Tuesday, August 31, 2010

And even more cooking!

I remembered to close my shutters last night so I was able to sleep in this morning – it was some of the best sleep ever! I went down to breakfast around 9:30 and about half of the others were already down on the terrace. This morning was a little bit warmer, but I definitely still needed a sweater. We sat around talking for a while, but I had to go for my 10:45 massage. They have someone who comes up to do massages in the “spa” area where there is also a dry sauna and a steam room. Laura (pronounced Lowra) was fantastic and just what I needed. I’m not sure what type of oil they used, but it seemed like it was olive oil – that would be very appropriate. After the massage it was time to enjoy the pool a little and the nice sunshine.

I am really liking these nice mornings. Before long it was time for lunch – make your own pizzas! We met out by the wood fired oven where all of the toppings were already prepared by us the day before. We did our pizzas in groups of 3 – including getting our dough spread out. We even got to slide them into the oven ourselves. They only had to cook for 2 minutes and they were done and can I just say, out of this world. I’m thinking I need one of these wood fired ovens some day!

I could only eat about half of it, so maybe I can have the other half for breakfast. We had a pear and white chocolate tart for dessert that a group had made yesterday. It was very rich, but very good.

It was only a short time until our cooking lessons started again, so I had to run up and shower to get ready by 3 pm. I managed to arrive right as they were ringing the bell. Class today was going to be a busy one. We are making things not only for tonight, but for tomorrow night’s dinner and Thursday’s lunch. I was very excited to be assigned to the dessert course. Today Ingmar was my partner in crime. We had a lot to do including making balsamic vinegar gelato, a Mullefugo with Chantilly cream and strawberries, panna cotta, and a raspberry ricotta cake, and finish up by starting the Limón cello. There was so much going on that we were running into each other every once and a while.

Around 5 o’clock we took our wine break and enjoyed some freshly made foccacia bread with rosemary, rock salt and pepper.

I think I could have eaten the whole lot. After a nice break it was back inside for the hard part – dough time. We had to make spinach and ricotta stuffed ravioli and then also make fettuccini noodles. We learned the whole kneading technique yesterday, but now we had to really roll out the dough so thin. This was a bit of a challenge. In the end it all came together – again thanks to Franco.

I can’t believe I could go home and make fresh noodles for my pasta! We were finally released from our kitchen duties. I went down by the pool to blog. There is my favorite little tucked away seating area that I just love.

Unfortunately the internet was down, so I just enjoyed watching the sun set. Soon it was time for dinner. A few of us met up a little early and had a glass of wine (it runs better than water!). Our first course was Franco’s caprese salad which were rosemary skewers with tomatoes, mozzarella, and zucchini. It was also served with a parmesan bowl full of melon and a bit of prosciutto.

Next we had our pasta course which was the ravioli that we had made earlier. So good. Our main course was this turkey done with pecorino and truffles over diced potato, leek, and carrot. The flavors were incredible. We are so excited, we get to take out dogs and go truffle hunting later this week! Dessert was the final course which we had made. It was puff pastry with Chantilly cream layered with strawberries and a small scoop of the balsamic vinegar gelato on the side. I can’t wait to make this one at home! I think this dessert was my favorite so far. We all enjoyed a little after dinner drink, and then headed to bed. I am up writing this with my windows open and it sounds like the wood fired hot tub has it’s first visitors this evening! We have a big excursion tomorrow so I am getting on to bed (though not so early).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cooking Lessons – Day One

We all had quite the fun last evening, but made it for a slow going morning! However, when you wake up to this view it makes you want to get out and enjoy it. Breakfast was available from 9:00-10:30 and most of us were down early.

One really has an “at home” feeling when you’re here. We had a typical European breakfast with prosciutto, fresh melon, yogurts (that are in a glass pot), fresh baked bread and fresh squeezed orange juice. I could get used to this. We were all surprised at how cold it was this morning, probably only in the low 60s. I don’t think I packed enough long sleeves! After breakfast we all decided to just sit around and enjoy the beautiful scenery. We could see the clouds in the distance and watched as they rolled in. We could see the rain approaching the mountain and before long it was raining. I did try to get online and we having a great deal of difficulty doing so. I finally realized I had to put in a manual IP address, but now it seems to be up and running. Before long it was time for our lunch. They had to move it inside due to the rainstorm. We had a “light lunch” that consisted of salad, bread, pasta with red sauce and then a flourless chocolate cake. It was still storming out after lunch and some went to nap, but since there was only an hour until class, I tried to get on the internet. I finally managed just as we had to be in the kitchen. Franco and Paola were all ready for us to begin.

