Deja Vino

Does this look familiar?
It turns out that my cooking class field trip to a wine tasting on a farm in Lucca was at the exact same farm that API took us for the olive oil tasting. I now know Fattoria Il Poggio quite well, I think!
Despite some of us from API feeling a little disappointed at not going somewhere new, the fact that we were here this time for a wine tasting did make a considerable difference in our second experience here. New tour guide, new sights…

A pine nut tree! Mmmm – a great addition to salads 🙂

See those odd-looking spindly stick cluster things? Those are what grow capers (those tiny, salty green balls that pack a wallop of flavor). Also good on salads 🙂

And of course, there were new tastes!
The white.
Very dry, but I really liked it – so much that a bottle came home with me!
The red.
Once this opened up, I really liked this too. In fact, I couldn’t decide which I liked more, the white or the red! Brought a bottle of this home to, so the roomies may offer up their opinions!
The wonderful thing about going to farms is that the wine they produce is always tasty and super cheap. I could so live on a Tuscan farm. The views alone would make it worth it.
The food was equally as delish. And there was plenty to be had! Before the standard wine tasting snacks were brought out (bread, olive oil, cheese, salamis), they served us fresh-made maccheroni pasta in meat sauce:
Now I am not much for meat sauce, but the amazingness that is fresh pasta pretty much balances out everything else. I can’t even describe it; it’s got the perfect texture and bite to it, and you can taste the how the egg, flour and water combine to produce such a wonderful thing. 
Just a note – you can buy fresh pasta in the States! It’s usually in [one of] the freezer sections. If there’s a specialty cheese aisle, it may be around there. It’s not quite fresh off the slicer, but it’s still far and beyond the dried stuff. Or you could get ambitious and make your own…*wink wink*
After this and some bread, delicious olives and pecorino (seriously, best cheese ever. and this is coming from someone who usually doesn’t like cheese.), we had the traditional Tuscan dessert of cantuccini (basically little baby almond biscotti) dipped in Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine:
Last time I mentioned I didn’t like their Vin Santo – it’s suuuper strong! But today, I actually quite enjoyed my tiny sip. And it is nice with the cantucci. As they say, when in Rome Tuscany!
Despite it pouring down rain for most of the day, it was a really fun field trip. In fact, it’s a little unreal to me that I went to a wine tasting on a Tuscan farm for SCHOOL. If this is a dream – don’t wake me up!

