A Spring in my Step….


Hello lovely friends!  Despite a few clouds overhead today, temperatures are decidedly Spring-like so I am feeling quite happy and frisky at the thought of the coming season.  I had an opportunity to go to Florence on Friday to meet my friend Michelle and there too, signs of Spring were everywhere, the most prevalent being Easter preparations.  Chocolate Eggs perched around every corner! Michelle, who lives in Calabria, is also one one of my editors and it was such a treat to actually meet her in person after corresponding through email and facebook for so long.  We had fun traversing the city with her two year old daughter and even managed to find a really tasty hamburger for lunch.

The winter in Montepulciano passed swiftly.  I was busy studying at the scuola guida, and then taking the written exam for the driver’s license, which I know sounds like no big deal, but oh it is! The amount of material to memorize is really unbelievable, especially when you think about how bad the drivers are here. How did they all get through??   In the end, I passed and happily without any errors.  I am now preparing for the driving bit.  Even though I have been driving for 30 years, the practical exam here is still worrying as you have to be ready to identify parts of the engine etc as well as parallel parking and stopping on hills.  And you can’t use the handbrake which is how I learned so many moons ago.  But even if it’s a challenge, when I finally have my license in hand I know I will have so much more freedom!  Then I just need to find a car that is cheap and cheerful!

Other than that, my winter has been filled with writing and teaching English.  As much as I enjoy getting back to work in the Spring, I do love my students and having the time to focus on my writing. Well Seasoned in Tuscany is chugging along and I hope to have it done in the next couple of months.

I also used my downtime this winter to start running… after a 15 year hiatus.  I found a program called from Couch to 5K and started out quite slowly running and walking and now am happily managing 5 kilometers three times a week. I had forgotten how much I enjoy running and doing it here in Tuscany with this gorgeous landscape is enough to get you out of bed even on the cold and rainy days.  I do have to walk some of the hills at times–I love Montepulciano but it is definitely a challenging terrain.  A huge thanks to my running gurus Elizabeth and Erin for answering all my stupid running questions and basically being my cheerleaders!

I have my first day of work on Tuesday at the winery and then a few sporadic days in April and full time in May.  I am so looking forward to seeing friends who come down every summer.

I hope everyone has a wonderful, renewing Spring!!

Sunrise on a morning run!

Sunrise on a morning run!



Pizza night at my friend Laura’s agriturismo.


Girls night out celebrating "La Festa della Donna"

Girls’ night out celebrating “La Festa della Donna”


I learned to make tortellini this winter. This was round 2

I learned to make tortellini this winter with Marisa and Ada. This was round two.


So pretty.... get in my belly!

So pretty…. get in my belly!


Michelle, Marisa and me at Santa Croce

Michelle, Marisa and me at Santa Croce in Florence.


Buona Pasqua!

Buona Pasqua!


Autumnal Energy


Hello friends!  It’s been forever since I have checked in.  Another season is winding down for me, but instead of being exhausted and ready to tuck my head in like a turtle as winter looms, I am feeling oddly energetic and productive.  This may be in part because I took off some much needed kilos this summer, but also because I have lots of projects that I want to accomplish this winter–one promise I made to myself is an hour of writing every day.  So I am planning that my updates here will be more frequent.  Ever the optimist!

Summer has flown by and now the Tuscan countryside is laden with brilliantly colored leaves on its grapevines. It’s the first season since I moved here that the landscape actually feels really like it has put on its autumn colors, bright reds, oranges, and yellows around every corner.  The air is crisp and the skies are sunny. I have been regularly roasting chestnuts and am about to make pumpkin soup so I am embracing the season wholeheartedly.   Now if I could just find some apple cider…

I have been lucky to spend the last couple of weekends with friends in Cortona and in Umbria.  I love my town, but I also love exploring so any time I head outside the walls, I feel like a dog with its head out the window ready to catch every scent on the road ahead.  It’s wonderful to have a network of both Italian and expat friends here.  I remember saying when I moved here that I didn’t care so much about meeting expats.  Well that was just nutty.  Friends who share a common language and common sensibility… and common stupid movie references are priceless.  I love going to dinners with my Italian friends and I love just being silly with my expat peeps.

