Florence, In Tavola Cooking School, Italy 2014

The Florence Journals: Cooking a 4 Course Meal at In Tavola Cooking School

I love Italian food! That probably goes without saying. Italy is known for its food, so, it’s not surprising that one of the classic things to do in Florence is to take a cooking class. I’ve taken two at In Tavola at via dei Velluti 18/20r and I had a blast both times. Not only that, I will definitely try the recipes at home. There’s something about preparing a meal with a group of strangers in a test kitchen that inspires confidence, especially if the result is delicious. It also fosters a sense of camaraderie within the group which makes for a truly delightful time. There are many cooking schools in Florence to choose from. Some are extremely expensive. Others more modest. In Tavola was an excellent value for the money.

I decided to jump into the deep end first thing and try a 4 course dinner class. It cost me 65 Euro. Chef Helen was the guide and task leader for our multilingual group of 17 would be culinary experts. She taught us slicing tips, how to blanch tomatoes to remove the skins, and how to peel mushrooms. I learned that you never wash mushrooms. They are mostly water and washing them makes them mushy. You just peel off the outer layer of skin and have fresh, clean, mushroom underneath.  Who knew?! In general in this class, we peeled things I wouldn’t have and didn’t peel things I would have. It was very interesting.

Chef Helen

Chef Helen

At my table were a French couple on a short holiday from Paris and two delightful, American woman on vacation exploring Italy. Our work station was a stainless steel table with drawers full of all the food preparation implements we would need and a four burner cooktop, At our table we also had all the ingredients for our meal.

Our meal consisted of an appetizer, an eggplant caprese (griddle fried eggplant slices with just a touch of salt and pepper, tomato slices, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper and, of course, olive oil. Slices were assembled by layers, each layer topped with breadcrumbs, seasonings and a touch of olive oil, and then baked for 5 minutes.

Eggplant caprese

Eggplant caprese

Our first course was pasta. We prepared two types of gnocchi. Gnocchi are small potato dumplings. We prepared a classic potato gnocchi and a green potato gnocchi. I am a gnocchi fan from way back, so I was really excited for this course. While I’ve made gnocchi myself (once), I was looking forward to learning how to do it the Italian way. The only difference between the two types of gnocchi was that the green gnocchi had parsley. I found a new cooking toy I’ll need to get when I get home. It’s called a rice masher. We used it to shred the cooked potatoes. The recipes were very easy. You can either bake or boil the potatoes. If you use a rice masher, there’s no need to peel them, then blend with flour, cornstarch, egg, finely diced parsley and season with salt, pepper, and the secret ingredient, nutmeg. You then knead the dough quickly, roll it into a long string about ½ inch thick on a floured table and cut it into one inch pieces. Sprinkle it with flour to keep it from sticking together and then cook the gnocchi in rapidly boiling water for 2-3 minutes.

We topped the regular gnocchi with a tomato and garlic sauce. We quickly blanched the tomatoes in boiling water for 1 minute, then ran them under cold water to cool, and peeled them. We added two cloves of unpeeled garlic to the tomatoes in a pan with olive oil in the bottom, then seasoned with salt, pepper and pepperoncino (hot peppers) and sautéed for 10 minutes. Toward the end we added about 6 leaves of basil cut into strips. Chef Helen taught us to roll the leaves like a cigar and then cut thin slices. We added the basil at the end so as not to overcook it. We removed the garlic, added the pasta, tossed it all together (literally), and we were done.

For the green gnocchi, we did a simple, yet delicious sauce that I never would have thought of as a pasta sauce. We sautéed diced carrots, onions and celery in olive oil, cooking them until the onions were translucent. Then we added ground turkey and cooked it over high heat until browned. We added brandy and cooked it off, then water, and thyme, and rosemary wrapped in sage leaves and tied off so the packet could be easily removed later, chopped parsley, salt, and pepper. Ideally this sauce would cook for a couple hours, but as our time was limited, we did the cheater version and added a bit of tomato paste and called it good.

green gnocchi with meat sauce

Green Gnocchi

Me serving gnocchi with tomato garlic sauce

Me serving the gnocchi with tomato and garlic sauce

Our second course was turkey with herbs and saffron. First, we about ½ teaspoon if saffron into some vegetable stock to dissolve. Our  turkey was skinned, boned, and precut into two inch by two inch chunks for easy cooking. We coated them in flour, then pan friend them over medium heat in a skillet with olive oil and butter. In a separate pan, we sautéed the sliced mushrooms with olive oil and garlic. Once the turkey was browned nicely, we added the sautéed mushrooms and about a half cup of white wine which we let evaporate. Finally we added the stock with saffron and the herbs (bay leaves and rosemary), and a dash of salt and pepper. When everything was done, we garnished the dish with chopped parsley.

turkey and mushrooms

Turkey and mushrooms

For dessert, we made tiramisu. To start with we mixed 3 egg whites with sugar and beat them until they were stiff and peaks formed. Then we gently stirred in mascarpone cheese and set it aside. We dipped lady fingers in a espresso/brandy mixture, then lined our dessert cups with them, topped with the mascarpone cheese mixture, repeated the steps and ended with cocoa powder sprinkled on the top layer of cheese. These we refrigerated an hour before eating.

me making tiramisu

Me making Tiramisu

The best part, after preparing our meal, we got to enjoy it together accompanied by a lovely In Tavola wine. It was an absolutely delightful time and the food was delicious, if I do say so myself. None of us were ready to leave when the meal was over. I think that is the sign of a successful experience. I strongly recommend it! Check out In Tavola at: http://www.intavola.org/

French friendsAmerican friends

French Friends                                                        American friends

Buon appetito!

