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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

Celebrating with Friends

23 May


My most heartfelt thanks for all the birthday wishes I received yesterday via hugs, phone and video calls, emails, messages and social media. The best part for me was seeing the names of special people in my life –  family members, relatives, dear friends I’ve known forever and new friends I’ve made along the way.

One of my brothers-in-law suggested that whatever I do, I should share the day in photos, so here are some of the wonderful highlights.

Breakfast at Tuscher:

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Hair Cut at AF:

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Lunch with a few friends (they brought the party items!) at Cafe Braceria Chianina:

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The chef, server and the piping hot grill:

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Shared antipasto:

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Various menu items ordered –  Pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil,

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Filet topped with bacon,

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Stuffed rolled turkey breast,

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and my favorite – grilled chicken breast!

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Dessert was self-select, and I managed to only get a photo of the tiramisu.

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After a most leisurely lunch, we headed to Fernanda’s for caffè and sambuca,

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and then Len engaged in his new favorite pastime – small Tuscan cigaros!

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Later in the evening, with no one hungry, we had an impromptu toast or “brindisi” at Tuscher.

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What a perfectly wonderful way to spend my birthday, being utterly relaxed, showered with gifts and loving wishes, including an upcoming CUBS night game from Benita, and sharing it all with dear friends in Cortona. Len said he wishes my next birthday could come sooner, but I’m quite happy to wait another year!

Till then, many many thanks to all who helped make my day so very special, and most especially, this guy.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

Mille Miglia Cortona 2018

17 May

Cortona was ready…the Mille Miglia was passing through the town for the first time ever and the spectators eagerly awaited their arrival. Although the main viewing area was Piazza Repubblica, where each car was announced as it arrived,

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each car first had to pass through the adjacent Piazza Signorelli, my first vantage point. I was in place as the first car arrived in this three-day Italy event from Brescia – Roma – Brescia.

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Other cars soon followed. Given that I took nearly 200 photos today, I leaned on Len to help choose a good sampling.

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As the cars passed from one piazza to the next, the delighted crowds cheered and waved flags. I love that some drivers seemed as taken with Cortona as the spectators were with them (see driver in the red sweater!).

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And then the parade continued, sometimes in single file 

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and sometimes in clusters.

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Stopping isn’t as easy as one might think – these cars have mechanical, not power brakes.

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An exception, of course, is this Ferrari pace car which Len said was too beautiful to leave out. Ok, ok.

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I decided to head toward the area where the cars were entering Cortona. On the way, I passed this vintage car on Via Dardano.

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Entering Porta Colonia is a rather tight turn, and I was interested in seeing how the drivers were maneuvering. This driver made it look pretty easy as these cars also have no power steering. 

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However, when I passed through Porta Colonia to Piazza Mazzini, I discovered the answer. The usual parking lot had been turned into a wide turning radius, greatly minimizing not only the tight turn but also the chance for scratches and scrapes.

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And then the cars kept coming and coming and coming. Whatever the final count, the original estimate was around 600 – with such an impressive array of makes, styles, colors, and sizes. 

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Not quite sure I could spend three days/1000 miles in this!

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Kudos to Cortona for making its debut in the 2018 Mille Miglia circuit and for a job well done! 

Arrivederci, Mille Miglia, hopefully we meet again.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

2018 Orto (Garden) Planted!

30 Apr

In a very unanticipated move, we planted the garden yesterday. The original plan was for this Thursday, but the weather outlook was not encouraging with a week of rain and thunderstorms in the forecast.

With Fernanda’s approval (she was at work), Len, Carlo and I headed to the nursery at 3PM to purchase tomato plants.

In late April/early May, hail producing storms can play havoc with small plants in Tuscany, but we were ready and determined to get the garden in before the storms.  After all, we did the same two years ago with great success.

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With two years experience under their belts, Len and Carlo were up to the task.

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They moved quickly and efficiently, re-using the cane from years past to make the trellises.

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My job was to cut the twine, make caffè, and hold things as needed.

