Friday, March 30, 2012

Return to Il Bellini

Ever since our time helping with the olive harvest at Il Bellini in November we’ve been looking forward to going back. Our plan was to return in the spring to help with the pruning of the olive trees and the grape vines.  When we arrived a couple of weeks ago we found Mario had already finished pruning the vines, and while the family was in the initial phases of pruning the olive trees, they had hired an experienced young man, Ricardo, to tend to them.  They didn’t say as much, but we got the distinct impression that they’d prefer to leave the work that most directly affected their livelihood in the hands of a trained professional, Gabriella’s more than 10 years of experience as The Cottage Gardener notwithstanding. 

Our job was to collect the pruned branches, put them into piles, and burn them.   Not glamorous, not particularly healthy for people or the atmosphere, but integral to the work at hand, and we were more than happy to help in any way needed.  

Anna, who at 68 is old enough to be Gabriella’s mother, wielded a chain saw as though it were a bread knife.  She sliced through the larger tree branches seemingly effortlessly, turning them into short logs which the family will use as firewood for cooking and heating. 

Since we were able to burn the debris and collect the wood faster than Ricardo was able to prune the trees, we were also given other tasks to do in the garden.  We mowed the lawn, weeded (it turns out they have shotweed here too!), and pruned the dauntingly long hedge circling the property.  Gabriella felt in her element working in a garden again and was grateful for the opportunity to get back into shape for gardening when we return to Seattle. 

We made two visits over the course of the past two weeks, and both times we had the privilege and honor of staying with the family in their home.  We shared every meal with them, and they gave us great grief about not eating enough.  At every opportunity they said to us: “Mangia! Mangia!” (Eat! Eat!).  At times even when we were already chewing!  At one point Gabriella protested saying she had already helped herself to two servings.  Mario (the father/grandfather of the family), in feigned disgust, cried out “Porca miseria!” (which literally means “Poor miserable pig”).  Italians use this phrase liberally to express general dismay at anything from bad traffic to poor eaters.

Whereas during our visit in the fall we ate outside at the farm, this time we went back to the house for lunch. One day during our first visit, as we were finishing our meal, the phone rang and it was someone calling to make a reservation at the family’s agriturismo.  The caller was German, didn’t speak Italian, and was trying to communicate in English.  Anna waved Gabriella over to the phone and asked her to take the call.  The caller apologized saying her English wasn’t very good (which, in fact, it was), and Gabriella replied saying, “Don’t worry, my German is not very good.”  Gabriella spent several minutes relaying bits of information and inquiries back and forth (English/Italian) between the caller and Anna. When we returned the second week, we saw the German family had arrived as expected so we knew that everything turned out OK - yet another indication that our capacity with the language is indeed improving. 

In fact, having our experience in November as a benchmark, this visit was an excellent indicator for us of how much our Italian has improved.  We were amazed to find how much easier it was to understand what the family was saying to us, and also to communicate with them.  Whereas in November we managed to communicate basic essentials, this time we managed proper conversations. 

Besides our work on the farm and in the garden, we also spent time at the house helping Anna and Adelina make pasta fatto a mano (hand-made pasta), filling bottles with wine from the family’s cantina, playing pinochle, and taking an afternoon excursion to a couple of utterly charming nearby villages.

Gabriella with Adelina and Anna in their kitchen.

Henry in the cantina.

Gabriella with Adelina and Anna in Borro.

At the end of our second visit we felt a deeply personal connection with the family.  Anna, whose daughter, Rosanna, is just three years younger than Gabriella, even commented at one point that they had officially adopted us.  On top of their kindness and generosity at having us stay with them, sharing their personal stories with us, and feeding us delicious meals every day, when it was time for us to leave they also insisted we take some of their home-made vino rosso (6 liters!), olive oil (another 6 liters!), and more than a dozen fresh eggs from their chickens.  As if we didn’t have enough reasons to return to Italy, we now have family here.

