Friday, December 30, 2011

Hail and Farewell

    Now as the old year is coming to a close and a New Year about to begin, Beautiful Florence would like to give some updates on several 2011 blog posts and the people and places involved.


 Remember the "Pino's Stamp" (June 30) post under Desperation?  Above is Tara Baron (now back at Syracuse Newhouse) patiently waiting for me to return to the Vista office after my two hour odyssey to find a two euro stamp to mail some legal documents to Taranto.

After over two weeks, the envelope still hadn't arrived, so I re-sent the documents via the expensive return receipt requested express, unfortunately writing Pino's street address correctly but putting the street number where his brother Gennaro lives.  Nineteen (19) days after mailing the original envelope, the second envelope returned as there is no number 6 on viale Trentino in Taranto, and on the same day Pino received the package bearing the 2 euro stamp.


My cousin/lawyer Pino (pictured above in a beer hall in Munich, a long way from home) is presently recovering from pneumonia.  The illness, however, was certainly not caused by worry over the arrival of the envelope.  Pino kept telling me "I'll tell you when it gets here,"  and in true (southern) Italian style, did not bat an eye that the envelope took nearly three weeks to travel 900 kilometers despite the proper postage.

In "Art, Sea & a Train Strike" (July 26), Elke and I were members of the press visiting a show of Tuscan Impressionistic art (macchaiolo) in Castiglioncello (see below).


No, I never wrote the promised blog post on the show;  however every summer Castiglioncello hosts an exhibition of macchaioli artists, so I have a second chance.

After Elke and I went to the sea, missing the press bus, we managed to get to Livorno (see post under Adventures), and made the discovery of the rare train has "guaranteed" service despite a strike.
What I discovered long afterwards is that particular train which we got on in Livorno, starts its route in Piombino and
stops in the minor station of Castiglioncello.
There was no need to use all our wits to get to  Livorno.



My October 14 post "The Last Day of Summer" in the Cinque Terre had a harrowing epilogue.
The villages of Monterosso and (pictured below) Vernazza


were heavily damaged and isolated for weeks due to a tremendous storm (which the clouds foreshadow)
just 11 days later! (on October 25).

The last day of summer, indeed!  There were victims due to flooding, and destruction that the spunky descendants of the original fisherman settlers are still dealing with by clearing mud and rebuilding the elementary school.

Some loss can't be repaired.  On December 4, one of the lights of my life, my cat Luce,
died at home after a bout with intestinal cancer.  Luce was born in a field in 1999 in Le Bagnese.  The parents of my photographer/soulmate Andrea Pistolesi camp out in a camper in the cool green of Le Bagnese every summer, and a mother cat had kittens nearby.  Andrea was looking for takers, but I adopted the very cat (sight unseen, half wild, having been told he was white) that he himself had chosen.  Before Christmas, I informed Andrea, who happened to be in Thailand,  of Luce's death, before he traveled to Burma, a dream fulfilled.


As friend Bernadette told me after his passing, "he was a beauty."

As for me, on the nearly last day of the year, I would like to send the world a kiss...


...in the manner of my greeting Wanny De Filippo with the Italian customary smack on both cheeks while reporting for the "Christmas 2011 in Florence" post (December 19).  I was taking notes, as you can see by the pen in my hand.  Although you can't see my face, the only resemblance I might have to my cousin Pino are the family's trademark large eyes (in a rainbow of colors).

After reporting for the "Christmas 2011 in Florence" post, Carly and I walked back to the office via Piazza del Duomo.  There we saw the terracotta Nativity scene outside the Cathedral.  The Baby Jesus was placed in the crib on Christmas day.  On New Year's a huge headline in the local paper La Nazione trumpeted "Baby Jesus Stolen from the Manger!"


Inside, the article gave the reassuring news that Baby Jesus was reported found, unharmed, in via del Sole (close to the train station) and returned to his open air home (pictured above).

The original blog photographer, Elke, who took the photos of Tara and Castigioncello, returned to Germany in August.  There are no photos of her, as she was always behind the lens.

