Monday, June 21, 2010

Zeck Reflections

Burnt Orange-Siena

The trip was not without incident, a short layover, mistaken identity in Torrita di Siena, a bottle of wine and making the most of a truly not beautiful stopover. Torrita is an industrial city that is 30 miles from the city of Siena. It happened that we followed a group of teenagers, soccer team actually, off the train and off they went. We were left standing by ourselves on a very lonely platform, not a soul to be seen, not even a pigeon.

We did find a train schedule behind yellowed plexi-glass cover that announced the arrival of another train in two hours. We soon realized that we had an excellent bottle of Chianti Classico and a wine opener in our bag. We proceeded to drink it from the bottle, and no sooner than we started the pigeons arrived by the hundreds. I, being curious about old machinery, mostly of the agricultural variety, started sniffing around and discovered what may be one of the few remaining water stations from the days of steam engines. Now, that must be back before WW II or before my time at any rate. The spout and valves were in remarkable condition and it was a full 15 feet high and must weigh a ton or more. In our country some old codger would base a railroad museum around such a piece. We Americans are fond of what we think to be old things, probably because we are not very old as a country or people. Have you noticed that Americans collect everything, even old gas station signage.

Siena is not the oldest place in the world but it is pretty old. Our hotel was built in the 1500’s and amazingly everything still works. So, my bride and I decided to eat dinner and see Siena. What a surprise, the people were so friendly I was beginning to wonder if we were still in Italy, perhaps a little harsh. I think that Italians are mostly very friendly people and even some of the Romans are friendly as well.

To have a color named after you is a big deal, sky blue, Hookers green, and Siena. I think that Hooker was a person, not sure. A color named after a city, what a concept! After dinner we walked a short distance to the Piazza Il Campo, home to the famous horse races. It is still early, twilight, so we sit at the base of Jacopo’s beautiful fountain with 500 or so young people and wait for a sight that is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. When darkness came the something number wonder of the world happened. All of the buildings that seemed brown turned brilliant burnt orange and the contrasting sky was the color of bright peacock blue. Now, I am prone to some level of exaggeration and not being a photographer I have no real proof of any of this, but a week has passed and I am still in awe and my wife tells me that it was real.

We did see the old churches and wondreful museums that contained beautiful things, all of which I will never remember, sensory over load perhaps, but I will never forget that moment when the world changed color before my eyes. Thanks, Maurice

Rome is a vividly colored palette.

In my mind if you ask a thousand people what Rome means to them you will get a thousand different answers. I am a cook and I cook foods from around the world and for the life of me I cannot find one discernable difference from the food in Rome to that of central or northern Italy. The food in Rome is a mélange of everything good that can be found in the Piedmont or in the Tuscan hills .My having said this may lead the reader to wonder where the distinction will be made that separates the food of Rome and all other Italian food.

A good pizza is where you find it, much like a great plate of enchiladas. If you ask most geologists where gold is found you will get the same answer, gold is where you find it. Rome is a city that is famous for great food, a goldmine of tastes and smells that require very little digging to find.

Rome contains a society with a complex culture, much like New York or Paris. The citizens have developed an outlook on life that is represented not only in their art and architecture but also in their food. The produce must be fresh, picked when ripe and not green for the sake of distance distribution. The meat must come from animals that are not fed antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to reach the market place. Most preserved foods come in clear glass bottles so the contents can be seen. Olive oil must be fresh and balsamic vinegar must be aged, you will never be served a stale glass of wine or a stale piece of bread. These people have Intense pride in being Roman, in being Italian and in serving exceptional food. I have heard it said many times,” I have never had a bad meal in Italy”. The restaurants in Rome are completely focused on the food they serve, you may have to wait for it but that is because it does not come in a package or from a frozen food box.

In Rome when you are seated at a table you are never rushed so that the table can be turned for the next customer. This practice drives most of us to exasperation until we get used to it. We Americans have been trained to expect the check soon after the last bite has been eaten, in Rome you may wait for thirty minutes or longer for a check.

In the famous market, Campo dei Fiori, one can find the finest produce, sausages of every description, pasta shapes that I have never seen, incredible olives and olive oil that is fresh. The meat stalls focus on cuts from Sienese cattle from Tuscany and pork from Bologna. There is no shell game being played here, the products are exactly what they are represented to be. The produce stalls are brightly colored with fresh tomatoes and beautiful fruits, the cheese stalls with perfectly white fresh and aged cheeses, the green vegetables have not traveled thousands of miles in refrigerated trucks. This all stems from an attitude that nothing is too good and anything less than perfect will be rejected.

Simply Brushcetta

Fresh bread sliced into 1” slices

Vine ripe tomatoes

Fresh basil

Fresh garlic

Fresh Extra Virgin olive oil.

Grill bread slices on a char grill or brown in olive oil at low heat. Dice tomatoes, garlic and basil and toss mixture in the best olive oil you can buy. Cover the bread liberally with the tomato mixture and serve. I suggest a great Gavi di Gavi white wine from the Cortese grape.

The Tuscan Toll Goose and other reflections of Tuscany and The Langhe Hills.

