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Lunchtime in Italia

13 Apr

Lunch (Pranzo) in Italy is a great time to enjoy fresh homemade food and local wine with family and/or friends, and yesterday was no exception. Well, actually it was quite the exception due to the incredible seafood feast which was prepared for our return by dear friends. Feast your eyes on this.

First Course (left pot):
Cozze e Vongole (Mussels and Clams)

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Second Course:
Pasta con Cozze, Calamari, Gamberetti e Gamberi
(Pasta with Muscles, Calamari, Shrimp and Prawns)

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Third Course: Gamberi in Padella e Verdure
(Prawns in the Pan and Vegetables)

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The ingredients were simple, the smell and taste divine – fresh seafood, local olive oil, garlic, a splash of brandy, salt, pepper and parsley.

I can’t think of a much better way to spend an afternoon than with delicious food, wonderful wine, dear friends, lively conversation, and loads of love and laughter. And of course, all of this followed by a Torta della Colomba di Pasqua (Easter dove cake), sambuca and caffe.

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Perhaps Virginia Woolf said it best:

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well,
if one has not dined well.”

Many thanks and sincerest compliments to our hosts/friends/amazing chefs!

Ciao,
Judy

Leopoldina

14 Jan

The first time I remember seeing a Leopoldina was in 2014. It was a warm summer morning and we were headed to Rome from Cortona for our flight home. The driver took a different route than we had been accustomed to – one that avoided the interstate as long as possible and instead wove past a beautiful field of sunflowers and a fascinating abandoned structure. I was intrigued by the structure, and at the time, knew neither its name nor its history. I soon learned that this farm-house is called a Leopoldina.

The following year, Len and I set out to find that same field of sunflowers (girasole) and that Leopoldina. With no place to be but there, we parked the car and took in the sights. Thousands of sunflowers, with faces open to the sun, spread out before us.

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And at the end of a curve in the road, still standing proudly albeit tired and worn, stood the enchanting Leopoldina.

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To me, the abandoned structure looked much more like a lovely watercolor subject needing to be loved and preserved than an abandoned structure needing to be forgotten and demolished.

In the weeks that followed, I discovered that Leopoldine (plural) could be found in many areas around  Cortona as well as in northern Umbria.

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As I photographed many of them, I wondered… Who had lived in these houses? How long ago? And why did they all look the same?

While learning the name of the structure was easy, finding the history not so much so. Although I spent hours searching the internet, I mostly came up empty-handed. So I turned to my friend Ray, a history buff, for assistance. Happy to have a history project, he provided most of the following explanation.

Some of the most iconic sites in Tuscany and northern Umbria are the rows of abandoned farmhouses, with their distinctive dovecotes, spread throughout the countryside.

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Called Leopoldine, they look ancient but they are of relatively recent origin, at least by Italian standards, dating from the late 1700’s until the middle 1800’s.

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Much of what we know as modern Tuscany, including the Valdichiana, Maremma, and lower Valdarno, was swamp for most of its history. The hill towns that we love were built there not only for defense but also for health reasons to avoid malaria (mal aria: bad air, marsh fever) from the mosquitoes.

 

Plans to drain the swamps (clearly no connection intended) had been proposed since Etruscan times. Probably the most famous map depicting the swamps was the map of the Valdichiana done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1502, (supposedly at the request of Cesare Borgia), which shows the water extending right up to the hills in the area of Montecchio Vesponi.

Valdichiana by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Major efforts to drain the area began in the mid 1600’s and continued through the next century. A significant impetus came with the ascension of  Pietro Leopoldo as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765. A  younger son of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, he started a series of public improvements designed to strengthen agriculture and improve the position of the peasantry.

 

The drainage projects produced huge amounts of rich reclaimed farmland (bonifica) which was distributed to peasant families under a share-cropping system (mezzadria) similar to that in the American South. On an inspection tour of these properties in 1769, he commented on the poor quality and condition of the peasant houses. He commissioned a study by an institute in Florence to design an ideal structure for the peasant families. The farmhouses, named after him, are the Leopoldine we see today.

