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...)