Roughing It

Ah, the weekend. What everyone looks forward to. This weekend was especially exciting though – for our last excursion, API took us to Siena and Perugia for a weekend of thorough relaxation. I would have to say this mission was most certainly accomplished.
We boarded the bus on Saturday morning  [for once not at the butt crack of dawn!] and headed to Siena, an idyllic Tuscan town a bit south of Florence. It is world-renowned for its natural beauty; in fact, if you google Tuscan landscapes, there’s a pretty good chance that one of the first pictures to pop up will be in Siena. I gave Frida a firm talking to before we left – this was not the trip to be without a camera, and her best behavior was mandatory. She grudgingly complied.
Siena’s Duomo.
Fun fact: The word ‘duomo’ has nothing to do with domes! It was taken from the German word for house and in Italy a “Duomo” is the “house of God”, meaning it is the most important church in its city.
Siena and Florence were HUGE rivals, and Siena began constructing their Duomo with plans to make it greater than Brunelleschi’s creation for Florence. They didn’t succeed, but this is nevertheless an immensely impressive structure. Just look at the detail!
Main piazza – can you see the seashell shape?
Siena is also known for its horse race, a tradition dating waaaaaay back that draws thousands upon thousands of people into this small city. Siena is divided into sections called contrade, and each contrada has its own symbol and horse. Most of the symbols represent strength, including a rhinoceros, a griffin, and the tower on top of the elephant that you see above^. A horse representing each contrada gathers in the main piazza and in 75 seconds, it’s over and done with. The prize is pretty much the ability to say “hey, we won!”, but the loyalty to one’s contrada is fierce and quite endearing. Being the good little tourists that we are, we each bought a banner with the symbol of a different contrada on each.
I got the porcupine. Duh.
After our walking tour we went on a lunch-hunt. After a failed search for a recommended restaurant, we settled for another one, which turned out to be slightly mediocre, but fit the bill.
I was feelin the veggies today, and definitely made the right choices!
Melanzane alla griglia fatte in casa – Grilled eggplant made in-house
This was quite amazing, I will say. Very garlickly and tender. Perfect for this veggie-loving soul.
And bruschetta:
Certainly not the best I’ve had, but when in Italy it’s hard to find “bad” bruschetta. Olive oil, bread, fresh basil + tomatoes. Simply amazing…or amazingly simple?
After doing some souvenir shopping, we made sure to get some of the Sienese specialty called panforte, a kind of sweet whose recipe dates back to the Middle Ages when it was eaten as a kind of “trail mix” for the Crusaders.
Panforte al cioccolato
It’s a very dense mix of dried fruit, nuts (mostly almonds and pistachios), honey, and various spices. It was heavy on the cinnamon and cocoa – which I loved, and also on the orange rind – which I was not so much a fan of.Overall though, the cakey texture mixed with the variety of other textures and the complex flavors made this a very enjoyable treat for my tastebuds – those Crusaders had good taste!
Now, prepare to be jealous. The main event of the day was a trip to a thermal spa, located in the Rapolano area just outside of Siena. This area is located above thermal waters that have been enriched by the minerals of the soil deep within the earth. The Etruscans discovered that the minerals in the water were amazingly beneficial for the body both inside and out, helping everything from smoothing skin to cleansing the internal organs. There are many spas in this area that have tapped into the thermal waters and constructed pools for people to sit in and soak up the minerals to receive their many health benefits. 
Oh man, this was incredible. The water was like a warm, comforting bath, and it was so relaxing to just sit and soak and chat for a couple hours. I left feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and all-around happy.
Rough weekend so far, no?
After our perfectly lovely afternoon at the spa, we went to our hotel – the Grand Hotel Boston! They must have known I was coming (well, me and the hundred other kids with API from Mass…). In case we hadn’t been pampered enough just yet, API had planned a four-course dinner for us at the hotel. It was nothing more than your average hotel food, but we were excited for a free meal and to be waited on regardless!
They even had menus on the table for us:
The obligatory bread and wine:
First antipasto: CHEESE!
The upper one was tomino, a very soft creamy cheese that is exactly like brie in its consistency but has none of brie’s pungency. I enjoyed it, but it paled in comparison to this guy:
Maybe I was just starving, maybe I don’t eat fresh mozzarella plain often enough, but this tasted absolutely incredible. Soft, milky, with a rich mouth-feel but a light flavor. This was the most delicious bite of the entire meal.
Second antipasto: Fritture
This was an assortment of fried veggies and rice balls. I took a taste, but nothing more. When I was on my weight-loss diet, I completely cut out all things fried and ever since then, I can’t eat it without getting horribly sick. I can’t ever taste what has actually been fried, it all tastes like the same cheap, greasy lump to me. I also think I’ve developed a conditioned taste aversion – I immediately connect the taste of deep-fried food to the unbearable nausea that I’m always stuck with after, and I just can’t do it. Alas and alack, I simply cannot appreciate it. Perhaps some day…
First primi: Zuppa di verdure – Vegetable soup
Well, the name pretty much says it all. Soup of vegetables. It was a bit too salty, and not much more impressive than something that I can get out of a can. But, I’m always happy to have some fresh vegetables, and it was perfectly edible – just nothing more.
Second primi: Lasagna vegetariana
Apparently this hotel defines ‘vegetarian lasagna’ as regular ol’ lasagna without the ground meat; the only vegetables in here were the tomatoes in the sauce. It had a hint of what I thought was nutmeg, and I did appreciate that surprisingly little tough of sweetness. The crunchy outer noodles were also a nice contrast to the soft, melty middle. Not bad, just unremarkable. I probably ate about 3/4 of it.
Secondi: Roasted Chicken
This was actually pretty decent. Very simple salt+pepper+rosemary seasoning (although a little too heavy on the salt). Too much dark meat for my taste, and I will admit for the amount of work that goes into picking the meat of the bone, the acutal amount of edible chicken I was left with was not worth it. But, I enjoyed the few bites I had. Again, nothing special. It did get me excited for summer at home though – my dad makes a mean lemon-pepper bbq chicken!
You know me; this was what I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it followed suite with the previous courses in its overwhelming mediocrity. It was kind of like a tiramisu cake; something like angel food cake with a whipped topping drizzled with a coffee-chocolate sauce and a light chocolate cream layer. The cake was only slightly better than tasteless, and the filling was more like a pastry cream with a hint of cocoa than a chocolate filling which I found disappointing. The whipped topping was like Cool Whip in texture (thankfully without the artificial chemically taste) with a coffee-cocoa drizzle that was clearly trying to imitate tiramisu, My main complaint is WHY did they not just make tiramisu (very hard to screw up) instead of producing this subpar impostor? But, it was dessert, and I of course had no problem lapping it up within minutes.
Ok, I kind of bashed the dinner a little bit; but I promise, it was a truly wonderful evening! It was the perfect end to a long, luxurious day and the company of my sweet roommates made the dinner a success. We had laughter, wine, and plenty to talk about – luckily for me, they like talking about food, so we discussed the dinner as we ate!
Morning brings my favorite part of staying in hotels: the free breakfast. Most important meal of day, right?
Tea, yogurt, muesli, a roll [which went uneaten], and MELON! If you had only seen my face when I saw that platter piled with infinite melon…like a kid on Christmas morning. I am a full-on melon addict, and could (and when I’m at school, do) eat it every day and never get sick of it. I must have gone back 4 or five times, probably at least half a melon’s worth! It was exactly what I wanted after that heavy meal the night before. I’m so excited for summer fruits!!!
After breakfast we boarded the bus and zoomed off to…
We entered the city through what was the residential area of the city in the Middle Ages. It was a huge labyrinth of arches where people used to live under one big roof, and was really cool to see.
I was too amused with this scene: the escalator leading down into the medieval residences. I am endlessly fascinated by past-meets-present collisions! *NERDALERT*
Perugia is located in the region of Umbria, just under Tuscany, known as the “Green Heart of Italy.”
Give you one guess why:
Those Etruscans looooved their aqueducts!
There were these little yellow flowers sprouting up out of the most random spots! Frida thought it was poetic.
Ca-RAZY church!

