Monday, June 20, 2011

Reasearch & Exploration - Part 2

To continue our research for Louise Freshman Brown’s painting workshop here in October, Linda and I found the museum dedicated to the Bolognese artist, Giorgio Morandi.  It is located on the second floor of the grand Palazzo d’Accursio facing the Piazza Maggiore.  This is a civil building that also houses the stock exchange and City Hall.  The stone staircases were exaggeratedly broad, with high, vaulted ceilings frescoed from end to end, suitable for a duke (or a pope) to descend royally.  The museum was wonderful, full of oil paintings and etchings in Morandi’s signature style (if you don’t know this artist, we can recommend you investigate his work - click on the link-   Giorgio Morandi - Artwork)
When we left the museum we heard the noise of a cheering crowd, reverberating in the hallways.  There was applause with explosions and shouts of “auguri”.  As it turns out, it was Saturday and there were several weddings going on in City Hall.  We snuck down to see what was going on and found a large, ceremonial room packed with well-dressed people.  There was a grand mahogany desk in the middle with 4 red velvet chairs and 2 formal pens for signing marriage documents.  The room had ¾ length windows where a bride and groom were waving to the crowds below in the square.  There was music playing in the room and general congratulations being liberally tossed around.
Wedding couple in Bologna
Many people don’t realize that in Italy – one of the most Catholic countries in the world – marriages are only recognized when performed at a municipal City Hall.  That is the principle ceremony where your friends and family go to witness your vows and to support you on your life together.  Should you choose to have a church service afterwords, (and many do not) it is purely ceremonial and not legally binding.  The Church has no authority to marry people.  That rests entirely with the State.
Wedding guest complete with confetti

And confetti
We slipped down the stairs incognito, shuffling  through the rice and confetti scattered about the landing where the bride and groom had paused for pictures.  We mingled momentarily with the guests in the entry courtyard of the palazzo watching them drink champagne and celebrate.  We had big smiles on our faces, caught up in the revelry as we emerged onto the main square.
It was a beautiful day, so we sat for a while in one of the cafes under the arcades for a coffee. 
Cafe Scecheratto
All of Bologna seemed to traverse that square, from dreadlocked students to elegant wedding guests to a variety of brides and grooms in long white gowns, short purple dresses and Indian sarongs passing each other on their way to or from their marriage vows.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Reasearch & Exploration - Part 1

    For the last 10 days Michael and I have been traveling around doing one of our favorite things in Italy…research and exploration.
When we began Il Chiostro we wanted to give our alumni the opportunity to experience many different parts of Italy and it's culture....and we love to do that too.
Our first stop, as most of you already know, was Bologna. See:
We are preparing for 2 weeks fall 2012 there. For now here is a photo of our Gelato Orgy on the last day after a 2 hour hike along a portico up to San Luca Church just outside the city...
Gelato in Bologna

We traveled on to Piemonte….Barolo and Dolcetto country.
The Nebbiolo grape is very versatile. It is used to make wine of the same name as well as Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme. Nebbiolo probably gets it's name from the Italian word nebbia
which means "fog" because during the harvest, which generally takes place late in October, a deep, intense fog sets into the Langhe region where most Nebbiolo vineyards are located.
Not to mention the cuisine.
Nebbiolo grapes....waiting to be Barolo

Ravioli Del Plin
A good friend of ours from Tuscany has a connection to a winery near Barolo called Clavesana.
We felt like royalty as we cruised the area with the Director of Clavesana, Anna Bracco. She is an extraordinary woman. There are many wine cooperatives in Italy, however Anna has created this cooperative in a way that gives all of the 350 families that participate a voice and a face...

Clavesana crest personified

She and her associate, Tessa Donnadieu International Liason, gave a wonderful 3 day tour of the area.
Michael, Anna Bracco & Tessa
Three days packed with many eno-
gastro- nomic, logistic and all simply wonderful experi- ences.

Lange Landscape
The landscape is a variety of grape vines, barley and hazelnut trees.

Barley in Lange
The wonderful thing about this area is that tourism has not hit in a major way so it is intimate, genuine and as authentic as it gets.

We visited many agritourisms, ex-monasteries, restaurants, farmers, a cooking school and even a gent from South Africa that gives tours there in a hot air balloon. When they heard we were thinking of bringing American artists to the area we became like rock stars in their eyes.
Everyone has such enthusiasm for their part of Italy, it was infectious and inspiring. 
Red that catches the eye

One thing about this area that struck me was the color red that is used on many of the houses. It pops against the many varieties of green backdrop.

