martedì 2 dicembre 2014

The Gifts

There are people who touch our lives who unknowingly  make us better people, just by being themselves. My first legitimate job while  living in Cortona was working for a rather eccentric, yet brilliant Bavarian in a highly experimental and avant-garde language learning center, tucked away in an alley off the Via Nazionale. Working with theories researched by his Canadian/Brit business partner and  fueled by rivers of Ballantine's- they gathered together  a group of ex-pats from all over the world to help them fulfill their dream of creating super-learning, accellerated language courses. To a certain degree they were successful to those ends, but most successful was the gathering of a community of world citizens together who brought with them the essence of their countries, their experiences and made for an interesting, stimulating and exciting workplace.
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

Where the Wild Things Are...

We are fortunate to have talented artists and designers still striving to intrigue us with interesiting and beautiful designs. If you haven't already found him, be sure to drop-in to visit the gallery of Antonio Massarutto just below Casa Chilenne.

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  for those interested  in seeing a rhinoceros made of potato sacks and other wonderful things...

sabato 9 agosto 2014

Il Buon Giorno si vede dal mattino...

Monday morning homemade croissants- all other days fresh from Pasticceria Banchelli

Besides the wonderful history, sites, artwork and nature, I believe that one of the biggests draws for a visitor coming to Italy would be the food and wine.  The very fine wines of the Val d'Orcia- Brunello of Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are always high on the lists of things to be tasted when a traveller arrives in Tuscany. The Florentine 2 lb t-bone chianina beefsteak, ribollita  bread and vegetable soup (even in sweltering summer heat) are almost always sought after as a  culinary experience not be missed. It's wonderful that travellers are becoming more aware of the fact that some of the most rewarding travel experiences are due to the fact that things are not like home. It is not just doing the things you do normally with a change of scenery.

Many feel that the ueber-cool thing to do is to do everything "like  Italians" to have the most authentic experience while you are on your trip - while scoffing at things that "tourists" do. I agree wholeheartedly that moving in the circles that locals do definitely creates a unique experience which can enrich anyone's trip. 

Easter Brunch at Casa Chilenne always includes homemade Ciaramiglia
When it comes to breakfast, the Italian way is a bit different than other places in the world. It is many times broken up into a few coffee breaks spaced throughout the morning. A quick coffee upon rising at home, or  tea and a few pieces of melba toast or cookies, then a dash out the door towards the workplace or school. A pastry and capuccino at the local bar before starting work or school and then a scheduled mid -morning pause at about 10 am or so for a small sandwich or pizzetta, or another pastry and cup of coffee. Breakfast in the Italian tradition is great for people watching and observing  local behaviour at the coffee bar, however, many foreign guests find it to be a bit lacking in substance.
The exception to this would be Cortonese easter breakfast which features umbran cheese bread, tuscanissimo Ciaccia con la ciccia, hard boiled blessed chicken eggs, salami ,  and local egg-brioche style cake/bread with candied fruit and anise called Ciaramiglia.and of course the tradiional dove shaped brioche bread called La Colomba, a yeasted egg bread, studded with almonds and  candied orange peel , glazed with an almond  meringue icing 

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."
Although it makes perfect sense from an economical point of view; no need for breakfast staff, supplies, linens or dedicating a space to breakfast, no waking up at 6:30 each morning and setting tables each night -the concept of having a bed and breakfast meant just that to us. Not a bed and coupon or voucher-for us bed and breakfast means only that. A stay with us should be special and breakfast should be a time to relax and start the day off right.

Cinnamon rolls
Yeasted Waffles with seasonal fruit
We can serve the coffee gulp and dasher as well as the leisurely breakfast lover. We've extended our breakfast menu to include eggs and bacon cooked to order as well as American style waffles and real cultured buttermilk pancakes on request, served with seasonal toppings or with the classic topping of real, organic Canadian maple syrup. We were pleased to find that our guests appreciated this option, both those native to countries where these dishes are common fare at breakfast time as well as travellers who had fond memories of enjoying them while on vacation in the UK or Canada or the USA. Most surprising are the guests who have spent time working or studying in the US, UK or Canada and plan a stay with us specifically to enjoy the morning ritual of a  leisurely, fresh cooked breakfast and share this experience with friends or family who have never experienced  it.  What better way to slow down the pace and  thoroughly enjoy one's holiday?

scrambled eggs and bacon

lunedì 28 luglio 2014

A Handful of Earth

It seems that there is something fascinating and magical in the art of terracotta, or ceramics.  The process of taking this clay rich soil, mixing it with water then shaping and  transforming it into something durable, useful, beautiful is an ancient art which has existed for centuries and centuries. It is a skill, a passion.

