August, tomato capers, and a good book

The corn was delicious. We shared what we could with friends and neighbors. And we have basil, so much basil.

Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.

August is a season all its own.

My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.

Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.

But, there are still tomatoes!

Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.

I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.

I ret to contain the tomato skins, seeds, etc but working out of a few sheet pans.

But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)

After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.

The tomato “meat” simmers for 20-30 minutes.

This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.

A book I can’t put down

When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.

Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.

Does she sound interesting to you?

Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.

What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

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Behind the kitchen that works

One of two deep drawers under my cook top to hold pots, pans and lids right where I use them.

We remodeled our kitchen four years ago, but people sometimes ask if I still like it.

What?

Are you kidding?

Do I still like it?

I thought long and hard about every choice we made. I had more than one folder of photos and ideas I had torn from magazines. I had a growing Pinterest board.

Yes, I still like it. I like it more all the time.

The kitchen turned out better than I ever thought possible. I love it. I’m crazy about it. It is my happy place.

We live in a thirty-odd year old house in a suburban subdivision. The kitchen layout is pretty much the same as every other house here, and although we did change the footprint a bit, getting rid of a peninsula in favor of an island, what really makes my kitchen great is that it works really well. I have a professional kitchen designer to thank for that.

This wasn’t just a cosmetic update (although it certainly needed it). We thought about and planned for function. Katherine asked us a lot of questions about how our old kitchen functioned: what we liked about it and what we didn’t like (for starters, the back door opened into the refrigerator); are we avid cooks (yes); do we entertain (yes, large and small groups, often). She helped us solve some key issues.

It started with the microwave.

This is true. It needed to be replaced. Our old kitchen had a microwave/fan unit installed above the stove. In fact, we put it in. It’s a great, space-saving option. But when push came to shove, it wasn’t that great for me. I’m pretty short (less than five feet) and (1) I really couldn’t see what was going on in the microwave and (2) I was reaching high to get hot food & dishes out of there. Add to that my husband’s observation that the fan unit did next to nothing. So, better microwave placement and a functional fan were at the top of our list.

Locating the ovens for comfort and accessibility took some planning, but that was worth it. I also love the vertical storage above and the cubbies to the left. That drop zone has kept the rest of the counters much clearer.

We could have put the microwave in the lower cabinets. After we chose an island layout, we gave serious consideration to that. But I just wasn’t sold on the idea. So then Katherine suggested a built-in microwave and oven unit that could be installed at a comfortable height. We would also then trade a stove for a cooktop. A bonus for this option was that we would have an electric oven, which is more precise for baking, and a gas cooktop, which we both prefer for stovetop cooking.

That decision was a win, win, win. The microwave is at eye level for me. The oven is just below it, making it much more comfortable to access than one below a cooking surface. And, can I just say I love the cooktop. It’s wider than my stove was and has a fifth burner. That sounds like overkill to some, but it’s great for us. It’s larger for big pots and, if anything, I needed to learn to dial down the heat on it. Finally, we got a great fan that really pulls cooking fumes, smoke and heat out. It’s actually a little larger than the cook top for better efficiency.

I don’t consider any of these to be glamorous choices, but they truly improved the function of the kitchen. We made other conscious choices that I appreciate daily.

I traded off shelf space for drawers in most of my lower cabinets and I love them. I keep my pots in two deep drawers below the cooktop. They pull all the way out, so I’m never fumbling in the back of a cabinet for a pot. I keep everyday dishes, serving and mixing bowls, measuring cups, and other prep and serving tools in drawers in the island. Again, I’m not fumbling in cabinets and I can see everything in the drawer at a glance. I’m not a hugely organized person. In fact, my friends will tell you I’m a messy cook. Drawers have helped me “clean up my act.”

I also asked for — and got — vertical storage for trays, cookie sheets, sheet pans, etc. Again, it makes these kitchen go-to’s so much more accessible.

Including the kitchen sink

The sink choice was the source of much debate. There are almost too many sink options out there. I have had porcelain, stainless, and, in our pre-renovation kitchen, a solid surface sink integral to the countertop. Steve was insistent on going back to stainless, which was fine by me. I was more concerned with the size of the sink. I wanted one big enough to hold my largest pots. After lots of measuring, we settled on an oversize bowl that actually holds 12-in. by 18-in. sheet pans. (There is a smaller bowl to the left with the garbage disposal. ) I absolutely love this sink! It’s big, extra deep, and holds a big dirty pan so you can really clean it. At the designer’s suggestion, I also got a stainless steel rack that fits the bottom of the sink and protects the surface from scratches.