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Caffe' Maioli, Florence, Food, Italy 2014

In Search of the Best (& Fastest) Cappuccino in Florence, Italy: The Case for the Caffe’ Maioli at the Ponte Vecchio

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So, dear reader, as you know, I have been on a quest for the best cappuccino in Florence, Italy. I have a candidate in the Caffe’ Maioli with their baristas Maurizio and Iris. First, the Caffe’ Maioli has the perfect location. It is just across the Ponte Vecchio Bridge on the Oltrarno side, straight across and directly in front of you as you leave the pedestrian walk. When I first got to Florence, I was a bit startled by the Italian tradition of slamming a quick espresso while standing at a coffee bar. I soon learned that doing so it fast and the cost of the coffee or any food eaten standing at the counter is a fraction, sometimes a third, or half the cost of what it would be if I sat down. I have started to really enjoy this tradition. It allows me to chat briefly with the barista, enjoy my cappuccino and crescent, and then go on about my day.

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I have to admit, I have a bit of a crush on the Maurizio, Andreus, and Iris. All three are friendly, welcoming and incredibly efficient. Maurizio and Andreus are an amazing tag team behind the coffee counter. While Maurizio whips up the perfect blend of bitter coffee with milky, frothy deliciousness, Andreus heats your pastry to the perfect temperature. Both coming together in front of you within seconds of your order. I have never seen someone move as quickly, efficiently, and seemingly effortless making coffees, cappuccinos, espressos, lattes, Americano coffees, or fresh squeezed orange juice as Maurizio.

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Maurizio

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Andreus

My friend Mary and I highly recommend the crescents. They are large, flaky and the hint of honey on the top adds a delightful touch of sweetness. I am also a fan of the chocolate crescents and the apple pockets. The chocolate crescents are large, flaky, filled with chocolate, and topped with a hard shell of chocolate across the top. Really, the words chocolate crescent speak for themselves. The apple pockets are a bit crunchy, a bit soft, and full of tasty apple deliciousness, perfect with cappuccino. Caffe’ Maioli has much more to offer with gelato, sandwiches, salads, and liquors, wines and candies.

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Iris often runs the upstairs part of the restaurant which overlooks the Ponte Vecchio pedestrian walk and, from some tables, offers either an open air dining experience, or a view of the Duomo. Food comes from below through a dumbwaiter. There are evening specials at a very reasonable price, wine, bread and salad for 9 Euro in a lovely setting. On Tuesday, and Thursday through Sunday, you will be serenaded by live music from the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, a perfect Florence experience.

For service, food quality, coffee deliciousness, convenience, and ambiance, I recommend the Caffe’ Maioli. A cappuccino and crescent are 2.80 Euro if you stand at the coffee counter. Expect to pay at least twice as much if you choose to sit. This is standard in Florentine restaurants. Ciao!

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Caffè Giacosa, Florence, Food, Italy 2014, Negroni, Olives

The Florence Journals: Aperitivo at the Caffè Giacosa

I was window shopping one evening through the high fashion district of Florence. I paused at the Monte Blanc pen shop to gaze at a photo of Hugh Jackman in the window (sigh), entered a lovely blanket shop to check the price on what I thought was a gorgeous shawl. I learned first that it was a cashmere picnic blanket (who knew they made such things?!) and that this delightful 4 by 4  foot blanket cost 4830 euro (over $6500 at today’s exchange rate). I caressed it for a moment and handed it back to the salesman telling him I would continue looking. I passed the Tiffany jewelry store, a high end spa, and continued down the Via Tornabuoni.

I walked toward what was to become one of my favorite hangouts in Florence. As I approached the café on that first evening, Frank Sinatra crooned to me from the welcoming entrance. Laughing couples and small groups of friends sipped pretty cocktails in shades of orange over ice, and enjoyed colorful appetizers served in stacked glasses, on the covered patio on the street outside.

I entered and looked around. The beautiful wooden bar caught my attention followed by the delightful selection of tapenades lining the counter with breads and chips in column shaped glass bowls behind them. I watched the bartender free pour from four bottles at once into a row of ice filled glasses, the colors of the liquor splashing together, red, orange, pale yellow, clear. He was making beautiful art in a glass. I wanted to taste it. I asked what the drink was called. “A Negroni,” the waiter responded. I decided to stay.

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The story goes that the Negroni cocktail was invented on the spot where the Caffè Giacosa now stands. Prior to its renovation by famed Florentine fashion designer Roberto Cavalli, this location used to house the Casoni Bar. Sometime between 1919 and 1920 (according to the café’s menu), a bartender named Fosco Scarselli created the Negroni, which is “a particular kind of Americano cocktail, adding some gin”, for the Conte Cammillo Negroni. The Conte liked the drink and it was named after him. The rest is history as the Negroni is one of the most famous drinks in Florence. Many variations of the Negroni have emerged over the years including one called the Negrunge which is a specialty of the current bar (ingredients lists below).

