Language

Lucca – A Secret Gem

Another week has passed by in a bit of a haze. After spending 4 hours every morning in Italian lessons trying hard to look on the ball and somewhat engaged, I find that my head is spinning by 1.00pm. The lessons are conducted all in Italian – totally from wow to go. To add more pain the use of dictionaries is prohibited.  When you have a question, the teacher attempts to ease your dilemma by using a convoluted example in Italian and by the time he has finished his explanation, you have hopefully grasped the concept.

This week we had a new bunch of recruits from Holland and Germany and Australia plus the same 2 chaps from Japan (one of which is a right pain in the backside!) -10 in total.  Consequently, the group exercises are like deciphering Morse code with cotton wool stuck in your ears. It is all babble!

What really did my head in was our final exercise on Friday – a passage (about an A4 page) that we had to read, translate and then undertake some grammar exercises. The subject was about a scientist who became fascinated by snails and wanted to write a book about the life of snails. However, no matter how he tried to conceal himself in the bushes, the snails were up to his tricks and hid inside their shells. So he had a bright idea of disguising himself as a snail. He made a shell out of paper mache that he could fit himself into, a rubbery nose with rubbery horns that waggled about and silvery saliva that he painted onto the ground. This pastime quickly turned into an obsession, and eventually he was sleeping in his costume and asking his wife to make him worm fritters.  She in the end, told him he was a loon and he could stick his worm fritters and left!

Now – I am confident that in my next conversation with someone about snails and worm fritters I will be able to acquit myself well. Handy don’t you think?

On the plus side, I feel more confident in conversing with the locals in Italian (not about snails). Some are very patient and will give you time to express yourself. Others revert to English straight away.  At least no one is speaking German to me.  There are plenty of Germans and Dutch here but very few Asians.

Lucca is a really pleasant and friendly place. The city is flat and cars are not allowed in the walls unless you have parking permits and a place to park, which are very limited. Consequently, this is a great place for a bicycle and which there are hundreds. The streets are narrow and cobbled with the buildings rising up on either side for three or four stories containing 4 to 8 apartments where the residents live in close quarters with each other.  So hearing the domestic chatter (and arguments) from your “vicini” is not unusual. For example the family who live behind me have a toddler named – wait for it… Galileo! My goodness he has a big name to live up to.

IMG_1201Yesterday the weather was a lovely so I spent a couple of hours wandering the main shopping streets (lanes) and poking my head into a number of stores.  But the highlight was another lingering lunch in a quiet corner, watching the passing crowds go by. On perusing the menu, I was unable to make up my mind between the chicken liver pate or the Tuscan salami and figs – so my very congenial waiter suggested that I have a half portion of both. This I followed up with a light main of vitello tonnato.  One of my all-time favs – cold sliced veal with a mayonnaise made with tuna and capers.  This was accompanied by a lovely local white wine – Trebbiano which dates back to the Roman times. (This photo is for my brother Peter who is the most patient husband of a champions shopper – Mary)

The best sight of the week was when I was on my way home from class, I passed a couple of older ladies (70’s) – done up to the nines. Blonded hair (yes, I am a culprit of some chemical assistance in this department), large pouting red lips (possibly some filler, and Botox to boot) skin tight black pants and patent black boots, rather flashy jewellery and pushing a very smart baby pram with a hood. From the back they looked like a couple of glamourous (!?) grannies out with the new baby while mum is at work. As I drew closer, I looked into the pram  – my jaw hit the ground – there sitting in pride of place was not a baby but the biggest, white, furry cat I have ever seen. I have since discovered that this was a state of the art bespoke cat pram. Can you believe it!

Today I am indoors as it is raining and thundery. So I have been busy doing some catch up homework in readiness for class tomorrow. Please God, no more stories about invertebrates please?

ci vediamo

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lucca,Tuscany – A Living Picture Postcard

 


Buon giorno,

Here I am in Lucca – having enjoyed 2 days of sunny warm weather– up 30 degrees. This is ideal weather for sitting in a shady spot and drinking an aperol spritz (or a glass of prosecco) and watching the passing parade. After a few rainy and cool days in London this feels like coming home. Italy has that instant appeal of warmth, friendliness and accessibility.

On arrival at Pisa airport, I was met by Francesco my taxi driver to Lucca. He did not speak any English so my rusty Italian got a rude awakening. I think that I acquitted myself well as he did not drive off the road in fits of laughter at my linguistic abilities.

We arrived in Lucca, unloaded my cases at the front door of my apartment (rented through AIRBNB), and rang the bell (twice) and with increasing urgency. Alas – no answer. Francesco had a worried look on his face. I am sure he thought that he might have to take me home as an unexpected boarder. I had a fleeting thought that I could be one of the cases that wary travellers fear – an internet scam – there was no apartment and some slippery scammer had my money.

I found my landlord’s number and Francesco called it for me. After a number of rings there was an answer and Francesco informed them that their new lodger was at the door. He then told me (in Italian) that my prospective landlady was in hospital after delivering her first baby at 8.30am that morning. Dad would be on his motor scooter and be there in 10 mins. Phew!

In ten minutes he rounded the corner on one wheel and zipped up the lane full tilt; off came his helmet and I was greeted with a grin from ear to ear. Obviously he is a very proud new dad. And today Mama and baby came home. There was a knock at my door and the new family was there to show off the incredible tiny bundle – Ginevra. I have already offered myself for babysitting duties.

