Thursday, October 28, 2010
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Well I am happy to say that things are looking up after one week back in San Francisco. The jet-lag seems to be gone, so we are no longer looking at each other across the table at 8pm with our eyeballs spinning around in our heads, desperately trying to stay awake. This is a major coup.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Friday, October 15, 2010
Monday, October 11, 2010
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Welcome to Grappa-Fest. Every night, at about 10pm, Luciano knocks on everyone’s door and invites us all into the veranda for shot glasses of his homemade grappa and Vin Santo.
Without a doubt Luciano (left) and I have a little Italio/Americana love-fest going on. This morning he even went so far as to pull fresh figs off the tree near our room and give the to me. If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.
Luciano, without a doubt, is an Italian man through and through, and he LOVES women, so all of us ladies here get showered with attention every night, as does Luciano. His face went beet-red last night as the three women at last night’s Grappa-Fest all had our picture taken with him.
Carlo (his son) said last night that Luciano would rather arrive for Grappa after Carlo and Isa have left. Because then he gets all the attention for himself!
He has had a pretty amazing life, Luciano. He was a share-cropper when he was young, and then when communism infiltrated, he became a paid worker, and then a landowner, and is now the owner of Cretaiole as well as the family farm in Pienza.
There is definitely a very different idea of family here. It is much more traditional, much more communal. The men are still very much in charge, and Luciano and his wife, Carlo, Isa and their two kids, plus Carlo’s sister and her fiancé, all live together at the family farm. I think if my family tried to do that, there would be physical violence after about two weeks!
It has certainly been nice to be a part of it, though, even for two short weeks. The day before yesterday we helped out with the grape harvest here at Cretaiole, and lunch was a massive affair, with everybody gathered in the verandah for a meal of pasta, sausage with chick-peas, plum cake and of course wine and vin santo! It was such fun to be a part of a big extended family meal like that, and we just had the feeling that that is something they do all the time.
Back to the evening Grappa-Fest, though. I somehow, have become the official translator; me with my ten Italian lessons back in May!! But I will say that I am amazed at how much my Italian has improved in these two weeks of just talking every day with Luciano, dictionary in hand.
I could never have improved this much by just taking classes or listening to CDs. There is no substitute for conversation, talking with him about the grape harvest, food, the weather, the cats stealing the steak, his cruise to Dubai, Steve’s and my travels. I feel like I have gotten a year’s worth of Italian lessons in two weeks!
In addition to being in charge of the family, Luciano also tends to his animals (pigs, chickens, rabbits), the garden, makes prosciutto, pecorino, red and white wine, grappa and vin santo. All at 70 years old.
We have eaten some extraordinary tomatoes and zucchini from the garden, and the day before yesterday he pulled a fennel bulb straight up from the ground and told us to eat it with oil, salt and pepper. The fragrance of that fennel was not to be believed. And the tsate of it, light and sweet, but full of that anise yumminess. It has made me hope that Steve and I might be able to get some kind of apartment with some kind of a yard one day so we can try to grow some of our own veggies.
Luciano has also brought me and Steve fresh eggs, straight from the chicken’s butt as well as this amazing fresh ricotta cheese. I have never tasted ricotta like this before in my life, so fresh and light. This is probably because I’m always buying fat free ricotta at home, which is like silly-putty.
Well no more! I have been converted. This ricotta is amazing on pasta, and, if you can believe it, Nutella!
When Luciano suggested ricotta and Nutella for dessert I thought he was out of his mind. Who would ever add cheese to my beloved Nutella? But then I decided to try it. I mixed equal parts Ricotta and Nutella in a bowl (maybe adding a little more Nutella), stirring until it was as smooth as I could get it. And I tasted it.
It was delicious. Somehow the ricotta lightened the Nutella, made it almost fluffy. But after a night in the fridge, it became this rich, dense delectable treat. Steve said it reminded him of a Toblerone.
I strongly urge you to try it, but do yourself a favor, don’t use low-fat or non-fat ricotta. Go for the good stuff! You won’t be sorry.
These are the cats. The sweet, cute, precious farm cats. They run around the farm and the grounds surrounding Cretaiole, chasing bugs, mice and people to their heart’s delight.
They stand outside our door in the evening, meowing to be let in. They sit with us outside while we chat, eat, drink and read. They cuddle up, sit on laps and purr, taking us ever more off our guard.
And then….they strike. A huge chunk of pecorino cheese that Isa left out getting ready to take home? Gone. Taken away by one kitty and munched on.
