venerdì 15 maggio 2015
Cortona has put on her party dress- the quintieri streets lined with each neighborhoods colorful banners, and on Via Nazionale, daisy wreaths adorn the arches of the vicoli. Easter has past as well as the 25th April Liberation Day/Saint Mark's feast day. The May 1st holiday is upon us and everyone in Cortona seems ready for La Bella Stagione to begin.Santa Margherita's feast day will be celebrated this weekend with the first of the re-enactment of the ceremony and fanfare associated with the Salimbeni-Casali wedding of the 1300's.
Le Rondine (swifts and swallows) have returned and the trees and fields are filled with blooms. The weather is temperamental as can be expected. Leading all to speculate on the fate of the oil crop this year, after a dismal disappointment in last year's harvest. There is also speculation about the return of visitors as well.
There is an atmosphere of anticipation, "How are your reservations?" "When are the tourists coming?" "Do you think it's going to be a good year this year?" These are common questions we hear from some of our friends and neighbors in town. Some are, of course, interested because their livelihood is entwined with the arrival of visitors. Others however look forward to the new life that arrives with people from the world outside the walls. Our pensioners fill the benches in the Piazza della Repubblica where they have front row seats to a stimulating, ever changing show. The romantic weddings on town hall steps, the guided tours which stop to take in the beauty and monuments of il Comune- and the Loggia above, the rambunctious groups of scholars visiting Cortona for a field trip are all parts of the theater of life in the piazza. A source of pride for the residents as they watch the reactions of visitors to the beauty of their hometown, as the tourists make happy memories of Cortona which plants seeds of the same pride and kinship in the hearts of visitors to the town.
martedì 2 dicembre 2014
There are many stories to be told from this time of my life, but the story I want to tell now is a story tied to this season of giving and a wonderful man called Bill I met while working at Alpha Centre International.
Bill was a native northern Californian like myself and I took an immediate liking to him when he came to interview with my colleague Donatella and me. He was living in Florence, studying the language. He came from a family of cattle ranchers and though not super tall, he was the epitome of a clean-cut all-American boy, blond and well dressed, the only nod to his origins were a peek of cowboy boots from the hem of his neat gray, well-cut jeans. It was the late 1980's, so it was also an appropriate nod to fashion. After we hired him mainly as a teacher, a quick friendship grew between us and I'd taken to calling him Buffalo.
He was a joy to work with, always positive, and took to his role as an English teacher with great verve. He would travel to our schools in Germany as well and was well liked and received by his co-workers as well as his students.
He proposed organizing a Christmas party at our office that year, something we'd never done and he threw himself into the project. It was a fun evening, with our staff bringing food from their native countries in potluck style, along with the families of our co-workers. England, France, Australia, Spain, Austria, Germany, Israel, Ireland, the USA and of course Italy were all represented at our gathering. We were not highly paid and most of us were scraping by to pay rents and keep food on the table, but it was all the same a festive celebration. At a certain point, Bill arrived with a Santa hat and a bag full of wrapped packages. We were taken aback as he pulled out of his sack, package upon package, one for each of us. He had wrapped something for each of us. A reindeer ornament fashioned from a paper roll and pipe-cleaners, a snowman made with other recycled bits of office supply cast-offs, each one transformed with a bit of glitter a marker, paperclips, white-out. He said, "It isn't Christmas without presents!"
The time and creativity he invested in his gifts was touching and will always be remembered. Early the next year, Bill abruptly gave notice. He was heading back to Florence then to California. I was surprised and sad, I would miss his enthuastic optimism and happy nature.
A year or so later I had the opportunity to make a trip back to San Francisco to visit my family. I was excited to call my friend and say hello and hopefully make an appointment to see one another again. His mother answered the phone, I had met her during a visit she made to Florence to visit her son with her girlfriends. I remember the excited care Bill had taken in planning their itinerary, a visit to Via Tornabuoni to see all the designer shops, Ponte Vecchio, and of course they had to try an ice cream at Vivoli. I met her briefly in Cortona when they came to visit for the day and I immediately understood where Bill had inherited his sunny disposition and fashion sense from.
