Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Under the Tuscan Sun

Today is my last day in Siena, Tuscany. I know, I'm a little sad about this. Only a little, since there are other places to go and things to see.

So today I decided to have a "day off" from site seeing. No plans.

After a nice, late breakfast and shower at La Locanda di San Martino, I wandered over to Piazza del Campo and sat in the morning sun watching the little kiddies run around chasing pigeons. It really ought to be a national sport. Silly pigeons; so focused on the possibility of food left from tourists, they don't have the sense (or desire) to fly off. Then a Jack Russell terrier and a very excitable dachshund started in on the game. Pre-schoolers, small dogs and birds...what could be more entertaining?

After that I headed over to the Siena Cathedral to sit on the white steps and soak up some more sun. Did I mention today is clear skies and 23 degrees? Slight breeze. Anyhow, sitting against the warm white stones, feeling the sun shine down on my arms and late October. Amazing.

Time to stroll along the winding streets and do a little window shopping. After about two hours of walking, it was time for a late lunch. I found myself back at Piazza del Campo and opted for a little table, some fresh bruschetta pomodoro, some house pasta, a glass of wine, and you guessed it....more sunshine.

Next up was some gelato. It's absolutely true that Italy has the best gelato. I mean, Spain and Portugal come pretty close, but I think Italy has it down to a science. This time, I chose Cherry English Trifle and coconut. English Trifle in a gelato you say? Why yes! The gelato custard base is made and then a layer is spread into the pan. Pieces of sponge cake, amarena cherries and liqueur are then layered on top. Then more gelato custard base is spread on top. Repeat the layers. So good! And where did I eat my gelato? Why, sitting in the sun of course!

Back to wandering the streets. There are so many leather goods and pottery shops here. My mom has asked for a pair of brown leather boots. She and I are the same size shoe, as well as the same through the ankle and calf muscles. Which means if the boots fit me then they should fit her. I think she's going to really like the ones I bought her. And if she doesn't, well..... I really like them, and I know they fit it's really a win-win situation.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel for a quick nap and to catch up with family back home. I also worked on some design sketches for a bit. I'm happy to report the new sketches are coming along nicely.

Dinner was at Osteria La Logge. This Michelin-rated restaurant is warm, inviting, and just a little quirky. I passed by the spot during the day and couldn't help smiling at the display of old trumpets used as candle holders in the window and the old weigh scales by the cash register. Also catching my attention were the large display windows into the kitchen, and that one of the windows was open with a screen in place. This meant that the kitchen is the star of this restaurant (as it should be), and that the restaurant is happy to display their working kitchen in hopes of enticing the people walking by. The open window let prospective guests (the restaurant does not advertise but replies on word of mouth) know that the kitchen is "open for conversation" and therefore approachable. And the wonderful aromas coming through the window definitely had people stopping to take a longer look. An interesting way of advertising, but it seemed to be working. I knew I needed to eat in this restaurant.

The lead server is Mirco. He was amazing at finding me a spot in an already-booked restaurant. If you do visit, be prepared that you might not be seated at your own table. I was seated at an oval table with two other men, but the table gave me a great view of the room. The kind gentlemen promptly offered me some of their Brane- Cantena Margaux 2000 Gran Cru (yes, a French wine in Italy....even Italians get tired of their own wines I guess). Already in the room (and in full swing) was a party of ten gentlemen from various states in the United States. They were visiting the area on business. More on this gang a little later.

The space used to be a pharmacy, and still retains the beautiful cabinetry; now filled with books, glassware, bottles of grappa and scotch, as well as limited edition bottles of wine. A cabinet of additional glassware by the kitchen proudly displays snapshots of famous guests including Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Stiller and Morgan Freeman.

And what a kitchen! High end Italian kitchens tend to be laid out in a square format, rather than the traditional "kitchen line" I'm used to in North America. Essentially, each cook works in their space on their particular item (garde manger, veg, meat, etc), and then bring their item to the center island to plate. This, to me, seems to cause less confusion, less shouting of "BEHIND", and ensures each station has access to the plate, which means in theory it would leave the kitchen sooner. And as a result, all of my dishes arrived within great time.

The food was fantastic. I started with a simple pappardelle with house ragu. Noodles and meat sauce, right? I didn't want this dish to end; I could have ordered another portion it was so good. The meat sauce was somehow both robust in flavour and light in texture at the same time. The noodles were spot on.

As soon as my plate was cleared, it was replaced with my second course, stuffed rabbit. The medallions were crispy on the outside while moist on the inside and stuffed with spinach, rosemary and salvia.

