27 February 2011

A Day for Baking

What does a person do when a friend is a long way from home (Australia) and yearns for a proper kitchen and her passion for baking? A good friend offers said friend the use of her kitchen, that's what.
 Ellen preparing pancakes
Australian-style pancake
My passion for good, home-cooked food naturally compelled me to help my friend Ellen with her overwhelming need and desire to bake to her heart's content. It was mid morning, and Australian-style pancakes were necessary to get Ellen prepared for baking. Australian pancakes are thin, light, fluffy pancakes, almost like a crepe, with brown sugar sprinkled on top and the squeeze of fresh lemon, then rolled up.  They taste even better when eaten with your hands.
 Aussie Ellen preparing batter with English Sally
 American Blogger assisting the baker
See, I can do more in the kitchen than just quality control.
 Flourless chocolate cake comes out of the oven
Torture waiting for it to cool
Canadian Sandra leaves Italy tomorrow and will soon return to her home base in Portland, Oregon. We wanted to say goodbye one more time. Being a rainy day, it made sense to invite the girls to my apartment for a bake-fest. We allowed Ellen to do her thing in the kitchen. We enjoyed good conversation, sharing life, love, and travel adventures over coffee and Ellen's delicious homemade flourless chocolate cake. My apartment smelled like heaven.
 Sally gives her seal of approval
 Sandra and Sally chatting
Sandra also approves of the cake
 The baker herself takes delight in the taste of her cake
It was easy to convince Ellen to leave her mixer in my kitchen as collateral so I could be certain she would soon return for her next baking project. Always happy, I am, to help out a friend in need.

20 February 2011

Golosa per il Gelato

It is no surprise that I am golosa (gluttonous: to have a sweet tooth) for gelato considering the word "gelato" is mentioned several times on my blog. In fact, we could say I am a gelatoholic.

Recently, a new gelateria, Cantina del Gelato, opened up around the corner from my home, which is rather dangerous for me. I watched with curiosity as they reconstructed an old wine cantina, wondering what they would be opening in the upcoming weeks. The vaulted ceiling is a reminder of the cantina that once stood there.  The small, blue window next to the door is where one used to pick up wine after hours, which reminds me of the days when, once upon a time, we had fresh milk home-delivered in the States. That was when you could still buy fresh milk.
Street view
Florence is filled with gelaterias, but few are truly good artigianale (homemade, artisan, craft) gelaterias. Most serve gelato that has been mass produced with plenty of additives and preservatives. Cantina del Gelato serves a few of the best flavors of gelato each day -- mascarpone and nutella, pistacchio, caprino and noci, limone, biscotti, to name a few -- not 31 or more flavors. They cater to quality and taste as opposed to quantity of flavors.

What truly sets this gelateria apart from the rest of the gelaterias? They found their niche with something you won't find elsewhere in Florence. Fruit from the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Cantina del Gelato offers Succhi Tropicale (tropical fruit juices).  The fruit is picked in Brazil when ripe as opposed to prematurely like we are accustomed to; immediately juiced from the pulp; without preservatives added, they are then frozen; and then imported to Florence, Italy.  Choose from fruit such as maracuja (passion fruit),  goiaba (guava), caju fruit (the fruit of the cashew tree. Did you know that each fruit bears only one cashew, and the cashew is actually the flower of the fruit?  The fruit itself has considerably more healthful than is the nut.), mango, banana, lime, acerola (the queen of vitamin C), and the number one "superfood," acai berry.   These fruits are rich in antioxidants, anti-aging benefits, omega-fats, anticancer benefits, fights against heart disease, lowers blood pressure, low in calories, high in fiber, helps one lose weight, and packed full of a large variety of vitamins and minerals.

Best of all:  Ask for a "Lo Frullo Acai."  Served in a bowl; eaten with a spoon.  

All that Cantina del Gelato serves is made with the finest, natural, top quality products, with no preservatives, and is made fresh daily.

A few of the many reasons why fruit from the rainforest is important in addition to what I've mentioned above:  Seventy percent of the 3,000 plants that the U.S. National Cancer Institute has found to have anticancer properties are found only in the rainforest.  There is an estimated 3,000 edible fruits found in the rainforest, but only 200 are cultivated for use around the world. At least 80% of our developed world's diet originated in the tropical rainforest.

