Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holiday Trifecta: Shopping, Eating, and Museuming

After visiting David at the Galleria dell'Accademia, we strolled to the Mercato Centrale for lunch and some shopping. Bill wanted to try a Florentine favorite at Nerbone--tripe panini. Dad went along on this gastronomic gamble. Mom and I opted for prosciutto. Turns out Mom and I made the right choice.

After eating we wandered the stalls. We bought some fig fruit mustard, Pecorino Tuscano and Salsiccia di cinghiale for Tastes of Italy night back home in Dublin (not a real thing) and browsed the leather and textile offerings, making a purchase here and there.

After a short afternoon rest at the B&B, we headed to our last museum, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, to see the Michelangelo Pietà. Michelangelo began this pietà for his own tomb, but abandoned the sculpture after eight years when he found imperfections in the stone. One of his students worked on the pietà but it is still not complete. Like with the Prigioni, these rough areas highlight the transformation of the finished, almost lifelike figures. This pietà differs from the common pietà composition where Mary is cradling Jesus after he is taken from the cross. Three figures are joined together to support Christ's body. The male figure, bearing Michelangelo's own face, is thought to be Nicodemus. The women are likely the two Marys. The museum contains other sculpture and information about the Duomo, included entries submitted for the 19th century update to the facade.

That evening we dined at Trattoria Coco Lezzone, a family owned spot with long tables. Mom and Dad had a lovely roast pork with beans. Bill and I had a plate of bolito misto (boiled meat), which included tongue. An interesting discovery about myself this year is that I really like cow tongue. We had cantuccini again to end the meal, this time with a red dessert wine.

On the way back to the B&B we were treated to a lovely full moon above the duomo.

Sunday morning the sun returned to bid us a bright farewell. We spent our last morning wandering and haggling in the markets. After a spot of pizza for lunch, we hopped on a train to the Pisa airport, and then back to Dublin. Thank you Bill for all your travel planning and guiding. It was a truly wonderful week! Oh, by the way, according to store windows in Florence, we all should be wearing purple!

David and Friends

The morning of Saturday, November 15, we visited the Galleria dell'Accademia to see Florence's most recognizable inhabitant, Michelangelo's David.

Walking through the gallery hall leading to David, we saw the four Prigioni (Prisoners), unfinished works that were intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. The half-formed Prigioni expose the metamorphosis from rock to man accomplished by thousands of tiny chisel strikes. To see David then, in his enormity and his absolutely familiar, although idealised, human form, it's hard to believe he hasn't always existed. That he was once a boulder. Like Botticelli's Venus, an encounter with David is not dulled by the proliferation of his image. At 17 feet, he is truly astounding.

The Galleria dell'Accademia contains much more sculpture and Renaissance religious art. These religious paintings are rife with symbolism, and can appear nonsensical without knowledge of the traditions of the saints and other religious imagery. Baby John the Baptist wearing his animal skin onesie, for example. (And noshing on Gerber locusts and honey?) One painting showed every person present at Christ's crucifixion simultaneously shooting him with arrows. Illustrating all our complicity in his death, perhaps? We saw numerous renderings of the Annunciation, the angel's prenatal visit to Mary. I liked the repeated imaginings of this most amazing conversation. Sometimes the angel is nearby and comforting. Sometimes the exchange takes place from a polite distance, across the terrace. In every painting, Mary is holding a book. I liked thinking of Mary as a bookish girl that surprised everyone by using her intelligence and pluck to, well, save the world! Indirectly. More likely, as I learned, the book suggests that she was reading prophesies of herself in Isaiah. That may be a stretch, but I like the importance placed on the Word in rendering this moment. The Word that would become flesh. Other frequent inhabitants of the scene are the Holy Spirit as a dove and the Lily of purity.

I'm sure layers of meaning and centuries of religious thought were lost on us as we viewed painting after painting over a several days. I will say though, I liked the frequent use of bold blue.

Goals for a Splendid Day in Florence

  1. Take at least 47 pictures of the ornate, neo-gothic exterior of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. It's covered in marble!
  2. Tour the interior of the basilica to see beautiful marble floors, a liturgical clock from 1443 which shows the 24 hours of the hora italica (Italian time), a painting of Dante and the levels of the Divine Comedy from 1465, and the largest masonry dome in the world from the mid-15th century.
  3. Crane our necks to study the late 16th century frescoes on the interior of the dome.
  4. Decline the climb to the top of the dome. Use Mom's artificial knees as our official excuse. (It worked in Pisa.)
  5. Visit the Florentine Romanesque Baptistry adjacent to the duomo. More craning to take in the spectacular gold mosaic dome. Also appreciate the simpler marble decoration.

