Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in Arezzo

One of the things we love most about living in the historic center of Arezzo is that here almost everyone is on foot or on bike.  There are cars (which the Italians navigate with expert precision - the other day we watched dumbstruck as a construction worker maneuvered his truck into an impossibly tight space with the dexterity most people have with a shopping cart!), but for the most part the centro storico is devoted to pedestrians.  There is nothing more charming for us than seeing couples, families, and groups of friends strolling along the street arm-in-arm stopping to speak with people they know. 

This experience is at its peak at Christmas.  The streets are adorned with strands of twinkling white lights; the shops windows are filled with tantalizing displays; and the streets are teeming with people bustling about with their packages.  Honestly there are times when there are so many people out and about it’s difficult to make one’s way through the throng.  This doesn’t happen just at Christmas however, the evening passagieta (stroll) is a fundamental daily ritual.

It’s clear that the city is not a collection of unrelated individuals, it’s a community.  The piazzas and streets are not thoroughfares, they are the central gathering places of the community.  People come outside to be together.  They come to meet, eat, share news, gossip, see and be seen.  As we stroll among them we feel as though we’re walking through their living rooms.  We experience the same kind of feeling in Seattle when we go to the farmer’s markets.  It’s not really possible to just pop in and out of a farmers’ market.  You run into people you know there.  You’ve got to actually stop and talk to people.   You’ve got to slow down.  Picture this happening EVERY DAY and you get a sense of what it is to live here.

We have noticed that displays of crèches are popular here.  As we passed by the window of someone’s home recently we saw the following crèche:

The doorway.  The blue fabric suspended above is printed with glittering stars.

A close up.

We were delighted not only by the display itself, but perhaps more so by the fact that it was set up to face the street – an offering to passersby.

Another of our favorite sights was a small Christmas tree on display outside a woodworkers’ studio.  The tree itself and its decorations were made entirely out of scraps of wood that would have otherwise been thrown away.  As we stood admiring it, one of the people from the studio arrived.  In her characteristic way, Gabriella enthused with delight about the tree (picture lots of exclamation marks!!!) and explained that we were so delighted by it that we had stopped to take a photo. 

On Christmas day we will be having dinner with our dear friend Federica and her family.  Federica
(who is originally from Arezzo) was our Italian teacher in Seattle for over three years.  We’re very honored and excited to have been invited to spend Christmas with her, and being with her will help make up for how much we are missing everyone we love back home.  We hope that all of you will be spending time with close friends and family during this holiday season.

      Buone Feste e Felice Capodanno!

Thursday, December 15, 2011


We love Italy.  We love almost everything about Italy, except for the cigarette smoke and quite frankly the bread.  It’s the lack of salt.  The Italians in Tuscany and Umbria don’t use salt in their bread.  The pane fatto al legno, when it’s fresh, is pretty good, but all the breads here have a distinct lack of flavor. 

Legend has it that once upon a time in Tuscany the Pope got mad at the people and punished them by taking away their salt trade, hoping to bring the Tuscan people to their knees.  But the Tuscans were made of tougher stuff and simply started baking without salt. When the Pope finally gave up on them and let them have their salt trade back, the Tuscans continued to make their bread without salt.  We learned at our school that the lack of salt was actually more a matter of economics - salt was simply too expensive.  Whichever story is true, the Tuscans now see no reason to change their ways.

Food-oriented festivals are common in Italy.  In and around Arezzo there is some kind of food festival about once a week, year-round.  Some are huge and some have only one or two booths. This past weekend there were three different festivals here– one devoted to honey, one devoted to truffles, and one devoted to the foods of France.  When we heard about the festival of French foods, we thought this was like bringing coals to Newcastle, or ice to Eskimos.  To some extent it was, as far as the wine, cheese and salami were concerned, but when it comes to the bread and pastries…the French are in a whole other league.  We began having mouth-watering images of baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat. 

We showed up just a couple of hours after the festival opened.  It was smaller than we had anticipated, but we could smell the bread baking as we entered the piazza and that was all we needed.  Henry, Mister Baked Goods himself, quickly located the pastry tent and went to check it out.  He bought a plain croissant for himself and a pain au chocolat for Gabriella. They were still warm from the oven and we consumed them savoring every bite.  It took some willpower to refrain from going back for more.  We could still taste them hours later.  In the afternoon we returned for some baguettes which were warm, moist and full of flavor (i.e. salt), with a nice crunchy crust.  We quickly devoured those as well.  

