Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Best Thing I Ate Today in Umbria Day 8

This morning, after breakfast, we headed out in the mini-bus and were dropped off about an hour’s hike away from the town of Pitigliano. This little hillside town, south of Florence, on the Tuscan border, has a fascinating Jewish history. Our guide for the day was a young woman named Elisabetta. She grew up in Pitigliano as a history and archaeology scholar. She also runs the local library in Pitigliano. As we hiked into town, she gave us a brief history of Pitigliano.

Jews began settling in Pitigliano in the 15th Century. The Jewish population continued to grow as more Jews were forced out of Rome because of Pope Paul IV’s segregation policies, requiring Jews to live in ghettos. Pitigliano was an attractive place to settle for many Jews because it was not part of the papal state and was an independent province, ruled at the time by the Orsini family. The Orsini’s social policy was quite laissez-faire and the Jews were permitted to live a freer lifestyle. A synagogue was built in 1598, followed by the construction of a school. Jews were permitted to set up their own businesses as carpenters, tailors, weavers, shoemakers and moneylenders. The city soon became known as La Piccola Gerusalemme or “Little Jerusalem.”

Over the next several hundred years, depending on who was in power, the fortunes of the Jews of Pitigliano either waxed or waned. However, despite restrictions during various periods, the Jewish community continued to grow and prosper.  In the mid 1800’s the Jewish population of Pitigliano reached almost 400 people, which represented over 10% of the total population.

After the unification of Italy in 1861, the Jewish population of Pitigliano began to decline. Many Jews moved to larger cities nearby for economic reasons.  By 1931, there were only 70 Jews left living there.  Anti-Semitism was rampant by 1936 and then in 1938 racial laws were instituted. During the Holocaust, the brave Christian people of Pitigliano risked their lives to hide and save Jews that were escaping from the Nazi terror. They hid them on farms in the valleys and in caves up in the hills.

After the war, only 30 Jews returned to Pitigliano. The synagogue had been damaged during the war. Today despite the fact that there are only 3 Jews left in Pitigliano, the Jewish cultural heritage has been preserved. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1995. One of those Jews is Elena Servi.  She is president of Associazione La Piccola Gerusalemme (The Association of Little Jerusalem), an organization made up of both Catholics and Jews. Elena and her nephew have made it their life’s mission to tell the story of the history of Pitigliano so that future generations can learn from it.

It is a beautiful story of cultural and religious co-existence, tolerance, compassion, respect, friendship and affection between Christians and Jews. The association has raised funds to restore and preserve all the Jewish monuments in the town, including the Synagogue, the “Forno di Asimo” (the Kosher oven) and the Jewish Cemetery. The citizens of this town honour the memory of the Jewish citizens that once thrived in this place. They feel strongly that it is important to remember and preserve the history and maintain these sites so that it will never be forgotten. It is a very moving tribute.

A beautiful web site, devoted to Pitigliano has been created by one very special man. Click HERE to check it out!

We went to see the Kosher oven where matzoh for Passover was baked so many years ago.

We had the privilege of meeting Signora Servi and she spoke to us about her experiences during the Holocaust. She and several members of her family left the town in November 1943 and were hidden away by farmers and peasants, outside of town, moving from one small farm to another, until June 1944. The last 3 months of hiding were spent in a cave under the protection and support of a local Christian farmer.

After meeting with Elena, Elisabetta took us over to an old wine cellar (Cantina Sociale) where we were served an incredible lunch.

Platters of food kept arriving at the table. Of course the requisite Pecorino cheese made an appearance. We had a 2-month old one which tasted very fresh and nutty and a 1-year-old one which was drier and had some straw undertones. Then they brought Stracchino, a mild soft white cow’s milk cheese to the table with 3 sauces (cactus, acacia honey and pear and pepper) to accompany it. The name of the cheese derives from the Italian word “stracca”, meaning “tired. It is said that the milk from tired cows coming down from the alpine pastures in the fall, is richer in fats and more acidic. These qualities were discovered, according to legend, in the milk of cows who were moved seasonally, up and down the Alps to different pastures. The milk of such cows gives the cheese its characteristic flavors. It has a mild milky flavour, similar to cream cheese but a bit more acidic, with just a hint of tartness. It just melts in your mouth. When paired with the sauces it became something different all together. I loved it best with the pear and pepper sauce.

