The Best Truffle Festival EVER!!! (In San Miniato)

Ciao Readers!

Okay, my mouth is watering just reminiscing about this festival and I am still smiling thinking about the fabulous little town it was in – San Miniato.  Apparently for the last 3 weekends of November every year for the past 42 years this little town has had the largest truffle festival in all of Tuscany (truffles as in fungi, not chocolate, though there was some of that as well).  It was so much fun (and soooooo delicious [if you like truffles])!

Now, for those of you paying extra close attention, you may remember that San Miniato is the name of the church on the top of the hill overlooking Florence (and supposedly where San Miniato brought his severed head).  Contrary to what I first thought, this is not where the festival was – there is actually a separate town (requiring a 40 minute train ride, then a bus ride into town) called San Miniato.  While it is a very ancient and historic city (which you can read about here), it also had a very modern and relaxed feel (complete with a “peace” restaurant and funky musicians, pictured).   It is also on top of a hill, so it has great views.

The festival itself spread throughout town – with various booths selling both truffle and non-truffle-related food specialties (and providing tastes) as well as full-fledged food stalls serving many truffle-based dishes.  Anywhere you walked in town you bumped into another section of food stalls (as well as all-around good cheer).  Pictured (row 1) is some of the truffle pasta we had (okay, not tons of truffles, but it really was yummy and truffle-y tasting) as well as the makings of our truffle-infused porchetta sandwich (YUM!) and our non-truffle infused pistachio cannoli for dessert.   The next photos are various shots taken at the festival, followed by shots of the very cool town (including one of Steve looking content) and views.   I can’t say enough about what a lovely day and festival this was.  If you’re ever in Tuscany this time of year, it’s a “can’t miss”!  Thanks for coming along…

When it Rains in Florence….

Ciao Readers!

It’s been raining here – lots!  You may have seen on the news how Venice was recently under water (more than usual).  Pretty much all of the northern half of Italy was drenched.  So, I decided to share some of the rainy day activities we have undertaken (seeing as we have no car and no mall to drive to)…

When it rains in Florence….it’s a good excuse for an extra-thick ridiculously rich cup of “cioccolata calda” at Grom (think hot chocolate/pudding hybrid):

When it rains in Florence…it’s a good time to go to the laundromat to use a clothes dryer and be amused by the lost-in-translation signs (here they are trying to tell you to empty the washer when it’s done washing):

When it rains in Florence….it’s the time I stare at our ceiling and think about how much I hate the “chandelier” that hangs where a perfectly functional ceiling fan should be.  (In order to make my gripe more humorous I actually tried to write a haiku about a ceiling fan; the results were pretty pathetic.  I then tried to write the song “Oh Ceiling Fan” to the words of “Oh Christmas Tree” – complete failure).  Maybe the picture is amusing enough; behold:

When it rains in Florence….I try (half-successfully) to see the glass as half-full and take photos of the lovely rainbows that follow:

Thanks for sharing a rainy afternoon with me!  P.S. – if you enjoy the blog and are so inclined…you can click on the “top blog” logo on the upper right of this page and review my blog for some possible virtual kudos.  Grazie!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING (Italy Style) !!!

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY TURKEY DAY!!!

Okay, I know I said I was working past my culture shock and the need to replicate state-side foods, but now it’s Thanksgiving!  I’m not a big traditionalist, but Thanksgiving is my most favorite holiday and filled with many personal traditions.  Except for the few years where folks have come to share the day with us, Thanksgiving usually goes something very close to this: we wake up early and get the turkey in the oven before Steve takes me to run some Thanksgiving-day-themed 5k (usually the “Turkey Trek” or “Hobbler Gobbler”); we get back and finish all the cooking (enough to feed way more than the 2 of us); we then get in our p.j.’s and watch a day-long marathon of holiday movies while we stuff ourselves (favorites include “Pee Wee’s Christmas Special” and “Scrooged”).  Now the question has been, how will we celebrate in Italy?

