Monday morning dawns beautiful in Chianti….and pretty darn cold…and windier than my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas on one of its best “windy city” days. This most unusual for May cold front had certainly announced itself loudly here in Tuscany, as well as Lombardy (the region that Piacenza is in). However, as long as a warm sun is shining, all is well.
Kathleen and I convinced ourselves that an early-ish rise was the best plan, so up by around 8:00, we prepped for the day’s adventures. First stop was for cappuccino and Simone’s art work. We were gifted with a swan and a turkey (or is that a peacock??), both as lovely as ever. And so temporal…always a little painful to have to stir away the beautiful little creatures he creates. A breakfast panino, some friendly chat, and onward southerly towards Siena!
Ah, but I forget…we first made a stop at Ray’s office to introduce Kathleen, say hello, make a call to Wells Fargo to find out why a withdrawal wouldn’t work (easily solved, thank goodness), chat a bit, solve a few world problems, then…adiamo a Siena!
Having “ been there, done that” last week with Marty, following the GPS’s convoluted instructions into the town center to the stadio parking wasn’t near the challenge it was the first time. Yay! Like a soccer fan pro who’d done it a million times, I wound around each curve, coursed through each intersection, and whipped the little Punto into the parking area without a hitch. But lest I brag too brashly, I willingly admit having that satellite driven lighthouse of a GPS did make a big difference!
We entered the wondrous town of terra cotta tile hues and made our way to….a shop! Yes, it’s a little different traveling with a girlfriend. A few souvenirs were procured and tucked away, then it was off to San Dominica, the church I wrote of earlier that is dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena. Kathleen was extra thrilled about this visit due to the fact that she has used St. Catherine as a focus in her Mythology class, but didn't realize the connection to Siena! We also found our way to St. Catherine's home in Siena, not far from San Dominica, and visited it. One little side note that gave this Texas gal a thrill – I was waiting outside a shop for Kathleen, standing in the warm sun and passing a few minutes time. A foursome of tourists approached me, and in their best attempts at Rick Steve guidebook English asked, “Scuzi…dove’ e’ il San Dominica?” I smiled, and promptly said, “Oh…I speak English quite well!” And the neat part was, I could actually give them a little guidance! Funny thing, this same scenario had also happened as we were leaving the parking lot, and once more further into town. I must make a mental note of what my attire was that day because it obviously communicated la donna italiana. Hmmm….maybe, just maybe, a little of that so coveted way that Italians have with style is rubbing off just a teeny weeny itty bitty bit??
The beautiful Torre di Mangia watching over Il Campo in Siena
We made our way to the glorious Il Campo (the unusual triangular shaped center area or piazza), took in the views, marveled at the large number of visitors, and finally found our way for a revisit for me and a first time visit for Kathleen to the jovial (and delicious) Trattoria di Torre that Marty and I had dined at. We checked out the hanging menu at the entrance, made our decisions, then popped through the hanging greenish curtain things that remind me of those brushy, cylindrical aquarium plants. I noticed there were only a couple of tables inhabited, made eye contact with the cute waiter, and asked “Chiuso (closed)?” “Si…chiuso.” I let out an exaggerated gasp, put a hand to my forehead, and replied, “Noooo….sono Trieste! (I am sad), then rubbed my eyes to mimic crying. It actually created a smile on the otherwise stoic face of this fellow we’d encountered last week when there, but alas…it did not garner us any food.
Deciding to cut our losses, we walked a shop or two further away from Il Campo, and came upon a little bar…only a few locals inside with a not so friendly looking gal behind the counter. I used my basic Italian, ordered, and we sat to enjoy Panini, una biera, and a little local atmosphere. An older gent had assessed us, and invited us to sit with him, Kathleen told me…somehow I missed it as we made our way outdoors to a table there. The gent came up to us as he was leaving, though, and we had a brief, friendly little conversation in my limited Italian. Fun! The outside endeavor didn’t last long, however, due to the cold wind, so we retreated rather quickly, finished our meal, downed a “doppo pranzo” (after lunch) caffé, then took advantage of the place for a bathroom break. You’ve heard of those “European toilets” (wow…I could take advantage of that phrase for a really bad pun, but I shall resist…with great effort), the kind that are basically a porcelain hole in the ground with nifty little places for your feet? I’d met one of these before, a few years back, and I had the pleasure of introducing Kathleen to her first one here! Oh, and the not so friendly counter gal lightened up nicely as it became apparent, I think, that we maybe weren’t going to pull any snooty tourist acts for her. Attitude during travel can be the deal breaker or maker, no doubt.