I moved from the bar to the table service section, where a long curving leather sofa is fronted by small round tables. There is also a self-service section with tall standing tables. Generally speaking, I tend to move pretty quickly and part of this trip has been about slowing down and taking time, so standing at a table to have a drink, a common tradition for both espresso and aperitivo in Florence, doesn’t really work for me. Plus, I’m on my own, so table service allows for interaction with wait staff.

I looked at the menu, sought out the Negroni, and saw there were a number of them, all containing gin, bitter Campari, and vermouth. Remembering my friends’ glee at the faces I make while drinking bitter (beer) or strong alcohol (any straight alcohol except wine) back home, I thought I might need to ease into this more slowly. So, I sought out their spritzes instead. On this first night, I chose a Spritz royale which is made of aperol, raspberry vodka, prosecco, and soda water. It came in a wine glass and was a lovely rose color. It was tasty and refreshing.

Not long after I received my drink, a smiling woman brought me a lovely plate of appetizers. I had no idea that table service meant I got my own appetizers in addition to the lovely spread available to everyone. It contained two savory pastries, olives, carrots, and spicy corn nuts. I should admit here that I am NOT a fan of olives. Let me clarify I WAS not a fan of olives. The olives here are green, large, buttery and slightly salty. I LOVE them!!! Occasionally, I now get a craving for them and have to go out in search of olives. I must figure out how to bring some home.

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I nursed my drink and enjoyed my appetizers, complementing them with samples of the olive tapenades from the bar. For Florentines, the idea of aperitivo is that an early drink and appetizers (from 6:30-8:30 pm) prime the stomach for dinner later, around 10. For me, it normally IS dinner. That first night, I ended my evening with a cappuccino served with a small biscotti.

On my second visit, I tried an old style Negroni. It was made with gin, bitter Campari, red vermouth and soda water. This time the savory pastries were replaced with potato chips in the appetizers. And I fell further in love with the olives. The drink was, for me, incredibly strong. I nursed it as the ice melted and then asked for an ice refill. While it was strong for me, it was also smooth and flavorful. I don’t think I made much of a “bitter drink face”.

On my third visit, I tried the Negrunge, the special Negroni served in this café. It was made of gin, bitter Campari, mandarin liqueur, white vermouth, and angostura bitters. For me, the fruitiness of the mandarin liqueur made this drink much smoother and easier to drink. I still nursed it as I enjoyed my appetizers, though, and again, the OLIVES!!!!!

The café offers not only aperitivo, but also breakfast and lunch. Their pastry chef makes all their sweet and savory pastries. Their sandwiches and desserts look delicious. I haven’t tried those yet, but will update if I do.

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The Caffé Giacosa is located near the arch at the Piazza della Repubblica on Via Tornabuoni in Florence, Italy. To learn more, check out their website: http://caffegiacosa.it/index.php?file=history

One final note. I am so enamored of their olives that I asked where they came from. I’m hoping to be able to bring some home to the states. My waiter told me they receive them in bulk from a local supplier. I explained that I wanted some to take home with me and asked if they would tell me the name of the supplier. Misunderstanding me, the chef brought me a container of olives in a brown paper bag to take home with me, indicating there was no charge for them. I LOVE Florence and Caffè Giacosa!

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Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014

The Florence Journals: My morning at the Mercato Centrale (Central Market Square)

This cool, crisp autumn morning is fresh and clean following yesterday’s rain. Colors seem more vivid in the sunlight and I am in the mood for a walk. It’s supposed to rain again this afternoon. I head to the central market past the Duomo. There are stands selling leather goods and souvenirs outside. I walk through them to calls of “bella biondi” (beautiful blonde) from the salesmen trying to hawk their wares. I am too easily enthralled by the beautiful scarves, the smell of the leather handbags, the Firenze Universita’ sweatshirts, the woven bracelets, the masks. Tourist shopping will have to wait for another day. Today I want to shop at the fresh food market.

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I am told that here the food is organic. That those who run the stands are selling produce from their personal farms or from collaboratives. I am told that they have made the pasta and baked the bread themselves. I love the notion of purchasing fresh food from those who grow and cultivate it. I walk the entire ground floor first taking in the sights. The room is a huge, open warehouse. Some merchants have very well appointed and designed stands. Others have rough hewn tables laid out with food in a seemingly haphazard fashion. There are stands which sell bottled fresh olive oils and balsamic vinegars who entice me with invitations to taste. There is a fresh pasta stand where in a glassed in area behind the display counter, workers in aprons, hair nets, and gloves, make pasta from scratch.

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There are fresh fruit and vegetables vendors, some run by well dressed women and men, others by those who look like they came straight from the fields. There are prepackaged items. There are butchers who both display their prized cuts of meat or cut something for the client’s desired specifications. Each merchant has her or his own approach to displaying their goods; each stand has its own personality.  The way customers are greeted varies as well. Some merchants are effusive and friendly, inviting me in. Others talk with friends and family and during a break in conversation, take care of customers. Still others are hard to reach, hard to purchase from. I feel as if I am interrupting them by trying to buy their products. This market also seems to be a social venue for the merchants. I am delighted to shop here. It reminds me of shopping at the markets in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia.

After walking the full market, I walk again, deciding what I want to purchase and from whom. I purchase tagliatelli from the fresh pasta stand. The woman behind the counter taking off her gloves to fill a small bag with pasta for me using her bare hand. I purchase cherry tomatoes from a friendly grocer and lemons from an old man with smiling eyes.

