Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Arrivederci no - Ciao si

"Signore, would you please answer a question?"


"Back in America I have been watching videos and listening to CDs on Italian language. Would you please explain the difference between 'arrivederci' and 'arriverderla'?"

"Arrivederci is good bye to many people, arrivederla is just one. But why not say, ciao?"

"I thought ciao was only for family and close friends?"

As my favorite waiter poured the last drops of wine, he said with a twinkle in his eye, "Si, signora".

Trip, vacation, holiday. Paraphrasing Curley from the movie City Slickers, "You city folk come out here all tied up in knots and try to unwind them in two weeks...". My 10 day Tuscan visit has drawn to a close. Thankfully the plane ride home and navigating Charles de Gaulle airport was rather uneventful. Eric from City Cab was waiting for us usual just after we cleared customs to whisk us back to Port Huron and our everyday lives. The limo was quiet as we rushed past the dark landscape and countless billboards(something I did not miss on the Autostrada). The past 18 hours were as blurred as the landscape, but as I stared out the window - the last 10 days were perfectly clear.

Greve en Chianti - I was slightly less freaked out than the last time David wound the rental van up the narrow mountain road. (David was enjoying a little game I'll call, 'Let's see if we can find that turn out where you opened your car door and almost fell down the mountain'). As we entered Greve we all waved at the 'stamp machine' from our previous visit(see blog entry 'How to humiliate yourself in multiple time zones'), on our way to Verrazzano winery. Several hours and several bottles of Chianti Classico later, I was much more relaxed as we wound our way back down the mountain to the villa.

Assisi - It was the singing that drew me in. My stomach had just loudly reminded me it was about lunch time and the rain was continuing to come down in sheets. Earlier in the morning we had entered the basiica through the Upper Church and had seen the lovely frescoes depicting the saint's life. We continued to the Lower Church and visited the crypt of St. Francis. I was crossing the courtyard to a waiting cafe across the street, when from the Upper Church's open doorway the music washed over me. My feet on their own changed directions back into the Upper Church. It lead me past the ornate altar and the Giotto frescoes to a small chapel in the back of the church. There I found the source of the singing. A Franciscan brother leading mass for about 50 Japanese tourists. It was easy to see he didn't speak Japanese and they didn't speak Italian. But through the ancient language of the church, Latin - they could share in worship. As the service ended, he bowed to them and they came forward to shake his hands. It literally gave me chills to watch.

Cortona - Land of Frances Mayes and Under the Tuscan Sun. Cortonna despite being a famous literary destination, maintains its gritty reality. Cortonnans (Cortanese?) were out in full force at the Saturday market. A very pleasant memory for me was conversing in my halting Italian with the produce vendor. It took a few minutes, some hand gestures and writing, but the fresh Sicilian oranges were worth it.

Florence - In a first for me, we visited Tuscany's capital on three seperate days. The first was Pitti Palace and the tumble down the stairs by a group member(see 'Il Popolo' entry). The second was spent in further investigation of the great Medici family (see 'I never met a Medici I didn't like' entry) The final day was spent in il Giardino Boboli - the Boboli Gardens. Boxwood knot gardens, statues of Roman gods, and a grotto - all floating on a cloud above the great city Firenze.

Figline Val D'Arno - the best for last. If you Google it, you won't find much. Maybe a couple of lines about the city church or how the University of Florence has a medical program at the local hospital. Or even about the local football team's winning year (but, don't try and buy a jersey. When I inquired from a Florentine football jersey vendor - he said "But Madam, Florence plays Madrid, Berlin, Rome it is an 'A' Figline, well there is 'B', 'C', 'D' 'E'....I don't know how far down they are - you need to buy a Florence jersey). You won't read about CD Cafe with it's black and white interior and genunine smiles from the owners. Or Pizza Antica - where you can buy (2)pizzas for 5 people for under $20 (not Euros - 20 dollars). Or even the magical Co-op Supermarket, where everything you would find in a drug store, Walmart, and grocery store, in a store the size of a Chuck E Cheese. You'll be able to find Villa Casagrande if you Google it. But with all the history and beauty you won't find the villa's real treasures: Lara, Francesca, Vivi, Stefano, Kirsten, the night manager who called the hospital, the night manager who happily gave us directions everywhere, the maintenance guy and maid who called Buon Giorno to us each day as we left on our adventures. No these are things you will have to discover for yourself.

