A Day at Ombuto

I thought today I would give you a view of what my days are like at this culinary vacation.

8:30 am: breakfast. My breakfast includes strong Italian coffee with frothed milk, a slice or two of prosciutto, a small wedge of cheese, a slice of crunchy bread, some fruit, and a small glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. Sometimes I drizzle a tiny bit of honey on the meat and cheese.

We are free until 3, so I set off on an excursion. Today I visited Cortona. Oh!! Really gorgeous. If an artist designed a town to be the idyllic and stereotypical Tuscan town, it would look exactly like every one I have seen. It’s the kind of beautiful where you shake your head in amazement and declare out loud “Are you KIDDING me?!” Yes, the beauty of Italy is no exaggeration. It’s, if anything, so much more than you believe it could possibly be.Image

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I return by around 1:30 and find the other students finishing up some amazing lunch. There is always plenty remaining for me. Around 2 I relax, walk around the estate, or sit in a chair on my terrace staring at my view.  Here is my suite at the villa:

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At 3, we meet in the dining room with Chef Paola, and she reviews all the dishes we will prepare that day. We remove the recipes from our books to take notes. There are usually at least 10 per day…some easier, some more challenging. All delicious! Today we made rabbit, Tuscan meatloaf, beet and potato ravioli, broccoli pasta roll, orange custard and shortbread cake, leek crepes, vegetables in puff pastry, biscotti, and pistachio crusted stuffed pork. We put on our aprons and choose a station in the kitchen. Then the magic begins! Paola begins giving us assignments. We each work on a few dishes. Today I made the leek crepes, orange custard for the cake, and the beet and potato ravioli. Pasta the old fashioned way, stretching and rolling it until it is as thin as silk, which is really hard to do without tearing it or getting it stuck to the surface. Around 6:30 we take a break and there is always some fantastic treat. I think the point is really to give the staff a chance to clean the mess we made before the final push to completion. There is a woman who speaks no English. Her job is mostly to continuously wash dishes so we always have bowls, measuring cups, pans, etc. We don’t wash – no time! Paola expects us to work hard and precisely and we do! She circulates giving advice, demonstrating technique, and performing quality control. I have learned to be very careful about the exact size things should be cut. She is strict!  Here is our kitchen:

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We finish by around 7:30 when she sends us out of the kitchen for a break before dinner, usually served around 8:15 (early by Italian standards). The dining table has been set by the kitchen assistant or the resort manager, Sheena, using flowers and branches from the estate to set truly gorgeous tables. The first night we all changed for dinner, but since then we are all so whipped we sit in chairs in front of the dining room fireplace and drink wine until the first coarse is served. Dinner is usually 4 courses, and I tend to have a few bites only of each. I am here to learn to cook, not eat, so I want to taste everything but I have finished nothing! Tonight our first course was an onion soup you eat with a fork. The next course was my ravioli and the broccoli roll. The 3rd course was a trio of rabbit, Tuscan meatloaf, and the vegetables in puff pastry. Dessert was the “Grandmother’s Cake” which was the shortbread layered with orange custard. Each savory course is paired with wine, and before dessert, they bring out (no exaggeration) at least 30 bottles of cognac, limoncello, grappa, etc. Then we sit around talking for awhile, before peeling off for bed.

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When I return to my rustic and cozy room, I inspect it for critters and evict any uninvited spiders or (tonight) slugs. We are in the country here, and they have no screens. Part of the charm! I get ready for bed, and check in with home events, and sometimes write my blog. Then I fall asleep thinking about where I’ll explore tomorrow!

Buona notte, tutti!

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Excursion Day

Today was excursion day!  We boarded a bus that had no business being on the scary gravel road, and headed to Arezzo.  This region of Tuscany is made of medieval walled mountain towns.  They are full of architecture from the 13th century forward, and usually have remarkable cathedrals or a castle.  The cathedral in Arezzo, despite being 800 years old, had the most amazing altar I have ever seen:

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Next, we headed for our wine tasting at Villa La Ripa. The owner and his family are the 5th to own this villa in 800 years. He bought it 20 years ago. It had originally belonged to a Medici. He was telling us the history over a glass of wine in his music room. The walls were covered in frescos which he said dated back to when that part of the villa was built in the 16th century. He gestured towards me and said so does the chair I am sitting on. Yikes! In the US this chair would be in a museum. He found a marble capital (top of a Roman column) which led to some research that confirmed the ancient Romans lived on that spot and also that they produced wine.