The crostini with olive oil was unbelievable. I have never had an olive oil this fruity. The olive oil soaked into the toasted bread and softened it ever so slightly. There were two kinds of farro salads, both with chickpeas. The first had thinly sliced purple onion and was dressed simply with olive oil and sea salt. The second had tomatoes and basil and was also dressed with olive oil and sea salt. I could not get enough of these farro salads. My favourite eat of the day! The chewy nutty farro contrasting with the creamy chickpeas was an unbeatable combination. When I came home I created my own version of this, adding pickled shallots.

Click here to see the recipe for Farro and Chick Peas with Pickled Shallots.

Of course we were served kosher wine, produced by The Pitigliano Cooperative Cellars. It is sold in a winery just outside of town.

We finished with a wild cherry and sheep’s milk ricotta cheese pie.

After lunch we had a chance to tour the wine cellar.

Then it was time to visit the Synagogue.

Once inside the synagogue, one of our friends asked Elisabetta if it would be okay if he could lead our group in the mincha (afternoon prayer) service. To hear Hebrew being sung in this place was very emotional for all of us. This  town of mostly Christians wish to honour the memory of the Jewish citizens that once thrived in this place. They feel strongly that it is important to remember and preserve the history and maintain these sites so that it will never be forgotten. It is a very moving tribute that left me feeling very hopeful about a future when all religions can peacefully co-exist.

After we left the synagogue, we felt kind of drained of all our energy, but in a good way. We just wandered around the town, taking it all in. The buildings in this walled city are constructed out of the soft yellow volcanic rock, “tuff.” The cobblestone streets are narrow and the pride the residents take in their homes was beautiful to see.

We discovered that Italian cats like to dine on pasta,  elderly men in Pitigliano like to hang out in a group, outside on benches, just like elderly gentlemen all over the world and my friend Philip discovered that the women of Pitigliano are incredible flirts.

Stay tuned for Day 9 when we become totally shallow, abandon all interest in culture and history and visit the Italian outlet malls!

The Best Thing I Ate Today in Umbria Day 7

Today, thankfully, we had an opportunity to air out our hiking and biking clothes and give our tired aging muscles and bones a bit of a rest, as we were headed off to Florence, by bus, to go sightseeing.  We started off in our minibus with Claudio. Once we got off the strada bianca (dirt road) and close to the autostrada (highway), we pulled into a parking lot and switched to a big bus. Claudio was rather excited to be driving the big bus. Now he could really show us his stuff and take it up, over 100 km per hour on the autostrada without the bus getting the shakes.

Our day in Florence included lots of options for everyone to choose from.  As you can well imagine, with a group of 18, there are varying interests. The morning options included a Segway tour of Florence or a walking tour with local guide, Simone, starting at the Arno River and ending up at the Jewish Synagogue. Afternoon options included a visit to the Uffizi gallery, a tour of the Duomo or sightseeing on your own. Late afternoon, there was an optional visit to an artisanal chocolate master, for a chocolate making demonstration (and tasting, of course).

I remarked to Cameron and Leif, our B&R guides, that organizing the day in Florence must have been a bit of a challenge. They just looked at each other and laughed. Apparently a spread sheet was involved in order to keep straight where everyone was going and at what times. They were more than a little nervous about losing someone. He said that the swan was a perfect avatar for a B&R guide…all calm and serene on the surface, but paddling like mad below the surface to stay afloat.

This was my second visit to Florence. My first was in 1984, with my sister, after I graduated from University. What I remember most vividly about the city was not the typical sites (the Duomo and The David) but laughing with my sister, eating amazing gelato and buying a beautiful leather purse. Shockingly, I can still remember the name of the ice cream shop, Vivoli Gelato.

Truthfully, this visit was not much different. Switch a sister for a sister-in-law and our day was pretty similar. My sister-in-law, Marion, and I are great friends, but because we live in different cities, we don’t get to spend as much time together as we wish. We decided to just wander on our own and opted out of the afternoon tours. My husband questioned the wisdom of doing this. He said, “You’re here in Florence, don’t you want to visit the famous sites?”  When I stopped to think about it, the answer to his question became obvious to me. I said, “Many years from now, when I’m on my deathbed, I doubt that I’ll regret not visiting more of the tourist sites in Florence. But I do know that I will regret not spending more time laughing, eating gelato, shopping, and just hanging out with Marion.”

