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Funghi Feast: *Mushrooms*

13 Oct

With warm days, cool nights, and the moon just right, Tuscan mushroom seekers are busy, and that includes Carlo, our resident fungaiolo (mushroom hunter/seeker). He heads to the mountain forests, filled with a variety of trees including chestnut, pine, oak and beech, and the ideal habitat for funghi. If you ask, however, just know that a dedicated fungaiolo never reveals where he/she searches.

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While he headed off to the forest, Fernanda surprised us with one of Len’s favorite dishes, spaghetti alle vongole. At the local pescheria, or fish market, one can easily find the sweet, tender and tasty veraci, or tiny baby clams in the shell, as well as slightly larger clams which she combined for a delicious dish.

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Carlo finally returned with a smile on his face that spelled success. He proudly displayed his bounty of mushrooms, including the prized Porcini, Gallinaccio (Chanterelle), Ovuli (orange color, egg-shaped), Mazza di Tamburo, (drum mallet or stick shape), and a few miscellaneous stragglers. Knowing where to go, and having an aged Panda, both help in the hunt.

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In Italy, Len and I have planted and harvested vegetables and picked fruit, tomatoes and olives, but we had never really cleaned mushrooms, not ones freshly picked from the forest. And what a learning experience it was. Fernanda was anxious to get started cleaning.

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We had, of course, the same question most would ask:

“How do you know if they are poisonous?”

And the answer, as you might guess, is experience. Carlo accompanied his dad beginning at age seven. Fernanda’s parents both scoured the forest since she was a child. And now they just know, a skill passed from generation to generation. They know the varieties, where to look, what to pick, what to leave behind, how to clean, what to cut off, how to store, how to serve, and so on. And thus we began to learn, under the watchful eye of Fernanda’s mom and instructions per Fernanda and Carlo.

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Using the end of a knife, the dirt is removed by a quick but not too firm scraping.

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Many mushrooms are like sponges, so after the first cleaning, they are lightly rinsed, not soaked.

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And then on to others.

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Len and Carlo took the residue we had scraped off to the orto which will become compost for next year’s tomatoes. Remember, it’s Italy, and nothing is thrown out if possible.

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They even found a few more tomatoes on the vines.

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Then, Fernanda went to work, quickly and skillfully slicing the porcini for freezing.

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Her hands flew though the motions, and soon we had 14 packages of porcini ready to freeze for future pasta, risotto, and/or frying.

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Once the aromas began filling the house, we knew she had started cooking…

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But the “pièce de ré·sis·tance” was the fresh porcini risotto. Move over farm to table, this was mountain to mouth! The smell, the taste, the WOW. The best I have ever had.

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Complimenti to Carlo, our favorite fungaiolo,

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and to Fernanda, our talented cook!

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Thanks for the lessons, the food, the fun and your friendship!

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No matter the season, we continue building memories, each and every wonderful day.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Farm to Table and Friends

27 Sep

Restaurants these days tout farm to table, and diners love participating in this fresh approach to cooking and eating. But when the farm and table are your own, it’s extra special.

Italy is well known for many wonderful things, with food always ranking high on the list. Great food comes from quality ingredients, and in Italy, that’s a way of life. When we first started traveling through the Italian countryside, Len remarked that Italy is one big farm. How true that is. Not just grapes and olives, although they are in abundance, but hectares and hectares of fruits, vegetables, and grains as well. In addition, the fertile soil, topography and weather contribute to regional differences in product variety.

I have written a lot about the fun we have with “our” small orto, as well as the abundant fruits of our “collective” labor. And since the orto is surrounded on three sides by Fernanda’s relatives’ farms, we are rewarded in quadruple.

From picked:

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to this:

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Or these:

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to these:

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This crate:

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becomes Fernanda’s vegetable soup:

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During the fall, when the weather is perfect, Carlo “hunts” for mushrooms, 

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so we enjoy these:

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Then there was this just picked bundle,

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which produced these:

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Grapes, you ask, but of course:

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and figs? In abundance!

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All of which makes for a beautiful and bountiful apericena (appetizer/dinner)!

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And then there’s the fun, lots and lots of fun. Regarding the next photo, don’t ask as I won’t tell 😎.

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Sunshine, fresh food, a good red and loads of laughter – perfect ingredients for good health and good times.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

Re-entry…

18 Aug

And it feels so good!

In Italy, August 15 is both a national holiday, Ferragosto, as well as a religious one, Feast of the Assumption. For many Italians, it is also the unofficial beginning of the summer holiday season. Parts of Italy effectively shut down until September, as people head to the lakes, countryside or a coast, or to towns like Cortona which are filled with events.