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The design was for a structure of three levels. The ground floor had space for the animals as well as storage and the oven. The upper floor included a kitchen, living space and the bedrooms and the upper floor was the distinctive dovecote. Every part of the building was planned including the size and positioning of the windows. The external staircase and loggia were designed on the south side to protect the farmer from the tramontana (cold north wind) when he went to check on the animals.

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The bedrooms were designed to accommodate two beds each for the large families. Even the positioning of the different stalls for horses, pigs, sheep and mules was designed around the peculiarities of each animal. 

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While originally designed only for the grand-ducal properties, the obvious value of the structure led private landowners to copy the design. The project continued under Leopoldo’s successors and the last Leopoldine were probably built in the middle of the 19th century just before Italian unification.

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After the World War II, with the movement of Italians to the cities and the increased mechanization of agriculture, the Leopoldine gradually became abandoned and fell into the ruins that we see today. 

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Currently, there is a movement underway within the Regione Toscana and some of the communes to save the Leopoldine. Let’s hope.

And thanks to Ray, we now know both the name and the history of the intriguing Leopoldina.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

How Does My Orto (Garden) Grow?

26 Aug

Many have asked me that question, especially due to the unrelenting heat wave and lack of rain in Tuscany. In Italian, the saying goes, “non c’è male” or not bad, and that’s my answer. Not great, and not poorly, simply not bad, especially compared to what I’ve seen.

Usually in late summer, sunflowers look like this…

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This year, they look like this.

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As for the orto, since it is small, it has been watered and has some shade. While not nearly producing the quantity of last year,

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it’s not barren either.

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And although small, the tomatoes still taste delicious.

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So while I enjoy them,

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I’ll dream of sunflowers and hope they return healthier than ever next year.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Reconnecting

23 Aug

Ever since we arrived in Cortona, lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber keep playing in my head:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

When people ask how long we are on vacation, we reply that Cortona is truly our second home.

I know my way around here
The cardboard trees, the painted scenes, the sound here
Yes a world to rediscover
But I’m not in any hurry  (I know my way around here)

But first our trip.

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We departed Chicago on a new 777-200 at 5 p.m. The pilot said we’d make great time – less than 9 hours non-stop. But around two hours into the flight, he advised us that a light was on, our plane was unable to fly across the ocean, and we’d be landing in NY to change planes. It was 5 hours before we took off again. If there was any good news, it was that we were upgraded and actually slept a few hours before landing in Rome. 

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Three hours later we were home in Cortona.

Although the tourists change, the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells remain familiar and constant. And best of all, so do the people. We are quickly immersed in this wonderful town, greeted with genuine smiles, warm embraces and greetings of ben tornato  – welcome back!

With deference to Mr Weber, I’d like to modify a few of his words in parens:

The lively (whispered)  conversations in overcrowded piazzas (hallways)
The atmosphere as thrilling here as always
Feel the early morning happiness (madness)
Feel the magic in the making
Why everything’s as if we never said goodbye

It took just two nights to be back in a familiar Italian setting – a large dinner with some friends.

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And while most things remain the same, the weather has taken a toll. From a 0° freeze last April to scorching summer heat with no rain, all vegetation has been severely affected.

When we left in June, our views of the hills were lush and a deep verdant green.

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Today, sadly, they are scorched.

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How much this will affect the grapes is not clear, but the olive oil harvest will definitely suffer. Many people we know will not be picking olives this year.

But neither rain nor sun will deter the Cortonese, who pack much into the summer months.

Cortona on the Move International Photography Festival is in full swing, occupying 8 historic buildings, some rarely open, as well as a photo exhibit in the parterre (park). More on these as we visit the exhibits. 

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The Cortonantiquaria, a national antiques exhibition market, is in the lovely 18th century Palazzo Vagnotti.

Various food festivals, called sagra, are held weekends through the summer. The Porcini Sagra was last weekend in Cortona’s parterre.

So much more to come, but for me, Cortona is always about the people, both local and international friends, who make this wonderful town home. 