Her position was filled by Carly Vickers and Michelle Hilt (see below).  Michelle is scheduled to be the Beautiful Florence's first guest blogger within a couple of weeks with an article and photos on the Picasso show in Pisa.   Here she is overlooking Florence.


As for Carly, after a semester at the Florida State program in Florence, she is now back in Tallahassee, leaving a treasury of photos behind, including this one that she took in Florence's Boboli Gardens at the end of October.  Especially striking is the bright red foliage (unusual for Tuscany, common to the U.S. Northeast) and the striking vantage point for the cupola of the Duomo.


The sky was overcast,  one of the very few days it happened to be this past fall..


This is Carly saying goodby to Florence,
just as all of us here are saying farewell to the old year
and hail to the new -

Buon Anno!

Happy New Year from Beautiful Florence!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas 2011 in Florence

     After months of amazing, unseasonably warm weather, it finally turned seasonably cold in Florence this morning, registering a temperature of 0° Centigrade (32° Farenheit).  Just last week, near the historic flea market (Mercato delle Pulci) close to the Sant'Ambrogio market, Carly took this picture of an iris blooming in Florence the second week of December.


This gives you the idea of temperatures up to now.
The iris is the official flower of Florence, and the Iris Garden, located near Piazzale Michelangelo and featuring a profusion of varieties of this lovely flower, is open to the public every year from the last week in April through mid-May (!)

At Christmastime, thoughts naturally gravitate towards the
 less fortunate.
Probably Italy's oldest orphanage, the Istituto degli Innocenti, was founded in Piazza Santissima Annunziata in 1444.  The children left there were given the last name of "Innocenti," (the innocent ones), and Innocenti is still a common last name in Florence today.


  Above is a short history of the Istituto degli Innocenti that
Michelle Hilt photographed at a benefit fair.
The signature logo was designed by Renaissance master architect Brunelleschi.
The trademark child in swaddling clothes still crowns the portico
of the entrance to the Istituto degli Innocenti.

In the spririt of Christmas cheer, the Compagnia dei Babbi Natale (the Company of Santa Clauses), comprised of no less that 57 Santas plus one Mrs. Santa descended on the Istituto degli Innocenti to
sing carols and give gifts to parent-less children or children placed at the institute by social workers.
Carly and I were there.


They are singing "White Christmas" in decent English!
"and may all your Christmases be whi--te."
The lady in the middle is Alessandra Maggi, president of the Istituto.

This rendition was followed by "Silent Night" in Italian...
then, a 59th Santa appeared, no other than Cesare Prandelli, the beloved, former coach of the local Fiorentina soccer team and now the coach of the national Italian team.


A fellow Santa is passing sheet music to Prandelli (center), so he can join in the songfest.
The coach's arrival triggered activity by a flurry of cameramen and photographers who were on hand to immortalized the event.


A diminutive Carly had trouble jostling to find space to take photos.
One Santa noticed this and offered her refuge on his knee.


The Santa who kindly offered his knee is no other than Michael Brod of Palazzo Tornabuoni,
an exclusive private residence club in the heart of Florence.
He is the sole American in the Compagnia dei Babbi Natale, a group comprised of
surgeons, lawyers, notaries, fashion designers, artists, businessmen, craftsmen and
 one Mrs. or Lady Santa...


who in real life happens to be Lucia Caponi.  She and her mother are the heart and soul of Loretta Caponi, known for hand-made and hand-embroidered nightwear and linens that uphold an Italian tradition.

Accompanying the group was Caterina, the cheerful proprietor of the Milano 25 taxi.  After she lost her partner to cancer, Caterina took over his taxi and has ever since taken
 sick children to the hospital free of charge.
She dresses the part (see below).


She is next to Wanny de Filippo, a handbag designer and craftsman who arrived
 bearing some of his company's products as presents.


After a rousing rendition of "Jingle Bells" in English,
the  Compagnia dei Babbi Natale
went inside to offer their gifts to the children resident at the Istituto degli Innocenti.