Since I can’t say this very often, I need to share that our trip over was incredibly smooth.  Flying time was only 8.11 hours and touch down to gate took less than five minutes.

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We arrived to the welcome arms of Carlo and Fernanda and to a delicious homemade lunch.

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Afterward, Carlo accompanied us to check the orto (garden) progress, but lunch and the basket on the counter were a positive telltale sign.

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Although May was cold and rainy, warm sun and sufficient rain since then have made for vibrant green colors, strong vegetables and very huge and happy sunflowers.

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And then on to our house and the familiarity of the view.

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The next night, we were ready to roll and attended the Ferragosto Sagra Della Bistecca, or steak festival, in the parterre with some friends.

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Before:

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During:

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Our table:

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The food… and yes, we did split them!

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The fountain was flowing and the Ol’ Boogies Rockabilly Band was playing,

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so we decided to start dancing,

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while everyone else was in the food queue. Good we came early!

After a lot of dancing and good laughs, and nearing 11 PM, the two guys on the left headed to town to get some Tuscanos, or small Italian cigars,

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while the rest of us stopped by the DJ station. The dance area was empty, so we moved right in.

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Before long, we attracted a large crowd and were soon doing the Macarena!

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I even bought one of the flashing balloons.

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Once the dance area got too crowded, we headed back into town to find the guys. Naturally, we found them at Tuscher with Massimo!

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We joined right in.

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It was 2 AM before our heads hit the pillows.

The next night, Fernanda had us over for dinner. We tried hard to convince her we should go out, but she insisted and treated us to a delicious aperitivo spread including her homemade liver pate. This was followed by roasted pepper risotto, and then stuffed zucchini from the garden and meatballs. Dessert was gelato topped with her homemade cherry sauce. We ate al fresco and my phone was inside, so no photos except one group selfie.

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When we got back to town, a big band was still playing in the piazza.

The next day, Len and I had a Tuscher Sunday, although it was only Saturday. After a long walk, we stopped by for a mid day vino. A bit later, a first old friend stopped by, then another, and so on, until eventually a few of us went to dinner.

And that’s how it goes in Cortona… Food, Friends and Fun. Repeat.

Should you miss one sagra, there’s another right behind. Out with the bistecca on Friday and in with the Porcini on Saturday, although we opted out. Enough sagras for one weekend.

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But as for friends and fun, there’s never too much. In the words of Cyndi Lauper:

Oh girls, they wanna have fun…

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

Medieval Market Cortona

4 Jun

June arrived in Cortona and brought along not only warm sunny weather but also the first of several annual summer festivals. Last weekend was the Medieval Market filled with games, costumes, food, shops and entertainment. Here’a a sampling…

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And of course, great sunsets,

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and great friends!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

Productive Relaxation, Italian Style

24 Apr

In Italy, there is a sight commonly found in smaller towns – men sitting on benches, or standing in small groups, discussing everything from local politics to international sports events. Meanwhile, their wives are shopping, visiting, cooking, cleaning, etc.  What they all have in common is the phrase: Siamo in pensione, or, we are retired. 

We, too, take this retirement thing seriously. Take productive relaxation for example, not an oxymoron but instead an art.

Fernanda had today off, so our day began in her garden where she prepared breakfast – her delicious yogurt cake and cappuccino.

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After enjoying the sunshine and planning for our vegetable garden, we drove to Panicale, one of our favorite little borgos about 45 minutes from Cortona, and a first visit for Fernanda.

In 2018, Panicale, in Umbria, was listed as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages.

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Although it is small and easy to walk around, it is not the easiest of villages to find. But GPS has gotten us there every time.

The medieval hill town overlooks Lago Trasimeno, a site where in 217 BC, Hannibal and his legions ambushed Roman legions along the banks.

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As you can see from the map below, the streets are narrow and form concentric ovals.

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Panicale still retains its medieval castle, which was once surrounded by a moat,

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as well as other well-preserved charming buildings.

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It also has a few unique door bells!

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No matter which way you walk, all streets seem to lead to the historical center’s Piazza Umberto I,

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where there is a travertine fountain, (formerly an ancient cistern), dating back to 1473.

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The piazza is surrounded by a few eateries and shops, including our favorite – Bar del Gallo, (lower right).

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The staff is always friendly,

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and the melanzana (eggplant) is always delicious.

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Of course, there are other menu items, but for us, it’s too good to pass up. And Fernanda agreed it was one of the best she has ever eaten.

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Perhaps best of all at Bar del Gallo is the owner, Aldo Gallo, a man whose warm smile and genuine hospitality keeps one coming back for more.

