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 café.  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…

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Joye Moon in the spot light of sun during final critique
Our first workshop of the season wound to a close on Friday night.  The watercolor instructor, Joye Moon, held a constructive critique of the week’s work and then we all headed into the dining room for our “Last Supper”.  Andrea made a Tuscan ragu served over fresh gnocchi from his sister-in-law’s pasta shop near Siena.
The surprise of the evening was when Bob, a graduate of the US Navy Officers’ Training program of 1943, got up to serenade us with a Mozart round.  Linda and Michelino partnered him as you can hear in this video. By the way, Bob is a newlywed and was on his honeymoon with his college sweetheart. When they parted after college they each married and had children. They kept in contact via yearly Christmas cards and 3 years ago, after both of their spouses had passed away, they met again. They saw they had so much in common and the attraction that had once sparked their initial meeting was still there. They were married 3 weeks ago and were with us to celebrate their new life together. They became an inspiration to us all this week.
As for the painting, it was a prolific week. 
The group was off at 6am on Saturday morning for a few days in Rome before heading home.  We spent the day preparing for the next group of painters that arrived at 5 o’clock today.  The season is in full swing!

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Peaceful Morning in Tuscany!

     This morning we had a little break so were finally able to settle into our quarters in Tuscany.  Our windows overlook the fabled Chianti hills and we have a little terrace to sit outside.  So we thought we’d have breakfast on the terrace, relax for a minute and enjoy the view.  We hard boiled some brown eggs, then I toasted a piece of ciambellone that Josephine made back in Morolo to go with her homemade cherry jam from their own trees.

View outside our house
We took our plates out onto the terrace, the May sun warming the terracotta tiles.  The vista is panoramic.  If I were a painter like the group that is here this week,  I’d count 3 layers of hills shifting progressively from green to blue.  I often think, “Thank God for the glaciers,” because this landscape owes all of its soft, sensual curves to the Ice Age.  80% of what I’m seeing is forested.  And the strict Tuscan zoning laws will insure it stays that way.  There are diamond shaped patches of vineyards incised into the hillsides, dirt roads – or “white roads”, as they call them – cutting through the greenery and stone farmhouses with red tiled roofs scattered across the landscape.  Linda pointed out that the dark green cypress trees seem to be placed exactly where your eye needs a vertical line after too many horizontal curves.  (The rest of Italy jokes that Tuscans situate their cypress trees like furniture.)  I’m sure this is the same background I’ve seen in countless Renaissance paintings, like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
I cracked an egg – the yolks are yellow as saffron – while I heard the chickens cackling somewhere below us.  I could also discern the tinkle of some sheep bells down in the valley, a donkey or two braying and hundreds of birds – including a cuckoo – singing through their work.  Bees zipped by my head, not at all interested in what we were doing there.  With this sublime setting we started planning the day: taking the group into Siena, introducing them to our favorite gelateria on the Campo, showing them where Saint Catherine’s head is on display (yes, her real head!) discussing the menu for dinner.
I could smell the acacia flowers, signature of this season, and the aroma mixed with every bite of my ciambellone.  Ah, Tuscany!  The peace, the tranquility.  No wonder it is on every traveler’s list of places to visit.
Suddenly out of nowhere, a rumble turned into a roar turned into a glass shattering screech.  A pack of 5 fighter jets screamed across the sky over the wide open valley.  Then they banked sharply and blazed back through the air leaving my teeth clenched.  Practice sorties for rookie pilots from the nearby Asciano air force base.  Linda and I sat frozen.  All other sounds stopped in their wake until the echo of the jets faded away.  Then cautiously the sheep and the birds started in again as our hearts started beating again.
I cleared my breakfast dishes and headed to the bedroom where I heard the soft thrum of an engine.  When I opened the door I found the room filled with a squad of bees all smashing into the window panes and madly crisscrossing the ceiling beams.  It was bedlam!  I tried to shoo them out until they darted for my head, but I couldn’t open another window because out on my little balcony there was a cloud of about 400 more bees laying siege, battering the door trying to break in.  So I ran out of the room, slammed the door and yelled for Linda to run for her life.
Ah, the peace and tranquility of spring in Tuscany!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Blogissimo!: Early Figs