So I am still studying for the driving exam.  Or I should say I have restarted studying.  It’s a bear of an exam and the practice quizzes, while addictive, are hard.  Every time I fail one, there is a sound effect that says WHOOPS!  I can’t wait to see what it says when I actually pass one.  It’s the little things that motivate me.  I will keep you posted.

I also hope to finish my follow-up book, Well Seasoned in Tuscany, in the next couple of months and want to begin work on another writing project which I will talk about more as it is fleshed out.

Thanks to all of you who have been with me on this journey here and a special hug to Lynn Arnone who was one of my early blog followers and supporters on At Least You’re in Tuscany and actually came to visit me at the winery this summer.

Lastly since today is a holiday in Italy to remember the souls who have passed on.. a special thought for my dear friend Marinella.  I miss you lots.

Happy Autumn… have a cider donut for me!

A chili weekend in Cortona at Sam & Starr's house complete with Sam's amazing texas chili and my infamous margaritas and tasty guacamole.

A “taste of home” weekend in Cortona at Sam & Starr’s house complete with Sam’s amazing Texas chili and my infamous margaritas and tasty guacamole.


Another fun expat weekend this time in Citta delle Pieve in Umbria. Friends Ruth and Stuart introduced me to Rugby. I am now a fan… at least of Daniel Carter!!

Bertie taking us for a walk around his town

Bertie taking us for a walk around his town

Now Bring Us Some Figgy Cookies! My Grandmother’s Buccellati/Cuccidati


I’ve been passionate about baking since I was four years old.  I had reason to think about my first baking experience the other day when I burned myself pulling a tray of sugar cookies from the oven.  My first batch of cookies and my first burn happened with my grandmother.  I had become bored of my Easy-bake oven and dreamed of grander things, and so my grandmother suggested we bake real cookies.  I don’t remember what type of cookies they were because the thrill of the moment was overshadowed by the pain of the dime-sized burn on my inner wrist that came as I helped pull the steaming hot cookies from the oven.  She immediately slathered the burn with butter, which didn’t seem to help much.  I had the faint reminder on my wrist for many years to come.

Over the years, I’ve perfected my cookie-making technique as well becoming pretty adept at baking bread, cakes, and pizza.  The smell of something baking in the oven is a simple pleasure but one that has come to mean so many things to me.  It’s the memory of childhood, a shared secret between my mom and my grandmother.   It’s a passion and a comfort, and during the holidays, it’s a way of giving back to my friends.  And each year it is usually accompanied, like this one, by a burn on one of my hands.  I don’t slather butter on it like my grandmother did, but the small reminder always makes me think of her.

This year, feeling a bit lonely and wanting to have something of my mom and grandmother with me, I determined to expand my repertoire of the eight or nine types of cookies that I make each holiday season, to include my grandmother’s fig cookies.

The process of making these fig cookies can be daunting, but this is what makes them special.  The cookies themselves, while tasty, are not pretty and sometimes even downright ugly.  But that’s okay, it’s tradition.  The origin of these cookies is Sicily where they are called Buccellati.  Each family has a special recipe for the filling, but it is essentially figs, nuts, and love!  The love part is really important because is you do these cookies in the way that my grandmother always did, it means shoving handfuls of honey-laden, sticky filling through a meat grinder.  Twice.  The last time I made the cookies with my mom we used the grinder attachment of her Kitchenaid mixer and it was much simpler.  And admittedly if my own beautiful Kitchenaid had made the trip with me, I probably would have done the same thing.  But not having a stand mixer or even a decent food processor, I decided to do things the old fashioned way.  So after finding out that a grinder/mincer is a tritacarne in Italian, I asked around to see who had one that I could borrow.  As it turns out, not too many people are still fond of screwing a grinder to the edge of their table and doing things manually.  I had lots of offers of electric ones, but I didn’t want that.  In the end my friend Janet unearthed one that had been her mother’s.