My apartment is spacious, comfortable and spotlessly clean. It is located on the edge of the old city inside the walls that ring the town. Completely surrounding the ancient city, the walls we see today date back to the 17th century. They are crowned by 4 km of green parkland, where people walk, cycle or stop for a picnic. Just another example of how, over the centuries, though buildings last, their roles metamorphose as times change.

I have explored some of the streets and squares nearby. Everywhere is walking distance and is quite flat – so pedestrians and bicycles rule the road. The public buildings are very grand, old palaces with wonderful medieval facades, impressive churches, twisting alleys that open onto small piazzas. Behind high walls one can glimpse gardens and courtyards. The streets have been full of tourists and holidaying Italians enjoying the last days of the European summer vacation. Hopefully this week I will see a quieter Lucca and be able to explore further afield.

Tomorrow is my first day at school – so more of that later.

Ciao

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Namibia – A Story of Hope

Agnes is a 23 years old Namibian born in an isolated village in the north east of the country. I had the pleasure to spend a few days at Desert Rhino Camp in northern Namibia and here I met Agnes – a very modern African woman. Agnes has embraced the modern age and the opportunities that are now on offer to the new generation of liberated females of Namibia. This trend to modernity is a rarity here in Africa where the tribal norms are prevalent and strongly reinforced by custom, tradition, and tribal law.

Agnes tells me that she was a safari guide for three and a half years before being promoted to the role of Camp Manager. The notion of a female guide set the cat amongst the pigeons with her male colleagues. Guiding in their book is very much a man’s job. Surely, a girl can’t know the difference between an elephant and a lion? But Agnes laughed off the resistance, and quickly learned her craft, including changing flat tyres on the jeep, fixing starter motors out in the bush and using a wide variety of skills and bush craft to ensure her guests were safe and sound while in her care.

Her aspirations reached new heights with her promotion from Guide to Camp Manager. She is undertaking a degree in Environmental Law from a South African University and is now approaching her final year. She is hopeful that the safari company will offer her a role in their Environmental Department on completion of her degree.

However, her modern outlook and attitudes are tempered by her tribal roots. Every time she returns to her village, a two day journey away from camp, her parents quickly denounce all her modern ideas and practices. They remain traditional and uphold the African way of life as far as the role of a woman, marriage, family relationships and children are concerned.

When I asked Agnes if she has any siblings she said shyly replied “yes 13”. This number, even for Africa is considered a large family. She said that her father “had been a very busy man”. Apparently, nine of her siblings are from nine partners. Agnes and four other siblings are from the union of her mother and father. Amazingly, in her village the traditional custom of strong familial bonds means that all siblings born outside the current marriage are collected from the other partners and then raised by the wife. Consequently, Agnes’s mother has raised 5 of her own children and nine step children.

Her parents are forever badgering her to marry. They are perplexed why she, at age 23, should still be single. Her father is often proposing possible suitors to her, such as suggesting that she marry one of his friends who was 52 years old. She said, “Daddy have you lost your sight and your mind? I want to marry for love”. This sentiment left her father perplexed. He believes that companionship and finding a woman to look after him are more important, than the so-called notion of “love”.

A chink of light from the modern world has crept into Agnes’s family. When Agnes returns home she takes a large bucket of KFC chicken pieces, apples and oranges. This feast is quickly devoured during the first day and everyone is happy and appreciates Agnes and her modern food. However, the next day when all the food is gone, old habits and traditional values reappear, and Agnes’ parents revert to telling her what is wrong with her life and that her values as a modern single girl don’t bring them any happiness or grandchildren.

As a joke on a later visit to the village and the family, Agnes took home a photo on her phone of an Asian gentleman that she had met at Rhino Desert Camp. Arriving at the village, after the bucket of KFC was consumed, her parents like a broken record, asked her about her marriage prospects. She replied with a broad smile, that she had found a wonderful man and she wanted to marry him very soon. She showed her parents the photo, to which, her father proclaimed that he had been taken seriously ill and needed his blood pressure pills. He then took to his bed for the rest of the day. From his sick bed he would look at Agnes with baleful eyes, moan loudly, roll over and face the wall in a state of depression.

Western values and marital fidelity are not practised with much rigour or enthusiasm amongst most people of Namibia. People live together and have many children out of wedlock to multiple partners. The children inevitably end up being reared by the grandparents. However, if a couple decided to marry it is a rigorous, drawn out and expensive affair. Firstly, a man with daughters is considered to be very lucky because at the time of the marriage, a dowry has to be paid to her family by the bridegroom’s family. This is often four cows, or is in the case of town people, the equal price of such. This price can vary upwards if the bride’s parents are not convinced that the potential groom is a suitable match or that there may have been some earlier indiscretions or wrong doings in the groom’s past.

Even though Agnes expresses modern ideals and appreciates that her gender has achieved a level of liberation, she confesses to me wistfully, gazing out on to the Namibian landscape, if she could meet a good man, have a baby and live in the bush, she would be in heaven.

Life for Agnes is a paradox, and no doubt, one that she will be in a constant battle with. My hope for her is that she will achieve her intellectual potential and career ambitions, as well as, find a good man who she loves and rather than being forced into a marriage where she will be a slave to him and their children and have to live with the consequences of his inevitable infidelities.

Being a modern and liberated woman in Africa is a struggle however, many women believe that the fight for equality and self determination is valuable. Go Girls!!!

