Magical

Just before Christmas we were happy to be invited to dinner with our Italian friends Simone and Simona. We were invited, along with Susan and Gary, to their agriturismo called Podere Vallescura up in the nearby mountains. They are Milanese. Both technically educated. He inherited his family property here and moved away from the hubbub of Milan. It had been uninhabited for 40 years so it has needed much work. They are totally off the grid. Solar and wind plus batteries. Sheep, chickens, olives — all biodynamic. They rent a vacation apartment. Not a lot of cash flow but they make it work. Lovely people.

When we went into the house they had a tiny wood stove with sizzling polenta and sausages going and a lovely big fire in their large corner fireplace. Everything is built by them but it works. It was cozy. They had invited a woman from Merano, up near the alps. It is the German speaking part of Italy. She has a ruin she’s restoring nearby. Her name is Renate. The polenta was served unsalted but with the very salty sausage it was perfect. I’ve been craving it ever since! Then Simone made a lovely risotto with fungi. It was served with their amazing olive oil and bread and also a very special rosemary infused oil. Simone has a still and so he distilled it. Really good. They should sell it! Then we had cheeses — a Parmesan, a nice goat, and a Gorgonzola dolce. With fennel that was cooked tender. And finally, home made yogurt with cinnamon and sweet crumbly and lebkuchen cookies that Renate made. There were also shelled walnuts from their trees.

While I was there I pictured us in their warm, cozy house as though viewed from above, with nothing else nearby in the dark mountains. We were seven people, a pinpoint of light and camaraderie, who enjoyed a special meal and our own company in a warm cozy haven. It was magical.

The drive back was a bit difficult as it was dark and there were creatures in the road. Gary, bless his heart, drove. The roads are paved but narrow and winding and high on the mountainside. The moon, nearly full, illuminated the countryside.🌖 As I said, magical.✨

Christmas trip – Cortina d’Ampezzo and Innsbruck

Another trip report so you can skip if you aren’t interested.
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December 20
We drove from Umbertide to Florence with Susan and Gary with whom we were going to spend the holiday. The plan was to spend the night there and travel to Cortina d’Ampezzo on the 21st. But next was dinner. We had the most fantastic steak prepared in the Florentine style but the meat was from Prussia. Amazing. I also had a lovely starter of potato soup topped with octopus. So warming on a cold night. Whoever made it spent a LOT of time dicing the potatoes into a tiny dice and when it was cooked great care was taken that it not be so cooked they would disintegrate. Very good.

After dinner we went for a walk into the main part of Florence. Wow the lights were breathtaking. We visited the magnificent Duomo with its Christmas tree. And the most magical thing of all…there were almost no people anywhere! We had the streets to ourselves. I love Florence when it’s like this.

December 21
A bit of Sturm und Drang this morning. We had a taxi at 7:45 for an 8:30 train, it it arrived at 7:20. 😳 We were mostly ready so out the door we went. We wove through the Florence morning traffic and people and arrived at 7:55. Suddenly Susan realized she’d forgotten her purse in the rush. The taxi driver went “via!” to Gary who had asked if they could get home and back. It was really dicey if he could make it. But the taxi driver pulled it off and all was well.

We got the train to Mestre, one stop short of Venice. And then we had had hired a driver to take us to Cortina. There is a bus but it was just more comfortable and more convenient to take the car. Besides when the cost was split it wasn’t too bad.

We arrived at about 12:30. It was cold there with just a dusting of snow. Not enough snow for much skiing down low, but up high, yes. We decided we were in the shoulder season. The ski season wouldn’t start until after Christmas. We had lunch and later, when the shops had reopened from pausa we went back out to check out the shops. There is a kind of big cooperative space with a lot of different stores in it, which was fun. Cortina was dressed in its Christmas finery. It was dusk and the lights twinkled everywhere! I took a few pictures. They even projected stars on the church steeple. All the stores and hotels were all sparkly. Very pretty.

Our hotel, La Poste, was hosting a Veuve Clicquot promotion. We sat down and were given the champagne menu. It turned out to be fun with a bunch of small plates of tasty bites from a 2 star Michelin Milanese chef. The bites were good.

