A Study in Vino…

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This morning, as a weak sunshine melts away the remaining bits of snow from yesterday’s brief snowfall, I find my spirits much improved.  And it’s about time!  The past month has been fairly miserable.  First the flu, then a hacking cough that still stubbornly refuses to leave completely.  My Italian friends are, of course, quite worried because if there is one thing they do well here, it’s illness.  I have been given advice on every home remedy concoction you can think of to help my cold.  The standard, and my personal favorite, is hot water, lemon juice and honey.  This morning as I went to buy more lemons, my fruit lady, Franca, pulled out some eucalyptus honey, saying it would do the trick.  I obligingly added it to the pile of blood oranges for juicing my spremuta.  We shared a conspiratorial laugh when I told her I liked to add a healthy shot of vin santo to my lemon, honey cure!  That’s just good sense.

Some of you know of my passion for wine and that my day job during the season is slinging said vino at the winery, Poliziano.  I have been wanting to do the Sommelier course for a while now.  First so I will be more knowledgeable on my tours of the cantina,  and also so that when I have to do tastings with professionals, which sometimes happens, that I don’t go into meltdown panic.  But really, any class where a major course component is drinking wine…well, you had me at vino!

Finally this winter FISAR is offering the course here in town.  Last week they gave the presentation and over forty people showed up which was way more than they anticipated apparently since they had only six applications.  Last night was our first lesson.  The Consortium of Vino Nobile in Piazza Grande has offered the space for our lessons but due to some scheduling snafu, someone forgot to turn on the heat.  Picture a centuries old, stone palazzo with a room that has been left unheated all winter.  We eagerly handed over our euros for the opportunity to sit huddled in our down jackets trying to concentrate on the overview being presented.  I chose a spot near the back, looking like a consumptive as I coughed delicately into my tissues.  Since I am still congested, I was quite fortunate that the only tasting we did last night was a toast with some prosecco at the end of class.  “The temperature of the room is perfect for spumante,” our teacher joked.  By that point, no one was laughing and we couldn’t feel our feet.

We all received course books and fancy bags with our tasting glasses, corkscrews, and other gear that will make us look professional as we embark on this adventure.  One of my colleagues at Poliziano is also doing the course and when they showed us the proper way to hold and open the bottle without moving it, we looked at each other and laughed.  Our methods to date have been much more haphazard!

But for me, the best part of last night was that I actually understood everything that the energetic instructor was saying.  I was so pleased I wanted to stand up and announce it to everyone.  The Americana understands!  Finally, after almost four years of living here, my comprehension is at a level that I can take a class in Italian.  Of course, there is also the little matter of the exam at the end but I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it….

Salute!

The presentation of the Sommelier course.

The presentation of the F.I.S.A.R. Sommelier course.

Janet, forgetting that we are in Italy, insisted that we get to class 20 minutes early...

Janet, forgetting that we are in Italy, insisted that we get to class 20 minutes early…

They might make a professional out of me yet...

They might make a professional out of me yet…

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La Befana….

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Happy New Year!  Tanti Auguri.   I didn’t quite get my act together to post anything for the New Year, but since today is the last day of the holiday season in Italy, I think technically it still counts.  La Befana visited last night.  Well, not my house, but I have it on good authority that she was spotted on her broomstick.  The Italian tradition of the Befana is linked to the Epiphany and while there are various legends about her, the one I like best is that the Three Wise Men stopped at her house to ask for directions on their way to find the baby Jesus.  She was an exceptional housekeeper apparently.  There are other slightly darker variations on this theme but I like this one because it’s evidence that men did at one time stop for directions!  Anyway, La Befana visits the children on the eve of the Epiphany and leaves either coal or some little treat.  After this final day of celebrating, Christmas decorations will come down, grocery carts will be laden with healthy veggies as people cheerfully grumble that they are starting their dieta, and everyone will attempt to get back into work mode.