And so it began.  My grandmother’s recipe makes a heck of a lot of cookies, so the first thing I did was cut it in half (which made about 5 dozen).  Then I sought out figs from Sicily at the mercato. Even the lemon and oranges that I zested were from Sicilian trees.  I couldn’t get more authentic that that.  As I started doing the filling, I dashed off an email to my mom to check on a couple of things.  Like most of the Italians that I know here, my grandmother never really had a recipe with weights and measurements.  It was all eyeballed and just knowing.  One of my favorite expressions here is q.b.  Quanto basta.  This basically means until it’s enough or to taste.  For baking this can prove problematic, so my mom and I had meticulously written down amounts so that each year’s adventures in fig cookie making wouldn’t prove so difficult.  It took a try or two before we achieved the same consistency and flavor of my grandmother’s.  What we achieved quite easily, however, was the swearing that accompanied the grinder.  Yesterday, I made the filling on my own, remembering my grandmother sitting at our kitchen table while someone continually shoveled in more filling.  It was a bit harder on my own and I had more than a little drop on the floor, but in the end I succeeded.  I was tempted to tweak a few things in the recipe, but then decided that for this first time tradition was more important.  But if I make them again next year, perhaps a wee bit of marsala in the filling!

This morning I made the dough.  Buying the ingredients for these cookies earns you some looks at the Conad check out lane, especially the three packs of Strutto or lard that I shoved in my cart.  Thank goodness I hadn’t made the whole recipe.  I made a huge flour well and then began mixing everything by hand.  The rest of the morning was spent rolling and cutting pieces of dough and putting a thin rope of the filling in each.  We always called these turds for what they resembled.  We are nothing if not classy!

The test came in the sampling.  The dough was light and flaky and the fig filling to my mind pretty damn close to my grandmother’s.  When I was taking pictures of my handiwork I got a little choked up.  My kitchen smelled like my childhood.  I hope my mom and I will have an opportunity to make the fig cookies together again one Christmas.  As for my grandmother, I am sure she is smiling at my efforts.

Buon Natale!

Gathering the ingredients for the filling and hooking up the mincer.

Gathering the ingredients for the filling and hooking up the mincer.

Initial goopy filling

Initial goopy filling… Che FigO!!!

A child-like enjoyment of making a mess!

A child-like enjoyment of making a mess!

Dough ray mi...

Start with a kilo of flour, then try not to let your eggs escape

Forming the fig cookies...

Forming the fig cookies…

First batch ready for oven.

First batch ready for oven.

Erm, I told you they're not pretty!

Erm, I told you they’re not pretty!

ready for sampling...

ready for sampling…


September mornings…


Ciao Tutti,

I am having a quiet, contemplative morning and enjoying a bit of summer even if tomorrow is the first day of autumn. The gentle sunshine tells me that I have only another couple of weeks of being able to walk barefoot on the tiles of my apartment before they morph into ice blocks, and so today I have all the windows open as I savor every last sound and scent of summer. I am simmering a Thai curry thanks to my friend Ruth and Stuart who bring me lovely savory gifts every time they go to the UK,  and it even boasts a sweet potato because we can now find them at our mercato!!  Che piacere!!   I hope to park myself outside in the afternoon and do some work on the next installment of my adventures here.  We had very little summer this year in Tuscany with lots of rain and chilly temps and so I am grateful for a warm day. Fingers crossed for a good grape harvest after a challenging summer.  The season has flown by and I have been out of touch with everyone, my days filled with winery clients, pouring vino and very little time off. But now as the moms of my English students begin their annual request for lessons, I know the season is coming to an end. So more time to keep in touch.

It’s been a good couple of months. I got my sommelier certification after a year and half and three levels of course work. I am now hoping to do some traveling around Italy and begin sampling the wines of each region. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!🙂

I made it to the seaside finally for my birthday and spent a fun weekend with my expat friends Keith and Tania and their two pooches romping in the surf.  With my girl Cinder gone for over a year and a half now, the first whispers of “puppy” are starting to creep into my thoughts.

At Least You’re in Tuscany was published in Polish and I met a client at the winery who had bought it  and READ IT in Polish. That was pretty darn exciting!!  The next installment of my adventures should be finished in the next few months.  Ever the optimist!

