeting the people who create the breads, cheeses, salami of the Tuscany region, is the core of this trip. Producers who welcomed us into their homes, in some cases, wouldn’t give us a lesson without feeding us too! The hospitality of the Italians continues to delight us.
The excitement of our trip to Tuscany is beginning to take over the usual excitement our new menu that starts today provides. Typically we change the menu the first weekend of the new month and after a whole month, we are ready to say good-bye to the old recipes, and say hello to the new ones. But this week, our attention is diverted to the suitcases at home in our living room and the pile of clothing we are sorting to pack. I used to travel allot with my past jobs, and it was pretty routine. Now it is never quite as smooth as that. No matter how early we start packing, the two of us are competing for space and you know who usually wins. This time the suitcases have been out for weeks to help desensitize our poodles since they get a little anxious when they see the bags come out. Their worries seem to melt the instant our dog sitter arrives. They do tend to get more attention when we are gone, so much of the wagging and licking we get when we get home is really just to be polite. Spoiled is a pretty good description of what we will find when we return. It is such a comfort to Lenore and me that we have good care for them while we are gone thanks to Donna and daughter, Dom. This will be the longest time we have been away, but I am guessing they won’t even notice.
So in the next 13 days we must finish packing and get done all the errands and list of details we need to do before we leave. One thing we must do is get flu and a tetanus shots. Lenore isn’t happy about this but agrees it’s best to be prepared.
There are many final details to getting the store ready for our absence. We’ve lined up guest chefs to do classes on the Saturdays we are gone. Shanda, our third arm, is the best comfort for our anxiety while away. She will hold it all together while we’re gone, and continue to take calls and schedule our shows. Note to self, bring back Shanda a great souvenir from Tuscany.
No matter how many details we have covered we are pretty sure there will be some we have forgotten. I guess it is good to give ourselves a break, and just take it in stride when it comes. Once we get this trip under out belt, our first one as the hosts, we hope we can schedule two next year.
Right now I have kitchen duties calling, but one more thing. Please check out our blogs from Italy while we are away.