We had dinner at Lampone in the Rosapetra Hotel. We had to take a taxi there since it was dark and it would have been hard to walk there. Lovely hotel with spa. The restaurant was very pretty in an upscale alpine way. We had a great meal. I had the Insalata d’Ampezzo. Then we all had a whole sea bass cooked in salt. Very yum. They served bread with the creamiest salted butter. We had the luck(?) to be sitting next to an Italian single man. Giuseppe. He spoke English and owned a home in Miami South Beach. In the best place he assured us. He was from Sicily, a wealthy family, he said. He loves his mamma the best in the world. (Of course! All Italian men love their mommas best) She’s 87. He lives near Bologna today. We now know his whole life story. We suspect he comes from Mafia money and once Mafia, always Mafia. He designs kitchens among other things. His wife, from whom he’s estranged lives in New Zealand. Anyway he insisted on joining us for a bottle of dessert wine from Sicily that he bought. He was so manic by the time we left we all figured he had to be on drugs, maybe cocaine? Or something for sure. The manager of the restaurant apologized to us for the intrusion on our meal. Not much he could have done really, and I think Giuseppe was a regular there.

Dining room. The big white pillar is a ceramic stove, common to the area.

After dinner

December 22
A beautiful day! Bright sunshine and cold. We had a lovely breakfast in La Poste and off we went to get the cable car lift up to the 2,300 meter level. Great ride right up the cliff at the end. I couldn’t figure out how the cables did it. We walked around and took pictures of the skiing. There were several runs. And the surrounding Dolomiti mountains were amazing. It was super clear with not a bit of haze and it was like you could reach out and touch the stupendous rocks thrusting into the sky.

Cable car coming up.

From our ride in the car. Morning sun.

Ski run

View of the Dolomiti

Dolomiti

Dolomiti

Back in the village we walked some more and then returned to get ready for lunch at Ristorante Tivoli. It was definitely unassuming from the outside. Pretty and alpine. Inside it was comfortable and unpretentious. But it was a Michelin one star. The food was top notch. The serving staff were all women which is unusual in these places. I think it made it more intimate and comfortable. I opted for the lobster which was raw in a beautiful bisque reduction with veggies. Really good. And a tagliatelle with rabbit ragu. Very good. I took pictures of several dishs. One of us had the lamb and another the turbo and Luther had the rabbit for mains. We had two beautiful reds and we started out with Francia Corta which is a champagne style bubbly from Italy. Better than Prosecco. They brought a dessert-like palate cleanser in dry ice which smoked fetchingly. It had sorbet and diced fruits in a purée. Then we ordered a strudel to share which was so good, and they brought a whole plateful of free canapés. We also had coffees and digestifs. A marvelous meal. Good find Susan!

Ristorante Tivoli. Cute outside.

Food pictures. Lobster.

Turbot

Rabbit

Tagliatelle with rabbit ragu.

December 23
We again took a cable car up to about 8,000 feet to take in the sights. Beautiful day.

Station at the very top of the mountain was closed.

Cable car

Views

Cortina

Ski runs

We returned for a good pasta lunch and then to meet our driver for the two hour trip to Innsbruck Austria. Once we went through the Brenner pass we hit the forecasted rain.

We checked into Adler Hotel, a modern high rise near the train station. We decided to venture out even though it was pouring rain. The altstadt was crowded despite the rain. We found a store where we bought umbrellas. The town was pretty with lights, a big Christmas tree, stands selling goods and foods. One street had huge chandeliers hanging above. We managed to find a place for beers and then went to find dinner. It was a bit early and we got a table in a hotel dining room. The aim was for people to get their Wiener Schnitzels. It was a nice dining room and we did indeed get our schnitzels. I opted for the Forelle – trout. It was all good.

Innsbruck

December 24
I watched the mall across the railroad tracks from our 9th floor perch. Lots of folks streamed in for last minute shopping. It was still steadily raining. We had a good breakfast and went to visit the Volksmuseum. A wonderful collection of artifacts showing the life in the 1500s and on. The daily tasks must have been overwhelming. Everything from making your own cloth, your shoes, carding wool, spinning, weaving, carving utensils, on and on! And the church terrified everyone with fear of death and purgatory or worse, hell. Life was fraught with danger. Young girls betrothed could only think of the very real danger of childbirth. A killer of women.

