Choose Your Own Adventure: A. Lovely light-hearted photos; B. It’s been a weird week

Ciao Readers! Happy Thanksgiving Week!

It’s already the end of my trip and I’m still trying to process the past week. In the past I’ve noted that travel blogs are best kept light-hearted with lots of photos, lest you lose your audience. However, this has been a weird week and it deserves some reflection. So, what I’ve decided to do is a two-part blog, starting with the breezy photo anthology; if that’s your interest, by all means, enjoy the scenery and then stop reading. If you’re curious for a little peak into the darker parts of my psyche and the week, read on (or skip down) to the second part….

A. PHOTO ANTHOLOGY

A trip to an olive oil factory in a lovely little town in Chianti:

The Duomo of Siena (originally intended to best rival Florence’s – an unrealized goal):

Lunch in the piazza:

A stroll around Siena:

B. IT’S BEEN A WEIRD WEEK

Okay, this is the part of the blog where we get down to the nitty gritty. I’m actually starting this on the plane ride back, where I scored an hour free wifi. I have no idea how or why, but this flight from Rome to Atlanta is 11.5 hours long!!!

So, some of you may remember me mentioning (and others know first hand), that when you go to language school in Italy there’s always an interesting and diverse group of students, and you always meet folks to go out to lunch, dinner, museums, etc. with – yes? Honestly, on this trip that was more of a draw than the classes themselves – I really needed to get out and about and out of my own head, where I’ve been spending way too much time.  So….you can imagine my surprise and chagrin when I ended up being the ONLY student at school all week. That’s right, not the only student in my class – IN THE ENTIRE SCHOOL!

For those of you who are more serious students than I, the thought of an entire school and a teacher at your disposal may be a dream come true…for me it was just the opposite. Now, not only was I spending too much time in my own head, but I was literally doing it alone in a foreign country to boot! I have been to many Italian schools and there’s never been less than 4-5 people in my class, even during the off-season; I didn’t even know there being zero was a possibility.  If you read my truffle post carefully, notice that I said “we,” but I didn’t say who “we” were – we were me and the owner of the school.  And the lunch in the piazza photos above was solo…. I think you’ve got the picture.

Okay, now lest I come across as completely unappreciative, the school owner and teachers were molto gentile and we did go on a few excursions together (and a former student joined us on one). But it was just strange – it almost felt like paying for people to play with me. Since the excursions seemed to interest the school folks (the owner Mauro is actually contemplating getting a truffle dog), I eventually got over that feeling, but it was indeed a weird week.  For example, while the ride and the town in Chianti were gorgeous, the olive oil factory was modern stainless steel, the workers were cleaning up for the day and we ended up hanging out in their breakroom and eating food Mauro brought (albeit with some nice freshly pressed oil). All the workers were men and in their break room was a semi-naked bikini calendar, which was not at all quaint and frankly made me uncomfortable (especially in light of how woke we’re all supposed to be getting about sexual harassment and the like).  I resisted the urge to take a photo (I try to keep my blog PG, which is also why I’m not including the photo of the dead thing I would pass on my way to school I took to see if Steve or anyone at school could identify what type of animal it was).  Okay, free wifi time is almost over and the turbulence is making me nauseous, will continue this during my 4-hour layover….

Ack, that flight was long and bumpy!  Okay, where were we…. suffice it to say it was not the week I had in mind. Below are some photos from the beautiful but lonely walk to school, ending with a view from the door to the building (it’s supposed to be poignant, humor me). After school/excursions for the day were over I basically did what I’ve been doing at home too much lately – crawling into bed with my iPad.  Now, this is a travel blog and going any deeper would be a bit too much (though it is appropriate fodder for a book) – I’ll end by quoting the astute observation in the tag-line of another travel blog I follow – “No matter how far you run, you still bring yourself along for the ride.”

Truffle Hunting!

Ciao Readers! Happy Monday!

Today (Sunday) I got to do something amazing that I had no idea I was going to do – I went on a real truffle hunt!

So, to back up for a bit, when we lived in Florence we went to a fabulous truffle “sagra” (“sagra” = festival) in San Miniato. It was exactly what you’d picture – tons of booths featuring all types of truffles and truffle-based foods. I went on about it in detail in this blog post.  The event we attended today was called a “mostra” – I didn’t get the difference before hand and expected a festival very similar to the one in San Miniato….

