Friday, March 29, 2013

A Connection To Olive Trees

  Though I did not grow up with them, I feel a true connection to the olive trees of Umbria. They make sense in the landscape here. They appeal to me on an esthetic level, as well as an historic level. The beauty of form, the blend of color that just speaks to my soul, the sound of them in the's all too much.
  And the fruit they produce, let's not forget that. 
  I find myself returning again and again to the groves while Johnny is painting. They are everywhere here, and the locals are proud of the traditional oil they produce, "The best in the world", of course. 

An old soul here.

  This time of year, after the harvest and pressing in November, the olive trees are being pruned. I have noticed that many are being pruned quite severely, and I don't know why. The winter here was very wet, with lots of bad flooding in this region. Many of the groves have taken on a sickly yellowish color from being too saturated.
  There was also snow, which can cause much damage. It is painful to see the olive trees suffering, but I assume these are cycles that they have gone through before. 
  Some of these tress are 7-800 years old, I'm told.

  After finally asking a local, I was told that the trees are pruned "hard" every few years, and this happens to be one of those years. It's a way to keep the trees producing a heavier crop, and it also creates some wonderful wood for next years fireplaces.

An older grove after just being pruned. The cuttings will be gathered and burned.

  My favorites are the older trees, with loads of character...some of them seem to have little worlds inside the lower trunks....

Who lives here?

  Because we are way up on a hill, and there are groves all around us, I am often awestruck by the views from the fields of trees. I wonder how the work of pruning and harvesting can even get done with the "bella vista". I wouldn't be able to get anything done, surrounded by such beauty.

An old grove, just pruned, with Lago Trasimeno in the distance.

  I swear, I take more photos of olive trees than almost anything else. It's hard to resist, because each one is a wonder. They have all this moss and lichen, wildflowers even. I look for toads or lizards hiding out in the nooks at the base of these giants. 

  Where we are, the groves are scattered through out the hills and valleys. Sometimes very well tended, and pruned just so. Manure tossed about the root lines, and weeds kept at bay. 
  But there are also lots of forgotten groves...overgrown and wild. Berry brambles compete for sun and the weeds/wildflowers have taken over the fields. We wonder who they belonged to, and why they are not taken care of. I guess I kind of like to see them all shaggy and unrestrained.

  The grove below is just outside of Chianciano-Terme, a hilltown across the valley from Panicale. We were there a couple of weeks ago, and I loved seeing the flowering plum tree in the middle of the grove. A great shot of Spring.

  Seeing the older trees just after they have been pruned is cool. I love being able to see the branches, the"bones" of these old beauties.... Plus, the moss. The greys and greens together just knock me out.

Another lovely grove with a fantastic view.

  A couple of mornings ago, while Mr. Apodaca was in his world of color, I took a stroll into yet another grove. All was going well, birds singing, sun sort of shining, wildflowers beginning to was sweetness defined. I was happy, walking along, humming some Italian top 40 tune, looking for a good photo op...
  The path was a classic "strada bianca"...white road.  The shot below shows where I was. No problem, dry, good walking road. Safe.
  I see a little side path to the left. Looks good, off the main drag, such as it was. Why not check it out? It could offer an outstanding view, or the most beautiful old olive tree ever...
  Honestly, the path looked fine. It looked like a slightly damp, sandy, gravely, but stable and walkable path. I went ahead. Why not?
  Why not? Because as my right foot made contact with said path, it sunk into 2-3 inches of poo. Really wet, really stinky, really barnyard-animaly poo. I slipped, too. Almost lost my balance and came right down into a small lake of stink. It looked like a sandy path, I swear! And I had my nice boots on, too. What a mess. Mr. Apodaca was not amused, as I went through his entire roll of paper towels, trying to clean the stenchy disaster. Sigh. Got on the cuff of my pants, too.
  Needless to say, we drove home with the windows open.

  I don't care, I still love walking in the olive groves.

  That story being told, let's move on to some more fine examples of the wonderful olive trees I will continue to adore:

Another grove just being pruned.

A tree we walk by a lot, and that I always admire.

I love this small grove, underplanted with artichokes.
 What a great texture combo.

Typical medium sized grove, along our morning walk.

These trees make me think they are dancing. In Gioveto.

I'm trying to get artsy with this shot...I love the moss, and I love the twisting branch.....

Now, as we are almost in April, the sun is showing itself a little more, and I am thrilled to see more and more wildflowers popping up in the groves. The shot below I took just yesterday, March 28th.
  Johnny and I were out painting just outside of Panicale. There was this guy trying to go un-noticed as he foraged for wild asparagus....the sun was out and actually warm. It was a fantastic day, altogether.
  We loved the yellow splash under this grove.
  Not 100% certain, but I think we may get some Spring this year, after all..