Afterwards we walked into the old town and the sun paid a welcome appearance! The town looked so different in the sunshine. We had a light lunch and went over to the Inn river and then through the, sadly, now closed Christmas market.

Later, we had planned to go to a Christmas Eve dinner in the hotel. The 12th floor is a restaurant where they have breakfast and a bar and meals. This one was a set menu. Considering the large number of people being fed they did well. We started with an amuse bouche of mozzarella which was garlicky and whipped with roasted cherry tomatoes. Next we had a salmon dish with smoked salmon and also marinated raw salmon and cucumbers. Then we had a winter squash soup with duck confit. Very good. And for a main we had crown roast of pork. Dessert was white chocolate and dark chocolate with pistachios. We tried two local Austrian red wines both of which were quite good. During all this there was a young lady who played an electric violin. She was quite good and we enjoyed trying to figure out what songs she played. All in all a lovely meal and company.

December 25
Christmas day dawned bright-ish. We had breakfast and went for a walk. We had to bundle up as it was cold. We walked to the train station and then towards the river and the Zentrum. We then walked along the river and back and through the old town.

Along the waterfront of the river Inn

Pretty sign, Moonshine

After a brief rest we taxied to Nattererboden up in the nearby mountains for our Christmas Day Mittsgessen. It was more remote than I had expected but only about 15 minutes away. A very traditional place and menu. Fun for us to relive our old German times. I had goose. It came with a big dumpling which was very heavy but the red cabbage was good.

Warm stove.

They had many animals. Kids would love this place.

Later we had a couple of drinks in the bar and off to bed. Tomorrow we are off by train to home.

December 26
Today is Boxing Day in England and Santo Stefano in Italy. Holidays. We hopped our train from Innsbruck to Bologna. Pretty ride through the mountains and then onto the foggy plain. I’m very surprised that both times through here on this trip the landscape is socked in with fog. I guess it is the norm for winter but another reason not to live in that area, unless you’re into foggy and gray days.

It was a lovely trip with good friends. I was very happy to be home.

Whoo hooo!

A Christmas present. I just checked the Polizia di Stato website and our Permessi are ready!!! We applied to renew them in early February. And here it is, only TEN months later and they are ready! The old ones expired in June. So I told Luther, when we go to collect them we’ll thank them and say “OK, see you next month!” Which is about right to start the process all over again. 🙄

Good deeds for those in need

In Umbertide, like most of Italy, there are needy people. Mostly immigrants. They are forever begging, or trying to sell trinkets like tissues, lighters or socks. Many are black Africans or Muslim. There seems to be almost an organized quality to them. The sellers usually seem to have the same things to sell. Are they going to distribution centers? And every grocery store in town has what seems to be its “assigned” person. Usually an African man. They are cheerful and try to be helpful. Many speak English. People tolerate them. They ask to take your basket back so they can get your one Euro deposit.

There is a government support system for immigrants. A place to stay and a stipend is provided. They must adhere to Italian values like religious freedom and gender equality which may not be the case in their own societies. They must send their girls to school. They must learn Italian, integrate into the community, volunteer. They will be put on job lists. And housing lists.

I’ve noticed shopkeepers in town are regularly hit upon to give them something. The same people go into, for instance Angelo’s Alimentari downstairs from us. Once a week or so he gives them something. They seem to be amicable to one another. Today, I was in Angelo’s and a woman came in with a baby. She was drawn and wan looking. She asked Angelo for something for her baby to eat. Cheerfully, he asked her what sort of pizza bread she would like. Pomodoro she said. He took a piece of tomato pizza bread and wrapped it and gave it to her. I gave her 2 euro. She gratefully accepted. She didn’t ask for anything for herself, just her little one.

Unfortunately not a rare occurrence. And good deeds don’t just happen at Christmas time.

L’Immacolata

Today is L’immacolata, a national holiday. The immaculate conception. Not being very sure about this day because I’m not Catholic I looked it up and discovered I was wrong about what it meant. Turns out it is the day that Mary was conceived to her mother. I had thought it was Jesus’ conception but was confused as it is only two weeks before his birthday.