The door was firmly shut in everyone else's face
(including the press).
"This is a safe house--we don't want fathers to come looking for their kids,"
a representative of the Innocenti explained.


So, there was nowhere else for Carly and I to go but outside, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
There we found the fairy-tale-like taxi Milano 25 parked, waiting for its owner.

Caterina decorated the taxi so that sick children would feel comfortable en route to the hospital, but obviously it is
child-friendly, even off-duty...


Buon Natale!
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Olive Oil Day in Chianti

      Last Friday, tour guide and friend Anne Barbetti, photographer Carly and I ventured into the Chianti countryside.  We had been invited to lunch at Mary Foreman's (see ending of the post "A Little Bit of England in Florence") and had meant to stop at the Montagliari wine estate.  David Migliorini, Montagliari's owner, however, had to suddenly make a visit to the dentist that day, so we planned to tour a frantoio, an olive mill not far from our lunch venue.

       Anne drove the winding road leading from Florence to the Chianti area, which produces superb wine and olive oil en route to Mary's farmhouse near Panzano.  Carly in the back seat weakly protested about the curves,  "everything is flat and in a straight line in Florida," she said, getting close to carsick looking out the window at the Chianti autumn scenery.


About 40 minutes from Florence, we turned left past Montagliari and went down a bumpy strada bianca (unpaved dirt road covered with a scattering of white gravel) to arrive at Mary's residence
Il Corneto.


Isn't this is what visitors dream of when they imagine a Chianti farmhouse?  The day was overcast, as you can see by the light.  Mary was waiting for us outside, and explained that she had taken temporary residence in the studio, as all the pipes and plumbing was in the process of being replaced in the main house.  We found the studio charming (see below).





The painting is the work of Mary's friend Giannina (English, despite her name), who told us she had spent 10 years doing watercolors--financed by English sponsors--along the Tuscan stretch of the medieval pilgrim road la via Francigiana.  Giannina explained to us that the via Francigiana linked Canterbury to Rome.




The table was laid with Italian ceramic dishes and English silverware in the spirit of biculturalism.
Pane toscano was toasted on the stove, and a small bowl of garlic cloves was passed around so that we could rub it on the crusty bread.  Then newly-made olive oil was passed around to the complete the dish, called fettunta (oily slice) in Tuscany and known as the simplest type of bruschetta elsewhere.


While most of us drank Chianti wine, Carly accepted a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, made from Sicilian blood orange tarocco, which provided a startling contrast to the fettunta.
Traditionally, Tuscan residents and natives alike enjoy fettunta to savor the pungent taste of freshly-made olive oil.

After lunch, Anne decided to accompany us to the frantoio (olive mill).  She and I (in the brown jacket) are in the photo to the left leaving Il Corneto.  To the right is the Panzano olive mill we visited.











When asked about the 2011 olive harvest, the mill's director, Carlo, explained,


"because of scarce rainfall," (this is why I named the blog this past spring Beautiful Florence as the city was at its best in the unceasing sunshine), olive production in Tuscany was down by at least 25%."


"But the remaining olives that were harvested were healthy, untouched (at least in the hills of Chianti) by  parasites or disease, so the quality of this year's olive oil is good to superior," he said.   Because of the decrease in harvested olives--which in Chianti are of the morellino, frantoio and leccino
 varieties, Carly, Anne and I caught the tail end of the milling process, which begins at the end of October and normally extends to mid-December or to just before Christmas.

The entire olive mill was permeated with the scent of new oil
olio nuovo.
Families and small producers from Greve, Panzano, Radda, Gaiole and Castellina come here to press their olives, Carlo explained.  When I asked if the olives were stone-ground--macinata a pietra--
he laughed at my romantic notion.  "No, we use the modern centrifuge system here," he said.

The olives delivered by customers go up a chute,


to the production room, where the leaves and debris are eliminated.


The olives are then washed...
...and ground to a paste and spun in a centrifuge to separate the water from the oil.