Without an itinerary of any particular sort, I convinced Kathleen (“I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals and the likes; I really don’t have any burning desire to see more”) that a visit to Siena’s duomo was a must. Tickets procured, we entered the duomo…it wasn’t more than a mere minute or two that the “I’ve seen…” was replaced with ongoing remarks of wonder, awe, and marvel at this grand structure and it’s treasures! Being able to revisit and share these kinds of things is a joy, and I’m really hopeful my little group of girlfriends who are working towards a spring trip all together (you know who you are!) are able to make it happen and allow me the chance to share this again!
photo courtesy secretplacesitaly.net
Not to be missed while in Siena, we found a gelatria/pastacieria and bought two slices of the Siense treat, pan forte – one hunk of the lighter version called margherita, another hunk of the darker version called nero. I do believe I’ve eaten enough of this now to quantifiably state that I prefer the nero. It’s infused with rich, heavy spices I’ve probably only just heard of before…and it is heavenly--a chewy, decadent concoction of nuts, candied fruits, and other things mysterious and medieval. We took an ancient seat on the marble benches so often incorporated into these old, old cities…wonderful spots for the populace to sit and gather, watch, be seen, contemplate – or eat pan forte. The grand duomo façade was our fore view, along with the people watching.
photo courtesy of flickr.com
Now at the risk of being hated just for a brief moment or two, I must tell what happened to Kathleen. We were sitting, chewing on the delights aforementioned, and when Kathleen picked up the small bag the pan forte had been in, she realized it’d been placed on a “present” some pesky pigeon left. We kept the bag there, figuring it’d be a good defense until we left. I made a casual comment or two, and then noticed that Kathleen popped up rather quickly from her seat and made a bee line to the trash can. Only slightly curious, I waited, then asked what was up. She gave one of those “You’ve never going to believe this.” looks, and proceeded to tell me she’d thought there was some of the pan forte stuck on her hand, and she’d, naturally, just licked it off. <<pregnant pause>> Nope, it wasn’t pan forte. She smiled and stoically stated that she was in this beautiful place, life was good, and she was not going to get sick, nor let this freak her out…too much. Being the kind, comforting friend that I am, I burst in to shrieks of laughter, offering sympathy between gasps. Needless to say, we had any number of laughs over this as the day wore down.
Kathleen at the door of "The Rabbit Hole" at Casamonti
Back in Castellina and into the wonderful little COOP grocery store for some goods! Just like at home, I always manage to come out with a lot more than I went in for. It was a little too late to head home to cook, so we secured the goods in the car and headed down the quaint little main street to the little café that does a pretty mean pizza. Throw in a little wine, a warm building (sun down = coooold!), and some good conversation, and thus makes a great close to a wonderful day.
Back home, we found a few more things in need of discussion before completely calling it a night, then Kathleen retired upstairs. Since I sleep better “da sola”, I’ve made me a little cocoon in the lower level with the love seat cushions, and it’s worked out quite nicely…comfy, cozy, and warm! With the ability to exercise my night owl bio-rhythms, I stayed up prepping a fragoli zuppa (bean soup) with a package of mixed beans, a can of tomatoes, onion, garlic, a little salume, Tuscan seasoning that Guila gave us, and salt and pepper. While this simmered into the late night, I found the chance to pour a little Chianti and write…and write….as I did catch up on about 3 days of blogging. It was a joyful experience…late night in the Tuscan “rabbit hole” - cooking and writing. I let the zuppa cool as I prepared for bed, then secreted myself into my cocoon and wandered into sleep under a Tuscan roof, under a Tuscan starry night.
Today marks the long awaited cooking class with a delightful young lady named Guila Scarpaleggia, creator of Jul's Kitchen! GPS programmed for her country home, we set out with plenty of time to arrive, as well as make a stop at the gas station for an artistic cappuccino. This time, Simone the barista and latte artist, made one with a turkey and one with a bunny….awesome! He probably thinks I’m a little strange at my glee over this, but I also think he enjoys seeing his work appreciated. As I sat, he came over to the table and gave me a calendar that featured his creations, made for the gas station to give to customers, I presume. How thoughtful and sweet, and I will enjoy it so much! Note to self to take Simone something of our Texas gifts on the next visit.
Onward to the outer regions of Colle d’val Delsa where Guila’s family home is. At 31, she, like many young Italians, lives at home with her parents. Guilia obtained a degree in communications and marketing, found work unfulfilling and underpaid, and decided to turn her passion for cooking, writing, and photography into a food blog. This has opened incredible doors for her, and she is now conducting classes and even finding kitchenware sponsors. We choose to take one of her small classes…no more than 4 people, but just us 2 this day…at her family home in the countryside!