Anyway, it is the day that ALLLL of Italy lights its Christmas trees. And St. Nicholas comes to the Piazza for the little kids. I actually managed to get pictures of the crowds outside before and after the tree was lit. And I heard the countdown and saw the tree lit for the first time. It is not my favorite tree so far, however. But as we all know from Charlie Browns tree that all trees are beautiful in their way.

We also visited Montone for lunch today. Tipico, our chosen restaurant was really crowded. Everyone was out for lunch on the holiday. A few pictures.

View from the walls. A beautiful, clear, and not too cold day.

Montone street dressed for Christmas. They are quite traditional there.

The Christmas tree. The Piazza was bright and the tree was not so the picture isn’t so good.

Tipico showcases two oils. One light and one stronger. The bread is always good there too.

Outside now, as I write this, the children are singing and the band is playing. There are little stands with things to sell. Happy Immaculata!

Trip to the USA

Well, we are back from our eventful trip to the USA mainly to visit my sister on Thanksgiving. We had an issue on our trip over with our expired Permessi di Soggiorno. I haven’t written about it but we continue to have the same problems renewing year after year. This year we put in for our new Permessi in early February, well before they expired in June. Here it is December 1 and we still do not have our new cards. It is the Italian way. But this time it has impacted us. The word had been until recently, we could travel on our expired Permessi with the Poste receipts showing we had applied for the new one. The issue is with travel from one Schengen country (alliance of countries with open borders) to another. This trip we were flying from Bologna to Vienna and then to the US. Since we were going THROUGH another Schengen country, Austria, the woman at the Austrian air counter said we couldn’t travel on our expired Permessi. The Postal receipt was not acceptable as a police document. In the end we were allowed to go since we were American citizens traveling “home”. This is an unwelcome development which will probably affect us on future travel. We will need to be mindful how we travel. On our return we went through passport control in Munich and we didn’t admit we lived in Italy rather we were tourists, which worked to get us home.

After a long travel day we arrived at my sisters house where she had prepared a nice green chili for us all. We hit the sack shortly afterwards.

It was a nice visit with me achieving my goal to renew my drivers license. We also cooked the Thanksgiving dinner together which was fun, and we had the Macy’s parade on TV and after that the dog show. Both of these have been fixtures in our Thanksgiving day since before our Mom passed away. Nostalgia. I’ve missed them. Luther got his football hit afterwards.

We also did some shopping and eating lunches out. I cooked one dinner. Cindy cooked all our favorite chilies, which are a taste we miss. We had oysters one day. We visited Montecello, Jefferson’s home, one day. It had been years since I’d been there. All in all a really nice time with my family.

We had planned a short trip to Williamsburg afterward. This has been “our” spot since we were young and broke. We have been back countless times. We stayed in one of the Colonial Homes which we had always enjoyed. The house we were in this time, the Peter Hay Kitchen was looking a bit worn. It needed a bit of TLC and a facelift. But it had a nice fireplace which we used both evenings while there. A lovely gentleman came to lay and light it for us and the first evening I didn’t have money for a tip. When we called the second evening I was happy to see the same man so I could make it up to him. To his credit he was as nice and helpful the second evening even though he probably could expect no tip based on the first night.

Williamsburg heirloom plant garden. They do a very good job trying to save heirloom breeds of animals and plants.

One day while there we drove north to the Middle Peninsula to visit a long-time favorite restaurant, Merroir, home to the Rappahannock Oyster Farm. It is on a beautiful point of land next to the marina in Topping VA. Wonderful fresh oysters and crabcakes. We were very happy campers.

View from Merroir

Crabcake

Unshucked oysters right from the dock outside.

The marina at Topping VA.

The return home from Dulles started well. We drove the 2.5 hours from Williamsburg to Dulles airport and dropped off our car. Then checked into United for our return. We got all comfortable on board. We were told there was a maintenance issue. OK, I watched a movie. The maintenance crew came onboard. The pilot told us the issue was fixed, they just did the paperwork. Then we taxied out. Where we sat for about an hour. Then we taxied back to the gate. Where they started letting people go off the plane. I had finished my movie. Finally after about 2.5 hours they told us that plane was going nowhere that night 🙄. So we all got off.