I got back into the swing of things this week.  Not at Poliziano– I won’t be back there until April (although I did work one day  New Year’s Eve weekend because Fabio had some bookings).  Instead, I have some new students coming on board, which is a help during these lean winter months.  So teaching English and my own writing are now occupying most of my time– a bit of a harsh transition after a December of watching holiday films nonstop, but it feels good to have the synapses firing again.  As much as I love the holidays, I also love the austerity of January where you can visit someone without having to weakly protest as they pull out all types of chocolates and treats to tempt you with a glass of wine or afternoon tea.

Today is sunny and crisp, so I am going to head out with the old girl and get a bit of a walk in.  Cinder, who has been sleeping nonstop, for some reason has become sprightly in these last few days, and this morning actually trotted down the street.  It’s like she knows its January and time to get the holiday kilos off.  Can’t argue with that!

Wishing everyone a wonderful 2013!!!

New Year's Eve at Charles and Peter's  house

New Year’s Eve at Charles and Peter’s house – Charles’s new oven was put through its paces with our huge turkey!

My gorgeous lemon meringue pie went into meltdown and by dessert I served a fluffly yellow soup that seemed very "Bridget Jones"

My gorgeous lemon meringue pie went into meltdown and by dessert I served a fluffy yellow soup that seemed very “Bridget Jones”

Italian friend, Vanda got into the spirit of the Christmas crackers and even wore her crown.  When we attempted these at Anna's house for Christmas Eve dinner one was set on fire by a candle!

Italian friend, Vanda, got into the spirit of the Christmas crackers and even wore her crown. When we attempted these at Anna’s house for Christmas Eve dinner one was set on fire by a candle!  It may be a while before this tradition takes hold here…

‘Tis the Season…

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Despite a few snowflakes in the air and beautiful Christmas window displays in town, I was a little late getting into the holiday spirit this year.  But once I secured my little potted Christmas tree from a local nursery and adorned it with my memories of Christmases past, I began to feel festive.  Add to that a huge dose of sappy holiday movies and I have even been caught humming a few carols around town.  I have started the holiday baking, eight loaves of banana bread yesterday and a bunch of sugar cookies, but am now at a standstill because I am out of vanilla.  Friends Gill and Adrian brought me a supply during the summer, but I used the last drops yesterday.  Finding vanilla extract here is kind of like searching for Brigadoon–it rises out of the mists of the supermarket very very infrequently.  I am undertaking to make my own from a recipe that I have sussed out online, and it seems an easy enough project…but it takes about two months for the vanilla beans to work their magic.  Will keep you posted on that.  In the meantime, I need a quick solution…

Last Sunday Janet and I (but really mostly Janet) hosted a small holiday drinks party.  Janet was searching for a way to keep busy after Ken’s death and we both liked the idea of getting together with good friends to toast the holidays.  Drinks parties aren’t really done here so we weren’t sure if our Italian invitees would come, but come they did.  (Only a few of them were able to open my ecard invite, stymied by the english instructions to “click on the envelope” to read it.  Janet followed up with phone calls once we realized the problem.)

We had about 20 guests, a nice mix of expats and Italians and everyone seemed to enjoy the food and the company.  We made mostly finger foods that were more American and Australian than Italian and hoped that our Italian friends would try everything.  They did and raved about all of the bite-sized quiches, meatballs, crab cakes and sausage rolls.  I took a chance on making eggnog, which was a virtual unknown here, and that too was a big hit.  Spiked with a Scottish whiskey it was thick and creamy with a nice dash of nutmeg.  The only disconcerting thing was that the Italian egg yolks are so orange that you could see little specks in the drink.  I stirred it vigorously and jealously guarded the list of ingredients until everyone had tried it and liked it!