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

Even Cortonese born Gino Severini, Futurist artist of the 20th century, was fascinated by this craft of his hometown. He would make visits to the cocciai to try his hand at sculpture and decoration, leaving them with original designs for them to reproduce on their pieces.
A design by Gino Severini on a jug
a closer detail
Giulio's workshop is in an alley below his home and the store where he sells his wares is  Terrabruga, on the street level of Via Nazionale. After learning his trade from the artisans of Cocciai, Giulio started his own workshop. Drawing from the generations of experience passed on to him he continues to create the traditional patterned terracotta, like many of the plates we use for breakfast as well as new and modern designs. Antonella, Giulio's wife is especially good at suggesting pieces for Giulio to decorate which fit in as accents to modern tableware  as well.

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

To Every Season--

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

Uno, Due, Tre, "Masterchef !!!!!" (applausi)

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. .

Now,  pressed close together, the hotel staff had long ago shuffled everyone from the lobby outside to the island across from the main entrance . We stood packed together, shoulder to shoulder, clutching  insulated food bags, styrofoam ice chests, picnic baskets, portable battery run refrigerators, plain old grocery bags. Before leaving Cortona the evening before, I had  nestled the little "nuggets of me" in glass bowls, frozen, wrapped and bubble wrapped in an insulated bag along with a jar of frozen broth for my dish ; I'd carefully packed them into a small wheeled shopping bag, and,  to be on the safe side I packed 2 of each dumpling so I had spares, the Girl Scout instinct dies hard.

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 now on June 11, 2014 these are the things I know for sure. I know I can cook, I know I can dream and I know that there are many more people who believe in me than don't.

And I'm still counting on Karen...

* My bag which has star potential---keep your eyes open for it!


sabato 7 giugno 2014

Me on a plate

For those of you who follow Masterchef, whether the US, UK, Australia or Italia versions, one of the recurring questions posed to contestants is "what  dish represents you on a plate?" As I was planning the dish I would present at my audition in Rome, this question really stuck out in my mind. Besides something that would be as delicious as possible re-warmed, I wanted to be sure that it "represented me on a plate".

 I tossed around many ideas in my head, it was Monday evening and I would have to depart for Rome on Friday. Whatever I brought would have to hold up to the trip and  wait to be re-warmed the following day. I called my high school friend and confidante of nearly 40 years Carmen, to share the news and see what she might think. We both like to believe we share a spark of psychic ability which flares into an illuminating light every now and then when we are together. At the end of our phone conversation we both thought the same thing- duck. Why duck?  And so duck became the springboard to the creation of me on a plate. It also meant that it had to be ordered from the butchers' and not available until Thursday.

My early years in Cortona, especially the first year, was one of discovery; of the country, the people and most importantly myself.  It had been probably the most significant leap of faith I've ever taken when I decided to follow that gut feeling and stay in Cortona after my study abroad experience here ended, without a plan, against all common sense. What better inspiration than my beginnings here?

I decided that an Asian style soup dumpling would travel and heat well, but I wanted  them to contain my Italian experiences. I decided to create a triptych of original dumplings which would be pre-cooked in broth, presented dry,  each one garnished in a small bowl with various herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruit chosen to complement each one. At the time of serving, I would pour hot broth from a tea pot over each dumpling, letting the garnishes infuse the broth to complement each dumpling-or at least this was the  idea.