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I purchase bread from a young woman who responds with confidence when I ask her what bread she thinks is the most delicious.

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As I am preparing to leave, I am stopped in my tracks by the sweet smell of ripe peaches. My mouth waters and I turn back. A smiling man gestures toward me with a plate filled with juicy peach slices I can’t resist. The peach is warm, soft, juicy, delicious. I buy two. My rule here is to buy only what I can eat in a day or so (also only what I can carry as I walk everywhere and have to be able to schlep it up the hill to my apartment). I am satisfied with my purchases for today. The market is open until 2 pm daily. I will be back.

I head back toward the Duomo in search of a coffee shop where I can enjoy a cappuccino and a crescent. It has started to rain again. Perhaps I will find an indoor café for now.

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Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014, JT Caffe'

The Florence Journals: On the JT Caffe’ in Florence, My Favorite Hangout

About 2 weeks into my Florence adventure, I met someone I should have known years ago, Bob Blesse, the retired Director of the Black Rock Press and Professor of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno where I taught for 21 years. Bob had heard about a new cafe in Florence and invited me to meet him, along with his wife Vicki Davies, for aperitivo (appetizers and drinks) at what was to become one of my favorite spots in Florence, the JT Caffe’.

Bob Blesse outside the JT Caffe

Bob Blesse enjoying aperitivo at JT Caffe’

Located on Piazza Pitti, directly across from the Palace at numbers 32-33R, the JT Caffe’ opened in April, 2014, the brain child of fashion designer Jennifer Tattanelli, the daughter of an American photographer (some of her photos adorn the walls) and an Italian artisan leather designer. Her delightful boutique CASINI FIRENZE, which started as an expansion of her father’s artisan leather work business and now includes Jennifer’s head to toe designs, is located right next door. http://www.jennifertattanelli.it/.  While Bob, Vicki and I had a delightful time that evening, I had no idea how much I would come to love the JT Caffe’.

The JT Caffe’ was built over the top of a 700 year old street with overlooking terraces. Jennifer incorporated the street, covered by a glass viewing window, and the brick terraces into a very modern fusion of steel, couches, pillows, fireplaces, and delicious food.

inside view with floor and ceiling

fireplace

The front of the house

The delicious food is the product of the loving hands and amazing skill of Chef Marzia. Her specialty is fresh made pasta which she makes from scratch several times throughout the day. Their menu changes regularly based on what is fresh and available and everything I have tried is delicious.

with Chef Marzia and Marco

Chef Marzia, Marco, a waiter who specializes in food and wine pairings, dessert, cappuccino, and me

with Caterina

With the delightful Caterina, waitress extraordinaire, who is expert on the menu and fluent in 4 languages. She always has suggestions for what I might try next.

Whether you come for breakfast, lunch, aperitivo, or full dinner, the food is guaranteed to delight your palate as the friendly and helpful staff make you feel at home.

Some of my favorites:

breakfast crescent and cappucino

For breakfast – Crescent with nutella and fresh fruit and a cappuccino

chicken liver pate

For an appetizer – Chicken liver pate’, cucumber and fennel slices, olives, and spiced olive oil – I did not know I liked chicken liver pate’. I DO! At least theirs.

beef pasta

Spaghetti with beef and spinach

stuffed pasta

Cappellacci stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and spinach, topped with sage butter

chocolate tart and cappucino

Desserts: Chocolate torte and cappuccino – Chocolate – need I say more – You may have noticed that each cup of cappuccino has a different look. Each person who prepares it here has their own signature style. All are very tasty, but, of course, I’m partial to the one with chocolate laced through it. 

tiramisu

Tiramisu – I should note that I am not generally a fan of tiramisu. I just don’t like the coffee flavor. But Caterina talked me into trying it. Light, a gentle flavor, delicious!

They are also known for their vanilla gelato and balsamic vinegar. I would never have thought to pair vinegar and ice cream. It is amazing! Tart, tangy, sweet, a delight to the tongue.

Should you make it to Florence, the walk to the “Oltrarno” the other side of the Ponte Vecchio (the bridge over the Arno River famous for gold merchants) from the Duomo and Piazza Signoria is well worth your time to visit this Florentine gem. A gentle, flat, 15 minute walk from the Duomo, the JT Caffe’ will not disappoint.

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Autumn, Florence, Food, Italy 2014, Sabbatical, Soup

The Florence Journals: It’s Autumn so it Must be Time for Soup!

I have a confession to make. I’m an autumn soup person. I love to make soups in the autumn, so here I am, in Florence, Italy, and it’s autumn and I’m ready to make soups. Ok, it’s still in the high 70s, low 80s here every day, but it is autumn. I am often my most creative in experimenting with recipes in autumn. The first day of autumn, I went to the Conad market (the closest thing to a supermarket in my region of Florence, Italy) I purchased a pack of fresh chicken, specifically the keel bones. If you are a white meat chicken lover, the keel bones are for you. The meat is cut from the sternum along the bones, the fleshiest part of the chicken breasts. We used to charge extra for keel bones at a restaurant I worked at in high school. I, personally, prefer the lightness of breast meat for my soups and stews. I’ll give some ideas below for modifying this for other tastes. One of the things I like about the Conad grocery stores is that they package different kinds of vegetables together in small packages that are creative enough to inspire me to try new things. Plus, I’m only cooking for myself, so if it’s bad, no one else has to know. I saw a beautiful package of fresh herbs with sage, rosemary, bay leaves, and a peperoncino pepper (laurel chili pepper). I have to confess, I typically find sage too strong and have never cooked with rosemary. I have a thing about hot peppers. Generally, I don’t like them. They’re just too strong for me. But this package was so lovely, I couldn’t resist. And, dear reader, you remember how deliciously the butter and sage with fresh grated parmesan on the homemade cheese ravioli turned out! I was ready to experiment.