The voice on the line when I called was thin and pained. I explained who I was and that I was hoping to contact Bill. I was shocked and melted into tears as she explained that Bill was no longer amongst us, he had succumbed to the terrible disease called AIDS. I was dumbfounded and floundered for words of condolence "I'm so sorry, sorry he's gone-" She then was brave for me " You would not have wanted him to live if you saw him at the end. He is at peace now." and our conversation ended.
World Aids Day was yesterday, December 1, 2014...but everyday is a good day to get informed and find out what you can do to prevent the loss of so many gifts of light in this dark world like my friend Bill.
We've come a long way but there is a long way to go- Ciao Bill- mi manchi.
lunedì 24 novembre 2014
Antonio is an award winning designer who won distinction for himself while still a student at l'Accademia di Arti Applicate di Milano. He creates sculpture, wearable and not in the form of jewelry, handbags and what Daisy and Carlotta appreciate most as Ecotaxidermy! Using recycled or recuperated materials he creates ironic and amusing sculptures which resemble hunting trophies of days gone by, or images of animals.
A boarhead made of antique bishop's vestments, or upholstry scraps, leather and nails, even foam rubber.
An intriguing majestic polarbear made of chicken wire, the essential lines captured to give it mass and presence, but with a shift of light, he fades away, disappears- hopefully not an omen of this majestic beast's destiny.
With a bit of irony he provokes irresponsible dog owners who let their dogs run free- immortalizing the pose which he sees too often on his doorstep with a life-sized dog made of duct tape.
Black bristol board becomes an inky boar, lurking in the corner of the showroom while a dauchund, patiently awaits an owner.
Antonio has often said that he tests the success of his animal creations based on Daisy's reaction to it- she has been fooled a few times by the packaging tape dogs, foraging paper boar and upholstry fabric deer with tree branch antlers.
His website is www.antoniomassarutto.it for those interested in seeing a rhinoceros made of potato sacks and other wonderful things...
sabato 9 agosto 2014
When we started the bed and breakfast, we made a conscious decision that we would definitely serve our breakfast on site. We planned our restoration with a breakfast room and kitchen to this purpose. We researched the best local roasted coffee (Moka Più from Arezzo, in our opinion) and made it a priority to offer fresh-baked pastry from Cortona's historic Pasticceria Banchelli daily (except Mondays when they close or bake just for themselves) as well as a homemade sweets, high quality yogurts, cereals, local cold-cuts and cheeses and be sure to have fresh fruit available each day. We also offer more than 20 varieties of Twinings' collection of teas and infusions as well as hot chocolate and orzo barley coffee for non coffee drinkers. Most of the people around us said, "Why do you bother doing that? Everyone else just gives people a voucher to go to the bar."
lunedì 28 luglio 2014
The Etruscans, the ancient people who gave Tuscany it's name and shaped its character as early as 900 BC in some areas were master ceramicists. Many exquisite examples of their craftmanship can be found in museums and collections throughout the world. Probably the most interesting examples were created in "bucchero" a heavy, black ceramic. created to be economic imitations of iron vessels. Bucchero vessels started out as simple red clay vessels which turned black throughout due to the chemical reaction of reduction of the iron oxides in the clay when the pots were fired in kilns starved of oxygen.
There is a neighborhood in Cortona, just outside the city walls which is called Cocciai . This is the neighborhood my husband grew up in after his family left the walled cit, post World War II, when he was five. In local dialect the word "coccio" refers to a terracotta vessel and Cocciai was the neighborhood of the potters.
Besides the traditional pottery for storing oil, water,food and bowls for the household or handwarmers and cooking vessels, the cocciai (potters) made special novelty items for the holidays small whistles for children, some simple, some held water to create a gurgling whistle sound, ocarinas and other small toys and figurines.
|This is a picture of the last of the original Cocciai - Giuseppe Marconi with the dark shirt, taking pots out of the original stone kiln which was heated with fire from below|
Each medieval town has a maiolica pattern to distinguish it from the others. Orvieto with small birds, Perugia has a dragon design, Deruta pottery traditionally has a rooster. Cortona's traditional pattern is the creamy yellow background with a simple 12 petaled sunflower or some call it a daisy design in green (copper oxide) and brown (manganese oxide).
