Countdown to Departure from Italy. 22 Days to Go.

It’s no baloney, mortadella is something we will definitely miss when we leave Arezzo.

It bears a resemblance to our American Oscar Mayer type variety, but make no mistake, the Italian version is much richer, tastier and, I think, purer.   Lulu’s refined tastes go even further.  She often says, as she gets a free sample of the Italian sausage from our favorite butcher in town, “It’s not mortadella, if it’s not Alfredo’s mortadella.”

Lulu and Alfredo - and the mortadella!
Lulu and Alfredo – and the mortadella!

You can find mortadella and its delicious piggy sausage cousins, like salami and finocchiona – and this eye-catching and full-bodied roasted and stuffed suckling-pig known as porchetta throughout Tuscany.

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It took me a while to get used to being, er, face, to face – leg or snout – with so much meat.  In fact, seeing the sequoia- sized logs of pork – like this photo I snapped yesterday at our supermarket –

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– prompted me to write the following essay – as excerpted from my book about our adventures here in Tuscany, Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me. 

So, the day we walked into our supermercato and saw the grand-daddy of all salumi on display, I’m not exactly sure if it might also have been from the subset, salami, but Lulu and I agreed, it was HUGE.

To better paint this image, let me explain that I like to call this store “the Disco,” because invariably there is some old dance party music thumping through its stereo system. And on this particular day, “Super Freak” greeted us as the automatic glass doors slid open.

“She’s a very kinky girl. The kind you don’t take home to mother”

 Lulu was laughing as I began bopping and singing along with Rick James while I pushed our cart.  We first arrived at the pasta and bread aisles.

“She will never let your spirits down. Once you get her off the street”

Then we turned the corner to the fresh produce area to select some veggies.

She’s all right, she’s all right, That girl’s all right, with me, yeah”

And then.  Then it happened.  We rounded into our final stop.  The pork section.  And there it was.

A ginormous 12 foot by 2 foot long, brick-red shaft of cured pork was stretched out on a wooden table like a, er, telephone pole.  Customers were all crowding around it while a grocery store associate wearing a blue and white striped apron and a little white paper hat delicately shaved off thin slices and handed them out.

It was massive.  I had never seen anything like it before.  Clearly neither had Lulu.  She pointed to it and yelled at me, “Mama!  Look! A giant meat rocket!”

That was it.  Lulu’s innocent, yet illicit, innuendo, combined with Rick James’ freaky song blaring over the store’s speakers, was just too much for me.

“She’s a Super Freak, Super Freak.  She’s super freaky. Yow”

Lulu wanted us to get a sample, but I had turned into a junior high school student.  I was laughing so hard at the improbable combination of sights and sounds that I couldn’t bring myself to wait in line for a taste of the meat rocket, er telephone pole, er, straighten up, Gina –  salami.

But after almost three years here in Tuscany, I am more than used to the popularity of pork. I am fond of it.   And as we prepare to depart Italy for Ireland, I must prepare to have the pork make way for… er, potatoes?

With love of food everywhere,

Gina

P.S. What are your region’s specialties? Like ’em? Love ’em?

Copyright 2014 Gina London. All Rights Reserved.

 

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My Advent Calendar: Christmas ITALIAN Style

You know it’s Christmastime when the store fronts are covered in red, green, snowflakes, St. Nick (Babbo Natale here) and the like.

One of our favorite little family-run places on Arezzo's via Madonna del Prato
One of our favorite little family-run places on Arezzo’s via Madonna del Prato

All of our favorite restaurants, cafes and coffee shops are decorated with charming touches.  Coffee shops are really called “bars” here.  It never ceases to make me laugh to hear my six-year-old daughter say – like she did this morning before we walked to her school – “Can we first stop over at the bar?!?

I promise we’re only getting a pastry and sometimes I get a coffee – but never an alcoholic beverage – which they also sell – so the name really does make sense!  It’s all about the bar that you stand in front of to eat behind – not about the beverage.. Wonder why we Americans limit the word to the saloon-type establishments..

Anyway, you really know it’s holiday time when even the local butchers get into the spirit.  Here’s one of our neighborhood macelleria all festooned in holiday swag.

A meat cutter and decorator..
A meat cutter and decorator..

Time to get your Christmas on!

Buone feste, tutti!

Baci, Gina

How to host a Perfect Autumn Picnic

The days are getting shorter and the weather is getting cooler.  But if you hurry, and take these handy tips I learned yesterday, you can take advantage of the last few remaining precious warm weekends to host a delightful outdoor lunch for you and your friends.  

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1.       Have each guest bring a dish.   You’ll save yourself the trouble of cooking for a crowd and get more variety and flavor if everyone  brings something to eat.  It helps if you have some gourmands in your group, like we did, who enjoy making pans of lasagna and roasted turkey breasts wrapped in pancetta.

