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When I started my retirement travels - the first of which was my solo overseas trip to Italy in 2009 - I wanted a way to share it with family and friends as it happened. Hence, "My Travel Journal". However I realized I wouldn't always be on a trip and wondered what to do with the blog in between times. My daughter pointed out, wisely, that travels can also include trips to the kitchen to try a new recipe, trips to visit family, trips to my neighborhood Starbucks, or a fun day trip with a friend. You're welcome to join me on any of these journeys!

P.S. I've set up separate pages for each of my major trips (see tabs above).

I recently added an "Italian Word a Day" thingie which shows up at the bottom of every page. You see the word and can click to hear it pronounced. I've been enjoying it and I think my accent is improving as time goes by.

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September 29, 2009

Tuesday - Cookin' and Drinkin' in the Hills of Tuscany

Before I left for Italy, I had made a reservation to take part in a wine tour/tasting and a pasta making class with an organization called "The Accidental Tourist" and today was the day!

I certainly started the day off a lot earlier than usual.  I had to be at the pick-up point at 9:30 and that's usually when I'm leaving the hotel.  But I got myself out with time for a little breakfast which this time was  a really, really good cannoli.  One end had finely ground pistachio nuts on the cream and the other end had finely chopped chocolate.  Mm-mmm.  And I also had time to...take some pictures!  The first two show pretty much the entire front of the Pitti Palace (where I went to the Boboli Gardens, etc.)  The second picture where the building looks so much lighter is because they have the facade covered and they've painted the cover to look like the building - kind of neat, no?


Ponte Vecchio bridge and the Arno River in the morning
Amidst all the basilicas and cathedrals, here's a little Lutheran church built I think in 1898.

The driver (and guide and chef it turned out) met four of us at the piazza.  There was a mom and her son, a man who had quite a huge camera that he somehow would rest on his shoulder pointing sideways or something, and me.  Once we got started and had exchanged names and home information (all American - mom and son were California and man was Lexington, KY!) it wasn't long before we were feeling comfortable with each other and having some nice conversation.  Turns out the guide, Jessie, was from Arizona, but he's lived here for the last 11 years and has a "blended" accent.  I would never have guessed he was American.  Once we got out of Florence, the scenery of course turned gorgeous - olive groves and vineyards everywhere and hills, hills, hills.  I don't think we went out very far from Florence and it was amazing how high the hills got - it was a much different terrain from where I stayed in Tuscany - it was hilly there too, but they were softer somehow.  Our first stop, after a torturous, hairpin curve, very rough and finally rock and gravel road, was the 15th century villa they mentioned on their website where both wine and olive oil are produced.  Here are some pictures through that point.


Lemon trees with lots of lemons that aren't showing up
The front of the villa...

Jessie gave us a tour of the olive making process and the wine-making process.  This is harvest season for the grapes so they were processing a load of grapes while we were there.  But the olive harvest isn't until late October or November so they are in the process of cleaning and assembling all the machinery that makes the oil.
These are quite large, beautiful old terra cotta pots that they fill with the oil prior to bottling it.  The oil stays in the pot for about 2 weeks.  I saw one that had the date 1891 on it so some of them have been holding oil for a long time!
These are the largest oak barrels which hold the most basic of the Chiantis the winery produces.

It was an interesting tour and would be even more interesting to someone who is more knowledgeable about wine than I am.  There's so much terminology that I kept getting bogged down in it.  But it smelled good in there!  Which reminds me, while we were outside, I was walking around and all of a sudden there was this delicious aroma and it's something that grows in the grass and I kept smelling it there and at the next place we visited.  Jessie said it was some type of mint, but it had a very basil or oregano or some such smell to me.

We moved on to the next stop which was apparently an old monastery that is no longer in use.  Kind of a strange place, really - I guess it was another hilltop village and this monastery just sits there being empty except in what Jessie called the cantina where we did our wine and olive oil tasting.   He sliced loaves of Tuscan (unsalted) bread, put them on a platter, drizzled them with oil, quite generously, and then sprinkled with coarse salt and that was pretty darn good.  The wines we were served were all from the winery we had just visited (not sure why the tasting wasn't there).  First we had a white that was chilled and yummy and I unfortunately don't remember what it was.  Then we had their basic Chianti which I liked.  Then we moved up to the Chianti Rufina which means the wine is good enough to show the region where the grapes are grown (I think) and then we had the Chianti Reserva which (again, I think) is the best of the Chianti Rufina, basically, and THEN we had the Chianti Poggio??? which is the best of all and so they put the name of the vineyard the grapes came from. I enjoyed them all but not having a "developed" palate (tee hee), I couldn't really convince myself that I thought the better ones were better than the basic. I guess I'm just a "house red" kind of person.  And, after all that, he served us the winery's VinSanto wine which is a dessert wine.  It's a little higher in alcoholic content and I've never been real crazy about dessert wines, but I had tried VinSanto at the restaurant in Tuscany and found it strangely intriguing and this was very much the same.  It has a very definite flavor which I haven't been able to figure out although today Jessie mentioned some people think honey and I think that's part of it.  I took a number of pictures outside the monastery but wasn't very pleased with them, but here's one of a very old tree with an obviously troubled past.

