Saturday, November 13, 2010

Leaving Beautiful Italy

Our last few days in Italy were spent delaying the inevitable. After 6 glorious weeks in this incredible country, we were definitely not ready to leave. If the weather was not significantly deteriorating (being November), we may have just found a way to stay. Italy made us swoon, but not only that…’s the number one country we had visited that made us feel completely at home and more relaxed than we had ever felt before. We loved the food (of course), the people, the landscape, the architecture, the character…..actually, it is pretty hard to think of anything about Italy that we didn’t fall in love with. Ok, so we had a little hiccup with our car being broken into, but thankfully we had nothing stolen and we were on our way to get that fixed. Besides, the glad wrap was doing a perfect job of performing a substitute window role.

Our last few days in the country were spent driving from Cinque Terre along the coast to France. We spent a night in Ravallo, where we sought ideas from locals about where we would be blown away by our last meal in Italy. The recommendation certainly didn’t disappoint and we gorged ourselves a little silly despite not having the appetite to match.
We also had the opportunity to wander around the stunning village of Portofino with its famous postcard layout of pastel houses in a row, lining the water’s edge. It was here that we saw the extent of the storm devastation along the coastline, with a huge amount of debris floating on the water and tired ducks that had obviously been injured trying to wade through it to get to dry land. I could tell they were looking for food and I was gutted to not have any bread or access to it with most stores being closed.
The atmosphere of the Italian coast was definitely dying down, with many stores and tourist oriented businesses closed for the season. We did enjoy the fact that there were very few tourists around, but we could also tell why… was really starting to get chilly now. As we drove across the Italian/French border the following day, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears because we were saying goodbye to probably the best time of our lives thus far. I suspect we will have an attachment to Italy for the remainder.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Pastel Stacked Houses and the Slow Life in Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, translated as ‘Five Villages’ is up there with the most stunning stretch of coastline in the world I’m sure. It is mind baffling how these little villages of pastel houses have been built, piled on top of each other along the cliff face. No cars are allowed inside these villages because the houses are packed so tightly that there is only room for alleys and laneways. We wondered, not only how these houses were built like this, but how materials, furniture and items needed for every day living are transported and delivered locally. What we discovered, is that the locals here do life at a much slower pace and they seem to prefer it that way. We saw the odd piaggio (mini 3 wheeler ute), but other than that, it was men towing carts by foot and old fashioned baskets in arms. The locals in this part of the world are extremely active and appear to do so much more by hand than we could possibly imagine doing in our own technologically advanced society here in Australia. We watched fisherman as they finished up for the day, mooring their small boats and emptying their day’s catch from their nets into their big blue buckets. It was also fascinating to see two builders at work, one lowering rubble to the other down below from two or three levels above using a bucket and rope. Both guys were sweating profusely and it made me think about how good this work would be for their fitness. I wondered if we had lost so many opportunities for good health and fitness in our own culture, simply because of our use of machines and technology. Moreover, in a world that is forced to slow down simply because of the landscape, it really did seem to be a good thing – that maybe life could be somehow appreciated more. We have begun to openly question our own society where it seems that convenience, ‘efficiency’ and productivity are highly valued. In our endeavour to make life more convenient though, have we instead made it more complicated? Have we really freed up our time with all our technological advancements, or do we just fill our lives with more commitments and obligations? We have and are continuing to learn so much about simplicity from the Italian way of life.

The stunning village of Rio Maggiore

Fisherman in Rio Maggiore 

Lover's Lane

Just before we had arrived in Cinque Terre, a severe storm had battered the coastline and significant land slides resulted. No homes were lost that we know of, but part of the very famous walkway between the five villages had been severely damaged. The number one activity on our list while in the area was to do this beautiful walk and I was looking forward to challenging myself with the significant hike up and down the mountain sides.  Despite missing out on the complete 5km walk, a small section of the path was still open, otherwise known as ‘Lover’s Lane’. The path sweeped around from the last village – Rio Maggiore, following closely to the cliff edge. Although the day had been quite gloomy, we arrived in time for the most spectacular sunset and we no longer felt like we had missed out on anything. I also discovered that I had not escaped the fitness challenge because there were enough stairs and steep slopes in all five of these villages to give anyone a run for their money. 

Lover's Lane

The beautiful sunset

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Food Experience That Exceeded Them All

Not only did we visit Parma, Modena and Bologna with a car enthusiast agenda, but also to savour the  culinary pleasures that the Emilia-Romagna region is famous for. We were on the home turf of balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese and prosciutto, knowing that we would be eating well, but not really grasping how well. The night we arrived in the region, we searched out the highest quality prosciutto (culatello) and at 92 Euros a kilo, it tasted beyond amazing – so soft to chew and gliding down the throat like a piece of butter. Four paper thin slices for 4 Euros did not last long, but the experience was worth every cent! We sampled 30 year old aged balsamic which was like no other balsamic that we had tasted and huge chunks of parmesan cheese that was almost too good to grate.

Although every mouthful of food that we consumed in Parma was incredible, we almost had to bow at the feet of the staff and owners of ‘Trattoria de Tribunale’. True to my form, I had researched the best place to eat while in Parma, but was hoping for something with a little extra pizzazz to do justice to Tim’s 30th birthday celebration. We stepped inside the door of this very rustic restaurant and immediately felt at home, with its warm atmosphere, stone walls, low ceilings and cured meats hanging on display. Guided to the perfect table, in full view of the chefs working their craft, we glanced at the menu and realized we didn’t have much chance at deciphering the very detailed Italian descriptions. Feeling slack, we requested a menu in English and were pleased to have one placed in front of us. The service was impeccable and we ordered several dishes based on our waiter’s recommendation. Whilst every dish was beyond wonderful, I will spare you from a description of each mouthful. What I do have to tell you though, is that if you want to eat pasta that exceeds your wildest dreams, you need to eat at Trattoria de Tribunale in Parma. Tim and I have decided that the only way to describe our experience that evening is ‘orgasmic’! Upon savouring every bite, we could utter no words, but muster only groans, ooooh’s and ahhhhh’s. We had very obviously died and gone to pasta heaven! Lol! The texture and flavour of this pasta had exceeded any other pasta we had eaten in Italy and we sat there trying to work out how it had been perfected. We knew that Italians pride themselves on using quality ingredients, but this was simply ridiculous! It was definitely one of the culinary highlights, not only of our trip, but of our lives!
Trattoria Del Tribunale

The orgasmic Culatello Tagliolini

The best proscuitto ever!

Ravioli to die for

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Behind the wheel of a Ferrari

Ever since deciding to travel, on the top of my ‘must do list’ was to visit all my favourite car and motorcycle factories in Europe! What can I say, I’m a big kid and I can’t help myself. I had all the big names lined up - Ducati, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Pagani. I knew Sal was pretty unimpressed about enduring several factories, but thankfully she happily tolerated it all considering it was my 30th birthday. As I enquired about appointments and bookings, I was disappointed to learn that the Ducati and Lamborghini factories were closed due to maintenance or refit. Nevertheless I was determined to at least see the museums. I also discovered that unless you own a Ferrari or are a legitimate buyer, you won’t even get a look within their factory. Unfortunately, being an owner of a matchbox Ferrari didn’t count.

It was the day before my birthday and Ducati was up first. As usual we ended up running late and managed to miss the English speaking tour by two minutes. My stress levels rose and in pure discouragement I hung my head and walked off, leaving Sal to wrap up the conversation about how unfair it was that we couldn’t participate in the tour 2 minutes after it began. As I walked back to the car feeling sorry for myself, I actually remembered that when I made the tour appointment I was told to be there early….. doh!

Dusting myself off we proceeded to the Ferrari museum. Outside stood many pretty Italian women convincing us to drive a supercar but I of course remained cool, calm and collected. Of course I wanted to drive one, but I wasn’t really sure what Sal thought about it….I decided to sit on it for a bit. Browsing the museum, impressed with what I saw, I realized how much I loved the Ferrari story. It didn’t take long to become convinced that I needed to take one for a spin and this was definitely a legitimate 30th birthday present. Approaching the ladies outside the museum I bartered a good price on the best car they had – the Ferrari 458 Italia!