Yes, that's a clean diaper in the foreground! It was a family affair..
Yes, that’s a clean diaper in the foreground! It was a family affair..

2.       Have each guest bring something to drink.  An assortment of beverages always makes a picnic more refreshing.  As you can see, our assortment ranged from orange Fanta – to a certain shade of red.

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3.       Make sure there’s plenty of seating.  If you don’t have a picnic table, no problem.  Have your friends carry over some benches or chairs.  And you can also spread out an assortment of blankets.

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4. Scatter some stone buildings about .   Even more than the weather, warm ambience can be created by adding in some ancient buildings. The converted farm and stall buildings here were more than 500 years old, so that’s pretty good.

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5. Fly to Tuscany.  The best picnics are in the countryside, right?  Here in Capolona, just a couple of miles outside of our adopted hometown of Arezzo, you’ll find a lovely verdant setting – complete with mandatory rolling hills and olive trees.

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Well, that’s about it! Hope you learned a little something.   Next time you’re thinking picnic, you’re covered.  Or, you can just call Carla Veneri, our gracious host from yesterday’s feast, and the terrific innkeeper at Il Pozzo – She can arrange it all for you as her guest!

Our terrific friend and host Carla! - and me.
Our terrific friend and host Carla! – and me.

Baci from Tuscany – Here’s to your next great picnic – wherever it is, I’m sure it will be great!

Gina

A warm embrace from Mario

One of our favorite restaurants in Arezzo is underground.  Directly across from the Basilica San Francesco in the piazza of the same name, you’ll need to carefully step down four wide grey stone steps and duck your head to enter Ristorante Buca di San Francesco.

As your eyes adjust to the soft amber glow, you’ll be warmly welcomed by Mario de Filippis, who has been its gracious host for more than 40 years.   Now, look around you.  You’re seated in the cellar of a 14th century palazzo, surrounded by a frescoes on the walls and a resounding assortment of Italian artworks, artifacts, and tchotchkes.   It’s a delightful Tuscan curiosity shop.

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Mario says the stones that make up the floor beneath your chairs are remnants of an ancient Etruscan road. Who knows if that’s true, but it’s all part of the restaurant’s – and Mario’s – immense charm.   Mario is like an indulgent nonno, grandpa.  He tells me to look the other way and “sneaks” little chocolates over to Lulu while my head is turned.  He sets before Lulu a plate of the softest, creamiest fresh Mozzarella I have ever tasted (because I did taste it).

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“Mario! Yey!” cries Lulu.

He urges me to try the Panzanella  -a popular Tuscan summer salad with olive oil crisped bread chunks mixed in. He also encourages me to a have a glass of wine, “on the house!”

“Mario! Yey!” I cry too.

Later, he surprises us both with free desserts.  A small slice of apple bread torta for me and gelato for Lulu, chocolate – ma certo¸ of course.

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To me, the flavor of the place and its host almost exceeds that of the food.  At Buca di San Francesco, you’re in good hands.  Mario’s.

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For more on Buca di San Francesco, visit their/his website at www.bucadisanfrancesco.com – Tell him Gina and Lulu sent you.

Baci,

Gina

Grapes of Wrath!

Our house is nestled a la campagna or “in the countryside” here in Tuscany.  So every day, we walk by vineyards.  Row after row of gnarled vines draped in dark purple.  I have even been known to veer off our path when nobody’s around and snatch a few of the juicy jewels for a snack.

But I have never actually taken part in an officially sanctioned grape harvest until this weekend.

First, one day with our neighbors Lorenzo and Stefania, and then the next day with our terrific friends Heather and Stefano – Lulu and I learned what picking grapes is all about.

It’s not as easy as you might think.  The clever clusters of grapes hide themselves behind curtains of leaves.

The true veterans, aka nonne, or grammas we picked with, didn’t think twice about unceremoniously yanking off branches and leaves to reveal the purple prizes beneath, but I was much more timid about destroying someone else’s property.

And next, the grapes don’t always dangle delicately waiting to be snipped by your shears.   Often, the bunches have warped themselves as they’ve matured around leaves and vines.  I smashed dozens of tiny globes trying to wrest them away  – resulting in a series of mini grape juice explosions.  No wonder we all wear gloves. Except Lulu, of course.

One day it was hot and the bugs were buzzing.

The next day brought a grey drizzle.

But we did it!  Just look how many grapes we – along with everybody else – picked!

As a reward, there were terrific lunches both days – courtesy, of course, the Italian grammas and mammas.

And, best of all, with just a few turns of the crank,

An extra squeeze from the press,

And a little fermentation in the keg,

We’ll soon have more Tuscan wine to drink like the bottle of homemade wine on our table at lunch.

And that makes it all worth it.

Everything worthwhile takes hard work, right? Here’s to a job well done!

Ciao, tutti!

Gina

P.S.  Ever picked grapes? Made your own wine?  How was it?  Tell me and cheers!