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Today we learned that Bar del Gallo earned a gold cup award in a coffee competition, an award well-deserved. Complimenti Aldo!

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We said our goodbyes and drove the long way home, stopping at a nursery to select our plants: 10 tomato (three varieties), and nine zucchini.

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Why nine zucchini, you might ask? Well, last year, we had an ever-lasting supply of zucchini flowers, (actually too much of a good thing!) and very few zucchini, so Len did some research. Apparently, zucchini should be planted in “hills” of three plants, close together. This is because when the plants flower, they produce both masculine and feminine flowers, and apparently, they need to do their thing “nature-ly” (cross-pollinate) to produce zucchini! Who knew???

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Well, we’ll see what happens. Updates, and hopefully zucchini, to follow in a few months.

Grazie, Aldo, for another lovely afternoon in Panicale. See you again soon. 

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And that’s how we spend a very productive day in a most relaxing way, Italian style.

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-entry!

11 Apr

We returned to Cortona over two weeks ago, and we’ve been busy.  While sometimes it seems as though we have the town to ourselves, 

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the weekends remind us that Cortona is a “happening” place.

Occasionally, however, there are “happenings” we’d rather avoid.

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We managed to get “fined” on a 10 minute bus ride from Camucia to Cortona. Longer story shortened, our to-and-from rides were all on one ticket, which we validated each way. However, we didn’t realize, or frankly just forgot, that we had to validate the single ticket twice each way, and consequently, we were fined by the very occasional inspectors who boarded our bus one stop from Piazza Garibaldi, our final destination. Yes, we paid for both of us, and yes, we thought we had correctly validated the ticket, but none of that mattered. Word to the wise: validate, validate, validate, or pay 60 euros!!!

But as always, our days and nights are filled with great friends and great food, some  shown here.

During our second week, we spent several days in Lucca. Although it rained each day, we were able to walk the wall, do some sight seeing, visit with a friend, and find some great restaurants.

On the way back, we stopped in Firenze as we had been invited to visit the Carabinieri Training School. Len just couldn’t resist.

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A few days ago, we drove with friends to a medieval town in Umbria called Narni. There are hundreds of towns like this in Italy, each with its own history and legends, and usually an interesting fact for which they are known. For Narni, it is being very close to the geographic center of Italy.

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On Monday of this week, we picked up our car, this time a Fiat Panda.

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The weather has not been great, but mostly I feel like her… I’m here and I’m happy!

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And today, before the rains fell, we drove through the Tuscan countryside, as if driving through a painting, and witnessed, once again, the stunning landscape and the ever-spectacular views that always bring a smile to my face. 

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Ciao,
Judy

Taormina Sicily

12 Dec

Our first visit to Sicily was in the spring of 2016. Len and I had planned a month stay, from west to east coasts. However, as we learned, March is not the ideal month as the winter winds nearly knocked us over.

Fast forward to last October. We met Benita and her friend Christina in Rome, flew to Catania, and headed to Taormina, a resort town Len and I had skipped on our last trip.

We arrived on a Sunday night to views from our room that were painted by the sunset.

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After a bit of unpacking, our first stop was one of Benita’s favorites: Pasticceria D’Amore, or pastry of love.

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On the menu – fresh to order cannoli, “filled at the moment”

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and then dipped in freshly ground pistachios. They certainly lived up to their reputation!

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Taormina is a hilltop town on the east coast of Sicily, flanked by Mt. Etna, an active volcano with trails leading to the summit. The town is a heavily visited tourist location, but fortunately the monster cruise ships seem to depart late afternoon, leaving plenty of space to stroll leisurely and visit attractions.

The streets are filled with restaurants, bars and lovely stores of every kind;

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and the piazzas are filled with artists and musicians.

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Perhaps the best known attraction, and truly my favorite, is the Teatro Antico di Taormina. This ancient Greco-­Roman theater, built in the 3rd century BC and modified by the Romans, is still used today for concerts and live performances. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

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Near the theater, cliffs drop to the sea forming coves with sandy beaches and always providing spectacular views.

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Checking online, we were able to find the less crowded times to visit the theater, and it seemed as thought we nearly had it to ourselves.

Another lovely and peaceful attraction, away from the crowded streets, is The Public Gardens of Taormina. The vast property was originally settled by Lady Florence Trevelyan, an English noblewoman and animal and nature lover, who married the Italian mayor, Salvatore Cacciola, and settled forever in Taormina.

The park and its views are peaceful and beautiful and provide welcome space away from the often crowded streets.