Categories: Black Rhino, Botswana, Elephants, Language, Lions, Namibia, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 2

OK – now you know what “must have”, you can start looking and the first step is ….

Research, research and then some more research.

Sounds like a lot of hard work – but it is not if you look in the right places.

1. The internet
This is the easiest way to find a villa/apartment. But you may be overwhelmed by the volume of choice. My tip is refine your search as to the
• Location
• Type of accommodation
• Key characteristics that are important to you such as pool, golf, mountains, seaside etc

So examples search strings could be:
• “Luxury villa” + Tuscany + pool
• Budget + “holiday accommodation” + Italy
• “Apartment to rent”+ Venice + “San Marco”
• Beach+pool+villa+amalfi

When your internet search is delivered, look at the first few sites and see if they carry the stock of accommodation that you’re looking for. If not – refine your search string.

Don’t spend too long on each site but bookmark (add to your favourites) the websites that look interesting to come back to later for an in depth search. I tend to shortlist about 5 sites.

Now that you have your rental checklist of “must haves” as well as a shortlist of sites, the fun really begins.

Most sites have search criteria from which you can select, so plug in your “must haves” – number of bedrooms, rental period, pool, location, etc. Now carefully read the detailed descriptions and inclusions of each of the accommodations. If the details do not match your “must haves” there is no point getting hooked on the pretty pictures – move on. When you see a property that matches your criteria either print off the details and pictures, or bookmark that particular property.

I admit that I have a secret pleasure. Once I have a shortlist of say 10 properties I love to get into bed that night and read the detailed descriptions and peruse the pictures at leisure without interruption. I have found that during the night, while I sleep, one or two properties percolate up through my subconscious and in the morning, I have the shortlist in my mind. I then rate the property descriptions by most liked and least liked. That way I can concentrate on a handful of “most liked” properties for in-depth investigation.

Above all, make sure you carefully read what has been described, not what you “want” to read. It’s all too easy to “think” you read about some attribute only to find when you excitedly arrive at your destination that the swimming pool you’ve been dreaming about is in fact a paddling pool, or some such other disappointment!.

2. Ask friends and associates for referrals
Referrals are a great way to source accommodation. If other people have had a good experience when dealing with a particular vendor or renting a particular property, then half the hard work is already done for you.

However:
• Trusting someone else’s opinion is great as long as you have similar tastes and/or requirements.
• How long ago did they rent this property?
• What could have changed since then?
• Has the property been well maintained?
• Is the same vendor and or agent managing the peoperty?

3. Check out the bona fides of the agent/vendor before you send any money
I hear loads of people say they are nervous about dealing with vendors over the internet. I completely understand and have felt the same in the past. The following are a few tips that I use to check the bona fides of the vendor I am about to deal with:
• do they have a corporate website
• are there testimonials on the website
• check out the reviews the villa/apartment on Trip Advisor – contact the most recent reviewers and post a question
• start an email conversation with the vendor and get more information about items and conditions that are on your “must have” list
• ask for a phone number and call them
• ask for references from previous clients
• make sure that you have adequate travel insurance before you send any money

Money, Money, Money!

Once you have the numbers of participants confirmed, you need to receive a non-refundable deposit from them. This deposit is refundable only if other participants take their place. Otherwise other members of your group will have to absorb this extra financial burden.

OK – Now you have your ideal villa/apartment sorted it is time to get the finances sorted.
Show me the colour of your money
When renting with friends and family members you need to make sure that you get a firm financial commitment from them prior to you parting with any of your own hard earned cash. You certainly don’t want to commit to renting a 6 bedroom villa and then a month before you leave on your holiday, someone pulls out of the deal and leaves you carrying the financial burden.

So my advice is to get all your companions to “show you the colour of their money” (and commitment) early! Well before you have to make your initial deposit payment to the vendor.

I work on the basis that the individual cost will include:
• rent
• optional outgoings (air-con, heating, pool, chef, maid service, etc)
• housekeeping (this covers groceries, wine and liquor, household incidentals, etc).

What about housekeeping?

In the past I have found that asking everyone to chip into a housekeeping kitty prior to leaving is the best and the most hassle free way to manage the day-to-day expenses while you are living it up in your villa or apartment.

I have loaded the housekeeping kitty onto a designated credit or debit card for the sole use of making your purchases or getting cash from the ATM. I keep all the receipts and regularly reconcile these against the housekeeping kitty. This is the best way to make sure that everyone feels that there has been an equal contribution to the running expenses and also, as the organiser, you are not out of pocket.

Depending on your anticipated lifestyle, and the group that you are renting with, the housekeeping kitty can vary from $100 per day to $200 per day. That should be ample. Towards the end of the rental period if there are surplus funds in kitty, I have also paid for some meals when out at restaurants, entrance fees and bar bills etc.

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In the next blog I will give you some ideas of making the most of your holiday such as:
• discovering those exciting out of the way adventures
• finding the best local produce
• dining with the locals
• shopping
• making your villa a home away from home .

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 1

“La Dolce Vita“

A Guide to Renting a Villa/Apartment

Do you want:
• a hassle free Italian vacation?
• to experience living in Italy and being part of the local scene?
• to be not just another tourist
• to eat great food just like the locals?
• to experience “la dolce vita”?

Yes?

Then the answer is; rent a villa or an apartment and get in touch with the real Italians and the unique experience of living the Italian dream.

