Thursday, November 25, 2010

Orvieto - a tiny Umbrian town with a big heart

view of Orvieto from the Torre del Morro
From Malvarina we headed to Orvieto for an overnight stay.  Orvieto is a lovely, compact town perched on a plateau of volcanic ash and stone.  Upon arrival at the train station, we took a funicular up to the town and headed for B & B La Soffitta.  Housed in a structure built in the 1400s, the B & B had amazing wooden beams throughout, including a huge one right above our bed.  It took me a while to relax and not worry about it crushing us in our sleep. 

B & B La Soffitta - beware the giant beams
We enjoyed glasses of Orvieto Classico wine, explored caves carved underneath the town (some of which were excavated by the Etruscans almost 1000 years before the time of Christ), found more good artisanal Italian beer, clambered down a well built in 1537 with a double spiral staircase that would allow several water-toting donkeys to travel down and up again without crossing paths, ate truffle and bacon pizza, climbed 250 steps up the Torre del Morro for sweeping views, and stood in awe in front of the stunning cathedral with its gold mosaic facade.

the glorious Duomo

For such a small town, Orvieto has a lot to offer, including warm hospitality.  Our B & B owner sent us off with hugs and kisses after staying there only one night.  As we clattered along the cobblestones with our bags in tow, we vowed to return to Italy again soon.  The country is bursting with amazing scenery, culinary delights and vivacious people - unlike any other place I know. 

~ Ciao,  Peggy
soaking it all in 

Braga 2 - 0 Arsenal

More Champions League Football!  This time with Braga beating Arsenal 2-0. This may be the biggest win in the history of Sporting Club of Braga. In 1921, the club reformatted their soccer team and modeled it after the Arsenal Football Club of London. Their jerseys are very similar to Arsenal's and they are called the "Arsenalistas" here. This was the second time the teams played in the Champions League - the first one in London a few weeks ago. There Arsenal beat Braga 6-0, so there was some trepidation before this match.

It was well played and tightly contested but with no goals until the 83rd minute when Mathaseau of Braga broke free and was fed a great ball to open the scoring and make it 1-0 for Braga. The crowd went crazy and pandemonium ensued. I've never seen so many elated Portuguese! Arsenal had been pressing hard looking for the winner and were a bit shocked by this. Braga then hung on bravely as Arsenal threw everyone forward to try to avoid the loss. In the 3rd minute of extra time Mathaseau broke free again and with 3 Arsenal players hanging all over him he kept control of the ball and shot in. Again, elation and pandemonium in the stands. This was the last shot of the game as the ref blew the whistle for full-time after that. Of course no one heard the whistle for all the noise and celebration.

It was great fun to part of such a big night in Braga football. I'm sure this is one for the history books.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Malvarina and Umbrian delights.

Malvarina is what the Italians call an "agri-turismo" - a working farm that takes in visitors. Peggy has talked about this place for years and raved about her two previous visits, the first about 10 years ago. Over the years she's become friends with Piera who works there in many capacities - not least of which is translating in the kitchen for the cooking classes that are on offer. Needless to say, I was eager to see if it would live up to all the hype.

After a night in Bolonga we took the train to Perugia and rented a little black Lancia Ypsilon to drive to Malvarina. It was a bit tricky getting out of town, with Peggy commenting "If we can just get the hell out of Perugia we'll be OK!" After 30 minutes on the highway we hit the little country roads and wound our way out of the valley up onto the hillside and to Malvarina. The farm looks out to the west, over the valley below, providing great views and sunsets.

Our first treat was dinner. Maria is the family matriarch and she cooks the splendid traditional Italian food served at dinner for Malvarina guests. Maria is the quintessential Italian grandmother and prepares everything from scratch in her kitchen from food raised on the farm. To be classified as an agri-turismo, 70% of the food served must be grown or raised on the farm. Dinner was fantastic and is served in a cozy room with a roaring fire, the hot coals later were used to cook the pork cutlets served with dinner. One of Maria's helpers works on the wine.

Having had a good time picking kiwis at Joao's father's farm at the end of October we continued our European agriculture-themed adventures by helping Giorgio and his family pick olives from their groves. Giorgio is a neighbor who cures the meat and makes the cheese served at Malvarina. Peggy earned her "honorary Iowan" title yet again - here she demonstrates the great form of a skilled olive picker!

Notice the mesh net behind her; these are placed on the ground to catch the olives. One doesn't pick them so much as knock them to the ground using an "olive rake" that lets the olive branches pass though but catches the olives. It is a pretty slick process. After about 3 hours of olive picking Giorgio invited us to lunch with his family - we had a great seafood pasta first course and some pork and copa (Italian head cheese) as a second. We finished with coffee. It was lots of fun and being on a working farm did remind me of Grandpa and his farm in Iowa - he was in my thoughts. It wasn't all like Iowa however; especially for us our hosts broke out the Sambuca which was a nice addition to the coffee - tasty enough that Peggy thought she could become a coffee drinker if it was always served like this.

We walked the short distance back to Malvarina to clean up and then drove to Assisi - just down the road. This is a beautiful town. Like so many towns in Umbria, there are some great artifacts from when the Romans were there - the highlight being the Roman forum that is underneath the main square of the town. The tour below ground was great and it was interesting to see how what was below fit with the Roman temple above ground. From here we continued exploring and found something even more to Peggy's liking...

Fortified by a few goodies from this shop we continued on the The Basilica of St. Francis. The upper church is filled with fantastic frescoes by Giotto showing stories of St. Francis' life. The also fantastic lower church is below and was built in 1228; this sits atop the chambers holding the tomb of St. Francis.

That evening we went for dinner at Filippo's restaurant in Foligno. Filippo is Maria's grandson who grew up helping in the kitchen and dining room at Malvarina. As a teenager there, about 10 years ago, he is also rumored to have drawn dreamy looks from visiting American females who shall remain nameless.