By the end of our visit we were very excited about the prospects of offering workshops in the area. So check our schedule for next year soon to see when and where.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bologna the fecund!

We drove up from Tuscany to research 2 programs scheduled for October. There is so much to see and experience with all 5 senses here but the first must be the food. We headed to our favorite gelato place first thing. After the long drive from Siena we needed some fortification to get us through the rest of the day. 
They call Bologna "La Grassa" The Fat and no wonder. We are in a food coma after tonight's dinner. We began with the most popular item in Bologna.... Mortadella aka Baloney...Bologna.
We moved on to the best plates of Italy, Primi.... pastas we sampled: Tagliatelle al RaguLasagna alla Bolognese, Papardelle with porcini, sausage and shaved truffles, baked tortellini with porcini and tallegio. We moved on to the secondi...meat courses, Cotoletta alla Bolognese, Coniglio al Aceto balsamico, Scaloppina ai Fungi Porcini, Stracetti alla Rucola. My Mom loves pasta so much they made her a special one with asparagus and prosciutto.
We were so full, we thought we would skip dessert BUT, they tempted us with, Chocolate Mouse with orange zest, fresh Meringa covered with melted chocolate, Rice pie, so we succumbed. Then they went over the edge and brought a platter of fried pastry cream that made even our Bolognese born friend, Giovanni, shiver with delight.
We are too overwhelmed to write any more so here are some photos to give the idea of what the day was like:
Food shop
fecund Food Shop
More food Shop
Guess shop
My favorite peaches...flat
Yup, more food shop
A variety of cherries are in Season
Meat Shop
Bowl o' Mozzes
Well dressed Melon!
more Tomatoes

Cheeses, Tortellini and Bread, oh my!
Up Close and juicy!

Hands Off the Tamatas!
 More food porn tomorrow, for now "Baci" from Bologna!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Italy Influences Artist

Our artist/instructor Barrett Edwards talks about how Italy has influenced her art and soul.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Michael's Day in Florence - "Paying a Visit to the “Grand Dame”

      On Saturday Linda dropped me off in Siena where I could catch the Firenze Rapida, the 12:10 bus to Florence.  I was going to pick up our next group of watercolor painters, but I also had a few hours to reconnect with my “old friend”.
By 1:30 my feet were on the ground in the Renaissance City.  It was sunny but not suffocatingly hot, as Florence can get in the summer.  I zigzagged from the train station down the Via Tornabuoni and across the Ponte di Santa Trinita (with the4  statues of the seasons).  Crossing over I had a clear view of the yellow Ponte Vecchio hanging over the Arno, with 3 graceful skulling boats rippling the water underneath.
Ponte Vecchio by Anne Benvenuto
 I had a quick errand to run in the Altr’arno section, my favorite area of Florence.  Just across from the anthill of tourist spots, it is quieter with many local craftsmen still thriving in their tiny workshops.  At certain times the sounds of sawing wood, pounding silver, and cutting marble reverberate in the tiny alleys.  I can almost feel what life in Florence was like back in the era of the great artists.
My errand done, I ducked into a cafe on the narrow Borgo San Jacopo for some lunch.  Caffe Le Torri had been completely redone since I lived in the neighborhood many years ago.  But there was still the familiar clatter of the ceramic cups on the marble bar top and the tinkle of the little spoons in the saucers.  That’s a sound you will never hear in Starbucks.  I sat, intending to quietly read my book, but my attention kept being diverted towards the hubbub in the bar instead.  There were 3 “gallettos” – young men with black faux-hawks, tight T-shirts and time on their hands – cajoling at the counter.  Two American girls, who I surmised had arrived in Florence recently, entered in cotton running shorts and flip-flops, looking dubious and unsure of what to do.  The boys instinctively glanced over, fluffed their hair and adjusted their crotches (as Italian men are wont to do).  The girls were too disoriented to notice them.  In perfect English they ordered diet Cokes with ice and asked for the bathroom.
A large bus passed by on the tiny street outside blocking the entire window.  It forced 2 Japanese women (who might be the only people who can rival the Italians for fashion) into the doorway.  They looked around and decided to stay.  In stammered Italian they ordered 2 cappuccinos.  They demurely took the table near the door, until 6 mopeds blazed by spewing diesel fumes.  As a unit they rose, covered their noses and click-clacked in Ferragamo sandals to the back of the cafĂ©.  A single traveler who looked like a slim Ernest Hemingway slipped in to claim their table.  He ordered a panino and a glass of wine without ever taking his eyes off his guidebook.
The American girls, huddling back from the bathroom, asked for a “to go cup” for their Diet Cokes –in perfect English – and going out the door squeezed past a threesome of pallid Brits dressed right out of “A Room with a View”.  They staggered to a table, overwhelmed with site-seeing, Bandaids on their toes, straw hats flopping over their eyes.  In insistent English they order bruschetta “without all the cheese”.
The barista is a congenial man who greets everyone who enters or leaves his microcosm.  Italians repay the “Buon Giorno”, foreigners ignore him.  But he keeps at it.  Italians head to the bar, stand up, order and drink their coffee.  Foreigners head to the tables, even though the same coffee costs double there.
Two 15 year old “gallettos-in-training” step in sporting sunglasses, coifs and facial hair, but the backpacks give them away as no competition for the other guys still hanging out reading the soccer news.  Outside the steady procession of tourists marches single file toward the Ponte Vecchio, weighted with cameras and wearing fedoras and sun hats they wouldn’t be caught dead in back home.
A squat Slavic woman in orange hair orders a grappa, a tall man with sandals, socks and a walking stick (German?) peruses the counter then turns and leaves, 3 more American girls clomp in and flop at a table, an Italian man, whistling Puccini sails through, dropping off a packet to the owner, an elderly woman waddles in with grocery bags, rests on a chair by the door, then leaves.  Another bus squeezes by, mopeds in its wake.
Although I wanted to stay, I needed to get back to meet our group.  I never cracked my book but had a good show nonetheless.  I paid my check at the counter and skipped out into the fray.  I took a different route back, past an old leather shop I know across from Dante’s church.  Within a half hour I managed to buy a new wallet and then a leather jacket at the San Lorenzo open market.
Without having seen one piece of art or visited one tourist site, I think I can report that the Old Dame Florence is alive and kicking and still playing hostess to the world.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A day like any other.