Renting a villa or an apartment is a sure-fire way to have a fun holiday in Italy. Going to the local supermarket and doing your groceries, getting to know the butcher, the baker, the fruit and veggie man, the wine merchant (really important!), eating fabulous food at restaurants the locals go to, and discovering all those hidden out-of-the-way places that are not in the guide books.

I hear from lots of people that they would love to do this. But for many it just seems too hard, or they don’t know where to start, or they are afraid they will get ripped off.

I have rented apartments and villas all over Italy (and other countries) and I would like to share with you my guide to hassle free renting. Here is a checklist that will help you along on your journey:

Work out precisely what type of accommodation and location you want:
1. Who will your companions be for this rental; just you, or are your family joining you, are your friends coming along as well, and how well does everyone know each other?
2. How many bedrooms and what type of beds will you need in each room – – single, double, queen or king and is the linen provided? Also – be careful if bedrooms join each other, or you have to walk through a bedroom to the shared bathroom/toilet. Very difficult if you have a call of nature in the middle of the night.
3. How many bathrooms do you need – bath or shower? There is no point on having 12 people in a villa and have only 2 bathrooms/toilets. If the bathrooms are not en-suite, I work on the basis of one shared bathroom to 4 people. Separate toilets are a good idea if you have a large number of guests.
4. Is there a washing machine? Finding and then washing your clothes in a laundromat is no fun when on holiday.
5. Is there an outdoor entertaining area? You will want to eat your meals “al fresco” and enjoy those wonderful warm evenings.
6. Is there a pool? Usually pools are open from late May to October. Also, are there any costs incurred in running the pool?
7. Is there air conditioning or heating? Will you need to use this? Italy can be stiflingly hot in summer and freezing in autumn and winter, and importantly, is the cost included in the rent? If not – how is it calculated and paid for?
8. Are there extra cleaning services available and what is the cost per hour? When you are on holiday the last thing you want to be doing is scrubbing the toilets. It is a good idea to organise at least one to two extra cleans a week if there are a large number sharing over a period of a few weeks. Often, there is a weekly clean included in the weekly rental.
9. Is there a chef that will come to the villa and cook for you? Does the chef bring all the ingredients and is this included in the cost? Having a chef is a great idea if you are not in close proximity to restaurants, and after all, you are on holiday and you don’t want to cook dinner every night. Also, you can learn a few cooking tips to impress your friends when you return home.

I remember a holiday where I organised a chef to cook every second night. He was very open to showing us a few of his cooking techniques however most of my friends were uninterested in cooking lessons but when this Adonis turned up there was not one female left on the couch. Not only did he bring all the ingredients, prepare the food, serve and cleared the table, he then washed up and left the kitchen spotless. Worth every Euro I say!


10. What is the access to the villa? Are there many stairs or a steep pathway to your front door? Remember – everything that you carry in also has to be carried out and that includes your suitcases, groceries/wine, and no doubt, the many wonderful purchases that you will make during your Italian vacation. Also remember that all the trash has to be deposited in the communal garbage and recycling bins on the street.
11. Check the restrictions for car parking. Is there off-street parking and for how many cars? If not, what are the restrictions for on-street parking?
12. Is the accommodation in a quiet area? Check out Google maps/earth, or ask the vendor if it is close to a busy road, train line, industrial or commercial area. I once rented an apartment on a pedestrian only street in Taormina, Sicily. Great I thought – a really central location and no cars. Alas, people partied till the wee hours up and down the street and then all the commercial deliveries had to be made before 7.00am. Thank goodness the windows were double glazed.
13. Is there an Internet connection and/or mobile phone coverage? We are now totally reliant on easy communication and expect that we can call our family and connect to the internet anywhere we go. However – that is not the case in Italy. Find out if your accommodation is connected (wi-fi or dial-up) and is there a cost to you.
14. Is the accommodation child friendly? Stairs – internal and external, a fenced-in garden, a fenced- in pool area, is the garden area safe for children (water features, steep cliffs etc)?
15. Do you want to be close to a village or town? This is important because you will need a car to get around if you are in the countryside. If you have a car and you rent accommodation in a town or village what are the parking arrangements/costs?

16. What services does your local village or town have? Restaurants and bars, supermarket (co-op), specialty food vendors, bank and/or ATM etc, doctor, chemist, etc
17. What are the closest transport links? Train services vary in Italy from rapid express to very, very slow! What is the closest airport and car hire place?
18. What area of Italy do you want to vacation in? Are you hankering for a remote location to commune with nature? Or, are you an urbanite that needs to be near all the action? Or are you someone in between – nature and action? Check out what your locality has to offer: culture, art, music, scenery, nature walks, parks, gardens, boating, beaches, golf and tennis etc, shopping, wineries, food, historic locations, museums etc…
19. Consider the time of year that you take your holiday in Italy? Spring (March to May) and Autumn ( September to November – however take note that late October and November can be cold) are the best. Summer (June to August) can be really very hot especially late July and August. Note – Italians take their holidays in August and tend to holiday in Italy. Consequently, many shops and restaurants will be closed and the prime holiday destinations such as the seaside, islands and the mountains will be very crowded with holidaying Italians.
20. What are the costs?
• Rent per week/month (Remember to ask for a discount for longer bookings or when making low season bookings).
• Rent per week/month (ask for a discount for longer bookings or low season bookings)
• Money transfer costs/bank fees
• Consider the exchange rate – are the rental costs quoted in your currency or the Euro
• Security deposit (refundable how? and when?)
• Chef – paid directly to the chef or the booking agent/vendor
• Extra maid service – paid directly to the maid or the booking agent/vendor
• Extras such as – air conditioning, heating, pool etc
• Are there any other staff such as a gardener or housekeeper who may need to receive a tip?

