Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Biggest Christmas Tree in the World

Is in Gubbio, which happens to be not far from our own Niccone Valley. And, it stays up until January, so we went to see it (on the way home from Assisi, which I’ll have more about later). To get there, especially when coming up from the south (Assisi is south of Gubbio) you have to wind around a number of winding roads, which hide it from view for a while, until BAM! there it is, a gigantic Christmas tree hovering over the lights of Gubbio. These pics don’t do it justice (I’d need a steadier hand and a better camera or lens to even come close), but you can see in the first how it seems to almost float over Gubbio (Gubbio is nearer city than town, though not huge):
The Gubbio Christmas tree has been up since 1981, and uses 450 light bulbs and 12 kilometers of wire—pretty massive—all laid out to a height of 350 meters on the hilltop above the town. This second pic isn’t better or much different than the above, but gives a slightly closer view:

Here’s to stretching Christmas out for a few more days, too.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Panettone is Italian for Christmas—Just Ask Rory

Panettone is the traditional Italian Christmas dessert cake, historically often made with raisins or nuts and with a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it reputation. Now, it’s available in a host of flavors and designs and with numerous fillings and such, and available from many different brands as well as available around the world (or there-abouts). I’d actually never picked one up in Seattle (and neither had Nat), but we figured that since we were here we should do as the Italians. If nothing else (or if it was too dry) I figured that I could soak it in liqueur and it’d be delightful (liqueur has healing powers, after all). When picking it out, I went for a snazzy model, one in a star shape, with little star candies on it and a thin band of cream and one of chocolate running through the cake. It looked reasonable lovely:
However, we made a, well, not fatal to us, but fatal to the panettone error: we left it on the edge of the kitchen table when we were away from the kitchen. Rory doesn’t usually get on the table, even when the stray kilo of cheese is left there. However, the holiday lure of the panettone was too much, which meant that only one member of the family had more than a nibble, as after Rory got to it not much was left:
Ah well, we’ll have to try again next year. And anyway, Rory needed some holiday cheer.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Lunch at Calagrana

Well, just so you don’t think I’m straight out fibbing to you, our recent lunch at Calagrana (a wonderful ristorante I talked on and on about in an earlier Calagrana post) wasn’t on a holiday per se (about seven days before one). But it was a holiday lunch in that it was a holiday present for Natalie and I, courtesy of my tasteful and awesome sister Jill and brother-in-law JD. See, they’d read about our enjoying Calagrana, in the earlier post I mentioned above (if you were paying attention), and decided that setting us up for a lunch would be a sweet present--and boy, were they right. My sister actually called multiple times to talk to Ely (the friendly female head of the Calagrana family) to set up the lunch, and (as if that wasn’t enough) also set us up for a future Calagrana cooking class. Yay! But on to lunch. We started with a warm lentil and (if you’re Natalie--I’d’a had to be iv’d with Benedryl for beets) beet salad with goat cheese crostini. We probably haven’t had enough lentils (yet another food Italy is famous for, with different areas having lentil claims to fame), but this started to make up for it. Delicious and warm, it was the ideal way to begin a Sunday lunch (well, it and the lovely red wine, and the Calagrana bread. Only a few spots in Italy really set up you up with good bread, and this is one of them). The below is my non-beet’d version:
From there, we went to our pasta course (which for us is the main course, but someday we’ll go to Calagrana with a carnivore, so we can talk meat). I decided on the caramelized red onion ravioli. The pasta (much like the last time we were here) was made and cooked exactly right, an al dente delight. And the red onion filling was lush and sweet and unexpected (but now that I think about it—why not? Onions are the tops) and mingled well with the sage, butter, and parmesan topping:
Natalie went for the risotto, like on our last visit, but the results were quite different. This time she had mushroom risotto, and though it was still creamyish it had a much more earthy atmosphere to it, delicious and fragrant:
Also in the Calagrana style, we had wonderful contorni (or side dishes). There were “chips” or “patate fritte” or "French fries” (pick your nomenclature) that I didn'tr take a pic of, but which were thin and crisp and salty and just what’s wanted on a Sunday (a little comfort food). We also chiccaria (which I am totally spelling wrong), which we found out (after doing some research with Ely and a big food dictionary) is dandelion greens. I love dandelion greens. They’re like spinach’s more flavorful and muscular brother ( has anyone every used “muscular” and “dandelion” together?):
We finished off with “the devil” like last time (which is a pot o’ chocolate kind of goodness and madness):
and a carrot cake that may have been even better:
As well as grappa and homemade limeoncello, which we didn’t take pics of (go look here again), cause we were having too much fun talking across the room with the other patrons—it was Sunday lunch and everyone was feeling friendly. Thanks again Jill and JD for the scrumptious gift, and thanks Calagrana for another great meal.

