Cook in Tuscany – Cantucci, Bagno Vignoni and Beautiful Pienza

Allora, what was in store for us on this day?  Allora is my new favourite expression, by the way!  We heard it from just about every Italian we dealt with!  It basically means “and so” or “then”.  For example:  Allora, next we take the eggplant and we…  Doesn’t it sound just so much better than “And now….”😀

Allora, my friends, on this day we were staying “home” at La Costa to learn how to debone a chicken, stuff it with prosciutto and ground pork and tie it all into a neat little bundle.  We also learned how to make melanzane parmigiano (eggplant parmesan) and I can promise you folks, I am no longer making it the same way I have for years!  Matter of fact, just this week, I made it for mi famiglia!  Plus panna cotta and cantucci (or cantuccini) which is an almond cookie basically the same difference as biscotti, which can or not be double-baked (though that kind of goes against the origin of the name biscotti as it means twice baked).  Sorry, I got carried away there.  The important thing is these little babies are absolutely delicious, especially when dipped in vin santo! (see my welcome by Milena!)  Some pici rolling also took place. (We couldn’t possibly have a meal sans pasta, right?)

But first, we watch Terry debone that chicken.  Don’t you find he looks like a young Vincent Schiavelli?

Now it was Donna’s turn.  Love how her tongue sticks out when she’s concentrating…😉

I will not torment you with finished product pictures… nah!  Just kidding!

We had some time to do whatever (attempt at blogging…yeah…uhhh…no) until 3:30 because we were off to the Roman baths, Bagno Vignoni, and then the beautiful town of Pienza.

On our way there we stopped off at “the most photographed house in the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany”.  Why? Who knows? However, if any of you buy a “Tuscany” calendar, chances are this house is one of the monthly pictures. Well darn it, wouldn’t you know?  When I got home, I looked through my old calendars (though I was convinced I had chucked them all) and lo and behold, there it was! February 2010!

Lovely and all… but MY picture is so much more… mine!😉 Plus! There was a wedding going on (pretend I am happy to have people marring my perfect photo…)

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Moving on, we made our way to the Roman baths of Bagno Vignoni. What a delight to dip our toes into the warm waters surrounded by such a view!

Back into the van and off to Pienza.  Finally had my first gelato of the trip a scoop each of Fig and port and blackberry.  They even had one that was spinach & kiwi.  Sounds gross, eh?  Well, it wasn’t!

We all walked around shopping and taking in the sights, then met up with everyone at the Restaurant La Bandita, where we had yet another fabulous meal.  So weird to be served by a Scot!  He told us that the previous Christmas, they held an all Scottish feast that we very well received by the locals!

Zucchini carpaccio, pesto linguine, chicken on a carrot purée and finished off with a semifreddo of white chocolate and salted caramel and a blueberry sorbet.  Mmmm

A funny thing happened on our way home… Angelo put on some disco music and we started dancing in our seats.  He then turned on the disco lights in the van!  Well… all hell broke loose.  There was dancing up and down the aisle and laughter galore.  Wonder how often that happens, eh Linda and George?  We must have been a special group…  And Linda went and posted MOI on the Facebook page!  Well now…

Did I mention Rosemarie, as well as her daughter Venetia are actors (actresses?)?  Venetia directed her mum in the play “Calendar Girls”.  Needless to say, this means that Rosemarie (who, for a reason I cannot explain, I kept calling Annemarie – her sister, by the way – for two days) is not exactly shy about letting it all hang out.  I apologise again, Rosemarie, as I am caught on tape!  As are you…

Laughing our heads off, we made our way back to La Costa where most of us continued to party.  Paulo was kind enough to get us a bottle of wine, which did not suffice so we “stole” one from one of the displays – can’t really call it stolen as we left a note with our names on it.  Thank you, Sandy, for picking up the tab on that one… gulp!

 

 

 

 

 

Cook in Tuscany – Pici, Canneto & Montepulciano

Now that the first cooking day was under our belt, we were ready for more.  Back to Enoteca (wine shop) La Botta Piena for cooking lessons with Elena & Simone, Sandra and Kathleen & Giovanni (Elena & Simone’s son) for 9:30.  Met the gang first for breakfast and across the street we went.

