Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Sunset Dream

  Of the many things we enjoy here, sunsets along the old town walls are close to the top of the list. 

  Looking out across the Val di Chiana, with Cortona to the North and Montepulciano to the West, Lago Trasimeno settled right down there in the valley below us…it's spectacular. It's a view we dream about all year back home, and enjoy at all times of the day or night while here. 

  Sunset,'s a show you hate to miss. And now, as it's gotten warmer, the swallows (here they are called rondine, but they are very similar) are zooming around, making their odd noises and doing their dynamic airborne stunts. Magic, I swear.

It starts to get good right about now.

  When the sun goes on down, the orange, pink and golden light make the towns' stone walls extra  beautiful. Warmth just glows off theses ancient stones….

It makes me smile.

  In spring, there are so many passing rainstorms and showers..the clouds are almost always impressive themselves. It just adds extra layers to the show.

  So, I just wanted to try to share the sunset, in a video below….. Listen carefully for the rondine, as they swoop by, and enjoy a moment in Umbria….preferably with a glass of wine at hand. That's how we do it, anyway...


  This particular sunset had a very dramatic finish, too…...

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's Cheese Rolling Time Again!

  In 2012, we were here in Umbria for Easter, and the day after, which is itself a big holiday.

  Known as "Pasquetta", or "little Easter" I'm assuming, the Monday following Easter (Pasqua), is a huge day of eating, family, festivals…and in Panicale, the "Ruzzolone". 

  Yes, it's a cheese rolling contest. I wrote about it back in 2012, here.  

  Though we were here last year for this mighty show of, ….…ummm…cheese rolling….I skipped writing about it because I'm basically a lazy gal sometimes. I couldn't let this year go by, though, without a tilt of my hat, and a lift of my glass of vino, to the young men who come out to show their stuff.

Seriously, these guys are dedicated to the cause.
And cute….

That's a large round of cheese, that gets wound up like a yo-yo,
and then thrown down the street.

  You will enjoy the very short video, a few inches down the way here, but first... let me give you the drift of it.

  Ok, from what I can tell, which is speculative at best, there are several young men, each representing his tribe (is it a town thing? a neighborhood thing? a generation to generation hand-down thing? I don't know). These strapping young lads have this cheese rolling thing down. I assume they practice for weeks, if not months…ok, maybe days..before the big contest.
  Each fellow takes his turn, rolling the cheese as far as possible, in as few tries as possible, and then back again…to win. I think.
  The whole town follows, cheering on their team and just having a good old time.

These are probably the cheese rollers from a different era, carefully keeping an eye on
the proceedings. They are the "peanut gallery", I think.

  So, I used to think they went all around the town walls, but they just went down from the piazza gate to the park and back. Still, it took several hours to complete the games.

The starting area for each contestant.

Wrapping the belt thingy around the cheese, to give it
a really good toss….

  Here's a little example……all the cars have been removed from the street, so NO ONE will get hurt.

  Now, in the meantime, just meters away in the piazza, there is a whole other party going on. The "Pro Loco", which is sort of a promoting group for each town, has a table out with wine, hard boiled eggs (very traditional!), and porchetta sandwiches, all yours to enjoy, on the town's nickel. Pretty sweet.

  There is also a big raffle for a gigantic chocolate Easter egg…like four feet tall, as well as bottles of wine, cheeses, salumi and other goodies to win. I think the Easter egg is the favorite, though, for kids as well as adults….

Everyone is waiting to see who who's ticket will be chosen for the
red foil wrapped giant chocolate Easter egg!

….And the winner is…….

Yeah! We like Sidney very much!! The "prize" inside the egg…
A decorative alarm clock! Good for you, Sidney!!

  After much back slapping and congratulations (Auguri! Auguri!), everyone heads back to Bar Gallo for another evening of good cheer, wine, and all around laughs. We are all sharing bits of dark chocolate Easter egg…I mean the entire town….Plus, many of us need to kill an hour or two before the concert at the local theatre, which will begin at nine.
  And it didn't rain.

  This is what I call another perfect day in Umbria. Sigh.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

An Afternoon At The Farm

  What great luck to be invited to join in on a luncheon/tour of a nearby organic farm, known for it's cheeses and wines, spelt pastas, olive oil and more….
  Thanks, Ruth and Tonino!
  In a chance meeting at Bar Gallo, we met this lovely couple, intent on living a simpler, healthier and all around "greener" lifestyle, all the while spreading the word that living organic is just a hell of a great idea. 