The highlight of the summer was a visit by my friend Bonnie and her family. Do you remember the five kids I used to babysit during the first years I was here?? Well, they came back for the Bravio this year and it was so wonderful to see them. The kids struggled a bit with their Italian, which had faded, but by the end of the week much had come back.  We went to Contrada dinners almost every night and it was so comfortable and lovely to spend time with all of them. The kids are pushing to spend a month here next summer and I chimed right in with my approval of that plan!!

My challenge for the winter is the Italian driving test.  My studies have been haphazard at best since the homework isn’t nearly as fun as it was for the sommelier course!  Need to study more than the hour when I am getting my roots colored every few weeks.  I will probably sign up for the course after the season, but can I just say for the record, there are way too many road signs here!

Hope everyone enjoys the upcoming weeks and the delights of the autumn!!

Sommelier Presntation

Sommelier Presentation

1st sommelier Service

1st sommelier Service

Birthday weekend at the seaside in Castiglione della Pescaia

Birthday weekend at the seaside in Castiglione della Pescaia with Tania, Keith and the sweetest labs, Murphy and Stella

The Porters were back in town!!

The Porters were back in town!!

Natalie was a little rusty at twirling her pici!

Natalie was a little rusty at twirling her pici!

Bravio!!  The race didn't go our way this year, but victory will be ours next year!!  Forza Gracciano!!!

Bravio Day!! The race didn’t go our way this year, but victory will be ours next year!! Forza Gracciano!!!


At Least You're in Tuscany.... the Polish version!!

At Least You’re in Tuscany…. the Polish version!!


Enchanted April

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I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season.  This week marked my return to work at the winery and my first book event for At Least You’re in Tuscany.  The work won’t be full time until May, but with spring blooming all around me, I am happy to have the time outside where I can sit and write.  I am hard at work on the follow-up.  

Sharon and Walter Sanders from SimpleItaly (http://www.simpleitaly.com/tuscany-tour-harvest-celebration-with-simpleitaly) invited me to be a guest speaker for one of their tour groups in the heart of Tuscany.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was splendid… no that isn’t enough… it was splendiferous!   Sharon and Walter were warm and welcoming, and their love of the land here, local artisans, and culture were evident in all of the outings and events that they planned for their guests.  The estate is called Montestigliano and is owned by Luisa Donati’s family.  I spent a relaxing afternoon sipping wine, lunching, and talking about my experiences here in my new home.  The American group from the states was a delight and asked a lot of really thoughtful questions.  After the talk, I signed a few books and was treated to a stroll around the magnificent estate filled with blooming wisteria and views of rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eye can see. 

If I have other events for At Least You’re in Tuscany, Sharon and Walter have set the bar very high!!!


Talking about Tuscany!



Strolling around the grounds of Montestigliano


SimpleItaly’s group from South Carolina and Pennyslvania


Luisa Donati. This was her grandfather’s estate.


Fortress of Solitude…


Ciao Tutti!!!  I know I have been out of touch lately, but I have morphed into a turtle this winter.  Head tucked in, writing away and pretty much on my own.  Sometimes I will toss a photo up on Facebook, but even that has been sporadic.  I can’t blame the weather for my isolation since it is a balmy sixty degrees here in Tuscany and we have  gone below freezing only twice this winter.  It’s quite strange.  Lovely but strange.  Trees are budding and if we have a late freeze it’s not going to be good for the grape and olive productions.  Fingers crossed that our non-winter continues.  On the plus side my house is not an igloo this year and I have been taking advantage of the warm days with a lot of walks in the countryside.  Cinder would have adored this balmy weather;  I have keenly felt the loss of my beautiful girl over the last months.

Aside from working on the next installment of my adventures here (40 pages in and counting!), I am studying to get my driver’s license.  Probably in most places of the world this would be a doable undertaking.  However, here in my neck of the woods, the Italians have made the test so difficult that even they fail it two and three times.  It’s going to be a challenge, especially since I studied for three days and then lost interest.  I am determined to do a couple of hours today.  My goal for this year is to buy a car.  Hence the need for dedicated study before the season starts.  Fingers crossed.