I had always been told that the design was a daisy to pay homage to Santa Margherita one of Cortona's two patron saints. However, Giulio Lucarini, the last of the ceramists trained at Cocciai, along with his wife Antonella Fazzini tells different story which traces the sunflower design to the turn of the last century and to the city of Boston in the United States.
According to Giulio's maestro cocciaio, the original design of Cortona was a simple flower, not the 12 petaled flower we see today. It's said that there was a bostonian merchant acquiring wares in the 1800's in Florence and he was taken by the ceramics sold there and produced in Cortona. He was able to procure the address of the producers in Cortona and travelled down from Florence to directly negotiate an export deal. As the merchants travelled through the countryside they were accompanied by Giulio's maestro, Giuseppe Marconi, a young boy at the time, who was given the task of showing these merchant's the scenery around the area during their visit. Taken by the sights in the fields around them they asked that a modification be made to change the simple flower to a sunflower design and as they bid the boy farewell, they gave him a tip to thank him for his services which far surpassed the sum of 2 months salary for his father. After that, this young Giuseppe's task was to pack the crates with the ceramics for shipping to Boston, carefully copying the shipping instructions for delivery to the vessel called the "King David". These shipments continued until the Second World War.
|Here's a picture of the original flower jug|
|Here is a sunflower jug|
|A design by Gino Severini on a jug|
|a closer detail|
Giulio's love of nature is reflected in many of the "one of a kind" whimsical pieces he creates using the same rough, terracotta to shape and recreate the flora and fauna of our area in amazing detail. Each piece is unique and is the fruit of his talent, skill and some luck as well. The firing of clay can be a tricky business and not all the pieces he slaves hours or days over make it through the process safely.
I was once told a poignant story by the descendant of an Italian immigrant to the United States that during the years when Italians were compelled to leave their homeland to search for a better life elsewhere, they would take a handful of soil with them as they braved the ocean journey to a new life.
So many visitors fall in love with Cortona as they live their vacations here, and so many bring home a piece of terracotta with our daisy/sunflower pattern-perhaps this is a new version of that ritual- a way to keep a bit of this beautiful place in their homes.
mercoledì 18 giugno 2014
There is something reassuring about the seasons coming and going bringing their fruits and celebrations. As Cortona is surrounded by lands used for agriculture it is easy to be aware of the changes in the landscape, the colors and sounds. The swallows screech with joy when they arrive, there is rhythmic cooing of pigeons as they nest in the rooftops, the cicadas' frantic ,humming chirps fill hot summer nights.
Quince, peach, cherry and almond blossoms explode on bare branches as winter draws to a close, the yellow puffball flowers of mimosa are the symbol of March 8th, international Women's Day and are followed by the bright magenta blooms of the red bud trees, or albero di Giuda (Judas trees) which announce the arrival of Easter. At this time when driving along the roads, one can find people carefully picking through the grasses in the olive orchards or along the sides of the road hunting for insalata del campo, wild salad greens, to be gathered for the Easter luncheon perhaps, or the first tender wild borage to be mixed with fresh spring ricotta for homemade ravioli stuffing. Next come the purple flowers, the iris, the lupines, the borrage, then the yellow and white flowers, camomile daisies, mustard greens, dandelions, Queen Anne's lace. The photographically famous bright red poppies bloom in May and June amongst the wheat fields, exploding crimson in the fields left to rest from grain cultivation that year.
Wheat fields shimmer with the summer breeze, first green, then gold and as they undergo this transformation, sunflowers climb toward the blue skies turning golden faces towards the sunrise. When summer lingers on and their proud heads heavy with seeds droop, the wheat fields have been reaped leaving great spools of hay dotting the stubble while the grapevines are heavy with plump clusters and olives swell on silvery green boughs. As the seasons change the crazy quilt of fields on the hills change in dazzling color and texture.