This week will bring more baking and then next week is Christmas.  I am spending my Christmas Eve with Anna’s family again at Polizano.  She has asked me to bring the onion dip that I made for the party.  It’s an Ina Garten recipe and is kind of reminiscent of the Lipton onion soup dip we used to roll out for Superbowl parties, but oh so much better!  Christmas Day will again be spent with Marinella’s family and I am already mentally preparing for the three hour feeding frenzy.  It’s an amazing lunch with tons of courses, all  wonderful.  Really looking forward to that!  Christmas evening will be spent with Cinder Winifred who is still hanging in there, although sleeping most of the day.  She did rouse herself for sugar cookie dough scraps the other day and cheerfully performed clean up duty.

I hope everyone has a safe and healthy holiday and that you are spending time with your loved ones.

Buon Natale!!! and Merry Christmas!!!!

My little Christmas tree...

My little Christmas tree…

My very first Italian Christmas tree from four years ago...it spends the off season in Marinella's garden

My very first Italian Christmas tree from four years ago…it spends the off season in Marinella’s garden

Sugar cookies for everyone...

Sugar cookies for everyone…

I was pretty proud of my crudité creation...

I was pretty proud of my crudité creation…

Desserts included Janet's famous mince pies

Desserts included Janet’s famous mince pies

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Hostess Janet with Anna who was a fan of the eggnog!

Andrea bravely sampling a crab cake... Si, polpa di granchio!

Andrea bravely sampling a crab cake… Si, polpa di granchio!

La Raccolta…

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With the rain pouring down for two days now and the beautiful Tuscan landscape obscured by a thick gray fog, it’s a relief to know that most people have gotten in this year’s olive harvest.  A few posts back, I was lamenting the fact that my friends, who usually call upon me to harvest their olives, hadn’t pressed me into service this year because there were so few olives on the trees.  Instead, I’d cheerfully helped my friend Tania with her olive oil bottling and had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to *GASP* pay for olive oil this year, when along came Charles and Peter.  I had been hearing about Charles and Peter for three years from Janet and Ken.  They are British expats who have been building a house in the Val d’Orcia and although I felt like I knew them from Janet’s recounting of their house building saga, our paths had never crossed.  Then Ken died.  I met them at the memorial service and it was Peter who drove us down to Viterbo to do the cremation. I will write separately some day about the craziness of that experience including a high-speed chase of the hearse and Peter being measured for Ken’s coffin, but by the end of that very surreal day, Peter and I were fast friends!

So when Peter and Charles called and said they needed help with their almost 240 olive trees, I was elated!  OLIVE OIL!

I spent this past weekend helping “the boys” as Janet calls them.  Their trees too had very little bounty, but we undertook to do those that had something to offer.  Normally the harvesting would have begun a month ago and the new oil would be really spicy.  Unfortunately with a house under construction and a bazillion details to follow-up on, the guys just hadn’t had time to get it going.  Traditionally, the olives in this area were harvested around this time and into December.  It’s a recent trend of beginning the harvest earlier and it makes the oil a little more piccante!

Saturday was sunny and gorgeous and the guys and I, and their two basset hounds, Harold and Maude, headed out to their soon-to- be-ready new home.  With any luck they will be in the house in another week or two, but it’s been a very slow process.  The house is gorgeous and I was treated to a tour before we got down to work.  They even have an outdoor pizza oven so most of the day of harvesting was spent talking about recipes and how many things we could thing of to cook in their oven!

The property which boasts even a small vineyard may one day serve as a B&B and the setting couldn’t be more magical.  The views of the valley are extraordinary.  And I also learned that the property was at one time part of the estate of La Foce, which was home to Iris Origo and her Italian landowner husband.  Iris Origo’s book War in Val d’Orcia is her first-hand account of life in this valley during WWII.  It’s a beautifully moving diary detailing the everyday struggles of the people during the war.   Peter even showed me the caves that they’d unearthed where allied prisoners of war had taken refuge during the German occupation.

As for the olive harvesting, we were all old hands at it.  Netting the bigger trees, chatting as we worked and gathering kilo upon kilo of purple, green and multicolored olives.  Peter actually knows the varieties since he had to get certified as a farmer when they were buying the property!  It was a great day.  One tree even offered up over 40 kilos of olives.  The second day brought a couple of other volunteers– Robert, one of Janet’s Australian friends who was visiting and thought harvesting might be more fun than shopping with Janet and his wife, and Wanda, a local teacher and longtime friend of Janet who really went above and beyond when Ken was sick.