soup veggies

Soup veggies

After I picked up the chicken, I decided I wanted to make a stew. I knew I wanted a lot of fresh vegetables. They are so good here.  I went back to the section of the market with packs of fresh vegetables. I purchased a pack with a carrot, a zucchini, an onion, 5 small potatoes, a hunk of cabbage, a leek, some greens I couldn’t identify (they were very bitter for my taste, so I ultimately decided not to use them), parsley and tomatoes (I held the tomatoes for another day.). One key element of my cooking here is garlic cloves soaked in olive oil, red pepper and oregano. I use it constantly. That and some salt and black pepper and I was ready to experiment. I washed the chicken thoroughly, patted it dry and laid it on a bed of olive oil, garlic, red pepper and salt in the bottom of the pan to sauté. I rubbed it with more olive oil, salt and pepper and topped it with more chopped garlic and chopped parsley. I diced half the onion and put it on top as well. Then I tackled the vegetables. I decided to do a one pot rustic version for this stew. I cut up the other half of the onion as the chicken sautéed, 2/3rds of an inch of the leek (I’ve not used leeks before, so didn’t know how strong the flavor was or what to expect – it was about 1 inch around), I used 2/3rds of the carrot (unpeeled), and 2 stalks of celery (including the leaves). I diced the zucchini (unpeeled) and cut the cabbage into small strips. I cut the potatoes (unpeeled) in eighths and put everything into the pot. I added two bay leaves, two sprigs of Rosemary, two cut up sage leaves, more parsley, the last of my garlic and Himalyan salt (it was in my cupboard). Last, I added ¼ of my 3 inch long peperoncino (I approached this one with caution. I cut a small piece off and held it to my tongue. It was HOT! Confession: I’ve never actually used fresh, hot peppers before. Historically anything hotter than bell peppers or black pepper make it hard for me to breathe. I’ve been working my way into hotter peppers for a while. You know, those small pepper packets that come with pizzas in the states. I sprinkle one of those in almost every soup I make.  I topped everything off with 2 cups of water and ½ cup of white wine (I had Vernaccia open), covered the pot and let it cook on medium. When the soup started to boil, I turned it down a bit farther. I wanted a gentle boil, not a rolling one. I like my vegetables to remain firm and not be boiled into mush. After 20 minutes, I removed the bay leaves, the  rosemary and the chicken. I cut the chicken into bite sized pieces, stirred it back into the soup and tasted the broth.

soup

Soup

I was pleased that with all the strong flavors I’d included, nothing seemed to be overpowering. The flavors remained pretty distinct. I could taste the celery, the sage (but it wasn’t overwhelming), the bay and rosemary, and all the vegetables retained their unique flavors. I added a bit more salt and black pepper. It was time for lunch. I poured myself a little more wine, broke a piece of bread off a fresh baguette I’d just purchased, topped it with a bit of rich, creamy, butter (Italian butter is the best!!!), and I was ready to enjoy my first soup of autumn. The taste was fresh and pleasing. I have some ideas for modifying the recipe for different tastes.

  • If you’re a dark meat chicken person, I’d use red wine instead of white
  • If you like less “hearty” soups, you can peel all your vegetables
  • Use any vegetables you like to modify the flavor
  • Use any herbs and spices you prefer to modify the flavor
  • You can, of course, omit the wine all together (why would you do that?!)

I’ll continue to experiment with food here in Florence. I promise I’ll only share the successes. Ciao!

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Chianti, Chianti Classico, Florence, Food, Italy 2014, Sabbatical, Super Tuscans, Tuscan Wine Tours, Tuscany, wine

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside: On Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Super Tuscan Wines

So, if you’re like me, you weren’t aware that there is a difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico wines. You’ve likely also never heard of Super Tuscans. I learned about these wines on my Tasty Tuscany food and wine tour with Tuscan Wine Tours / Grape Tours :http://www.tuscan-wine-tours.com/Florence_wine_tours.htm. To fill in some remaining blanks, I did follow-up research also reported below.

The Chianti Region of Tuscany

While not precisely delineated, the borders of the Chianti region of Tuscany include a 20km area (approximately 12.4. miles) around and between the provinces of Florence and Siena. It also includes areas toward Arezzo, Pistoia and Montepulciano. http://www.chianti.com. “The story goes that in the 13th century, Florence and Siena, who had been fighting over the Chianti territory for many, many years, decided to settle their dispute once and for all. They mutually agreed to have horsed riders leave their respective towns at dawn, and where the two horses met would be the final boundary, senza scuse. Those shrewd Florentines had a black rooster which they starved for days. The day of the proposed meeting, the hungry rooster crowed much earlier than dawn, so the Florentine knight got a head start. The Sienese rider only made it about several miles from his town’s walls and thus Florence won a much more sizeable chunk of land”. (Amanda Schuster, http://www.snooth.com/region/italy/tuscany/chianti-classico/#ixzz3DmIkPHLa)

Historically, the Chianti Classico region was strictly regulated to include grapes grown and wines made exclusively in Gaiole, Radda and Castellina which were part of the ancient “Florentine Military League of Chianti”. This region has been expanded to include San Casciano and Tavarnelle, Greve and part of Barberino, as well as the areas of Castelnuovo Berardenga and Poggibonsi near Siena.