They set up the dining room tables as a long work station.  We each had our bowl of flower and container of water with oil.  Same method as egg pasta but without the egg.  Once upon a time, Tuscans were quite poor and would never dream of wasting an egg on pasta so they learned to make do.  The fun part with pici is you don’t use a rolling pin to flatten it and then cut it into strips, you take chunks and roll it on a board or between your hands like we once did with Play-Doh when we were kids.

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While our dough was resting, we prepared Chianina steaks – huge T-bones that are cooked on the bone.  Literally. Standing up on the flat part of the bone!  We also made a bread stick crust to go with a savoury ricotta cheesecake, roasted some veggies, made Tuscan tomato-bread soup and a lovely peach crostada – this time with a crust topping.  Awww… and we had to eat all this?  Poor, poor us!

Before eating this, however, back to rolling the pici!  Music was turned up and everyone started dancing around…

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We sat outside while the gang did the final plating then sat down to our feast!

Happily stuffed, we stumbled back to La Costa to do whatever we wanted until we had to meet at the van for 3:30.  We were off to Canneto winery, a very small operation – they do their bottling on a truck! We were invited to taste all their different wines.  Quite enjoyable and a lovely place to visit.  As with most wineries, they compliment their business with the creation of olive oils so there are olive groves planted next to the grape vines.

A short stop at the Santuario della Madonna di San Biagio, a Renaissance Greek cross central plan church that, for reasons unknown, remains unfinished.  Only one of the bell towers was completed, the other, left with just the base.

Off the the town centre of Montepulciano to run around and discover at will until 7:30 pm for dinner at La Grotta restaurant.   Venetia, Rosemarie, Donna and I ended up at Cantucci Cantina, tasting more wines! (I know, it just so sucks to be us…) Somehow, Venetia and I ended up wandering off, cameras clicking away, realising we had pretty much the same eye and stopping at the same things!  Goes to show…

 

At La Grotta, we were treated to another fabulous meal.  One table…ahem… was a “tad” loud… Janet, Donna, Terri, Sandy, Linda, Conrad, Cindi, Frank and MaryEllen…. not saying you were out of control but you know that couple that should never have been placed in the same room with us? They were NOT pleased!  We, at the quiet table: Paula, Nancy, George (surprisingly😉 ), Ventia, Rosemarie, Alison and moi, were quite taken aback when poor Paula went outside to take a breath of fresh air and was told by said couple – who had attempted to get peace and quiet despite all being wet from the afternoon rain – that we were rude and should leave! Luckily Paula did not go all Long-Island on them as it was suggested she do! I’m not saying we were jealous of all the ruckus going on at YOUR table but…

The “Rowdy Ones”

We started off with a fabulous eggplant & zucchini terrine topped with crispy pancetta, then a Pecorino cheese soufflé, papardelle with duck sauce, beef stew with braised spinach and finally, a plate of three desserts: mascarpone w/coffee gelato, chocolate cake with orange sauce and Sambuca parfait.  Of course, me the “Scarpetta” cleared off all my plates… Of course, the appropriate wines accompanied each service.

You’d think I’d sleep like a baby after all that…

 

Cook in Tuscany – Cortona – Yes! Cortona!

Talk about starting off with a bang!  We were going to Cortona!  Home of “Under the Tuscan Sun” – I used to joke with my family (sorta) that I was going to pull a Diane Lane and not come back…the movie version… (very different from the books – which were fabulous in a whole ‘nother way).

So, this was an early one!  We had to be ready to hop on the van with Angelo, our driver for the week, by 8:30!  Hey!  I thought we were on vacation here?  I have to set an alarm?!  All jokes aside, we gladly gathered for breakfast by 7:30-8:00.  I tell you, the Tuscans are not big on breakfast.  Some sweet cakes and pastries, a few hard-boiled eggs, Rusk crackers (I had forgotten how much I enjoyed them and have started buying them again!), some fruit, maybe some cold meats and cheese and coffee.  Paula’s cappuccinos were wonderful.

Oh. Em. Gee!  I was going to the place that probably started this dream of mine; or, if it didn’t start it, definitely fed it.

On our way to Cortona, we noticed the fields of sunflowers were pretty much done, heads drooping, petals non-existent.  We were pretty bummed when hark!  Someone let out a shout to look to the left.  Yes!  One last field of sunshiny faces looking towards the sun.  We begged Angelo to stop so we could get in there.