The steak that Scott left sitting by the grill while he waited for the coals to be ready? The Big Daddy cat jumped up onto the table, grabbed that hunk of meat in its teeth and dragged it off behind the bushes.
From inside our apartment we heard Scott yell “You little shits!” When we came out to see what was going on, we saw two of the other cats hovering outside the bushes while from inside we could hear the sounds of Big Daddy growling that strange kitty yowl-growl while he devoured that raw meat like he had never seen food before.
Periodically, one of the other cats would risk sneaking in to try and grab a bite from Big Daddy.
Within a few minutes, that steak was history, as was Scott’s dinner plan.
Sunday, October 3, 2010
On Friday we had the chance to go truffle hunting with Massimo (left) and his two truffle dogs.
On Thursday after our wine tasting, we returned to Cretaiole for a class on how to make Pici, the local pasta, followed by a group dinner.
Friday, October 1, 2010
Wednesday I participated in my very first grape harvest, and I have to say, I thought it was glorious.
Cretaiole had already planned a group visit to Icario Winery in Montepulciano for today, and the night before we found out that they were going to be harvesting the grapes and we were invited to join in.
We got very lucky in that the sky was clear and blue, but the temperatures were only in the sixties, so we didn’t roast. The Aussies in the group were telling us about their experiences of harvesting in Australia in temperatures of 110 degrees, and let me tell you, it did not sound fun.
We arrived at the vineyards, were taken by truck down to the vineyards and, armed with a plastic bucket and a pair of shears, we were sent out into the rows. These grapes don’t grow too low, so while there was some bending over required, there was not so much of it that you feared you might never stand up straight again.
The grape we were harvesting was a varietal I had never heard of before, but which they told us was usually grown in Northern Italy. Icario uses it in their entry level wine, blending it with Sangiovese.
I didn’t think about it while I was working, but afterward, Steve mentioned that it was therapeutic, working in the vineyard, and I have to say I agree with him. You can’t think too much when doing the work, you just get into a groove and move from bunch to bunch, cutting, looking to see if there is any mold in the grapes and either cutting it away or discard the bunch, place the bunch in your basket and move onto the next.
Periodically, the tractor advances through the rows and people riding along with it collect your basket, dump the contents into a big tray, and return the basket to you to be refilled.
There is something so beautiful to me about those bunches of grapes, so dark purple and full to bursting. The weight of them was something I didn’t expect, some of the fruit so ripe that it burst when you touched it. And the sweetness of them. Not cloying, but just so wonderfully….ripe. Like no grape I have ever tasted before.
After about two hours, we were taken back up to the winery itself where we saw the trays of grapes that we had just picked get poured out into a long tray which jiggles the clusters of grapes toward the de-stemmer, where the grapes are separated from their stems, partially crushed and funneled into large stainless steel tanks where they will begin the period of maceration (where the juice and skins and seeds all soak together to impart color, flavor, tannins, structure to the wine. Then fermentation will begin.
I will have to try to get a bottle of the 2010 wine when it is released, so I can drink it and say, “I picked this fruit!”
From there we were led to a long table where we had lunch and of course, some of Icario’s wines.
Lunch was pecorino cheese, prosciutto, salami, and bruschetta with what may have been the best tomatoes I have ever tasted. I am not a fresh tomato lover normally, but these were extraordinary: deep, ripe red, sweet, and mixed with fresh basil and olive oil.
I have noticed in Italy that none of the bruschetta we have eaten has contained any garlic, which I think is lovely. Bruschetta in The States is always screaming with garlic, and I think all it does is mask the taste of the tomatoes and olive oil. It is very possible though, that if a restaurant is using un-ripe tomatoes that maybe they need that garlic to mask the flavor.
The first wine we tasted was their white, NYSA 2008 Bianco Toscano, which is a blend of 60% Pinot Grigio, 30% Gewurztraminer, and 10% Pinot Nero (Noir) vinified to be white instead of red.
This was one of the most interesting white wines I have ever had. It is aged in oak barrels which imparts its dark color, and the little bit of Pinot Noir in it gives it a lot of oomph and body. I also found it fascinating that this Italian winery s making a white wine from grapes which I would much more readily associate with Alsace than with Italy.
The first whiff of it, when it was very cold still, yielded a lot of golden delicious apple and grapefruit pith and peel, but as it warmed up, the sweet scent of honey, caramel and apple cider started to dominate. On the palate, the apple was strong,er than the citrus, and a caramel/butterscotch flavor lingered.