So for me it is 'ciao' Figline Val D'Arno - never 'arriverderci'.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I never met a Medici I didn't like

Il Duomo, check”, “La Academia, Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi Gallery - check, check, check.” Mr. Steves’ 2010 Tuscany, Eyewitness Top 10 Tuscany and Fodor’s Best of Tuscany joined us in bed a few weeks before departure. There were almost 30 hill towns we had yet to explore, we had already decide to venture out to Ligura’s Cinque Terre as well as the pride of Umbria, Assisi. But what about Tuscany’s own capital, Florence? We thought we had seen all there was on previous visits. So, it was a late night research session that lead us to La Palazzo Pitti - palace of the Medici family .

What I knew (well let’s be honest know) about the Medici’s wouldn’t fill a single shot espresso cup.

Medici facts according to Pam:
1.Ruled Florence with an iron fist for 500 years (it was actually almost 400 and the iron fist would depend on who you were talking to).
2.Italian royalty or nobility (Sort of. By making the family bank the bank of the papal Curia, they founded the Medici fortune. By managing the family fortune, political clout and personal image to become the de facto rulers of Florence).
3.“The ends justify the means” Machiavelli based The Prince on the Medici family. True, but that only scratches the surface.

“Madam, we have a problem - the Firenze Marathon it is today- we will get you a close as we can”, said the taxi captain outside Santa Maria Novella train station. Close were the banks of the Arno river - just south of the Ponte Vecchio. David took my hand and we did something totally new for us, we crossed the Arno. The brown directional signs directed us through the winding streets towards the Palazzo di Pitti. We emptied out onto the largest square I had seen in Florence. What was even more impressive, two entire sides were one massive building - the Pitti Palace, Florence‘s royal home from 1560 until the 1860s. Inside the former residences of the Medici Dukes, Napoleon’s brother and the Lorraine /Hapsburg dynasty the opulent room décor was completely overshadowed by the sheer volume of art. Raphael, Titian, Van Dyck, Caravaggio masterpieces were interspersed with minor pieces by unknown medieval, Renaissance, and 18th century artists. The only impression you can have upon leaving is, the Medicis knew how to live.

Our next stop was San Lorenzo, the parish church of the Medici family. San Lorenzo is the oldest church in Florence, since 938 A.D. a church has stood on this site. The church’s façade is only partially complete, still showing its medieval roots (the Pope of the time felt too much money was being spent on San Lorenzo and pulled the plug - cut backs my friends are nothing new). The Medicis filled the church with priceless paintings and sculptures. The interior is light and thanks to its baroque Medici funded overhaul in the late 1600s.

The light interior of San Lorenzo wasn’t the only thing that was different. Two minutes after entering a lovely young Italian woman came over and introduced herself as a docent. She told us she was here to answer any question we may have about the church, the church art or anything at all (my previous experiences with museum/ church staff was an occasional ’Silencio!’ when the noise level got too loud). We ended up getting a 20 minute lecture on the Old Sacristies, where the earliest Medicis were buried (right inside San Lorenzo church itself) and the New Sacristies, built in part by Michelangelo,contained the later grand duke Medici family. She explained the two Medici coat of arms. The earliest family crest was 8 red balls representing both the size of the family and 8 the symbol for eternity. The second crest represented the later family with 5 red balls and a 6th blue ball with the Fleur de Lis representing the sister who married into French royalty, the house of Aragon. We thanked her and continued on our stroll through the church.

On our way out we met another docent, this one an Italian man of about 24. Our discussion with him made the greatest impression of the Medicis. He explained many people think the crest’s red balls represent pills, implying the Medicis were doctors before their banking and real estate empire. He snorted, “Doctors?! They were wool merchants who sold their goods on the Silk Road to China!” The balls represent the weights of how they measured and sold their goods.” At this point, he leaned over as to tell us a secret. “You know what?” he exclaimed, “Medicis aren’t even from Florence, they are from Scarperia!” At that he laughed like it was the greatest joke ever. He then sobered to speak of the last Medici, Anna Maria Luisa. With no heirs, Anna Maria willed all her holdings to the Lorraine (later the Hapsburgs) of Austria, with the strict stipulation, nothing was ever to be removed from Florence. She was as good in life as she was in death he explained, founding schools, hospitals a great humanitarian. But it was the signing of Patto di Famiglia that ensured the Medici legacy would forever remain in Florence.