  6. Get paninis for lunch at I Frattellini, in business since 1875, followed by gelato.

  7. Visit the Uffizi Gallery and find that Botticelli's Primavera (c. 1478) and The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) are truly affecting and beautiful.
  8. Try roasted chestnuts. Season brightening ability notwithstanding, decide to leave them on the open fire next time.

  9. Walk down the Ponte Vecchio, Florence's first bridge, built in 1345, lined with houses that are now jewelry shops.

  10. Have our favorite dinner of the entire week at La Canova di Gustavino. Seated in a small room of wine-packed shelves, enjoy several simple dishes: a plate of cheese and cured meats (and more fruit mustard), crostini with sausage, polenta with sausage and cheese, and warm chicken liver pâté. Try lardo--it's fantastic! It's cured fat that tastes much like prosciutto. For dessert: apple cake, a blackberry tart, and ricotta with honey and pepper.

November 14, 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Night in Florence

We arrived at our B&B mid-afternoon on Thursday. Bill made stellar accommodation choices for our week in Italy. I loved the Royal Victoria Hotel in Pisa, the self-catering apartment on the farm was simple and serene, and the Il Salotto di Firenze B&B in Florence is replete with proximity. Our lovely rooms were above a Gucci store, just yards away from the Piazza di San Giovanni and Piazza del Duomo, home of the Baptistry and the Cathedral. And it didn't hurt that the B&B was run by a young Italian hottie named Alessandro.

After a bit of rest, we wandered about, taking in the evening, and then went to dinner at Trattoria Marione for some traditional Tuscan fare, including pork stuffed with rosemary and a carrot and ribollita, a vegetable and bread soup. This meal introduced us to some new favorites. I ordered "cheese and mustard," not knowing exactly what I would get, but betting on the steadfast goodness of cheese. [Even cheese that you are warned against in France.] The cheese was indeed good--three triangles of Pecorino Tuscano, a slightly softer version of Pecorino Romano--served with honey and fruit mustard. Fruit mustard is a jelly spiked with mustard powder, available in many flavors. It was wonderful with the Pecorino.

We had seen plates piled high with small biscotti, called cantuccini, and carafes of golden vin santo being served to a large party of 35 or so dining nearby. We also ordered cantuccini and vin santo and with our platter of crunchy cookies and sweet wine, I felt we were participating in the same ritual of fellowship and feasting that brings us back again and again to the table. Plus, it's the perfect dessert after a huge meal.

Friday, December 26, 2008

To Florence

The morning of November 13, a Thursday, we set out for Florence. We had dined the evening before in the nearby town of Corazzano. At 7:30, we were the first diners in the restaurant, a serviceable spot recommended by our hosts more for the food than ambiance. Our dinner included beef carpaccio with Parmesan and white truffle sauce, wonderful paparadelli with wild boar ragu, fried rabbit and sausage with white beans. The meal was quite satisfying, the restaurant was warm and bright, and provided welcome shelter from the intensifying rain.

The rain continued throughout our meal, and indeed it would rain all night. The morning was drier, but still cloudy. Bill made us eggs with some of our truffle for breakfast, and I created a new taste sensation: pear and yogurt topped with crushed almond biscotti. Try it! We invited our cat friend in for a visit. He seemed to be quite fond of us, hopping in the car as we packed to leave. Turned out he was just after our cheese!

We said goodbye to the peaceful beauty of the farm and took off for Florence. The drive through the Tuscan hills was spectacular--a lovely harmony of rolling hills, silvery olive trees and neatly planted vineyards.

We drove through Certaldo, and Poggibonsi (a town Lonely Planet calls "one of the ugliest towns in Tuscany") and onto the A1 circling Florence. We stopped for sandwiches at a large Italian truck stop. After a bit of circling, Billfound the rental office in a suburb of Florence. We turned in the car and Bill's driving duties were complete. A taxi took us into the heart of historic and fashionable Florence.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Raccolta di Tartufi

November 12, 5 PM

It's dusk at the Doderi house on Barbialla Nuova farm in Montaione. Mom, Dad, Bill and I have just returned from a trip to a grocery store called Pam to pick up some items for breakfast tomorrow. We're staying in a self catering apartment on an agri-tourisme farm. It's a new building, but evokes an old farm house--casa colonica--with brick floors, 12-foot ceilings, and exposed beams. The curved-top doors and windows are painted brick red, other woodwork is pale green or blue.