The trip started off well – the rains held off and we drove into the beautiful town of San Giovanni D’Asso:

But once we got into town, I have to admit my heart sank a bit – while the town is gorgeous, look at the small area of booths we encountered:

What I hadn’t understood is that unlike a “sagra,” a “mostra” is an “exhibition” – more about learning than just booth-wandering. I also didn’t know we were signed up to go on a real truffle hunt. I stress the word “real” because there are apparently ones staged just for tourists – the truffles are purposely buried before-hand, so it takes no time for the dog to find it and success is guaranteed. Our hunt was nothing like that – we started with about a 45 minute lecture about the process from a life-long professional truffle hunter (all in Italian; the rest of the participants were Italians, not tourists). We then proceeded to trek through the woods for about an hour, over hills, through mud, you name it.  Then came the real excitement – at the top of a very steep hill, behind a ton of pokey brambles, one of the dogs signaled it had found something!  I didn’t take any pictures climbing the hill because it was all I could do to stay upright and continually untangle myself from the brambles (and I thought breaking a second iPad in a week would be a bit much, even for me), but aside from that part, here’s the adventure (full disclosure, despite the enthusiasm of the white dog, the other dog actually found the truffle – can you pick it out in the hole it/its owner dug once it found it?):

And, of course, I had to pretend to eat the truffle (I hid it and said “delicioso” to the truffle hunter, cheesy I know):

Our truffle hunt and the accompanying (mostly) educational lectures lasted till after 1:30 – we were hungry! Now, lest you worry that I never actually got to eat my beloved truffles, all of the (very packed) restaurants in town were featuring truffle dishes, and we chose ours on the recommendation of the professional truffle hunter.  (In one of his tangents during the hunt he explained how much he hates people taking pictures of their food, but since he wasn’t at lunch, I couldn’t help myself) – Buon Pranzo!

La Cucina Italiana, A Trilogy (Part III, Eating)

Ciao Readers!

Today we finish our foodie tour of Lucca (sigh).  So far we’ve covered shopping and cooking – today we simply indulge in EATING (and drinking wine – after all, it is Italy)! While Italian food is not that “difficult” to cook, there’s nothing like having it expertly prepared for you at a local restaurant (or osteria or trattoria or pizzeria).  And, of course, enjoying it over a leisurely two-hour lunch with friends (or dinner, if you can wait to eat till the restaurants open at 8:00 p.m.), just adds to the pleasure of the experience.  Since I still can’t figure out a proper way to share these experiences with you, all I can do is try and paint a picture with words (and pictures).  Join me for some of the dining-out highlights from my trip… included a leisurely lunchtime visit to Gli Orti di via Elisa with two of my lovely classmates from language school where we enjoyed an amazing antipasto platter (the little white square thing is not cheese as it appears, but baccala – perfectly prepared salt cod spread) as well as lovely half-bottles of local wine and maccheroni (the local specialty pasta as we learned from the “cooking” post) with fiore de zucca (zucchini flowers). Instead of trying to describe how wonderful the food and company were, just take a look at the experession on my face – I think it says it all.

There was also a solo visit to indulge in more grilled “polipo” at Il Cuore (actually a gourmet food shop, with a few chairs outside for eating).  I am sorry (and not) to say it put the grilled octopus from Marea in NYC to shame (as good as that was) – melt in your mouth tender and fresh from the sea.  I sat outside in a little square on a beautiful day making “yummy noises” till the very last bite of my seafood salad (and also enjoyed a plate of truffle-infused delicacies).  Add Steve and it would have been the perfect meal:

Next, while I think we both agreed the food wasn’t the best we had in Lucca, my classmate Terri (pictured holding up some fried stuffed anchovies) and I managed to finally stay out late enough one night to eat dinner out, at Ristorante L’anciua Pesce Povero.  I guess we should have realized from the “povero” (poor) in the title that at the ridiculously low price of 20 euros for 4 starters, a main dish, a half bottle of wine (each), bread, coffee, sparkling water, dessert, coffee and limoncello that we were not going to get giant plates of whole fish (“pesce”) (though we did get our mutual favorite, the pictured plate of fried anchovies).  While not as drool-worthy as other meals we shared, we agreed that we enjoyed the family-style meal (no menu), the fact that is was almost all local patrons, and each others’ company!