We have these incredible cookbooks that we were given and I’ve already decided that I need a digital scale since that is the most precise way to measure. We “geared up” in our special aprons that we get to keep and did a group photo before we had food all over us. Class began we an overview of the day’s class and what we would be preparing. We were divided into groups of 2 or 3 and assigned a course. I was paired with Nicole and we had the first course, which was a zucchini flan with Parmesan fondue sauce. The dessert team had 3 people since they prepared dessert for dinner, dessert for lunch tomorrow and biscotti. The hardest part at this point is learning the way around the kitchen and where everything is located. As a time saver, all of our ingredients were premeasured and placed in front of our stations. The other wonderful part is Paola – she comes behind and cleans up everything.

No sooner were we done with a pot or pan and she would have it taken away and washed. We were chopping, sautéing, picking herbs from the garden and working away for 2 hours when Franco called for a break. Some had coffee, others wine and of course another snack – this prosciutto in puff pastry. All I can say is wow. I really hope I can fit into my clothes at the end of this week! It was then back to the kitchen to finish our course. We had finished ours, so Franco had us prepping veggies for pizza and I weighing 400 g of flour and 200g of water for each of the nine of us.

It was time to make our pizza dough! This is going to be for lunch tomorrow. It was great to see everyone working with their dough, some had more trouble than others, but it all came out well in the end thanks to Franco! We finished about 7:15 and had a break until dinner at 8:15. Since it had cooled off this evening we again ate inside and even had a fire in the fireplace. You really couldn’t ask for a better setting. All of the participants are also wonderful and we seem to get along as though we’ve known each other a long time. Dinner was served by course and Franco presented each one. We started with our flan that looked beautiful and tasted even better. It was great to see that it had turned out so well. Franco had also made a fennel and orange salad for the table. Next was the pasta course where we had this eggplant and tomato pasta. I have to admit that I do not normally like eggplant, but this was probably my favorite course. Our main course was Saltimbocca, which is pork with prosciutto and sage. There was a white wine sauce reduction and “snake beans”. Dessert tonight was tiramisu – of course! It was made from scratch all the way down to the ladyfingers. I feel like I have already learned so much even in just one day. We were all pretty exhausted so we called it an early evening. We start even earlier with cooking tomorrow since we’re making our own pizzas at lunch. Until tomorrow…

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Florence to Arezzo

Today I managed to wake up around 8 am and truly felt as though I have adjusted to the 6 hour time difference. I enjoyed another yummy breakfast, but didn’t want to eat too much since I had a great little place picked out for lunch. The tough part of the day was trying to get everything back into the backpack. Somehow it never goes back the same way! I had to check out at 11 and every minute was spent getting packed. I was taking the 2:30 train, so I still had time to walk around the city. The hotel was great, they held my bad so I didn’t have to walk around with it. The bells were ringing all morning and it was such a neat scene.

There are tons of artists selling watercolors along the streets and I was trying to find the one I liked best. It was really interesting to see them as they worked. I did find one whose work I really liked. After some deliberating I finally made my decision. I spent the rest of the time up until lunch people watching outside the Duomo. I made my way over to the little restaurant by the train station that had really good reviews. I ordered a calabrese pizza (olives, salami, onions) and it was absolutely incredible. Two guys were seated next to me and it took me a minute to realize that they were speaking English (I haven’t heard very much over the past 2 days!). Turns out they had just graduated from University of Colorado and are traveling all through Europe for 5 weeks. We had a nice time chatting over lunch. I walked back to the hotel and went by the Santa Maria Novella.

It was time to go and catch the train to Arezzo. I did a good one - when I went to get my backpack I swung it up on my back, however, I had forgotten that I clipped my metal water bottle (that was full) to it. I managed to get knocked in the head with it and wow did that hurt!