Buona Pasqua!!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cooking At Home In Umbria

  Well, I have really been making up for lost time with the cooking at home, now that we are all settled, and feeling great. My biggest thrill is going to the weekly market to see whats looking good, and also what's available that I will never get at home. There seems to be something new every week as the weather gets warmer and a little more stable.

  I have had a massive craving for eggs, which I guess is from the lack of eating while having the flu. My system is ticking right along, and it wants protein! I love the eggs here...the color of the yolks is unreal, as the chickens are almost all pasture fed. A recent dinner was a warm salad of cannellini beans, celery, spring onion and cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes were tossed in at the last minute, so they maintained a nice texture. I served it with boiled eggs on the side. Simple and perfect. 

A little salt & pepper, a drizzle of olive oil.....mmmmmm.

  While having a glass of wine at Bar Gallo recently, Aldo brought us a plate of fresh fava beans and young pecorino cheese. We loved this treat so much, that when we left for home, we had to stop and buy more fava beans to have with the pecorino from Fontemanna we already had at the apartment. Again, salt, pepper and olive oil to make a perfect starter. 

Pecorino cheese from our favorite cheese shop, fava from the local market.

  It's all the buzz now...the wild asparagus from the woods and fields in the area. We tried some last year, and the taste is like what we get in the States, but on steroids. The flavor is huge. Perfect to have with eggs, and a classic combo for Spring. I tried to come up with something different this time. 
  First, I cleaned and chopped the slim fellows...

Super thin, super flavorful. The texture can be a little rough, depending on size.

  Next, into a pot with a little olive oil and just a touch of garlic...some water to "steam" them....

  While the asparagus cooked up, I put on water for some penne pasta. 
  Next, I took day old bread, now "crunchy", and smashed it into bread crumbs. I tossed a good amount of olive oil into a pan with a mess of diced garlic, and added the bread crumbs. As soon as they browned, I took them off the heat and set them aside in a bowl. 
  As the pasta and asparagus continued to cook, I grated parmesan and added it to the bread crumbs. A lot of parmesan. Salt and pepper, toss until well mixed. This was set aside.

Good, no matter what you do with it.
I should package this stuff.

  Okey dokey... Now to the eggs. Just fry those babies up to order. For us, medium. Yolks not too runny.

Of course I use good European unsalted butter here. 

  Put it all together.... Penne pasta tossed with wild asparagus, topped with a fried egg and parmesan bread crumbs.  
  A wonderful Spring supper. 

Don't scrimp on the bread crumbs!!!! Important texture component!

  One day, after another stop at Fontemanna, we had a sweet lunch. 
  Soft, fresh pecorino...almost like a fresh mozzarella, only saltier, served with this huge heirloom tomato from the market, chopped, and a wonderful whole grain bread we bought at a food festival in Paciano. It's hard to find whole grain breads here, and I wish I had bought more, even just to freeze for later in the month. 
  We hear that the German woman that makes this bread is planning to open a shop soon, in nearby Colgiordano. We will look for it next year. She will do a boom business with all the expats craving these types of breads.

  So..... I had been seeing this one vegetable at the markets that sort of looks like broccoli rabe, but way more wild and "from the field". All the grandmas are buying this stuff by the bunches, so I had to try it. 
I asked the guy at the stand selling do you prepare? He gave me the basics on cleaning and cooking, and I was good to go.

Super simple with a touch of olive oil, onion, red pepper flakes and garlic, of course....

  My one big mistake here...I threw so much away in the cleaning. It just seemed like it would be too rough and tough...had I known it would cook down into a soft and almost creamy texture after only a few minutes....ah, well. I will buy this again, because the flavor is awesome!
  I knew I wanted to do a frittata with this veg, and that's the direction I took...Remember, I'm craving those eggs!

Lovely organic eggies.

  A slam dunk, super easy dish... just cook down the veggies, toss in the whisked eggs and let set on top of the stove before adding parmesan to top it off and broil in the oven until browned a little bit.

Yummy parmesan...

Fresh from under the broiler. I want some now, but we finished the left overs for lunch today. Sigh.

 Another perfect egg dish for dinner. Add a toasted slice of the wonderful bread from the food fest, and we have one yummy plate. With wine, certo!!

I think my egg fix has been satisfied.

  I can't wait to see what comes next at the open market. Whatever it is, I will embrace and try. Hey, that's my way of being creative!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Day To Day Stuff

  Now that I am officially feeling just fine, thank you, it's back to enjoying my parallel life, here in Panicale. It's not that different from life in the States, just less water pressure. 
  It usually takes a good week to get our living space feeling like "home". We stash the things we don't need out of the way and add the things we like to have around. Sometimes I'll need to buy a big pan, or the kind of "rasp" for grating hard cheeses that I prefer... This year I bought a simple mandoline for slicing fennel super thin.
  We never know what the coffee sitch will be..we like a simple cup in bed every morning, so we work with the silver espresso makers every apartment comes with. This year, the kitchen is small, like always, but works really well. The oven roasts veg like a dream, and the gas burners all work perfectly.

