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!

Benvenuti a Siena!

Ciao Readers!

Well, here I am in lovely Siena Italy (after a “short” journey involving 2 cars, 2 planes and 3 trains)!  I got in yesterday afternoon and did all I could to stay up and sleep in ’till Italy times, but alas, I was asleep before 8 and awake at 4.  Fortunately, it was a beautiful day today, which I spent trying to shake my jet lag by wandering all over the city, taking lots of photos to share with YOU….

Which brings me to two things I learned today… first, Siena is called a “hill town” because it is at the TOP of a hill!  You’d think I’d have figured that out from the context clues – but no – I just kept wondering why everyone insisted on telling me which bus to take into the city when it’s just a “measly” 2k (about 1.3 miles) walk from my apartment (at the bottom of town).  I still plan on walking to school in the morning…but I may pick up a few bus tickets – just in case….  The second thing I learned today is that my bad luck with electronics is not over (does breaking an iPad screen give you 7 years bad iPad luck?)! My very detailed “things to bring” list not withstanding, the camera cable-to-iPad connector got packed, but not the actual camera cable. So, despite taking a ton a pictures to share with you today, I have no way to post them (yes, I know, if I wasn’t such a Luddite I’d have a fancy camera phone and not an old-school camera).   From here on out I’ll be bringing my iPad in place of my camera, but for now I searched YouTube for a video that actually shows everything I walked by today with surprisingly similar light and crowd size. So let’s just pretend you’re coming with me on my walk through the city today….until next time!

A Last Look at Lovely Lucca

Ciao Readers!  Happy Monday!

So, here we are at the end of my trip to Lucca (boo hoo)….  I still have so many nifty photos I haven’t posted as well as some random stories, so thought I’d do a final photo-centric wrap-up with some  sights and info from my adventure.  Enjoy:

Photos from the “Verdemura” (green walls) flower and growers festival:

Check out  the facade of the Cathedral of San Martino (building began in the 1100’s!). Notice how each column is different from the others?  Legend has it that there was a competition to design the columns for the church (these artistic competitions were common in Italy during the Renaissance) – but instead of picking a winner, the town stole and used all the designs and didn’t award a prize or pay anyone!:

This is the “famous” Torre Guingi (the one in the background with the trees growing on top of it – pretty unique feature, no?), which has 227 step to the top that I did not climb:


Remember the handmade pumpkin torteloni I bought back in the “shopping” post?  This is me turning it into a scrumptious dinner – just add butter, sage and parmesan:

One day I just wandered all over town, including down empty alleyways (always so picturesque); I happened upon this large (about 12 feet tall) piece of art made entirely from recycled cardboard, literally in the middle of nowhere….

And, finally, a peak-a-boo farewell to the sea (though technnically not in Lucca):

Thank you, Dear Readers for coming with me to New York and Italy.  Hopefully I will have more blog fodder (i.e. ADVENTURES) soon!

 

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!

“The Wanderer’s Guide to Lucca”

Ciao Readers! And happy Monday after Spring Break! We have finally made it to Italy….

The title of this post reflects both its focus, as well as the book from which I got most of the substantive information.  As you may recall, back when we lived in Florence (was that real?!), we took a day trip here and had a thoroughly lovely time.  Now I have 10 days in which to really explore this place…

Lucca is mainly known for two things – primarily, its wall; secondly, Puccini.  Apparently there have been 3 sets of walls built around Lucca, dating back to Roman times;  the current wall, which completely circles the town, was built from 1550 to 1650, using much of the town’s resources (human and economic) for 100 years!   Either it was money and time well-spent or wasted, depending on your perspective – no one ever tried to bombard the town again (Pisa had in the past).  Of course, the walls did little to protect Lucca from “modern” warfare, and Napoleon took over in the early 1800’s and “gifted” the city to his sister, Elisa.  Now the wall basically serves one perfect function – THE town park where everyone bikes and jogs and partakes in the lovely Italian ritual known as the “Passeggiata” (ambling, chatting, and basically passing the time).  I spent my first two days here doing my own passeggiata – come along with me:

In addition to the lovely wall, the entire town has lots of cool old architecture, complete with more churches than you can count, and relaxing little bistros and shops now occupying the old historical buildings.  I am sure I will learn more and post some specifics, but for now, take a wander with me around Lucca (saving my stop at the truffle store to taste and shop for a future post about food), ending at the picturersque building that is my school (which I start tomorrow/today when this posts):

Thanks for joining me!

%d bloggers like this: