Tag Archives: Italy

Travel: Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast

In mid April, I traveled with my daughter, Gretchen to Castello di Spannocchia (www.spannochia.com ) – an educational center based on an organic farm in Tuscany, 1,100 acres of forests, pastures, and crops of which 900 acres are harvested for forest products; 130 acres are cultivated for grains, legumes, and animal pasture; and 15 acres are dedicated to grapes, olives, and fruit. In addition to maintaining 800 olive trees and a large vegetable garden, Spannocchia raises local heritage breeds of farm animals and produces regionally-recognized salumi (salt cured pork) products. We were there with 20 others to attend a two-week oil painting workshop led by Stan Mohler (www.stanmoeller.com), our favorite local Seacoast artist. Most of the participants stayed in the Villa, but because Gretchen’s partner Daniel and her five-year old daughter Avery were accompanying us, we opted to rent one of the rustic farmhouses on the property.

We prefaced our workshop by spending three days in Rome to explore Italian history, culture and cuisine. Rome was very crowded and although it was early in the season, there were a lot of tourists and groups of school children everywhere. Notable sights we saw were the Roman Forum, where Caesar and other Roman diplomats conducted business and lived, the Pantheon, actually a place of worship but also an architectural marvel with its unsupported domed ceiling, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and the Coliseum, where the gladiators fought with each other and with animals (apparently it had sawdust on the floor to absorb the blood from these battles).

When we left Rome, we rented a car and drove to Spannochia where we spent the next two weeks receiving instructions in painting techniques from Stan before spending the day outside in front of our easels attempting to capture the magic of an Italian landscape with a brush and a palette of colors. I was by far the least experienced artist there, but it was inspiring none the less. Daniel watched Avery during the day while Gretchen and I painted. They visited the donkeys, pigs, and chickens, shopped for groceries, took walks and naps. We returned to the farmhouse each day to a fabulous meal that Daniel had cooked!

At the conclusion of our workshop, Gretchen, Daniel and Avery headed to Florence and then to the Italian Rivera to explore. I flew down to Naples to meet Craig just as his flight was arriving from Boston. He had been unable to join me on the Amalfi Coast when I did my culinary arts internship in 2007. I was eager to show him the area, where I had lived and worked and to do some hiking, in particular the Sientiera degli Dei, or Path of the Gods, along the cliffs above Positano.

During our two-week stay in Positano (dubbed citta verticale because the city is virtually built on the side of a mountain) we hiked, took a cooking class and visited a buffalo farm where mozzarella is made. Bufala mozzarella is the best in the world and the buffaloes were treated like royalty! They had “showers” each morning, like the veggies in the supermarket are sprayed with water, got massages, listened to classical music, slept on rubber mats and got itchy backs scratched with large brushes like you’d see in a car wash.

Craig and I really enjoyed the cooking class, which was taught by the chefs at our hotel restaurant, Buca di Bacco (www.bucadibaco.it ). We made eggplant parmesan, gnocchi (potato dumplings) with fresh pesto, homemade tomato sauce, pizza, and an almond cake. Then we got to eat lunch and they provided wine and champagne.

One of our hikes was up hundreds of steps to the top of Positano and another was through a valley where there were remains of paper mills.

The city of Amalfi used to be world famous for its rag paper and it was the primary industry in the area. When all the paper mills closed, the area shifted to raising lemons. The Sfusato di Amalfi lemon is h-u-g-e – like a grapefruit and is more fragrant than the lemons we have in the US. Most of it is used to make a liqueur Limoncello, which is served ice cold.

The last hike that we did was 7.8 miles along the ridge of the Lattari Mountains overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The hike took us 6 hours and ended with 1700 steps down to the beach and back to our hotel.

It was an amazing trip!

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Time to Say Goodbye

amalfi-lemons

My Italian had vastly improved, and during lunch service at the restaurant by the pool, I was better at understanding what the guests ordered when the waiters called out the orders to us. The tagliarini with lemon cream sauce was the pasta of the day again and Alessandro let me prepare most of the orders. I remembered how my husband, Craig, liked dinner served on a warmed plate so it wouldn’t cool off quickly and I dipped each serving plate into the hot water in the pasta cooker (like a deep fryer, only filled with circulating hot water) and then dried it with a hand towel before I transferred the pasta and sauce from the pan to the plate. When lunch service ended, I helped straighten up the left over ingredients and covered containers of parsley, chopped tomatoes, lemon zest and minced garlic with clear plastic wrap so they could be returned to the main kitchen. Then I followed Alessandro to the elevator to say good-bye to Chef and change for the bus ride home.

The weather was beautiful outside when I emerged from the hotel restaurant in the afternoon.  I decided to take the ferry back to Positano instead.

When I disembarked at the long public pier, I removed my sandals and walked along the beach letting the gentle waves wash over my feet.  I was looking forward to spending my next day off reading a good book in one of those chaise lounge chairs shaded by big, colorful umbrellas that you can rent by the day.

As I walked through the sand, I found myself again thinking about my life. What is my passion? What brings me the greatest sense of satisfaction? What makes my heart sing?  I didn’t have any qualms about starting a new venture at this stage of my life (you’re only as old as you feel, right?)  I think the most important aspect of my summer experience was the fact that I had been able to decisively choose for myself what I wanted to explore. I enjoyed cooking,, but I decided that I didn’t want to own a restaurant. I wanted to cook at a more leisurely pace over good conversation with family and friends and a glass of wine in one hand. I suddenly realized that my husband and children were my greatest joys. I had traveled half way around the world to search for something meaningful in my life only to discover that I had it all along. The ringing of my cell phone interrupted my thoughts.

“Hello,” said Craig. “Happy 38th wedding anniversary!  I love you, honey. How are things going?”

“Buon anniversario,” I replied in Italian.  “I’m coming home!”

The next morning I dragged my suitcase up the hill to catch the bus to begin the complicated route to Rome, which would require two bus rides, two train rides and a taxi before I reached the airport for my departure flight.

As I sat on the covered stone bench waiting for the first bus to take me from Positano to Sorrento, an old man walked up the road with a heavy plastic shopping bag in his hand.  When he reached me, I said,

Buon Giorno. Che bella.”  (Good Morning.  The weather is beautiful).

Buon Giorno,” he replied with a big grin.  Then he reached a weathered hand into his sack and pulled out one of those huge yellow Amalfi Coast lemons and handed it to me.

Grazie,” I nodded with a smile.  I scratched the skin of the lemon with my fingernail and inhaled the strong, citrus scent. The sky was streaked with pink and blue like a washed-out beach towel and the sun was just beginning to peak around the mountains to the east.  As I watched the old man walk down the hill toward the center of town, I mused It’s going to be another beautiful day in Positano.

Gelato

imageThe Gelateria at Bucca di Baco Ristorante in Positano displayed a rainbow of colors arranged in stainless steel pans in its refrigerated case.  Tourists enjoyed cones and cups of gelato while browsing through the souvenir shops and watching the plein air artists paint the Duomo (church) by the beach or the fishing boats resting on the sand.

Gelato is the Italian version of ice cream, except that it is lower in fat and cholesterol than ice cream. It has 2-8% fat versus the 15-30% fat in traditional ice cream. Gelato uses the freshest ingredients—milk rather than cream, eggs, and natural flavorings. It is very dense because it has less air whipped into it than does ice cream, and therefore has very intense flavors: pistachio, hazelnut, lemon, strawberry, chocolate, tiramisu, mango, peach.  Gelato must also be served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream so it is soft enough to scoop because it is so dense.