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An Ode to Springtime in Cortona

6 Apr

When an 8 1/2 hour flight turns into a 40+ hour unexpected project, it is heartwarming to be embraced by the outstretched arms of Cortona – its historic buildings, incredible views, wonderful food and most of all, its warm and gracious people. It’s no wonder that, over Easter weekend, Cortona was ranked the number one preferred Italian destination by Airbnb.

Thus, our familiar walks have inspired my very simplistic verse:

Ode to Springtime in Cortona

With temperatures rising,
the buds are bursting and the sun is shining.

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Many are walking as others are riding.

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As the fog is lifting, it is quite revealing –
the dandelions are popping
and the hillsides are greening.

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All the while,
the bright shiny Vespas and motos keep careening.

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So many places for delicious dining;

©blogginginitaly.com (Tuscher)

©blogginginitaly.com (Tuscher)

©blogginginitaly.com (Tuscher)

accompanied, of course, by Tuscan wine(ing).

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And no matter what age, Gelato always brings smiling.

©blogginginitaly.com (Snoopy’s)

So if you are seeking a place which is lovely and inspiring,

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Cortona in Springtime is simply beguiling.

©blogginginitaly.com

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.

©blogginginitaly.com

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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©blogginginitaly.com

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

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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©Blogginginitaly.com

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.

©Blogginginitaly.com

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,

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

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

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©Blogginginitaly.com

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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©Blogginginitaly.com

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

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. 

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

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.

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

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

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

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!

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

Ciao,
Judy

A Tuscan Sunset

4 Sep

Il Rifugio, (The Refuge), is a private Tuscan villa for rent by the owners. It is a lovingly restored seventeenth-century stone farmhouse that sits on a Tuscan hillside in the village of Montanare, community of Cortona.

Accepting an invitation to dinner from friends staying at Il Rifugio was easy. We knew the group would be fun, the conversations lively, and the food and wine, well, as we’ve come to expect in Italy, delicious.

What we didn’t anticipate, however, were the breathtaking views. Suffice it to say, one can easily understand the advice from their website: “Slow down, review your dreams, and rethink your life…” 

Just  yesterday, a friend was saying how relaxed and unstressed he is here. I believe it is a common sentiment for many of us fortunate enough to be part of this.

And if you can’t be in Tuscany…

when you have a moment to relax, fill your favorite glass, click on the photos to enlarge, and enjoy a view that only nature can paint.

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

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©Blogginginitaly.com

Ciao,
Judy

 

My Here and There

29 Jun

Whether in Chicago or Cortona, Len and I try to walk everyday, or as we say in Italian, fare una passeggiata. During our walks, my senses take in beautiful sights, sounds (no ear buds for me), and the vast array of smells from fragrant flowers to pop-up food stands. The differences are striking, from the moment I step outside my door…

Via Santucci, Cortona ©Blogginginitaly.com

Via Santucci, Cortona ©Blogginginitaly.com

And not surprising, as Chicago is a relatively new city…1833

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Chicago ©Blogginginitaly.com

While Cortona is an ancient town… 7th century BC.

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Cortona©Blogginginitaly.com

And while the differences are striking in many ways, it occurred to me that there are some interesting similarities.

Both cities have incredible parks where we take  our walks,

Lincoln Park©Blogginginitaly.com

Lincoln Park, Chicago ©Blogginginitaly.com

Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

with beautiful fountains,

Lincoln Park©Blogginginitaly.com

Lincoln Park, Chicago ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

incredible monuments and memorials,

Lincoln Park©Blogginginitaly.com

Lincoln Park, Chicago ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

seating for the weary,

Lincoln Park©Blogginginitaly.com

Lincoln Park, Chicago ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

And cats to entertain.

Lincoln Park Zoo©Blogginginitaly.com

Lincoln Park Zoo ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Parterre ©Blogginginitaly.com

While Chicago borders beautiful Lake Michigan,

Lake Michigan ©Blogginginitaly.com

Lake Michigan ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona is just a short drive to Lago Trasimeno.

Lago Trasimeno©Blogginginitaly.com

Lago Trasimeno ©Blogginginitaly.com

And both provide relaxing settings for walking and biking.

Lincoln Park©Blogginginitaly.com

Lincoln Park Chicago ©Blogginginitaly.com

Lago Trasimeno©Blogginginitaly.com

Lago Trasimeno ©Blogginginitaly.com

Now if stopping for ice cream/gelato is your thing, no problem…

Lincoln Park©Blogginginitaly.com

Chicago ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona ©Blogginginitaly.com

or shopping at a local market.

Lincoln Park Market©Blogginginitaly.com

Lincoln Park Market ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona market ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Market ©Blogginginitaly.com

Need fast delivery? Both locales have you covered.