If ‘Perugia’ sounds familiar to you, it might be because it is the birthplace of the chocolate company Perugina. They produce Bacio (literally, ‘kiss’ – we have Hershey’s, Italy has Perugina!). A Bacio is a dark chocolate shell with a chocolate truffle filling dotted with chopped hazelnut and one whole hazelnut in the middle! Don’t worry, I have pictures coming tomorrow…patience, grasshopper.
This was our non-negotiable first stop.
Perugia is also home to one of the world’s most famous chocolate festivals! Every October, thousands of people flood the streets – they say you can smell chocolate everywhere! Fall Break trip to Italy, anyone?
LOOK at the Hedgehog cakes!!! Iwantonenow.
You may have noticed a key element missing from our trip so far…
GELATO! We quickly made up for its absence.
Raspberry + Bacio, because, well, when in Rome Perugia!
After a walking tour and an espresso in the sun, we were off to today’s main event: a wine tasting in Chianti!
Like I said…rough weekend.
It took place at Castillo di Verrazzano, as in the Verrazzano who discovered New York. I guess it’s not too surprising that his family has a castle, huh? We were welcomed by the owner, who was a very charming Italian man. He may have been a little too charming, because I couldn’t even dislike him despite the fact that I was absolutely green with jealousy over his “house”:
And I thought I had it rough.
He talked for a while about how wonderful it is to walk around a vineyard and take in every sight and smell it has to offer, because then when you taste its wine, you can appreciate it all the more. You can taste the cherries from the cherry tree, and the lemons growing on the lemon trees. Wine is not for “getting drunk”; as he said, a baby could get drunk! Wine is about respect. AMEN! To be honest, I only really like wine when I sip it slowly and only have a couple small glasses; I find I get bored with the flavor and forget to really ‘taste’ it if I just mindlessly pour and drink. And that takes all the fun away!
We proceeded with a tour of the castle & its cellars:

Their reserve bottles – check out that layer of dust!

