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.

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. Looking at the photo to the left, for 20€ 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.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Year of Pretty - October 05, 2014

Fall Roses - the last burst of energy put forth by the garden before gearing down for the cold winter months.

Each year, there are usually a hand full of roses that open up in late September or early October; a result of the crisp sunny days in Vancouver in mid September. Each year, without is the same thing: first week of September is rain, second and third week is nice, last week of September and into October is cloudy with showers.

So that two week period mid September the garden gives one last hurrah!

It seems the same is true here in Italy. The rose bushes around the villa Cascina Barac where I am staying are still in bloom. And while they are not many, they give hint to what is most likely a glorious display during the summer. The patio is surrounded by the bushes, so I can imagine what it must be like dining al frecso by candle light on a warm summer's night in the middle of a vineyard and the perfume of roses.

Fall roses are like a little memory of the warm days gone too soon and a promise of new blooms next year.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Apartment in Paris and the Unwelcome Guests

Here are some pictures of the place I am staying in while in Paris. Lots of rustic charm and away from the busy city centre. Peaceful, comfortable, inviting....seems like a great place to spend a few days.

rustic kitchen....lots of wood cabinets
living room and stair leading up to the loft
living room with lots and lots of books French
Unfortunately, this is where the charm ends. I woke up the first morning with one arm covered in mosquito bites. The arm that was sticking out from the covers. Six bites. I also have three on my neck and two on my left foot. Between the toes no less (those freaky-fetish mosquitoes!). So on the first night, a total of 11 bites. I even sprayed the bug spray that the host left in the apartment before I left for the evening and again when I came back, but it didn't seem to do any good.

And did I mention what time I woke up? 7:00am. Why? Because there is construction work being done on three sides of this apartment. Drilling concrete and pile-driving begins at 7:00am. No mention of this by the owner or website when I booked (then again, no mention about the mosquitoes when I booked either).

The second day I woke up with more bites on my neck and throat. Today is day three and I finally had to go to a pharmacy and get some antihistamine tablets because the bites are swelling up into raised welts about an inch in diameter. It's pretty awful. People are looking at me funny on the street, like I have Ebola or something. I'm also concerned because the welts on my neck are over top of my airway, and honestly...I like being able to breathe freely.

In total, I now have 17 bites and I have two more nights here. I have taken to completely spraying my arms, legs and neck before I go to sleep. I'm having trouble falling asleep because of a) the itching; and b) the thought that these little suckers are out to get me. Each time I start to drift off, my sub conscious thinks I'm getting another bite and I wake up swatting at my arms and and neck.

Then in the mornings, I need to shower because of the sticky spray. Oh wait, can't shower because the hot water tank is manual. After reading the French instructions a couple times and through trial and error, I finally figured out that I have to re-start the hot water tank in the kitchen cabinet, then wait 20 minutes for the water to heat. It is only a four gallon tank (think four plastic milk jugs), so each morning I need to make a choice: I can either wash my face and body in cold water while the water in the tank is heating, then wash my hair with the warm water (I have hair to almost my waist, so it takes a bit of water to wash), or I can heat the water, wash my face and body, then heat more water and wash my hair. Which means it takes at least an hour to do both. I guess I could boil pots of water on the stove, but I shouldn't have to be messing with this. The shower set up is a bit wonky too. The shower head is on a hose that you hold; there isn't a hook or a place to hang it up (that I can find). Which means you either have to do everything one-handed, or just scrap that idea and opt for a sponge bath out of the sink. So far, I wash my face and body quickly in the ice cold water and throw my hair up into a pony tail. I'm on vacation.

The water problem I can deal with, though this really shouldn't even be an issue. If I am paying any kind of money to rent a place, I should be comfortable, right? I mean, I'm not asking too much, am I?

Time to get out and forget about this place for a couple hours. Or look for another place to stay.