The fog was coming in as we returned from the store. Last night we had to find the farm in the dark as we had tarried too long in Lucca. We twisted through a village knotted to the side of a mountain, passed through two valleys and looked for a white km6 marker which signaled the turn for the farm. We bought a few items from the farm pantry and a €5 case of water. Before dinner we snacked on prosciutto, cheese and grapes we had bought yesterday morning in a market in Pisa. The grapes were huge, green and crunchy, as much tangy as sweet. The cheeses were a mild, creamy Gorgonzola and a hard, tasty cheese of which we never quite learned the name. [But later decided was Pecorino Toscano.]

After navigating us safely through the night, Bill then prepared us dinner of pasta with an olive and tomato sauce and some Chianti. The food and wine were all organic, grown and produced in the nearby town of San Gimignano.

The apartment is two bed/two bath, so we're not roughing it. We all slept well last night, and ate a breakfast of more cheese, pear, apple and bread before setting out on a truffle hunt.

The acres of this farm produce 500g of truffles a week during mid-September to December. This pungent fungus is unearthed by an 80-year old truffler, Imperio, and his two dogs, Toby and Bobby. Toby, the elder dog at 11, has the more sensitive nose, but Bobby is a little more determined to find the truffle. Bobby's enthusiasm puts him at risk for actually eating the truffle, however. This woolly Lagotto breed is most commonly used for truffle hunting. Puppies are fed bits of truffle.

We met Sabali around 9:00 this morning, and set out with Imperio, his dogs, and a fellow agri-tourist couple from Greece. Imperio and Sabali were armed with tools that looked like a small straight hoe [a vanghino]. It's been rainy in Montaione and the roads and paths were slick with putty colored mud. Sabali said they'd had a dry summer and a wet fall, which was not particularly good for the truffles. We started out along the edge of a field, Imperio leading the way, the dogs weaving out like sniffing tentacles. The field was lined with White Poplars, a tree favored by truffles. The dogs quickly found some dirt of interest, and began digging. We were among several small poplars that had been planted to replace more mature trees that died. Sabali said that it is better to plant very young trees so the truffle fungus can grow along with the roots. The day before the dogs had found some truffles in the field; occasionally the fungus filaments can run many meters from the tree.

Sabali brought us a handful of dirt from the fresh hole, and indeed it had a garlicky musk. Soon Imperio uncovered a small truffle, and Sabali brought it to us. We passed it around and all took a sniff. Oh yeah, that's truffle. The dogs were not ready to leave the hole, so Sabali and Imperio kept exploring the hole, sawing away a piece of root. Under the root they found a larger truffle. This would be the largest find of the day.

We walked through the woods for another hour or so, tromping on wet leaves, Imperio calling to the dogs, "Dove (doh-vay)?" Where? The dogs kept looking; today's haul was around 75 grams. Imperio has brought in a kilo this month. He told us last year he brought in 7 kg in one month. Still, the 75 g would bring a couple hundred euro.

After the hunt, we were refreshed by some red wine, fennel salami, pecorino cheese, olives, and bread. I had recently bought some fennel salami at Carluccio's in Dublin, and I can say officially we are crazy about finocchiona. We completed our lunch with biscotti and Vin Santo, a sweet wine made from raisins. We decided to buy some of the smaller truffles found today, so Sabali cleaned and weighed them for us. The larger truffles are more expensive by the gram, as they are more desirable to restaurants. We bought 34 grams; several small truffles. Sabali wrapped them in paper and placed them in a glass jar. We're to replace the paper every day. White truffle is supposed to be amazing with eggs, and we also plan to make some truffle butter. Or maybe we'll sell it on the streets of London: £60 for 10g. [Bill used the truffles for tagliatelle al tartufo.]

I took a nice hot shower after the hunt and crawled into bed to read, which of course meant I snoozed a bit. Mom and Dad also napped, and Bill read up on the next phase of our journey, Florence. We snacked a bit throughout the afternoon, and sat outside during an afternoon rain shower. The Doderi house looks out over miles of Tuscan hills, which today were yellow and blue and grey. We've had a kitty friend for our stay here, and she visited with us this afternoon.

Our trip to the grocery store supplied us with plenty of diet coke, and some eggs and mortadella for breakfast. We'll head out to one of the recommended restaurants for dinner. Most restaurants start serving at 7:30.

