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!

The Sights and Scents of Autumn

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Today is my first full weekend at home in about three weeks. The harvest has finished at Poliziano and the 2012 vintage is now in the fermentation cellar and perfuming the air with yeasty deliciousness. The season is finishing up and as tired as I am after 11 hour days for 7 months straight, after the 3rd of November, my wine-slinging, tour-giving self will be surely be lamenting having too much time on my hands. In other words, Oh Crap Here Comes the Winter. I am a bit in denial, not yet having forked over the money for this year’s heating oil. Cinder is already burrowing under her flannel blanket at night, so I have maybe another week or two before I must give in and do it.

But today is gorgeous. Sunny skies and 70 degrees. Janet and I met up early this morning (okay 11:00 but that’s early for Janet who doesn’t have a Weimaraner who insists on 5:00 am) and we struck off to explore what was billed as a food market. In the end, it was much like the normal market that we see every Thursday. Don’t get me wrong it’s good stuff, scarves, jewelery, shoes, handbags, and tons of local cheese. But I had hoped for one or two stands with some nifty products from other parts of Italy that we don’t get here. Last year, there was a guy with dried cranberries and apricots, two things which are almost never found here. I bought a new tablecloth and the realized when I got it home that it is almost identical to the one I have!

I also trekked up into town to see my friends and had a good catch up chat with Antonella and Caterina.

The book!  First of all I want to say thank you to everyone who has been emailing me and messaging me and generally being supportive and lovely about the book.  I appreciate all of the wonderful reviews and I am so happy for the positive reaction and that so many of you have related to the story.  Yesterday, we got the final back cover proof and the book is on its way to the printer. For those of you who are waiting for the printed version, it should be for sale on Amazon within the week.   Just in time for Christmas!!!

I will post the direct link here again for convenience. 🙂

At Least You’re in Tuscany

My friend Terry hosted a lovely luncheon to celebrate my book’s debut. You are only seeing the picture of her house because too much champagne was drunk and I forgot to take pictures! Managgia!!!

Hand selection of the “Asinone” grapes at Poliziano.

Next step… the individual grapes are controlled by hand! It’s not rated one of the top ten wines in Italy for nothing, folks!

Autumn produce at the mercato…

Antonella set up a beautiful display of local pastas and jams outside her grocery store

Dreams really do come true…

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Yesterday was an amazing day for me.  Well, also into the night as I was like a kid on Christmas morning and couldn’t sleep.  To the point where my editor, Kari who was getting lots of excited emails from me finally told me to go to bed!   The day started with the publication of my memoir At Least You’re in Tuscany, followed by the wonderful follow-up of emails from tons of friends and family.  So many of you have been on this journey with me, so it feels really great to be able to share it with you.  Also, I have to admit that I was wrong about Facebook.  While I was in the kicking and screaming camp of not wanting to do a page, I have been connecting with so many wonderful people that I finally had the aha! moment.  For someone like me who is terrible about keeping in touch, it really is a fabulous medium!

Thanks to all of you who have sent me notes saying you are already reading and enjoying the book.  And thanks to my sensational publishers at Gemelli Press, Kari and Michelle, who have been coaching me and guiding me in this process.

So here’s the link if you want to take a closer look.  And if you do read it, please let me know if you like it.  When the hardcover is out in a few weeks, I’ll put that up as well.  I know some of you are like me and just need the scent and feel of a real book!  I may have done facebook, but I still need to feel pages under my fingertips.  Baby Steps!!!  Happy Reading!

At Least You’re in Tuscany

A Cover is Born…

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Okay, don’t fall off your chair that I am actually writing another entry in less than a month, but big news calls for a little extra fanfare.  Dum da da dum…….. We finally have a cover for the book!!! 

For those of you who were expecting to see Ken’s painting… the sad news is that we will only be using that for some of the book’s publicity including the “prologue button” on this site which will allow you an advance read of the prologue.

But as you can see below, the happy news is that the final cover is beautiful.  Special thanks to Anahi Felch who designed it.  I don’t know about you but poppies in general make me want to dance around singing “I feel Pretty…”  My fabulous editors at Gemelli Press have already been showing it off, so I wanted to get in on the action.  We are just a week or two away from the debut of my memoir, At Least You’re In Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life, and I will be surely be posting more often in the coming weeks.  Thanks to everyone who has been asking when it will be available, I really appreciate the support!!!