We ate some incredible coconut gelato (could this be the best thing I ate all day?), bought matching silver woven evening bags, tried on dozens of hats and scarves, took pictures of some really beautiful old doors and flowers and got quite lost looking for the leather market. I have never been known for my sense of direction but I always thought Marion was skilled with a map. Clearly I was mistaken! I think we circled the same several blocks 4 times before we actually realized it. We did, however, make it back in time for the chocolate class.

Our lesson was in the lab of  Andrea Bianchini at La Bottega del Cioccolato.  Andrea is an award-winning pastry chef and one of Italy’s leading chocolatiers. He greeted us dressed in pristine chef’s whites. He had a ready smile and a little twinkle in his eye. I suspect that he regularly gets himself in just a little bit of trouble with the ladies.

I let out a little yelp when I saw the chocolate tempering machines in the pastry kitchen. He had one for milk chocolate and one for dark chocolate.

In the chocolate tempering process, the cocoa butter molecules within the chocolate are stabilized through a process of heating and cooling that allows the chocolate to harden properly and ensures a shiny finish. Untempered or incorrectly tempered chocolate can be brittle and may appear lackluster, spotted, or blotchy with a whitish film on the surface because the cocoa butter separates from the chocolate and some cocoa butter crystals are visible to the eye. Tempered chocolate will have a nice shine and a “snap” when you bite into it.

The tempering process involves melting the chocolate to about 113° F, then adding some unmelted chocolate and stirring, so that it cools down to 81° F, and then heat it up gently to about 88° F. Then you must maintain this temperature while working.

When I make truffles at home, I do this entire tempering process by hand, using a heating pad to regulate and maintain the temperature of the chocolate. (Click here to see how I do it at home.)  I was quite jealous of these tempering machines. The entire tempering process is done by machine. These machines are not inexpensive. A small home model could start at about $500. I can only imagine the cost of these beauties.

We got to try a selection of different chocolates, as well as his version of tiramisu, made with his secret recipe for mascarpone cheese. My favourite was the salted caramel truffle. (Could this be the best thing I ate all day?). He sprinkled a secret ingredient on one of the chocolate bars he made for us. We all licked the chocolates trying to guess what it was he had coated them with. Finally it came to us…Parmesan cheese! I had never thought of that combination before. Unusual, for sure but I’m fairly certain this year’s holiday basket will not contain Parmesan truffles.

The plan was for everyone to meet at the bus at 6:30 and then we would all go on to dinner together from there. When we arrived at the bus, about 10 minutes late, almost everyone was there. Leif had beads of sweat on his upper lip and he and Claudio were exchanging worried, anxious glances. Suddenly Leif’s carefully crafted calm veneer cracked, and he yelled, “OK, everyone on the bus. Now!” We were shocked, but we quickly clambered back onto the bus and took off at top speed. Those already on the bus were in various states of undress, as most of us had brought a change of clothes to wear for dinner.  Clothes went flying, lipsticks and earrings went rolling up the aisle of the bus and perhaps someone lost her balance and landed in the lap of the wrong husband. It was chaos.

We later discovered that large tour buses are not permitted inside the old city walls of Florence. Claudio snuck in and was parked illegally. With each passing minute he risked the chance of being caught and getting a huge fine.

Dinner that night was at Cibreo. I had spent quite a bit of time researching where to eat dinner in Florence. Cibreo was very highly recommended by Liria, the owner of the villa we were staying at. What you need to know about Cibreo is that this is not your typical Italian restaurant. There is no pasta on the menu. Actually, there is no menu, but more about that later.

I knew we had made the right choice, when our friends, who live in Milan, joined our group for dinner and told me they were so excited we had chosen this restaurant. They said it is their favourite in Florence and come here for dinner every time they are in town. We began with Prosecco and a small plate of amuse bouche. Now, you have to understand that I have been tasting Prosecco on this trip, like it’s my job. Tough job, I know, but I am doing it for the sake of research so you can benefit from my hard work! I have come to adore Prosecco very late in life. I always thought I didn’t like sparkling wine because all I had ever tasted was Champagne. But Prosecco is so much lighter, fresher and less yeasty than Champagne. I am on a mission to sample as many brands as I can, to come up with a favourite. It seems like I may have found it!I  Definitely my favourite of the trip so far.

On  the chef’s amuse bouche plate were an egg custard with herbs, smooth delicate and airy, chicken liver crostini that was rich, hearty and oh so silky, and a sun-dried tomato crostini.

