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! 

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Truffles, Dogs, Friends, Good Food & Great Fun

Today I took an American family to spend a day with a Tuscan family on their farm. We began with a truffle hunt, following Viola, a 3 year-old Lagotto pup, through mud and late-summer grass as she excitedly dug up four scorzone truffles. It’s impossible to describe how magical and delicate the relationship is between the dog and her proud truffle hunter… an amazing thing to see.

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Mud on our shoes and truffles in our hands, we headed uphill to the Bernini family home where we were given a warm and genuine welcome by Alessio and his mother Ila. Ila is the quintessence of the warm, but no-nonsense, never-stopping, all-doing Tuscan Mommy.

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Ila watching the “newbies” knead pasta dough.

Ila gave us a demonstration of how she makes her rustic homemade pasta and it all looks quite simple – 600 g. of flour, 6 eggs, mix them up and knead it all together. But like with so many “simple” recipes from the Tuscan kitchen, we all found it a bit more complex than she made it seem. There’s that magic touch and know-how that comes with 50 years of experience that simply can’t be fully explained…. But when it was all done, and we’d learned the “kneading dance”, rocking from our heels to toes as we worked the dough, our pasta came out just fine… equally deserving of a quick boil, and a toss with homemade truffle butter and a shaving our treasured black truffles found earlier that morning.

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After kneading our hearts out, Alessio brought a delicious reward: fondue of a soft and creamy local sort of gorgonzola, the Muffone blue cheese made with ewe milk by Giuseppe Carai,  the local artisinal cheesemaker, with a shaving of black truffles to top it off.

To accompany the fondue, Alessio uncorked a bottle of his 2015 Cosimino wine, an incredibly fresh and genuine red wine made from sangiovese grapes aged only in stainless steel. His one-man operation micro winery is extraordinary, producing only a few thousand bottles each year. In fact he almost always runs out of his wine before the next vintage is ready, selling (and pouring) almost exclusively from his farm. This truly natural wine gives simple “organic” a run for it’s money.

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Following the fondue, we headed back to the kitchen and helped make quail eggs pan-fried in truffle butter and the farm’s own organic extra-virgin olive oil. The eggs are placed atop truffle croutons, a dish as simple as it is divine…this is one those delicacies where you can most definitely… not…eat…just…one!

The eggs were followed by one of the best truffle pastas I’ve ever had that focused on the true essence of truffles (truffles, butter, and a bit of grana padano cheese, nothing else)

And to top off the day of indulgence, Ila taught us how to make homemade egg custard. With a twist… saffron!

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intensely flavored and colored saffron custard

Before adding it to the scalded milk  that we later slowly stirred into the beaten egg yolks & sugar, Alessio showed us how to properly prepare saffron: you toast the pistils in a dry pan until your fingers find the pan too hot to stir the saffron, then put them on a small sheet of parchment, fold it over the pistils, and crush them into a fine powder using the back of a teaspoon.

People are often surprised to learn that saffron crocus are one of the most historic crops for Tuscany – originally used more as a textile dye than as a spice. Today Alessio has a few fields dedicated to saffron, each October picking these magically potent crimson strings from the flowers in the wee hours of the morning, and toasting them by a wood fire… and like with everything that the Bernini family do, they take pride in doing this “the right way… just as it’s always been done”.

 

 

Mourning for “le mura” in Volterra: a tract of 13th c. walls collapsed last night

Last night, following days of intense rain, a 20 to 30 yard stretch of Volterra’s Medieval walls collapsed. When I woke up this morning and turned on RaiNews 24 one of the headlines was “Bad Weather in Tuscany: the Arno River is threatening to flood, schools closed in Pisa and 30-meters of Medieval wall have fallen down in Volterra”.

After dropping the kids off at school (safely located far from the walls…) we walked up to Piazzetta dei Fornelli to discover that together with the walls went part of the road “Via Lungo le Mura” that lay just inside the walls. The void that once gave people vertigo as they looked over the walls towards the Cecina Valley now reaches the foundations of the homes. There is no road, no sidewalk, no way to get into your home or store, all the way to the panoramic terrace that is just beneath the covered staircase called “Vicolo degli Abbandonati”. The terrace is still there… but just barely.

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aftermath…

About 100 yards downhill from this road and stretch of walls “that-were” you reach Volterra’s great Etruscan monument – the 4th c. B.C. Porta all’Arco. I feel ill thinking, wondering, fearing that this landslide could in any way compromise its structural integrity. If you have been to Volterra and seen this stone gate, if you know its history, you will understand the emotional involvement that Volterrans have with it. The Porta all’Arco is a part of them.

The loss of these 13th-century walls is enough, and I pray that the damage stops there (the forecasts say we should expect another 6 days of non-stop rain). How could they have stood so mightily for 800 years, enduring endless sieges under the Florentines, a mistaken attack by the Allied troops in WWII, and then give up now? I perhaps shouldn’t give fault to the walls, be angry with them… but if not them, who? Surely there is something we have done wrong to let this happen…

As I walked away from the scene this morning, I realized the void was more than physical as a tear slid down my cheek.

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:

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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

the magnificent Palazzo dei Priori

Built between 1208 and 1257, it is the oldest Town Hall building in Tuscany, the first of its kind in that revolutionary Age of City-States. The mayor’s office is still inside, it is where town council meetings are held and spectacular weddings are celebrated. A steadfast presence in Volterra’s vibrant civic life.

Volterra's Town Hall

Volterra’s Town Hall
after a spring shower

Historic, but also beautiful. Every hour, everyday, with each new cloud drifting in or each dip in the sun’s arc over our heads, this magnificent palace presents itself in a different way, expressing a different mood, almost as if it were a mercurial being.

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.