Our first evening at Spannocchia

Domenica, 15 ottobre 2006

Every evening at 7 p.m., there was wine for the guests on the terrace. The first evening, there were appetizers for us – cheese and olives, carrots, and bread. The wines were organic, and those of us who generally can’t drink red wine because of sensitivities to sulfates found to our delight that it did not give us headaches! For the rest of the week, Randy and Wood prepared a fire in the living room for us to gather around, as the temperature became cooler. Watching the sunset from the terrace, sipping a glass of true house wine, as it was made on the premises from their own grapes, was the perfect way to wind down from a wonderful day.

At 7:30, we were called in from this pleasant gathering to the main event: dinner at Spannocchia. On the first night, the feasting was definitely kicked off right. For the primo piatto, pasta con melanzane (pasta with eggplants). Sandy is not usually crazy about eggplant and he loved it. I’m glad I have the recipe, because I already loved eggplant. The secondo piatto was cervo (venison) with apples, with a contorno (side dish) of sweet braised cavolo (cabbage). This may have been my favorite meal at Spannocchia, but it would be tough to choose from all the competition for the honor. The secondo is always followed by a simple insalata (salad). Most of the food served at Spannocchia is grown or raised there. Occasionally I saw the food in the garden that I would be served later in the week.

The dolce (dessert) was seasonal and special. A traditional harvest dish, schiacciata all ‘uva is made with whole grapes, including the seeds. The result is a combination of sensations – sweet and tart, creamy and crunchy, in other words, delicious. Note the wall in the back of this photo. There were places on the back wall of the dining room where outcrops of the underlying rock either stuck out or were plastered over, making a very rustic and uneven wall.

After a short class meeting in the living room, we collapsed into our bed, covered with a thick down comforter. Ahhhhh, I thought. How will I ever leave this place?

To be continued…


La Tenuta di Spannocchia

Sunday, 15 ottobre 2006

After we all unpacked and settled into our rooms, Charlie took us for a walking tour through part of the estate. The Cinelli family, which has owned this land since the 1930s, decided to do their best not only to maintain the preservation of its history, but to return the land to its organic agricultural roots, making its systems as sustainable as possible. Agrotourism has proved to be quite helpful in raising income, but it is far from a profitable venture. It has been a huge task for Francesca Cinelli Stratton and her husband, Randall.

We first veered off the road into one of the olive orchards, which had a line of beehives at the back. Unfortunately, the olives weren’t quite ready for harvest, but Charlie fooled a couple of people into tasting them. Spannocchia did not have any olive oil for sale, but it uses the oil that it produces and supplements it with oil from other farms in the area. Teresa (right) did her project on olive and oil production.

Because of the marble, Italians call the unpaved roads of this region “white roads.” We ambled downhill on a stone-wall lined road, completely in awe of the scenery around us. There was the scent of wild mint and wild fennel permeating the air, and wildflowers and herbs all around our feet. Looking up and back, we were greeted by a grand view of Spannocchia (at top).

Then we walked through a gate into a vineyard, where the San Giovese grape harvest had just finished only a week before. There were some bunches of grapes on the ground at the ends of the rows, and we all had a taste. At the edge of the vineyard we walked along a row of fruit trees and suddenly I had a strong multi-sensual memory of the road leading up to my grandfather’s South Carolina farm, where he grew several kinds of fruit trees and a grapevined fence along a sandy road. My entire soul felt full – I don’t know how else to describe it.

On the other side of this road, leading up to one of the rental houses on the estate, a herd of sheep had been let into one of the harvested vineyards to graze. Later, an intern shepherdess led them into their safe haven for the evening.

This truly was a fairy tale place.

To be continued…


A room with a view

Sunday, 15 ottobre 2006

When we all got on the bus that would take us to Spannocchia for the next week, it was the first time the 14 class members had all been in one spot. Up until then, we had met through Blackboard on the Internet. Not everyone in the group was a student – Sandino and Randy were tagalong spouses, and Shirley was not a part of the official class. But they were all valuable parts of our class activities at Spannocchia. Along with Charlie and Debby, we numbered nineteen.

We arrived at Spannocchia and filled out the paperwork for stranieri (foreigners), then Giuseppe showed us to our rooms. When he opened our door with a skeleton key, we stepped inside and my breath was taken away.

I ran over the polished, uneven brick floors to the two windows, each looking out to a different vista. Leaning out the window that overlooked the farm courtyard, I saw Debby looking up at me, grinning. “How do you like your room?” she sang out.