Blogissimo!: Early Figs

Early Figs

     Yesterday morning we went on an herb walk with some of our painters interested in the "wild" side of Chianti. We started our exploration at 8 am as the sun was just beginning to gently wipe the dew from the landscape. We hiked from San Fedele up and around an ancient Celtic Circle through vineyards, eyes wide searching for nature's hidden treasures. Along the way we discovered a variety of different mint, wild fennel, wild thyme and spittlebugs.
Wild Thyme
As we came upon a fig tree I remem- bered one day a few years ago in Morolo, just outside of my parents house, my father went up to the fig tree and snapped a green, less than half ripe, fig from the tree. I was shocked as he took a bite from it, as if it were an apple. My lips puckered as he finished it off and I asked him how he could eat a crunchy fig that must have made his teeth feel fuzzy.  He said "when you're hungry it's amazing what you will eat".  He went on to reminisce about growing up during the war and the things they would forage for to keep their, ever present, hunger pangs at bay. He said his mother would cook young green figs with a little olive oil and garlic. He would be so hungry he couldn’t wait until they were ready so he would snatch one from the tree and eat it in anticipation. 
Green Young Figs
I was very curious about what fried green figs would taste like so I asked my mother to cook a few that evening. I was so surprised at how savory they were, more like a vegetable than a fruit. I would never have guessed these were the same figs that in a few weeks would be plump, sweet, juicy and luscious bundles, weighing heavy on the tree.

Ripe Figs
So,  I asked our herb walkers to help me pick the young green figs and promised to serve them a special, old family recipe at dinner.
This evening, alongside the vegetable frittata, I gave everyone a taste of my fathers favorite childhood delicacy, sautéed figs…..I think my grandmother would be very proud.
Vegetable Frittata with a side of Fried Green Figs

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Arrival at San Fedele

  Saturday we arrived at San Fedele in Tuscany for the start of our season.  After the kamikaze highway from Rome to Florence it was blissfully peaceful cruising up the cypress-lined driveway to this 12th century monastery.  The iron gates swept open to us.  The caretakers, Cesare and Enza, were there to greet us as Nicolo, the proprietor, ambled out of his door to give us a big hug.  The greetings were reverent, but stunted because there was a big bus packed with 25 watercolorists kicking up dust on the road right behind us.
It’s like the first day of camp, getting everyone off the bus, sorting luggage, assigning rooms, giving a tour of the facility.  On the terrace overlooking the olive groves we served cold water laced with the acacia essence Linda had steeped back in Morolo.
Sunday – a beautiful sunny day – started with a painting lesson on the terrace and ended with a birthday dinner for our program manager, Michelino.  The whole group arrived at the Corsignano winery nearby just in time for a spectacular sunset view of Siena.  Mario, the proprietor/winemaker, took us on a tour of the vineyard and cellar, then settled us at a long table, under the wisteria, for dinner.  
The Chianti flowed while his wife Elena, delivered courses of panzanella (a Tuscan bread salad w/ tomato, cucumber and red onion), batter dipped vegetables, white bean and rosemary bruschetta (pronounced with a hard “c”, not a shhhh…) and pappardelle with lamb sauce.
When the lights dimmed the molten chocolate cake arrived with candles, followed by & Italian versions of “Happy Birthday” (“Tanti Auguri”).  Michelino, ever the gentleman, turned it around to wish all the mothers a happy Mothers’ Day.
Tanti Auguri!
So early in the week, no one really knew the Il Chiostro staff or their talents, so it was quite a surprise when Michelino got up to sing.  With chocolate still coating his throat he managed a charming rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” followed by Kern’s romantic ballad “My Ship”.  Everyone was astounded to think that their van driver was also a terrific tenor.
Birthday hats made from paper bags our fried vegetables were served in...artists are so creative!
Then Linda stepped onto the “stage” where she delivered an endearing, a cappella “Mama”, in honor of Mothers day and then Michelino’s favorite “Anima e Coure”.  There is something about songs in Italian – you don’t need to understand the words to feel the heart rending sentiment.  It’s their poetry, the way they sing and the way they live life – full throttle.
As we were leaving I overheard someone say “And I thought we were just coming to take a painting workshop!”

Monday, May 9, 2011

Photos for Day 4 entry...

A picture is worth a thousand words.
Dad and his garden hat

More wine & cookies!