The olio nuovo comes out of a sprout into a metal can, which is transferred to the bottling area.


The Panzano frantoio also sells its own extra virgin olive oil for those who do not arrive with their own olives to press.

At lunch, however, Mary told us that the olives picked on the Corneto property had been pressed and bottled at the frantoio that we planned to visit.  Hers (see below) is
pure, unfiltered extra virgin,
unlike the green transparent boutique olive oils che si trovono in giro (that can be seen around).


When we asked Carlo about stone-ground cold press olive oil, he was amused at our romantic notion.  "This is something from the past," he said.  "The centrifuge system is universal."
This may be, but we saw a grinding stone--in disuse--at the Panzano frantoio.

Back at Mary's, we found the same stone on the ground--now a decorative element expressing the ancient soul of Chianti.


Nearby, there was an unwelcome suitor of Mary's cat patiently waiting outside,
Lovelorn, he rubbed himself against the doorstep....


See the olive leaves on the ground?  Such is the poetry of
 an olive oil day in Chianti.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Truffles, San Miniato & More Truffles

       "Hey, Carly--we will be covering a truffle festival this month at the hilltop town of San Miniato."
       
    This elicited a puzzled look on photographer Carly's face, close to a pout.  No comment was forthcoming, however, until the day before our adventure in the company of truffle festival veteran Rita Kungel and friend Gabrielle Taylor.
      
     Carly finally confessed:  "I thought you were talking about chocolate truffles.  Why would there be a festival just on chocolate truffles?"


Above is a bowl of chocolate hazelnut truffles from our favorite Florentine chocolate shop, Vestri.  
      
     Some one else in the office said "what does the church of San Miniato have to do with truffles?"  (NB, the Romanesque church of San Miniato with its 12th & 13th century architecture,  Renaissance art works and a birds-eye view of Florence is located above Piazzale Michelangelo).

"No,"  the hilltop town of San Miniato is located on the way to Pisa.  And the surrounding countryside, stretching from San Miniato to Montaione and Castelfiorentino is where the prized white truffle is hunted every autumn by specially trained dogs."


Carly, Rita, Gaby and myself saw the real deal depicted above a stand at the actual San Miniato truffle festival, which is always held on the last three weekends of the November.  The truffle portrayed is larger than any we actually saw while there.

What is a non-chocolate truffle?  It is a fungi that grows underground in a symbiotic relationship with a tree (see the trees behind the above hunter?).

To add to the confusion, one of the first stands we happened upon at the San Miniato festival was a showcase for a
 local chocolate shop.


When we asked for chocolate truffles to photograph, the owner brought out a tray of  truffle-flavored candy truffles selling at 1 euro per piece.  Delectable is too modest a word for the experience--as the chocolate taste disappeared, the flavor of nature's truffle lingered at the back of my throat.  We were treated, sparingly of course, and the obliging owner cut one open for us to take a picture.


The inside of the chocolate treat was as pale as the actual tartufo bianco di San Miniato-- the white San Miniato truffle--that we later admired at stands in a tented area at the fair.

Due to the exquisite flavoring and rarity value, the price quoted to us was 220 euros per etto (100 grams), i.e. 3.5 ounces!




Also available was a selection of truffle-flavored butters (as a pasta condiment) and fresh cheeses studded with pieces of truffle.

We saw people buying truffles, which were weighed and the price quoted before their eyes.  At one stand, smaller truffles at more economical prices were displayed as an enticement to the
 potential buyer.


Having seen with her own eyes that there are truffles beyond chocolate truffles, Carly tasted a sliver of truffled cheese, and decided to take some home.  At this point, Gaby, Rita, Carly and myself wanted to indulge in a truffle-themed meal (why else had we come?)

Having decided to do this excursion on the Thursday before the Sunday that we went, I was in a panic about reserving the restaurant, whether we would find a place.  Rita sent me several suggestions.  I looked at one "Upupa," recognizing that as a name of bird and made a quick decision to go with that.