The women pictured here, Adelia, Anna, and Adelina, are sisters.  Anna is holding her grandson, Gian Lorenzo.  Missing from the photo are Mario, Anna's husband, who was ill that day, and Rosanna, their daughter, who took the picture.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Crostini ai Peperoni

The following is a recipe Gabriella found in one of the cookbooks Gino lent us (see previous posting on “Language Exchange”).  The book is a wonderful collection of recipes from the Casentino (one of the valleys near Arezzo).  One charming aspect of the book is that the recipes often don’t include specific measurements or precise instructions - they will simply list the ingredients without saying how much to use.  Clearly these recipes are designed for people who know how to cook!  Each recipe also includes the name of the person who submitted it (presumably you can call if you get in a pinch!).  This particular one is from Luisa Boschi Puri (and it includes Gabriella’s interpretations of the quantities and specific steps of the preparation – the original recipe has less than half as much guidance!).  It’s quick and simple to make, and above all, delicious!  Thank you, Luisa!

(Makes approximately one cup)

2 large red peppers, finely chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of minced fresh ginger
1 cube of vegetable broth mixed with about ½ cup hot water
Salt to taste (be careful not to add too much – or any! - salt if the broth you’re using is salty)
1 teaspoon mayonnaise (optional)

Slices of marvelous fresh bread, lightly toasted

Heat the olive oil over moderate heat in a skillet.  Add the chopped onion and sauté for 1-2 minutes.  Add the red pepper and ginger and sauté for another 5-10 minutes.  Add the broth, lower the heat somewhat, and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Once the peppers are very soft, remove the pan from the heat.  Allow the mixture to cool slightly, and then puree.  Add salt to taste, if necessary.  Add mayonnaise, if desired.  Spread over lightly toasted slices of bread and enjoy!

Though we haven’t tried it yet, this topping seems perfect for fresh pasta or gnocchi – yum!  Buon appetito!

Language Exchange

We’ve reached the point with our language studies where what we need most of all is practice speaking.  Even though we’re living in Italy we’ve found that we actually have very few opportunities to have a conversation in Italian.  It’s surprisingly easy for a couple of introverts (like us!) to get by for months with only a few sentences uttered here and there in the process of  buying food, getting items repaired, and paying the bills. Unless we make a concerted effort we don’t really have to say much more than “I’d like some fresh pecorino and a kilo of fettuccine” or “Can you replace the heels on these shoes?” 

Even with our classes at school we realized we weren’t getting enough practice speaking.  We have, on the other hand, been getting LOTS of practice at listening, and our capacity for comprehending what is being said to us (or around us) has improved dramatically.  But we’re still stammering as we try to speak.  So we decided to be proactive.  We prepared a flier proposing a language exchange, in which we would help a native Italian speaker with their English and they would help us with our Italian.  We made multiple copies of our flier and went off in search of where to post them.

Gabriella made the first – and as it turned out, the only – stop at Informagiovani.  This is kind of like a tourist office for the locals.  They provide information about housing, jobs, events, opportunities, etc. in Arezzo.   When Gabriella went in she explained to the woman behind the counter what we were looking for and asked if she could post the flier.  The woman said that yes, she could post the information, but not the actual flier.  All the information had to be transcribed onto a small piece of paper - about the size of a post-it note - to keep it uniform with all the other postings.   Discouraged not to be able to post our carefully prepared flier, but happy for the opportunity to at least post something, Gabriella set the fliers on the counter and began writing the pertinent information on the slip of paper she had been given. 

Meanwhile the woman behind the counter introduced herself (her name is Cristina) and said she herself might be interested in such an exchange.  Then her colleague chimed in and said she too might be interested.  Wow!  Who knew!?!  A minute later a man walked in, saw the fliers on the counter and said he was looking for an opportunity to practice his English.  While Gabriella was in the midst of talking with him, another woman entered the building and she too said she was interested.  After all this time desperate for opportunity for conversation, there it was waiting for us right under our noses!  All we had to do was ask!