As I walked back to the train station I thought about all I had learned. This family who in my mind was a 15th century version of the mafia, wasn’t just around during the Renaissance, they caused it to happen. Just a few examples, Medici cousin commissioned Botticelli’s Venus Rising and Primavera as a wedding gift to his bride. Michelangelo, a personal friend of the family, decorated the family crypt (New Sacristies) with his masterpiece Dawn,Dusk,Day and Night. It was only through the influence of Cosimo Medici II that Gallieo's sentence was commuted from death to house arrest,at a Medici university teaching science. The family office in downtown Florence was as filled with art as their home, the building and its collection are better known as the Uffizi Gallery. As I returned back to Villa Casagrande, once home of the noble family Serristori, I smiled as I passed the Medici crest and plaque inlayed in the villa walls which said Medici son and friend of the family, Pope Leo X had once slept here, just like me! And did I mention they were gardeners? You should see the family gardens, a little place called Giardino di Boboli, the Boboli Gardens. I knew I liked those guys.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

En cucina con Paola (e Daniela)

As we enter the old breakfast room at Villa Casagrande and the sight of the kitchen class Danella and Paola greet each of us with open hearts and joy. It is like we are friends and I felt that way. Little bits of twisty bread lightly salted and Chanti red, a bit of small talk and we begin. From the outset of the class, it is the passion and the energy of the ladies that amazes me. They are everywhere in the kitchen and have a definite plan the mark of experienced cooks. Someone once told me that the difference between a chef and a cook even a really good cook is that the chef can take any atmosphere and transform it with food and their art. I believe it is safe to call Paola a chef in this regard. She has the basic skills to cook and the artistry to transform. One of these rare people who looks at the space and sees beyond.

The first course was many different types of crostini, a Tuscan and Italian staple. The Crostini Rossi, pomodoro (red sauce) and herbs, the Crostini Neri, chicken livers, red onion, parsley, garlic, salt, capers, anchovy fillets and butter, and Crostini Cannelini, cannelini beans and onions make my mouth water even as I write this blog. Next, we begin the three courses in one to be saute'd in a terra cotta pot. The meats are rabbit, minced beef, and chicken, which will cook in the pan with juices, herbs, and vegetables throughout the four hour cooking experience. The minced beef is standard fare but the other meats and their preparation require some explanation. First, the chicken begins with raw tenders pieces on a cutting board. On top, salt, sage, garlic, fresh mozarella, prosuitto. Then scramble two eggs with olive oil (of course) and salt and a little milk. Then place the eggs onto the chicken as well and sprinkle parmesean cheese. The roll the chiken around all the ingredients and tie with string and insert a sprig of rosemary on the outside under the tie. Then toss into the pan. Second, the rabbit is soaked in water for two hours.

The next course is the Ribollita, which is a kind of stew. This begins in a large stock pot with potatoes, beans, carrots, sevoy cabbage, beets, red onions, celery, zucchini, olive oil (of course), chili peppers (2), tomato pulp, parsley, leek, cannelini beans mashed. First, saute the onion and add all the other ingredients and then add pomodoro sauce for color then cook approximately three and one half hours. As I understand, Ribollita is a dish that is served all over Tuscany and can take many forms with many varying ingredients. In the end, the entire mixture is poured over day old baguette bread pieces and then the boiling continues until the bread is soft and mixes into the entire affair. The dish is a symbol in my mind of the underlying philosophy of what Tuscans live by in the daily lives, They use what is near and what they grow which means fresh. They make meals that are steeped in traditions and without frills. The flavor, the earth, the climate, the culture add the spices to make each dish burst with flavor.

In keeping with this philosophy, we make two pizzas as we have ingredients left from the cooking. Then we begin the cake. All during the night, stories of the village and of Italy show such love and passion for the culture and for gastronomy. The ladies cook like this all the time apparently and have been lucky to be a part of it twice now and I am looking for adoption so I can be a part of it all the time. the cake is made with chectnut flour, olive oil (of course), salt, rosemary (sauted with oil then added on top), walnuts, pine seeds, and raisins. The mixture is spread into a baking tin and the rosemary poured over top then baked for 18-20 minutes at 180 degrees.

Tuscans add fruit and fish into dishes as do cooks do all across the Mediterrean cultures. the experiences with Paola and Daniella will last a lifetime and will influence my future of cooking. They take such pride in the set up of the room and the ambience as well as the culture of the past of each dish. The ladies are wonderful people and we will treasure their invlovement in our lives. Life lessons and cooking lessons and a demonstration in the art of cooking is a valued experience.