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OK – now you have your list of “must haves”, you can start looking….

Next blog we will discover how to go about finding your ideal villa or apartment.

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Italy on a Plate – Pasta and Porcini

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Dievole is an enchanted valley not far from Siena. The name is synonymous with the vineyard that was established here over 1,000 years ago and has since been lovingly cultivated by generations of the families who have made this valley their home.

Today, Dievole is still an enchanted place. I spent ten wonderful days here sampling the wine, relishing great local food and fresh produce, enjoying warm Italian hospitality, and above all, marvelling at the fantastic and beautiful scenery; the lush valleys, the rolling hillsides covered in vines that were adopting their autumn colours of gold and red, the deep green oak forests that are home to wild boar, and the quaint stone-built villages clinging to the hillsides.

What bought me to Dievole was my interest in photography. I came to learn and refine my skills with a fantastic teacher – Chris Corradino from New York. It was a great experience to see Italy with fresh eyes and a different perspective through the camera lens.

Our week flew by with excursions to interesting and different vistas; an urban shoot in Firenze, exploring small villages, nosing around old buildings, capturing open spaces and dawn shoots to get that special light. We were faced with all sorts of technical and artistic challenges along the way which were quickly resolved with Chris’ encouragement. A sample of my photos accompanies this blog.

Dievole has a wonderful gastronomic history. I enjoyed many memorable meals and the opportunity to talk to the chef and waiters who are passionate about serving great food as they are about eating it. A couple of culinary highlights demonstrate the essence of Italian cooking to me – the use of fresh, local produce and letting the flavours of the food speak for themselves. In typical Italian fashion, dishes are not complicated by conflicting tastes, textures and are not swimming in sauces. Plates are simply and beautifully presented where the ingredients are king and not necessarily dominated by the person in the kitchen that put it altogether.

Pasta is a dish that illustrates the Italian food ideal of simplicity. Every locality and region in Italy has its own signature pasta and here in this corner of Tuscany, it is pici, also known as pinci. This is a hand-rolled, eggless thick spaghetti and a good example of “cucina povera” (poor man’s cuisine) — utilizing only flour, water, green Tuscan olive oil. Originating from the Val d’Orcia region (the area between Montalcino and Montepulciano). This pasta is best served with sauces such as: briciole – breadcrumbs, aglione – spicy garlic tomato sauce, boscaiola – porcini mushrooms, and ragù – a meat based sauce, game meat such as – cinghiale – wild boar, leper – hare and anatra – duck.
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Cooking Tip – What is the correct pasta serving size?

Firstly, how much pasta you need to cook depends on a number of factors – whether you are cooking a first course of a main course, the type of pasta you are cooking, and how hungry your guests are.
The general rule is that the amount of pasta to cook per person should be roughly:

•75g-115g/3oz-4oz dried pasta;
•115g-150g/4oz-5oz fresh pasta;
•175g-200g/6oz-7oz filled pasta, such as ravioli ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have two recipes for you – one a quick and easy dish for a light lunch, and the other, is a heartier meal with complex rich flavours. You won’t be disappointed…

IMG_0296

Pici con Pomodoro e Porcini (serves 4)

Ingredients
• Pici pasta – fresh or dry (amount per the above guide)
• 2 tablespoons cold pressed extra virgin – a must
• 1 punnet ripe! cherry tomatoes
• 2 cloves finely chopped fresh garlic
• 250 mls dry white wine (and a glass for yourself)
• Thinly sliced porcini mushrooms (or others if you can’t find porcini)
• Salt and pepper
• Parmesan cheese

Method
1. Prepare the pasta according to the packet instructions and for the number of serves required
2. When the pasta is just al dente drain and coat with olive oil and keep warm
3. In a frying pan heat the olive oil and toss in chopped garlic and stir for a minute
4. Splash in some white wine and cook off for a minute
5. Toss in washed cherry tomatoes and heat through
6. Toss in the cooked pasta and heat through
7. Season to taste
8. Place on a flat serving plate and arrange the sliced fresh mushrooms on top
9. Offer parmesan cheese and a crusty bread roll.
10. Perfect with a dry white wine – pinot grigio or similar

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Ragu di Anatra (Duck Breast Ragu (serves 4)

Ingredients
• 20g butter
• 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
• 2 duck breasts (3 if small) trimmed of skin and excess fat, thinly sliced into strips
• 6 slices chopped pancetta
• 1 finely chopped onion
• 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
• 1 finely chopped carrot
• 1 finely chopped celery stalk
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 tbsp. tomato paste
• 250ml dry red wine such as Chianti (and of course a glass for you)
• 600g good-quality tomato pasta sauce
• 1 cup (250ml) chicken stock
• Grated parmesan, to serve

Method

1. Heat the butter and oil in a frypan over medium-high heat.
2. Cook the duck, in batches, until browned.
3. Remove duck with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl.
4. Drain all but 1 tablespoon oil from the pan and heat over medium heat.
5. Add pancetta, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and bay leaves to the pan and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes until they start to colour.
6. Return the duck to the pan with any resting juices,
7. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
8. Add the red wine and cook for 2-3 minutes until the liquid has reduced slightly.
9. Add the tomato sauce and chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low, cover and gently simmer for 45 minutes or until the duck is tender and the sauce has thickened slightly.
10. Season the sauce to taste and serve the ragu with the cooked pici
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Do you know any foodies? Please forward my blog to them and ask them to sign up – more fab recipes to come!