First off, clearly Thanksgiving is not a holiday here – Steve has to work and I’ll be going to school (not sure I mentioned, but I started back) – so Thursday is not going to cut it (though I do plan on setting my ipod/nike gadget for a 5K on Thursday and running my own Turkey Trek).  Mostly, though, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving a little late (which is okay – one year our families came for “fake” Thanksgiving a week late because it was easier for everyone to travel then).   However, while the date may be off, the food will be pretty darn close.  I started sourcing ingredients a couple of weeks ago.  And, since I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to get it all right, we had to have some “test runs.”   I made a test-run pumpkin pie with condensed milk from Vivi Market, using store-bought Butoni “pasta sfoglia” (puff pastry) for the crust and making my own pumpkin puree from a big chunk of a green pumpkin-like thing I got at the grocery (they actually sell Libby’s canned pumpkin at Vivi, but it is stupid expensive and the fresh stuff worked great!).  Steve beat the fresh cream by hand, and voila!  Not too shabby (photo of the pieces we shared with the Rosticerria guys):

I didn’t think we were ever going to find yams as I’d been keeping an eye out for awhile, but whatd’ya know, at Mercato Centrale there is a small Central American food vendor tucked away in the back and they have them (also baked a couple of those for a test-run).  Turkey (parts) and potatoes and green beans are no problem (and they have great, fancy mushroom creams here to use with the green beans).  I planned very far ahead for the stuffing and brought a box mix for cornbread, to which we will add stale bread (adding day-old baguettes became a new tradition in 2008 when we were in Paris at Thanksgiving and that’s how I made stuffing) (alas, though, no green chiles – another personal traditional twist on stuffing).  The final piece of the puzzle was the cranberry sauce…. I tried and tried to source some fresh cranberries, but to no avail.  So, I broke down and bought one of these very tiny (very expensive) jars of ocean spray sauce at Vivi Market:

As for the holiday movie marathon, I actually brought those DVD’s, and while they don’t play on the Italian tv system, they do play on my laptop – so we will be spending “Thanksgiving” with Bill Murray, as always!

Whatever your own traditions, please have a warm and wonderful holiday! Cheers!

Ambling Along the Arno in Autumn

Ciao Readers! (And happy short-work-week to those of you back in the States; Thanksgiving post to follow Wednesday.)

In addition to the joy of even more alliteration (thanks for the “ambling” idea Steve), today you get to go on my morning run with me (you’ll have to add the ipod playlist on your end)!

Fall is here and the leaves are starting to change color (while the grass remains that amazing shade of green).  As I’ve been going for my morning runs along the Arno, I have been thinking “wow, this is really pretty, I should bring my camera sometime.”  So, last week I did just that.  Instead of running, I walked (but still in my goofy American running clothes) and carried my camera.

Below are some shots in the park I walk through to get to the Arno and from the trail that runs along the river.  On my usual run I go east – headed out of town – those are the majority of the shots – where you don’t see much but trees.  But for you I also went west towards the center of town to get some cool building reflections on the water (I usually don’t run that way cause the trail is full of tourists blocking the path [of course, with that view, you can’t blame them]).  If you recall from my “Sundays in the Park Revisited” post, this is the same trail along which, should you decide to take a break from running, you can sit at a cafe on the river and have a cappuccino (or other beverage of your choice).  Thanks for coming on my walk with me!

Florence Fall Food Festival Photo Fun!

Ciao Readers!

Yes, the alliteration and food festivals continue!  There have pretty much been non-stop festivals since September, but apparently November is the month for even more festivities.  There is a month-long ongoing food and cultural festival in town – complete with lectures, art exhibits (stay tuned for a future blog), and of course – food!  It’s not only wine and olive harvest season, but the season of my most favorite delicacy – truffles!

In addition to this big event, there are small food festivals popping up in different piazzas all the time.  The first weekend of November there was one in the piazza across from Sant’ Ambrogio market, which we discovered totally by accident when we went to do shopping.  This festival (pictured first, with red and blue tables) was off the tourist trail, so the tasting portions were more generous and the truffle guy even took time to “pose” his truffles for my photo (the next photos are from the festival in Piazza della Repubblica the following weekend).  We got this great spicy vegetable spread (pictured wrapped like a firecracker) and munched on yummy sweets from Sicily (also pictured).

Since I think this is definitely a case where a photo is worth more than words, I’ll stop talking and just let you see for yourself.  Enjoy!

Street Sign Art in Florence

Ciao Readers!