I am about to start the third level of the sommelier course in March so I am looking forward to that.  It’s been a really wonderful way to widen my circle of friends here.  Wine lovers unite!   This past weekend was the anteprima di Vino Nobile where the new 2011 vintages of the vino nobile were presented.  I may be slightly biased but the Poliziano 2011 is fabulous.  I tried a lot of very good wines from other producers as well.  We had a great turnout with over 40 producers participating.  The event will end with a dinner tonight and then the journalists will come tomorrow and weigh in with their thoughts on this year’s offering.

One more month and I will be back at work with Fabio at the winery for another season of tours and tastings.  Until then I have my students for english lessons, which helps me get through the winter.   I am also back in the kitchen with Marinella learning her recipes.  I am planning to include some in the next book.  And by the way, if you haven’t checked in with my publisher Gemelli Press lately, you should click on the link here and see what they have been up to.  More Italian based books coming out this year and some hardcovers that are now available in paperback.  Thanks to everyone who has supported At Least You’re in Tuscany.  It now has over 100 great reviews on Amazon and I feel grateful for the love everyone has shown me and the book.

The other good news for this year is that friends are finally starting to say they are coming to visit.  I have two good friends planning trips and one of my aunts as well!  April marks five years that I am here in Italy, so it will be so nice to finally see some friends and family from the States.

Hope you are all well!!  xx

My new best friend... my book to study for the Italian driver's license

My new best friend… the book to study for the Italian driver’s license

an olive oil tasting at cookbook author, Pamela Johns' house.

an olive oil tasting at cookbook author, Pamela Johns’ house.  This is my friend Keith an olive oil sommelier who is instructing us on slurping oil!

Marinella teaching me her ragù recipe!

Marinella teaching me her ragù recipe!

My colleague Fabio at the anteprima di Vino Nobile

My colleague Fabio at the anteprima di Vino Nobile

I helped out a bit too!

I helped out a bit too!

My friend Marco Barbi launched his first Vino Nobile vintage this year!!

My friend Marco Barbi launched his first Vino Nobile vintage this year!!  BARBICAIA!!

The gorgeous San Biagio, halfway point of my walk this morning

The gorgeous San Biagio, halfway point of my walk this morning

Tuscany is beautiful no matter the season!

Tuscany is beautiful no matter the season!

A bountiful table…


Thanksgiving came to Montepulciano last night.  I know you guys in the states have to wait another couple of weeks, but maybe this will whet your appetite.  A few years back my friend Terry started the traditional of hosting an expat Thanksgiving to give us a taste of home and each year it has grown in size and fabulousness!  Terry and her husband Vince are here about 5 months of the year and leave mid November to get back to their family in the states.  The fact that Terry is up for doing a turkey day two times is pretty extraordinary.  So among the many many things I am thankful for this year, I am thankful for my friend Terry.

Temperatures are starting to dip and the grape vines are showing off their autumn colors, signaling that my work has finished for the season.  I will pop in for a few days this week to cover Fabio’s vacation and then I won’t see Poliziano again until spring.  It’s time to rest, recharge, write, learn about wine and above all, try to stay warm!

The first days of my new found freedom were spent picking olives with my friends Charles and Peter and preparing dishes for our Thanksgiving feast.  I love the new verdant, spicy olive oil which is now in abundance and is a staple in most of my usual dishes.  It is my favorite food group!  And I have to say I never quite realized how much my butter consumption has decreased while living here until I started pulling recipes for Thanksgiving.  Biscuits, crackers, pies, stuffing… everything wanted lots and lots of butter.  In fact, when I went to the supermarket and plunked four blocks of butter into my cart, in that moment I definitely felt the difference in our culinary cultures.  The comforting perfume of butter has permeated my house for the last few days, filling it with wonderful memories of Thanksgivings past spent cooking with my mom. I want to spread some of my thankfulness love her way too because she is the one who taught me to bake and passed her passion on to me. You’d be hard-pressed to find one of our skype conversations that doesn’t include talk of menu planning or recipes.