The owner is a neurologist and psychiatrist, and named his award winning wine “Psycho”. Here he is, and his lovely sitting room. He says he and his wife use all 35 rooms in the villa!
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Next we headed to an olive oil farm. The family grows olives and has a press that appears ancient. The son is running the business, and explained that local families bring their olive harvest to his press also. He showed us how the oil is made, then his mother made us lunch and served it to us in their family home. We met many people in his family, and his father, who spoke no English but communicated through me in French, proudly showed us a book that had a photo of his father shaking JFK’s hand as part of an agriculture diplomatic visit in 1961. The lunch began with an olive oil tasting, with the son presenting all of his experiments with flavor. Lunch ended with an obligatory tasting of his grappa (he makes a small amount of wine, also). It was such a wonderful visit with two families to see how they live and to learn about their products. Here is the olive oil farm:
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He told us how he is planning a big party for the family’s 600 anniversary in the villa in 2021. It will last a week with a different chef every day, and we are invited!

We ended the day with a visit to a goat dairy, where we had a goat cheese tasting (goat ricotta – yum) and saw goats get milked. Fun day.
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Back to our villa where we had the minestrone soup I made in our first class and delicious panna cotta (kind of an Italian flan) for dessert. Class again tomorrow, and maybe Cortona if the weather is good.

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Pizza Night

Though I thought 9 was pretty late for breakfast, I was the first person there.  Cool gadgets Chef Paola has that I do not: automatic milk frother, electric orange juicer.  Great coffee, whole grain bread still warm from the oven, local cheeses…mmmm! Next I decided to venture off the estate to explore the local castle.  This was scary for me because of the winding one lane gravel road, and the chance I would never find it again if I left.  But mustn’t let fear hold me back, so I rallied and set forth.  I found myself driving through the heart of an ancient medieval village.  I found a place to park, and explored the town. image Where Florence was filled with Americans, I saw none this deep in the countryside.  Just locals in animated conversations, gesturing madly.  Va bene, va bene!!  At the end of town was a beautiful little church where a saint is buried: San Fedele.  No one was there, but it was open.  They had old fashioned real candles (not the electric ones in most city churches now), and I lit one for my grandma Anna who died six years ago this Friday.  It’s nice to be Catholic in Italy. image Finally I hiked up to the castle on the top of the mountain. poppi-castello

After exploring the castle, which has an amazing library of books from the 15th century forward, I found my way home for cooking class #1. Today was pizza night, but we made lots of other dishes that will go towards our dinners later in the week. We prepared pumpkin custards, pizza dough, pizza sauce, minestrone soup, puttanesca sauce, bruschetta topping, parsley sauce, panna cotta, an onion soup, and a peach and almond tart. I made the minestrone soup and the pumpkin custards with another student. I call this photo “Fire is GOOD”. These earned us a round of applause at dinner.
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We each made a pizza and cooked it in an outdoor stove. They cooked in 7 minutes at approximately 900 degrees.
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I ate one eighth of that yummy pizza, even after skipping lunch. Gotta pace myself!

Tomorrow I am planning to go to Livorno in the morning. After I successfully returned from my morning adventure today, I will have a full car tomorrow.

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Casa Ombuto Arrival

Today I spent the first half of the day exploring Florence.  Florence is exactly as beautiful and romantic as you think, maybe even more so.  It is interesting returning after 25 years. There is no right age to be here.  Perhaps different things attract and excite me today than back then, but if anything it is even more thrilling now.  For one thing, I am staying in considerably nicer places. Florence is easier to enjoy with a bit more money.  I went to see Michaelangelo’s David, and it was surreal to be there in person.  I spent hours just wandering around, window shopping. I found an old fashioned glove shop. A small store with cubbies filled with gloves.  You don’t browse, you are fitted then shown gloves in your size.  There are small round pillows on the counter for customers to rest their elbows while gloves are placed on your hand.  Hand stitched, buttery soft silk lined leather.  Yes of course I bought a pair.

When I finally set off in my little Fiat for Poppi, the gps did not recognize the address.  I called and a nice man named Alex told me “come to Poppi then call me, and I will come down and lead you to the villa.” Even with a gps, I don’t think I could have found it.  We pulled off a small side road and drove perhaps 2 miles up a one lane gravel road.  When I say we are in the middle of nowhere Italy I am not exaggerating!  I have wifi but no phone service.  Our rooms have no locks.  We can help ourselves to whatever we want.  There are 3 2 bedroom stone villas that share a common room with a fireplace and small kitchen area.  There is no television.  Very peaceful and incredibly beautiful.  My room has a large rustic antique armoire and a stone floor.  I have a door leading out to a garden with a sweeping view of the hilly farmland.