Day two was a bit cloudier and at one point the fog started to roll in, but it was still an enjoyable experience.  Because we had done most of the trees requiring nets, we gathered the remaining olives into baskets.  Robert sported one of the traditional Tuscan hand-made harvesting baskets around his waist and I had a fanny pack that I loaded up and which required doing a woman-giving-birth-in-a-field type squat to empty it!  (And please note when harvesting with Brits and wearing a fanny pack — fanny has an entirely different meaning in the UK, not your backside but your lady parts!  Charles and Peter were constantly chuckling when I talked about the fanny!)

We finished up on day two with about half of the yield of last year, but with the hope that the coming year will once again bring laden trees.  And the 300 kilos that we did manage should net me a little oil to get me through the winter!  Thanks, boys!

Charles and Peter’s house…almost ready!

The back of the house…

wood burning pizza oven

Peter laying out impossibly big nets under the “giving tree” which provided over 40 kilos of olives

Charles eating one of my special olive harvesting brownies during our lunch break

Robert, an olive harvesting natural, climbs up a tree to get every last olive!

Stop fannying about!!

Beautiful late harvest olives…

Impressions…

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My friend Kenneth Hobbs died today.  He suffered a massive heart attack two weeks ago and never made it back to us.   You’ve heard me talk about his work.  One of his paintings is even on this site.  But I haven’t talked much about who Ken was outside of his paintings.  He and his wife, Janet have become my Montepulciano family.  Sunday lunches with them, glasses of red wine and long conversations form some of my favorite memories of my time here.  Ken and Janet moved here over 25 years ago, expat newlyweds on an adventure that never stopped.  They shared a love of travel and art and music.  Just three weeks ago I was toasting him bon voyage on his trip to France to visit the house of Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence.  Monet and Cézanne were two of his favorite painters and inspirations for Ken’s beautiful paintings.

At 86 Ken still painted daily, producing a legacy of work that covers most of walls of Janet and Ken’s home and also those of one of our local restaurants.  Ken whistled while he painted in his attic studio and when I would sit outside in the afternoons with Cinder, it always filled me with a sense of peace to hear his melodic whistle echoing down the street.  From a naval officer in World War II, to a creative director on Madison Avenue (one of the original Mad Men, he liked to say), Ken was a story teller.  He told them in words, in photos, in fiction and in his paintings.  He was a collector of toy soldiers, a lover of classical music and a great reader.  He made a delicious ragù and although he never spoke much Italian in public, usually relying on Janet’s language skills, he loved Italy and he loved Montepulciano.  British by birth, he still had his cup of tea every afternoon, but in the mornings he took a cappuccino and brioche at the local bar.  He was a the epitome of a gentleman, but also had a wicked and bawdy sense of humor.

In addition to sharing a bond as Leos and a love of carrot cake, we also shared a passion for the local dessert wine, Vin Santo.  We made it our mission at Sunday lunches to try most of the Vin Santo produced here and considered ourselves relative experts on the subject.  I never tired of listening to his stories, especially those about meeting Janet who he often proclaimed was the love of his life.  There will be a small memorial for Ken on Tuesday, but the real memorial will be in the summer.  In August, when Leos thrive, we will celebrate Ken’s life with a walk in the nearby Tuscan countryside that so inspired his work.  We will sprinkle his ashes, drink some wine, eat some carrot cake, and remember.    Addio, amico mio.

Janet and Ken…

Some of Ken’s work…

L’olio nuovo arriva…

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For the past couple of years I have helped friends get their olive harvests in.  It’s one of my favorite times of the year!  And those of you who have been following along with my story know that saying I am appassionata about the olive oil in Tuscany is an understatement.