The experience was un-fricking-believable! I could not believe how this car performed. I was in love. Even though I did manage to give it a good run I still needed to be a little conservative as I was driving it on a public road and it had a ‘measly’ pocket change of €10,000 ($14,000) excess if I crashed it.
The following day we went back to the Ducati museum, learning from the previous day’s experience and arriving on time. The tour was great, well informed and I was glad to hear it in English. Feeling happy that I got a second opportunity at Ducati and still elated from the Ferrari experience I was keen to get to the next factory. So off we rushed back to the car only to find broken glass and destroyed door locks! We completely freaked as all our valuables were in the car including our laptop with all our photos and hard drive back ups. It could have been a total disaster and we were pretty stupid to leave that stuff in the car. Lucky our security locks would not allow the doors to be opened and nothing had gone missing. A local bystander was kind enough to help by guiding us to the police station to report the incident. With broken Italian and a game of charades, I managed to get the message across that our car had been broken into. We patched up our window using some glad wrap, intending to get it fixed as soon as possible.

After the drama had settled, we were off to the Lamborghini factory. Upon arrival I was gutted again to find out that not only was the factory closed due to a refit, I could not even visit the museum because it was closed for a private function! I made the most of being at Lamborghini by buying a souvenir, grabbing a quick glance at the museum through the windows and snatching a few photos with their best models displayed in the shop.

I left extremely disappointed about how the whole ‘factory’ experience turned out over the previous couple of days and although not all was achieved, Sal helped to bring some perspective. I was reminded that I got to drive the latest Ferrari and there will be an opportunity to return to Italy again. It ain’t over and I’m not going to let the Italian motor industry beat me. In the end it was a great birthday and I have to be thankful for what I did experience. 


Friday, November 5, 2010

Last Train Out of Florence

After yet another beautiful meal in the city of Florence, we decided to go for a stroll and headed toward Palazzo Vecchio. Knowing that our last train was just before midnight, we grabbed a quick Italian hot chocolate with the intention of making our way to the station soon after. The very talented busker strumming his guitar and singing all time classics in the Palazzo however, became an instant distraction. As we stood and listened, the crowd continued to grow, becoming more engaged and involved by the minute. It was the largest group of people we had ever seen surrounding a busker and this guy had me mesmerized. Every couple of minutes, Tim would interrupt my gaze to tell me we should go or we might miss our train. I dragged myself away as I continued to listen to the words of ‘Winds of Change’ by the Scorpions, echoing throughout the Palazzo.

Arriving at the train station, we discovered that the last train to our hotel (45 minutes away), had left over an hour before. Shit!! We searched the timetable to find the next train and saw that it wasn’t until 6am, with no other trains running to anywhere near we needed to be. In a state of flurry and of course taking it out on each other, we tried to find an information booth to speak to someone. All we could find was a Police Officer who thankfully was happy to help us problem solve. He informed us that our only option would be to get a taxi that might cost us in excess of 50-70 Euros. By this time, we had become irritated, to say the least, not wanting to accept we had to pay that much for transport, especially when we had been so diligent with our budgeting. Whilst trying to come to terms with the situation, we were still unconvinced there was no other way. I have no idea why we decided to return to the same Policeman, as if he was going to tell us anything different. Since we had spoken however, he did discover another way……hallelujah! The outcome: We caught a train at 1am to the closest station to our hotel and then paid a 30 Euro taxi fare from there. Not ideal, but a hell of a lot better than the original solution. Collapsing on our hotel bed, emotionally and physically exhausted after a long day, we were reminded again how travelling is often stressful and bloody hard work!  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Learning the Art of Tuscan Cooking

Much to the disgust of other seasoned travelers we met on the road, we chose to neglect several major attractions in Florence including the world famous Ufizzi Art Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David. I guess it didn’t spark our interest as much as learning to cook in a Tuscan kitchen with a Tuscan chef.