They eventually found a new plane, but not as nice, and we finally got in the air 5 hours late. Needless to say we missed our connection to Bologna. We heard a flight attendant say there were 181 separate connections from that one flight that were missed! Everyone at the Munich airport knew about the United flight that arrived 5 hours late. We went to a Lufthansa service center and they snagged the last two seats on the 3:40pm flight arriving at about 5Pm in Bologna. We finally got our car and headed home on the 2.5 hour drive home arriving at 9 pm, tired but glad to finally be home. Traveling is often not a lot of fun to put it mildly.

Now we look forward to our Christmas season in Umbertide. Always nice.

Olive Oil

I paid a visit to Ely at Calagrana to pick up the oil she was sharing with us after helping with the harvest. Brilliant green.

I visited the new lambs!

And we sat in a sunny spot with coffee and caught up a little.

I got to meet the newest addition to the family…Sparky…she arrived in the engine compartment of a workman’s car. Maybe she’s Sparky because of the spark plugs? Anyway she lives up to her name!

When I got home I put some of “our” oil on bruschetta. It was peppery and grassy…the way I love it, and why Umbrian oil is the BEST!

A dream come true! 🙂

On domenica I helped my friend Vera reach her dream!! Who would think I could ever do such a thing? But, when I tell you her dream it will be clearer. She told me her dream was to cook a whole turkey…tacchino in Italian. Last year I invited Vera and her family to a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Her two girls were spellbound by the whole turkey. Turkey is eaten here but only in pieces. Like a drumstick, or a breast, or slices. And Italians are notoriously unwelcoming to the unknown. Vera and her immediate family are different. They welcome different things. So, her dream was to cook and serve a turkey to her more extended family. And she needed my help. Ahem.

It was quite an experience. I got up at 5am and got ready and arrived by 6am. It was soooo foggy! I had a hard time driving there. We prepped the turkey (guessing it was 16-17 lbs) with butter and layered pancetta and stuffed it with orange and onion. Salted it and toted it down to the forno (outside wood oven) which Vera had been fueling all night. This was also a new thing for me and I was none too sure how hot it was nor how long to cook the turkey of unknown weight! Oy. So when we approached the forno it was smoking like mad. She said “uh oh”. When she opened the door a blast of flame came out and she ducked! Wowsers! So we decided it had to wait till the oven cooled for her to put it in. I left her with it. Of course the suocera (mother-in-law) had to get involved later, adding oil and wine to the pan. It was OK really.

So I returned about 11am and we went to check the bird. I had an instant read thermometer. It was a little overdone but not bad. We took it upstairs to rest. Then I made the gravy from the drippings and the broth Vera had made from the turkey bits. Malia and Desiree, her daughters were mesmerized. I had brought the stuffing I made from home. And frozen-from-last-year cranberry sauce. And Vera had boiled potatoes which I mashed with milk and butter. She also had spinach and kale for veggies. And, just in case someone wouldn’t eat the tacchino she made cinghale ragu. She served it as a first course with pasta. It was wonderful!

In attendance there were Vera, her husband Graziano, and the two girls, Vera’s dad, Graziano’s brother and his wife with tiny baby and their other daughter, and la Nonna (grandmother). Il Nonno (grandfather) was hunting boar. Vera had said the wife of the brother wouldn’t eat the turkey. But she was pretty enthusiastic. She loved the turkey, dressing and the cranberry sauce. La Nonna brought a scrumptious dessert. I’ve had two of her desserts now and she is amazing! Sooo good. I could have eaten several pieces!😋

Such a fun time with our Italian friends and an American feast. Always an adventure.

Stock makin’s. I don’t think we’d have the feet in the US !

Turkey with pancetta covering. Ready for the oven.

Oven!!! Hot!!!

Cinghiale ragu on fresh pasta.

The finished tacchino

La famiglia with our pasta.

Serving all the traditional thanksgiving foods.

I had fun! I think most everyone had fun. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Visit to the frantoio!

Ely had an appointment at Frantoio Rossi at 7AM. She was second in line and good thing as it got crowded fast!!

Frontoio Rossi

The two vans were loaded full. They had 40 more cassetti of olives to process.

The unloading.