Knowing it was a desperate feat to book a table during a festival with such late notice, I called the "Upupa" and spoke to the owner Roberto, saying "I am a journalist, I am not looking for a free meal or a discount but a free table."  Roberto had reserved a table for four at noon ("not a minute later.")  I was relieved, and said "afterwards if there is anything else we need to see, we will avoid the crowds as all Italians will be having lunch at the same time--1 pm of course--(see the Day of the Dead post).


When we went looking for the  "Upupa" restaurant, feeling like Cinderellas with a noon, not a midnight deadline, we found it thanks to the sign (see above).  I'll be darned, I thought the word translated as woodpecker, which it does not--it is the Hoopoe bird.

Carly later looked up this bird on the Internet where, among other things, it was identified as the national bird of Israel.  Despite this fact, the Upupa restaurant has Tuscan cuisine with of course a truffle menu; it is a tiny place with seating for 20 and Roberto, the owner, is in the kitchen.


When I asked him why he gave the restaurant the name, he said, "that what it was called when I purchased it last year, so I just kept the name."  Roberto, a Florentine born on via degli Alfani, is a dedicated foodie who has been in the restaurant business as long as he can remember, including many years at the Gilli caffĂ© in piazza della Repubblica.

Now, on to the food.  This is worthy of an entire blog post, but suffice to say that we enjoyed the truffle menu and even received a bit of a discount on the bill (the perks of the trade).  Gaby and Carly ordered the classic tagliatelline al burro e tartufo bianco (thin egg noodles sauced with hot, melted butter and truffle shavings).


Well, it was 25 euro but very truffle-y.  Our dining companions assured us it was worth every bite.

After lunch, Rita wanted to see the Duomo, the Cathedral, where a WWII tragedy had taken place that inspired the Taviani brothers' film Le Notti di San Lorenzo.  





The retreating Germans
 has ordered that inhabitants take refuge in the church.
 The Americans were bombing the vicinity and a stray Allied shell entered a window,  ricocheted off a stone relief
and exploded, killing 55 civilians.  This quiet sanctuary
shows no lingering signs of the massacre,
 which took place on July 22, 1944.


We went into the nearby Cathedral Museum seeking the art work involved in the incident.  The custodian, who later identified himself as Francesco, immediately demanded an entrance fee x four.  "I am a journalist," I said, digging into my bag for my press pass although I was certain I had left it in Florence (which I had).  I pointed to Rita and explained her mission.  Francesco paused, and in the true Italian art of arrangiarsi (of getting by), peered at an (attractive) Rita and asked tactfully "are you a senior citizen?"  Mindful that she had passed as a senior citizen in Greece (defined at 55), she answered yes and went in and look at the art work.  Francesco turned his back and we followed her.


"See," I said, "neither the angel Gabriel nor Mary were harmed.  That's what comes of having God on your side."  The caption identified the work as a 1274 Annunciation by Giroldo da Iacopo da Como.
Makes sense when you take into account that the 13th century Duomo was built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to the Annunciation.

We thanked Francesco and went on our way.  Rita, however, wanted to see the plaques in memorial to the victims of the fatal accident.  For many years, the Nazis were blamed...


then proof was uncovered that 
it was a misguided Allied shell.  


At least equal time was given to opposing viewpoints....

There would be much more to write, and someday I will.  Suffice it to say that at 3 pm, while all the Italian were arriving in swarms, Rita, Carly, Gaby and myself decided to return to Florence.  We left the medieval town to catch to catch the shuttle bus down to the lower, modern part of the town, San Miniato Basso, where Rita's car was parked. 

On the outskirts of the festival, as at every festival in Tuscany, there were street vendors with food specialities.  As we were truffled-out, some of us purchased the original Italian candy bar--nuts covered in molten chocolate which slowly hardens (this was the work of a candyman from Lamporecchio, near Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci's hometown).


So much for truffles (chocolate), San Miniato and truffles.  See you same time next year for a festival update!
Si, we are going back...