Somewhere (and somehow) between my dinner plate being removed and my dessert arriving I ended up invited to the table of 10 Americans; who as it turns out were with Jackson Family Fine Wines .....Freemark Abbey, Hartford Family Wines, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Stonestreet...and Tenuta di Arceno, which produces Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Reserva under winemaker Lawrence Cronin. Meeting a group of like-minded people also interested in wine and food is fantastic and always evokes great conversations, along with some hilarity. Case in point: I was educated on the word "Schmeg" in "Waiter, there is some schmeg in my glass".

For dessert I took Mirco's advice and had a hazelnut cake and chestnut sauce dish. I liked how cheeky this dish was. It resembled mushrooms and a forest floor in the fall. The airy sponge cake was divided into pieces on the plate in a puddle of hazelnut cream. Cylinders of pastry made to resemble pasta or the stems of mushrooms offered a bit of saltiness and were filled with vanilla pastry cream; a nice contrast. Chestnut gelato. Heaven.

The business men headed out to their next party and I found myself with Mirco, his friends (my original dining partners) and their friend; a lovely woman from New Jersey. Some grappa, scotch and more wine resulted in dancing into the wee hours of the morning in a closed restaurant, causing people passing by to (once again) pause and look in the windows.

So a day with no plans turned into my most enjoyable day in this city. Tomorrow I leave for San Gimignano (again) and then on to Montepulciano. But I will take with me these wonderful memories of this beautiful city of Siena, and look forward to returning again soon.

Friday, October 17, 2014

San Gimignano

Today I visited the beautiful medieval town of San Gimignano in Italy. San Gimignamo is located in the province of Siena, Tuscany and is about 30 minutes by car from the town of Siena. It sits on a hill top surrounded by lush, rolling landscape.

The town is surrounded by three walls, with a series of gates between each wall and the ruins of a fortress at its highest point. San Gimingano is famous for its architecture; specifically for its ancient tower houses in Romanesque and Gothic styles.

The reason for the towers has a sort of Montague and Capulet story. There became a long, on-going rivalry between two families (the Guelphs; who supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines; who supported the Holy Roman Emperor) and as a way to out-do each other, for 200 years the generations of these two families built the towers as a way of showcasing their wealth and influence (or perceived wealth and influence). At the height of the feud, there were 72 towers, the tallest being over 70 meters high. Today, there are 13 remaining towers; as towers either crumbled through neglect or were brought down over time to make room for more usable living space.

San Gimignano is also known for the production of many delicacies including wine, extra virgin olive oil, wild boar products such as sausage, and saffron. Vernaccia, the first Italian white wine to receive DOC and then DOCG recognition, is a beautiful, easy drinking white wine that starts out creamy and finishes clean with hints of pear and apple. I enjoyed it so much that I had some shipped to my home (and anyone who knows me knows I am predominantly a red wine drinker)

I got the opportunity to visit the Tenuta Torciano Winery and enjoy a very thorough tasting of a number of their wines. These included:

2013 Torciano Poggioaicieli Vernaccia DOCG
2013 Torciano Crete Rosse Chianti DOCG
2012 Torciano Doge Chianti Classico
2009 Torciano Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
2010 Torciano Baldassarre "Super Tuscan" IGT
2010 Torciano Vin Beato Dessert Wine (not shown)

Served with the wine was bread with both their house olive oil and truffle infused olive oil, wild boar sausage, pecorino cheese and a radicchio and endive salad with their house balsamic reduction.

After all that wine and food tasting, it was time to head back to Siena and have a little nap before heading out for dinner and gelato.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Genoa / Genova - Part One

Today was Day One in Genova. This morning I took the train from Asti to Genova. The weather here is not good. When I arrived it was threatening to rain. Luckily, there are all kinds of street vendors harassing people passing by to buy their umbrellas. These guys sure do know their target market.

The place I am staying is called Morali Palace.  My room is on the fourth floor of a building from the 1700's. The room is nice with a great view of the harbour. It is located in the Piazza della Raibetta, very close to the Aquarium, which is one of the largest in Europe. The aquarium has a domed-like structure that is remarkably similar to the Expo Ball / Telus Science World (or whatever we are now supposed to call it) back home in Vancouver.

After checking in I decided to walk around the city for a little bit.

Genova is the capital of the province of Liguria, and is the sixth largest city in Italy. The city has a nickname of La Superba (the glorious one), due to it's rich history and many impressive landmarks. Several buildings within the city have been recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The city has a vibrant art, music, food and history. It is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and Niccolo Paganini.

The city's name is derived from the Latin word for knee (genu, plural genua). When looking at a map of Italy, Genova is located just under the "cuff" of the "boot" right where the knee would be. So this makes perfect sense.

The first place I came to was Piazza de Ferrari. There is a beautiful round fountain in the center of the square. The square is surrounded by both financial and art buildings. These include the Palace of the Doges (Dukes), the Theatre Carlo Felice; home to opera and ballet performances, The Ligurian Academy of Fine Arts and the Stock Exchange building.