In my next blog I visit the olive oil press for an amazing treat.

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Jordan – At the crossroads

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Jordan is a peaceful and law abiding country. Here traffic rules are made to be broken. No matter if the driver is a hot blooded young stud with 6 cylinders under him or a doddery old codger chugging around in a clapped out Toyota – the rule of the road is mob rule!

Unlike the drivers in Egypt, the Jordanian drivers are quite circumspect about using their car horns. So travelling around the streets is comparatively a quiet affair, but nonetheless entertaining. When stopped at traffic lights, it is quite common that one or two vehicles will streak by through the red light, without any concern for oncoming traffic, pedestrians or livestock. At roundabouts which are numerous, drivers merging will edge onto the roundabout and then come to a halt in front of the oncoming traffic and sit and stare when a driver blasts the horn. Pedestrian crossings are non-existent, and if they are marked on the road they appear to be for decoratative purposes only. Lane markings on the roads and freeways are not used to separate the traffic into lanes as everyone drives right down the middle of the line. Camels, donkeys and sheep have right of way. Camels are treated with the utmost caution. If you are unlucky enough to hit one, it will end up sitting in the front seat with you. Then there are the trucks – big ugly oil-dripping, fume-belching monsters that rule the road. You will often see these pulled up on the roadside, with the driver getting out his prayer mat to observe the 5 times a day call to prayer. They certainly need Mohammad in the front seat with them the way they drive.

My driver is Fadi; around thirty, darkly handsome, softly spoken and with the largest and most impressive eyebrow (note the singular – his is a monobrow) I have ever seen. This dark, lustrous growth crowns his eyes like a toupee for the face. Jehad my guide makes very witty observations and comments about Fadi’s eyebrow thatch which Fadi takes in good spirits. Fadi is happy to enter into the banter, making self-deprecating comments as well.

Jehad is another kettle of fish altogether; he is well travelled, has modern and moderate views, speaks several languages and is politically aware and very voluble in his opinions. I sit in the back listening to Fadi and Jehad chatting in Arabic; instinctively I know when the conversation has strayed onto politics. Everywhere I go in Egypt and Jordan – politics is hot.

As a young man Jehad left Jordan and lived in Rome for a number of years where he studied hospitality and then worked in hotel and restaurant management. He met his wife who is Australian, then left Rome for a new life in Brisbane. After a few years and one daughter later he found that he was missing his homeland and needed to return to Jordan and now lives in the capital, Amman.

As we drove along, we enjoyed many interesting conversations about the life, lifestyle and the politics of the Middle East, and Jordan in particular. It seems that most people in Jordan and Egypt are concerned about the right wing Islamic fundamentalists becoming more powerful and influential. This is not a direction that most educated people want to go. They see Saudi Arabia is exerting more pressure to introduce draconian Sharia laws that will make life intolerable for most women in Egypt and Jordan.

Traditionally, the veil has not been part of Jordanian and Egyptian culture; however, many more women are adopting the veil or being made to wear the all-black dress covering the face, feet, hands and eyes. They appear like a black apparition walking along the street. As I sit in the cool air con of the car wearing short sleeves and jeans, I can’t imagine how hot and uncomfortable this outfit would be.

Life in the middle east is difficult; clashing political views, democratic reform is hard fought, equality for women is not enshrined, a hash and water deprived landscape, autocratic governments, equal education and employment opportunities for all unheard of. This being said, everyone I came into contact with was a pleasure to meet; proud of their history and culture, warm and welcoming to a stranger, generous and kind. I would certainly encourage everyone to make the journey and be wowed by the fantastic sights, the great food, the rich culture, the people and the heart and soul of these ancient lands where mighty conquers made their mark, crusaders were vanquished and where Moses is buried. This is an ancient and wondrous land.

Categories: Egypt, Food, Wine and Cooking, Jordan, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Italy on a Plate – Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards – Yummy!!!

Italy has many festivals and “The Festa della Zucca” held in October in a small town Venzone – in the Friuli–Venezia which is Italy’s most North-Eastern region. Venzone is pumpkin central. The town center transforms itself into a Medieval carnival with fire eaters, jugglers and street dancers all parading in the streets which are lit by torches and candles. The locals get into the mood by dressing as nobles, knights and ladies, innkeepers, shopkeepers and merchants. The atmosphere is enhanced as the shops are decorated with pumpkins and gastronomic delights such as pumpkin pizza, pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin crostini and more. The humble pumpkin is elevated to royal status for the occasion.

The origins of the Pumpkin Festival are legendary. The Noble of the village of Venzone wanted to beautify and fortify the town and used the townsfolk as labourers. On completion of the restoration, the workers were not rewarded including a special craftsman who was to decorate the copper dome of the Cathedral of Venzone with a golden ball. But he too was not paid for his work so he craftily replaced the ball on the golden dome of the cathedral with a pumpkin. The Noble realized that he was tricked by the artist only on the day when the ball fell from its position on the dome and smashed to the ground.