It’s WONDERFUL!!!  And it’s doubly wonderful when it’s first harvested.  The spicy, fruity, verdant oil tastes and looks phenomenal.  My harvesting efforts have always netted me a few bottles of this precious oil and I just sleep better knowing it’s waiting for me in its place of honor in my kitchen.

So imagine my panic when first my friend Adrian, followed by another friend Franca, told me that they weren’t harvesting this year.  Come mai?  Well unfortunately, we had a huge snowfall in the winter that caused damage to a lot of trees and this was followed by a immensely hot summer.  The result…very few olives.  Adrian shook his head sadly when I announced that I was ready to pitch in for the annual raccolta.  “The trees have hardly anything on them, it’s not worth doing this year.”  NOOOOOO!!!

And then along came Tania!  Tania is a friend who I met while working at Poliziano.  She loves our wine and so brings lots of tourists to us during the season.  She and her husband began a small olive oil production a few years ago in nearby Monte San Savino and it has grown.  They get their olives from their farmer neighbor, Raul, who has a bazillion trees and then they press at a local olive mill.  Most of their business is in the States and what started as a few friends requesting oil has evolved into a pretty impressive operation.  Knowing that my work had ended for the season at Poliziano, Tania asked me if I’d like to help out with the all important bottling and labeling of the olio nuovo to send to the US.  This required only about two seconds thought on my part.

Yesterday, we went to their local frantoio, olive mill, to start the work of bottling every size and shape imaginable from baby 100 ml bottles to 3 litre cans.  I hadn’t been inside an olive mill before since I was sick last year when Adrian invited me to go along for the pressing.   It was very modern and state of the art.  I wasn’t sure what the bottling work would require and since I am known to have a bit of a Lucy Ricardo tendency to get myself into mischief, it did cause me a little anxiety when I thought of being a part of an bottling assembly line.  (Think chocolates being shoved into mouth!)  As it turned out, it was a very relaxed genial atmosphere and most of my work was on the tiny bottles in a small room that was perfumed with the tantalizing smell of olive oil.  The mammoth bottling machine, which kept stalling and had at all times four or five Italians conferring and or arguing with each other, was left to those in the know.  Tania assured me that the conferring and arguing happened every year and was a vital part of keeping the handcrafted machine running!

It was a long day of filling bottles with bright green oil, adding lids, closing them with a pincer thingy, and then labeling.  As I write I have blisters on both palms because closing and pincering the bottles was my job.  You don’t really appreciate all the steps that go into making that final pretty bottle of oil until you spend a whole day doing it!!!  As we finished bottles, Tania’s husband, Keith filled a pallet with box upon box of oil in preparation for its flight to the States.  I can highly recommend this fabulous local oil if anyone is in need of some.   Tania and Keith’s website is:   http://www.lartedellolivo.com/

At the end of the day I arrived home tired but with some delicious NEW OIL!!  Those baguettes that I made on the weekend will be perfect for the oil’s debut on some bruschetta!

My friend Tania takes me for a tour around Frantoio Paggetti

Arriving olives start their journey…

Fancy machines do the actual work of crushing the olives…

And then the oil…need I say more?

This is Raul, the man behind the oil. His trees produce the olives!

Adding the labels…

Hard at work…

Thanksgiving…Italian Style

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This morning as rain pours outside and wind batters my kitchen window, I am sipping espresso and recovering from a night of feasting and tryptophan-induced lethargy.  While the actual Turkey Day might be a couple weeks away, for me it was yesterday.  My friend Terry and her husband Vince proposed hosting a early Thanksgiving for those of us expats who haven’t experienced one in a few years.  Terry is heading  back to the States next week so we took the opportunity to celebrate this weekend.  It was an intimate party of seven people but with enough food for a small army.  Our Australian friend Janet was able to join us but her husband Ken is in intensive care in Siena after suffering a heart attack and fluid in his lungs earlier in the week.  He is 86 and we are quite worried about him, but he is slowly showing signs of recovering.  That positive news gave us an additional thing to be thankful for this year!   Terry and I resolved to give Janet one night away from the worry and stress of traveling back and forth to the hospital.