The Chianti region is indicated in light gray on the map below, the Chianti Classico region in the dark gray. Check our more wine maps and tour information at the following link: http://www.cellartours.com/italy/italian-wine-maps/

Tuscan wine map

The symbol of the Chianti Classico region, the black rooster can still be found on all certified wines from the region. These are considered the best wines this region has to offer and the only ones permitted to carry the name Chianti Classico: http://www.chianti.com/the-hills-of-chianti.html.

Chianti, Chianti Classico and Super Tuscan Wines

In Tuscany and throughout Italy, wine is heavily regulated. It is not permitted, for example, to irrigate vineyards. Here, vintners grow their own grapes. They don’t purchase grapes from others to make their wines. It is considered a matter of tradition, a matter of pride.Sunshine determines the sweetness and juiciness of the grapes. Only natural pesticides, specifically liquid sulfur and liquid copper, are permitted. During wine-making, it is not permitted to add any sugars or yeasts to aid the natural fermentation process. The quality of wine in a given year is considered “God given, natural”.

In addition to regulations about grape growing and the wine making, the composition of wine in the region is also closely regulated. According to our sommelier, Kimberly, and the wine merchant at Pasolini dall’Onda winery which we visited in Barberino, to make a Chianti wine, 85% of the grapes used must be Sangiovese grapes. The remaining 15% can be a mix of Merlot, Cabernet, Canailo and Colorino grapes. Chianti wines are younger, often aged and bottled more quickly than Chiani Classico wines, so their flavors are lighter, less intense.

The wine making process at Pasolini dall’Onda goes as follows: Once the grapes have been pressed, for their lighter table Chiantis, the wine is aged for 1 year in French oak (the absolute best for wine making, we were told), 1 year in Italian oak, and then 9 months, bottled, in a wine cellar on its side so the wine touches the cork. High end varietals, like Chianti Classico and Super Tuscans are aged for 3 years in French oak, 1 year in Italian oak, and 9 months bottled in the cellar.

French oak

French oak barrels

Italian oak

Italian oak barrels

The cellars at Pasolini dall’Onda are located under the streets of Barberino and maintain a naturally perfect temperature (no heating or air conditioning) year round.

wine cellar

Chianti Classico wines must meet further certifications in addition to those governing Chianti which earn them the black rooster on the label and DOGC status (the highest certification for wine in Italy). If you’d like more information on the Italian wine certification system, click here: http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-docg-doc-60449. “All bottles of Chianti Classico have a seal depicting a black rooster (gallo nero)”. http://www.snooth.com/region/italy/tuscany/chianti-classico/#ixzz3DmIkPHLa)

How to drink a Chianti, Chianti Classico, or Super Tuscan wine

Our vintner recommended opening a Chianti wine 15 minutes before serving with white meat, fish, or light pasta. Red meat and pastas with heavier sauces, particularly those with tomatoes call for a Chianti Classico (always look for the black rooster on the label), a richer, more full bodied wine that should be opened 1 hour prior to serving.

In addition to Chianti and Chianti Classico wines, vintners in this area also create what they call Super Tuscans. Super Tuscans are not regulated in the same ways Chianti and Chianti Classico wines are. Vintners refer to Super Tuscans as “meditation wines”. Because they are permitted to mix grapes creatively, some argue that these have more potential for multi-level flavors and are best opened 1-2 hours before serving and savored throughout the evening as their aromas and flavors change. Super Tuscans go well with red meat and hearty cheeses as well as chocolate.

As I noted in my earlier post, I’m partial to Chianti Classico and Super Tuscan wines. Still haven’t mediated yet on my San Zanobi Super Tuscans, but the Sicelle Chianti Classico was delightfully smooth and flavorful.

Well, that’s all I have for today. Ciao for now!

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Chianti, Chianti Classico, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, Florence, Italy 2014, Pasolini della'Anda, Reflections, Sabbatical, Super Tuscans, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 2: Wine, Rain, and a bit about Olives

Hail storm

As hail clatters against my windowpanes and rain and wind wash the streets clean to the music of thunder, I write. I LOVE THUNDERSTORMS! I find them comforting, peaceful. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.

Suddenly, I realize that the grape and olive growers I met in the Tuscan countryside this week will not feel that way. This rain and hail, if they reach the vineyards, will cause disaster. It is only days before the grape harvest is to begin. In fact, on Monday, perhaps because of fear of the weather, some had already started to bring their grapes in early.

These next few days and weeks and all the sun they can offer will determine the quality of the grape harvest this year. Already it has been an unseasonably wet, cool year, with August and September temperatures and rainfall more typical of June. Grapes are fragile, fickle. They take their character in any given year from the natural mix of rain, sun, soil conditions, and heat. This year, many top Italian vintners have already said that they do not plan to make their high end varietals for fear that a bad crop could harm their reputations. This won’t impact Italian wines in the short term, as it takes years to prepare a wine for distribution, but 5-6 years down the road, it will be felt, even moreso if this hail decimates the soft, ripening grapes.