Next we were served, what looked like someone had taken a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and emptied it onto a plate. Sort of like a small tomato jelly mould. Made me recall my cooking school days when we had to make aspic!  I took a little nibble to be polite and then another and another. Pretty soon we were all licking our plates clean. It was a sort of tomato aspic but nothing like I have ever eaten before. Brilliantly red and kissed with just a touch of red pepper flakes this custard was silky like velvet in texture but tasted like the freshest vine ripened, just picked tomato you have ever tasted.

Then one of the waiters came in with his arms full of long baguettes. Upon closer examination, each baguette had knots tied in both ends so it resembled the femur bone. Bread shaped like bones! Somebody here had an incredible sense of humour. I loved it!

When it came time to order our primi and secondi, a woman entered our private room and pulled up a chair to join us at the table. When she got our attention, she explained that at Cibreo, they don’t have menus. She will recite and explain all the choices for that evening. There were about 7 choices for primi and of course we forgot them all as soon as she finished explaining each in loving detail. We had to get her to recite them about 3 times before everyone was able to decide. She was very good-natured about it. She took our orders and got quite excited when it became obvious that at least one person was going to try each item. Apparently, it upsets her when everyone at the table all order the same thing. I can sort of understand that. I get really annoyed if my husband orders the same thing as I do, because then I can’t taste something different off his plate.

Although I didn’t get to taste everything, I was able to snap a few shots before everyone grew very impatient with me. The first picture is Cibreo’s yellow pepper soup, for which the restaurant is well-known. I managed to find a recipe for it on-line.

Everything I tasted was delicious. The flavours were somehow dense and compact yet light at the same time. Chef Fabio Picchi lets the simplicity of in-season, top quality ingredients speak for themselves.

Award for the best thing I ate all day has to go to the soup I ordered, Pappa al Pomodoro. This is a tomato soup, thickened with bread. They actually served it with a fork! I had to laugh as it made me think of that commercial for Campbell’s Chunky soups…”Thick enough to eat with a fork but use a spoon. You’ll want to get every last drop.”  I used some bread to sop up every last bit.

Desserts,which, in my opinion, are usually besides the point at Italian restaurants, really surprised me. Everyone who ordered the orange marmalade cheesecake raved about it. Those who ordered the panna cotta with caramel sauce had no trouble finishing and the few bites of raspberry tart I managed to swipe from my husband’s plate were incredible.

I am trying to figure out how I can get back to Florence as soon as possible to visit this wonderful restaurant.

Stay tuned for Day 8 when we visit Pitigliano, and learn a wonderful lesson about cultural co-existence.

The Best Thing I Ate Today in Umbria Day 6

This morning we headed out on our little bus, driven by Claudio, to the outskirts of Montepulciano (home of the noble Italian wine by the same name). From there the bikers began their 24 kilometer ride for the day. The hikers headed off on a 6 kilometer trek, taking us through the tiny hamlet of Montichiello, where the plan was to stop and have a cappuccino, before continuing on for a further 3 kilometers.

We arrived in Montichiello, huffing and puffing (the last kilometer was almost entirely uphill!)

Leif got us seated at a charming outdoor café and went inside to get our drinks. Of course coffee means snacks, and he came out with some almond biscotti and these amazing little crispy cookies. I am not quite sure what gave them their crispy texture, but our best guess, after finishing off the entire platter, was cornflakes.

By day 6, our B&R guides were getting to know us quite well, but we still managed to leave Leif shaking his head in amazement this morning when we disappeared after coffee and managed to find the only clothing store in town. Actually, it was the only clothing store within a 25 kilometer radius, from this pastoral little hamlet. Hidden in a little alleyway, just downhill from the café, my sister-in-law managed to sniff out this shop. She has a nose for these kinds of things. Leif was inside paying for the coffee, when she came running back to the café, all excited, and dragged the rest of the women hikers back to the store with her. We spent a good 45 minutes inside that tiny shop, trying on nearly everything they had. I bought the most adorable grey embroidered fall coat (pictured on the left) and a long grey jersey skirt. The shop was filled with beautiful knits and gorgeous, very boho chic clothing. Think of  Sienna Miller, Kate Moss and Mary Kate and Ashley and you get the idea. Layered knit dressing.

The boutique is called Madalisa and they have another branch in Pienza. The shop owner spoke no English, so Leif had to come in and translate for us. Imagine my surprise to discover that we were not the only group of women shoppers to succumb to his charms! Check out this YouTube video!