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With gratitude to Andrew Lloyd Weber for helping me share what’s in my heart:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

Ciao,
Judy

San Feliciano Umbria

18 May

After many years in Cortona, I thought we had visited most towns and villages that surround Lake Trasimeno, but not surprisingly, there is always another gem to discover. Knowing we love fresh fish, some friends suggested we head to Ristorante Da Massimo in San Feliciano, Umbria. The restaurant is nestled on a quiet hill overlooking the lake.

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Meet Massimo, chef and proprietor of this over 25 year-old restaurant.

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We began with appetizers, and they were so good, we jumped right in and I didn’t get photos. Len and I shared an enormous plate of spaghetti con vongole (clams), one of the best we have eaten in Italy, while our friends shared a mixed seafood appetizer – first cold seafood then hot.

While this is not what we ate, I was able to get a photo of this spaghetti with mixed seafood.

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For our second course, Len and I shared grilled spigola, or sea bass, and it was delicious!

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Our friends ordered the oven roasted version with potatoes and olives.

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To accompany our meal, we drank a light sparkling white wine, perfect with seafood.

After coffee, we decided to take a walk in the town. From Cortona, the winding scenic ride along the lake eventually brings you to this small fishing village, perhaps “on the map” as it is one of the places you can catch a ferry to Isola Polvese in the lake. San Feliciano is about 35-45 kilometers from Cortona, depending on your route.

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Being that it was a weekday, and not quite summer, the town was quiet and we had much of it to ourselves. Not sure how busy it gets in summer, but there are campgrounds nearby, so our timing was perfect. In addition, in late July each year, the town hosts the annual Festa del Giacchio, a festival that pays tribute to an old fishing technique dating back to Etruscan times. Although the technique is no longer used on the lake, during the festival there are demonstrations, competitions, and opportunities to participate in all kinds of events.

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Len has long wanted to rent a small boat and fish in Lake Trasimeno, and San Feliciano seems to fit the bill perfectly. Perhaps the best part for me is that Len can throw back whatever he catches, and after a relaxing day, we can all eat well at Ristorante Da Massimo, no fish cleaning or cooking required.

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Ristorante Da Massimo and San Feliciano, two great additions to our list of favorite places!

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Ciao,
Judy

2017 Orto Planting

6 May

Finally, finally, our plants are in the orto, or vegetable garden. We waited two weeks later than last year due to cold weather and are so happy we did. We have some friends who planted in April and now need to replant due to frost and a recent 0° night. In fact, we know several people whose fruit trees suffered a lot of damage and now won’t produce fruits like figs, apricots, cherries, etc. this year.

It’s hard to believe this small bunch of plants will populate Fernanda’s orto…
12 tomatoes (4 varieties); 12 red onions; 4 zucchini.

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As you might recall, four of us, all novices, planted a vegetable garden last spring at our friend’s home in the country. And here’s a reminder of last year’s success!

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Having set the bar pretty high, and wanting similar results, some advice was sought (“offered”) from more skilled neighbors. It’s a funny thing about “orto rules”…there seem to be as many as there are vegetable gardeners. In addition, Italians who live in the country are known to have superstitions about doing things on certain days of the week – but we didn’t let that bother us.

First step was for Len and Loreno to count off the space needed for the tomato plants.

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Once measured, building of the cane structure commenced. There was some “debate” this year about teepee style (last year’s) vs. box style, but after much consideration, box style won.

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Looks like a tying lesson is going on here.

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Tomato plants were added, water troughs dug, and once completed, the perfectly aligned tomatoes looked like this.

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Then the onions and zucchini were planted in the rear of the garden where there are also garlic and artichoke plants, hardier plants which had been planted earlier in the season.

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After a very productive afternoon, Fernanda treated us to a delicious dinner and the day treated us to a beautiful sunset.

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When your daily view looks like this…

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how can you not want to plant your own orto?

Here’s to our orto trio, our hard-working contadini (farmers)…can’t wait to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

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Ciao,
Judy

Pasqua and Pasquetta

17 Apr

Yesterday throughout Italy, families and friends gathered after mass for warm hugs, long Easter lunches and lively conversation. Intermittent rain showers didn’t dampen any spirits, although we were happy we ate inside.