Contributions last year taught me that making homemade pumpkin puree was not only easy, but delicious.  This year I made a pumpkin soup for the starter instead of a dessert.  Terry did the pumpkin pie!  Preparing for Thanksgiving in Italy always has its challenges and finding corn syrup was one of my toughies.  In the end Charles produced a golden syrup from the UK which was a great substitution for my Bourbon Chocolate Walnut pie.  He also unearthed some calvados for my soup.  Terry also baked an apple pie and I made some little cheese cakes with a cranberry topping.  Yes, real cranberries that my friend Janice schlepped from Canada for me!!!  Terry snipped fresh sage and thyme from her garden so I could make my grandmother’s stuffing recipe and my kitchen is beautifully scented with thyme from the herb bouquet on my table!  It was a real team effort making the dinner come together.  Terry found sweet potatoes in Florence and her friend Alessandro procured two gorgeous turkeys.  Yes, two.  Terry cooks two turkeys so that everyone can take home leftovers.  She is AWESOME.  And let’s face it who doesn’t love a good turkey sandwich the day after?  The best part after cooking and preparing for two or three days ahead of time is looking forward to a day of munching on leftovers.

In a true blending of American and Italian style, our dinner went about five hours long with everyone drinking wine at the table and conversation flowing long after the dishes had been cleared.  Terry’s husband Vince produced bottle after bottle of wonderful Vino Nobile and Brunello and made sure no one’s glass was ever empty.

We had some new expat friends, Ron and Lisa, join us this year.  They, (and their adorable son Primo) are spending the year in Montepulciano.  Primo actually dressed for dinner, insisting on wearing a bow tie.  If this is Italy’s influence, I am loving it!  Lisa is a great cook and her zucchini sformato that she whipped up as an appetizer was delicious.  Charles and Peter, although being Brits, were a fun addition to our party and they seemed quite impressed with what kind of meal the “colonies” were able to produce!

The evening was filled with feasting, love and laughter and as I drifted off to sleep last night I remembered to say thanks for my friends, family and of course, TURKEY!

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Olive harvesting at Pietramonti

Olive harvesting at Pietramonti

The trees are laden this year... four trees yielded over 100 kios of olives!

The trees are laden this year… four trees yielded over 100 kios of olives!

Thanksgiving Preparations…

Step 1 roast pumpkin

Step 1 procure pumpkin

Step 2 roast pumpkin

Step 2 roast pumpkin

Voila... Pumpkin puree

Voila… Pumpkin puree

Roasted pumpkin soup with apple and calvados

Roasted pumpkin soup with apple and calvados

I got ridiculously excited about fresh cranberries!!!

I got ridiculously excited about fresh cranberries!!!

Preparing Nonna’s sausage stuffing. You gotta get your hands in there to smush properly (note the melted butter adjacent… YUM!!!)

Gorgeous herbs from Terry's garden

Gorgeous herbs from Terry’s garden

Gruyere & thyme crackers for the bread basket

Gruyere & thyme crackers for the bread basket

And don't forget the biscuits...

And don’t forget the biscuits…

Chocolate Bourbon Walnut pie (it was supposed to be pecan but you can't have everything!)

Chocolate Bourbon Walnut pie (it was supposed to be pecan but you can’t have everything!)

On to Terry’s house!

Stuffed Turkey in progress....

Stuffed Turkey in progress….

Terry's autumnal table is ready

Terry’s autumnal table is ready

Turkey number 2 a/k/a leftovers baby!

Turkey number 2 a/k/a leftovers baby!

First course is served and the pumpkin soup seemed to be a hit (phew!)

First course is served and the pumpkin soup seemed to be a hit (phew!)

Ron does a an expert job carving the turkey!

Ron does a an expert job carving the turkey!

Italian friends should avert their eyes from the laden plates, but this is how we roll in the US. :)

Italian friends should avert their eyes from the laden plates, but this is how we roll in the US!!

My amazing friend Terry also prepared a birthday cake for Charles!

My amazing friend Terry also prepared a birthday cake for Charles!

The carnage...

The carnage…

Terry's method of carving up the leftover turkey wasn't quite as surgical as Ron's...

Terry’s method of carving up the leftover turkey wasn’t quite as surgical as Ron’s…

I love Janet's expression when I announce the desserts are ready in the kitchen!!

I love Janet’s expression when I announce the desserts are ready in the kitchen!!

Not sure we have enough... don't forget the vanilla gelato!

Not sure we have enough… don’t forget the vanilla gelato!

la dolce vita!

la dolce vita!