So, today, I write about wine, and a bit about olives. In Tuscany, most wine makers also press olive oil. It’s the tradition according to the wine merchant at Pasolini dall’Onda Winery in Barberino in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Barberino straddles the Chianti and Chianti Classico grape regions, a small, quaint village built in 1073. Before this trip, I had not known that there was a difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico wines. I will talk more about that in my next post.

Barberino

Barberino, Italy – Pasolini dall’Onda Winery

Once the grapes have been harvested, the olives are ready to be picked. In this region, both grapes and olives are picked by hand in a centuries old bartering arrangement. Local villagers, or those from the surrounding countryside come to pick grapes or olives in exchange for enough wine or olive oil to last their families for a year. They fill containers from the first, young wine, from the first press of olives and carry them home to enjoy until the harvest next autumn. I would love to have the opportunity to take part in this experience. I will see if I can make it happen.

Several weeks ago, growers went to the fields to prepare them for harvest. They cleared the rows in the vineyard, cutting away lower hanging leaves to expose the tender grapes to the full force of the sun. Sun and warm temperatures now (ideally in the 80s F) will increase juice production and sweetness in these last precious days before harvest.

As we walked in the vineyards, we had the opportunity to taste fresh Sangiovese grapes (the grapes used to make Chianti) from the vines. Warmed by the sun, they were juicy and flavorful, a multi-level sweetness and intensity that was pleasing to the tongue. I could not imagine how they could taste better. Of course, I am not a wine maker. I was to find out.

Grapes 2

Sangiovese grapes

Our tour of Pasolini dall’Onda included tastings of two cold pressed, extra virgin, olive oils and three red wines. Were we to taste the olive oil properly, we would have drunk sips from small glasses. (Shudder!) That was too much for all of us, so we tasted them with basic Italian bread. I’m so glad we did. The first, the more typical olive oil (in rectangular bottles that we find everywhere) was extremely strong for me, heavy and dense. I found it harsh and bitter. I didn’t like it.

The second, their premium olive oil called Laudemio was light and fresh. Its taste was much more delicate and smooth. It was the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted. I bought a bottle to take back to the states.

Olives

Olives

Then the part I was really looking forward to began, the wine tasting. I am a wine fan. I particularly like reds. I’m also picky about what I like. First, we tried a young 2011 Chianti. I found it harsh with a strong after taste. I’ve found that with several Chiantis since I got here. The wine merchant described it as young and smooth. His description didn’t really match my experience. Between tastings we cleared our palates with what is perhaps the tastiest bread I’ve eaten since I got here. It was a scachatta, which reminded me texture wise of a focaccia, buttery and dense. It was perfect with all the wines.

The second wine was a 2009 Chianti Classico Reserve called Sicelle. (With Chianti Classico wines, always make sure they have the black rooster symbol on the bottle – again, I’ll explain why in my next post.) To me, it had a much more full bodied flavor. It was multi-layered and very smooth. I liked it a great deal! I bought a bottle that I am currently enjoying. It’s my favorite Chianti of this Italian adventure (so far).

The third wine we tried was a 2008 Super Tuscan called San Zanobi. It was delicious. It was flavorful, full bodied, a really complex wine that tasted different on different parts of my tongue. I was delighted to learn that winemakers consider Super Tuscan wines to be “meditation wines”, the idea being that if you open them 1-2 hours prior to drinking them and serve them with red meat, hearty pasta, cheeses, or chocolate, the flavor of the wine matures and changes as the evening goes on. I bought 2 bottles. I’ll let you know how my “meditation” goes.

The sun has finally broken through the clouds and the streets beckon. I hope the vineyards and olive groves are safe. For now, I’m off to meet some friends for my first aperitivo (wine and appetizers). Caio for now!

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Eataly, Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014, Reflections, Sabbatical, Slow food movement, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 1: San Casciano – Fresh Pasta & the Slow Food Movement

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Ok, I have a confession to make. I love food! I love shopping for it, preparing it, cooking it. Most of all, I love savoring it. I LOVE to eat good, tasty, high quality food. I have found that in Italy in abundance. Fortunately I walk all the time, so I haven’t put on any weight. In fact, I’m getting a lot stronger. I live on a hill and access is through steps or a steep street. I walk, a lot! That said, my diet is full of fresh fruit and vegetables, a bit of beef and chicken, some pasta and some bread (less of each than you might expect). I also love organic raspberry jam. I mean I LOVE it! And fresh cheeses. I have no idea what kinds they are, but I LOVE them, older, harder cheeses and younger, softer cheeses. I don’t seem to be much of a fan of goat cheese here, but cheeses made of cows’ milk are heavenly. Oh, and I love Italian wines, especially reds, although I am warming up to whites made of vernaccia grapes, delicious, but little known outside of Italy at the moment. I foresee this changing quickly. I now know the differences between Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Super Tuscans (more on those later).

So, in my quest for food and drink, I took my first excursion into the Tuscan countryside on September 15, in honor of my sister Kathy’s birthday (which was the 14th) and because I thought it was time for an adventure outside the amazing city of Florence. With Grape Tours, I took this trip into the Tuscan countryside and I met all the people whose photos you see on their site: http://www.foodtourintuscany.com.