The land of The Langhe hills is as beautiful as any that I have seen. These foothills of the Italian Alps are an agricultural paradise and the cities and people reflect this beauty, their passion is their land and their land is their passion. Their vineyards and orchards exhibit a level of stewardship that approaches perfection. The hill towns and cities of the valleys are remarkably structured and beautifully maintained. The architecture is more western European than one would expect and the people are quite cosmopolitan in their dress and mannerisms. It can easily be seen that this land has had many masters over the centuries and they all have left a lasting impression.

The old man and the steps, a reflection.

Our friends in the wine business back home told us that it would be nearly impossible to visit wineries and vineyards in Italy without first having an introduction from the large U.S. distributors. We found this to be a false impression on one of our first visits to a local wine broker who sells to American distributors.

We were told to take the steps down hill from the center of Diano Di Alba and we would find a place to taste and perhaps buy wine. It was not that easy a place to find but after asking several people for directions we located a huge and closed wooden door. The door knocker must have weighed 25 pounds so a few fast knocks later an old man opened the door. He invited us in and sat us at a twelve foot long table and with a few words of greeting he proceeded to open four bottles of wine, a Barolo, a Dolcetto and a pair of barbarescos. He gave us two glasses and motioned for us to drink. During all of this he had a phone call on hold which he returned to. He left us alone for the best part of an hour as he finished his negotiation. The wines were delicious and priced very reasonably, but there remained at least a hundred other vintages on the shelves that will remain a mystery to us. We asked the old man in our broken Italian mixed with Spanish if he had any favorites that he could recommend. With a big smile he pulled a dozen or more bottles from the racks and said here is the best of it all. With no question as to price we purchased them all and he gave us a few free bottles and a wine opener as a gift. We paid him a whole $125 and sat there for another hour drinking his wine and doing our best to make conversation. For those of us that have been to wineries in Napa and Santa Barbara, and suffered thru crowds of people, small pours and high prices this was a unique experience that will not be easily forgotten.


In the hill town of Barbaresco the Italian government has taken over a deconsecrated church and established what they call an “Enoteca”. This is a place that represents all of the wine makers of a given region and they sell directly to the public. Being the first and only customers in the shop we were afforded many newly opened tastings. With no small amount of amusement, having been raised a catholic and having assisted in innumerable masses. I truly enjoyed standing at the altar in celebration of a communion of a different sort.

The Tuscan Toll Goose.

The town of Greve In Chianti is just south of its famous neighbor Florence. We arrived with high expectations and some worry that we might not like it as well as the Langhe Hills. We were to stay in one of the popular Agri-Tourismo properties that are operated as working farms and lodging establishments for visitors. Finding a small farm in Tuscany is like finding a small fish in a big ocean, especially when using a map not unlike a child’s treasure map. The countryside is carpeted with small farms and vineyards. Our particular farm is called Podere Torre, or The Tower Farm. After some considerable effort we found a sign that pointed uphill towards our destination. The road was narrow, almost a car width, and wound between houses and stone walls. The road soon turned to gravel and sure enough, another sign pointing up the hill. We kept climbing for a few miles and saw a large pond on the left side of the road and in the middle of the road stood a huge goose with his wings opened as if to slap us away. The goose stood exactly in the center of the road and showed no inclination to move. We stopped the car, not wanting to hurt the goose or the car in order to formulate a plan of sorts. I was not about to get out and chase him away, I briefly thought that I might ask Linda to do it, but I held that thought. In a few minutes a motorcyclist came around the corner and the goose took off after him, pecking at his legs and flapping his wings, we took this opportunity for flight and made the rest of the drive without incident.

After checking into our lodgings we decided that we should go into town look around and have dinner. Before we head back to town let me briefly describe our accommodations. Nearly every Tuscan farm house is built on at least two and often three levels, the bottom level being for the farm animals this area is called the stalla and that was where we stayed, walls three feet thick and cold enough to hang meat The trip to town was uneventful and we had a lovely Tuscan supper of bean and bread soup and a nice wine of the region. Before leaving the restaurant I put a few pieces of bread in my pocket to hopefully placate the toll goose. Sure enough he was standing at his guard station. We pulled up and with some trepidation I rolled down the window and tossed the bread. The bread did the trick, as long as we had bread for him he never bothered us again, he actually seemed to look forward to our passing. We later learned that he had a family that was hiding in the reeds at the ponds edge. The bean and bread soup recipe is for you and for me to remember the toll goose.

Valentina’s gift.

We have all had the good fortune of meeting the type of individual that makes us feel better, for the moment or for a lifetime. Valentina is just such a person. She was born and raised in Albania and immigrated to Italy and Rome some 12 years ago. She and her husband own the Lavasecco near our apartment and we drop off our cleaning every few days. During the course of our business, while she folds my shirts and wraps them in tissue paper I ask her small questions in Spanish that she is able to understand and she answers in Italian which I kind of understand. I remember the day I asked her what her husband did for a living, she pointed at the television and intimated that he either worked for the station or possibly that he repaired or sold them. As the weeks passed we met her husband, she had told him about the Mexican with the pretty wife so he greeted us with a beautiful Buenos Dias. I asked where he learned his Spanish and Valentina chimed in ,with an exasperated look, that he learned it on the television of course. The answer became quite clear, she works and he watches television. The next day her husband called to us on the street with a perfect buenas tardes. I never walk past her shop with sticking my head in the door and it never fails, I always feel better for it. There is a lot to be said for a kind word and a ready smile. Thank you Valentina!

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