“Oh my God. Oh my God.” I caught my breath, and my eyes began to fill up with tears. “It is the most beautiful room I have ever seen in my life.”

We had paid for the most inexpensive room, but Charlie and Debby upgraded our room in appreciation of my work for Slow Food. It had its own little bathroom, and although I did not see every room, I suspect that it was the most beautiful bedroom at Spannocchia. Because how could there be one with better views than these?

And people have been enjoying them for 900 years…

To be continued…


The San Giovanni Gang Sees Firenze

Saturday, 14 ottobre 2006

While in the Mercato Centrale, I picked up several items to bring home with me, including a bottle of limoncello, Toscanelli and Borlotti beans, dried porcini mushrooms, and a couple of different varieties of dried pasta.

On the way back to the Hotel, we walked through the huge street market that surrounds the San Lorenzo church area and shopped a bit. Many of the vendors were selling the same merchandise – mostly leather goods and a lot of fake cashmere/silk scarves. I ended up buying an red cloth mirrored shoulder bag made in India, but I liked it better than the fancy leather bags and it was practical. You are expected to negotiate, which I don’t care for, and I am a terrible skeptic about anyone trying to sell me anything so shopping in these markets was not my cup of tea.

One thing I noticed about Florence was that anywhere that catered to tourists was penis-crazy, due to all the nude statues. There were lots of aprons and boxer shorts that had prints of just David’s torso or genitalia and even bags of penis-shaped pasta. This got old quickly and I found myself silently telling everybody to grow up. I’m not a prude, but reducing David to a penis joke at every corner was not so funny after seeing the real thing.

At the Hotel San Giovanni, we were joined by Shirley and Teresa for an afternoon of strolling around Firenze. Some of the others were spending their day seeing the famous museums, and Rosemary opted for a walk in the Boboli Gardens. Our plan was to find a certain street that Charlie recommended and have lunch at a rosticceria there. On the way, we stopped in the Piazza dell Signoria, which was the next best place to go if you were missing the museums, to get our bearings and to take in the crowds. Two sets of brides and grooms came to the Loggia di Lanzi to get their photographs made. I didn’t notice the bride, who looks like she’s getting ready to throw her bouquet, in the photo above until I got home.

Then Sandino insisted that we pose with Cupid, one of the living statues in the Uffizi courtyard, for a photo.

Rosticceria di Fedra e Daniele was very small and there were no seats available, which was a problem for me with my foot misery. Teresa bugged out because she only had one day in Firenze and was eager to explore and shop on her own (I would’ve done the same!). Just after she left, a table became free and we had a great, inexpensive lunch. The rosticceria has a display case like a deli – you pick out what you want and they bring it to the table. Sandino and I both had pesce (fish) with a tomato sauce – I had carciofi (artichokes) and he had peas and potatoes for sides. Deb was thrilled with her porcini mushrooms, which she discovered were flavored with an herb called nepitelle from friendly Fedra. Later we would find that this herb grew wild all over Spannocchia. Across the street (Via di’ Neri) they operate All’antico Vinaio, when you can sample wine for two euros per glass.

We wandered over the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palazzo, where we ate our overpriced pistachio gelati sitting on the low wall next to the street, and headed back by way of Santa Croce. By this time I was truly suffering and begged everyone to leave me behind, but they wouldn’t! When we stopped at a thrift store on a back street, there was a little shoe store next door, and I went in and bought a pair of walking shoes. I was embarrassed that I had been reduced to wearing my ratty old sneakers that I brought to wear on the farm, since I’ve read that Americans are immediately identified by their athletic shoes and their weight in Italy. These 25 euro shoes turned out to be my favorite purchase in Italy. With a couple of heel inserts, I had much less pain, and I felt less self-conscious. I don’t know what I was thinking to bring only clogs and sandals.

I stopped at a glass and crystal artist’s shop on the way back, and broke my rule about buying any more little glass birds. I used to collect glass paperweights, and stopped in my effort to simplify and collect less dust. Funny, I like birds when they are glass, or at least five feet away from me.

That evening with Deb and Randy, we went out to Trattoria di Botticello, one of the outdoor trattorias that we passed the night before. This place had an English tourist menu that included a primi, secondo, and side dish with a few Americanized dishes for twelve euros. The waiter here seemed to understand and accommodate Americans without being condescending. I went off the tourist menu, wanting a more authentic Italian experience, and they ended up charging me the same lower price. It balanced out some of our more negative food bill experiences, and I was grateful for that. Plus, the ravioli con neci (with nut cream sauce) and scallopini di porcini (veal with porcini mushrooms) was delicious! So now I can tell Dr. Melton that I had the veal. There was a little trio of accordion, violin, and saxophone playing on the square and it seemed so…Italian.