Recently I had 8 friends for lunch and like every cook, planning the meal is half the fun. Poring over the cook books, being inspired by far a way places and cuisines and salivating over sumptuous and mouth-watering food photos. However, this time I decided to cook lunch using some of the recipes that I received at the Casa Ombuto cooking school in Tuscany last year. You can read more about this in my other blogs.

The lunch menu was:
Antipasto – Filo Cups filled with Aubergine Sauce (salsa con melanzane)
Prima Piatti – Pumpkin and Parmesan custards (Copette di zucca e parmigiano)
Secondo Piatti – “Jump in the Mouth” Veal with Sage and Ham (saltimbocca alla romana)
Dolce – Tiramasu (this literally means “pick you up”

The Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards were real winners as they were a new taste sensation and a different approach to serving pumpkin. The result is a lovely creamy custard that is slightly sweet from the pumpkin and the complex hint of the smoked cheese. I think the smokier the cheese the better.

So here is the recipe for you to try….
Ingredients
• 350 gms of cooked and pureed pumpkin
• 320 ml pouring cream
• 2 eggs
• 1 tablespoon grated smoked cheese (I used smoked cheddar)
• 50 gms grated parmesan cheese
• Salt and pepper to taste

Method

1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees
2. Pass cooked and pureed pumpkin through a sieve
3. Mix pumpkin, cream and smoked cheese and salt and pepper until smooth
4. Add the eggs and mix well
5. Pour into individual heat proof ramekins
6. Bake in a “bagno maria” (a water bath) for about 45 minutes or until the cream has thickened when you give it a gentle shake
7. Take out of oven and sprinkle about a teaspoon of grated parmesan cheese on top of each custard
8. Place under a hot grill until the cheese is golden brown
9. Serve warm with some crusty bread and a full-bodied white wine – maybe a pinot grigio from Fruili.

Happy cooking and eating… do you have any other favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Just drop me a line in the comment box below.

For information, prices and dates for cooking schools in Tuscany please contact me at varley.e@gmail.com

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jordan, Petra and Other Desert Delights!

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In comparison to Egypt, Jordan is a country that trades on one amazing ancient monument – Petra. And what a monument this is.

Petra from the Greek, meaning ‘stone’ is an archaeological city that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans who were an ancient people of North Arabia. They had a loosely controlled trading network which centered on strings of oases that they controlled on various trading routes that linked them. Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom, annexing it to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.
Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, and the centre of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Petra is a symbol of Jordan, as well as its most visited tourist attraction and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time”. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage” and one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”

As you approach Petra, your anticipation mounts as the impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 meters wide) called the Siq (“the shaft”). This natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway which can be treacherous during heavy rain as you can be caught in a flash flood and swept away.

The gorge is deep, with vertical stone cliffs that soar upwards blocking out the sun which is only able to penetrate to the floor of the gorge as it passes vertically overhead. It is a cool, quiet place. After about a 2 kilometer walk, you approach the end of the gorge and you see before you, a bright sunlight area, the size of a football field and surrounded by high sandstone cliffs.

Your breath is taken away by the immense stone carved structure before you. There stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as “the Treasury”). Hewn into the sandstone cliff many centuries ago. This was not a place for storing the King’s wealth but actually a tomb where he would rest for eternity and enjoy the next life.

There are a number of other tombs in the area that are not as elaborate as the Treasury, however impressive nevertheless. These tombs reflect the social status and the wealth of the individual who commissioned their building. Some are just small burial niches, others are more substantial, with carving and decoration on the outside. The very wealthy were able to afford elaborate tombs that are guaranteed to impress and insure a comfortable passage to the afterlife.

Jordan is a country that is 75% desert and the remainder is semi-arid and sparsely populated. The significant minority group is the Bedouins. These ancient nomads call the whole of the Saharan desert home and easily travel across borders with scant regard to passports and immigrations laws. Some have adopted a semi-permanent lifestyle where they live in small towns and villages for part of the year, but regularly return to the desert with their tents and camels for extended periods of time.
Wadi Rum, also known as The Valley of the Moon, is cut into the sandstone and granite rock in southern Jordan, 60 km to the east of the Red Sea port of Aqaba. It is the largest wadi (valley) in Jordan. The name Rum most likely comes from an Aramaic root meaning ‘high’ or ‘elevated’. The stone mountains have been carved by sand and wind erosion for thousands of years, forming amazing and fantastical shapes on the rock face of the mountains. This gives the mountains the appearance that they are melting like a dripping ice cream cones on a hot day. The colours of the rock are fantastic, rich and varied; black, red, warm colours of orange and ochre, creamy whites to vibrant yellows.

I spent the afternoon with Atala – a local Bedouin who supplements his income by taking tourists out into the desert and making them a cup of tea over a small brush fire and showing them his skill of driving in powdery, slippery sand and over rocky dunes. I feel like I have stepped back into time. I ride alongside Atala in his 4×4, hearing stories about Bedouin life in the desert, and how the ancient trader’s caravans used Wadi Rum as a major route through the centuries; trading myrrh, frankincense, and other precious cargos from Asia to the Middle East.