Fortunately the festival goes for three more days.  You’ll know where to find us.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Uovi con Pomodori e Peperoni

One of the meals we had when we were staying at Il Bellini was a simple dish that Rosanna prepared in about 45 minutes.  When we complimented her on the meal she was surprised we were so impressed because apparently it is quite common here.  For us it was an ingenious concept –a quick tomato sauce with eggs poached right in the sauce.

We tried it out when we got home, and while it did not turn out exactly the same as what Rosanna had prepared, we were sufficiently pleased with the result.  We therefore thought it would be worth sharing the recipe with you.  Keep in mind this is our version based on what we remember of Rosanna’s dish and what we had on hand at the time.  Feel free to experiment yourself.

 Uovi con Pomodori e Peperoni (Eggs with Tomatoes and Peppers)

Serves 4

8 ripe large tomatoes, chopped into bite-sized cubes
4 (or 6 or 8) eggs
3-4 large yellow bell peppers, chopped into bite-sized cubes
1 large onion, chopped into bite-sized cubes
3 cloves garlic, minced
Copious amounts of olive oil!
2 tsp. marjoram
2 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. basil
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

Bread, pasta and Parmesan are optional

Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat.  Use enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan.  Cook until the onion becomes soft and translucent (about 5 minutes – do not allow the onion to brown).  At this point add the tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper, and cook slowly for about 10 minutes.  Stir periodically to keep the tomatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pan. 

Add the peppers and continue cooking over a moderate heat until the tomatoes have completely lost their shape and the peppers are soft (about 20 minutes).  The sauce will become more flavorful the longer it cooks, so it’s best not to rush this part.  Cover the pan to keep too much liquid from evaporating during this phase of the cooking.  If the sauce becomes too dry, add a bit of water.

When the peppers are sufficiently soft, adjust seasoning as necessary.  Carefully crack each egg into the sauce and allow the eggs to poach on the surface of the sauce.  Once the eggs are thoroughly cooked, remove the pan from the heat and serve an egg with a generous spoonful of the sauce into individual bowls.  Lightly sprinkle salt and pepper on top of each egg, and drizzle with olive oil. 

This sauce is substantial enough to serve as a light meal on its own, or it can be used as a topping for pasta or bread.  Add freshly grated Parmesan if you like.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Books & Bookstores

In an earlier entry we talked about our cooking class with Lalla. At the end of that evening she told us that she was catering an event the next night for the grand opening of a new bookstore and invited us to come.  When we arrived we found throngs of people both outside and inside the store.  It was obviously a big social event, and there was free food and Prosecco for anyone who happened by.  Despite the fact that we were clearly not part of the “in” crowd, we mustered the courage to step into the throng and help ourselves to the food and drink, and then Henry pushed his way into the store.  (We all know what a pushy guy Henry is!) Inside he found a copy of a book we have been searching for since we arrived.  It’s a book we used in our Italian lessons before we left Seattle.  We really enjoyed it and wanted to have our own copy.  Finally finding it was a cause for celebration.

Panchine is the word for benches and the essays are about sitting on benches and enjoying the world as it goes by.  This is a practice we have yet to perfect on this Italian adventure.  Till now we’ve been too busy!

Henry has been amazed over the last three weeks to see how many bookstores there are here, at least 8, including two large outdoor used book stalls, in a town of 100,000 people.  Despite the fact that this new store is part of a chain of stores, seeing such excitement over the opening of a bookstore makes Henry more than a little sad and wistful about the closing of Fremont Place Books.

Only a couple of days later Henry’s passion for books was excited again when he found the local independent bookstore called Il Viaggiatore Immaginario (The Imaginary Traveller).

He’d looked in the window a few times and saw that the selection was a lot like what he had in Fremont.  When he finally went in to order a book, he met the owner and mentioned that he was a former bookstore owner himself.  This prompted the owner to start talking about his bookstore and the book business in Italy.  All the while Henry wished he knew the language better so that he could have a more fulfilling discussion and it reinforced his commitment to improving his Italian.  Now that Henry has visited the store several times and made several purchases, he’s decided to stop in to volunteer his help during the busy month of December.  For sure the prospect is bittersweet.

"I was hoping to get books."