Now that I have the trains all figured out, it is such a wonderful way to get around. The train trip was about 1½ hours and I even managed to catch a quick nap. I arrived in Arezzo and took a cab up to Torre del Tartufo. I was not quite prepared for the ride up the mountain (Mom – picture that drive to the winery up in NY 2 year ago, but 10 times worse!). We turned down a gravel road and I started to get a little worried. Then it was up, up, switchback turn, up, etc. We finally arrived at an iron gate. Barbara, the onsite manager was there to greet me. She immediately showed me to my room and wow, what a view! She took me around the villa so that I was acquainted with everything. I soon met several of the other guests who were enjoying some of the house white wine out on the terrace. I soon joined them. Turns out we only have 9 people here this week – a couple from Australia, Nicole and Scott; Cheryl from South Africa; Dinah from the UK; Carrie from the US; Florence from Singapore; Ingmar from the Netherlands; and Suzanne also from the US. I was amazed that except for the one couple we are all traveling solo. The after was gorgeous and about 5 of us sat around enjoying wine and chatting away. I could not have asked for a better group of people! We laughed because we had all planned on going to change for dinner, but the wine kept us too occupied!

Franco, the chef soon arrived with prosecco and we toasted to the week ahead. Paola had set a beautiful table outside where we would dine. Dinner was amazing. We started with an onion tartlet that the students from last week’s class had made the day before. This was followed by risotto with zucchini blossoms. The main course was beef seared and served rare with mashed potatoes garnished with rosemary from the herb garden (saw him snipping it just before dinner). Dessert was lavender scented baked cream topped with berries. After dinner Barbara brought out every type of after dinner liquor imaginable, including Franco’s grandmothers Limon cello. We had quite the fun evening eating, drinking and getting to know each other. Tomorrow (Monday) will be the first day of our cooking class and I can’t wait!

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I was absolutely exhausted after yesterday’s travel and sightseeing so I did sleep in this morning. One of the great things about this little hotel is that breakfast is included, so I basically rolled out of bed and went downstairs. They had a wonderful breakfast with meats, cheeses, breads, yogurt, fruit, etc. Since I am without my daily dose of Diet Mountain Dew I had to get by with having a cappuccino. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but they are really good here. It’s probably just being in Italy that does it. I ate a substantial breakfast since I knew I had a long day ahead of me. After getting ready I headed out and down towards the local market. Unfortunately I didn’t have a great deal of time to check it out but the indoor market has tons of foods and so many of the places have whole prosciuttos hanging up (see the video Dad). I’m hoping it’s open on Sunday.

The outdoor market has every type of leather good imaginable. I wish I was in need of a purse – there are so many to choose from! One of the best things I did before my trip was to pre-book my tickets to the Accademia and the Uffizi. If you don’t, you will spend hours in line waiting. My first stop was the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. Since I already had my confirmation I went in without any wait. I had also downloaded podcasts which guide you through the highlights of the museum. This way I just used my iPhone and had my headphones – it was like having my own personal tour guide. You round the corner and there before you is the 14 foot tall statue of David. It is truly a sight to behold and makes going to the Accademia very worthwhile. No picture can do this statue justice. Of course no photography is allowed in either museum, so I just grabbed a few off of the web for reference sake. After spending adequate time admiring David it was off to look at some of his other works including “The Prisoners”.

This name was given to this series by those in the art world and not Michelangelo himself. These are unfinished (and others say finished) pieces where the human form looks as though it is coming right out of the stone block. You can see the individual chisel marks since they are not polished pieces. They really are fascinating. There is also the “sculpture room” which has over 100 carved busts that are the “final exams” of sculptors at the Accademia. This museum is small, so I was there about an hour. The weather was perfect, warm with a decent breeze. I took my time wandering down to see the Duomo in daylight.

The line to get in the cupola was hours long so I decided to skip that (no advance tickets here). I then made my way down to the Ponte Vecchio bridge. I’m not sure what I expected, but it was actually a bridge with jewelry shops across the Arno River.

I really enjoyed just walking around this area and seeing the various bridges along the river. After crossing the PV I went over to Palazzo Pitti, home of the De Medici family.

Since I have such a short time in Florence I just admired it from the outside. My next appointment was at the Uffizi, but I needed to grab a quick lunch to help get me through the afternoon. I stopped at this little shop that had about 10 different types of paninis in the case. I managed to ask the types and do the entire order in Italian. I was very proud. That sandwich was unbelievable. What we call a Panini in the US is nothing like it is in Italy. I had to top off the meal with some gelato (one scoop of niccola and one of nutella).

I managed to do this in Italian as well and the person complemented me on my pronunciation. I said something about it being similar to French and before I knew it we were conversing in French instead. It’s funny that French seems so much easier to me these days! I will get the hang of Italian before too long. I made my way through the Palazzo Vecchio (where there is a replica of the David) and on to Uffizi. I picked up my tickets and again was able to go right in past all of the lines. This museum is expansive.