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Cortona ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona ©Blogginginitaly.com

Looking for entertainment? Races on foot or on wheels?

hicago Marathon©Blogginginitaly.com

Chicago Marathon ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Bike Race ©Blogginginitaly.com

Or annual traditions?

Chicago Air and Water Show©Blogginginitaly.com

Chicago Air and Water Show ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Archidado©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Archidado ©Blogginginitaly.com

Feeling like spectating or donning a costume?

Lake Michigan ©Blogginginitaly.com

Lake Michigan ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Archidado ©Blogginginitaly.com

Cortona Archidado ©Blogginginitaly.com

And finally, when we need four wheels, …well, got that covered too!

Big City Safety

Big City Safety

Small town parking©Blogginginitaly.com

Small town parking ©Blogginginitaly.com

Ok, ok, don’t ask about such things as tomatoes, wine, cheese, pasta – no contest – but a very good reason to keep returning for una passeggiata in the land of my ancestors.

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planting an Orto

22 Apr

Recently, we visited a friend’s house in the country, a short 15 minute drive from Cortona. Although there were pretty flowers in pots and along the walkways, Len inquired about the vegetable garden. Doesn’t every home in the country have one?  “I’ve never had the time,” replied our friend, somewhat sadly, as she showed us the area where one would be planted. We also got a short Italian lesson..  a flower garden is giardino; a vegetable garden is orto.

Len and I looked at each other, smiled, and quickly asked if we could plant one together. Her eyes and smile said certo!

This week, the weather was nice enough to begin the work.

When we arrived, Fernanda was busy in the kitchen preparing lunch. Whether olive picking or planting an orto, a proper Italian lunch is always part of the day. She was making tiramisu from fresh eggs from her mother’s chickens.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

And this was our day:

Outside, the area was being prepared by Carlo with help from Len.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

Then a trip to the nursery to pick the vegetables. The master planners were at work, selecting  the tomatoes, zucchini, onions and peppers, as well as dirt, tools, supports, etc.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

Next it was time to build the cross trellises for the tomatoes, a rather elaborate and tedious process.

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After many hours, time for a well-deserved break and lunch.

Alio e olio con peperoncino

olio e alio con peperoncino ©Blogginginitaly.com

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Salad, fresh ricotta and dark bread

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Tiramisu

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©Blogginginitaly.com

Then back to work to plant the vegetables.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

And advice from the neighbor to add more canes horizontally to support the tomatoes as they grow.

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Finally, add water.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

After a long day, it was time for dinner. Len had made pizza dough the night before, so he took over in the kitchen…

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under the very watchful eye of Mama Anna. What was she thinking???

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Achy, but feeling happy, we sat for dinner and laughed and talked about our accomplishments.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

After dinner, we went outside to view our work.

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Such perfect rows of tomatoes, with the other veggies planted behind.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

A blue haze crept in as the sun was setting over the valley, and the lights of Cortona were beginning to twinkle in the distance.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

And a fun footnote to the day. The neighbor, who besides offering assistance and advice, had two things to say. First, he was delighted that after all these years, an orto had finally been planted. And second, he was most amazed that it was two Americans that got it to happen. A toast to those damn Yanks!

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

The Mighty Chianina

14 Apr

If you’ve been to Italy, and Tuscany in particular, you’ve no doubt heard of bistecca fiorentina. I remember the first time we ordered one. It was over 15 years ago and we were having dinner in Firenze. Not being much of a carnivore, I was a bit surprised when it arrived at the table –  huge and very, very rare. I was about to ask to have it returned to the kitchen for a bit more grilling when Len and Benita said they’d be happy to eat it as is. And they did. They both said the steak was tender and flavorful. I took their word for it.

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

Since that time, I have learned more about the steak and its origins. Chianina is one of the oldest and largest breeds of cattle, originating in the Valdichiana, hence its name. The cattle have been raised in the area for over 2200 years and were primarily used as oxen due to their size and strength. Being the tallest and heaviest breed of cattle, a mature bull can weigh over 3000 pounds and can grow to nearly 6 feet tall.

After WWII, machinery replaced these oxen in the fields, and chianina numbers began to dwindle until several breeders worked to bring back the breed. At the end of 2010, there were 47,236 head registered in Italy, of which more than 90% were in Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio.

For me, there are two other interesting things about them besides their size:
One, they are porcelain white;
Two, you never, ever see them.

Each year, we spend hours driving through the hills of Tuscany. We see the sights that paintings, no matter how good, can never quite duplicate. The hills are filled with farms, vineyards, and acres and acres of growing fruit trees, grains, vegetables, etc. But never, ever, a chianina. Not one.

Until now. Yesterday, I came face to face with some young chianina.

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

In color or black and white, they are quite unique.

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©Blogginginitaly.com

Now for sure I don’t think I’ll ever eat a bistecca fiorentina!

©Blogginginitaly.com

©Blogginginitaly.com

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

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