I slept fitfully that night, and when I slept I dreamt of packing. So I rose early, packed, and Sandy and I ordered breakfast in our room – croissants, coffee and orange juice. We went back to the San Lorenzo Market again, for Sandy to buy a chess set and I bought a couple of scarves for presents. (There was one very important thing that I forgot to buy while I was in Florence – guess what it was.) Then eight of the nine San Giovanni Gang members left for the airport together in two taxis, where we would meet our bus for Spannocchia. The second taxi passed the first, and charged its passengers 10 euros more than ours. We figured that was why he wanted to get there first, so he’d be leaving by the time we compared fares.

The airport food was the opposite of Greensboro airport food – actually quite good and reasonably priced. You could get a panini sandwich with prosciutto and formaggio for less than 4 euros. A plain hot dog, however, was offered starting at 4.50 and more for condiments, for those who missed outrageous U.S. airport cuisine, I guess.

We wouldn’t have to worry much about what to eat for the next week though…

To be continued…


Il Mercato Centrale

This was one of my favorite places, as you might imagine. Deb and Randy, who are organic farmers on Randy’s grandfather’s farm, a Greensboro farm that is surrounded by subdivisions, accompanied us to Florence’s most famous food market. There are others that the locals frequent, I hear, and those will have to wait for the next time I visit Firenze.

We arose with dismay (at least in my case) at 10 a.m. The next time I travel, I’m definitely packing an alarm clock. But Deb and Randy had a breakfast delivered to their room and they were fine with our slow start to the day.

The Mercato Centrale is in a large building with more permanent vendors and cafes on the first floor and farmers on the second floor. This is the kind of market we hope to have in Greensboro one day, and Deb and Randy are ready to plan for it! We had a bite to eat at a cafe there, and I wandered around in bliss, snapping as many photos as I could. I could have easily spent several more hours in this market, and if it was not for worrying about refrigeration and customs, I could have gone deeply into debt.

Shall we go in?

You could buy all kinds of fresh seafood at the Mercato Centrale.

If I could have taken this cheese through my trip and then home, I would have emptied my bank account.

That is not somebody’s laundry in the case. It’s tripe.

I think that there must have been every kind of dried fruit imaginable here.

Real whole food.

Pasta and baked goods at a booth in the Mercato Centrale.

My memories are haunted by the cheese I left behind…

Clementines from Spain.

Italy, Marvelous meals

Osteria Pepò

Friday, 13 ottobre 2006

We limped back to the Hotel San Giovanni, where we found that several of our compadres had arrived. Judy had been there since Monday, navigating and exploring on her own. Deb and Randy, Sandy B, Shirley, Teresa, and Rosemary arrived while we were statue-gazing. Six of us decided to strike out for a restaurant called Mario’s that Charlie and Rick Steves had recommended as a good, cheap place to eat, but it was closed. An older American couple walked by us and recommended the place next to it, where they were headed, so we followed. From the left, clockwise, Laurie, Sandy B, Judy, our waiter, Deb, and Randy. This was our first real Italian meal at the Osteria Pepò, via di Rosino.

We were treated well and with patience, since none of us were used to the Italian customs of eating out. Sandy B was a vegetarian, not an easy choice in Italy, and of the six of us she had the most European experience, in Germany. We decided to called my Sandy “Sandino” – a nickname he has had as long as I’ve known him so it was especially appropriate for this trip.

First the waiter brought us a bottle of Prosecco on the house, and I ordered a bottle of Chianti Classico Machiavelli, simply because I thought the name was funny, but they were out and the waiter brought a bottle of Chianti Classico Le Lame for the same price. Very good. I could have gone for another bottle but this was not a partying crowd – plus they were as exhausted as we were the first day.

We didn’t order all the courses. Deb and I had crema di zucca con crostini e formaggio (a creamy pumpkin soup). Randy had a spicy beef dish, Sandy had spaghetti alle vongole veraci (spaghetti with clams), and I had filetto di maiale profumato al tartufo, pork with a truffle-scented sauce. I had decided not to restrict my food choices on this trip, but I did want to try to eat seasonably if possible. I knew that truffles and porcini mushrooms were in season. The sauce was actually made with an essence of truffles so I’m still not sure what truffles taste like. The pork was incredibly tender and the sauce was delicious and creamy. I bought a small bottle of truffle oil to bring back home with me later in the hopes that I might recreate this with some local pork this winter.