Dumpling 1- "O Mare Mio"  Oh Sea of Mine... a scallop and shrimp filled  dumpling . I  rolled out the wrapper dough layered wtih small,  whole parsley leaves - Translucent when cooked so the pink shrimp and scallop coral filling was visible. It's crescent shape curved to resemble the crustacean inside. Garnished with grated fresh ginger, thinly sliced green onion threads and parsley leaves it was probably the most traditional tasting and represented my nostalgia for  my home town, San Francisco's seafood. Of course if available, I would have stuffed it with dungeness crab.

Dumpling 2. " Un ricordo di Janna" - A Memory of Janna  was a dumpling that told the story of a spring day with my Russian/American apartment mate for a time in Cortona. We could pay the rent, but our pantry was pretty bare. We would take long walks all around the city, up to the fortress to pass our days  One early spring day we were walking in a meadow below the fortress and found it to be filled with sweet smelling wild mushrooms. Janna  was certain they were edible. We started gathering as many as we could, we didn't have a basket so she took off her black velvet wrap (it was 1986 and she was rocking Madonna)  we filled that then we both gathered more into the folds of our long skirts. All the while I interrogated her - How do you know they are edible? "My grandfather always took me mushroom hunting." - "In the US?" "No, in Russia." "But didn't you say you immigrated to the US when you were 9 ??!!"  I refused to eat any until we brought specimens to the local bar/pizzeria where I'd washed dishes and waited tables to be examined and a verdict could be given. The usual afternoon clatch of  card players gathered around to view our spoils, some were fungaioli  (mushroom hunters) but a bit unwilling to pass judgement on any mushroom which wasn't a porcino. Claudio, a county police officer and mushroom enthusiast dropped by to visit his sister, the owner of the bar and pronounced them edible, Brumani gentili he told us. A triumphant Janna quickly gave me instructions on how to prepare them in a casserole with potatoes as they did when she was a child in Kiev.
I wanted to capture this day and  my fond memory of Janna in this dumpling. I prepared the noodle wrapper with a smattering of poppy seeds and enclosed a filling of brumani mushrooms procured for me by friend Chef Matteo Sciarri, chopped savoy cabbage and chinese dried cloud ear (mook yi) mushrooms. This one I garnished with finely julienned borage leaves ,  a few of the miniscule, bright periwinkle borage flowers and  fragrant fresh thyme leaves. I sealed the dumpling with a series of pleats to form a round dumpling with a small top knot.

Dumpling 3 " Odo ad Otello" Ode to Othello . An ill- fated duckling was the inspiration for my final and what I feel was the most successful dumpling. Filled with  duck meat roasted in  porchetta spices and sauteed finely diced apple and fennel bulb.

 Porchetta spices in this small corner of  Tuscany/ Umbria is unique from any other place.  A blend of fennel flowers or pollen , is chopped finely with garlic salt and pepper and a bit of rosemary. This spice blend is used on the whole deboned roast pig sold at market stands, on duck and rabbit and on the large Regina carp caught in the Trasimeno lake.  Moving to the west or north the blend of spices changes- the rosemary increases and the fennel flower disappears. I wanted to use this distinctly Cortonese flavor in my last dumpling. I pleated along both sides bringing them together in the middle to form a leaf shape. I decided the garnish would be fine matchsticks of apple and fennel bulb with a few airy fronds of fennel leaves. I took the skin from the neck and made it  crunchy crispy  to add as the final touch of garnish.

My first winter in Cortona I found housing  3 1/2 kilometers outside the city at the farmhouse of a German family. In lieu of rent I found myself the custodian and caretaker of  4 hens, 2 ducks, 7 penned geese and their pet crow Iago. Prior to their departure to winter in Germany I was given instructions in their very rudimentary and broken Italian. My Italian linquistic skills at the time were pretty much at the same level but in some way I understood that the free range animals were to be accompanied to their stall every evening, the light left on in the chicken coop for a few hours after dark, then they were to be  released in the morning. The mean, hissing and frightening geese were to be fed every day.Iago's cage was to be put out in the morning and taken in at night. I had a small electric water heater which held 10 liters of water for showering and for heat I had a wood burning stove in their studio guesthouse which I would need to buy coke fuel for or I could (or so I understood) cut wood to use in the stove. I saw more snow that winter than in all of the  28 years I have lived in Cortona.