Is it silly to say you love your sink? Probably, but I do. When you aren’t cooking in a kitchen, you’re cleaning up. Make it easy!

We also enlarged the window over our sink. It was really dead space that we leveraged to bring in more light. Here, again, the designer hit a homerun. She enlarged the window all the way around and had casements installed instead of the traditional double-hung windows we had. The casements have the same divided lights as our existing windows, but are much easier for me to reach across the sink and crank open. Even if we’d asked a contractor for a larger window, I’m not sure we would have gotten easier access.

The renovation gave us plenty of “pretty,” including some glass-fronted cabinets to show off dishes and collectibles, a stove mantle that camouflages the fan and shows off some of my transferware, quartz countertops that work really hard and still look like new, pretty moldings, and a lot more.

The nice thing about pretty, of course, is that it comes in a range of price points. Cabinets, countertops, hardware and light fixtures come at all price points to keep you on budget. The same is true for appliances. It would have been fun to go “top of the line” but the budget just wasn’t there. In fact, we re-installed our dishwasher because it was just a year old.

Pretty is easy to add. You can readily replace light fixtures or upgrade cabinet hardware to refresh the look. It’s possible to replace solid cabinet doors with glass and upgrade countertops. We’ve all seen the gorgeous before & after’s that result from (re)painting cabinets. But making the bones work was more challenging, and I don’t think we could have done it without a professional designer.

That said, when all else fails, wipe down the countertops, add a big vase of flowers and a bunch of candles, and dim the lights. Ta da!

(I know this works because I have done it!)

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

 

Sidetracked by a new recipe, a DIY and two unlikely books

It’s been hot. I’ve been bored. The blog post I’ve been planning just isn’t coming together. Like a kid getting sidetracked from a deadline on a school project, I find I’m easily distracted. And so this is what I’ve been up to.

The recipe

These are perfect conditions for me to start puttering in the kitchen. (Cooking requires you to focus on the task in front of you and take a mental break from everything else.) I had seen a recipe for Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce on Jenny Steffens Hobick’s blog, Everyday Occasions . (Her recipes are delicious and she’s generous about sharing tips for success.) I was intrigued by this recipe, because it has only four ingredients! Check it out here; I don’t want to spoil the fun.

This sauce was delicious, easy, and so fresh!! I served it with penne, some meatballs from the freezer, and beans from Steve’s garden. Next, I want to try it with homemade meatballs and polenta, a fairly hearty appetizer we sometimes share at a local restaurant. I’ve been thinking that a slightly larger serving of meatballs and a vegetable on the side could turn that appetizer into an entree.

Polishing silver

Have you ever made DIY silver polish with a quart of boiling water, a tablespoon of baking soda and a foil-lined bowl? This is a recipe I saw on the web a few years ago. I tried it out with a bunch of silver-plate flatware I had forgotten about in the basement. I dropped a few pieces at a time into the hot water bath, and the results were amazing. Although I still use the traditional paste polish when I have the time, this has been my secret go-to when I need to clean a few pieces in a hurry.

It is especially effective with this woven silver basket. (Yes, I also polished some silver.) This was a wedding gift from a special friend in my earliest basket-collecting career. It’s a challenge to clean, so briefly dipping it in this bath has been a lifesaver. My basket used to make appearances on only the most special occasions; now it hangs out on the coffee table or a side table all the time!

Connecting the dots between books

I think I already shared with you that recently one of my reading groups discussed Katherine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. We had all loved “The Post” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and wanted to learn more about Kay Graham. We came away impressed with what Graham accomplished, especially with regard to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Her father owned the Washington Post and turned it over to her husband, Philip Graham. Kay took over when Phil died unexpectedly. She make it profitable for the first time, stuck to the Post’s editorial principles and drove two of the most significant stories in the 1960’s and 70’s, making it one of the most powerful and respected papers in the country.

Hold that thought.

Next we read The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s post WWI novel that captures the essence of an era and a class of people. Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan were all about money — new money and old money. But they were incredibly careless people, and not just careless with things or money. They were careless with the truth and with people’s lives. Fitzgerald’s prose is magical but these are not likable characters.