We were all ushered in to a big room for the sit-down tasting. Just as I had hoped, the owner walked us through the first sip, explaining how to hold the glass, look at the color, check the alcohol content, and even how to smell it correctly! What I learned in Italy…
We started with a simple table wine, red of course:

Then proceeded to the Chianti Classico – this was my favorite:
What a fox, that Verrazzano.
Just like the other tastings, we were served lots of “snacks” with the wine that turned into a perfect dinner! Tuscan bread, olive oil, toasted garlic bread (my favorite), salami and prosciutto, pecorino (my love!), salad, white beans…the works. Oh, but I was happy.
We also got to taste one of the Reserve wines; I could definitely taste the difference in its age and quality, but to be honest, it wasn’t my favorite. It was too strong for my underdeveloped palate 😉 But it was such a fun experience!
We ended with the traditional cantucci (Tuscan biscotti) to dip in Vin Santo, the classic dessert wine.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. I liked this vin santo better than the last I had – less strong/bitter. I really like the two together! Really, I just love cantucci. A lot.
Before we left this beautiful trip behind and traveled back to the semi-reality of Florence, I took some pics of the castle’s “back yard”:
Now that’s rough.

From Puccini to Pasqual

Oof, what an action-packed weekend! Lots was done, seen, and eaten – and plenty of fun was had to boot!
We started out Saturday on a day-trip with our study-abroad program API to the city of Lucca and an olive oil tasting. Lucca is a bit to the north of Florence, only about an hour or so away. I had actually been here several times already because the summer before my freshman year in college, my family rented a villa for a week just outside of Lucca. It was a great vacation, and I was happy to return! [Have I mentioned I love Tuscany? Cause I do. A lot.]
We began, as most of our API trips often do, with a guided walking tour of the city. It was a bit on the long side, but our guide was a little whacky, which always makes things more interesting! I do wish that the tour had been shorter so we could wander around more, but alas, it was not to be. I did learn some stuff though! The city is surrounded by a big old wall built (medieval era, I think – don’t quote me) to protect the city from the warring larger city-states nearby (like Firenze!). They even built a moat around the city and got all prepared for a HUGE battle, but on the day that the battle was set for, their opponents never showed up because they decided Lucca was too small to bother with! All dressed up and nowhere to go and no one to fight, they just kept the wall as is, and now it’s what Lucca is known for. I thought that was cute!
The amphitheatre (anfiteatro) here is actually one huge elliptical-shaped piazza! It was built in 2 AD and did look like a traditional amphitheatre (think small-scale Colosseum); in the Middle Ages, houses were built over the ruins that remained. You can still see a lot of the original wall layers here and there. How cool would it be to live over a Roman amphitheatre???