Our class has 7 people: a nice couple from Belfast currently living in Saudi Arabia, a perfect stereotype of a New York Jew, complete with a heavy Brooklyn accent, an American woman currently living in London, a man from Qatar, a retired woman from San Francisco, and me.  When I arrived 3 of them were sharing a bottle of wine and I joined them. Really fun and interesting people!  We met Paola, our teacher and chef who prepared an insanely wonderful dinner for us, and we sat by the fire drinking grappa and limoncello until we were too stuffed, drunk, and exhausted to stay awake.

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Time for bed.  This is going to be an incredible week!

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Inferno

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The most important work of literature to come forth from Italy was without question “The Divine Comedy” – an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri in the 14th century. Understand, Dante was not the Jon Stewart of his day. “Comedy” referred to literature written in language accessible to the common man. Ordinary and straightforward – not ancient and lofty. Well, not to Dante’s contemporaries, anyway.

I think I somehow missed this epic poem in my schooling. When better to tackle it than during my journey to reach the city Dante worshipped, which eventually exiled him even in death. So, I downloaded it to my iPad (just as Dante intended), and read it today. Friends, Dante might have been a time traveler, and take this from a woman who just completed a 26 hour journey through 4 countries and 3 languages… Dante fully understands my plight.

What should the sign at TSA have read, as I checked in for the first leg of my flight?

“Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct.”

And as I wandered aimlessly in the international terminal during my 7 hour layover in Toronto, what did I hear?

“Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,”

What happened to these people, I wondered?

“These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.”

They must have had a pretty terrible flight, I observed.

“The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them.”

Clearly, some suffered from cancelled flights, for such was the advice for them:

“By other ways, by other ports
Thou to the shore shalt come, not here, for passage;”

Who among us has not suffered at the hands of a heartless flight attendant?

“Charon the demon, with the eyes of glede,
Beckoning to them, collects them all together,
Beats with his oar whoever lags behind.”

But why do they subject themselves to this?

“My daughter,” the courteous Master said to me,
“All those who perish in the wrath of God
Here meet together out of every land”
And ready are they to pass o’er the river,
Because celestial Justice spurs them on,
So that their fear is turned into desire.”

And thus has it ever been, and so shall be our fate, it appears. Any kid who complains Dante has nothing in common with modern man has never traveled 26 hours between Raleigh and Florence.

(From the Longfellow translation of The Inferno)

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Bye Bye Miss American Pie

If you have kept up with this blog, you already know that one of my fascinations is the pervasiveness of Western culture – and specifically American culture – throughout the world.  One of my favorite curiosities in my travel has been the soundtrack.  As I was driving today, I tried to remember as many of my overseas trips as I could, and particular music that caught my attention.  I cannot escape American pop music, anywhere I go.

It’s a little bit disconcerting.  When you travel to faraway lands with rich cultures of their own, part of the fun is immersing yourself into the local art and culture.  For example, tango music in Argentina.  Through the years, this has been the soundtrack of my travels:

  • Late 80’s, off the beaten track hotel on the outskirts of Rome.  In the breakfast room I am drinking my most excellent morning latte with Neil Diamond music in the background.
  • Business trip to Ealing in the early 90’s, a suburb of London, having dinner with a colleague in a most ordinary non-tourist local pub.  American contemporary soft rock of the 1960’s and 1970’s is playing throughout dinner, including “King of the Road.” Are you KIDDING me?!”
  • En route to Strasbourg, France, connecting at dawn through Brussels.  I am the only person in an enormous tunnel the size of a football field with two long moving sidewalks and monochrome beige tiled walls glowing in fluorescent light.  I am nearly comatose, standing on the moving belt while the strains of “Mr. Sandman” echo around me.
  • Business trip to Paris in the early 90’s, and I am sitting on the steps of the Musée d’Orsay with a Croque Monsieur listening to a street musician with an accordion play “I Love Paris”…you know, “I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles…”.  I am thinking “How perfectly French is this exact moment” then I caught myself and thought “HEY!  Cole Porter wrote that.  It’s not French, it’s American!”  Dang it, they nearly tricked me!
  • Prague, 2001-ish.  Sitting in an outdoor restaurant finishing dinner and sipping my wine, contemplating the deployment of US ground forces into nearby Bosnia, listening to R.E.M. sing to me that it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
  • And even in a Ryokan in the middle of Kyoto in 2012, the only gaijin in its tiny but amazing restaurant, and they are playing one of my very favorite somewhat obscure albums from the 80’s: Fairground Attraction, “First of a Million Kisses”.  Granted, a UK band, but where in the HELL did they come up with this?!?  I mean, it’s pretty obscure even in the US.  I was in freaking Japan!  That is the last place I expected to hear “The Moon is Mine”.  Surreal.
  • Villa Cora. Florence, 2013:  Peter Gabriel playing in the lobby at check-in; Chet Baker all thru dinner.