I woke each morning and let the ducks and chickens out of their stall. I went to feed the hissing geese and took Iago's cage into the courtyard between the main house and my guest house. I washed up with ten seconds of warm then freezing cold water, cut wood if neccessary for the evening fire, then started the 1 hour walk towards Cortona to have a hot lunch in exchage for dish washing and waiting tables at the pizzeria/bar. Not too long after lunch, before it got dark,  I would walk back to the farm, for nearly two weeks  that winter there was snow on the ground which made it a difficult yet beautiful walk.. Not having children to torture with this tale of my character building past  has become a deep regret.

As you can imagine this San Francisco raised girl  had little experience in raising livestock. After a few days, I came back from town to find that one of the ducks was on it's back in the stall. I knew enough to surmise that this was not right. I took him into the house, found a box, wrapped him in a towel and stoked up the stove to keep him warm. I made a mush of water and feed  which I hand fed him through the night, sleeping close by. He was still alive the next day and looked a bit perkier. That morning  the German family's neighbor, Signora Ida came to visit. She had been told that I would be staying there alone and she had come by to check and see how I was doing. Her visit  pleased me, most of all I was anxious for her expertise in caring for the sick duckling.  I showed her the little creature, and anxiously strained my brain to comprehend her advice in caring for  him. "There's only one thing you can do..." Yes, tell me, tell me... "take it over by the side of the road over there"  hmm - is there some special medicinal plant there? I wondered..."Then take it by its leg...." she circled her arm over her head " and throw it as far away as you can" Noooooo!  I was horrified! Uh thank you ,  I think I'll see if he gets better first.  As she bid me farewell she repeated her advice "It's the only thing to do."

This horrifying thought was put out of my head later that day when a dark blue Giulietta pulled into the courtyard. My friend Alessandra pulled up and stepped out, her Doc Martens crunching into a leftover patch of snow. She had come to accompany me to the discotech near Arezzo where I made a little cash by running the coat check. Alex looked over the runt duckling who was starting to move around a little more. As the crow was named Iago, she decided that the duck should be called Othello.

A few days later a call came from Germany- it was the mother of the family - how was I ? Fine, but the duck was not doing too well. What should I do?  Without missing a beat she said "You can make a roast."

And so poor Othello lived on borrowed time. I stayed on with the family another month or so after they came back from Germany. I proudly showed them that Othello was still alive, however they seemed to be more concerned by the fact that Iago had done a disappearing act one day from his cage (never to be found again) and that I had been expected to go out to the woods to find suitable pieces of wood to cut for my stove, not use the dry pieces they had stacked away which were cut to the proper lengths for their stove.
It was clear that it was time to move on when I came back to the farm one afternoon to find a yellow orange pair of  little webbed feet sitting on a sawed off tree stump.

Fast forward to April 11, 2014.  I 've tucked away  these stories of my  Tuscan life into 3 bites or so, hopeful that these little bundles will tell my story, open the conversation for me to tell my story. Open doors to a new part of my story.

- to be continued-

venerdì 6 giugno 2014

La Speranza è l'ultima a morire...

Hope is the last thing to die...
Many friends and family have been following my somewhat cryptic posts on Facebook and wondering what craziness I had involved myself in this time. Well, reluctantly, because that little voice whispering "yes" in the clamour of the sea of "no's" is still just faintly audible in my head; I'll reveal to all what many already know.

For a tortuously never-ending, brief  49 days I was a candidate in the final selection for the cast of Masterchef Italia season 4.  At the encouragement of guest and now friend, Chef Peg Schaefer, I filled out the online application to participate in the show. I'd  announced to Luciano my intention, what I was doing, bit by bit, blow by blow and he'd interupted his evening television viewing just a long enough  to reply with a sarcastic smirk or chuckle. "Hey! I 'm pushing the send button- I'm applying!" met with the patronizing " Yeah, yeah- push the button (ha ha ha)."

