Monday, September 28, 2009

ORVIETO

Of course we had to show Annette our favorite town in Umbria:  Orvieto!  I could be very happy living in Oriveto.  I love all the stone, and the medieval feel of Orveito, and as a bonus, it's relatively flat, making it easy to get around.  With the direct train to Rome you can be there in an hour, or be in Florence in just over an hour.  Unfortunately Orvieto is just slightly (well, okay, a LOT) over my price range, but because it's only 45 minutes away we visit quite frequently.

Orvieto tower_041We usually drive up into town and park at the lot just in front of the funicular, if we can find a parking spot that's free.  We then stoll up the Corso Cavour, turn left at the clock tower and enjoy all the ceramic displays until we catch our first glimpse of the Duomo.Orvieto Duomo_012








Orvieto cave_ 003Because I love caves, no trip to Orvieto is complete without a visit to Orvieto Underground, the man-made caves that honeycomb beneath most of Orvieto.  And although we didn't have time for a visit to the civic or Etruscan museums, both located on the piazza Duomo, I highly recommend both.   We had lunch in one of our favorite places, Orvieto gelato_ 071 Café Montanucci on Corso Cavour, a simple place where you can eat a great salad, quiche or pasta dish, and after that you can check out their amazing selection of chocolates.  For gelato we always stop at Gelateria Pasqualetti, just to the left of the Duomo. 

It goes without saying that the Duomo in Orvieto is amazing, both inside and out.  If you're there late in the afternoon when the sun hits the mosaics, every fleck of gold sparkles and glows. 

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You can see all my photos from that day in the Orvieto folder HERE, and of course all our photos are always available on OUR FLICKR PAGE.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

MONTEFALCO

Over this past week we've been very busy, which is why I haven't been posting. We've been showing our new friend Annette as much of Umbria as we could in her limited time. One day we visited Montefalco, where
Montefalco Hotel Bontadosi we took a peek inside the very new, VERY posh PALAZZO BONTADOSI, which is not just a hotel, but also a spa.  Check out their website for pictures of the gorgeous rooms and an extensive list of spa services.  Some of the treatments even include Montefalco's famous Sagrantino grapes - leaves for massaging, crushed seeds for facials, and of course the finished product for tasting!

The old palazzo has been lovingly restoredMontefalco  Hotel Bontadosi_051....















And the town itself is a charming as ever....Montefalco_ 054

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

SAD SUNFLOWERS

While there's nothing more cheerful than a field of sunflowers in bloom, nothing is sadder than a field of dead sunflowers!



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Thursday, September 17, 2009

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED - Part 3

After driving the long and scenic route from Assisi to Spello, we finally arrived in Spello, at the high end of town. We've always parked at the bottom and walked up, so coming in from the top gave us a new perspective. Spello is a wonderful, magical place with new surprises (and arches) around every corner....


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There are more photos on our FLICKR PAGE, in the folder entitled “Spello Umbria”.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

AN UMBRIAN MENU

If you were in Umbria you could be eating some of these dishes.....


Spello Umbria menu_7738

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

MAKING PESTO

Unfortunately I don't have room for a vegetable garden. I do grow a few herbs in pots in the back yard so they're handy for cooking. Several years ago our neighbor Adamo told us we could use his small garden for our 'orto', as Italians call a vegetable garden. I tried growing the usual: peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and more, but unfortunately Adamo's garden sits on a rocky outcrop, and the water drains through the dirt as though it were sand. This, combined with the fact that I have to carry water to the garden made me rethink the garden when summer rolled around again.

I decided that with the farmer's market and roadside stands, not to mention gifts from our neighbors, fruit and vegetables would be plentiful and cheap, so it just wasn't worth the (disappointing) effort. The one thing I knew I would continue to grow was basil, and plenty of it. Art and I both love pesto - on pasta, on bruschetta, on salmon, and in a variety of dishes. Even in Italy I've never found a ready-made pesto that lives up to my expectations, so I make my own. I also make extra to freeze so that we'll have pesto all through the winter. It's like a bit of sunshine, so fresh!

The word pesto comes from the Italian word 'pestare', to pound, so to be authentic pesto should be make the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle, but I have to admit that I just not that old fashioned. I use a food processor, and some purists will argue that the food processor causes heat which damages the basil, but even if that's true, I still think it tastes pretty darn good.