Planning a Thanksgiving feast in Italy is not without challenges.  There are no cranberries or sweet potatoes to be found in our small village.  But thanks to some of Terry’s recent house guests, both items were tucked into suitcases and brought to us (Thanks, Bonnie!!!).  The next issue was the turkey.  It’s not a dietary staple in this neck of the woods, so you don’t find them in the supermarket with regularity and if you want one you must order it in from the butcher.  The first time Terry tried to order a turkey in Italy, she said that when she went to the butcher to pick it up, she was presented with a 28 pound behemoth of a bird that looked as if it were 15 years old.  She was pretty sure some family pet had just been killed so the American lady could have her turkey dinner!

This year Terry employed the help of her enterprising friend Alessandro who procured two beautiful turkeys.  There was some tail feather cleaning to do as the Italian birds do not come pristine ala Butterball.  They were in fact much more reminiscent of the turkeys my family raised each year when I was young– one look at an errant tail feather brings me immediately back to the smell of hot water soaked birds that we rapidly plucked for our annual feast.

While Terry took on the preparation of the sides and the birds, I took on the stuffing and the desserts.  I grew up in a family where there were always many pies, so I of course prepared three desserts.  Since for some incomprehensible reason not everyone likes pumpkin pie, I decided to do a pumpkin cheesecake and then an apple pie and a maple walnut (no pecans here).

So where do you get the pumpkin?  There is no Libby’s solid pack pumpkin, so  if I wanted pumpkin, I was going au naturel.  If our forefathers in Plymouth could construct a feast out of what they’d harvested, surely I could cook up a little pumpkin.   My first order of business was trying to figure out how to differentiate between pumpkin (zucca) and squash (zucca) when I explained what I wanted!  In the end, I went to our town’s fruit lady, Franca, armed with a photo of pumpkins and she immediately pointed out what I needed.  The cooking pumpkin was greenish, squat and really large!  I told her how much of the pulp I was looking to have at the end, and she got out her big knife and carved up half of it for me.  Once home, I baked it in the oven until the flesh scraped easily out of the skin and then with the help of my hand mixer, I had pumpkin puree!  It was actually very satisfying to do and tasted great.  It was almost a shame to hide it away in a cheesecake.  I will spare you the homemade gingersnaps that I had to make for the crust and the caramel sauce which required two attempts!

We sipped fabulous champagne while we basted and fixed our final preparations last night, and then oohed and aahed as the beautiful turkey came out of the oven.  As Vince carved the Turkey we marveled at the amount of breast meat on the Italian turkeys, finding that much like the beautiful women here with small waists and big bosoms, our Turkey was very well endowed.

We then took a page out of the Italians’ book and didn’t finish our feast in twenty minutes but sat at the table, talking and drinking a delicious Brunello, content not only with the food but to spend time with our friends.  Janet who had never experienced a Thanksgiving before, got right into the action and loaded her plate with a little of everything more than once.  Our Italian friends who eat everything separately would have been appalled at the amount of foods touching each other, but for us it was a delightful remembrance of home and holidays spent with our families.  I knew the night was a success when after the desserts Terry declared, “I’m stuffed, I feel sick!”  I smiled happily, we had managed to have a little bit of our old home in our new home!  It was wonderful amalgamation of traditions and cultures.

I have much to be thankful for this year.  Not only my friends and family but also the realization of my dream of becoming a published author.  I hope you all have wonderful holidays this year and that you are safe and surrounded by your families!

As for Cinder and me today?  Why turkey sandwiches of course!!!

Roasting my first Italian pumpkin…

Libby’s who?

Terry’s beautifully appointed table…

Il tachino

Terry preparing her gravy

Janet’s first Thanksgiving

Feasting with friends…

Just a little something I whipped up in my spare time!

The aftermath… cleanup and leftover distribution!