We also sampled one of their reds, the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano 2007, which is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, and 20% Colorino, Canaiolo and Merlot. This wine was much more what I ave come to think of as a Tuscan wine, with black cherry, red cherry smoke, leather dried and stewed fruits, violets and that light tinge of iron all emerging.
It was an absolutely lovely day.
I have been thinking quite a lot about food and diet lately. Partly because we have noticed that in Italy, it is impossible to get any other type of cuisine other than Italian. No Chinese, Thai, pub, American (whatever that is!), Indian…nothing.
Apparently, Italians just have no desire to eat anything other than Italian food, and when they travel abroad, they only want to eat at Italian restaurants!
I find this hard to grasp, since one of the great things about travel is getting to eat local food. More than that, though, is the idea of variety. I don’t want to eat the exact same type of food day in and day out. No matter how much I may love pasta or pizza or risotto, I just can’t eat it all day every day. After a while I want something that tastes totally different: sushi, or stir-fried noodles with tofu and broccoli, or steamed dumplings with soy sauce. Yum…
The other reason I have been thinking about food and diet is because of all the weight I have lost since starting this trip. I have been thinking about gaining and losing weight, and why at some times it is easier to lose weight than at others.
As I have already mentioned, I am sure that a lot of my weight loss has to do with no longer taking the anti-anxiety medication. I really believe that another reason why I have lost so much weight, is that I just don’t care about it right now.
We are always talking about the mind-body connection, and I think there is a lot to be said about the idea of “letting go” when it comes to weight loss, mentally more than physically.
In the US we are so obsessed with being thin, with losing weight, with not eating one food item or another. The guilt and shame so many of us feel when we eat something “bad” for us is astounding, and I think those bad feelings cause our bodies to clench, to clamp down, to hold onto weight.
How many times have I been out to dinner or lunch with friends and had the ordering and eating process become a discussion of what we shouldn’t order, shouldn’t have eaten. How often have you yourself been to a restaurant and agonized over what you “should” order vs. what you really wanted to order?
So often it seems that we feel we need to be punished for eating, for enjoying any food other than lettuce? For me. Certainly, this feeling like I have done something wrong when eat pasta only gets me on a loop of eating something, feeling bad about it, and then eating more because that is how I cope with my bad feelings! I know I’m not alone in getting stuck on that loop.
Right now, and indeed for this whole trip, I just don’t care about what I weigh, or how much I eat. If I want gelato, I eat gelato. If I want pasta, I have pasta. I eat what I want when I want . And there is something about this mental letting go that I think has allowed my body to let go as well, to regulate my cravings and body weight in a more natural, balanced way.
It used to be that I couldn’t have a jar of Nutella at home because I would sit by myself and eat the whole jar in two days, with a spoon, I kid you not. And the guilt I felt doing that….monumental. I felt like the worst person in the world; a fat, greedy, no will-power person. I would feel like I had just done one of the worst things a person could do.
Now, I have had a Nutella jar around for ever, and it is only partially eaten. Somehow, I have managed to remove all judgment of what I eat and how much I eat of it, and it’s like I have therefore removed the temptation. I have suddenly made the Forbidden Fruit unforbidden. Want Nutella? Then eat Nutella, who cares?! And as a result, I don’t really want the Nutella so much anymore. Or I can have a little taste and be satisfied, and not feel that I have just done something terrible by eating it.
Here food is life, it is community, it is social, it is family, and there is no shame in the consumption of it. Shame made me heavy, freedom from that shame has made me lighter, literally.
That in and of itself could be the most valuable insight gleaned from this trip, and I hope with all my heart that I can hold onto this mentality, because if I can, it will change my life.
Sunday morning we got up at 6am, drove to a house near the town of Montisi, and went for a ride in a hot-air balloon. It was fantastic.
I had never been in a balloon before, and I really had no idea what to expect. Our “pilot” Chris, and Robert, who runs the balloon company (both men from England) prepped the balloon in the yard of Robert’s house.
First they stretch out the balloon fabric on the lawn and then “cold inflate” it by blowing air into it from a huge fan. One the balloon gets to a certain point, they switch to the hot air, which I believe is lit by propane tanks attached to the basket. The balloon goes from lying on its side to floating upright above the basket.
Steve, the pilot and I got in the basket, and, with a few more blasts of hot air, we left the ground. It was such a strange sensation to be standing in a basket, suddenly airborne.
We had a beautiful clear sunny day with very light winds. We floated, as you do, over houses, towns and fields. We saw a herd of white cattle running out to pasture, saw the different colors and patterns of brown plowed fields and rich green ones, stands of olive trees and grape vineyards.