As someone who is a little crazy about food, if there was one thing I didn’t want to miss in Italy, it was learning to cook the Italian way. I was even willing to pay the extortionate fees that most cooking schools were asking. It was a score when I discovered classes at half price without any skimping on the quality and we immediately booked ourselves in. We began with a tour of the San Lorenzo food market where our chef teacher guided us through the market stalls, introducing us to the fresh produce and products on offer. The vibrancy and depth of the colours on show as well as products of all shapes and sizes were mesmerizing. It was foodie heaven, until we approached one merchant who proudly sold tripe of all kinds and the occasional cow face. Impressive albeit slightly disgusting. We learned that the Italians make use of almost every animal body part in their cooking and these were also on display. I bordered on the very edge of converting to a vegetarian when a little lamb with its eyelashes still in tact was gutted and beheaded right in front of us. Eeeeewwww!! I guess the meat could not get any fresher!! Apologies to everyone….especially vegetarians who are feeling squirmish after reading this!  

 Mmmm, tripe! Not!

Look at that colour! :-)

After purchasing the ingredients for our class, we returned to the kitchen to prepare our degustation menu of tomato and basil bruschetta, pasta with a roasted vegetable sauce, balsamic glazed meatballs and panacotta with fresh strawberry coulis. The chef meticulously demonstrated the preparation of every ingredient, incorporating a few little secrets and hints about creating authentic dishes. We learned to part cook pasta in boiling water and then complete the cooking in the sauce, adding extra water as it softens. This little trick helps the pasta to completely soak up the sauce, instead of sitting on top of the pasta. The result…..a totally different and authentic taste, one that I’ve wanted to create for a while. I will be remembering this one!

Roasted vegetable pasta....delish!

Bruschetta....there's a few secrets in making these good too ;-)

We worked in a group of four to prepare each dish and sitting down to savour our creations was divine! Not only was the food as good as anything we had eaten in Italy, it was even more satisfying to know that we had a hand in perfecting it. So impressed by our experience, all we wanted to do was book into every class that was on offer….realistically, we only had time for one, so we registered for the ‘fresh pasta making’ class.

Waking up super keen and wanting to get to our next class early, we decided to drive the car into Florence, which from where we were staying was about half an hour. What we weren’t prepared for was any kind of drama, especially since Tim was obviously confident about where he was going. Walking for about twenty minutes I began doubting we were in any vicinity to the cooking school, but upon reviewing the map again, Tim assured me we were not far away. By this time, the class had started, we were fifteen minutes late and I was irritated to say the least. After studying the map together again, what we realized was we had been walking in the completely opposite direction for about two kilometers!! Ok, now I was infuriated! We caused a big scene on the side of the road, classic Italian style, with my meltdown over the likelihood of missing the class and Tim with his meltdown over getting the directions completely wrong. Then, in true hero style, Tim’s problem solving hat went into overdrive and he managed to spot a taxi sitting on the street corner. We jumped in and in broken Italian we directed the driver to where we needed to go and waved our hands around to gesture ‘get us there fast’! Arriving half an hour late, a little hot and sweaty, we really hadn’t missed much and our chef happily took us aside to help us make our pasta dough. I couldn’t be annoyed at the situation anymore or at Tim, who couldn’t have been more sorry about stuffing up the directions. We are all human after all.

Although I don’t mind eating dried, packet pasta, there is really no comparison to freshly made pasta and it was a treat to learn the art of making it. To prepare a good freshly made pasta, it’s all about the tools and letting the dough rest before using it. A very useful device in the Italian kitchen is a pasta making machine which flattens the dough and can also cut it according to the type of pasta you want to make. Of course these processes can all be done with a rolling pin and a knife, but the pasta maker speeds up the process. With dough that ended up over a metre long, it was a lot of fun to keep it in tact, but we managed to succeed in making tagliatelle and spaghetti. It seemed that we had a knack for it and even Tim’s enthusiasm peaked with the use of a new gadget. With minimal use of the pasta maker, we also learned how to make ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. Just as important as the pasta, were the sauces to go with it – ragu (Bolognese), butter and sage, and fresh tomato and basil. All so simple but so delicious!

Making being back in kindy!

If there is one thing I would recommend everyone do whilst in Italy, especially if you enjoy food, it would be to participate in at least one cooking class. To experience first hand, the love, passion and zeal that Italians have for their cuisine was inspiring. I can’t wait to cook up an Italian storm at home, wherever that may be.