We also got to see the musical school that Puccini, who was also born in Lucca, studied at!! He went to the Boccherini Institute of Music, Boccherini being the dude that statue is of. I looove me some Puccini – my favorite Broadway musical ever is RENT, which is based on his opera La Boheme, but he also wrote Madame Butterfly and Tosca, to name a few. This may have been the coolest thing I saw in Lucca [music nerd alert!] 😉
This tower has a pretty cool story too. Those trees you can see on the roof are in fact growing out of the building – if you climb to the top room, you can see the roots in the ceiling! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do it. Next time, right?
For a small town, Lucca sure has plenty of churches!
Actually, in the 2nd-to-last church we visited, I got rather angry. Just inside the church–a beautiful, centuries-old place of worship–were racks and tables of souvenirs and postcards. Inside the church. Really??????? Aaaargh, it was just so outlandishly wrong to me, I couldn’t handle it. That just seems beyond inappropriate and downright offensive. At that point, I was ready for the tour to end. And what better to turn my mood around than food?!
I ordered, of course, one of the local specialties:
Minestra di farro (spelt soup)
I actually had this first on our little day trip to San Gimignano, and adored it! This one, however, was a bit too “soupy” for me – I only like soup that is suuuper thick, otherwise I just feel like I’m eating water and it’s just not as fun for me. The flavor was good, and the bread helped (what doesn’t bread help, really?), but I think I will stick to Sergio’s & Mario’s for my Italian soup fix.
It wouldn’t be a complete trip without gelato!
Raspberry + soy vanilla
The raspberry was just ok – a little artificial-y tasting, but the soy vanilla was really good! It was without sugar, which I think hlped because it let the nautral sweetness of the vanilla flavor to really sing. Not quite as good as Perche No in Florence, but that would be near-impossible to beat. I have been noticing soy vanilla/chocolate gelato flavors more and more, and I think it’s great! Eating too much processed soy is something to be aware of, but in general it has a lot of benefits. And I really like the flavor of soy ice cream – creamy with a really nice nutty taste. I was content.
After our [short] afternoon in the city, we hopped back on the bus and headed for Fattoria il Poggio, a nearby  farm we were visiting for an olive oil tasting!
Though this would be my second olive oil tasting, at the first one we didn’t get much guidance as to how to go about tasting the oil or what to look for in the taste. At this one, our guide explained that the best way is to take some oil on a spoon and let it go directly to the back of your mouth/tongue, then roooooaaarrr like a lion! The roaring will send the oil closer to your nose and you can feel/taste/smell the fresh aroma of the olive oil. It was, needless to say, a very amusing day at the farm.
These are the machines used to make the olive oil! [Below is the cold press the squeeeeezes the olivey goodness right out!]
Olive trees galore!
Much like my first tasting, we were served bread and other little snacks to enjoy with our oil. No complaints here!
Olive oil with a dash of balsamic in it, sundried tomatoes, olives, and some the best Tuscan bread I’ve had yet. And I have had a loooot of it. I will admit, I liked the olives/oil from the San Gimignano farm better, but this bread was whoa-so-good.
Salami! Took me back to when I was little and would go to a little Italian specialty shop in my town with my mom and they would give my slices of cheese and salami over the counter. Food memories are the best kind 🙂
This is a kind of salami specific to Tuscany called finocchiona because it is dotted with fennel seeds. Now while I am generally at all interested in any kind of meat except seafood and the occasional turkey or chicken bite, this was delicious. I made a mental note to seek this out in Florence–it would make a phenomenal sandwich!!! I need to describe it as I eat it because the flavor is so different and complex I can’t find the words, but just trust me – it’s good.
We finished with the classic Tuscan dessert of cantucci (basically Tuscany’s biscotti) and vin santo, a sweet dessert wine.
These are little bites of almondy sweet wonderfulness. They are not obnoxiously break-your-tooth crunchy but juuust soft enough to really bite into and then crumble in your mouth. 
This vin santo I actually really didn’t like very much; too alcoholic-acidic and not very sweet. I have had vin santo before and really enjoyed it, but this was meh. Blame my underdeveloped palate, I guess.
I am planning on trying this again in Florence [pretty much any restaurant you go to in Tuscany will have this on their dessert menu], just because I know I’ve had it before and liked it. And those cantucci rock!
We returned to Florence for a few hours and then went right back out – to our first soccer match!!! I was SO excited. Soccer is the sport here, and Florence’s team Fiorentina is like the Red Sox to Boston. They were playing Milan’s team Inter, who have been doing reaaaallly well and if they beat us tonight they would go on to  play for the championships. All donning our purple Fiorentina gear (I wore my Firenze sweatshirt), we took the bus to the stadium and let the games begin! I didn’t bring my camera because they warned us about the intense security checkpoints and I was afraid they wouldn’t let me in with it or something [you just never know in Italy], but it was lots of fun! I forgot how much I love soccer, both watching and playing. I guess a lot of people find it boring to watch because it takes a lot longer for a team to score than in football or basketball, but that is what I love about it! It’s so tense and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but not for too long, and I really like the fact that they have to work so hard for just one goal. It makes it all the more exciting when it happens! It was so fun to be in the stadium surrounded by the Italian fans and feel the atmosphere (and learn Italian swearwords). The game ended in a 2-2 tie. I also developed a major crush on defenseman Manuel Pasqual- #23, because he was reaaallly good and wore neon yellow cleats. 
It was the neon cleats that really did it for me.
My weekend adventures took me even further north on Sunday…stay tuned!