     Sometimes I find it difficult to explain to people that what we do for a living is actually a job. Take today for instance, I woke up early, still groggy, with sleepy eyes I stumbled into the kitchen and this was the view before me.
Early Morning
It made me think I was still asleep and dreaming that I was in a movie....a love story...far from all reality.

Later I set out for my daily walk along my favorite Tuscan road with views Siena and surrounding hilltops that help me begin my day blissfully.....The views are so beautiful I barely noticed there isn't one square inch of flat surface here, until my calves remind me it's quite a workout....but it beats the treadmill back home!
Our schedule today included a meeting with a local organic farmer to discuss delivery of his vegetables to us in a timely manner to insure freshness......not so hard since he is a few kilometers down the road.
Michelino's gorgeous table
We also had to prepare a special birthday dinner for our in- structor, Barrett and one of her students, that meant tasting prosecco to ensure we chose the best one and sampling the eggplant pate we made and planned to serve for the apperitivo on the terrace. I also needed to make sure Michelino had set the table properly for the event....which really means I wanted to see how beautifully he decorated the always!
Then it was time for hardest part of the day.....the party.
The Celebrated Painters
We had to be sure that everyone was having a good time and the best way to ensure that is to participate in the merriment ourselves.  We moved from the terrace to the dining room to begin the first course. One large Tortellone of spinach and ricotta  topped with fresh tomato, basil and  Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO).
Tortellone all Primavera
The second course was a local favorite that is served for special occasions Stinco al Forno. That isn't how it smells, it means Oven Roasted Veal Shank.
Andrea with Stinco

This we served with beets from the organic farmer down the road that were steamed and served simply with EVOO and salt. They were almost like dessert!

After the cake it was up to us to continue the festivities with some musical offerings. Michelino served up an interesting "cheese" course with his rendition of "Slow Boat to China" and "Come Fly with Me". I offered my favorite Neapolitan song "Tu Ca Nun Chiagne" and then a little blues with "Sunday Kind of Love".
You might find this hard to beleive but by 10 pm we were beat.  Beauty all day and good food, wine and company all night can be exhausting.....especially when you do it with all your heart and soul.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The world did not end but the rapture is in Tuscany!

I read on Facebook that the world was supposed to end yesterday but someone neglected to tell the Italians. However we did experience rapture when we found the most beautiful poppy field we have ever seen.

It seemed to go in forever as we stood in awe of what nature had done.

Poppies Everywhere!
Michael began to dance in ecstasy, the poppies had the exact opposite effect from those in the Wizard of Oz.

I thought we had died and gone to each his own rapture...........

