No Guts, No Glory!

Italy has changed me.  There was a time not so long ago when if I saw a piece of pork with a tinge of pink, I wouldn’t go near it.  And just ask my Dad how many Thanksgiving turkeys I denounced, when they arrived at the table, because I thought they were too juicy.  But now after almost four years of living here, I can happily munch a crostino con salsiccia e stracchino, basically sausage that is still pink after spending a brief time under the broiler.  What has happened to me? Did I undergo some intense therapy where I was forced to confront years of accumulated fears of trichinosis, salmonella, or E coli.  Nah, nothing so dramatic.  Instead, I have simply learned to enjoy local foods and to cook them in the traditional way they have always been prepared.  Mayonnaise with raw eggs?  Not a problem.  Carpaccio of beef?  Bring it on.

Then came Marinella’s announcement that our next recipe for our cooking lesson would be La Trippa.  Tripe.  I’ll admit, my old OCD self came roaring back urging me, “Easy tiger, let’s not go too native.”  When I mentioned to Marinella that it wasn’t a dish I was really comfortable with she replied, “Nonsense.  I am famous for my tripe, you will love it.”   Erm, ok.   In the end I agreed, but then hastened back to my house to find out a bit more about this trippa.

I’ll admit, I always thought that tripe involved the intestines of the cow, and in fact in some Spanish speaking countries, tripe does include the intestines.  But here in Italia, it’s just the stomach lining.  Whew!  For me the distinction was huge and I was able to get on board with what to many is a fabulous dish.  I made it first with Marinella and then again on my own to practice.

La Trippa di Marinella (Marinella made a huge batch, so for our purposes I cut it half… serves 4 people)

– 1 kilo of Tripe (around 2 pounds)  It will come already cleaned, but we cleaned it again with hot water and lemon.  When I did it on my own, I rinsed it two times.  You can buy the tripe already cut (which I did), or you can get the disgusting looking piece of stomach and cut it yourself into strips like Marinella did!

– 1 yellow onion

– 1 carrot

-1 celery stalk

-1 handful of parsley

-3 cloves of garlic

– small pieces of peperoncino (ATTENZIONE….  When I did the dish on my own I put way too much red pepper.  You can’t undo it once it’s in.  So I’d put one or two and then add more if it’s not spicy enough. )

– 5 whole cloves

– Medium can of peeled whole tomatoes that you have pureed.  (Marinella uses her food processor but I just did with a hand mixer.)

Chop the vegetables in a food processor  and then saute in heated olive oil.  Just eyeball the oil, should coat the bottom of your pot.  When the vegetables are softened…Marinella made me smell the aroma of when they were just right, but if you cook them until they are softened, you will be good to go.  Then add the cloves and the red pepper.

The next step is adding the tripe.  Slowly add to the vegetables and stir.  Add a generous amount of salt at this point and then you are a going to leave it partially covered on a low flame for almost two hours, basically until the water drains out of the tripe and then is reabsorbed.

After the two hours and the tripe has reabsorbed the water, you add the pureed tomato.  Then add enough hot water to cover.  Salt again.

You then let it cook slowly on a low flame for 4-5 hours.  You’ll know it’s done because you’ll see the oil rise to the top.

Now, I made of couple of mistakes, the first being the red pepper.  The second was that too compensate I added some more water so it took longer to cook it down.

So did I like it??  Marinella’s was obviously very tasty, but there is something about the consistency of the tripe that doesn’t work for me.  I like the sauce that it makes.  But I would not make it if I was cooking just for me.  That being said,  I did make it so that I could share the recipe with you guys.  Selfless, right?  And then I rounded up some friends to fare la cavia and try it.   I discovered that la trippa is not universally adored here either.  People either love it or leave it.

I brought my finished product to Marinella for a verdict, even though I knew it was too spicy.  “The perfume is perfect,” she told me.  “The taste is spot on…. except that it is troppo piccante!”  She told me to bring it to my guinea pig friends only if they loved spicy foods.  Granted one is a fire fighter so I thought he could probably handle it, but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to serve a dish that wasn’t just right.  My poor friend, Marco, wasn’t so lucky.  I gave him some last night before the verdict and he agreed to try it spice and all!  No word from him today and one assumes he is in the emergency room with a burned palate!
On the plus side, the baguettes that I made to serve with la trippa are just lovely!

Making Tripe with Marinella

the washed tripe, ready for cooking...

the washed tripe, ready for cooking…

cooking the vegetables, and adding the spice.

cooking the vegetables, and adding the spice.

Here's what it looks like after the first 2 hour cooking time

Here’s what it looks like after the first 2 hour cooking time

after adding the tomatoes and water, this is what it will look like at the end of the 4 or 5 hours.

after adding the tomatoes and water, this is what it will look like at the end of the 4 or 5 hours.

Here's what mine looked like at the end, you can see it was a little too soupy.

Here’s what mine looked like at the end, you can see it was a little too soupy.

Marinella's trippa...

Marinella’s trippa…

Fatto a mano…

Now that we are in March, spring feels close enough to taste!  A few warm days last week had me hightailing it to my spot in the parking area with Cinder.  I replenished my vitamin D with some sunshine on my face as I dutifully read my sommelier course homework, while Cinder paced around, sniffing all the new intriguing odors that had accumulated over the winter.  I wish I had her nose for my course.  The reward for wading through 100 page chapters each week on viticoltura and enologia is that we get to taste four wines at the end of class and are learning how to correctly describe them.  My nose definitely needs more training because while I can usually identify red fruit or sometimes a rose, I am not one of the star pupils who eagerly calls out “plums,” “liquorice,” “sour cherries”, or my personal favorite “a hint of violet.”  WTF?  Are these people messing with me?  Only after the instructor tells us what we should be smelling, can I sometimes catch a whiff.