There are many churches and cathedrals in Genova. The most noted is the Cattedral de San Lorenzo, with its striking black and white striped exterior. The cathedral was first founded in 6th century AD, and through various stops and starts and fires and additions and refurbishing, was finally completed the way it looks today in the 17th century. That's a VERY long time to build a church. There are a number of exceptional artworks and frescoes within the church, as well as a 15in shell from WWII, which struck a corner of the naive but failed to detonate. It is proudly displayed, with the inscription (in Italian):

This bomb launched by the British fleet while breaking through the walls of this great cathedral here fell unexploded IX February MCMXLI. A perennial gratitude of Mary, the city of Genoa wanted engraved in stone the memory of such grace.

Time to eat. Genova is famous for its pesto and fresh focaccia, so those were first on my list of things to try. I found a little pizzeria, and sat down and had myself the BIGGEST pesto pizza you could imagine, along with some red wine.

After dinner I wandered around a little more, but by that time it was starting to rain. Walking back to my palace / hotel, I was not five minutes in the door before the thunder started and the lightening began to flash. Hopefully it will all blow over and tomorrow will be a beautiful day for site seeing in this historic city.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cascina Barac - Part Two

Today is my second full day in Alba / Cascina Barac. I have decided to not really make any plans for my time here and to just see what unfolds.

At breakfast, one of my hosts Katia asked me if I wanted to go truffle hunting. A quick cup of tea, change into my boots and jeans and we were off. There were six in our party: A couple from Florida, Giancarlo who was a guide/translator, Renaldo the hunter/tartuffola and myself. And Luigi the dog; the star of the show. On the drive from Cascina Barac to the area where we were going hunting for truffles (which coincidentally is right beside the Gaja Winery), Giancarlo was very good at chatting about and explaining not only about the truffles, but about wine production in the region, the rise and fall of the market, which seasons have been better than others, and the increase in agrotourism in the area. Having worked a number of years in higher end restaurants, I was able to tell him a lot about how we here in North America receive the end products of their labours, and how much we are willing to pay at times to receive them. When I told him how much the tartuffa d'alba actually sells for in a restaurant in Vancouver, he quickly translated to Renaldo, who was driving. I thought Renaldo was going to drive off the road. Renaldo said something back to Giancarlo in Piedmontese, which I took to mean something along the lines of "I need a bigger cut of the money, no?" Obviously, there is a big price discrepancy between what the truffle hunter works hard to find and sells, and what we as end consumers pay at the restaurant.

It turns out our guides were no slouches at this industry. I found out there is a Truffle School that dogs must attend to learn how to sniff out and find the truffles. And not all dogs have a nose for it. But Luigi is one of the best. I'm not sure which incarnation of "Luigi" we had with us. You see, Renaldo has been hunting truffles for many years, and over the years, each male dog has been named Luigi and each female dog has been named Diana. In fact, in 1999, he and his dog Diana found one of the largest truffles in the world near Buje, Croatia. The truffle weighed 1.31 kilograms (2 lb 14 oz) and has been entered the Guinness Book of Records.

Luigi also knows the difference in smell between a black truffle and a white truffle, even while it is still in the ground. If it is a black truffle, he is allowed to dig it up and bring it to Renaldo. If it is a white truffle, he must stand and point and wag his tale. This is for two reasons. White truffles are more valuable than the black ones, and they are also more fragile and damage quite easily. We watched Luigi find truffles the size of a pea under six inched of soil. Luigi has been known to discover truffles around stone walls, under bracket and under 2 feet of hard packed soil.

We spent about 3 hours hunting for truffles. The ones in my hands (right) were the biggest we found today, and I'm holding about $350.00 worth of truffles. Many were small, or were a bit old. Renaldo says, "No matter, for the soup!" I guess if you are working that hard to find these gems, you don't want to let any go to waste.

The fresh air and walking meant it was time for a short snooze before heading out for the afternoon.

Around 4pm, I said to myself, "Hey Self, I want to go see that church up there; it looks interesting." So I made the 25 minute uphill hike to Treiso. I had the road to myself, with only one motorcycle that passed me. My company were the grape vines, the hazelnut trees and an occasional winged flurry as small birds took flight when I walked by.

Reaching the top, the church does not look impressive from the outside. Built in 1755, the Maria Virgine Assunta is a red clay brick church with a couple figures in stone on the front and a tower at the back.  The door was open, so I went inside. I was the only one there. I had this whole silent, empty space to myself. It was magic. And then I looked up.

This church is by no means the Sistine Chapel. And I know that there will be amazing examples of painted frescos and ceilings in Genova and Rome and everywhere in between. But to see this much detail devoted to a little church that serves a community of only 9.5 square was very inspiring.