There are great works by Leonardo da Vinci (The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Magi), Sandro Botticelli (Primavera, The Birth of Venus, The Adoration of the Magi and others), Titian (Flora, Venus of Urbino), Michelangelo (The Doni Tondo) just to name a few.

I again used the podcast and took my time going through. Something else I did was to list to classical music on my iPod when not doing the tour. This helped to drown out the other masses of people that were around. The Tribune Room was unfortunately undergoing restoration, so I’m sorry to have missed that. From one of the windows one was able to see the red roofed buildings which were built for the De Medici so they could have their own private passage across the Arno.

After 3 hours I’d had enough and was ready to head back for a break. I rested up before going out to find dinner. I had found this little place on line that I wanted to try, but after walking around for 30 minutes, I was not able to find it. I even asked some locals, but to no avail. I realized I wasn’t really hungry, but before I went to the classical concert I thought I should grab something. I did go and get a slice of pizza. The concert was held at the Chiesa S. Stefano. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to be such a wonderful evening. There was a pianist and a baritone. I have included a video – it was very dark so the picture isn’t worth much, but the sound is.

The concert ended around 10:30 and I was absolutely exhausted and my feet hurt. It was time to head back to the hotel for another much needed nights rest.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Florence & Pisa

Since I had some time on the train I opted to head down to the dining car and had a Panini for lunch (at least I think that was the meal I was on). How can you go wrong with tomato, cheese and basil! We actually arrived at Firenze SMN (the main station) a little earlier than anticipated. Now it was on to finding the hotel. I had done a map from home, however 1) I am directionally challenged and 2) who knows if Google Maps has it correct! Nevertheless, I headed out “with authority” so it didn’t look like I was a wandering tourist. After a few short blocks I found the address and it had a big sign BAR – I know what some of you are thinking…Not to be deterred I went a little further and found the hotel with the same number no less (I’ll explain that one later). The hotel is very small, but perfect for me traveling alone. I went up to my room (three steep flights of stairs) and extracted myself from the “gear”. I didn’t want to waste time so it was back to the train station and off to Pisa.

The train scenario worked so smoothly, I just love it! Within the hour I arrived, but of course had no idea where to go. Fortunately they had a very large city map at the station, so off I headed to find the Leaning Tower. It was probably about a ½ mile or more away. En route I realized that all of this walking, climbing, etc had made me hungry again – time for gelato!

I found a cute little shop and had some Stracciatella. I noticed many of the shops were closed for a few hours in the afternoon, probably a good thing for me. After much walking I rounded the corner and saw the Tower ahead.

It really is an interesting complex. I had always thought that is was just sitting out in the middle of a field. Now I can confirm that it does lean!

There were a lot of people in this area along with vendors selling every type of trinket imaginable. One could buy tickets to go up in the tower and see the other buildings, but I was find with a more cursory tour.

I had to do the obligatory picture showing me holding up the tower, which was fun. Pisa's symbol is this neat cross (I tried to Google, but it's all in Italian, so I'll have to try another method of looking it up). I spent a couple of hours in the area and then got on the train back. I arrived back at the hotel to find a new person at the front desk so I asked where I should go to dinner. Alessandro spoke very good English and gave me several options for dinner. We chatted for quite a while and he was able to give me a lot of tips about the city since he was born and raised here. He made an 8:45 dinner reservation and I went up and got ready. I was a little leery about walking around by myself at this hour, but Florence is such a friendly and safe feeling city – much different than Rome in my opinion. It is also so much smaller than Rome, so easy to walk to all the sights. I had a wonderful dinner at La Busolla. I had spinach and cheese filled ravioli in a meat sauce. The weather was perfect so I sat outside and enjoyed the views. On my way back from dinner I wandered a little and caught the first sight of the Duomo – what a gorgeous site. To top it off, the moon was just about the dome.

There were still many people out walking around. I headed back to the hotel and Alessandro was just leaving for the evening and he offered to show me around a little. I was not so sure about that but the other manager was there and he even left his backpack so he had to come back (I've watched too many crime shows - unsub). I try to be extremely careful when I’m alone, but I also don’t want to miss out on things so off we went. Since he grew up here he was able to show me around with ease and after our walking tour I feel like I know the city even better – even helped me with my Italian. We made it back in just over an hour, but by now it was already midnight. I don’t think I could have packed more into a day if I tried! Saturday will be filled with museums after a much needed good nights rest. Buonasera!