Carnevale… enlivening the Tuscan winter.

Fritelle di riso – fluffy doughnut holes made with rice – a specialty in Tuscany before Carnival

In the winter I realize how much of my social life in Tuscany depends on good weather: the passeggiata, or evening stroll through town; a chat over gelato as the kids act out imaginary battles in the playground; dinners in the piazza with friends (as our rambunctious kids run around the pedestrian square); hikes and picnics with friends in the woods and hills while on the hunt for wild mushrooms, asparagus or greens. I realize this in the winter because it is usually too rainy, windy or cold to do any of this… and so we fall into the routine of being homebound and watching too much TV, with boredom staved off by the occasional board game, science or kitchen experiment. All of this comes to a climax after the Befana (January 6th), that a nursery rhyme reminds us “tutte le feste porta via”, as it is the last of the Christmas holidays.

And this is why Carnival is so important. Come February, when spring is not yet around the corner, I find that we all need an escape from the humdrum of winter life. Now Valentine’s day does help, but it is too often filled with expectations about our lives and relationships that can’t be or simply aren’t met… sort of a bittersweet holiday that excludes a lot of people from its happiness.

On Fat Tuesday children in Tuscany go to school in their Carnival costumes

But Carnival is for everyone, and it is full of the colors, clamor and mischief coming at the exact moment of the year when you need them most. There is fun for people of all ages (and it gets you out of the house!). This is when kids in Tuscany dress up in creative costumes like Americans would do at Halloween, they throw confetti (coriandoli) all over town, they make noise with every imaginable whistle and horn, and they are altogether rowdy, mischievous… and happy. And everyone laughs, sometimes they grumble a bit for all the chaos, but they let them be… it’s Carnival after all! As an American this utter confusion seemed just wrong to me at first, but over the years as a parent I’ve learned how cathartic it can be just to let go, be permissive, and have a good laugh too.

The other reason I love Carnival? The sweets. By mid-January, every bakery and grocery store in town lays out tempting trays of Carnival delights that are simply irressistible.  My favorite are the fritelle di riso, lightly fried balls of fluffy dough made with rice that are just barely sweet on the inside, but dusted with sugar. The other standard are fritelle farcite con crema, that are made with a dough similar to that of doughnuts and stuffed with custard. And last but not least are the cenci (literally “rags”) that are crunchy little rectangles of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar that crumble in your mouth.

And while I imagine that all of these sweets are part of the tradition of excess before Lent… I honestly have never met a Tuscan who has fasted for Lent. I suppose life’s too short to not enjoy the good things in life every single day and season!


Good morning!

It’s a surprisingly warm October. It would be delightful if it weren’t for the fact that this comes on the tail of a treacherously hot and dry summer.

But looking on the bright side, it’s Sunday morning, my first work-free day in ages, and a beautiful day to go take a walk in the woods with my children. Perhaps, notwithstanding the drought, we might find some chestnuts or even mushrooms…

I woke up, the first to rise, made myself an espresso, fed the cats and fish, then walked in front of the house to see this… it’s already a magnificent day! 

wildflowers of a Tuscan winter

Each time I go out into my garden (which, apart from a few rose bushes, irises and cacti, is pretty much a wild field), take a walk down a country lane, or a little hike in the woods, I can’t stop myself from picking wildflowers. It may very well be an illness. And I wonder if it might even be illegal…But that’s not the point. I simply get overwhelmed by the stunning beauty and complexity of the flora here.
Now if I had ever really taken the time to stop and look (and yes, smell) the flowers back home in Washington D.C., I am sure I would have been in awe even there. But there is something about living year-round in Tuscany that makes it very hard to not start to synch with the natural world around you, to live by its rhythm, and marvel at the details of its creations.
Yesterday on a brief stroll down the hill from my house I picked this little bunch:


viburnum tinus what locals call leccio peloso which translates as “hairy oak” and has these incredible little dark-blue berries that can be iridescent, and also produces tiny little white and dusty-pink flowers in clusters
rosemary with its delicate little purple flowers, symbolizing remembrance and steadfast love
sage symbolizing wisdom
arugula  with its delicate little clusters of white flowers (it grows wild in the fields here and used to be called erba puzza or “stinky grass” because if you fed it to animals even their meat would smell)
olive branches of course a symbol of peace, but also of bounty and purity – in fact ancient Greek brides carried olive branches as we today have a bouquet

Midnight in Volterra

A winter’s night in Tuscany. The babies are sleeping soundly, the Christmas lights are still up and on the trees outside, making the dark night a little less so. They’re almost the only lights to be seen for miles… there are the far-off twinkles of the lights of Pomarance, the town on the next high ridge west of Volterra, and the stars. That’s it. Every now and again I’ll hear the distant vibration-rumble of a truck on the main road, but other than that, silence reigns (except when Francesco snores). It is unusually warm this winter, with not a flake of snow to have been seen yet. We’ve almost given up hope, as the tulips and daffodils are already starting to push up out of the earth and the mimosa tree seems ready to precociously turn its bud-laden branches into an explosion of yellow poufs.