Autumn is probably one of the most satisfying times from a gastronomic point of view in our corner of Italy. The new oil to be sampled on slices of toasted, saltless Tuscan bread, the real bruschetta being merely garlic rubbed on the bread before a drenching of the green-gold, piccant new oil and a pinch of salt. I have always been amused by the line-up at the olive mill with farmers who jealously guard their personally pampered olives to be sure that no inferior olive slips into their lot nor a drop of their oil stolen as they wait for their turn at the mill. As each wait on line he will politely accept a piece of bread soaked with their neighbors oil as it pours forth from the press, certain that none will be as good as his own when it his turn.
During grape harvest, I always try to find someone with a vineyard who will give me a cluster or two of wine grapes to make the traditional ciaccia con l'uva, a sweet foccacia bread. This treat is unusual and simple, but appreciated on our breakfast buffet.
Chestnuts harvested from Mount Sant'Egidio can be roasted and savored with new wine or vin santo. The new wine is ready for tasting in November many times accompanied by roast chestnuts on San Martino's feastday of November 11th..
However, the best reason take to the woods in the Fall is to search for many of the wild mushrooms which abound in this season. Besides the well known porcini and it's lesser edible cousins of the boletus family, there are many other tasty treats only to be found in this season. There are also truffles to be found by carefully trained truffle dogs and their owners. The prized Tartufo Bianco delle Crete Senesi being the king of truffles in this season is celebrated at nearby San Giovanni d'Asso, in the Val d'Orcia.
Traditionally, this is the time when pigs meet their maker and are transformed into delicious sausage, salame, capocollo, prosciutti, pancetta, testa fredda, sanguinaccio blood sausage. It really is true that nearly everything except the "oink" is used and nothing wasted. This waste not want not approach just seems to give their demise a little more sense.
All Saints Day start off the rounds of holiday sweets with the "Bones of the Dead" almond cookies, followed in quick succession of panettone, torroni, panforte, ricciarelli, pan d'oro and cavalucci (a spice cookie with walnuts and candied fruits typical of the area).
Christmas celebrations are still relegated to December here, although it seems that every year a few more merchants are trying to jump the gun and amplify their season. Traditionally ornaments are put up on December 8th, the Assumption Day of the Madonna and the streets and store windows come to life with lights and displays. This time of year is a sort of "Homecoming" time. So many Cortoneses have immigrated over the decades to find fortune in other places, especially in the 1960's and 1970's. All Saint's Day , November 1, is the traditional day for families to visit the cemetary, clean up the grave sites and spend a day together. The 8th of December through the 6th of January are considered le "Feste" the holiday season during which time family split up their luncheon duties to celebrate on the 8th, the 24th, the 25th, the 26th and 31st of December, all holidays, and the 1st and 6th of January.
The strings of lights which twinkle along Via Nazionale , Via Guelfa, Via Roma, Via Dardano and Via Benedetti (brought to you by the local merchants as I learned the first year we opened the B&B) illuminate the roads to the cathedral to Piazza Signorelli and Piazza della Repubblica-the square of the townhall which becomes the backdrop for the light and music show which livens New Year's Eve. The country houses that dot the valley and hillsides are adorned with colored lights on their railings and windows, on the trees in the garden. The Valdichiana countryside lights up at midnight with fireworks as families and friends in the valley welcome in the new year.
January plods toward February, life in the countryside deceptively seems inert, preparations are being made for the new harvests and finishing touches put on some of the old. The lands rest, but farmers do not. Vines and trees to be pruned and fertilized, brush to be gathered, burned, The scents of wood smoke filter up the hill from the fields and chimneys. Finer wine is coaxed along to develop the best flavor in the large Slovenian oak or smaller French barrique barrels; tasted, consolidated, moved to different sizes and types of barrels before bottling. February marks the debut 4 or 5 years after their harvest of some of the important wines of the area like Brunello of Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Free time can be dedicated to hunting, a tradition in this area which put some extra food on the table in the winter. Pheasant, wild boar, wild hare, partridge, venison, are now delicacies, but at one time were accessible sources of protein to even the poorest in the areas.