We hiked the last 3 kilometers of our journey, laden down with shopping bags, but we just pretended they were resistance weights to make our hike more efficient for our arm muscles!

As we rounded the last corner of our hike, we could smell our next stop, Podere Il Casale, before we could actually see it. Not surprising, given that we were about to visit a farm. But this was not your typical  farm. Podere Il Casale is an organic farm, run by a very unusual family. Ulisse and Sandra moved to Tuscany from Switzerland over 20 years ago. Along with their five sons, the farm is home to pigs, sheep, cows, goats, a donkey, shepherd dogs, cats, bees and peacocks. They produce cheese, pasta, olive oil, honey and pasta.

The farm overlooks the Val d’Orica and has sweeping majestic views of Monte Amiata. On a clear day you can see all the way to Pienza.

Ulisse and Sandra are very passionate about the “Slow Food” movement. While we were having lunch, Sandra explained that the farm is a member of  WWOOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). This organization links volunteers with organic farmers, and helps people share more sustainable ways of living. In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.

And lunch… what a feast. We had broccoli, tomatoes still warm  from the vine that actually tasted like tomatoes, spicy marinated eggplant, roasted peppers glistening in the farm’s own olive oil, farro salad with carrots and sun-dried tomatoes, penne pasta, made here on the farm with tomato sauce, homemade charcuterie, five varieties  of cheese and a local red wine that went down way too easily.

After lunch Ulisse gave us a cheese making demonstration. Dressed in a clean white tee shirt, white jeans and white rubber boots he reminded me of a Swiss Mr. Clean. The cheese making facility was even more spotless that Ulisse. He showed us how he heats sheep’s milk and then adds rennet to cause the proteins in the milk to coagulate.  Right before our very eyes, we saw curds being formed as they separated from the whey, just like in Little Miss Muffet!

Rennet in case you were wondering  is a complex of enzymes, produced in the stomach of all mammals to digest the mother’s milk. Just a warning to you, if anyone ever passes you a jar of rennet, DO NOT take a whiff. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The curds are cut into larger pieces for the fresher younger cheeses and into smaller pieces for the cheeses that will age longer. The curds are then put into molds to compress them and continue draining. The leftover whey is treated to some citric acid and transformed into ricotta cheese. Any excess whey is fed to the pigs. Nothing is wasted on this farm. After draining for almost  24 hours, the cheeses are given a bath in salt water,. This helps dry out the surface of the cheese and creates the rind.

The wheels of cheese are given different treatments for aging. Some are wrapped in walnut leaves, to impart a nutty flavour to the cheese, others are wrapped in ash, and still others are wrapped in straw. Some are allowed to ferment with San Giovese grapes and the wine flavour seeps right into the cheese.

My favourite cheese of  the day, of perhaps ever, was a 2 month old Pecorino, still fresh enough to be slightly creamy and with a nutty saltiness that almost made me swoon. If I close my eyes right now, I can still taste it. Definately a top candidate for the best thing I ate today

After the farm we visited the town of Montepulciano for a bit of retail therapy, and then it was onto dinner at La Frateria di Padre Eligio, a magical 13th Century Monastery, just outside the town of Cetona.  It took over 17 years to lovingly and painstakingly renovate and restore this former monastery to its former glory. La Frateria was created to offer moments of tranquillity, reflection and peace to those who feel the need. It serves as a type of rehabilitation centre for young people dealing with drug, alcohol or other sorts of personal crises. Under the auspices of  Mondo X, Padre Eligio restored this convent, and several others around the world, as a haven for those in need. It provides these troubled youths with the discipline of a community, which they so desperately need. They garden, bake, cook and clean.

We had aperitivo in a room which contained, for want of a better description, a walk in fireplace. It was huge! My husband, a card-carrying pyromaniac, was busy taking pictures and measurements, trying to figure out how we could build one at our house!

Accompanied by flutes of Prosecco, we feasted on wood-oven baked bread, olive and caper patè, preserves, salted meats, enormous wheels of local cheese and extra virgin olive oil milled by the young people using the original old stone millstones.

This minor feast was followed by a major feast in the dining room. We began with smoked salmon, followed by fragrant saffron risotto and then some tender pillows of homemade ravioli filled with local beans and a pesto sauce. I inhaled them before I had a chance to take a picture. So sorry, just got carried away! For secondi we had a choice between flaky white fish braised in Orvieto wine or Brasato Barolo (veal braised in Barolo wine).