*See more Italian restaurants: Capponi, Nestor's,Nonna Gelsa, Le Capannine di Sommavilla, Calagrana, Trattoria Il Saraceno, L Enoteca Wine Club, Mastro Dante, Bar Fizz, Da Cesari

*See all Italian restaurants

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I Kissed a Dryer and I Liked It

Not to go all British pop star on you, but yeah, I kissed a dryer and I liked it. Sing about it as loud as you want. The thing is, most European households don’t have dryers. The washers do tend to spin outlandishly, but the final drying even with the spin-iest washer is done by hanging. I know this is a good thing, and I know that dryers are energy wasters, and I know that I don’t need that warm, soft, dryer feeling. I know, but today, I just don’t care. We found a nice Laundromat and washed and dried everything we could find in anticipation of our upcoming visitors (and not for ourselves at all. Well . . .).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Five Pictures of Bologna

In case you were under the impression that we only ate at Da Cesari while in Bologna, well, you’d be mostly right. Which is a shame, because it’s a very worthwhile city, with loads of intriguing and fantastic art, an individual style and architecture, and sweet shops. We did have one partial afternoon and evening to wander a bit, however. The follow five pictures (much like the Florence post below) take you along our walk with us. After checking in the Hotel Porta San Mamolo (which should be your hotel when you visit Bologna) and getting some good advice, we headed to San Luca, a church we didn’t see because we were so enthralled with the Christmas market taking place in the arcade beside it (we actually went for the market):
These arcade walkways are very particular to Bologna, and are in place in much of the city. They don’t only add personality, but are practical, too (when it rains, as it did our first trip, they’re so handy). From the market, we went to one of our favorites from visit #1, the Anatomical Theater. Bologna (if you didn’t know) is home to the first university in Europe (which is still in place—it’s a college town at heart), and not far off the duomo is an amazing room that was used for medical students to view dissections starting in 1637. It’s all in various shades of wood, with carvings of past professors, various figures, Apollo, and more throughout the room. The pulpit where the processor would stand is the starkest carving though, of two skinless men:
From the Anatomy Theater, we walked through the market district south of the Duomo, slipping in here and there, and stopping at Gilberto. Gilberto is a very small shop on Via Drapperie, but very well packed, with everything from family-named wine to chocolates to sweets to homemade liqueurs. In the back (going down the one small aisle) is also the world’s smallest (or at least Bologna’s smallest) bar, with two small stools and a small table. We stopped in to have a nocino and prosecco:
We then headed back to the hotel, walking down the via d’Azeglio, a main avenue packed with shops both fashionable and homey, and also packed with people browsing and strolling and doing their pre-dinner meandering under the holiday lights:
Lastly is a close up of a door lock that I found especially compelling, because it points to the artistry of the city (even within a small thing like a door lock), and because he looks a bit hungry, as we were as this time, before heading to Cesari for our delish dinner:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dinner at Da Cesari in Bologna