Cortona is built on quite the hill and Angelo was a total sweetheart to drive us up where vans are not supposed to go so we could all jump out as quick as can be to go meet up with Antonietta, our chef teacher for the day.  First order of business was to go shopping for the necessities – some pork tenderloin (cinque filette di maiale, per favore), tomatoes, canned barlotti beans, eggs, rosemary, etc.

We made our way back to Netta’s Kitchen, donned our aprons for the first time and set about making tagliatelle.  Once we had all held up our creations, it was on to stuffing the pork tenderloins with garlic, salt, pepper and rosemary.  These would be prepared in a pear and Chianti sauce and served with lemon rosemary potatoes, all chopped and prepared by us.  We also chopped tomatoes and red onions, splash of balsamic vinegar, glug of olive oil, salt & pepper and voilà! The makings of a tomato bruschetta topping.  Did the same with the beans for a second topping.  Oh!  And we made our own individual crostadas, filled with jam and decorated as we saw fit.  I call them rustic pies.  We all called them delicious!

Once everything we cooked, we settled down to eat our creations.

After all that work we were set free to roam the streets of Cortona.  What was to become a standard (unbeknownst to me until this trip) was walking through cobble-stoned streets, stepping into doorways to avoid being run over by their cute little cars – which I am sure would still hurt if rolled over my foot!

We then went to visit “Le Celle”, the last place St. Francis of Assisi lived and did his work.  His room was beyond spare and the gardens were just lovely.

We also visited the Santuario di Santa Margherita where the amazingly preserved Saint’s body lies in one piece (a miracle, considering other churches have bits and pieces of various saints for all to see!)

Back to La Costa for a snooze or rest and then off for dinner at La Botta Piena, almost across the street from home.  MaryEllen was finally well enough to join us – and a good thing too!  She is a hoot and a half!

Frank and MaryEllen

Frank and MaryEllen

There we were treated to a fabulous dinner by hosts Elena and Simone.  A dinner comprised of six courses!  Olive and ricotta mousse, onion flan (Oh, I have begged Linda to get the recipe from Elena – and I shall continue to harass her until I get it!) and veal carpaccio, chickpea soup with spelt and rosemary croutons, spaghetti all’amatriciana, chicken rolls stuffed with sausage and olives and pork with tuna sauce and finally a grape mascarpone charlotte.  Lawsy!  A total of four different wines were also served to go with each course.

If this was a sign of the rest of the trip, we were going to have to roll me out of there!

 

Cook in Tuscany – Il Primo Giorno

Hello my friends!  Since I cannot will not bombard you with a slew of pictures all at once, and a TLDR text, I shall pretend I am blogging daily from Tuscany.  Sounds good? Great!

I left the lovely Milena’s B&B by taxi to get to the Chiusi-Chianciano Terme to meet with the van that would bring us to La Costa in Montefollonico.  I was sitting inside the station and noticed a white van.  No markings.  Hmmm… just as I picked up my stuff, deciding to wait outside, a man walked in holding a sign “Cook in Tuscany”.  Well, now!  I followed him and settled into the van.  Wow… first to arrive? Okay then.

Next thing I know, George pops his head in and says:  “You must be Dale.  Follow me, a bunch of Canadians are all sitting at the bar across the street!”  I gladly followed him and was introduced to friends Terri and Janet, from Vancouver; and friends Donna and Sandy, also from British Columbia.  Ordered my first Aperol Spritz (funny enough, it is a cocktail gaining in popularity at the golf club too!) and were soon joined by Alison from Louisiana.  Along came mother and daughter Rosemarie and Venetia, from Ontario.  We hopped into the van and car and off to La Costa in Montefollonico where my real adventure begins!  Turns out we would be seven Canadians and seven Americans in our group of 14.

I cannot lie.  I was brought to my room where I was welcomed by a bouquet and apron and bag of goodies.  I dropped my suitcase, opened up the door leading to my balcony and started to cry!  It was a mixture of “oh-my-God-I’m-finally-here” and “wow-I’m-here-all-by-myself” and “Mick-should-be-here”.  I was NOT expecting that at all!

Once I unpacked my stuff, I set off to explore my home for the next week.  A few of us ended up on one of the terraces and decided to order a bottle of Pinot Grigio with some antipasto and get acquainted before freshening up for our welcome cocktail.