Taken together these two books share so much about power and money done right and done wrong. What an interesting dilemma for the times in which we live.

It’s finally a little cooler here. I hope it is where you are, too. Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

Cooking from the book

If you follow me on Instagram. you already know how excited I was when my copy of The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook arrived. The Cook’s Atelier is the cooking school I attended last spring in Beaune, France. I wrote about the one-day workshop, here, meeting Marjorie, her daughter Kendall and the rest of the class to shop the local market for ingredients, returning to their 15th Century atelier, and preparing and sharing a remarkable French lunch.

Like that day, this cookbook is much more than recipes. It’s a thoughtful treatise on French culture, particularly in the Burgundy wine country. Ex-pat authors and cooks Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini share their love and appreciation of all things French and the challenges of defining a business based on their passions for cooking and wine and then launching that business in their newly adopted country.

Not only is the food scrumptious, so are the full-page photos!

First, this is a lovely book, beautifully printed on heavy paper. (So French, I’m sure.) The photos are stunning, and document every aspect of their life, from the delicious food, to the countryside, the Beaune market, the local vendors they have come to appreciate and depend on, the elegant simplicity of their shop, kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the family at the center of it all. (If you have been to their shop, then you know the integral role played by Kendall’s husband Laurent and how sweetly their two young children occasionally appear in the shop or kitchen).

Butter. So quintessentially French on its own, but then there is clarified butter, compound butter, buerre noisette. So much to learn!

Lots of cooks, restaurants and foodies publish cookbooks. There seem to be at least one or two new ones each week. But few spend time on technique and ingredients (well, maybe the likes of Alice Waters and Julia Child). The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook stands far above these latest publications. Charming sections tackle the French larder, cooking tools, burgundy wine, the French cheese course, and traditional cooking techniques like frenching and tying a rib roast and trussing poultry. Recipes are grouped by season and compiled into menus, something I especially appreciate since I am notoriously uncertain about what really goes with what. In short, this is a cookbook you can truly learn from in addition to finding great recipes.

So, you may ask, what have I made? I’ve been making the French butter cake since I took the class. It’s simple and delicious, two prerequisites for French cooking. I’ve also prepared the grilled veal we made in class (and practiced the sauce technique with a few other cuts of meat).  Now I’m working on the green garlic souffle. (Mine tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work. See below!)

Tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work.
What we made in class, served in these wonderful, individual copper pots. I need more practice!

I have added pastry tips and disposable bags to my kitchen equipment and tested them last week on gougers and madeleines. Next up? Coq au Vin. Marjorie and Kendall use white burgundy instead of red, and I can’t wait to try that.

Gather ingredients first!
Gougeres, dainty pastry puffs flavored with gruyere and served warm with an apperitif. I’m practicing my pastry bag skills for these.
Madeleines, best served slightly warm after dinner.

What have I learned? Quite a lot. Fresh — which means seasonal — ingredients make a difference. Ask the butcher for help. Make sure you understand the recipe before starting. Gather all tools, prepare pans, and measure ingredients before cooking. Have fun. The story in my kitchen and yours is the same as the story in theirs — it’s about the family and friends around the table.

I couldn’t resist showing you a few more pages from the book. The photos are really beautiful. The first is their teaching kitchen and a corner of their shop where they sell their own lovely line of copper pots, along with kitchen tools and a carefully curated selection of wine. Below that is another shot of the book.

 

As I was writing this post I went back to the original from last June after my class there. In it I said I was smitten. Yikes! I am all over again. To learn more about The Cook’s Atelier, you can visit the website at www.thecooksatelier.com. The cookbook is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ll see you again next time.

My everyday 10 and counting

One of the blogs I follow is Mocadeaux, another empty-nester who loves food, wine, travel and grandchildren (pretty much a kindred soul, I’d say). She recently wrote a post on her “Everyday 20,” which listed 20 things she buys and uses every day. The idea comes from an American Express ad encouraging card holders to use their Amex card for these everyday things. We traded comments on that particular post and although it turns out that neither one of us uses that credit card, she encouraged me to try the same topic.

Alas, Mo, I only came up with 10 right now, though there will be a part 2 in the near future. Some of these are one-time or occasional purchases, but they are things I appreciate every day. In the meantime I’m hoping everyone will read on to learn — in no particular order — my “Everyday 10.”