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Late one morning, we took the tram from the main town to the beach to visit Isola Bella,  also owned by Lady Florence Trevelya until 1990, and now a nature preserve.

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As it was very hot, we concluded our walking tour in a short time and returned to main town for lunch and gelato.

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As for food, Sicilian pistachio is king. You can get pistachio on, in, or over just about anything you can eat or drink…steak, pasta, cheese, seafood, coffee, liquors, etc.,  and we loved trying almost anything that included pistachios.

Pistachio liquor, creme, and spreads

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Pistacchio Gelato (their spelling!)

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Pasta with Pistachio Sauce

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Another favorite of ours was the homemade caponata, an eggplant dish, made a bit differently at each location, but always good.

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Our last night, we decided on dinner at a restaurant named Ferrara, that being my mother’s maiden name. No relation, of course, but the dinner and service were both great and a fun place to take a final photo of our time in Taormina.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Does our Orto (Garden) Grow?

17 Aug

With warm sunny days, sufficient rainfall, and tender loving care, “our” garden grew from this at the end of April…

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to this in August!

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After giving a thumbs up to the garden’s success, Len decided to take in some sun and enjoy a Toscano, a small Italian cigar (that actually doesn’t smell bad),

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while Fernanda and I were ready to pick, baskets in hand.

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We filled our baskets with three of the four varieties we had planted…

Ciliegino (Cherry)

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San Marzano

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Camone

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and the not quite ready, Cuore di Bue (Beef Steak)

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We also picked susine (plums) from the brimming trees that not only keep the orto from scorching in the summer sun,

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but also provide fruit for delicious marmellata.

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Then it was time for our “casual” county lunch ~

Our Al Fresco Menu included:
freshly cut prosciutto and sliced melon;
hand-picked tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and garden basil;
just cooked porchetta from the market;
cannelloni beans sautéed in fresh tomatoes;
Toscana Rosso di Montalcino

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Talk about farm to table –  and so much more rewarding since we are the planters, pickers and very fortunate eaters!

After lunch, it was time for some serious relaxation.

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Little did we know two years ago how incredibly rewarding this small garden would be. How does our garden grow? Well, we may not be experts, and the local farmers still offer much advice, but for us, everything about the orto is perfectly wonderful, perfectly delicious, and so proudly our own doing. We just can’t help but smile!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Egg-ceptional!

25 May

Ok, I am ruined. We have all heard of farm to table. Wonderfully fresh food from local farms delivered to nearby restaurants. Delicious!

But have you ever tasted warm fresh eggs, right from the hen?? Nothing compares. As you might expect, they are “nonconformists”, with differences in size, color, speckling, etc. And those golden yokes – just delicious. You truly can taste the difference.

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Fortunately for us, we have Italian friends who are happy to share their fresh eggs, and we are most happy to cook them in a variety of ways.

Baked potato, topped with fresh ricotta, covered with fried eggs.

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Scrambled eggs with potatoes, onions, and cherry tomatoes.

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Fried eggs on toast with sliced tomatoes.

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So, I’m ruined. It’s hard to imagine that I can ever purchase a dozen “matching” eggs at a large supermarket again.

But farm fresh eggs – any way we cook them, they are egg-ceptional!

Ciao,
Judy

Sights, Sounds and Tastes of Puglia

14 May

Fourth and Final post of trip south…

When you find yourself not quite a stones throw from the Adriatic, seeking wonderful seafood is a given. Our B&B host suggested we lunch in Savelleti.

The drive there took us through incredibly colorful fields

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and past some of the oldest olive trees – i.e., immense trunks – I have ever seen.

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When we arrived in Savelleti, it reminded me of sights I had seen along the shores of Trapani in Sicily.

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We decided a walk along the shore was the best way to choose our restaurant. The first place we came to was the fish monger who proudly displayed the morning’s fresh catch. We knew we were in for a treat.

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There were several places choose from, on and near the water, but we were determined to choose a restaurant right on the water. And then we found Ristorante Da Maddalena.

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Sometimes a setting just takes you in, and this was that kind of place. The windows provided panoramic vistas of the sea,

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and you could hear the crystal-clear water gently lapping over the rocks.

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It was a bit early for lunch, but Lucrezia warmly welcomed us and gave us a front row seat to splendor.

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She explained the menu, took our order, then headed to the kitchen to perform her magic. The aromas were amazing.

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And then it was time to eat.

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Even more than seeing the trulli, or the caves, I think this was why Len really wanted to head south. We video chatted with him, but we could never quite find the words to describe our meal. Guess we’ll have to head back south to Da Maddalena some other time!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

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