As planting season approaches, the clay rich soil will be plowed with long tined plows to pull up large chunks of earth, left to dry and plowed again with wheel disks to break up the soil and prepare for seeding of wheat, oats, corn, sunflowers.. When the first shoots start to sprout from the vines it will be time to return to the vineyard to tie and train them to encourage the best quality grapes, clear away the grass and fertize the vines .All in anticipation of April and May's natural irrigation . There are roses, hydrangeas to be pruned, plants to be re-potted, all rituals that tie one closer to the earth.
At times it seems the year is a merry go round, revolving faster and faster. I remember a conversation with my grandmother, in her nineties at the time at her fruit orchards in California . "The older you get the faster the years go" she said . As I grow older in Tuscany, I know she was right and it seems comforting in many ways to know that no matter what trouble tries to distract or stall me, there is a force always pushing me forward - life goes on and so must I for that is the force of nature.
mercoledì 11 giugno 2014
It's 7:40 am , April 12, 2014- I'm outside the Sheraton Roma with roughly 300 other hopeful candidates for the cast of Masterchef Italia 4. Upon arrival at the hotel with my friend Donatella, about an hour before, aside from the 7 foot illuminated posters outside, we found little evidence of what would become this now bustling mob scene. Just the few people seated in the lobby with ice-chests, grocery bags and nervous looks of anticipation on their faces had indicated that this was the place. At home, Luciano wasn't 100 percent "on board" with my decision and I had been getting whiplash trying to keep up with his feelings regarding my participation. One minute he was ranting and raving about my lack of judgement in moving forward with this crazy idea, and the next he was offering his opinion about how my dish should be presented.
A pretty girl from Naples had come down to the lobby in her pajamas shortly after Donatella and I had arrived.. She had slept at the Sheraton and told us that the television judges/chefs wouldn't be there. She also revealed that there had already been an audition in Milan where more than 3000 candidates had attended. According to her source of information the meetings had continued on until 9 pm there. A blond woman in a blue wide brimmed hat overheard her report and expressed her worry that she might miss her plane back to Sardegna if this was the case today and that she had been told that there was the possibility of facing a "Mystery Box" challenge. I started to worry, I had obviously not done my research about this event. I had not been made privy to any of this insider information. .
Cherry picker cameras were mounted facing the garden courtyard outside the hotel. Someone who carried himself with an official air announced that soon we would be given stickers with numbers on them. We were to attach the large number to our clothing and the second half of the sticker should be kept for later. The typical Italian conical line had formed and as the line moved forward more late comers attempted to push their way in from the sides. My years of training at the bank and post office paid off. I was amongst the first 10 people who'd arrived at the hotel and I was able to stand my ground and snatch away one of the first 50 sticker numbers. Some of my Girl Scout spirit has faded a bit.
After receiving our numbers we were requested to position ourselves in the small garden area to the right of the entrance near a small gazebo. As we filed by to take our places I noticed that there were photographers as well as video cameras documenting the event. I also noticed that I stuck out from the crowd which was mainly dressed in black and gray. I had a light suede jacket and red coral colored polka-dot tee, Donatella was thrilled and sure that this was a great omen. Although unintentional on my part, there were others who seemed to have made their wardrobe selections to intentionally stand out from the crowd. An older man with a pronounced Naples accent sported a rather garish shirt and bolo tie, a heavily tattooed, middle aged woman with Crayola red hair coiffed in a geometric spiky hairstyle was dressed in black leather, a thin, waiflike young man wore leggings under an oversized tee shirt and was wrapped with an enormous colorful chiffon scarf. Hundreds of people, young and old of different ethnicities and walks of life had their sights set on becoming the next Masterchef Italia. Soon, when all the numbers had been given, the cherry picker camera went into action. A man gave directions with a megaphone: "On the count of three, everyone shout "Masterchef !!!" then applaude, hands over your heads!"