1. My iPad. Like Mo, I am an Apple fan. And though I’d be lost without my iPhone and I love my Mac, what I pick up most often is my iPad. I use it to read and write emails, for Instagram, to view photos, read the news. I even download books to it. It’s all about the bigger screen.

2. Instagram. I came late to the party on this, after my daughter encouraged me to try it. But honestly, I just love it. It’s like a new design magazine every time I scroll down. Who do I follow? Other bloggers, foodies, designers, some magazines, travelers, my daughter (she’s a great photographer). I do not follow celebrities, politics, fashion, music, or movies. I do not follow FaceBook friends. IG is simply my daily dose of the pretty that interests me most. (You can follow me here.)

3 & 4. Rimmed baking sheets and pre-cut parchment papers to fit. I use these daily, sometimes more than one for a meal, for roasted vegetables, meat and poultry browned on the stove and finished in the oven, appetizers, cookies, and more. Although I snapped a photo of them here as my husband was preparing meatballs, I also use a half-size pan that’s perfect for roasting vegetables, etc., for just the two of us.

 

 

5. While we’re in the kitchen, the vertical storage in this cabinet. I keep baking sheets, frequently used trays, cutting boards, cooling racks, and a few shallow pans in this cabinet above my oven and microwave. This is one of the custom touches I insisted on when we remodeled our kitchen and I’m so glad I did. I can see and reach everything here. (High cabinets and shelves are lost on short people like me.) In fact I wish now there was space for more of this storage in the kitchen.

 

6. Grocery store flowers. I am happiest when I can snip flowers or greenery from my own yard and  garden, but the growing season in Chicago is so short and the winter is soooo looong. Frankly the blooms and greenery in the store see me coming and call my name. If you choose well, for $10 you can bring home an armful of sunshine.

 

7. This paint color. Designers describe Sherwin Williams Popular Gray as a “warm gray,” which I thought of as an oxymoron until I tried it on a wall. I love it! Last year I used it in the upstairs/downstairs hall, the powder room and guest bath. Ditto this year in the spare bedrooms and my husband’s office. It’s a soft, neutral background that works well with assorted furniture finishes, artwork and accessories. In the past our rooms have sported a variety of paint colors (not to mention my wallpaper period) and I’m loving the uniform background. And, see #8 below.

8. White woodwork. The Popular Gray walls are awesome against the Benjamin Moore Simply White woodwork and doors. When this painting mission began, we decided to paint our dark, stained woodwork. And, yes, it’s a lot of work: sanding, priming, then painting two coats. (Full disclosure: pros did a lot of it.) But, what a difference! It totally transformed the house, taking it from subdivision 70’s to now. Paint really is a miracle worker.

9. My sewing machine. Like a lot of women my age, I started sewing in my early teens, cranking out A-line skirts and dresses. As time went on I began to sew more sophisticated garments. I like doing things with my hands, and, of course, I like clothes. Fast forward to my first apartment and then our first houses. I made curtains, so many curtains for about a decade, but sewing with active children underfoot was challenging. I finally pretty much gave it up. I made a few Halloween costumes and even sewed for my daughter’s American Girl doll, but I was rusty and not always pleased with the results. Fast forward once more to my retired self. Not only do I have time to sew, but I can take my time with a sewing project. And, I really wanted lined, white linen curtains in the living room. Not gauzy; something substantial that would hang in graceful folds. So, off to the fabric-lover/decorator’s nirvana otherwise known as Calico Corners and fifteen yards of fabric and lining plus a few afternoons at the machine and I have exactly the look I had in mind. My machine and I will be spending more time together.

10. My new soup/pasta/salad bowls from Williams Sonoma. I’m a bit of a dish junkie, not just in terms of transferware and ironstone collections, but also about what I put on the table daily. I’ve had a set of pasta bowls for years, but they were really big (and encouraging really big servings!). I wanted something that would be more multi-purpose, serving pasta, but also hearty soups, chili, even one-dish dinners like beef bourguignon. These stylish and sturdy white bowls from Williams Sonoma are perfect for all the uses I noted here, as well as an entree-sized salad. Win, win, win!

What’s your everyday 10 or 20 these days? I’d love to hear!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time!

Three things for this week in this season

There’s so much going on this season, and when things get a little crazy, I get really indecisive. (Seriously, as in should I wear boots or shoes to the store? Cook pork chops or pasta for dinner? Everything gets to be an issue.) It’s not surprising that I couldn’t decide what to write about this week, so here are my top 3 topics: traveling wineglasses, necessary conversations, and a new book.