My small but mighty cooking space.

  Now that I can enjoy my food again, I've been enjoying cooking at home. I like to roast veggies, and with the weather being cold and wet, it makes the house cozy, too.
  I had bought some potted herbs a couple of weeks ago, and have been using them almost every night.

Potato, onion and fennel with herbs and olive oil, ready for the oven.

Presto, part of a warm and fragrant dinner!
P.S.  I love parchment paper.

  Though the larger tomatoes available aren't yet ready, the markets have small "cherry" tomatoes that come up from southern regions of Italy. Sweet and tasty, they are perfect to add to day-old bread for our favorite panzanella salads.

I found an inexpensive set of these plastic bowls at
the local hardware store.

A yummy meal for a cold night in front of the fire.
We do not shy from the olive oil here. It is awesome.

  Each year here, I have had to learn how to use a different washing machine, as well as oven and heating system. It's a challenge, but I always feel so proud when I succeed with that first load of laundry! Seriously.
  Fortunately, the air is so dry here, clothes air dry in a day. No dryers, in most cases. Just too costly to run. I don't mind, I hang my clothes out at home, too.

What the...? And no dryer, as usual. We hang things on racks and out windows, on lines.

  With no outdoor living space this year, we appreciate having a small but lovely view from the kitchen windows. We are tucked on the second and third floor of the outside walls of Panicale, right next to the big tower, which you can see to the right in this photo, below.
  Just like at home, I can gaze out at a pretty view while doing dishes, or waiting for coffee to finish in the early morning. Perfect.

I often have to "shoo" away a pigeon or two from the window ledge.

  We like to drive around, just checking things out, looking for places to paint. On one journey nearby, we came across this sweet nursery last year. I have gone back several times, and we had some fun bringing our friends, Loreen & Christopher here last year. 
  This year, with spring being so late in arriving, there isn't much to choose from yet. I still want some color for the pots on our front stoop. I'll keep going by, just to see what they have new.

Lots of veggie starts, and some gift plants, but not what I'm looking for yet...our stoop does not
get much sun, so we'll see... I'll find the perfect thing soon.

  At home, we have a good routine of walking almost every morning, at the crack of dawn. Here, it's not so intense. We are trying to walk four days a week, and it's a much longer walk for us. And, oh, no way are we out there before 8 or so. It's just too freaking cold still. I hope it warms up enough to get out early a couple of times, because it is a stunning walk.
  We are really moving more and more to a state of "living" here, while we stay. We are meeting and socializing more and more with local friends, shopping like locals and finding our way here. The problems that come up are no different than at home, and we enjoy figuring things out ourselves. 
  If there is a "biggie" problem, Katia is a phone call away, but we honestly would rather work it out on our own. It's all part of the adventure, you know?

Walking this morning, early. It wasn't too cold.
I can't get enough of the olive groves....

 My "day job" while here is to document Johnny's work. This is fine with me. We are rarely apart, and he always has his painting gear with him. I always have my camera. It's a win-win. I find this particular situation a real challenge. I want to make it interesting, without being invasive to the work. Johnny puts up with it all, thankfully.
  Today, this morning, we had a great walk...not too chilly, no wind, and even some blue skies. It was a gift, and just in time. We were getting moldy.
  Anyway, he did a really fine oil on panel, and I truly enjoyed taking photos and a couple of short videos. I'll do a blog post for him in the next day or so. It takes forever to upload photos and all night for a video. True.
 It's all good...and I'm learning as we go.

Just doing my job, man.

 Last, but most certainly not least, the "day to day" stuff must include a routine that has niente to do with my home life. The daily stop for a morning cappuccino, or later in the day, espresso.
  This is something special that I only do here, and I like it that way. One more little thing to savor during the long months living "in-between".

Just a little pick-me-up in the afternoon......
(Jodi...recognize the gloves...they are enjoying Umbria!)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Lunch At Trattoria Dardano

   Our first Saturday in Umbria, we took the short drive across the valley to Cortona, just across the Tuscan boarder. (an aside here-this was a day or three before the flu hit me...)
  Johnny needed paint supplies, and there is a super sweet little art supply/bookshop in town that we both enjoy visiting. Also, Saturday is market day in the "centro storico", and I always have fun browsing whatever is on offer. I ended up bringing home some nice pots of herbs that I will use in my cooking all the time we are here.
  We decided to stop for lunch before heading back home, and instead of going to a place we'd been in the past, I wanted to try somewhere new. I had read about Trattoria Dardano and liked that it was a local spot, as well as a visitor favorite. 
  Located up the hill away from the main piazza, on Via Dardano, the place is small and quaint. I believe it is family owned, and it certainly had that feel upon entering. The front and back rooms are decorated simply, with what appears to be family heirlooms and also an odd mix of artwork. I got the feeling that many an artist has traded a painting for a meal or two while staying in the area. 
  The menu is basic Tuscan fare, seasonal and like every Tuscan menu we've seen....the usual starters, primi and secondi offerings. This is just fine with us, as there is always something we will no doubt enjoy. We kept things super simple and stayed with a combination that has proven tried and true for us:
 Start with a mixed(veggie) bruschetta plate, followed by pastas and grilled veggies. End with a mixed green salad. Done

The verdure alla griglia. In this case, so perfect, we were both blown away.
 Simply dee-vine.