I'll take the Italian one any day!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Market Day

I was nervous about giving the cooking class this week because I was having a hard time deciding what to present to the class in just one morning. 
I love outdoor markets; they inspire me so that’s where we began. There are not as many in the Chianti area, as in the south, but the best one in this area is the one in Poggibonsi.
During the war, Poggibonsi housed many munitions factories so, the old part was destroyed and it was hastily rebuilt leaving its cityscape deprived of vivacity and charm, but on Tuesdays it comes to life.
Our intimate cooking class of 4 set out for the market at 9:30 from San Fedele and I immediately asked everyone to begin visualizing a parking spot.
As we entered the main drag of the market I could feel my excite- ment as I hoped to find the seasonal delicacies might inspire my focus for the class.

As we made our way through the clothing and house wares sections I was anxious to see if my Neapolitan guys had made it this week with plenty of juicy, spongy, decadently delicious Mozzarella from Naples. A little known fact here in Italy the name Mozzarella inplies that it is made with buffalo milk anything else is called Fior di Latte.  My Mozzarella guys travel for 6 hours late Monday night to be in Tuscany by 6 am.  I am relieved when I see them both waving and calling my name as they begin to sing me a Neapolitan song. They we sample all of their Neapolitan specialties: 3 different kinds of olives, various salami and sausages and of course the MOZZ. When my cookers tasted that their heads fell back in ecstasy as they let out an “Oh My God” fit for a wedding night.  I preach to everyone in the class to always go with local ingredients but once you have eaten REAL mozzarella, you will never be satisfied with any imitation.
Pomodori Fiorentini
Once we had the Mozzes in hand I was ready to begin the search for that special something that would complete the menu for the class.
We all knew instantly and in unison when we saw it: Pomodori Fiorentini.
Pappa Al Pomodoro, I thought as we were filling our shopping bag with these ruby red curvaceous tomatoes. These  Fiorentini are meaty with very few seeds so they are perfect for this traditional Tuscan dish made. It is made of 2 ingredients: tomatoes and bread…. ok we used a little onion, garlic and basil too.

We picked out a few more ingredients, grabbed some Olive Ascolane (stuffed fried olives) to give us strength for our journey and headed back to The TRC to get into our aprons and on with feast.
Happy Cookers

Michelino, our invited guest, was thoughtful and set a gorgeous table for us outside on the grand terrace. Here is the menu:
Pappa Al PomodoroMalfatti pasta with sweet Sicilian eggplant, pancetta, Tropea onion and frizzled capers
Anatra Al Arancia, duck breast with orange and star anise and to finish Fennel and orange salad.

Pappa Al Pomodoro
As we finished our lunch and I saw the happy faces of our little cooking class I realized I should never be worried about finding inspiration in Italy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


     Those delicate red flowers are a passion for painters.  They love to stand outside in a sea of red capturing the vibrancy, the shimmer of the petals, their movement in the breeze.  In America we rarely find the blood red fields that are common in Italy and other parts of Europe.  They are an intoxicating visual assault.
Painting IN the Poppies!

Every year when we arrive in Tuscany it is part of our job descrip- tion to find the most spectac- ular field of poppies around.  That is not as easy as it sounds because first, they grow wild and second they only pop for about 10 days in early spring.  Poppies appear in the fields that are left fallow when the farmers rotate their crops which change every year.  You can never be sure where the latest poppy fields will be until one day you round a corner to find a red carpet of flowers that have all burst open at the same moment.  So this week our responsibility is to drive the winding roads of Tuscany in search of that streak of red staining the bright green fields of spring.
Papaveri  is the mellifluous, happy Italian word for them.  It’s pure ecstasy when you discover an explosion of papaveri along a dirt road.  You can’t help giggling at the sheer number of these flowers crammed into the same square footage.  You just want to plunge in and roll around in them.

Poppies Everywhere!
One of the best poppy exper- iences we ever furnished for our painters was two years ago when we brought the group to a remote field down a thin dirt tractor path.  They set up stools and easels in the scrub, donned their straw hats and set about mixing their brightest reds.  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, three hunky guys rode up on horseback, trotting through the poppies as the painters gasped in delight.  The jockeys were not unaware of their admirers so the leader signaled for the trio to strut back and forth before the ladies.  When they had had enough, the leader whipped off his T-shirt, swung it around his head like a lasso and in formation they all dashed away at full speed over the hillside.  The normally sedate painters squealed like schoolgirls at a Justin Bieber concert.
Even horses love Poppies

We haven’t found the perfect field for this year yet, so tomorrow our work continues…