The traveling wineglasses came out of their boxes last weekend (you may remember last year’s post about them here) to welcome friends to our holiday open house. I hate to hang numbers on things, but this has been our holiday tradition for more than four decades. Once in a while I get a little weary of this whole thing (as in, should I really be having yet another party?) but then someone says, “We always look forward to this…” And the truth is, we do too.

Since we have had so much “practice” at this party, Steve and I have developed a routine for getting it together and we have simplified, simplified, and simplified some more. It is, after all, about getting together with friends. For the last few years I have been serving prosecco along with the customary wine and beer. I did it at first as an ice breaker. But now I think, on a Sunday afternoon, it’s what people enjoy drinking. (Back in the day we served eggnog and then for a while it was spiced wine. Talk about an evolution!) Bubbles are much more fun!)

I have learned to keep the menu simple, so I can enjoy the party. This year it was really just meat & cheese trays, some veggies & dip and Steve’s burgundy meatballs. It’s pretty easy to “dress up” the trays with fancy olives, some fruit, even little cornichons or nuts. The meatballs are the “hearty” snack and definitely made ahead. We re-heat them on the stove, then pop them into a chafing dish for the afternoon. I made two batches of cookies and bought some and, voila! we had a sweet tray.

Although we have an artificial tree, I love fresh greens. I bought three big bundles to use inside and out with seeded eucalyptus and red winterberries. They pretty much arranged themselves. Next year I may try working fresh greens into some of my artificial greenery.

And that was the extent of my party planning.

We live in interesting times.

A few weeks ago I impressed myself by getting our tree dressed early. (Step 1 in my party plan. Get it done so all the boxes are cleared away.)  The next day I was up in time to see a news message on my iPad announcing that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Now Al Franken has been pushed out of the Senate, and Roy Moore came this close to winning a Senate seat.

The good news is that the women who helped launch the conversation are on the cover of Time magazine. Well done!

On the one hand, I am both uncomfortable and tired of hearing various recitations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the women who have come forward have shown remarkable courage. This is a singular moment in time and a conversation we need to have. We need to listen to their stories and keep listening. Sons and brothers and husbands and co-workers need to learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Girls and women should never settle for anything less than a safe work place. I can’t wait to see where this conversation takes us.

On a more positive note…

Earlier this week we heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Chicago stop on his American Promise Tour. What a wonderful and refreshing evening! He sat onstage at the Chicago Theater with Leslie Odom, Jr. and talked about the purpose behind his book, Promise Me, Dad (which was handed out to everyone in the audience), his career as a public servant, the commitment he made early on to always, always put his family first, his role in the Obama administration, and more.

The audience was packed and remarkably diverse in every way. We all hung on to every word, laughing at his stories, bursting into spontaneous applause at his observations of American history and politics, and shedding a few tears as he described his son’s battle with brain cancer. My daughter looked around the packed house at the Chicago Theater and summed it up perfectly: “This makes you wonder what could have been if history had played out a little differently.”

So now you know what I’ve been up to and why I still need to finish shopping, tackle holiday cards, and maybe do a little wrapping. But, in truth, the Biden book is calling my name. And it’s so nice to sit by the tree.

Wishing you the warmth of family & friends, as well as the peace of the season as we head into the holidays!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

We went to Tuscany!

Tuscany really does look like this. This is the view from the terrace at Borgo Argenina.

Last month we took a terrific, three-week trip  to Italy. And, yes, this was somewhat self-indulgent since we had been here just  fifteen months before, but the stars lined up and the opportunity was there, so we went.

Our first trip was pretty straightforward: Rome, Florence and Pisa. (You can read my posts about it here and here.) This time our itinerary included Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, a four-night respite in Florence, a train to Lucca for a few days and, finally, another train to Rome before flying home. Our plan was to see a number of new sites and revisit Florence and Rome since they have so much to offer. Was this a lot to cover in three weeks? Probably.

It’s also too much for a single blog post.

I have been trying all week to write about it, but it just sounds like one of those long, boring slide shows your neighbor used to present about their 1964 trip to the Grand Canyon. I cannot do that to you. But I do want to share some fun bits and pieces, in separate posts. Consider this the first installment!