As the cherry picker camera flew about above us, we were incited to repeat this war cry. Again and again- Hey, you people sitting (and smoking) on the wall over there, we can see you - we need everyone to pay attention here-look at the camera. "Di nuovo, uno, due, tre, Masterchef!!! (applausi)" Bolo tie guy: "Come on now! Do it right or they won't pay us!" Two guys standing near me:"Next New Year's Eve we'll be screaming 'Masterchef!!!' instead of Happy New Year" After our third or fourth attempt a sleepy eyed, bare-torsoed man came to the window of a garden-view room. I am sure he did not put in a request for the Masterchef wake-up call.
The director seemed satisfied (and probably encouraged by the hotel front desk staff to be so) with their external shots. amd we were then herded back to one side of the entrance to the lobby. We were informed by another of the casting company representatives that we would be called in small groups to the meeting room they had rented on the lower floor of the hotel. I had been stopped for a few minutes after the Masterchef chant by a video camera and interviewed- name, where was I from and whiy I wanted to be the next Masterchef. If I could describe myself as an ingredient what would it be? I had felt at ease until this question stumped me for a moment...." Uh...a Dungeness Crab!"---what a stupid answer...I was being given directions ...look into the camera and say "I want to be the next Masterchef Italia" I did so and tried to load my statement with as much determination as possible. As I was dismissed and turned to walk away, the woman who had stopped me for the interview said, "oh, and by the way, I'm Francesca, I interviewed you on the telephone." It was not until that moment that I realized that this was a finely orchestrated mob scene. This was confirmed and I was even more heartened when I was summoned from the entrance to an isolated spot back in the garden to take some still shots as I was coached to make the "buono" gesture, my index finger pressing into my cheek.
As other startled guests of the hotel attempted to maneuver and exit the lobby, we were led out of the way inside to wait to be called upstairs to the audition space offices. The downstairs room was basically a waiting room. So many hopeful people waiting and waiting. There was a bit of comic relief for us when Donatella was whisked back outside with my overnight bag by one of the casting crew, we were both perplexed, Donatella frightened that we may have infringed some rule. However, when she returned relieved, she told me that they had found my bag to be the most attractive one there and they wanted to photograph it outside on the grassy area. I called Luciano to tell him that if I didn't make it on the show, maybe my bag would..
In small groups candidates only were led upstairs to another audition area and more waiting. By observing what the others were doing the new group would surmise what was to be done.When called one was to go to a prep room, with table stations and microwaves ready to prepare and plate the food. After that was the meeting with a chef and representative of the casting company for tasting. I was surprised when still waiting for my turn to go to the prep room that I was asked to stay a little longer after the tasting for an additional interview.
While prepping my food I noticed there was a camera man and a photographer documenting it all while Francesca asked me questions about my dish. After a few minutes I was ready. Three glass bowls with my three garnished dumplings arranged on an olive wood board, the hot broth waiting in the small teapot. The photographer took the last shot and I awaited mine.
The chef was cordial and the casting representative asked just a few questions. I was encouraged when the chef asked about the broth I'd used, the method of making the duck skin crispy. I couldn't resist asking him after he'd tasted all three what he thought...he only replied cryptically, " I can't say."
I was then led to a final room for the additional interview/audition. I was told, "This is only for fun, we have a website, a blog, we might use some of this footage here, but remember this is only for fun.." I was instructed to give instructions for classic Italian dishes, then give the instructions without talking, then mime different pasta shapes. I was quite proud of my interpretation of a tortellone .
By about 1:30 pm, my audition was over. The last step was having a head shot done and the casting company representative told everyone that we would only receive a phone call if we were selected and by the end of May.
I didn't know it then, but my journey had ended.
For the next forty plus days I dreamt and dreamt big, waited for the phone to ring, hoped and really believed it would. I worried about the arrangements to be made before leaving Cortona, I fretted about what I would need to bring to Milan. As the countdown closed on the end of May, I clung desperately to any driftwood of hope in the ocean of doubt that was swallowing me.
And I'm still counting on Karen...
* My bag which has star potential---keep your eyes open for it!