I have about twelve basil plants so that I can make my pesto in large batches. This recipe started out as a single batch recipe but I've changed it. If you'd like to make a smaller batch just reduce the ingredients proportionately.


basil_7841To ensure that your basil keeps producing all summer long, first you have to pinch the stem just above the spot where two new leaves will sprout. If you do this you basil will get bushier and bushier over time. The second thing you have to do is to keep the basil pinched back enough so that it doesn't flower. basil_7842Having several plants will ensure that you'll have enough basil whenever you want to make a batch of pesto, or to use in caprese or whatever other recipe you might want.


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At the end of the season I pull the plants out of the ground, roots and all. I take a large bucket to the garden with me and just put all the plants into the bucket to carry to the back yard. Once I'm in the back yard I sit down and strip off all the good leaves. Not all the leaves will be good at this point; some might have yellowed, but it's not hard to figure out. I then make my final batch of pesto, but I also reserve enought basil leaves to freeze to use as seasoning. To do this I place the whole leaves on an aluminum pan and stick it in the freezer for a quick freeze. Once the leaves are frozen I QUICKLY crumble them and toss into a ziplock bag to add to sauces and recipes over the winter - much better than using dried basil! I usually have to freeze the basil in several batches because my freezer is small, but just remember to keep the previously frozen batch in the freezer, and to work very, very quickly, otherwise the leaves will thaw and you won't be able to crumble them up.

Basil leavesPESTO GENOVESE

4 cups basil leaves, well packed
4 cloves garlic
1 cup pine nuts
1½ cups grated parmesan (or 2/3 parmesan and 1/3 pecorino)
1½ cups extra virgin olive oil (approximately)
salt & pepper to taste

Ground basil and garlic_7816Place basil leaves and garlic in food processor and process until leaves are finely chopped.

Add nuts and process until nuts are finely chopped.

Add cheese and process until combined.

olive oil_7839With the processor running slowly add the oil until it’s the consistency you want.

After the oil is incorporated add salt and pepper to taste.

pesto_7844Yields 3 ½ -4 cups pesto. Store in airtight containers. Keeps in refrigerator for a week or more if you cover the remainder with a thin layer of oil. Can also be frozen.

I usually add a little less oil when I freeze the pesto, making it thicker so that I can add more or less oil later, depending on the recipe.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

THE PINK STONE OF ASSISI

The city of Assisi is built out of this beautiful pink stone. Late in the afternoon, and especially at sunset, Assisi just glows, thanks to this unique stone.



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Saturday, September 12, 2009

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED - Part 2

On our drive from Assisi to Spello, we were still in search of that bar, so we continued on, eventually winding our way back down the mountain until we came to Collepino. The parking lot was loaded with Mercedes and BMW's and we wondered if there was a really good restaurant in town to draw such a crowd.

San Giovanni Umbria_7699As we walked into town we were immediately charmed. A woman working in her vegetable garden directed us to the bar just around the corner. Once we'd ordered I asked the barista about San Giovanni and he confirmed what I had guessed: the town had been damaged in the 1997 earthquake and was only now being restored. He told us that only one family was living there now, and we knew we had seem that house - it was the one with flowers at the door.


La Taverna San Silvestro-2He also told us a little about Collepino. According to him, everyone in the town is rich, very rich, but those residents number only 37. There was also a very nice restaurant in town, "La Taverna San Silvestro", and although it was well past lunchtime the owner gave us a peek at the menu and the inside. I thought Art had taken one of the menus so I didn't bother looking at one, and it wasn't until later that I realized he hadn't brought it with him. Since Collepino is only 3 kilometers outside of Spello, it's really not that far off the beaten path and would be worth going back to for a meal.


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We continued our drive towards Spello, but that will be for the next post. There are more photos on our FLICKR PAGE, in the folder entitled “Collepino Umbria”.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED - Part 1


A few years ago we received a book as a gift. That book was the Signpost Guide: Tuscany and Umbria. It's a great guide to all the major sites of both regions, and even better for us, it suggests some out-of-the-way trips that the average tourist just might not have time for.

We have a guest arriving in a few weeks and we've been putting together an itinerary that will give her a good overview of Umbria. Obviously we'll cover important sites like Assisi, Perugia, Orvieto and the Perugina chocolate factory, but we also want to give her a sense of why Umbria is called the green heart of Italy. As you know by now we love the countryside in this region and never tire of the scenery. One of the nice fringe benefits of having company is that we get to do a bit of exploring too, so we decided to follow a suggestion in the guidebook and take the 'back' road out of Assisi, drive along the back side of Subasio, and end up in Spello.