And, finally, no trip to Italy would be complete without the quintessential Napoletana-syle pizza (thin crust, super hot wood-fired oven).  I’m a traditionalist and stick to the margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil)  – this is the best one I had on my trip, from a nifty little pizzeria only blocks away from my apartment (which I unfortunately did not discover until the last night of my stay):

Until we eat again…..

La Cucina Italiana, A Trilogy (Part II, Cooking)

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Passover and Easter!

So, today we’re going to cook in Italy – specifically my language classmate, Terri, and I are cooking with Chef Giuseppe from “Extra Virgin” cooking school.  As you may recall, I have taken a variety of cooking courses in many countries, ranging from the super casual paella cooking with a fun bunch of well-lubricated Australians in Barcelona to the more “professional” kitchen of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (ooh la la).

While honestly, I already knew much of what we learned (cooking in Italy, unlike France, is “simple” in the best way – a few excellent ingredients combined to perfection), the class with Chef Giuseppe was a wonderful way to end my stay in Lucca (and yes, of course, a DELICIOUS one!).  (As a side note – Chef Giuseppe was featured on House Hunters International with his American love interest, Liz – Liz and I e-chatted about our respective experience with house hunters before I arrived.)  We met up with Giuseppe in the morning and went to a few small shops to get ingredients for the day, where he would fill us in on the products and their “back stories” (and have long leisurely chats with the proprietors).  Once we arrived at the “palazzo” (their apartment, which is Artchitectural-digest-worthy gorgeous!) we were offered drinks (including, of course, prosecco) and enjoyed olive oil and cheese tastings with mini-lessons before we got to cooking. There was obviously great attention to detail paid before we even arrived as there was a beautifully printed menu and place cards with our names on them (more “ooh la la”s).

As I was feeling tired and lazy on my last day in Lucca, and Terri was interested in mastering technique (though she is actually a “professional” herself – she sells her artisinal homemade gelato in her native Seattle!), I mostly nibbled and drank prosecco while Guiseppe and Terri cooked (and Giuseppe somewhat obsesively cleaned-up behind us throughout the day). Don’t let the photo of me laying out the maccheroni to dry fool you (yes, that’s what Lucca’s local specialty pasta is called, and yes, it’s pronounced “macaroni”), Terri did the hard part – all of the kneading of the dough.  The cooking ended with a drool-worthy multi-course meal (artichoke frittatta and salad, risotto with asparagus and truffle butter, maccheroni with ragu, all topped off with a dessert of buccellato (Lucchesi specialty sweet bread with anise), strawberries and lemon custard), served at a beautiful table with well-paired wine.  We left with little gifts, the aprons you see us wearing, and a little cheesiness for good measure (“official” certificates).  Buon Appetito!

La Cucina Italiana, A Trilogy (Part I, Shopping)

Ciao Readers!

Did you think I forgot you?  Never. I just got busy with language school, leisurely meals…and a cooking class before I left Lucca (and now I am busy with things we lawyers do – not very interesting or delicious blog fodder).  But before the glories of Italian food totally fade from memory, I thought I’d share some of the highlights….

First – and the focus of this post – there is grocery shopping in Italy.  And by “grocery” shopping I don’t necessarily mean going to a grocery store (though if you’re interested in the somewhat amusing “how to” of grocery stores in Italy, check out this earlier post); it will as likely (or more likely) be a cool little outdoor market selling whatever is fresh and local at the time (at this time it was artichokes and strawberries).  Admire some of the market offerings from this past weekend – fruits and veggies and cheeses, oh my!  I am already suffering pangs of longing for the strawberries and cantaloupe I had – why doesn’t the fruit here taste that sweet?!? Then, of course, you can wander into any of the little specialty shops – handmade pumpkin tortoloni, truffle tasting or pistachio cookies anyone?  And no day would be complete without a stop at a panificio (bread shop) for a daily loaf of fresh bread (mine would usually run about 50 cents). It was all so darn YUMMY! (And affordable!) I have to say, I went grocery shopping here yesterday and I was just sad* – look at the fancy lettuces I bought at the grocery store in Italy (last photo)…then zoom in and look at the prices – yes, that’s right – mere cents for fancy speckled radicchio and frisée and baby arugula….