Since then we’ve been meeting with Cristina and Gino once or twice a week, and the exchange is giving us not only practical opportunities to learn and speak Italian, but also emerging friendships.  We discuss personal stories, politics, history, and, of course, food (we are in Italy after all!).  Gino especially loves to cook, so we’ve begun exchanging recipes, and on one of our next visits with him we plan to prepare a meal together.  Our next posting will include one of the recipes we’ve tried from a book he loaned us. 

In Gino's kitchen
Cristina doesn’t particularly like to cook, but her mother does, and she has brought us some of her mother’s cooking magazines, which Gabriella has been studying avidly.  Cristina has also given us gifts of her family’s home-made olive oil and jam, and a friend’s home-made vin santo.  We feel so fortunate for all this abundance!

We’re still not expecting to be fluent by the time we return to Seattle, but already we’ve found that we’re no longer daunted by the prospect of spending an hour or an afternoon conversing entirely in Italian.  In fact the quiet, relaxing time we were expecting here in Arezzo has become molto impegnato (very busy) with the amount of time we’re spending with our friends, on top of our classes and school activities.  For example, yesterday we had class, then we caught the train to go visit Gino (who lives in the next town) for a few hours, and then we returned to Arezzo for a good-bye dinner with another student who is leaving.  

We really enjoy being with all the people we’ve met, but the flip side is that for a couple of introverts all this social activity is pretty draining.  Somewhere along the way we apparently forgot that learning a language would involve spending lots of time with people.  What were we thinking?!?   

Thursday, March 15, 2012


It’s not that we don’t have enough entertaining experiences to write about.  It’s that we don’t have the time to write about them!  Here we are posting the story of a trip we took at the end of January that we’re just now writing about!

As many of you know we really enjoy wine.  One of the best places to go to around here is the small hill town of Montepulciano.  Not only is the wine renowned, the name of the place is just plain fun to say.  Try it: Mon-teh-pull-chee-ah-no.  Isn’t that satisfying?  For Henry’s birthday we made a reservation for one night at a small guest house run by a woman named Gabriella, who also uses lots of exclamation marks in her emails!!  We decided that winter would be the best time to go so we could have the place to ourselves (and in fact we did.  When we went out for dinner we saw maybe 5 other people, including the staff at the restaurant!).

The countryside is stunning – it’s replete with vineyards and fields on rolling hills.  On our way there we rounded a corner and off in the distance we saw an alluring town perched on the top of a large hill - our bus was headed straight for it.  We were intrigued, and were delighted when we realized it was Montepulciano.  We knew that this was a popular tourist town but we were quite surprised when we arrived at a large bus station, bigger than Arezzo’s!

After we arrived, Gabriella, our hostess, came and picked us up at the station and took us to our hotel.  We chatted with her (in Italian) the whole way there.  We’re still amazed that we can manage these types of conversations with relative ease!  When she took us to our room she opened the window and the shutters and we were awed by the view of the countryside.

 You’ll never guess the name of the guest house….Camera Bellavista(Room with a Beautiful View)!

We settled into the room quickly so we could immediately go out and explore.  Being a hill town the streets are quite steep, so it’s a good thing that we stopped for lunch (and wine) to give us the energy to walk around.  Montepulciano is very small so you can walk around the whole town quite easily (“easily” is a relative term here – did we mention the steep streets?).

By late afternoon we (i.e. Henry) were getting thirsty and we decided to stop at a winery that we had read about in a local guidebook.  As we entered we saw several rooms filled with large barrels of wine and the man who greeted us said we were welcome to walk around. 