The funny thing is that dogs apparently can hear the sound of the gas when it periodically is fired to blast hot air into the balloon, so as we floated along, we could hear a chorus of dogs barking in our wake.
Apart from the dogs below and the occasional noise from the hot air, being up in the balloon was incredibly still, quiet and peaceful. It was surreal to think there we were, floating 3,000 feet above the ground, in a basket. There was a bit of Willy Wonka about it.
After about an hour and a half we landed in a field with nothing more than a slight bump, tilt, smooth and easy. Chris told us that if the winds are stronger, you can have an “exciting” landing where the basket tips completely onto its side and drags along while the people inside of it fall on each other and get quite cosy.
Robert, who had been driving along following us, met us at the field and while Chris put the balloon fabric back into its sack, Robert prepared a breakfast for us all of local salami, bread, an amazing sheep’s cheese, melon, grapes, almond cookies, plum preserves, and, of course, Champagne!It was a wonderful experience, and if you have the opportunity to go on such a ride, take advantage of it.
We arrived on Saturday at Cretaiole, our final destination in Italy, just outside the Tuscan town of Pienza. Cretaiole is what is called an Agritourismo. Agritourismos are essentially farm-stays, in which families allow guests to stay in rustic rooms or apartments on the family farm. Many of these agritourismos also run restaurants in addition to the working farms.
Cretaiole is owned and run by the Morriccione family, and in addition to running the Agritourismo, they also farm grapes and olives from which they make wine and olive oil.
The unstoppable Isabella organizes a variety of activites for the people who stay with them, from cooking classes and visits to Siena, to organized dinners, winery tours and the opportunity to participate in the harvest of both the grapes and the olives depending on the time of year.
In the five or six rooms and apartments available here, all but one are occupied by Americans. The other family is from Australia. It has been nice to actually be able to socialize in our native tongue, though I have been trying out my Italian on Luciano, the Morriccione family patriarch, who tends the family garden (the most amazing zucchini I have ever tasted came from this garden) and invites all of the guests to spend the evening on the verandah with him sampling his homemade wine, grappa and vin santo.
Luciano speaks almost no English, and he brings an English/Italian dictionary to the table with him so we can look up words as we try to speak Italian with him! I seem to be the most game to try it out, and I feel like I am getting better every day, though I still have only the most basic of vocabularies and can only speak in the present tense!
The homemade vin santo is actually quite tasty, and Luciano told us all that we should put our cantucci (small cookie like a biscotti) into the glass of vin santo and let it soak for a bit before eating it.
The grappa is so strong it will light your innards on fire, but Luciano insists that the first glass is rough, but the second glass is much better. Though he himself admitted that any more than two glasses and you’re in trouble.
Our apartment has a fireplace and since I can literally spend a blissed-out few hours staring at a roaring fire, we tried to light one our first night. We got it lit just fine, and as it was roaring away, I looked at it.
I noticed that it was moving; not the fire itself, but the area around it. At first I thought it was ashes moving and swirling, but as I looked more closely, I noticed that what was moving were legs; lots and lots of legs.
What began to take shape in front of my eyes were bugs. Green bugs about the size of my thumbnail. Lots of them. Lots and lots of them. They filled the hearth area around the fire, and some of them popped over the edge to squiggle around on the floor.
Steve, trying to be nonchalant, said, “It’s not too bad.” An hour later, though he was singing a different tune, as we scooped up these bugs by the shovel-ful and deposited them on the fire. Some of them flew around the room and we chased them down.
They just kept appearing, and we couldn’t figure out from where: the grate, the flu. Some other secret bug depository that we couldn’t see??
We spent nearly an hour scooping and chasing before the steady stream of them finally abated. When we went to the verandah for our well-earned grappa and vin santo, we learned that they are called stink-bugs.
Isabella and Carlo, who currently run Cretaiole (Luciano is Carlo’s father), said that our fire was the first of the season, and that probably the bugs had taken up residence in the flue and we had literally smoked them out when we lit our fire.
Subsequent fires have yielded no such deluge, so I think we got rid of the majority of them, though they still find their way periodically into the apartment. I have just seen that there is currently a stink-bug infestation happening in the US, with 29 states affected.
Looks like this (I am planning on including a photo of the bug here, but the internet connection is very bad, so I can't upload any photos at the moment. I will add it as soon as I can!) could be waiting for us on our return to San Francisco. Welcome home!