  They are very fortunate to have a farmhouse outside of town, near an area where Johnny loves to paint, where they can grow much of their own produce, as well as raise goats for milk and hand made soaps, and chickens, of course, for wonderfully flavorful eggs. 
  Ruth is actually a major part of a local CSA style weekly co-operative produce distributer…and Tonino is an artist, as well as a local chef, and generally mellow guy.
  Hey, I like these people ….a lot!

  So, about an hour or two after our first meeting at Bar Gallo, Johnny and I were out painting, I was taking my usual walk in the fields, and who do I run into, but Ruth! We were meant to know each other….anyway, we shared more of ourselves, as we walked, and looked forward to seeing each other again….which was a day or two later back at Bar Gallo….

  This is when they invited us to the afore mentioned "Day At The Farm", and we jumped at the opportunity…given basic directions, and a time to meet, we were off on another grand Italian adventure. With lunch. And goats.

Which way do we go?
The perfect moment on a "Strada Bianca"…white road.

  Podere Il Casale is located down a white road between Pienza and Monticchiello, in Tuscany. 
  Johnny and I are always astounded by the landscape in this particular area. It is the landscape you think of when you think of Tuscany…rolling green hills, winding roads bordered by Italian cypresses, vineyards and olive groves... and old farmhouses that have been restored by someone with tons of money.
  Yes, it's quite pretty.

  Once we arrived at Podere Il Casale, we loved that the place was an honest to goodness working farm, down to earth, without pretension.
  Oh, and yes…it's also quite pretty…..

The view from Podere Il Casale…..
This is the Val d'Orcia, in all her glory.

  Our hosts, Sandra & Ulisse, have made a lovely place here, with a real eye for detail. There is a main home, a restaurant, a B&B, camper area, sweet campers to rent…and then the whole farm thing. It's a true labor of love, you can tell.

The entrance to the dining areas...

Beautiful details everywhere

The main house

More detail, in the courtyard.

  There are lots of farm animals around, including pigs, sheep, goats,…and Johnny's newest pal, a family dog, Bruna. Good doggie, good doggie…..

  I, on the other hand, was taken by the peacocks…two of them, making the most god-awful racket. But I was just mesmerized by their resplendent appearance.
  These birds are seriously fashion forward.

Who came up with this?

"I am soooooo good looking'."

  There were some really cute babies hanging around, too. But we were gently warned not to get too close…this little bitty was only days old, and Mama wasn't going to fool around if she thought you may be a threat.

It was hard not to pick this little one up for a cuddle.

  It's impressive that the folks here allow the animals to just move about, some behind fences, but many just cruising through the yard.

  We were there with a large group of school children, and I was so impressed with their attention of and respect for the animals.

  We were shown all around the barnyard, seeing the goats and sheep that make the milk for the various cheeses sold here. The animals are all treated so well, and the cheese we would have later just proved the point...


One of the indoor areas of the farm. There are acres and acres of land
for the herd to roam, too.

A couple of wise guys, just looking for trouble to get into.

  After the barn yard, we got to tour where the cheese is actually made. We loved seeing the pristine facility, but the best part was the cooler…

It starts here….

….but the magic happens in theses rooms.

  I can't begin to tell you how incredible it smelled in here...

Cheese made for Gods. And us, too.

  After touring the vegetable gardens, and seeing the rest of the grounds, we still had some time before lunch, so Johnny set up to paint. He was quickly surrounded by some of the kids that were with us for the tour. They were so fascinated, and just watched for awhile.

  We tracked down Ruth and Tonino, and found a spot inside to settle down for lunch.
  We decided on one of the farms' own wines, of course. A nice white, which we all enjoyed very much.

  Lunch was veg forward, with lots of things from the garden, fields and barnyard. Just what we wanted!

Salad with herbs and garden greens, edible flowers and a perfect dressing,
made with oil from the farm, of course.

Spelt, organically grown on the farm, used to make this very pasta.
 A sauce of veggies from the garden...

Carrot soup...

Farm-fresh ricotta, with a caper "pesto" accompanying.
This was fantastic.

 What more can you ask from a day? Good food, friends, quality living at it's best. We can't thank Ruth & Tonino enough for including us…And a huge thanks goes out to the lovely folks at Podere Il Casale,  the people who work so hard to make a day like this happen.

After lunch discussion, farm style.

The dining room of Podere Il Casale.