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When not needed, I wandered the fields next door. Only this year have I learned that the tall green grassy fields that blow in the wind are actually grain/wheat fields. I had assumed, incorrectly, that wheat would be a tan color, not bright green. These happen to be orzo or barley.

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A close-up reveals the familiar spike at the top of the plant.

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But back to the garden…four zucchini plants and eighteen tomato plants, (four varieties),

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all covered in mesh to hopefully ward off any potential hail damage.

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By 7 PM, the job was done and the full moon showered her approval.

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All in a day’s wonderful work, truly from farm to table (eventually!),

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with, fingers-crossed, a bit of cooperation from Mother Nature!

Ciao,
Judy

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

 

 

Still Saying “I Do!”

30 Oct

Wednesday was the last night in Cortona of our 9th stay, and also happened to be our 30th anniversary. 

We began the day with a wonderful walk through the parterre, bathed in sunshine and enjoying the magnificent October weather and views.

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We ended the evening, surrounded by friends, at our favorite Tuscher Caffè.

We had told Massimo and Daniela we wanted to host a Brindisi D’Anniversario, or Anniversary Toast, with simple finger food…but of course, they always do so much more than expected. 

We arrived a bit early to find Dani and Edoardo making the final touches on the buffet…

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and Massimo ready to open the Prosecco.

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The food was not only delicious, but so creative! 

As we waited for our guests, Len rehearsed his toast. When all had assembled, we took our first group photo. Well done, Francesco!

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After more toasts and eating, Len asked for attention. He began by apologizing for his Italian, but was quickly reassured by the group that his effort was well appreciated. Toasting our friends in his best Italian, he thanked them for their sincere friendship and for making us truly feel that Cortona is our second home.

And then he turned to me, with these words, also in Italian… “You are the butter on my bread and the fire in my heart.” Melted.

While the food was being cleared, we made some attempts at gender photos…

And then we were doubly surprised by the dessert…

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First, that it was a gift from dear friends from Toronto, Carrol and Larry, and second, that all this time I thought I was married to LEN! (Technology can be great as we were able to FaceTime them in Toronto while cutting the cake!)

Such a wonderful evening, full of laughter, smiles, stories, and most of all dear friends. 

30 years ago, 

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And today…

As I reflect on the the past 30 years, what comes to mind most is how blessed we have been and how thankful we are for our loving family, our dear friends, and our ongoing adventures. 

Hoping to get just one more group photo before we departed, we stopped a person walking by outside and asked him to take a photo. It was quickly evident this was not something he was used to doing… with his finger half over the lens and quite shaky!

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But alas, with pure luck, he took this. A little finger shadow top left, but all in all, a great memory of a wonderful evening!

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Many thanks to Daniela and Massimo for their hard work…we so love having parties at Tuscher. And our heartfelt love and thanks to family and friends, whether with us at Tuscher or from far away, for the wonderful anniversary wishes. I hope they all do come true and that we have many more years to celebrate.

And yes, after 30 years, I am still saying “I Do!”

Ciao,
Judy

The 2017 Olive Harvest

23 Oct

Every year, around mid to late October, many Cortonese hope to begin harvesting their olives. I use the word hope because Mother Nature plays a huge role in the success of the harvest. While 2015 was a bountiful year, the complete opposite was true for 2016 due to the dreaded mosca (fly).  And this year, the 2017 harvest was severely limited by the drought…hence,  small quantity but good quality olives depending on the location of one’s olive grove.

Nonetheless, October begins the eagerly anticipated time “olio nuovo” (new oil) signs begin to appear in restaurants and stores. And it is also a time when locals invite friends to celebrate their production. Lucky for us, friends invited us to dinner last night, but didn’t tell us they had already been to the frantoio (mill) to begin processing their olives.

As soon as we entered the cantina, we knew we were in for a treat. The bright green color and the light peppery taste of freshly pressed olive oil is unlike that of any other oil.

 

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Lapo and Paola like to call this a peasant dinner – simple and fresh food picked from the garden or locally sourced, all designed to highlight the taste of the new oil.