I found a couple nice restaurants surrounding the church. One is from the Le Soste collection of restaurants called La Ciau del Tornavento , which is a Michelin Star awarded Asian-Italian fusion restaurant. It was impressive to find that calibre of eatery in a small town high up in the hills. Craving something more regional and rustic, I wandered into Trattoria Risorgimento. They were just opening for service. It is a family run restaurant; the father, Ilario is the host with a dry sense of humour and a wonderful selection of wines, and his daughter leads the kitchen with other daughters filling in service staff roles. I had a fantastic meal; starting with tarajin tagliati (a regional pasta created especially with white truffles / tartuffa) with butter and white truffles. One bite of the pasta and my sole focus became this dish in front of me. Delicate pasta, butter and white truffle. Outstanding. Usually in Vancouver when you order shaved Alba truffle on your meal, it is by the gram and usually around $25.00 to $32.00 per gram added to the price of your entree. Looking at the photo to the left, for 20€ for pasta including truffle, you can see this chef was quite generous with the truffle shaving. Next I has braised pork cheek with polenta, followed by a sort of raisin and jam cake made from local grapes. I also found a bottle of 2005 Sori Montaribaldi Barbaresco which, you 28.00 I just couldn't pass up. Total for three course meal with wine was 75.00

Ilario was kind enough to drive me back down the hill to Cascina Barac, and I took the remainder of my bottle of wine, a glass from my room and sat out on the veranda swing and enjoyed the silence of the rest of the evening (and my bottle of wine)

Looking forward to what tomorrow will bring.

A Year of Pretty - October 07, 2014

In keeping with the warm fall colour theme, I found this photo of this beautiful red hat. I love hats. I have a number of them. And this one I really like. It's also a stunning photo. Of which I have no original source. Except our friends at Pinterest.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cascina Barac - Part One

Today is Day One at Cascina Barac. Well technically, day two because I arrived last night at about 8 pm.

First off, I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful it was to check into my room last night. I had been travelling all day. I left Paris at 10:40am and took the train from Gare de Lyon to Turin (Torino - 5 hours), then waited until 7:30 (because it was Sunday and the trains run every two hours on Sundays; silly me) to take the train from Bra to Alba. Also, compound this with my not-so-great-stay in Paris (no hot water, no towels, mosquitos and a bed up a rickety ladder into a loft). All I wanted was a hot shower and a good night's sleep.

Cascina Barac has been so welcoming from the beginning. The hostess has been wonderful. I speak less Italian than she does English, but we laugh and muddle through and somehow it's all okay. Once I had checked in, I had a hot shower like nobody's business, made myself a pot of tea, sat and unwound from the day of travelling,climbed into bed and slept until the morning.

You have to also understand that I had not had a hot cup of tea in six days. Six whole days. This is most likely a record for me. It is amazing that when you finally get to have that hot shower and hot cup of tea, how your very soul rejoices. It doesn't matter what happens after that point. You are restored and ready to take on whatever comes next.

Speaking of next, the next morning I woke and went down for breakfast. Again, not something I had been able to linger over for a few days. While grabbing a pain au chocolat on the way to the Metro had it's charm, enjoying a long luxurious breakfast was indeed a treat. Cascina Barac puts out an outstanding assortment of cheeses, meats, breads, jams, yogurts and cereals each morning, and the ladies are quick to replenish anything that is getting low, or to bring you anything you wish; such as hot water for tea or an espresso.

After a hearty breakfast, I took my camera and decided to wander into the vineyard. There, I met up with Albino (pronounced AL-BEE-NO), who greeted me with a warm "Hello! How are YOU??". He is extremely charming and we had a wonderful stroll and chat about Nebbiolo grapes, the season, the harvest and the differences between wine production in Canada
versus Italy (of which there are many).

Leaving Albino, I wandered down a trail a bit by myself, then returned to the Cascina for a nap. I found my electric outlet converter that worked in Paris did not fit here in Italy. No fear. My hostess once again was very accommodating and had just the thing for me by way of an outlet adapter.

As it had been a busy 24 hours since arriving, I decided to take the afternoon to write, sketch, and catch up with people back home. It will be an early night tonight, because I want to be sure to get a full day in of hiking in the local hills tomorrow.

So for now I will say "buonasera" and "buona salute".

A Year of Pretty - October 06, 2014

Fall; it's definitely Fall. I am posting this blog in early October from my room in a villa in the north of Italy, just outside Alba. The mornings are cool and foggy, the afternoons crisp and bright. The view is spectacular, the people are warm and inviting.

Warm and inviting is a good way to describe these pearls from Chanel. The colours remind me of autumn leaves; each different and unique.

Enjoy these fall colours, along with diamonds, amethysts and citrines; and I hope your day is crisp and bright wherever you may be.