The service was impeccable. The waiters would silently appear before you to refold your napkin, refill your water-glass or whisk away some imaginary crumbs, and then, just as quietly, slink away.  It was slightly unnerving and just a little bit creepy. That being said, you have to admire what is being done here to turn around the lives of these troubled youths.

The bus ride back to Casali di Monticchio was, as you can imagine, silent, save for the occasional gentle snoring as most of us slipped into a carb and alcohol induced coma. We were rudely awakened about 10 minutes from the villa when Claudio slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting a giant wild boar. Ah, life in the Umbrian countryside.

Stay tuned for Day 7 when we visit Firenze (Florence) where our well-trained B&R guides almost lose their carefully crafted composure and we eat bread in the shape of a femur bone at one of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of dining in!

The Best Thing I Ate Today In Umbria Day 5

Today we hiked (and some of us actually braved the hills and biked) to Orvieto. What you need to know about this ancient Umbrian city, which dates back some 3000 years, to the Etruscan era, is that it is perched  atop a soaring volcanic plateau. This hilltop town rises high above the green Umbrian valley floor. Needless to say, the hike into Orvieto was mainly uphill! But what a gorgeous scenic climb it was. The bikers took a picturesque 23 kilometer route into Orvieto. The hikers had about a 75 minute uphill climb.

Most tourists coming to Orvieto, go directly to the Duomo, the stunning Gothic Cathedral, sitting in the center of town. However, our group went immediately to the gelato shop. Clearly we have our priorities in order! Our guide Cameron had been telling us all about this  artisanal gelateria on our hike into Orvieto. I think it was her virtual carrot to dangle in front of us to keep us climbing those hills. It worked!

Dolceamaro, located at 78 Corso Cavour, was a sight to behold. The gelato flavours were displayed in a spinning glass carousel. Gianduja (chocolate , hazelnut and almonds) cocomero (watermelon), stracciatella (an incredible italian version of chocolate chip) fragola (strawberry),  caffe (coffee), liquirizia (black licorice), nocciola (hazelnut), cioccolato (chocolate), limone (lemon) and pesca (peach). I opted for the caffe which was very creamy and intensely coffee flavoured. Just the caffeine pick me up I needed. Cameron bought a few bags of cookies to put away for later when we would need to be coaxed to the next stop. One of the wonderful things about Butterfield and Robinson is that they adapt the itinerary to the group they are leading. These are not cookie cutter tours. Cameron clearly had us pegged very early on.

We met up with the bikers at the Duomo. An incredible example of Gothic architecture, it sits in the center of town, in the main square. The frescoes by Fra Angelico inside one of the chapels are truly breathtaking.

After the Duomo there was an opportuniuty to tour the labyrinth of caves and tunnels that lie below the city. The volcanic rock that the city is built on, known as tuft is quite soft. In the Etruscan era, the Noble families of the city had these tunnels constructed as a means of escape during times of siege. The exit from the tunnels was some distance away from the city walls and the wealthy were able to escape to safety. Several of my friends are a bit claustrophobic and did not want to visit the tunnels, so in the name of friendship, I sacrificed my opportunity to visit the underground world of Orvieto and shopped above ground instead. We got some great dried pastas and bottles of olive oil to take home.

When we were planning the trip and I looked at the first draft of the itinerary, I saw that after touring Orvieto we were scheduled to go to dinner at La Badia, a 12th Century renovated abbey nearby.  I had imagined we would go back to our villa and shower and change before dinner. Everyone, especially the bikers really needed to shower. It was explained to me that the road to our villa was a  long and bumpy 20 minutes off the main highway. If we were to go back to the villa after being out touring all day, chances are no one would want to climb back onto the bus for another bone jarring ride on the strada bianca (translated it means bumpy dirt road!). So my travel agent, Linda, had the brilliant idea of getting 2 hotel rooms (one for the girls and one for the boys) so everyone could shower and change before dinner.

On the ride over to the hotel Cameron pulled out the bag of cookies she had purchased earlier in the day and we all had a little pre-dinner snack (after all it would be at least an hour until we would be eating again!). Within one bite I knew I had found the best thing I had eaten all day. These were a rich crisp butter cookie scented with cinnamon and heavily studded with slivered almonds. I was ready to ask the bus to turn around and return to Dolceamaro in Orvieto so that I could buy several bags to take home, but knew that I would be quickly outvoted so I kept my mouth shut. I am going to try to recreate these at home because they were just so good.

