Tag Archives: Umbria

The Best Thing I Ate Today in Umbria Day 10 (Our last day!)

Before I get down to the business of reporting on Day 10 I am excited to share with you the debut post of a brand new young food blogger. (O.K, full disclosure here, it’s my daughter, and I couldn’t be prouder). Check out her first post at http://bostonbakesforbreastcancer.org/tales-of-a-chocoholic/

O.K. back to Day 10 in Umbria.

My original plan, when I embarked on my trip to Umbria, was to blog at the end of each day, about the single best thing I had eaten. Boy was that a naive plan! First of all, trying to narrow down the best thing you ate all day, while travelling through Italy, is no easy task. Almost every morsel I put in my mouth had me declaring, “Could be the best thing I”ve eaten today!” Secondly, after attempting to blog on my first night, full with both food and wine and exhausted from touring all day, I quickly realized I would not be able to write a very coherent post. So I decided to take lots of photos and notes and do it all when I got home. I arrived home on Sept 25! It has taken me over 7 weeks to post about all 10 days, but here we are, finally at the end.

We decided to just hang out at our incredible villa for our last day before the magic was over, and we all turned back into pumpkins to return to our real lives. Although, the body shapes of some of us was beginning to resemble pumpkins, after 10 days of eating our way through the Umbrian countryside. Over breakfast we just feasted our eyes on the incredible views from our terrace.

Liria, our wonderful host, volunteered to give us a cooking class this morning. She offered to teach us whatever we wanted to learn. Without even hesitating, I told Liria I needed to know how to make pappa al pomodoro, the Tuscan tomato bread soup I’d eaten at Cibreo in Florence. Without a doubt,  this was the best thing I ate on our trip. I was smitten with this soup.

We gathered in the kitchen and Liria outfitted us with out aprons, chef”s hats and gloves. Gloves??? Wow, I was impressed. When I remarked to Liria how blown away I was with her attention to hygiene, she laughed and said, that she only wears the gloves to protect her manicure and figured  that we were like-minded women. Boy, had she pegged us right!

The kitchen here at the villa is a sight to behold. I coveted it all, but most especially, the induction cooktop. I had always thought that a gas cooktop was the best, but the temperature control you get with this cooktop is incredible. The marble  back splash was nothing to sneeze at either!

We began with fresh plum tomatoes, basil, spring onions and salt. They were simmered for about 15 minutes and then transferred to a food mill for processing. The food mill is an extremely handy kitchen tool. The skins and seeds of the tomato are separated from the flesh and no peeling is required on your part! It also makes incredible applesauce (no peeling required) and wonderful, fluffy mashed potatoes. We all got a chance to have a spin.

While the tomatoes were being milled, Liria gently simmered some garlic, basil and, her secret ingredient, whole cloves, in a generous glug of olive oil. I was shocked that she used cloves. They are one of the few spices I can not stomach the aroma of. I find them extremely cloying and leave them out of every recipe that calls for them. Liria said that she only uses 4 of them for a huge pot of soup and you can’t really taste them. They just add a background note that enhances all the flavours. She stressed that low heat is key at this stage, as you do not want to brown the garlic, as it would become bitter. After a 10 minute low simmer, the tomato puree is added and that cooks for an additional 10 minutes.

The final addition is breadcrumbs to thicken the soup.

After an additional 10 minutes of simmering, the soup is ladled into bowls and finished off with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some fresh julienned basil.

Click here to get the recipe for Papa al Pomodoro.

 After lunch we had a chance to tour the gardens and see all the fresh produce that grows here at Casali di Monticchio. Grapes, eggplant, olives and figs are just a few of the things we observed, in addition to chickens in a coop for farm fresh scrambled  eggs every morning.

 For our farewell aperitivo, Liria pulled out all the stops and fed us a feast. Even the villa dog, Parcetta, perked up when the prosciutto came out!

I feel so grateful to have such wonderful and loving friends to have shared this incredible journey with. What a ride it’s been! Thanks to all who have followed along to read about our adventure.

The Best Thing I Ate Today In Umbria Day 9

Just realized I completely forgot to tell you all about the best thing I ate each and every morning for breakfast at our villa, Casali di Monticchio. Each morning Liria and her daughter Johanna, set out a buffet for us. Before we arrived, an e-mail went out to all the guests asking us about our food preferences. Apparently 12 out of 18 of us requested non-fat greek yogurt and berries with granola for breakfast. I know… we are such an exciting bunch! I will not divulge what the other 6 asked for.

Each morning, I started my day with had a bowl of yogurt with fresh berries, sometimes ripe peaches and bananas and always a small handful of this incredible granola sprinkled on top. It was sweet, but not too sweet, had lots of nuts and seeds and some coconut and just a few dried fruits. But the best part was that this granola had huge clumps. Everyone always eats the big clumps of the granola first and leaves the little crumbs in the box for the end. This granola had very few little crumbs and lots of huge clumps which maximized the yummy crunch factor! I needed to get Liria’s secret granola recipe. When I finally remembered to ask her this morning, she went into the kitchen and came out, sheepishly holding a huge bag of Kellogg’s fruit and nut granola. I have been searching for it ever since I came home but can’t find it. I think it is something developed for the European market. It will haunt me for a very long time.