We joined some friends at their beautiful home just past Pergo, a short ride from Cortona. We’ve been before, but it is always a pleasure to return as the setting is incredible.

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Len, of course, needed to check out the 1975 Fiat 500 parked in the drive.

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The house, built in the late 1700’s, was originally a farm-house, but is now a beautifully restored/renovated home with guest house, covered pool, garage and incredible 360° views, (and it is on the market as grandchildren live too far away!)*

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We began on the terrace with a Prosecco toast.

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Then lunch was served in the dining room.

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Unfortunately, I missed taking photos of the delicious chicken with gorgonzola lunch, but desserts included a traditional Easter colombo – a dove shaped cake…

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as well as fresh strawberries and cream on sponge cake.

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After a few attempts, we even managed to take a timed selfie.

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Afterward, some of us took a leisurely stroll around the property, admiring the views…

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while others retired to the terrace.

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Many thanks to our gracious hosts, shown in a photo I took of them on our last visit.

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Pasqua and Pasquetta, Easter and Easter Monday, two holidays in Italy, the first religious, the second not. Once again today, Cortona was packed with people. In fact, both yesterday and today, there were traffic jams.

But today, Pasquetta, is a day set aside for relaxation. All the solemnity and preparation of Easter are over, and it is a day to relax, except, of course, for restaurants and retail shops who serve the masses of people enjoying a day off.

Strolling is the norm, so strolling we did. The park was filled with people,

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taking in the views.

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Others were enjoying entertainment in the piazzas, including the Old Florence Dixie Band,

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and just appreciating the beautiful day.

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Between the park and the piazza, we found an empty park bench and literally put our feet up as we took in the view.

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Late afternoon, we headed home for a brief riposo (rest) before meeting friends for dinner.

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And that’s what one does in Cortona for Pasqua and Pasquetta, a perfectly lovely few days.

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Ciao,
Judy

*Note: Many have asked me what the inside of an Italian house looks like. If interested, you can see more photos via the listing link below.

http://www.abodeitaly.com/property/68c/tuscany/casa-giordano-piazzano/arezzo/farmhouses-and-count/4-bedrooms

 

 

Autumn Colors of Cortona

17 Oct

As the days shorten and the sun’s heat weakens, autumn colors and vistas are wrapping their arms around the ancient city of Cortona.

Zucchini flowers are at their end,

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As are the tomatoes that have delighted all spring, summer and early fall.

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Local olives are nearly ready to be picked, and after a trip to the local mill, become 100% Italian olive oil. Worth repeating – 100%!

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In all directions, there is beauty in nature; vibrant colors are everywhere. Mid October showers us with 11 hours of daylight and a temperature usually in the 60s, just what one hopes for in the fall.

If you’ve been to Cortona, the views will beckon you to return. If not, join me for a stroll through the Parterre.

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If you can’t join us in Cortona, I hope you make time to take in the beauty of fall –  wherever your walks may take you.

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You might just be surprised at what you find.

Ciao,
Judy

La Cannuccia, C. del Lago

10 Oct

Winter arrived today, so say the Italians, as the winds were strong and the dark clouds made the temperatures drop. Suddenly, fashion consisted of turtlenecks, an abundance of scarves, and “puffy” (down) coats and jackets. Luckily for us, we were prepared.

With a sprinkle in the air in Cortona, we got in our Fiat 500, destination unknown, and soon found ourselves in Castiglione del Lago. Stronger winds and bigger clouds greeted us,

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but without rain, and a goal of fresh air and exercise, we were happy to walk as we had the lake and view to ourselves.

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Water is mesmerizing, and as we walked, we watched the waves crash upon the rocks. The seagulls were playing what looked like Marco Polo, that “catch me if you can” game we played as kids and they played with the waves.

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After awhile, the clouds broke across the lake and the sun shone like a spotlight on several of the hill towns.