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Specifically we toured the chianti and vernaccia grape regions outside Florence. There were seven of us in our group guided by Kimberly, an Amsterdam native, who grew up in Chicago, IL and moved to Italy five years ago (although she spent 3 of those years in Singapore running a restaurant with her Italian husband). He now has a restaurant a bit farther South in Italy which I hope to visit. She is a sommelier. My traveling companions were a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary from Minnesota who now live in New Jersey, a couple from New York on their honeymoon, and a couple from England on an adventure, as well as your intrepid narrator.

It was an amazing adventure including fresh pasta making, a tour of a winery and olive oil press, lunch at an eco-agriculture farm that grows saffron (!!!) and has a delightful bed and breakfast, a visit to historic San Gimignano where we had free time to walk the ancient streets and sample gelato from the shop that has been named “Best gelato in the world” for 8 of the last 10 years (according to our guide), and a truffle hunt with amazing truffle dogs (I’m smitten!) in the forest. (Sadly, we didn’t find any truffles.)

I think the thing that impressed me the most was the commitment to the “Slow Food” movement and eating locally, organically, and healthily that everyone we saw supported. I, personally, wasn’t familiar with the “Slow Food” movement, so I asked a lot of questions. It seems to be about eating locally, a zero carbon footprint, organic, non-pesticide, non-GMO food, and taking the time to savor what you eat. I’m in! To learn more, there are a number of relevant articles here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/slow-food-movement/. A grocery store dedicated to the philosophy of healthy, local eating called Eataly was started in Italy . There are now 27 Eataly stores worldwide, 10 in Italy, including Florence, 13 in Japan, 1 in Dubai, 1 in Turkey, and 1 in Chicago and New York. Find out more here. http://www.eataly.com/global/. You can also purchase their products online through http://www.eataly.com/ which seems to fly in the face of the zero carbon footprint, eat locally philosophy they were built on, but there you go.

My next several blog posts will cover all I learned about these regions of Tuscany, wine and olive oil, organic food, saffron, and truffles. Today, I’ll talk about homemade pasta in San Casciano.

Homemade pasta in San Casciano – The first stop on our adventure was San Casciano, a hilltop village, 17.6 kilometers (10.9 miles) and a 27 minute drive (or 30 minute bus ride) from Florence. San Casciano was bombed repeatedly during WWII, so very little of the ancient architecture remains except small segments of the city wall. It is also Machiavelli’s birthplace and the site where he wrote The Prince after being exiled from Florence when the Medici family lost power in 1512.

We were here not for Machiavelli, but rather to observe a family run, from scratch, pasta shop that serves the region. Called Maccheroni e raviuoli (macaroni and ravioli), the shop is run by a mother, father, and son with one shop assistant.

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They make fresh pasta throughout the day by hand and with the support of small mixing, blending, cutting and stuffing machines. They are known for their tasty desserts (Mama’s speciality) and their ravioli and homemade sauces which are popular with restaurants and families throughout the region.

After a demonstration on preparing pasta dough, slicing various types of pasta, and setting a machine to stuff fresh ravioli, I purchased some “gnudi” (literally without clothes – nude). These are the stuffing inside ravioli made of buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan cheeses, eggs, nutmeg (the secret ingredient), and salt and pepper rolled into balls. You can add other finely cut ingredients like spinach, tomatoes, peppers, basil, sage, etc. as desired, but be careful of the moisture content. (These ingredients will likely sound familiar to anyone who makes stuffed pasta or lasagna.) To cook, you simply put the gnudi in boiling, lightly salted water until they float (just a couple minutes). After cooking them for dinner, I sprinkled mine with a bit of salt and pepper and they were delicious.

gnudi

I also purchased some of the ravioli we had watched being made. The pasta makers recommended that I hold it in the frig for a day or two before eating it as the flavor is “better, more mixed”. I’ll try that today! They recommended it with salt, pepper, butter and fresh sage. I picked up some fresh sage at the eco-agricultural saffron farm we visited later in the day (more on that in a later post). I’m to melt the butter in a pan, add chopped sage, saute for a moment, then add the pasta, mix it together and salt and pepper to taste. I’ll let you know!

As with gnudi, fresh pasta should be cooked only until it floats for a lovely al dente texture. Dried pasta takes longer because it is being rehydrated as it cooks (I’d never thought of that.). For regular pasta, fusilli, rigatoni, spaghetti, fettucine, etc., the pasta makers recommend 40% semolina flour, 60% farina (all purpose flour), and 5 eggs per kilo (2.2 pounds) of pasta dough. You will likely need to add a touch of water (less than 1/4 cup – add by tablespoons) to get it to the initial crumbly consistency you desire (30% humidity according to our host – I have no idea what 30% humidity is like, but did understand crumbly texture that binds together when you squeeze some in your hand). They don’t put salt in the pasta dough. You can add that to the water as you’re cooking. For stuffed pasta, you want a firmer dough so they recommend 50% semolina, 50% farina, and 7 eggs per kilo.  (Again, you will likely need to add a bit of water – up to ¼ cup to get the texture crumbly, but able to bind.) After cutting the pasta in desired shapes, they sprinkle the pasta with rice flour so that it doesn’t stick together.

Pasta tips: Fresh pasta is good in the frig for up to 5 days, stuffed pasta for 3. Fresh, dried pasta is best within 7 days. You can, of course, also freeze fresh pasta.

In my next post, we’ll discuss wine and olive oil. Caio!

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