We were served Prosecco and deliciously simple tomato bruschetta at 6:30 pm and sat around in an informal circle (how does that happen anyway?)  Linda and George Meyers, owners of Cook in Tuscany asked us to introduce ourselves and share our how we came to be at Cook in Tuscany (CiT).  Here we met Frank (whose wife, Mary Ellen was bed-bound with a stomach something) and Cindi & Conrad, both couples from Orlando, Florida, as well as long-time friends Paula and Nancy from New York and Santa Fe.  The “how’s” of getting to this particular cooking vacation were most interesting.  Cindi and Mary Ellen gave the trips to their husbands for Christmas… Uh huh… husband’s gift!  Donna had heard about CiT on Facebook and asked her friend, Sandy, if she felt like joining her – she did!  Forty years ago, when they were young mothers raising their kids, Paula and Nancy vowed that one day they would do something special just for them!  Friends, Terri and Janet, just decided it would be fun to do something together.  Venetia wanted to celebrate a certain special birthday with her mum and was going to organise this super trip in England (birthplace of Rosemarie) and so saved for two years for said trip.  When came time to book it, it was no longer available!  She had found this cooking trip in a magazine and suggested it be the middle part of their trip.  Alison’s son had just moved out of the house and she finally felt it was time to do something for herself.  As for me?  Well, everyone who knows me, knows this has been a dream for a very, VERY long time!

Linda then brought us for a walk around the inner walls of Montefollonico (population about 100 or so), showing us the castle that was built to defend against neighbouring Montepulciano (kinda funny that both are built high up on a hill and can see the enemy coming for miles…)  Quite a lovely little town, built in the 13th century.

Time for our first dinner together!  Fair warning… may cause hunger!

I could tell that this was going to be a fabulous week shared with a wonderful group of people.  Please note, those not yet pictured, will be so soon!  Off to bed with hopes of a good sleep.

Just Before Cook in Tuscany

Well. So much for that!

I was positive I would be blogging daily, keeping you all up to speed on the happenings of the moment.  Didn’t take into account the 13th century walls being too thick for adequate WiFi!  As my Facebook friends told me:  “Don’t stress, enjoy each moment and tell us about it later!”

Guess what? Now is later🙂  I have an hour to kill at the Firenze airport so…

*** Note:  it has taken me days to write this!***

The plane ride from Zurich to Florence was a mere hour and we still got a snack and a piece of chocolate.  No complaints here…

Got my bag, found a taxi and 22€ later, was at the Firenze Treno Terme where I got a ticket to the Chiusi-Chianciano Terme.  Having no access to WiFi and not being able to find the document Linda from Cook in Tuscany sent us, I had to rely on my memory for the ‘how-to’.  Well, somehow, I chose an open ticket with the milk-run operation instead of the direct one.  Ugh.  Almost two hours later….

I was so late, my hostess from l’Albero di Gameli called my cell to find out where I was.  No way I was answering that one!  I didn’t bother getting a plan for my phone since all the places I’m staying at have WiFi so I can reach and be reached.   Anyhow… A 10€ taxi ride later, I arrived in Chiusi.

The very beautiful Milena Mazzella greeted me by telling me that, had she known what time I was arriving, she would have picked me up… dang. 2nd time I could have saved a buck!

She showed me my room and made me a sandwich with a glass of wine which I had on their little balcony.  Her partner, Marco, then came out and kept me company, soon joined by Milena and her youngest, Iliana.  She then got the classic Tuscan duo of contucci (cookies) and vin santo (sweet wine).  Dip, bite, drink… yum!

My room was beautiful with my own private bathroom.  Truly a gorgeous place to stay.  Kinda wished I had a few more days with them.  Ah well, la prossima volta!

As if their welcome wasn’t enough, Milena and Marco like to to give a gift of jewellery made by Marco.  All the rings were too small or too big and they insisted I choose this lovely pair of earrings.  So very generous of them.  Milena and I have become fast friends and I know that if ever I want to come back, there is a place for me!

Lovely gift!

Lovely gift!

Tomorrow… I tell you about Cook in Tuscany!

Ciao!

A Day in Zug, Switzerland

Hello my friends!  Day two of my trip and I’ve yet to sleep… I tried. Lord knows I tried on the flight to Zurich.  Sleep or no sleep, I can tell you that I shall be choosing Swiss International for all future European trips (and there will be more)!