This is part of the remaining fortifications in Orvieto. Although it is actually in Umbria rather than Tuscany, Orvieto was on the road between Rome and Florence making it geographically and historicqlly important.

The heart of our trip was a stay in a rural B&B in Tuscany to explore the nearby hilltowns by car. Most Tuscan destinations are built on steep hilltops, the better to protect them from invading forces centuries ago. Part of the charm today is that they remain secluded, off the Autostrada, reachable by winding two-lane roads and/or a funicular. Tourist traffic is not allowed (and frankly, driving their tiny, twisting roads would be more than a little hazardous).

 

This was originally a stable on the first floor with living space above.

In Tuscany, we stayed at Borgo Argenina, a tiny hamlet of stone farm buildings dating to 998 and restored twenty years ago by owner/host Elena Nappa as a B&B. This was really an amazing destination itself, a little quirky, decidedly friendly, and a remarkable change from tourist-clogged sites.

Directions to Borgo Argenina instruct travelers to turn off the paved road onto the gravel one. Calling this gravel stretch a road requires a leap of faith. It’s a single lane, rutted and rocky, that passes first through some  trees and brush and then vineyards.   Eventually, the road dips down, then climbs up to the cluster of stone buildings that is Borgo Argenina.

Looking back down to the gravel driveway.

The vistas are stunning (Elena knew what she was doing when she found it) and her hospitality is all you could ask for. Her welcome includes a history of the property, an introduction to the area, and an invitation to join a cooking class tomorrow night. Since we are checking in at the same time as a mother and adult son (from Pennsylvania and California, respectively) and just after a couple from Connecticut, Elena has made reservations for the six of us to eat that night in town at Locanda Del Tartufaio, known locally as Giorgio’s. Elena assures us it is easy to find since it will be the only place in town with lights on at that hour.

And so our adventure begins.

Steve and I settled into a two-room suite on the second floor of the original stable. The rooms feature massive ceiling beams, stone walls and 15th Century hardware on the doors. The plumbing is modern and the bed is comfortable.

Giorgio’s is everything Elena promised. Giorgio is owner and chef. He is also a truffle hunter and his menu will feature those delicacies (a bit of a challenge for a few members of the group who are not truffle enthusiasts). We are the first to arrive and, briefly, the only restaurant guests. It’s a little weird since Giorgio speaks no English, though he does have a server who, though far from fluent, is able to communicate with us. Soon, our fellow travelers arrive, as well as other diners. (All the tables will be full before the evening is over.)

 

Georgio only serves one menu per night, so there was no need to ponder choices. We just applauded them as they arrived: a selection of bruschetta and cheeses, many of them topped with delicately chopped truffles, a primo course of white lasagna made with homemade pasta and topped with truffles, a secondi of roast beef and roast pork topped by chopped truffles and herbs and served with fresh, roasted vegetables. We finished with a delicate cake topped by whipped cream and fresh fruit. (No truffles!) All of this was accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of wine and conversation. Three-plus hours passed in a flash!

This is looking outside the walls of Assisi.

The next day Steve & I drove to Assisi, one of the destinations on our Tuscany list. It was farther away than we realized, but a fairly direct route on the Autostrada.

First, Assisi struck me as pristine. Other Tuscan towns had similar hilltop locations and were essentially all stone, but none of them were as bright and white in Frances Mayes’ famous Tuscan sun. Assisi is not only the birthplace of St. Francis; it is also the birthplace of St. Clare, founder of the Poor Sisters, later the Order of Poor Clares. Despite the crush of tourists we experienced elsewhere, Assisi was surprisingly quiet. I don’t know if we should attribute that to visiting on Sunday or if it is simply the temper of the town.

The cathedral honoring St. Francis.

The cathedral is stunningly simple, inside and out, honoring the beliefs of St. Francis. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Although I would have been happy to wander the lanes of Assisi for a few more hours, we really had to head back to the B&B for our cooking lesson with Elena and the rest of her guests.

Pasta making is messy but fun (kind of like Play Doh for adults) and like so much of cooking, I think it’s a technique that really requires practice.

Elena began her class by walking all eleven of her “students” out to her garden to harvest some herbs, taste some grapes and talk a little more about creating the garden out of the rubble that was there when she acquired the property. Once we were back in her kitchen, she set us to work, washing and trimming basil for pesto, stringing beans, and browning chicken. The real treat of course was learning to make fresh pasta, mixing flour and eggs by hand on her wooden pasta board, then kneading the dough before letting it rest under a damp towel.