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Eventually, we stopped for lunch at La Cannuccia, our lakeside go-to cafe. We ordered our usual split lunch, a grilled panino and mixed salad, which is served with delicious warm rolls.

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After lunch, Riccardo asked if we were football fans.

“I’m a big baseball fan at the moment,” I replied, “as I’m from Chicago and …”

“Chicago Cubs!” he said and smiled.

“We live about two miles from…”

“Wrigley Field!” he exclaimed.

“You must like baseball,” I said.

“Not so much. It can be boring, especially when there is a pitching battle,” he replied.

“Like the first game the other night…” 

“When the Cubs won 1-0 against the San Francisco Giants,” he quickly replied.

“We haven’t won in over a century, and…” 

“The goat,” he said, and raised his hands like Italians do. “I don’t believe.”

By now, Len was intrigued. Since our dear friends, Carrol and Larry, had left weeks ago, Len had not found anyone to have a good baseball conversation with. And here was Riccardo, born and raised locally, owner of a bar in Castiglione del Lago in the center of Italy, speaking English, he – a fountain of knowledge about American baseball, a sport that wasn’t even his favorite.

After they talked baseball for a bit, I asked what Il Cannuccia means. “It’s the tall grass that grows in a swamp,” he said, as he pointed to the bottom right of a giant photo on the face of the bar.  100 years ago, much of the lake was a swamp.

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The present bar was built in the 50’s. It has been in Riccardo’s family since the mid 70’s and is now operated by Riccardo and his brother Simone.

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I asked if I could take a few pictures.  “Sure, but the best view is looking out.”

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Easy to see why he thinks that and one of the reasons we keep returning.

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After lunch, I considered having gelato, as theirs is very good. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, Ricardo asked if we like cream. “Sure, why not,” I answered, and he set off to make something special for us.

He arrived with this.

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This incredibly light “sugar donut” is called a ciambella. He quartered it, and topped it with  panna fresca, (fresh cream,) and cacao candela, (cinnamon). My sister Florence and her husband Vince would have ordered this and skipped the salad and panino. Benita too.

Castiglione del Lago in Umbria is about 30 minutes from Cortona on the SW corner of Lago Trasimeno. Although Cortona is a city where you don’t need a car, if you have one, it is such fun exploring all the neighboring towns, taking in the sights, and making interesting new friends like Riccardo. Who knew???

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

Sunflowers, Take Your Bow

8 Sep

If you close your eyes and imagine a Tuscan landscape, it’s hard not to picture a field of sunflowers or girasole. 

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They are as much a part of the vistas as olive groves and vineyards. These magnificent yellow flowers are planted each spring and perform their role admirably throughout the summer, standing tall and delighting all who seek them out. They generously pose for hours on end for cameras, never complaining or shying away from the sun. And they are a beautiful addition to any table setting.

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Then in the fall, after months of performing, they stand together and begin their final bow.

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Even after they have lost their bright yellow color, sunflowers still have much to offer in harvest. As mentioned before in a previous post, …

  1. Sunflower seeds are edible, whether eaten raw, cooked, roasted or dried. They are a nutritious snack containing protein, vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, nitrogen and iron.
  2. Some people ground the seeds to make flour for cakes and breads.
  3. The seed heads are a source of food for birds and animals. Sunflower seeds are a major ingredient in commercial birdseed.
  4. Sunflower oil is a popular vegetable oil known for its light colour, mild flavour, low levels of saturated fats and ability to withstand high cooking temperatures.
  5. The oil can also be added to soap, lubricants and candles.
  6. Sunflower oil can help relieve skin conditions, hemorrhoids and ulcers.
  7. Sunflower roots can remove radiation from soils and water. They were used to clean up the Chernobyl disaster.
  8. The root of the plant is also used in traditional herbal medicine to treat snake bites and spider bites.
  9. The flowers can be used to make an all natural dye.
  10. The stalks are used to make paper and clothes.

So, as the sunflowers take a well deserved bow, it’s nice to know we benefit from them in so many other ways.

Ovation, please!

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Ciao,
Judy

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