We wanted to check out the road before our guest came, to see how much time we'd need to allow, and to see if there was a good place to stop for a picnic lunch. We invited our friends Larry and Shelly to join us, and the four of us went exploring!

Umbria_7680Once we exited Assisi at the top, the scenery changed dramatically. The hills of Umbria become more mountainous, with deep valleys in between. The road, although in fairly good condition, had barely enough room for two cars to pass in some places, but as expected, this was the road less travelled and we met very few cars along the way.

We found several spots with picnic tables along the way, and although none offered panoramic views, we still enjoyed a nice lunch in a peaceful setting. We were amazed at how many agriturismi were located on this road, but with such a spectacular location it's easy to understand why someone would want to stay in this area.

The first real 'town' we came to was Armenzano. We asked a woman if there was a bar in town, and when she said "no", we didn't stop. Perhaps another time we'll check it out, but we were in search of a bar for a coffee and a bathroom break. As we drove along, Mt. Subasio stretched upwards on our right and the deep valley and mountains beyond were visible - when the vegetation allowed - on the left. The guidebook had said that the drive from Assisi to Spello would take about 40 minutes, and although we knew it would take us longer due to various stops, I think this is about right.

San Giovanni Umbria_7688The next place we came to was San Giovanni. Although there was a new sign out front welcoming visitors to the tiny village, it looked deserted. Intrigued, we decided to take a closer look. It became apparent quite quickly that the town was undergoing a complete renovation, and I guessed that perhaps this was work that had been put off since the 1997 earthquake. Everywhere we looked there was work in progress, although no one was working while we were there. San Giovanni Umbria_7685The walls had all been re-pointed, plastic conduit stuck out in various locations, waiting to carry the new electrical lines, and quite a bit of re-enforcement had been done. It's hard to say how long this project might take to complete, but once it's finished San Giovanni will be a gem - a step back in time with modern conveniences.



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There are more photos on our FLICKR PAGE, in the folder entitled “San Giovanni Umbria”.

To be continued...............

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

THE MAGIC OF WINE

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The grape harvest (la vendemmia) has begun! Pretty soon these beautiful grapes will become
















wine glass with Sangiovese

beautiful wine like this. All indications are that this will be a great year!

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

ONIONS IN EVERYTHING!

The other day I wrote about the Festa della Cipolla in Cannara, and last night Art and I just happened to be in the neighborhood so we decided to stay for dinner. A friend had asked if this festa was really all about the onions, since many festas might feature only one or two dishes using the food for which the festa is named. Cannara isn't like that at all. In fact, if you don't like onions you might as well stay home. Everything on the menu (except for the drinks) has onions in it, which was alright with us! Take a look at the menu - and note that even the desserts have onions!

The festa continues through the 6th of September, then again for 6 more days, September 8-13th.


Cannara menu -antipasti e primi


Cannara menu - i secondi


Cannara menu - contorni e dolci


Cannara menu - da bere


We even bought some onions to take home with us. The squatty mild yellow onions that Cannara is famous for are soooo good roasted in the oven. Now that cool weather is on the way we're ready!


Onions Cannara

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

FIGURING OUT THE ITALIAN WAY

Even after living here for six years, there are still so many things we don't understand about how things work in Italy. Nothing is simple or straightforward. Whether dealing with private business or government bureaucracy, there’s usually an unwritten code to follow – the right questions must be asked of the right people, and things must be done in the proper order. I’m convinced the only way to understand these secret ways is to be born Italian. And so, quite often, we find ourselves shaking our heads, confused, often amused, and sometimes frustrated. It probably would't make any difference if we understood the 'how' and 'why' of things, but I'm still always trying to make sense of things.

Although we can view our Italian bank accounts online and even make transactions online, when we wanted to know the balance on our car loan, we had to go to our branch, put in a request with the manager, and she in turn had to call Rome for the details. The manager told us to return in a few days to get the answer, all the while I’m thinking, “But they have computers, why can’t I just look at my loan balance online just like I can my checking account balance???” And like so many situations, there just aren’t answers for questions like this.