I paid a premium for extra leg room and boy did I get it! (I shall be working on getting upgraded to Biz Class in the future… Wow!  What a setup they had!)  Anyhoo… I had Seat 40D, which is an aisle seat in the middle section next to the Emergency Exit. A gentleman was sitting in my spot so I had him scoot over.  The lady in the aisle seat next to the Emergency Exit (with waaaaayyyyy more leg room) did not want to sit there as there was no pouch in front of her to put her paraphernalia.  I gladly took her spot and the gentleman managed to convince her to sit in his seat so he got mine!  Musical seats and all were happy and that’s what mattered.

So, once settled and in the air, we were given some rosemary-flavoured crunchy things and a drink.  An hour or so later, supper was delivered.  In hard, reusable plastic dishes with real cutlery.  Salad, chicken curry with rice and string beans, bread, cheese, chocolate cake… deelish!

Everyone has their own screen to watch whatever movie or show or listen to music or play games.  I chose to watch “The Boss” with Melissa McCarthy (what a hoot).  This is when dinner was served.  I started to watch “A Bigger Splash” with Ralph Fiennes, and Tilda Swinton then told myself to smarten up and get some sleep.  Yeah… No.  I “may” have dozed but frankly, don’t think so. By 5-ish a.m. local time, breakfast was served! Mini croissant with butter and jam, orange juice, yogurt and a coffee.  Did I mention how impressed I was with Swiss?

Getting off was a breeze.  Once you collect your bag – and in my case, I had none as it was making its way to Firenze – you can choose between the entrance that says: nothing to declare or the one that says:  something to declare. Trust and no paperwork.  I like that.  I stopped off t get some Euros from the ATM (as was suggested to me by a few people) and found Urs waiting for me.

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Big smiles, hugs and kisses and we were off.  He showed me where he lives (very nice) and then we made our way to Zug (pronounced Soog) the city just past Zurich.  I don’t know if it has a more modern side to it, but we went to the older section with the classic “Swiss” look.  There was also an organic market complete with two llamas making the rounds!

There were dancers and musicians and I so loved hearing the quintet of men playing a lovely song.  The attached video is the same tune they played!

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We had lunch in a lovely little outside terrasse – a tapas meal with a glass of white wine and resumed our walk.

*** ran out of juice – both me and the computer! It was 1:00 a.m.! ***

Walking along, we came upon the fountain of Gret Schell (I Googled it, seems there is missing an ‘h’); a woman who had to carry her drunken husband home as he is wearing a jester’s hat and bearing a rod – apparently this was statue-worthy and is celebrated yearly.

I love the cobblestone streets and various buildings

Urs wanted to introduce me to the local renowned dessert called the Treicher Zuger Kirschtorte.  A cherry schnapps loaded sponge cake… yum!

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My feet were pretty much done and we had an hour to kill before I had to be back at the airport so we sat by the Zug Lake and watched the ducks and swans and enjoyed the shade.

My visit with Urs was over and it was back to the Airport to wait for my next plane. Sitting on the floor as there were no more seats!

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And We’re Off! (OK… I’m Off… ;) )

It’s here, it’s here!  Finally!  After all this time, I am finally  making my way to my dream destination of Tuscany, Italy.  This has been a long time coming.  Of course I was last minute everything,  Booking my Airbnbs, getting last-minute items and by 1:30, was still packing my bag!  Considering I had to leave the house by 2:00 pm, I’d say that was cutting it a “tad” close, don’t you think?

I was going to try to use the Über but got flushed twice.  Hmmm… By the time a taxi was called and arrived, it was already 2:15. Cutting it close again. They say to be at the airport 2 hours before take-off time.  That meant arriving at 3:05.  I cannot believe it, considering the amount of traffic we got, but we made it by 3:15!  Cost me a bloody fortune, though. $75.55… eesh… if it costs that much to get home, it would have been a better bargain to use the Park ‘n Fly!  Ah well.  Now I don’t have to worry about losing my car key!  Silver linings, Baby!

So, here I am at Pierre-Elliott Trudeau Airport in Dorval, sitting waiting for flight LX87 to Zurich, Switzerland.

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I am so excited! I have a friend in Zurich so I took an 11-hour layover so he could show me around.  Way to start a vacation, eh?

Hope I don’t bore you all to death with my daily postings (considering I haven’t written but one post in how many months?)

See ya tomorrow!