As we cooked we shared our travels, drank wine, and took turns with the actual pasta-making. Here’s the finished meal, below, just before serving it around the massive farm table in Elena’s kitchen. It was as fun and festive as Giorgio’s, perhaps more so since there were more of us.

The finished meal, before we sat down to enjoy it.
Sitting rooms at the Borgo Argenina show off the original arched brick ceilings. Elena spent seven years renovating the property.

During our 2016 trip to Florence we took a day-trip that included a drive through the Clay Hills,  a tour of the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore and lunch and wine-tasting in Tuscany. It was a perfect blend of history and culture. So we contacted Roberto Becchi of Tours by Roberto again. (Roberto is a guide recommended by Rick Steves; you may have seen him on one of Rick’s shows on Italy.) Roberto is passionate about history, Italian winemaking, and Siena’s superiority over Florence. (We also found Borgo Argenina via Roberto’s website.) He is fun, knows the best winemakers and the tiniest towns. His tours are limited to eight travelers. A day with Roberto is a personal tutorial rather than a tour.

Montepulciano’s Palazzo Communale is strikingly similar to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

We started out in Montepulciano, with a short walk thru some of the town’s oldest streets. Although the earliest settlement here dates to Etruscan times, the town was essentially Medieval, then given a Renaissance facelift as evidenced by the more elegant facades added to the medieval structures. (Renovation is hardly a new concept!) Montepulciano was both an ally and a possession of Florence. (Before we checked into Borgo Argenina, we spent one night just outside Montepulciano. We had a delicious dinner at Restaurante Al Quattro Venti on the same square, right.)

 

This well in the Piazza Grande (home to the Palazzo Cumunale and Duomo) was fed by by rainwater from nearby palazzos. It’s topped by the Medici coat of arms flanked by lions (representing Florence) and smaller griffins (Montepulciano). And that is very much the history of Montepulciano. In the background is the former court house.
The Sanctuary of San Biaggio outside Montepulciano’s walls was a model for St. Peter’s in Vatican City.
The interior courtyard of a palazzo that is now a B&B. Those lovely arches and pillars are duplicated on a second story, above.

 

The vaults and barrels in the De Ricci cellers are legendary.

Montepulciano is home to the famous Nobile wines, made by individual vintners according to the parameters established by a consortium. While we were in town we visited the centuries-old caves (and tasted the wines) of the De’Ricci winery. The six-story building, whose oldest caves date to the Etruscans, is supported by a huge network of vaults and arches. This construction and the size of the barrels were all astonishing. Roberto pointed out this  is Renaissance construction on top of Medieval buildngs.

Next we traveled to the Tornesi winery in Montalcino. Tornesi has been in the same family since 1865. In 1967 Gino Tornesi registered his vines as Brunello, becoming one of the first members of that consortium as a producer. His son Maurizio started the production and business side in 1993 with his first Rosso di Montalcino and his first Brunello di Montalcino. Maurizio showed us around, his daughter led the tasting and we met his mother! This is truly a family business, and I was struck once again by the hard work and commitment to a quality product that the best wineries embody. Wineries are so much fun for us to visit, but some much work and commitment for the growers and winemakers.

Tornesi vineyards.

 

Tuscany takes time. It’s easy to start with a list of hilltowns, plot them on a map, and start driving. But if you rush thru the towns too fast, you run the risk of missing the essence of the Tuscan way of life and the people. We had several other towns on our “list” — San Gimignano, Volterra, and Pienza to name just a few,  but along the way, we tossed them aside in favor of enjoying where we were at the time.  For example, we skipped San Gimignano last year and wanted to get there this time, but then we turned the wrong way and ended up in Rada. It’s tiny and scenic and there were just a handful of other tourists there. We loved exploring its cobbled streets, window shopping, and had a wonderful lunch. In addition to the usual leather and cashmere shops, Rada is home to a handful of artisans whose galleries show and sell one-of-a-kind ceramics, sculptures and even clothing.

We left Tuscany assuming we will return to see more another time, which is pretty much our travel philosophy. After Tuscany, we made stops in Florence and Rome. (Look for future blog posts on those destinations.) We had visited both before, but really thought there was much more to see and we were so right! There’s a lot to be said for returning to a destination when you are even just a little familiar with it

Tanks for stopping by! See you next time.