An explanation of the past

A correction of the explanation

A joke

I think this is a swear word!
In one of the photos my Dad is wearing a hat made of newspaper they use to shade their shiny heads from the sun while working in the garden. More domani...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Day 4 - Drop Ins

    Last night in Morolo as we were about to set the table for dinner a car pulled up to the gate and buzzed.  It was Linda’s cousin and their baby paying a visit.  They just dropped in, unannounced.  This is rural Italy.  People just visit one another whenever they please - unannounced.  Michael thought this was completely rude and inconsiderate.  “What if we were in the middle of eating?”  They wouldn’t mind, came the answer.  They would have just sat right down with us! 
Well all this was unacceptable – Inconceivable!  Such bad manners! – until after dinner we decided to go visit Mario, another cousin.  On the way, though, we thought we’d stop and say hello to the neighbors Giuliana and Berto who live 2 doors down.  (Giuliana had given us the chicken from her coop that we ate for dinner so we had to thank her.)  We walked up to the door, Jo cried “Yoo-hoo” and Linda knocked.  They were eating supper.  But the door opened, we were ushered in, and within one minute the plates were cleared and we were sitting at the kitchen table with a basket of homemade wine cookies and a ciombellone under our noses.  Berto popped out the door and came back wagging a green, unlabeled bottle of wine that he poured into a tray of blue water glasses.  And then – another knock at the door and 2 more people dropped in.  More glasses, more wine, conversation, hands flailing, laughter.  Nothing fancy, it all happened around the kitchen table.  We stayed 20 minutes and were off in a flurry.
Next stop Mario’s.  We buzzed at the gate, it opened, we marched into their living room and immediately had gelato, chocolate bars and whiskey to float the ice cream in.  More conversation, laughter, hands flailing.  News, politics, family gossip.  Before we left his wife Paola handed Jo a shopping bag with a load of prepared artichokes and half a rabbit.  Out the door we went with kisses, best wishes and good cheer.
Very merrily we headed home only to find a car in front of our gate.  Graziano, a friend from the next town had dropped in.  He was just leaving a bottle of wine when we pulled up.  Kisses, hugs, come on in for a minute!  So back in the house we visited with Graziano until 11:30 – conversation, laughter, hands, cookies.  And then he left after 15 minutes.  It seems that people in this area drop in for a visit the way we say hello to each other on Facebook.  It’s just a short visit, but in person, with food, wine and always the kiss hello and good-bye.  We’re wondering if we should try to do this back home in New York?  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Day 2

The lag has caught up to us! I did have a chance to make Acacia flowers tisana that I will chill and have ready for our guests when they arrive tomorrow. After traveling for hours the Acacia flower chilled water is a lovely refreshing and healthy drink to wake and sooth the senses.
Speaking of which our senses are weary and ready for sleep.
Ci vediamo domani we will be in Chianti and will have barrels of things to report.
Buona notte,
Linda e Michael

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Our 17th Spring Season in Italy - May 5, 2011

Day ½

We arrived in Italy this morning and were whisked in a jet-lagged fog to Linda’s parents’ home in Morolo, in the hills about an hour south of Rome. As soon as we closed the taxi door her mother Josephine served us a plate of pasta with tiny, skinny wild asparagus and pancetta. Simple, bursting with flavor and just what we needed after 8 hours of plane food. A little red wine from her father Gene’s personal cellar relaxed us – or

more accurately turned us to jelly.

Jo then brought to the table a bright green frittata made with shoots of a spring vine the locals call tabbii. It is just the tendrils of an otherwise innocuous vine that is starting to tangle itself around all the shrubs. They are only tender enough to eat during these 10 days so if you miss them, that’s it.

Competition is fierce to claim your territory. “My cousin Marisa beat me to all the ones out here by the road,” said Jo, “but I have another spot I go to that no one knows about.” No one packages them to sell in a grocery store, you have to pick your own.

Jo harvested a pile of them this morning before we got there. Her right thumb and thumbnail turned black from pinching and twisting the vine tips. She sautéed them in garlic and olive oil and tossed them into an egg mixture for lunch. Tonight we’ll have them as a contorno (side dish) with rabbit simmered with white wine, rosemary and a smidgen of anchovy.

Today we landed here in full-blown spring. The fields are plentiful with delicacies popping up everywhere. Neighbors stopped by to drop off a newspaper full of pignoli mushrooms they picked from the forest and another bundle of reed-thin wild asparagus stalks. After a nap we are going out to see what else we might harvest. The acacia trees are just bursting with silky white blossoms, their heady perfume hangs in the air. Sambuco blooms trumpet towards the sky. Wild mint is like clover in the lawn. Tune in tomorrow to find out what Linda did with the harvest of local delicacies we discover right outside our door.

For now, buona notte!

Michael and Linda