We arrived at La Badia and all the men scurried off to their hotel room to shower and change. Oh to be a fly on the wall of that room! The 9 women hurried off to their hotel room. They had thoughtfully provided us with extra towels and soap. It was quite a sight to see all these grown women showering, applying make-up and dressing together in a tiny hotel room. it was like being back at sleepover camp. By some amazing miracle we were all fully showered, made-up and changed in 45 minutes. I like to say that we are all very low maintenance  women. Some of our husbands may disagree.

The setting was just magical. They had originally planned to do our dinner in the outdoor courtyard, but it was too cool that evening, so we ate indoors. We had a wonderful dinner with lots of laughter. The gnocchi were outstanding, as was the steamed swiss chard (say… I do like swiss chard!!). However, I have to say that the almond cinnamon cookies were definitely the best thing I ate all day.


Stay tuned for Day 6 when we find some incredible shopping in the middle of nowhere (in the tiny hamlet of Montechiello), visit a family run organic farm and learn how to make cheese, and end up in Cetona, eating dinner at a 13th Century convent that now is now home to once troubled youths.

The Best Thing I Ate Today In Umbria Day 4

Right after breakfast we left the villa and began an “easygoing walk along country roads, toward Cantina Scambia, a local winery.” Well, at least that’s how it was described in our itinerary. We enlisted the services of Butterfield and Robinson, a Toronto based active travel company that specialize in hiking and biking trips all over the world. Their motto is, “Slow down to see the world.” They helped us to custom design our Umbria trip. Our group of 18 ran the gamut from biking enthusiasts who regularly cycle 50-60 kilometers at a time to total couch potatoes (you know who you are!!!). Most of us were comfortably somewhere in between those two extremes.

Today, all 18 of us would be hiking to the winery. They promised an easy downhill hike. Our guides, Cameron and Leif, looked like they came right out of an ad for clean healthy living. Both were American and had spent a considerable amount of time living in Italy. They were personable, funny and interesting to talk to. They seemed so honest and trustworthy. However, looks can be deceiving. They turned out to be liars. This easygoing hike was over 12 kilometers and although mostly downhill, there were a few killer uphills thrown in for fun. Almost all the group managed to hike the entire way. Leif hiked with us and Cameron drove the “Van of Shame” (as one friend nicknamed it). Cameron only had to pick up one or two stragglers.

All kidding aside, it was a beautiful walk. The scenery was rural, pastoral and so serene. Rolling hills, open fields of wheat and sheep. Oh, and there was also a wild boar sighting! Umbria’s nickname is “The Green Heart of Italy.”

We straggled into the winery some 2 hours later. Shocking that upon our immediate arrival at the winery most of us were more excited to see the bottles on the left, rather than those on the right.

The Pinot Nero at Cantina Scambia has received worldwide recognition. The vineyard has been family owned since 1977. They winery extends over 600 acres and there are 3 cellars. One cellar has modern equipment and the other two cellars use more traditional methods. We had a chance to visit the cellars and see and taste !

After the winery tour we were wined and dined in grand style. They were most gracious and generous hosts. While everything was delicious, somehow it was the grapes that I will remember for a very long time. Biting into them released a sweetness like no other I have ever tasted. They were tiny in size but mighty in flavour. The firmness and crunch as I bit into them surprised me. I expected them to be softer. I wanted to take home big bunches of these unbelievable grapes.

Mercifully, we lumbered into the van with Claudio for the ride back to the villa. Time for a quick shower and nap and then we had to prepare for the big birthday celebration. We all gathered in the billiards room at 6:00 for a “surprise”. Laid out on the pool table were medieval costumes for all. We all scurried off to change. Not surprisingly, most of the men needed a short tutorial on the best way to put on their tights. I needed some assistance from my ladies in waiting to lace up the back of my gown.

We had our Aperitivo in the wine cellar and then were led, by drummers and flagmen to dinner.

Possibly one of the best things I ate all day (aside from those grapes that I’m still dreaming about!), was Pecorino cheese from Pienza, with a slice of pear and drizzled with Acacia honey made at our villa. I brought home some of that cheese and served it at our Rosh Hashanah lunch with apples and honey.

Stay tuned for Day 5 when we hike and bike to the ancient Etruscan city of Orvieto. See what happens when 9 women cram into a single hotel room to shower and change for dinner. The outcome of this adventure may surprise you.