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New oil is traditionally first tasted as a bruschetta  – toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and topped with the oil. We each made our own. Delicious.

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We also added the oil to a dash of salt in tiny bowls – a wonderful dip for fresh vegetables from the garden.

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Next came what Len calls an Italian version of hummus, this one made from ceci (chickpeas), drizzled with the oil and topped with a sprig of rosemary. Can’t wait to try this myself.

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The dish that followed was a type of bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, topped with a drizzle of oil. Simple, delicious and perfect for an autumn evening. 

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Now this is Italy, remember, so you know there is more to follow, and what followed was rosemary roasted chicken and potatoes, with a splash of oil of course!

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Now not all olives are turned into oil, as was the case with these tasty herb and orange marinated olives, served as a side dish.

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For dessert, we were treated to Paola’s delicious torta della nonna, (grandmother’s cake), a traditional Tuscan dessert with a light custard. (I forgot to ask if she added a drop of the new oil to it!) Not being much of a baker, I bought the others at a local pasticceria. 

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So that’s how we celebrate the olive harvest in Cortona, enjoying what Mother Nature provides, combined with the hard work of locals who pick by hand. 

From this…

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to this. Doesn’t get much better.

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Our thanks to Lapo and Paola for an always entertaining and delicious evening together. Complimenti to the cook and grazie for your friendship!

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Ciao,
Judy

Fighting a Cold (raffreddore)

9 Oct

In October, when the night air turns cooler but the days are still warm, Tuscan colds are a plenty. The locals blame it on the change in weather and I’m becoming a believer. But when the sky is bright blue and the weather is in the 70’s, it’s hard to nurse a cold in bed. 

Still, not wanting to spread my germs, we headed to Lago Trasimeno for a walk and lunch. We were also curious about the lake level due to both the summer drought and more recent rains.

What we found didn’t surprise us as Umbria and Tuscany sustained spring and summer months with virtually no rain and intense heat. The lake had not only receded, it actually uncovered sandy beach areas we had never seen before.

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After our walk, we stopped at a caffé for a light lunch, but more so to sit in the warm sun and be mesmerized by the clouds dancing on the ripples across the lake.

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Walking back to the car, I couldn’t help but stop at this structure for a few more photos.

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Tonight for dinner, we made a red and yellow pepper risotto that turned out quite well. 

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All in all, a perfect way to not have a cold ruin a beautiful day! 

Ciao,
Judy

Cortona: Expect the Unexpected

31 Aug

Teatro Signorelli, built in 1854, is an imposing and beautiful theatre gracing the upper part of Piazza Signorelli. Over the years, it has been home to many cultural and theatrical events. Today, in addition to these events, one can see a movie or attend a conference.

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The Teatro’s grand portico also serves several functions, from a place for coffee, lunch or dinner to hosting a wedding reception. Last night it was host to us, a large gathering of friends coming together for dinner. And while the group size was a bit larger than normal last night, these gatherings are a familiar and wonderful way of life in Cortona.

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And while we expected the evening would invariably be fun, little did we know there would be a DJ in  the piazza. As we sat for dinner, the DJ began with some Italian classical music, including Andrea Bocelli singing Nessus Dorma.

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After our first course, however, the tempo changed to disco and we were out of our seats dancing to such classics as I Will Survive, sung by Gloria Gaynor. 

After our second course, many in our group formed a human chain and invaded the piazza below to join others near the DJ.

Even the canines were enjoying the entertainment.

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My favorite moment of the evening was our rendition of Village People’s Y.M.C.A. Every local Italian I know is familiar with the arm moves – Y-M-C-A– and we didn’t miss a beat. Unfortunately, I was too involved myself to get a photo – che pecato!

I did, however, manage to get a great group photo. 

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Thanks to our “organizers” and Caffe del Teatro Signorelli for such a fun and memorable evening filled with good friends, good food, and some unexpected and much appreciated good music!

Ciao,
Judy

 

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