Some scenes from the truffle hunt:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lunch in Lucca

The draw of Lucca is its well preserved city walls. This twelve-meter high fortification, built in the 16th and 17th centuries, held 126 cannons. Now used for more peaceful pursuits, the walls provide a leafy walkway with playgrounds. Within the walls is a pedestrian-friendly city with the lovely euro-mix of shops, restaurants, and cathedrals.

We had a recommendation to lunch at Buca L'Antonio and while the owner was not impressed that we had been sent by "Roberto, the ex-banker from Pisa," we were impressed with our delicious meal. Mom loved her onion soup and her roast guinea fowl was a star of the meal. Bill loved his rabbit pasta, and Dad's rabbit salad was very nice. Dad had a big plate of roast wild boar, which he warmed to after the first bite. I had zucchini ravioli for primo and Bill tucked in to roast pork.

After lunch we wandered the rainy streets, shopping a little and taking refuge in the Church of Ss Paolino e Donato, the parish church of one of Lucca's most famous residents, Giacomo Puccini. Just being in Lucca gave Mom a bit of the operatic spirit.

We left Lucca around 4:30 for a dark, rainy and occasionally harrowing drive to a farm called Barbialla Nuova Fattoria in Montaione.

Goodbye Pisa

Our wonderfully sunny Monday in Pisa was to be the loveliest weather we would see for several days.

Tuesday morning after breakfast at the hotel, we took a stroll through a nearby food market.

Dad bought some prosciutto and cheese from a local vendor. We think the prosciutto was made from an heirloom Tuscan pig, Cinta Senese, crossed with wild boar. At any rate, it was yummy crossed with delicious. The cheeses were a creamy blue and a Pecorino Toscano.

He also learned that merchants are protective of their squash blossoms. Seriously, the guy is in the process of telling Dad not to touch the blossoms. We think.

The supplies we bought would come in very handy later in our trip.

Around noon we rented a car and set out for Lucca, a 45-minute drive North.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Eating in Pisa

We are Lonely Planet travelers. We've visited many European locations in the last year and the Lonely Planet guides have served us well. We're thinking of changing the name of our blog to Bill and Sharon's Guide to the Lonely Planet Guide. We do veer off LP plan based on need and desire, but the guides provide a helpful foundation for exploring new places.

Lonely Planet led us to many delicious meals during our week in Italy. In Pisa, we took a break from the Piazza dei Miracoli monuments to lunch on panini at one of Panetteria Focacceria's sidewalk tables. We had our first of many simple and tasty sandwiches and also enjoyed some wonderful chocolate tarts.

On the way back to our hotel, we spied La Bottega del Gelato as we passed through Piazza Garibaldi and stopped for our first gelato. With frozen goodness in hand, we walked on to the River Arno and watched the sun set.

Our first Tuscan dinner, at La Grotta, had us puzzling over the Italian menu. Some terms were easy to decipher: Spaghettone, Ravioletti, Risotto, Zuppa. But we had to question the waitress about several dishes. In the end we took a few shots in the dark. Mom and Dad chose Le Animelle di Vitello sulla Crema di Zucca, as we understood this was veal. When the dish arrived it was declared tasty, but of a unusual character. Bill really liked it. The next day after reviewing an English menu I nicked on the way out (not sure why we weren't given an English menu initially) we discovered Animelle is in fact sweetbreads, or thymus gland. Bill has knowingly ordered sweetbreads in the past, and Mom and Dad will both eat liver, so no one was harmed in this eating experiment. The rest of the dinner included risotto, some ravioli, and a few steak dishes. A favorite item was Fagioli all'Olio e Salvia--delicious, creamy white beans. My dessert was delightful--ricotta with a rich, dark chocolate sauce. Dad's dessert came with a fruit garnish of cachi, which we determined was persimmon. Over the next few days we saw many persimmon trees, bare of leaves but laden with orange fruit.

After dinner we were offered caffe, or espresso. Being a coffee wimp (more whipped cream please), I surprised myself by ordering a teensy cup. When in Rome, er, Pisa, my friends--this espresso was delicious, with strong caramel notes and no bitterness. I had many espressos throughout the week (they are typically around €1.50), and while this first was my favorite, I enjoyed them all. They also served to balance the wine I had consumed with dinner, and never kept me awake. I've yet to try an espresso off the continent. It can't be the same!

Note: I added a vid clip to the previous post.