Sandy and I still had room for dolce, since we had had a very light day of meals. We had the tortine al cioccolato and another custard-like dish, the name of which I forgot to write down. They were both great.

Sandy and I agreed as we gazed at the fresco above our bed that night that this was a great crowd to hang out with in Italy. I knew Deb and Teresa from other classes, but for the most part Sandy didn’t know anyone. I was looking forward to the morning, when we would explore the Mercato Centrale, a famous Italian food market, with Deb and Randy.

To be continued…


Museum Day in Firenze

Friday, 13 ottobre 2006

The second day began with a knock on the door at 7 a.m., because we had a reservation for the Accademia at 8:15. We met another American couple in line and compared notes. We were beginning to realize that every other person in Florence was an American, or it seemed that way!

I was there mainly to see The Prisoners, a group of unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo. He worked on a slab of marble from front to back without drawing anything out, freeing the spirit from the stone, so to speak. I was fascinated to see these in transition – but I wasn’t ready for the power of David, which before my visit I considered to be just another thing to tick off a list. I was wrong. You can see the copy in the Piazza dell Signoria for free, but the original David is not to be missed. Framed by an arched dome, he radiates strength and courage as he considers the task before him. If we could only elect a leader with the spirit of David in 2008!

We went to our first Italian coffee shop (bar), and we picked a good one because we weren’t charged extra to sit down and the proprietor was friendly. I was bold enough to order “due caffe latte per favore” and he responded in Italian, at which I was baffled. He laughed in a nice way and switched to English, and we picked out a couple of pastries for breakfast. I think it was good to get away from the area flooded with tourists.

Then we meandered over to the Museo Archeologico, where Sandy’s main interest lay. They had a large Egyptian collection on the second floor, where we were surprised by some mummies in a darkened room that reminded me of the back room of an old country store. Except, you know, with sarcophagi and stuff like that. As we moved into the Etruscan exhibits, I got yelled at for taking this photo of this bronze Chimera (forgot to turn off the flash), which was turned up in a Tuscan farmer’s field. The Chimera has the body of a lion, and the heads of a lion, goat, and snake. Very little is known about the Etruscan civilization except that it was destroyed by the Romans, but its art was beautiful. The third floor, surprisingly, had been remodeled and looked like a modern museum, with many English translations in the exhibits. It moved from Etruscan to Roman and Greek displays, mostly pre-medieval statuary, ceramics, and metalwork. There was a courtyard garden that looked inviting but it was only open on Saturday mornings.

If you ever go to Florence, get reservations for the Accademia and the Uffizi way ahead of time. We barely made it by reserving them through our hotel on Monday afternoon for Friday. By that time we had the choice of only one time for each. I guess that the tour groups book them ahead of time so you could check with them. But the last thing you want to do is stand in line with for hours with a bunch of frustrated tourists, when you’ll be spending more hours on your feet inside. By getting a reserved ticket, we walked right in the “special” line.

We went all the way up the stairs and stepped into Renaissance art heaven. I was especially eager to see Sandro Botticelli’s work, because I have always loved The Birth of Venus. It was so refreshing to see some work that did not have a biblical theme! The Birth of Venus was actually a bit disappointing – it seemed a little washed out to me and maybe I built it up in my head too much. But his other paintings – La Primavera and Pallas and the Centaur knocked me out. We were also able to see the Annunciation by da Vinci and the Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael, as well as a self-portrait of Rembrandt that I remembered copying in an art class at some point in my education.

Now, I love art, but I have to admit here that Sandy outshone me in the Uffizi. By the time I got to the end, I was whining and needed a time-out. Museumed out, I guess. After a while, it was “madonna, madonna, madonna, crucifixion, madonna, annunciation, madonna…” then “painting, painting, painting, statue, where’s a bench?” Just being brutally honest here. But the Uffizi is an amazing, overwhelming repository of beauty. Looking up, there were frescoes on every ceiling and statues and paintings lining every wall. One room’s frescoes depicted smiths and craftsmen working, which pleased me amid all the depictions of wealth. On one end, the wall is made up of windows that overlook the Arno and the other side of Florence. It is worth the price of a ticket for the views from the Uffizi, if nothing else.

So I was grateful to get off my aching feet on the terrace overlooking the heart of Firenze, where we overpaid for a couple of drinks and some truly awful food, and fed little sparrows at our table. Actually Sandy fed the bold little buggers while I had paranoid visions of Alfred Hitchcock. One of them actually sat on his finger and pecked at it. But I was able to take some awesome photographs from this high vantage point.

To be continued…