Fortified by this excellent breakfast, about 8 of us headed off on the mini-bus, with Claudio, our ever-faithful driver, to the outlet malls. When we were first planning the trip, my travel agent, Linda, looked over the itinerary and noticed that we had not scheduled any official shopping time. WHAT?? How could I have forgotten to do that? When I asked her what she would recommend, she quickly responded that we must visit the outlet malls, situated just outside of Florence. When some people hear the words, “outlet mall”, the adrenaline starts pumping through their veins and their pulse starts to race just a bit faster. I’m just not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I get just as giddy as the next Canadian woman when I come within a 1 mile radius of a Target store, but outlet shopping always ends up disappointing me.

The clothes are usually just heaped on shelves and racks and I find that so aesthetically unappealing. I just don’t have the vision or the patience to sort through it all. The changing rooms are usually scuzzy and they have a limit on the number of items you can take in. Sometimes the change rooms do not even have mirrors and you have to come out to look in the mirror in a general changing area. I hate that! And finally, most of the stuff in outlet stores is the kind of stuff you would have felt quite “fashion forward” in last year but left you asking, this year, “What was I thinking?”

After I explained this all to Linda, she started to laugh at me. She explained that Italian outlet Malls are nothing like North American ones. They are very high-end and while the items may be last season, most of the designs are so classic, they will become wardrobe staples for a very long time. My girlfriend Marla is an excellent shopper. She has incredible patience and stamina, both of which you need in abundance to shop sales and outlet malls. She has a knack of combing through the sales racks and finding that one gem. That one flexible classic piece that can be dressed up to go black tie or can be worn with jeans to go for coffee. I love to shop with her, follow her into the change room and try on all her rejects. All the glory and none of the hard work. Luckily, she would be joining us on the outlet shopping trip in Italy.

The build-up to our shopping day was kind of intense. We decided to visit “The Mall” (it’s actually called that!) and “Space”. The Mall is a beautiful high-end outdoor outlet shopping centre located in the town of Leccio, about a 30 minute drive from Florence. Shops at The Mall included a veritable who’s who of big name designers.  Alexander McQueen, Armani, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Hogan, Loro Piana, Marni, Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo, Sergio Rossi, Stella McCartney, Tod’s , Valentino, YSL, Zegna. “Space” is the Prada Outlet store. There was quite a discussion about which to visit first, “The Mall” or “Space.” We had heard that there were huge lineups at Space and they only let 100 people in at a time. In developing our strategy, we consulted Liria, the owner of our villa. She advised us to visit The Mall first and then Space. She said that lineups on a weekday in September would not be an issue.

When our bus pulled up at The Mall, Marla had her shopping strategy well mapped out and made a beeline to the Marni store. We all followed her like baby chicks after their mother hen!  The mall was everything Linda had promised. The grounds were beautifully manicured, the stores well-lit and appointed and all the wares were beautifully displayed. You would never guess you were in an outlet mall. The staff all spoke English, and were very helpful. No attitude at all. The changing rooms were large and well-lit  with mirrors. Best of all, there was no limit on the number of items you could take in at once. We were very successful at The Mall, and most of us found at least one or two treasures. My brother-in-law, (first photo in this post) was happy to be our bag mule as long as we fed and watered him.

I was so busy trying on clothes and attempting to keep up with Marla’s speedy pace, that I only managed to take a few photos. Most of these are from The Mall’s own website.

After The Mall, it was off to Space, the Prada Outlet. Located in an industrial area, just outside the town of Montevarchi, there were no identifying signs to let you know you had arrived. I guess Prada does not want to advertise that they have an outlet store. Try as they may to hide this outlet store, Claudio, our trusty driver, managed to ferret it out!

There was no line-up at all when we arrived, so we sailed right in. When you first enter the store, a very handsome Prada model hands you a ticket with a number on it. This is your PIN number for the day. You are not allowed to take items you wish to purchase from one department to another. Once you try the item on and decide you want to purchase it, you hand the items over to a sales associate and they set it aside with your PIN number. When you are all done shopping, you proceed to the checkout and all your items magically appear. Luckily, you are still able to change your mind at the cash and they don’t even get snarky about it!

Prada knows a thing or two about merchandising. Upon entering, straight ahead, front and center, is the shoe department. Like moths to a flame we were drawn right in! Purses, accessories and collection pieces are on the right hand side of the store and skin care, sunglasses and sportswear flank the left side of the store. Menswear, as usual, is buried at the back. I’m always surprised that men don’t have a complex about this.

Although this was an outlet store, the displays were quite beautiful and there was a large selection of items and sizes. I managed to find a beautiful black cashmere sweater for 70% off and a cute little evening bag to bring home to my daughter, as a consolation prize for daring to go to the Holy Grail (Prada Outlet) without her! Prices were really good. One friend bought two purses, one for herself and one for her sister. (Lucky sister!) My sister-in-law got some gorgeous shoes that we all coveted. All in all, a successful trip!

Stay tuned for Day 10 (our last day before going home – sob!) when we get a cooking lesson from Liria, in her fabulous kitchen!

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 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!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOxMvQ-guyU

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.