Way back when, before we even made it to Italy, I wrote a little post on this very blog about how excited we were to be able to re-visit a restaurant in Bologna called Da Cesari (the post had a picture of their rocking ravioli). Well, we finally made it back (turns out, a two hour drive and many hour meal is a bit harder to schedule than one might think, due to having to find a watcher/sitter for Sookie and Rory. You’d think they might be able to stay home alone, but that kind of wild party might make landlords Andrew and Marianne give us the boot. Luckily, neighbor Doris was kind enough to watch over the pooches).
For a little more backstory, the last time we were in Italy (April, 2009), we stopped in Bologna. We’d never been before and thought it well worth checking out, and ended up really enjoying our stay in the city. The highlight (as you might expect) was the best meal we had while there, which was also perhaps the best meal we had that trip, a dinner Da Cesari. I detailed this meal in a Da Cesari post on Spiked Punch, and also rambled on more about a particular ravioli on’s Kitchen blog, Al Dente. At this first visit we also made friends with the second in command at Da Cesari, an outgoing and amazingly personable Italian gentleman named Gaetano. We’d stayed in loose touch with Gaetano since then, and he was great at helping us set up this most recent dinner and our latest trip to Bologna. Look how nice he is (especially when holding a big bottle of homemade mirtillo—or blueberry--grappa):
I could go on and on about how amazingly nice the whole crew that works at Da Cesari is (from Mr. Cesari himself to waitress Sylwia and even to past employee Veronica who we met after dinner), and how the restaurant is a Bologna institution that’s been there since the 1950s (started by the current Mr. Cesari’s dad), and how the region it’s in (Emile Romagna) is famous for its cuisine, and how sweet they treated us, but I know you want to get the spotlight shifted over to the edible attraction, so I’m going to cut the chatter (well, as much as I can--which, if you’ve read this blog before, know isn’t much) and get to the goods. We started with a glass of silver-hued Prosecco that matched the holiday decorations, but quickly moved on (not because the Prosecco was poor, mind you, but just because there was much more to be had) to the family Lambrusco, which was a true traditional Lambrusco from Castelvetro, dry and with mucho frizzante:
Another quick side note before getting to the starters: there is Da Cesari, the ristorante we’re at, as well as Cesari, the winery, which is run by Mr. Cesari’s brother (who I suppose is also Mr. Cesari). The ristorante is well-stocked as you would expect with the family-named wine, but you can also get Cesari wine in many spots worldwide, so look for it. Okay, don’t be jealous (well, a smidge is fine), but since we are pals with Gaetano, we somewhat managed a special set up of a menu, starting with a combo appetizer plate that was stunning. It featured Nat’s favorite pumpkin pie (which isn’t the traditionally Thanksgiving pie, but a creamy masterpiece with a thin flakey crust. It has the same melt-in-your-mouth-ness of a good sweet pumpkin pie, but is savory) alongside an artichoke heart salad that was topped with the finest salty parmesan in the world:
across from these two (as if they weren’t enough) were an ensalata of lettuce and radicchio (topped again with that legendary parmesan and a vinaigrette that had solid flavor but did nothing to take away from the taste of the ingredients) and an artichoke flan (sometimes called a sformatina). The flan, the flan was suave but with louder flecks of artichoke, giving it a great texture alongside the artichoke-y-ness, and it was topped with a creamy parmesan sauce that was rich against the worldlier artichoke:
After the plate of pure happiness that some might refer to as a “starter,” we were brought not one, not two, but three pastas apiece. Each would have made it a night to talk about, gastronomically, but the three together made it legendary (and again, thanks to swell fella Gaetano for making it happen). The first in line was passatelli. Passatelli is a traditional dish from the region, and one that was different than any pasta I’d ever had. It’s made almost completely from egg and parmesan with only a minimal amount of flour and bread crumbs, accented by freshly ground black pepper. The end result is a thicker, crumbly-er pasta, one that brings buckets of cheese flavor and the snap of fresh pepper to every bite (and one we’re determined to try and make, though Gaetano warned us that while it sounds simple, it takes years to perfect):
Following up the passiatelli was the reason, really (well, seeing Bologna again was up there, too) for coming back: the pumpkin ravioli. I’ve talked about it a bunch already, but let me assure you that it hasn’t gotten any worse. The pasta itself is still made and cooked to perfection, and the filling is still velvety and savory with pumpkin. This time I enjoyed it just as much as previously, but noticed another thing: the ravioli edges haven’t been smeared together to the degree where part of the pasta gets gummy. Too many raviolis have this problem, but look and you’ll see the edges are just in a state of introduction:
After the ravioli, you might dream that we’d be overfull, and not able to enjoy any more. Hah! Next came another scrumptious pasta: tortelloni con tartufo. I will never (I hope) be so full that I can’t fit in a serving of ricotta-stuffed tortelloni topped with fresh white truffles. The war between those who love black truffles best and those who love white truffles best is, like many of these types of food or booze wars, silly to me. My motto is “have as much of both as possible while the arguers argue in the corner.” The tortelloni were slightly chewy (the way you want them), the ricotta was rich and fresh, and the truffles were like tasting the finest earth ever imagined:
After the pasta triumvirate, there was only one thing on our minds: semi freddo. If you didn’t know (and as you might expect), semi freddo is semi frozen ice cream. Most are deliciously melty, but most servings of semi freddo don’t feature an almond speckled crust:
Now, I realize I’ve been rhapsodizing somewhat, but Da Cesari is worth it. I strongly encourage you, if you haven’t been there, to get on a plane, or train, or in your car, or start hitchhiking in the direction of Bologna, so you can experience it as well (and experience Bologna, too—more pictures of it soon). Be sure to send an email to Gaetano first, so he can set you up a reservation (and so you can make a new pal—always a fine thing), and be absolutely sure that you finish up your meal as we did, with a small plate of cookies and sweets and at least one glass of the mirtillo grappa mentioned above (the one with the bottle-in-ice-block that Gaetano is holding above):