We wandered through several rooms filled with large barrels of wine until we ended up in the tasting room where we were met by Morena.  Expecting the usual, mildly disdainful sales pitch, we were surprised that Morena was delightful and enthusiastic.  We spent almost 2 hours talking with her (in Italian) about wine, life in Italy, and food.  As we left she recommended a couple of restaurants for dinner, adding that if she didn’t have to go home to feed her family she would happily join us.  One of the places she had suggested was closed for the winter (the downside of going to Montepulciano in January) and the other place seemed to be attracting the few American tourists that were in town.  Instead, we went to a place we had seen on our walk and had a perfectly enjoyable meal (with some very nice wine).

In the morning, after Henry had gone out for coffee, we walked down the hill to see a beautiful church that we had noticed when we arrived that is just outside the city walls.

 It’s a lovely and imposing church, sitting in its own park-like setting.  It’s one of the oldest in the area (which means it’s pretty OLD!).  We weren’t in a hurry; our bus home wasn’t until early afternoon, so we lingered here for a while in the sun before heading back into town to look for lunch.  The place we found was run by an elderly couple.  She did the cooking and he was the waiter.  He was obviously having a bad day.  He gruffly took our order and practically threw the food on the table.  We were somewhat relieved to see that he was like this with the other customers as well.  After lunch we went to collect our bags and headed off to catch our bus, looking forward to the opportunity to visit again – there’s more wine to sample, there are more restaurants to try, and we’re curious to see the countryside in the spring.

The ride home was uneventful (thankfully).  As we walked up the hill to our apartment, carrying a bottle of wine (from Morena at the cantina) and a liter of olive oil (from Gabriella at the guest house), we were happy to be back home in Arezzo.

p.s.  We’ve started to use the word “home” to refer to Arezzo.  After 5 months here it really does feel like home.  We’ve made friends and we feel very much like a part of the town.  We often run into someone we know when we are out walking around.  The other day a neighbor we had never met actually mistook Gabriella for an Italian woman who lives in our building!  Gabriella is still quite chuffed about that.  We will be very sad to leave when the time comes.  Now that we’re well past the halfway point in our stay it is hard not to think about our pending departure date.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Clock Tower

On the Piazza Grande there is a building, finished in 1552, that belongs to La Fraternità dei Laici, which is a charitable organization a lot like the Rotary or the Lions. The important thing about this building, to us anyway, is its clock tower.  

It’s a beautiful tower  with a unique clock.  Not only does it tell time, but also the phase of the moon and the sun.  The carefully coordinated mechanism also rings the bells.  We’d been intrigued by this clock ever since we arrived and, thanks again to our school, we had a private tour of the building and the tower.

On top of the clock tower with our teacher, Monica (in green), and our fellow students

The bells in the tower ring in various combinations on the quarter hour, from 6am to 6pm.  The arrow on the clock tells the hour (they didn’t worry about minutes back then).  The round ball in the center represents the earth with the sun and the moon orbiting around it (based on the astronomical conceptions of the time).  The moon, represented by the large round ball nearest the earth, is half black and half gold and rotates to reflect the phases of the moon as well as circling the earth once a month.  The sun also moves around the earth to indicate dusk at 3:00, midnight at 6:00, dawn at 9:00, and midday at 12:00.

One would think that a clock that does all this would be extremely complex.  However, as you can see in the short video below, it’s just a few gears, levers and weights.  The complexity is in the calibration that went into making sure it all works together.
Fortunately we were in the clock tower at the top of the hour to witness the machinery in action.  For those of you who remember Rube Goldberg, it looks like one of his contraptions. 

Also, it has to be wound - by hand - every other day.  Yes, someone has been responsible for doing this for over 450 years.  For the time being this duty has been designated to the woman who was our tour guide, who comes in even on holidays just to wind the clock.  She says the task – which requires climbing several flights of stairs and rotating a heavy crank- gives her a great work-out and saves her from paying for a gym membership!

As with the collection in the Museo Galileo in Florence, it’s the combination of art and function that makes this clock so amazing.  The designers translated what they knew about astronomy into a useful piece of art.  And we think we’re so smart!!