Our bank recently underwent some changes. I don’t know if it was an acquisition, a merger, or simply and alliance of two banks. The name of our bank remains the same but we now have a new website linked to the ‘new’ bank, and many other changes have taken place. For us it’s not necessary to understand the whys and wherefores of all the changes, but from what I’ve seen so far, things aren't necessarily ‘better’ and more modern, just different. For example:

Recently I locked myself out of my online access by entering the wrong password five times. I called the ‘800’ number and was told that I’d need to go to the bank in person in order to unblock the account. I asked if I could go to any branch, or if I had to go to the branch in Ponte San Giovanni. I was assured that I could go to any branch to re-set the password, so the other day we drove to Deruta because it’s a lot closer than P.S. Giovanni.

I introduced myself to the woman sitting at the first desk and told her what my problem was. And the first thing she did was call Margherita at the P.S. Giovanni branch! In the end I was unable to get the account unblocked and I’m still not sure why. It might have been because Margherita told the woman in Deruta that no, my account was NOT blocked. I made the woman in Deruta go to the login page to prove that yes, I really was blocked, but that didn’t solve the problem.

Although I still wasn’t happy, there was no alternative: we’d have to drive to Ponte San Giovanni to (hopefully) reset the password and unblock the online access. When I asked exactly why I had to come there in person, I was told that I had to sign a form – and I’m still not sure why! Was it Just to acknowledge that I had locked myself out of my own account and needed help in re-setting the password? At least in the end the account was unblocked and I can now check my balance online.

When we returned to the branch in Deruta the other day to make a deposit the woman who’d helped (or tried to help) me previously was now at the teller’s window. She remembered me, which of course is always nice, and helped me with the new deposit form. As my receipt was printing out, I noticed that the teller was looking her computer screen rather intently. She then called over her colleague, and they both looked intently at the computer screen for several minutes.

The teller then asked me “Is your residency in a foreign country?” I told her that we were residents of Italy, but that I had noticed since the change with the bank I was now able to see that my address was listed as Louisville, KY. I pulled out my Carta d’Identita to show her that we did have residency in Italy, and to show her our Italian address.

Both the tellers studied my Carta intently, then the first teller walked around the counter to hand it back to me in person. She did this so that she could show me that my Carta was due to expire in five days! Strangely enough we’d just been talking about this with friends and I had commented “We really should check our Carte to see when they expire”, but of course we never had!

Art had become concerned because I was in the bank such a long time, and had come inside to see if there was a problem. After reassuring us that everything was fine, and that they would make the necessary changes to our information, we returned to the car. The first thing I asked Art for was his Carta d’Identita. His original Carta was stolen when we were in Prague, several months before I lost mine. Just as I suspected, his card had expired in June! Oops!

Once we were back in San Venanzo we went to the comune immediately. As we entered Francesco’s office I told him we had a little problem. “Just a little one?” he joked. I explained the situation, and knew that renewing my Carta shouldn’t be a problem, but was somewhat concerned about Art’s. Francesco asked when Art’s card had expired, then told us not to worry, it wasn’t a problem. We asked whether we’d need new photos, but were told no. He said they’d just stamp the back of our cards and write a new expiration date on the back. Just when you think things are so complicated and illogical, something like this happens and it’s such a relief!

The man we needed to see wasn’t in the office, so Francesco told us to come back the next day, Friday. After a late Thursday night at the festa, we slept late on Friday and were getting ready to go up to the comune around 11 when Art noticed Francesco walking down the street, towards his home. Art called to him and Francesco said “No one’s there now, just come tomorrow morning.” I reminded him that tomorrow was Saturday but he assured me that someone would be there. I guess we’ve always just assumed that the comune wasn’t open on Saturdays, but apparently it is. Maybe it’s because they close every day at 1 o’clock and don’t re-open in the afternoon.

Bright and early on Saturday morning we were at the comune, ready to renew/extend our Carte. Unfortunately Art had laminated his card and after years of being pressed in his wallet, the plastic and paper were firmly attached to one another! Carta d'Identita -renewedWe were told that Art would have to get a whole new Carta, meaning that he would need some new photos. My Carta, on the other hand, was simply stamped, signed and dated and I was renewed for another five years. I had expected for the renewal to be good for ten years, based on something I’d read, but because it was a renewal it was only for five years. Art, because he had a whole new Carta issued, is good for another ten years.

Even more amazing to me was the fact that we weren't asked to show our current Permessi! Yes, they know us in the comune, but that doesn't mean we've kept our documents current - heck, the permessi could have been expired just like the Carte!

We’re still shaking our heads, wondering why some things are so complicated, others so incomprehensible, and other things, like this, so laughably easy! But hey, when the 'how is as simple as this, who cares about the 'why'?!