After an aborted first attempt, I filled it out again and attached the only photo I had of myself that was recent, the profile pic from Facebook. I sorted through the various photos of food I had posted on my page, mainly pastries and cakes from breakfast, but I had  recently ventured into rediscovering some of the flavors of my Cantonese Chinese-American roots, so I had a few pictures of  some typical dishes as well.  After reflecting on  which of the photos showcased my familiarity with various cooking techniques;  I selected some chocolate easter eggs I had made (naturally with poodle decorations), a birthday cake decorated with buttercream roses and two bowls of wonton soup. I discarded the gingerbread houses, might seem too crafty I feared. I attached and sent it all away, Date:  March 30th.

April 3rd, ( had it been April 1st  I would have been sure it was a joke)  the cellphone rang on my way to the grocery store..."Hello, this is Francesca from Masterchef , I am calling you about your application. Can you talk?"---"I'm on my way grocery shopping but I can talk a while" appointment was made for the next day instead for a phone interview...the first day which  transported me back nearly 40 years in time,  the years of adolescent angst when life's meaning hanged in the balance of a telephone call.

April 4th, 5:30 pm- the phone rang. "Hello!"
Concern was expressed about my profession, I run a bed and breakfast and taping would take place between May and July, lodging in Milan would be provided, could I, would I be able to be away from my business that long? a bit of waffling on my part- "do you need to think about it?" "No, we'll make it work."
A few more confirmations of the information previously sent, discussion of my food pics. A bit scarce in the "plating" department. Would it be possible for me to plate some of my food this weekend and send pictures? Sure.
Already slightly shell-shocked by the fact that I had actually been called on my way to the grocery store, Luciano started to express his disapproval. Was I crazy? Who would look after the B&B? This would surely  in his mind send the business into a downward spiraling demise. What did I think I was doing?

It was one of those moments in my life when I didn't quite know what I was doing but gut instinct told me it was the right thing to do. After 24 years, 10 months and 13 days of marriage my husband and I had come upon an obstacle which was "non-negotialble". Continuing on this journey was something I had to do.

Over the weekend he grudgingly ate pappardelle with ragu, which had been twirled and mounded just so, presented on enormous presentation worthy plates, primped-up and fawned over, and of course, photo documented before they were to be eaten. Homemade ravioli with asparagus sauce, a grilled pork chop with peperonata. I fretted as I had done my shopping for food before the plated food request had been made and I had to make due with what I had in the fridge. All the plates had that hearty trattoria look to them rather than the elegant, ethereal ristorante presence which made me worry. The chocolate  lava cake with strawberry coulis and whipped cream looked dainty enough- so I sent off the photos Sunday night. Overtaken with doubt the next morning I snapped a quick picture of strawberry waffles and bacon and eggs I had prepared for a guest and sent those off as well.

Late that  afternoon I received the call. Congratulations! you have been selected to participate in a pre-selection of candidates for the transmission. Please come to Rome on Saturday. We start at 8 am but be there early because we will be handing out numbers ahead of time. Bring your dish fully cooked and you will have only a microwave available to prepare your food, you may bring a friend if you like. OK-

My mom taught me to dream and dream big, there was no way at 52 nearly  53 , I could let this train pass me by and so I grabbed on tight  bracing myself for the ride. I needed to come up with a plan which could maybe put my husband's mind at ease.  As I tried to piece together a plan A, just in case I actually went forward, I was pleased as our best friend the retired baker was encouraging and said not to worry, he would take over homemade baked goods. My friend who had been practicing English conversation with me offered to take over breakfast service duty to help English speaking guests , and the few close confidantes  with whom I shared the news of the journey I was embarking upon all cheered me on and encouraged me. Should this impossible dream become a reality, I knew I had a village of people who had my back.

I  became more and more convinced that my participation was destined to be. After 20 years, I remembered a session with a psychic in Berkeley, California, Karen Lundegaard.  Karen had made a number of predictions about my life here in Italy. All had come true except one which I thought far-fetched at the time " I see you cooking on television". She had forseen the success of Frances Mayes still unwrtitten book, she'd predicted the spotlight it would cast on Cortona, she had seen my  15 year career as a tour director specifically working with university alumni, people who would become important in my life-why couldn't her last prediction for me come true?

I had 6 days  to plan a dish, find a hotel, and the courage to believe in my dream.

(to be continued...)