I think I notice because I travel on my own a lot, and therefore pay closer attention to the details surrounding me.  I love me a tableaux, and my mental scrapbook uses all of my senses.  But come on, really?  Neil Diamond with my morning latte in Rome?

So why is this happening?  Am I just jet setting through my exact demographic, and therefore running into every ethnic variation of myself?  Stop for a moment and contemplate that.  If I am right, then no matter where we go, there is a place where we will feel at home.  Whether you are an aging intellectual hipster or a stylish pop culture fanatic, if you chase your bliss you will find yourself among others just like you who were drawn to that same place from wherever they started in the whole wide world.  Far OUT.  And weirdly comforting.  Or, is American pop culture simply produced and exported globally on such a massive scale, it is a product we cannot avoid, no matter how much we hope to leave it behind?  Are foreign establishments pandering to the American tourist, as ubiquitous as American culture abroad?  Finally, is Neil Diamond cooler when he is a foreigner singing in a foreign language?  Just like Americans pay to see Gerard Depardieu films?  OK, well they did once.

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The world sent America its huddled masses, its laborers and free thinkers.  Its hard workers and dream weavers who built our country into the most envied brand in the world.  And in some strange cosmic pact, it appears that America is returning the favor by sending back excellent coffee franchises, Hollywood blockbusters, and Sweet Caroline.

…Good times never seemed so good (SO GOOD!  SO GOOD!  SO GOOD!)

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The Etruscans

I am taking care of the final details for my trip to Italy. I confess I am feeling uncharacteristic apathy. Don’t get me wrong…I close my eyes and imagine myself relaxing with a glass of wine on the terrace of the villa in Poppi and I anticipate a monumental sense of bliss and relaxation. But I am finding it hard to rally the enthusiasm. I haven’t done my usual cultural and historical prep work for the trip.

OK I did a little bit. For example, what do you know about the Etruscans? Like so many obscure topics, I have always been aware there were people knows as Etruscans, but that is about the extent of what I knew. They were indigenous to what is now Tuscany, so I did a little digging to understand that culture more.

Most of what we know about Etruscan history is second hand from the writings of ancient Greek historians or derived from treasures found in Etruscan graves. The ancient Roman name for the Etruscans “Trusci” is the origin of the word Tuscany, itself. They are a mysterious civilization who left little behind to teach us about their history and culture. The first evidence of the Etruscans dates back to approximately 900 BCE. Mitochondrial DNA examination tell us the Etruscans had a Near East lineage, not a European one. Somewhere in the 5th century BCE the Etruscan culture mingled into Greek culture. The Etruscans are believed to have founded Rome. Their architectural knowledge exceeded that of the Greeks.

They were a monogamous society which valued marriage. They believed the bare breasts of a woman could ward off evil, which is the origin of the carvings on the figureheads of sailing ships. Women had a more respected and liberated role in society than the neighboring cultures at the time.
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The Etruscans worshipped three layers of deities (male and female) who could be petitioned to intervene for humans. Historians are piecing together what they can, which is not much, to understand the Etruscan language. Etruscan cannot be shown conclusively to be related to any other language, living or dead. We have their alphabet and just a few surviving texts. The alphabet was runic, and influenced what would become the Greek alphabet.

Etruscan

Much of what we know about Etruscan daily life we have learned from their murals. It is clear that banquets played an essential role in every major event. It is even said that the Etruscans probably introduced grapes, and then wine, to the region from the Saudi peninsula around 900 BCE. How appropriate, then, that my introduction to Etruscan history comes as I prepare for my week at a culinary school in Tuscany.

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