Atala is dressed as traditionally – he is wearing a loose long-sleeved grey gown that falls to his ankles over a pair of loose cotton pants, on his head is the traditional head-dress of a red-and-white checked head scarf (the keffiyeh) secured by a rope coil (agal) around his skull. The red-and-white keffiyeh is a symbol of Jordanian heritage, and is strongly associated with Jordan. The Jordanian keffiyeh has decorative cotton or wool tassels on the sides and it is believed that the bigger these tassels, the more value it has and the higher a person’s status. It has been used by the Bedouins and villagers throughout the centuries and was used as a symbol of honor and tribal identification. The scarf can be tied in a variety of ways and reflects the personal style, as well as, serving a practical purpose to protect the eyes, ears and mouth from the sun, wind and sand. British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh. He wore a plain white one with agal during his involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War I.

Atala’s handsome face is deeply bronzed from years spent in the desert’s sun and wind. There are lines that crease around his eyes when he smiles and then you are dazzled by his brilliant white teeth. I am not sure what the secrets of his dental hygiene are, and how he maintains such radiant teeth as I note how much sugar he pours into his tea. Teaspoons are not part of local etiquette and he measures out the tea leaves by generous handfuls and the sugar in the same way. He is amazed that I prefer my tea without any sugar.

Gazing at him I, am unsure of his age – he is either incredibly young and has weathered badly, or, of more advanced years and looks fantastic for his age. I suppose he is somewhere in between. A father of 7 children – the eldest is 12 years old and the youngest is 2 years old. No doubt there will be one or two more to follow. The Bedouin place great importance on having children, and in large numbers, as this is an investment in their future and security in their old age.

As the largest minority group in Jordan, the Bedouin receive certain advantages from the government. However the Bedouin place an importance on self-determination and managing their issues inside the tribe. If there is a transgression within the community, they will seek the counsel of the headman to determine the appropriate course of action and appropriate punishment. As a nomadic and free-spirited people the worst punishment that can be metered out is home detention. To enforce this punishment they do not need high-tech monitoring devices – such an electronic ankle bracelets but simply they shave half the culprits moustache off. The moustache, to the Bedouin is a major feature and they are particularly vain about their luxuriant growths. Any self-respecting Bedouin would not be caught dead without his handsome moustache – let alone half a one.

Vanity is not only the prerogative of the men. The women too use cosmetics as Atala showed me. He found two pieces of a particular stone and rubbed them together vigorously. This formed a brick-red powder which he carefully spread over my cheeks in large round patches. He stood back and admired his artistic endeavours and was certain that I would make a good bride price. However, desert life for me is far from comfortable; living in sheepskin tents, milking camels, surviving the elements – searing hot in summer, and bone chilling cold in winter, horrendous sand storms that can block out the sun for days and cover anything that stands in their path.

The Bedouin are to be admired for their pride in their culture and traditional way of life. Harsh and as hard as it is.

Next blog – more about Lawrence of Arabia….

Categories: Egypt, Jordan, Language, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Italy On A Plate – Il Ragu, The Best Bolognese Sauce Recipe Ever!

In Australia, like the rest of the world we eat Bolognese sauce by the litres. Commonly known as “Spag Bol” – this dish is to be found on menus everywhere, and in every instance, there is a variation made by the chef. Sometimes this is successful, but in most instances, these Bolognese sauces bear little resemblance to anything that you will find in Italy.

However, recently I attended an Italian cooking school in Tuscany, and Paola our chef says this is the “real McCoy”. Bolognese sauce is an Italian meat-based sauce for pasta which originated in Bologna, a city in Northern Italy. There it is often referred to as Il Ragu. It is a rich, thick and hearty sauce that unctuously clings to the pasta. Italians do not eat pasta swimming in sauce but prefer a “drier” sauce that has bold and clear flavours and is equal partner to the pasta.

Bolognese is a complex sauce which involves long slow cooking to let the flavours develop and intensify. This is not a dish for people in a hurry or the impatient. It is based on a soffritto which uses finely diced onion, carrot, and celery which are sautéed in olive oil until the mixture reaches a state of browning appropriate to its intended use. A soffritto is a building block to many Italian sauces and dishes.

Ingredients
• 1 Medium Red (Spanish) onion
• 2 cloves garlic
• I small carrot
• I stalk celery
• 100gms minced pork
• 200gms minced beef
• 400gms peeled canned tomatoes (crushed or chopped)
• 2 tablespoons of torn basil leaves
• Olive oil
• Salt and pepper
• 2 glasses red wine
• 1 glass of red wine extra
Proceedure
1. Mince the onion, carrot and celery in a food processor or chop very finely by hand
2. Brown these with the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat and season with salt and pepper
3. Add the combined meat and brown well
4. When the meat starts to stick to the pan add half a glass of red wine and leave on low/medium heat to reduce again
5. Repeat this 3 times, each time adding wine, stirring and leaving it to reduce
6. Mash tomatoes (if whole) and pour over to meat mixture and leave to slowly infuse with the meat for 10 minutes and then mix
7. Stir in basil leaves
8. Cover and simmer for 2 hours
9. Stir occasionally and add extra hot water if necessary
10. While il ragu is cooking drink the extra glass of wine!

To serve – use any type of pasta that you prefer, but tagliatelle is the Italian choice. In the absence of tagliatelle, you can also use other broad, flat pasta shapes, such as pappardelle or fettuccine, or with short tube shapes, such as rigatoni or penne.

Offer freshly grated parmesan cheese and a hearty red wine such as Shiraz or a Sangiovese.

Do you have any favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Yes? Please just leave a comment below and I will blog that recipe for you….

Recipe with thanks from http://www.tuscookany.com

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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