The good news is that soon I will be back at work at Poliziano and able to show off all my fancy new wine knowledge to loads of unsuspecting tourists.  In the meantime, I am writing, teaching English, and learning some Tuscan recipes.  Those of you who have been following my adventures know that my neighbor Marinella has been like a mom to me here.  Not only does she take care of Cinder when I am working, she is quick to chastise me if I go out with my hair wet, but then will later stop by with some of her homemade pasta and ragù.  She happily recites recipes for me when I need one, but what I really wanted was to see her in action in the kitchen.  Because so many people have been writing to tell me how much they enjoyed At Least You’re in Tuscany and wanting to know when the next installment is coming, I decided that I really wanted the next chapter of my life here to be about my “becoming Italian.”  And a big part of that includes cooking the local foods.  Marinella, who seemed quite pleased with her part in the first book, has eagerly embraced her role as teacher.  We started with ribollita which is my favorite Tuscan bean soup and then this week we moved on to pasta.  We spent an afternoon making pici and tagliatellea mano.  By Hand.  Or as my colleague Fabio at Poliziano continues to say even after I’ve corrected him twenty times, “by hands.”  As he reasonably pointed out, it’s better if you use two!

I made this tagliatelle recipe with Marinella on the weekend, and then this morning I did it on my own so I could  “fare practica” as Marinella said.  To practice.

Marinella’s Tagliatelle:

4 eggs (basically 1 egg per person is the rule) so this feeds 4

Salt, a little bit of olive oil

Flour (she used 00 and I did too) (she does it by sight, but it’s roughly about a cup of flour for every egg)

Mix eggs, salt, and oil in a bowl.  Add flour.  (If you are fancy and want to do the flour well and put your eggs inside and mix that way, feel free.  Marinella said she doesn’t enjoy the stress of the eggs escaping the flour so she does it in the bowl.)

Basically continue to add flour until it comes together to form a ball.  She does it by sight and I did too. When it is together, knead on floured board until it is pliable and no longer sticky.  Let rest 5 minutes.

Roll out the dough thinly on a large lightly floured surface.  The pastry board they use to roll out the pasta is called a spianatoia  and the rolling pin a matterello.  The rolling pin is really really long and allows you to drape the dough over the pin, while you are rolling it out.  This part of the process takes a a bit of time to get the dough really thin.  The dough is quite elastic and so is easy to move around as you work.  After you get it very thin, you need to let it dry.  I yelled to Marinella out my window to come over and check on my work and she was quite pleased and said it was the perfect thickness.  I could tell she was proud because she even gave me a hug and a kiss, which she doesn’t often do.  Usually you leave the sheet of pasta to dry for about a half an hour, but because it’s really humid today, I left it an hour.  (Make sure while it’s drying that if you have an inquisitive aging weimaraner you keep it out of their reach.)

The last step is to fold it and cut it.  I folded it in on itself twice and then doubled it over.  There are many ways to do this and you can watch online if you want to see some variations.  Then you cut it.  When Marinella cut it she cut the strips rather wide because that’s how her husband likes them and I followed her lead.  But really the wider variation is called pappardelle, not tagliatelle.  Same yumminess, different width!

So after you cut your pasta and unfold each piece, you can put them in a bit of flour to keep them from sticking.  Best to eat the same day (with a tasty ragù) or make into nests and pop in the freezer.  If you leave it in the fridge, it will become a clumpy mess as I discovered with the pici.

Cook in Boiling water for about 6 minutes.  Doesn’t take long and if you cut them thinner they will take even less time. I called my friend Valerio to be my guinea pig and he obligingly took some home to try.  I await the verdict, but I had it for lunch and it was pretty darn good.  I froze the rest.

Buon appetito!

This is my homemade vanilla that I started in December... basically the recipe is vodka with vanilla beans.  I made A LOT because I cannot find vanilla here! I just used it for the first time and it's great.

Since we’re talking about fatto a mano, this is my homemade vanilla that I started in December… basically the recipe is vodka with vanilla beans. I made A LOT because I cannot find vanilla extract here! It needs a bit more time but I  just used it and it’s great.

Marinella rolling out the dough for tagliatelle

Marinella rolling out the dough for tagliatelle


It gets really big!

Cutting the pasta into strips...

Cutting the pasta into strips…



My attempt today on my own…

Preparing my "tools" -- My pastry board needed to be bleached first because of the mold in my kitchen.  The authentic Tuscan matterello was a gift from Marinella and is now one of my treasured possessions.

Preparing my “tools” — My pastry board needed to be cleaned with bleach due to a mold issue from where it had been stored in my kitchen. The authentic Tuscan matterello was a gift from Marinella and is now one of my treasured possessions.

So far so good...

So far so good…

Marinella taught me that if you wrap the dough around the pin and drag it toward you, it helps roll it out.  And is just looks cool!

Marinella taught me that if you wrap the dough around the pin and drag and press it toward you, it helps roll it out. And it also just looks cool!

Letting it dry after achieving desired thinness.

Letting it dry after achieving desired thinness.

My strips couldn't decide if they wanted to be tagliatelle or pappardelle.

My strips couldn’t decide if they wanted to be tagliatelle or pappardelle.

Looks good to me!!!

Looks good to me!!!

My friend Valerio who owns our local pet store agrees to give my pasta a try....No pressure!

My friend Valerio who owns our local pet store agrees to give my pasta a try….No pressure!

Tagliatelle with Marinella's ragù di capriolo and my friend Marco's wine.

Tagliatelle with Marinella’s ragù di capriolo and my friend Marco Barbi’s wine. Delish!!

A Study in Vino…

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….


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…

La Befana….

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…

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 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


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…

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…