As I move in the direction of what really matters to me on my journey living in Italy, I try to make healthful choices.  In other words, because all they offer tastes so good and is full of healthy reasons to eat it, I can righteously justify going daily to my neighborhood gelateria.  Right?  

Samio (left) and Giuseppe (right), gelateria partners

Whether you're an athlete, foodie, have a sweet tooth, are hot and need something cold to put in your mouth, care about your nutrients, when you're in Florence or if you live in Florence, make a point of visiting Cantina del Gelato, and tell them Josslyn sent you.  The winter hours are from 12:00 until 11:00 in the evening daily, closed Mondays.  Soon they will extend the hours and days for the spring and summer.  Giuseppe and Samio are friendly and will treat you right.

You can find them in Oltrarno, 200 meters from Ponte Vecchio at Via de' Bardi, 31, Florence, 50125, Italy. 

JUNE 2, 2011 UPDATE:

The summer hours are now in operation, which means Cantina del Gelato is now open seven days a week until midnight!  New flavors are in the house too.  My new favorite:  menta bianca  (white mint).  The flavor is incredibly refreshing on a hot day and tastes so clean being made from pure mint.

13 February 2011

Casalinga Lunch in Cortona, Italy

Cortona is a charming Etruscan and Medieval walled hilltop town that is easy to reach via the Italian train line between Rome and Florence. One hour and 23 minutes on the train from Florence, exit at Camucia, and take the 15-minute bus ride up to Cortona. 
Piazza Garibaldi e chiesa
Walled city and view
Of all the times I have been to Cortona, my most recent trip was the first time I visited Cortona when it was not crowded with tourists.  
Locals in the Piazza
Wear comfortable shoes since many streets are very steep, and you have the opportunity to walk several paths, either along the wall or out in the country.  
Typical Cortona streets
This particular day, though not a clear day for gorgeous views and photographs full of vibrant color, was still quite wintery, and I enjoyed breathing in the clean air from the hillside and the smell of wood-burning fireplaces.   Early in the day, we found a good local restaurant that we would return to for lunch.  
Trattoria Tacconi Agniolo and a local woman
We asked Graziella, the owner and cook of our "Cortonese typical food" restaurant, to save us a table at one o'clock.  It was necessary to do if we truly wanted to eat there since the restaurant has only five tables.  
Graziella showing the fegato (liver)
We then resumed our exploration and chose to climb uphill so we would work up an appetite for all the delicious homemade food we would eat a couple hours later.
Cortona views and streets
The restaurant is Trattoria Tacconi Angiolo (Via Dardano, 46, Cortona; phone: 0575.603588).  Deciding what to order wasn't easy.  Most of the dishes offered this day are dishes I enjoy.  Each region in Italy has its specialties.  This restaurant identifies its food as Cortonese style, but perhaps I am not yet experienced enough to tell the difference from Cortonese, Fiorentina, and Toscana food because all the dishes she was preparing were the same specialties in Florence. Graziella showed me the kitchen -- it was like being in their home -- and what she was preparing. 
Baccalá (salted cod in tomato sauce)
Fagioli (cannellini beans) on the back burner
The restaurant is called a trattoria (small restaurant), but it is really more like a casalinga (housewife, and also refers to a restaurant that serves homemade food and is very simple.)  It is like going home to eat at mom or grandma's house.  The atmosphere is no atmosphere.  That is how simple it is.  But the food is always delicious.  Tacconi is open only for lunch. Graziella does all the cooking, and her husband, Angiolo, serves your food. 
Graziella e Angiolo nella cucina
We took Angiolo up on his offer to order a half order of primi piatti (first plates) (3,50 euro) because we did not want to fill up before our second plates arrived. Oh, and the pasta comes from just across the street at the fresh pasta store.  
Fresh Pasta
I ordered pici (a long, hollow pasta) with fresh tomato sauce for my primo piatto and Arista di Maiale, which is a Cortonese and Florentine specialty of pork, and fresh spinach for my second.
Arista di Maiale
After lunch and stuffed to the gills, we walked along the wall and in the country for a good two hours to work off just how full we had become...well, that and also because we spotted a bakery we knew we would want to sample later in the afternoon.
Il Bramasole, Frances Mayes's house (Under the Tuscan Sun)
When you are ready to leave Cortona, I recommend you ask the bus driver his destination.  There are two buses that leave the same piazza at the same time.  Since only one bus was there, it did not occur to me to ask. We were engaged in conversation when all of a sudden I realized we had been on the bus too long and the road was unfamiliar.  I inquired of the bus driver where we were and where we were going.  Of course, everyone in the front of the bus got involved in the discussion between the bus driver and me.  Sure enough, we were on the wrong bus.  Luckily, we were heading in the right direction to return to Florence, and he let us off near another train station.  If it weren't for the fact that our train was five minutes in ritardo (late), we would have missed our train to Florence.
Oops!  Stazione Castiglion Fiorentino
Cortona has so much to offer, to see, and to do, yet I only touched on one of my favorite topics, food: where to eat with the locals and off the usual tourist map. We were the only non-Italians in the restaurant, and we enjoyed our food, the interaction with the locals, and our day overall.
-- Josslyn
Cortona, Italy