The drive was, what else…so very beautiful, and we were rewarded with views of poppy fields unlike any we’d seen thus far. The brilliant red-orange of these flowers seems almost surreal, as if they’ve been lit from within. Alone in expanse of red, or intermingled with the whites and yellows of other spring flowers, the sights were pure delight.
Following the GPS with somewhat less faith than normal – how could all these odd turns and little roads lead to where we were headed? – we decided to push onward, and alas…it was correct! We came upon a conglomeration of lovely buildings, some ancient, others not quite so, that were knitted together in community like only Italian villages can do. Probably no more than 25 individual dwelling places marked by numbers, we wound through the little street until we arrived at the last building on the right….a lovely two story home that is Guila’s family’s. We greeted each other warmly, took in the spectacular view over the valley behind the home, and commenced to talk.
Guila shared that this home was built by her great-grandfather in the 1920’s, I believe, and what is now the kitchen was the barn. Their little village was filled with city dwellers during WWII when many escaped to the countryside to avoid danger. She told us of how people hid in the upper rooms and areas of the home when the French and German troops came through, and of how her grandmother tells of remembering when the American soldiers came through. It was sobering to think of standing right there where this had occurred, and to remember how the war is so much more “real” to most Italians. It was on their soil, in the towns and cities, and not so long ago.
Cooking! Ahhh, yes! We had a wonderful time listening, learning, doing, tasting, experiencing as Guilia took us through the rotations of Tiramisu, made first so the flavors could meld, then fresh pasta – tagliatelle and tagliatellini, fresh antipasto of pecorino, truffle jam, fava beans and salt. Next, preparing a stuffed turkey breast using sliced sautéed little artichokes with onion in a reduced sauce, soon to be seared in olive oil and butter, then roasted on the stovetop. A fresh, lovely lemon sauce and a heartier porcini mushroom sauce where prepared as Marty and I rolled out the rested pasta dough and cranked out beautiful golden strips of pasta using Guilia’s grandmother’s pasta maker. It came out paper thin after having been pressed and pressed through the maker until almost transparent and ready to dry ever so briefly.
A warm salad of fresh fava beans, thinly sliced artichokes, lightly sautéed asparagus, grilled pecorino cheese, dressed lovingly with fine olive oil, salt, and pepper was our antipasto for the meal, and dare I say it’s presentation of colors, flavors, and textures was indeed a Tuscan masterpiece. We commenced to dine together after several hours work, enjoying incredible food, wonderful wine, and the company of a very special and talented young artist named Guilia.
The tiramisu, along with a taste of a local sweet wine made with honey and water, was the crown of the beautiful day we shared with Guilia in her family kitchen. The talk went on until we realized it was 4:30 (we arrived at 10:00), and we felt somewhat bad at taking up so much of the day that surely held other matters to be addressed. Guilia assured us it was not a problem, and that she had truly enjoyed the day, as well. We departed with a warm hug, the day’s recipes, two Jul’s Kitchen aprons, and a lovely hardbound book titled “Le Ricette di mia Nonna…My Grandmother’s Recipes”, Guilia’s first cookbook. Having now had a little time to peruse the book, we both found it to be not only a cookbook holding a wealth of marvelous authentic recipes, but also a beautifully written book of prose that carefully and lovingly paints a picture of the story behind each recipe. Guilia had a true gift for finding the words to convey her thoughts, her joys, her passions….and to share them with you. Her photography is exquisite, as well. What a tangible treasure to take away from our day.
Hurrying home, we arrived and began to prepare for yet another delight to this day….a TexMex meal with Lucio and Francesca! I brought along taco seasoning, freeze dried beans, and Spanish rice….oh, and tortillas!...to see if I could recreate such a meal under this Tuscan sun. Tortillas fried, hamburger cooked and seasoned, beans done, and rice ready…we all gathered at our little table, poured the Corona, and Lucio and Francesca were given their first lesson in constructing a tostado. Much good talk, laughter, eating, and enjoyment pursued as the night wore on. They brought a lovely prosecco and little pastries that look like mini cream puffs for dessert. It was perfect! As the congeniality persued, we again looked at the time in sheer amazement that it was already 11:30pm. There is no doubt that we have stepped into some sort of medieval time warp as the hours slide by like mere minutes.
Warm good byes and thanks exchanged, Lucio and Francesca headed out towards their home in Montesperutoli and we began the TexMex round up of dishes, feeling full, happy, and satisfied in only the way that food and friends can offer.
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband or friends, or found by way of images.google.com. Photo credit is given when possible.