Like the rest of his family he has hospitality in his blood and we had a great dinner at his restaurant. While we do love Portuguese food, it was nice to get a sampling of different styles and different flavor profiles while in Italy - so we were a little surprised when we were told one of the two main dishes available that night. It was bacalhau - a Portuguese specialty. We passed but enjoyed great pasta, roasted veggies, dessert, and some roasted chestnuts.

The next morning Piera gave us a great tour of the region. Our first stop was an olive mill where olives are pressed to extract olive oil. We were greeted by a tremendous very intense olive aroma. The olives used for olive oil are quite different from those one eats whole. These do not taste so good, but have better oil producing characteristics. The whole olive, pit and even a few stray leaves go into the grinder which turns the olives into a paste from which the olive oil is extracted. Luckily we got a sample - bruschetta with olive oil. Peggy and Piera were impressed!

Our hostess at the olive mill toasted the bread, rubbed it with a garlic clove, added salt and generous amounts of olive oil. It was fantastic. Piera explained that bread in Umbria is not baked with salt. Many years ago the powers-that-be imposed a high tax on salt and the Umbrians simply refused to use salt instead of pay the high taxes. A bit of a precursor to the Boston tea party perhaps. Eventually the tax was reduced but the tradition stuck.

That evening we had another great meal at Malvarina. This one started with Stracciatella - sort of an Italian egg-drop soup.

This was followed by scrambled eggs with eggplant, a "frito misto" - mixed fried veggies, including zucchini flowers, cannelloni with meat and tomato sauce, grilled pork and sausages, roasted rosemary potatoes, and cherry tart. As you can see above, we start with a stack of plates and just eat our way down. As each plate is cleared the next course lands on the next plate and the process continues. We ended the evening with a delicious digestif to help settle all the courses. Peggy had the walnut liquor and I had the "100 herbs", made with over 100 herbs that Maria gathers from the garden and surrounding hills. It was confirmed that 100 was not an overestimate. It was fantastic and I raved about it enough that they sent a small bottle of it home with us. It has a great herbal aroma and tastes so good you don't mind the curious green color.

The next morning we wandered around the farm one more time - checking out the bees

and the free roaming geese and turkeys.

We'll certainly be back, with wonderful food, views, and people it certainly fulfilled all the expectations that Peggy had built up in describing her past trips here. ~Eric

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bella EATaly

eye-catching fountain in Bologna
We had a fantastic time in Italy, but that should not surprise anyone who knows how much we like good food!   I'll freely admit that we inhaled our first gelato while we were still schlepping our luggage from the airport to our hotel when we arrived in Bologna.  In our defense, we had an ambitious itinerary (Bologna, Malvarina, Assisi, Spello, Orvieto, Bologna), so it was important to keep our strength up.

first things first
fresh and gorgeous 

In addition to giving the world baloney (mortadella), bolognese sauce (ragรน), and tortellini, Bologna has some beautiful sights and interesting history.  The oldest university in Europe is here.  Who knew??!!

Our first night in Bologna we found a nice little restaurant where I ate a mound of fresh pasta tossed with olive oil and topped with shaved black truffles - simple but simply fabulous!  I don't remember what Eric ate.  I'm sure it was good, but I was in some sort of truffle-induced stupor and didn't really register his choice.

We left the next day for Malvarina, but we were happy to return to Bologna again at the end of our trip to do more eating and sight seeing.  A highlight was the University's Teatro Anatomico, a gorgeous room where medical students and ladies in fancy dresses could observe autopsies.  Built in the mid-1600s, a prominent feature of the theater is a throne where an Inquisition priest would sit and be ready to intervene if the proceedings became too spiritually compromising.

the best seat in the house at the Teatro Anitomico
Another highlight was the Basilica di San Petronio which was originally designed to be larger than St. Peter's in Rome. Not wanting to see St. Peter's dwarfed, Pope Pius IV blocked construction 169 years after building had started, and the church remains unfinished.  Still quite large and impressive, San Petronio houses a HUGE linear calendar which was installed in the floor in 1656.  A hole in the roof allows light into the church, and when the sun is at the highest point in the sky, a circle of light falls on the correct date on the calendar.  This tool was instrumental in discovering problems with the Julian calendar and led to the creation of the leap year. It was cool and really appealed to our nerdy nature.  Let us know if you'd like to borrow the detailed booklet we bought!!

On our last full day in Bologna, we had a food-filled agenda.  We started the day with pastries and beverages in a cafe that had once been the stables for the wealthiest, most powerful family in the town ... sight seeing ... heavenly gelato at La Sorbetteria Castiglione ... sight seeing ...  lunch at Tamburini, a Bologna landmark ...

a light lunch at Tamburini

... sight seeing ... visit to Vecchia Malga Negozi, a deli that was so gorgeous it almost made me cry ...

a beautiful sight in the Quadrilatero district
... Italian craft beer and wine at a neat bookstore/bar ... nap ... prosecco and snacks at a bar that had once been the private chapel of the wealthiest, most powerful family in town ... dinner at Osteria de' Poeti which is in the wine cellar of a 14th century palace.  Down in the wine cellar, after Eric took one bite of his pumpkin filled tortelloni with butter sauce, I lost him.  He did resurface to try the locally made lambrusco wine.  Don't laugh - the real stuff is very good!!
waiting patiently to take his first bite of pasta and sip of lambrusco
Neptune casts a manly shadow

We definitely understand why Bologna is affectionately known as la grassa (the fat one).
Our next blog entry will be about our days at Malvarina.  Beautiful scenery, wonderful people, vigorous exercise, Mama Maria's food...

ciao  ~ Peggy