08 February 2011

Italian Train Travel with Your Dog

What if you show up at the train station as you have always done, allowing just enough time to buy train tickets for you and your dog from the self-service machine, validate, and board the train for your destination?  Today, if you are not prepared, you will be in for a surprise.  My recent personal experience can save us all some grief.

Be aware:  There is a new law effective January 2011 regarding your pet traveling on the Italian trains.  It isn't as simple as it once was.  Tickets for your piccolo animale (small animal) are no longer available at the self-service machine.  Now you must stand in line at the train station to buy your ticket or purchase your ticket from a travel agency. Why? Because the new law requires when you purchase your ticket that you show your dog registration certificate.  What is a "dog registration certificate"?  If you have residency or are a citizen of Italy, then the document you need is called "Certificato Iscrizione Anagrafe Canina."  If you are a foreigner traveling from outside of Italy, your dog needs to have a dog passport.  If you have one of these two documents, you will be able to take your dog along with you on your adventure.  But you must remember to carry this document with you when you travel because, if you are asked to produce said document by the train conductor and you don't have it during travel, you will be in for an even ruder surprise.  You will be fined, and you will have to get off the train at the next stop.  Ouch!  You are now informed, and hopefully this will not impact your travel plans.

One.  Mabel has her paperwork.  Before traveling from the U.S. into the E.U., there is an extensive, bureaucratic process to go through before boarding the plane.  The U.S. authorities told me with the documents that were issued to Mabel, she essentially has her E.U. passport and will be given one in Europe. In Italy, the authorities have told me that the U.S. is the governing body that issues the E.U. passport for animals. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

Two.  If you yourself do not have residency, a permesso di soggiorno (permission to stay), or whatever documento (document) allows you to stay beyond the 90-day touristic period, you will not be permitted to register your beloved animal even though your animal has the required paperwork. Mamma mia!

A bit of general information regarding train travel with your dog
Let us assume you have either form of the dog registration certificate and are ready to travel.  
  • Be sure to carry it with you at all times  
  • Keep your dog on leash and carry your dog's muzzle.  The law says the dog must wear the muzzle, but I have seen it enforced one time only.  Be prepared by having it available should it become necessary  
  • A small cat, dog, or other animal in a cage no larger than 70x30x50 cm travels free
  • Espressi (Express), IC, ICN, and Regional trains: a dog of any size with leash and muzzle may travel except between the hours of 7:00 and 9:00 a.m.
  • Ticket for your dog is in second class and 50% of the adult ticket price
  • EuroStar and AV fast trains: animal transport is not allowed without special cage container
For additional and more specific information, go to the website of Trenitalia directly.

05 February 2011

Chocolate Festival, Florence, Italy

Are you feeling sad and blue?  Too many dark, dreary days of winter getting you down? I have good news if you want to positively raise your seratonin level and enjoy an anti-depressant ... without taking a pill.  

Start your day with a banana in the morning.  Put on your sneakers and walk or jog over to Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, in the sunshine and warmer days that we are finally experiencing (a sure sign of spring's approach).  You'll get a bit of exercise.  Go any time between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.  And then load up on your dose of chocolate in whichever form you prefer. Chocolate-covered coffee beans, chocolate salami, cremino (chocolate cream, essentially the Italian equivalent of fudge), chocolate kebab are some of my personal favorites.  But there are many more choices. The chocolate vendors are representing most regions of Italy with their local specialties in chocolate.

 And while you are at it, you can buy your honey a chocolate treat for St. Valentine's Day.

I promise you the samples are certain to cause you to wear a smile.  The chocolate festival began only yesterday, and I have already stopped by three times, and more than likely I will go get my chocolate fix every day until the festival closes on Sunday, February 13.