Just in case you were beginning to think (as I was) that all of the art in this city was created pre-1600, today’s post is for you!

One day when I was on a tour with my old school, one of the other students pointed to a street sign and asked our teacher about it.  He thought she was pointing at a very old cross on a historical building and thus gave us a 5 minute lecture on its history.  However, what she was really asking about was street sign art (non-sanctioned, “guerrilla”) by “Clet.”  (When she re-pointed and asked the teacher again he just shrugged with disinterest and continued our tour).

Since that day I have learned that Clet is pretty famous here and I have even seen t-shirts with images of his signs.  Clet Abraham is a French artist who has been living in Florence for years and creates his street sign art by applying adhesives to the signs.  He has apparently been fined many times for his creations (but I am guessing the t-shirt sales and publicity cover the fines).  Whenever I see one of his signs in town (and I have remembered my camera) I stop and take a picture.  I know there are several other versions out there I have missed, but below are a sampling of some of the ones you can find all over town (they are repeated throughout the city).  You can find more information here and photos of many other signs here.

Fun stuff!

Cooking Like a Tuscan

Ciao Readers!

Now that my urge to cook foreign food has subsided, I have taken up trying to make quintessential Tuscan dishes!  I knew each region of Italy had its own food history and specialties, but I didn’t realize what an art form eating here really is.  I kinda had a general sense of “Italian food” but hadn’t realized the countless variations (and which ones are and are not native to our new home).  Take for instance basil and tomatoes – NOT Tuscan (found further South, like in Sicily). Risotto?  Nope, go North to Milan.  (Before I ran out of school time, I attended an afternoon class on Tuscan food traditions).

Tuscan food is based on bread.  And not just any bread – thick, unsalted bread (which no one else in Italy likes).  The cuisine is based on bread because that’s what the poor folks back in the middle ages could afford that would fill them up (they used to actually make the plates for the rich people out of bread, then eat the plates with the yummy tastey-bits afterwards – if I understood my teacher correctly….).  The bread is unsalted because…well, it depends who you ask.  According to common wisdom, the bread is unsalted because Tuscan food was heavily seasoned (back in the day before refrigeration it would cover the funky smell of old rabbit and boar, which the rich could afford to eat), and you don’t want salt in your bread to compete with salt in your food.  According to my former teacher (who does seem to know everything about Florentine culture pre-1600), that is a myth and the truth is that there was a high tax on salt back in the 1200’s, so everyone stopped using it in protest and it became a tradition which never died.  You can find both explanations on the internet, so take your pick.

Pretty much all of the food culture in Tuscany (like the art), was solidified by the end of the 16th century (gelato being the exception, soon followed).  The newest “traditional” addition was white beans, brought back by Columbus.  On a related note, one of the Medicis, Catherine, married a French dude (King Henry II) in the mid 1500’s and moved to Paris.  According to my teacher, much of what we consider traditional French cuisine was actually adapted from the Italian specialties Catherine’s cook (who she brought with her) made, such as crepes, bechamel and duck a l’orange.  (When I asked my teacher if Catherine brought any French foods back to Italy he unhesitatingly said “Non!”).

One of the many uses of Tuscan bread includes “fettunta,” – simple grilled bread rubbed with garlic and then covered by another Tuscan staple – olive oil.  But not any olive oil – fresh, newly pressed, unfiltered green olive oil.  Since we are in the middle of olive oil pressing season, this is THE time of the year to enjoy this simple tasty treat.  We bought some of this lovely green oil and made our own fettunta:

Another Tuscan bread staple is “ribollita” (literally “reboiled”) – a soup made with leftover veggies (but almost always carrots and either kale or cabbage), beans, and stale bread.  I had my first ribollita at a lovely lunch with a couple from Boston (who attended my school), so I know the one I made here was pretty darn close to the real deal (bread not pre-soaked for display purposes only):

Since we had all that great bread and olive oil, I figured I’d make a few more-or-less Tuscan (at least Italian) delights.  I made my own riff on caponata (on the plate with the fettunta and some yummy pork-based antipasti) as well as a variety of crostini (green = pesto, less green = artichoke, off white = garlic/bean spread, white speckled = “truffled” cream cheese spread).  YUM, YUM, YUM!!!

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