*Of course, when we lived in Italy and ingredients to make Mexican food were nowhere to be found I was equally sad – as they say “L’erba del vicino è sempre piu verde” (roughly, the grass is always greener….)

Next time…join me in my cooking class!

Fast to Fancy – NYC Food is Fab!

Ciao Readers!

So, as I sit here in Lucca Italy on a rainy Sunday and try and think deep thoughts (time to think = large part of my motivation for this trip), I’ve decided a light-hearted blog about food (what else?!) fits the bill until I have something more profound to share….

Every time I go to New York I am overwhelmed (in a “I wish I had more room in my stomach” way) by all the food choices. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d be adrift without a steady supply of New Mexico green chile (everything’s better with it – including matzo ball soup!), but it’s a big wonderful world full of food out there and no matter what you want, New York has it (in contrast, NM does not have any of the following things we enjoyed on our trip): Octopus cooked to perfection? -check. NYC style pizza and linguini with clam sauce? -check. Lobster rolls to rival Maine? -check. Korean food court? -check. Egg bagel with whitefish salad? -check. 100+ year-old Italian bakery with tricolor cookies? -check.  Shake Shack? -check and check! But instead of continuing to drool in my mind, I’ll “share” some of these delicacies with you – Bon appetite!

Two subways and a walk for the tri-color cookies of my dreams (and some requested pignoli cookies for our friend Sue, formerly of NYC) – totally worth it:

Carbo-loading before the NYC half at our perennial favorite, John’s – YUM!

An expedition to Food Gallery 32 in “Koreatown” for spicy squid and bibimbap:

Our splurge lunch at Marea on the outskirts of Central Park (I didn’t have the chutzpah to pull out my camera too often in this place, but here’s the best thing we had – from the menu – “POLIPO – grilled octopus, smoked potatoes, pickled red onion, radish, chilies, tonnato”):

A trip to a hip new food court, where Luke’s Lobster serves a mean lobster roll (i.e. butter soaked bun filled with sweet and tender lobster):

And, of course, the joy of once again requietting my new-found love of a “fast food” burger – SHAKE SHACK!

Thanks for reading (and dream-eating with me)!!!

Ode to the Perfect Fry

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY FRIDAY!

Today I wax poetic about the most humble of foods, but one that if done correctly can be elevated to soaring heights of yumminess….the simple fry (or frites).  Probably a remnant of my 1.5 years working at McDonalds as a teenager, I used to think fries were junk food, never really thought much about them, and definitely was too snobby to eat them. Oh, how misguided was I!?!?!

If done correctly (in the European fashion – sorry, yes, they really do kick our butts in the fry department), fries are hot and soft and fluffy in the inside and brown and crisp (never greasy) and slightly salty on the outside. (And by the way, it is most likely that the Belgians, not the French, invented the fry, though Thomas Jefferson and WWI soldiers discovered them in France).  The key is to 1) soak them in water for a few hours before frying (then dry), 2) fry them twice (once on lower heat to cook through, the second time on higher heat to crisp up), and most importantly 3) be patient! – a proper fry is worth waiting a few minutes for it to take its last hot bath in oil (for the love of the gourmet gods, NO heat lamps!).  If you really want to gild the lily, serve with a euro-style mayonnaise sauce and use duck fat or ox fat or some other extraordinarily unhealthy but delectable type of animal fat for the frying (yes, this is coming from a person who was a vegetarian until age 31 – what can I say, I saw the light).  (If you ever happen to be in the area, Duckfat in Portland, Maine makes the perfect duckfat fry.)

Since we’ve been back from our trip Steve has tried to make fries twice – both times successfully, the last time, perfectly!   The pictures in order: Belgium frites in Brugge, French fries in France, frites in Amsterdam, jalapeño fries I MacGyvered in Italy, and last but not least, the fries Steve made last week (insert drool here):

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