After that, with all of us feeling quite full and fairly loopy, we went on to our next stop which is the home of a couple who I guess farm.  I'm sorry to be so vague about a lot of this, but I just couldn't seem to get a real good grasp of the various situations.  But, don't get me wrong...I was having a fantastic time!  Oh, and at some point after the tasting, but before we got to the couples' home, we picked up four more women who were doing just the cooking portion of the trip.  They were all friends traveling together (see how that works, friends?).  Three from California and one from Australia (a long distance friend...)So we get to Christiana's home and in a separate building or her basement or something (actually, maybe I had just tasted too much wine, do you think?)we donned our aprons and prepared to make pasta (with wine nearby to help us through any rough spots).
And, how could I forget Luna?  A nice, well-behaved dog...
Now, we prepare to make noodles.  I saved this picture with the file name Mama Mia, by the way.

MY NOODLES (and my empty tumbler of wine!!)  We had already made ravioli.  What fun!

When we were all done creating our pasta, we were told to wander around enjoying the beauteous surroundings while Jessie and Christiana put together what we were going to eat with our pasta.  So we did and here are some view pics.  (I know, we all thought today wouldn't have as many pictures since it was a cooking class!)




Luna cools off...
Called in to dinner
Christiana serves and of course, there's a nice big jug of wine

Christiana had made a group of delightful appetizers - a small piece of pizza, very thin and very tasty, a sort of bruschetta thing with some cheese I hadn't heard of but was a very soft cheese, and 4 delicious green olives on top of that, and a tomato half stuffed with rice that I think had some cheese in it and had been baked so it got crispy.  After we worked our way through that (and wine...) in came our pasta.  First the ravioli, which we had stuffed with ricotta cheese, spinach, parmesan cheese, nutmeg and salt.  Christiana had made a very simple butter and sage dressing for it and oh, my that was good.  I've wanted ravioli ever since I got here and have yet to see it on a menu.   Oh, and a bunch of the parmesan got grated on top of the ravioli and we had, you guessed it, wine. Then in came our noodles and they were served with an olive oil, fresh tomato and a little bit of red pepper sauce and that was delicious also and ... served with wine.  Christiana was very pleasant.  At first I thought she didn't speak much English cause if someone said something to her, she'd look to Jessie to translate, but as the meal wore on, she started answering questions in what she called her "little bit of English" and soon was telling us all about a special friend of hers, her husband (and her first husband), and various other things.  She told us second husband had driven race cars and was a "true man".  From the way she said it I couldn't tell for sure if that was a complaint or a compliment but it was a fun conversation..  The whole meal was just a really pleasant and fun ending to what was one of the highlights of my entire trip. 
Christiana and her true man
one last view before the drive back

The drive back was uneventful.  With Accidental Tourist, you don't pay until the end of the event,  and we had to stop at an ATM for a couple of us to get enough cash, so since we weren't too terribly far from where he had picked us up, I told Jessie I would walk the rest of the way and that's what I did.  After all that eating and drinking, it seemed like a good idea ad it was turning into a real nice evening.  So here are my final pictures as I walked back into Florence. Can you guess what one of them will be?
Yet another bridge over the Arno
Yep, you were right - it's the Duomo.  I always say, a day without the Duomo is a day you didn't take the right walk!
I thought this was a beautiful building.  It's the Biblioteca Nationale which I think I've seen mentioned in one of my guidebooks.  I may need to check that out.

And the reason this funny picture is in here is to remind me to tell you when I was walking past here (5:45) the bells started ringing and I looked and, sure enough, there were bells and they were actually ringing, unlike the churches in downtown Huntington that I'm pretty sure use some type of recording or something.  I could see the bell swinging in and out of the belfry opening.  That made me happy.  

So, another beautiful day, beautiful scenery, pleasant people to spend a day with, good food and good wine.  I give Accidental Tourist an A+ and a huge thank you for a full day of good food, good wine, and good companionship.  And on top of all that, the cost was totally within my "budget traveler's" budget!


Christopher said...

Ah... I feel full and content, "dining" virtually on that meal... I can't imagine how you didn't just fall into your pasta, with all that wine flowing around. Beautiful countryside, too... There's no doubt, I need to get me to Tuscany some day!

Diane Adams said...

Oh Mary Lynne what a wonderful day this sounded like. My mouth began to water when you talked about canoli. I had an Italian friend who made the most wonderful canoli each year for Thanksgiving. Have yet to find it in any restaurant that is quite a good as hers was.

January said...

Oh WOW!! That sounds like the best day yet. And maybe the tastiest :) I'm so glad you got a picture of yourself with your pasta maker, ready to make noodles - and was the counter top somehow rose patterned?
Thanks for that tree photo - LOVE IT!

Jamie said...

So happy to actually see you are there! I'm so glad this was a good experience. Your hosts seemed so nice. And I agree with January, I love the tree pic.

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