  You, too, can have a wonderful day at the farm.
  Podere Il Casale is open to the public, you just need to let them know you are coming. You can camp, stay in the rooms, or just come for lunch or dinner…a phone call or email is required, as it is primarily a working farm.
 For more info:
 Podere Il Casale

Saturday, April 12, 2014

More Home Meals

  As much as I love the thought of making "grand meals", with fresh pasta I've made by hand, in Italy, no less…Well, what I usually end up fixing are very simple meals, requiring only a few ingredients. It's also a good way to clean out the fridge.
  What can I say? I cook meals in Italy just like I do at home. Sigh. Someday I'll get with the program. Plus, just between you and me…..all I ever really want to do is eat out somewhere. Have the professional take care of the cooking.
  Is that so wrong?

  All kidding aside….
  Since the days are long, without all those pesky hours spent at work, I do spend more time cooking here, and enjoy it more. I'll start something early in the day, to finish up later, or cook up a bunch of something that we can enjoy for a couple of days.
  Artichokes, for instance. 
  "Carciofi"(car-cho-fee), as they are called here, come in various shapes and sizes, and I am most fond of the lovely purple types I buy at the farmers market.

Globe style. 

  They usually sell these by the dozen, but I'll just go for six at a time. That's about all I can fit in the big pot here. They are so beautiful, and get even prettier as you peel away the outer leaves….

  Once I get them down to this stage, I like to cut them back by half, and clean the stem part up. I always cook up the stems, too. They are just as good as the heart...

So gorgeous!

  Here, the locals cook them in water with lots of olive oil, garlic and bunches of wild mint found all over the fields. It's not like any mint at home…in taste or appearance. The leaves are tiny, fuzzy and sage colored. 

  I stick to my way, though, and cook them in water with lots of garlic and a few bay leaves. When I shared my recipe with locals, I was surprised that they questioned this preparation. It seems so Italian to me, but I guess it's a California thing. 
  AND... I wouldn't even think about mentioning the mayonnaise element...

California style Carciofi.

  Here, we enjoy our carciofi with good olive oil, of course!

Sadly, the color changes with the cooking.


  Another favorite veg in the markets are the these other-worldly Romanesco cauliflower/broccoli. We see them in the states for a short period when in season, but there are stacks of them in the markets here. I can't resist the odd and wonderful look of these!

Don't stare too long, or you'll get hypnotized.

  I like to break them up, throw on some olive oil and herbs and roast them. 

Add a Caprese salad with unbelievably good fresh mozzarella,
and you have dinner. Wine, too, of course.

  Sometimes I'll throw together a nice soup, with the vegetables from Yolanda's, our local market specializing in fruit and veggies.

  At home, I rarely make soup from scratch, but on cold days here, like a few weeks ago, I made several pots….I start with carrots, celery and onion, and just go from there. I like to add beans at the end, too.

Lunch time "zuppa".

  I'm always roasting vegetables, and it's my "go to" dish to bring to a dinner with friends. We were recently invited to a dinner with some wonderful Canadian pals we've met here, so I cooked up a dish to share.

Potato, fennel, red onions and black olives.
Lots of garlic, herbs and olive oil.

  Our friend Katia gave me the most beautiful eggs from her Grandma's chickens, which was a treat. She told me that now, this time of year, they are producing about forty eggs a day! Lucky, lucky!

  I had some leftover pasta, made with Katia's own tomato passata (just cooked & pureed tomatoes, and nothing else added), that she had canned in the summer. This sauce is so good, all the flavor of summer tomatoes..I just embellished with garlic and herbs. 

  Anyway, there wasn't enough pasta left for dinner for two, but I'll make a frittata out of anything, so…..

Add some onions, cook up the leftover pasta...

Grate some excellent parmesan...

Must be excellent….

  Just whip up those beautiful eggs, add them to the pan (olive oil in pan, no butter), get the bottom nice and browned..Then I like to add lots of the parmesan on top, and stick the pan under the broiler until you just can't stand to wait any longer.

Yum. Yes, it's a pasta frittata.
Don't knock it until you've tried it!

  Another regular dish I like to make is a crouton and tomato salad. The bread here goes hard in about four minutes, so there is always a chunk of hard bread hanging around. 
  I like to cut it up, toss it with way too much olive oil that has been cooked with loads of garlic and some herbs, then toss it all in the oven to brown up a little…..

Grate some parmesan on top, while still warm...

Cut up Yolanda's perfectly ripe tomatoes….

Add a chopped cucumber, and toss together with good oil and vinegar.
I like to throw in some lettuce and arugula, too...

Home cooking, My style!

   Another great lunch or dinner for us. A chunk of cheese on the side, perhaps…. a piece of onion/sage "pizza" from the local baker..the requisite glass of wine at hand.
  Who says I don't cook at home? 
  Oh, it was me. I guess I do my share.