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Watching Wine Making at Donini

We stopped by Donini the other day (Donini being the local winery I’ve mentioned at least once, and probably much more, and which I wrote about in more detail in this Donini post on Spiked Punch) to pick out some wines for sending home for the holidays (we’re not going home, but thought sending some wine home would balance out us missing spending the holidays with family and friends, especially cause we love the Donini selection). While there, we also picked up some of the other gift items for ourselves and the holidays (they have an amazing selection of other wines, chocolates, truffle products, rums, and more—the four things we got I just listed). Shopping and shipping was great, naturally. But even better was that Diego (the amazingly friendly vintner and owner of Donini) was there and took us back into the winery itself so we could see a bottling in progress. In the back room, there are huge vats and containers full of wine in various stages:
And across from them, there’s a giant machine that the Donini crew shepherd the wine through when it’s ready (this is Diego in the picture, too, by the way):
On one end of the machine, there are loads of bottles ready and waiting for wine (isn’t it interesting how melancholy empty bottles look?):
The bottles get cleaned, get instructions on how to hold their wine (all-right-y, I made that up), and then get filled—but not without a lot of corks in place:
The corks then come into play on the line, in a very cool corking and sealing area, which is an example of robots being used for good and which can be a little hot:
That day they were bottling the 2008 Sangiovese and we got to taste it right from the tap (no picture here—I was too busy sampling). It was delightful even without spending any time in the bottle, a full, dry-but-full-flavored, wine. We’d been drinking a lot of the bouncy vino nouvo called Bindolo, a fresh fruity number that is right off the vine (more-or-less), which we’ve loved for its naughty boy out of school nature. The Sangiovese is a dandy counterbalance, a more adult wine (and one ideal for the colder holiday season). I think we must have outwardly shown our appreciation of the wine, and of the care that the Donini folks put into their wine, because Diego sent us home with a bottle of the 2008 right off the line—it doesn’t even have a label yet (you’ll have to trust me that I didn’t just bottle it myself):

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cielo Chiaro Special: Four Italian Drinks

Hmm, that title may be a bit misleading. This post isn’t about four drinks beloved by Italians, or four historic Italian drinks, or four drinks you can only get in Italy (though there’s a possibility not all ingredients may be available everywhere in the below, now that I think about it). Though (again, now that I think about it) those three ideas may have made for worthy posts. Maybe in the future? But here, in the present, is a post linking to four drinks I’ve created while living here in Italy, drinks which I’ve talked about on my boozier blog, Spiked Punch. See, I wasn’t sure if folks here on the Six Months blog have been making it over to Spiked Punch, and didn’t want you (if you fall into that category) to miss out on the joyousness of the drinks that have been created. And, for that matter, this blog should not just make you hungry, but also make you thirsty. With that said, and without future ado, here are four drinks we’ve been whipping up:

1. The Stock-In-Trade: Shows off what was first bought via Aperol and Strega, and what was brought via Bitter Truth orange bitters.

2. Da Molto Tempo: A classic (or, a relative to a classic), this throwback has gin, rose’ vermouth, aromatic bitters, and a lemon twist.

3. Highwayman’s Holiday: Even villains need a break consisting of gin, Aperol, Viparo, and clementine juice.

4. Punt e’ Mes Highball: Simplicity in its most liquid, a combination solely of Italian vermouth Punt e Mes, ginger ale, and grace.