  The grilled veggies were so damn good... the best we've had, and I'm just not sure why. Sweet, creamy, just enough caramelization....and a touch of garlic, but only just a touch. Really, they were perfect.

A wonderful lunch for two.

  I had the regionally special pasta, "pici"(pee-chee) with a super simple garlic and tomato sauce. Again, perfect. The texture of the obviously in house, hand made pasta was just what I wanted...a little tough to the tooth, but in a good way, with a sauce that bordered on sweet, but also, just to the right point. 

My awesome pici. I love my pici!

  Johnny, a man who loves his pesto, had to give the spaghetti with house made pesto a go, and it was also a winner. We switched plates a couple of times, and each agreed that both the pasta dishes were really good. The pesto was different than the typical Genovese style. This one had far less cheese and pine nuts, it was more about the oil, basil and garlic. And I would say that the basil may even have been a mix of dry and fresh. This may sound unappealing, but it wasn't. It was a very interesting combo, and it totally worked. The flavor was very basil forward, if that makes sense, without much, if any, parmesan in the sauce.

Johnny's pasta with pesto.

  We shared the very typical "insalata mista"...nothing earth shaking here, just a good, clean, very fresh mix. As always, oil and vinegar are served separately for you to add yourself.

  We shared a litre of the house red, which seemed to be what everyone else was ordering. It was just fine. The place was full of locals, or so it seemed. Many were greeted like old friends, and we were the only English speakers in our dining room area.

One happy dude.

One happy dudette.

 We both agreed that we would be happy to try Trattoria Dardano was a fine meal, and at a very reasonable price, too. I can see why it was filled with locals on a Saturday afternoon. It's a little off the main drag, but well worth the few extra steps up hill to find it.
  I look forward to returning, maybe even for dinner.

What can I's classic!

Trattoria Dardano in Cortona, just up the hill on Via Dardano.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Walking After The Rain

  Though I haven't felt 100%, I do feel good enough to take our walk to Paciano every other day or so, weather permitting. This sweet 30-45 minute walk is one of the things I look forward to, while sitting at the gallery back home. It's just long enough and strenuous enough, with killer views and surprises around the corner, too.
  One major upside to the wet weather these first several days here, is the abundance of mosses that have popped up all over the old stone walls that hold back the terraced hills along the walk. This is something we haven't seen before, or at least not like this. 

Moss and the first violets popping up. Nice to see this little bit of color!

I don't know much about mosses, but I know I like them.
This one is so soft and sweet, plus bright.

  The second surprise are all the waterfalls along the way. We definitely have not seen these before. And the sound they make is pure heaven. We have also noticed several small landslides along the walk...some olive trees have been taken down, too. We see them down the hill, semi-covered in the thick mud from the slides. 
  We were told that November was super wet, and I do remember hearing that much of the area had severe flooding. The fields are so wet, nothing can be worked yet. Serious drenching, and still the rain comes. I guess it has slowed down, but every day so far it seems we have had a few good downpours, between the bouts of warm sunshine. It's a battle!

Waterfalls..I love them.

I am certain this is where the gnomes live, off season.....

This one is a true shower.. I wish we could hear them from the apartment,
especially at night...

  I know that, soon enough, the mosses will fade out, waiting for the next winter's rain, but I will enjoy watching the change until then. I wish I could really capture the textures and intense colors of them. They really appeal to my innermost palette, these are "my" colors...The greens and browns and greys of the mosses and stones.
  Each patch is it's own small world, or it's own natural graphic effect.

The variety of greens here, with the stone and greys...I just love it.

Fluffy and dreadlock-y, too.

  Near to the Panicale end of the walk, I spotted this odd patch of grayish-pinkish something...I guess it must be yet another variety of moss, but it's so different than any of the others. I thought it was stone, at first glance. 
  Maybe it's a lichen of some sort. I'm just not used to seeing really sopping wet lichens...Do they bloom?

Both small patches had these protruding "flower" growths. Very cool.

  I'm just happy to be out and walking. It's cold, it's wet, I'm a little under the weather...but I'm still having the time of my life, and I feel so grateful to be here to enjoy these small miracles.