That’s a LOT of olives!

The hopper was full to the brim.

There is a turn screw at the bottom which feeds the olives out.

And they go up the ladder where a mighty wind blows off the leaves and twigs.

Next step the wash.

Calagrana had 880 kilograms of olives on this trip.

The olives go into these tanks where a really big screw type dasher swirls them round and round.

Watching the process.

Now we wait. It takes about 45 minutes to process the olives.

While we waited I took a few pictures of the process. This is the big dumpster where the sludge is collected. I was told it is made into animal food. The black heap is the sludge which falls from those three holes up by the ceiling.

The leaves are another left over thing. You think they don’t weigh much but they do add up!

This is the semi-chaotic scene about 40 minutes after we arrived.

Inside this is the master console and the big blue cylinder is one of the separators. It separates the water, sludge and oil.

Another byproduct.

This man is separating and weighing the oil into the tins.

Tins awaiting filling.

Finally our waiting has produced the results of a lot of labor. We helped just two days. Ely and Albie all by themselves worked the grove for four more full days. Ending up with 40 more cassetti coming in at 880 kilograms and 121 liters of oil!

Here it is!

Green gold.

All the work was worth it.

Calagrana will sell the oil under the lable of the Palazzo Bastia Creti, the estate where the olive grove is up above Calagrana. This is the new oil!

I will post again once I get some of this oil and taste it. Such a fun experience.

Olive Harvest 2018!!

In Umbria, olives are a way of life. The oil is amazing with grassy, peppery notes in your mouth. You drizzle it on bruschetta, meats, vegetables, soups and salads. Everyone in Umbria either has an olive grove or knows someone who has an olive grove who needs help with the harvest. It seems everyone gets involved. It is very inclusive and a real way of life here. The olives are all colors.

This is my second olive harvest. It’s been 3 years since my first one so I’m not a total newbie! There are about 70 trees spread out over the property which is beautiful, by the way. It is up above Calagrana, our friends Agriturismo.

The Appenine mountains poking up in the distance. A dreary day unfortunately so no sunshine.

View from the property down the valley.

We did the bottom field first. We started out being 12 people but by the end we were 9. A couple of the trees were definite overachievers. Just loaded with olives! It is a really full day of work. We help them set the nets under the trees, dragging them about and putting supports at the bottoms to keep the olives from rolling off. Then we use little rakes to rake the olives off the branches reaching as high as we can. Meanwhile someone works the “basher” which beats the upper branches to shake the olives down. Then you have to lift the nets and roll all the olives together and put them into plastic crates called cassetti. Physical labor all on hillsides so lots of up and down walking. I am proud to say I did it! For two full days! Not bad for an old broad.

Setting the nets

Working the basher

The cassetti of olives. All colors!

When you participate in an olive harvest, there’s no telling what will happen. Our group started singing Mary Poppins songs. Turns out several of us knew all the words!! Chimchimanee, I Love to Laugh, Feed the Birds… fun!

Lunch!

Lunch break

By the end of the first day we had harvested less than half the trees and had 43 boxes of olives. A bountiful harvest! We had run out of boxes, and it was getting dark so the end of a productive day. Plan is to take the boxes to the Frantoio, or olive mill, and press them and return Monday for a final pass at the trees. There are some totally loaded trees on the upper slopes. Then they will take the rest to the mill for pressing. A real bumper crop this year.

43 cassetti

We had a lovely after harvest dinner. Albi had prepared chili con carne for us all. Excellent and the perfect thing to fill our empty stomachs after a hard days work.

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Monday we worked a second full day in the olive grove. Ely will pick again tomorrow and Wednesday. There are so many trees still to do. She went to the mill this morning with Saturday’s harvest which weighed in at 950 kilos and yielded 132 liters of oil and she says it is really good. Peppery and grassy. Just the way I like it 😋 This day we picked half again as many (with only 5 people) so should get another 60 liters and whatever else she does back to the mill. I took a tumble as did little Olie as the nets were wet and on a very steep slop. My feet would slide downhill. I could get no purchase. SO I decided to take a couple pictures of this amazing property. Autumn colors.

Ely

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I’m going to the mill to take pictures Thursday with Ely for the final press. Second blog to come on that.