* All Cielo Chiaro Specials

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holiday Lights and Lighting

All right, cut the complaints--I know that Natalie already did a holiday lights post over at Bella Cinghiale, but I figure you can’t have too much holiday cheer. And trust me, I know about these things. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite holiday lights and lighting seen recently, starting with street light from Umbertide, first from a street off the main square:
and then down another bustling Umbertide street:
Not Christmas lights per se, but we saw some absolutely amazing lighting in the center of Citta di Castello, too, where the Piazza Comunale had giant projections going on on every side of the square (it’s a large square by the way, and often used for markets and festivals). On one side was projected a huge blue ornament (as an aside: in front of it was a big hollow “tree.” Kids, or adults I suppose, could make a small charity donation, then get a balloon with their “wish” inside. Then, they could put the balloons into a tube into this giant “tree”—the tube had a sign that said “Insert Here Your Wish”—and then the balloons would float around and to the top):
and on the other, a replication of a Madonna and child (not sure who it’s by, but isn’t this fairly breath-taking):
Finally, a little star seen in the country on the way home:
Here’s to a happy and bright holiday season!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Walking Down San Martino Hill

I’m not saying this happens every morning (cause we don’t need any lying here on the Six Months blog), but probably 2/3s of the mornings, or somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3s of the mornings, I go for a little walk down the Italian hill we live upon. It usually happens after taking the dogs around the grounds and feeding them (I do have my priorities straight), and every so often Nat will walk with me (or we’ll take another walk). Often, though, it’s just me walking down and up the hill. And it’s a darn nice walk down, I have to say (up is nice, too, in a visual sense, though steep, very steep), with lots of vistas and views and nature-y nature-ness. I thought it might be good for you, too, to have a walk down the hill, through a couple photos (please start moving your legs while you read now). First, when walking out the gate, I get a great olive grove on the right. We’ve seen deer in this grove at night oh, five to ten times when driving home, and once a young buck stopped in the road right in front of us before leaping into the grove:

There are many lovely vistas during the walk, looking south-west off the mountain over the Niccone valley (named after the rives that runs through it) and the town of Mercatale. This onview occurs early in the walk, and also shows a newish fence. The reason I put the fence in is because I saw it built in a way. Over the course of a week, I would see an older Italian man working on it, first mapping it out, then putting up poles, then fencing, then touching it up. The first time I walked by he didn’t give me much notice, but every day became more friendly, going from Buon Giorno to Giorno to the more familiar “ciao.” I suppose even a strange American becomes familiar after a few days:
On the right when walking down, and especially farther up, near our house, you see signs for private property from Reschio. Reschio is one of the traditional castles in the area, one of the few still kept up and modernized, and still (I think) owned by tha Count. He’s also bought up lots of the surrounding land (the castle itself is a couple kilometers from us), and rents much of it and the houses on it out for lots of euros. I like that the lower sign specifically tells to stay away from his mushrooms:
My favorite site on the walk is also somewhat castle-like, though not of the size as the Count’s. And, it isn’t in anywhere near decent shape from what I can tell, though if looking closely some construction fencing is visible. Maybe it’s being restored in a slow slow manner? I think it’s quite statuesque and elegant in its little valley, with its one crumbling tower. I suppose a couple million could get it up to shape, if you’re so inclined:
Right close to my favorite little fortress is my favorite tree. And yes, I have a favorite tree on the walk. Call me hippie if you must. The fall and winter foliage around us is stark and green, but I sway towards the stark side on favorite tree picking. This one looks so Sleepy Hollow to me, and very dramatic (even the trees in Italy have a flair for the artistic):
Walking down a bit farther, past some yapping dogs (one named Benji, by the way. Really) that weren’t out today due to temperatures being in the single Celsius digits, there is a man-made lake on the right (at least it looks man-made to me). Often, they’ll be ducks on the lake, and most times a small herd of sheep near it (about the same number of sheep that I owned when I was a twelve year old farm boy). Sadly, both fowl and furry animals were inside today, but the lake itself is still pretty:
Shortly after the lake (and by “shortly” I mean the steepest part of the walk) I’m in the valley, almost to the road that connects us with the rest of Italy and the world:
And then I turn around, catch my breath, and get ready to head back up the hill (no pictures from the way up—as mentioned: very steep):