Cooking class in Tuscany: Lessons from an Italian kitchen

To end our Tuscan trip, I had planned a special treat for Marlon: a one-day cooking class in Tuscany, in a real Italian kitchen.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany

It’s no secret that in our home, Marlon rules the kitchen and I am mostly useless merely his lowly assistant. I knew he would love learning the secrets of a real Italian kitchen hands-on, from a real Italian mama. I may be bad at cooking, but I’m great at finding things online! So, after searching for a one-day class that would fit our schedule and budget, I found Max&Me: Tuscany Cooking, run by Eugenia and Massimo from their home in Sesto Fiorentino near Florence.

The plan was for me to babysit Tala in Eugenia’s lush herb garden—which by the way contains the happiest, healthiest rosemary I’ve ever seen in someone’s home—and keep her entertained…

Cooking class in Tuscany Tala in the herb garden

not to mention happily fed with the occasional snack of prosciutto…

Tala eating prosciutto

while Eugenia and Marlon worked on our four-course lunch.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany near Florence

And, boy, did Marlon work. “I’m a little scared of her,” he whispered to me before I took Tala out for a walk. Well, if there’s anyone who can intimidate a big man like this, it’s an Italian mama who is the queen of her kitchen! You should have seen his face when she told him that the onions he’d been furiously dicing just weren’t diced finely enough.

But that’s precisely the great thing about doing a cooking class like this. While Eugenia has generously made her recipes available on her blog, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning. How a ball of pasta dough feels in your hands when it’s just right; how long to let the flavor of a ragu develop (or even what “fully developed” flavor is); what the freshest, top-quality ingredients really taste like; the little hacks and tricks picked up over a lifetime of cooking—these are things you just can’t pick up from a Youtube video or blog post.

I like to think Marlon absorbed some of Eugenia’s personal standards and stories that day. All of it just inspired him to cook even more. Some of the techniques he learned have found their way into the other things he makes at home, even dishes like Indian curry or Filipino kaldereta.

Oh, and our onions are really, really finely diced now. They’re practically invisible.

But enough about that. You want to see the food, right?

Cooking lesson in Tuscany roast pork with guanciale and potatoes

Let’s begin. Buon appetito!

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Day trip to Lucca

After spending most of our recent Tuscan trip in charming little towns, doing a day trip to Lucca was a refreshing change. It’s a city, but nothing as big and complex as Florence, making it manageable for families like ours, who are traveling with a baby. Renaissance-era walls enclose the Cittadella, the historic heart of Lucca, marking an easy target for day-trippers and reminding me strongly of Manila’s own Intramuros.

The real highlight for us was getting to take a walk along Lucca’s city walls. If you imagine treading carefully along a narrow, crumbling brick wall, take a look at this picture and think again.

Lucca city walls park

Lucca’s formidable walls have been transformed into a wide, tree-lined city park for walking, running, cycling, and just relaxing in the Tuscan sun.

Lucca rooftops from city park

Taking a long afternoon stroll with Tala here made me feel as if we had slipped into the real, day-to-day life of the city—even for just a little while. It’s also a unique vantage point from which to see Lucca—peering into gardens, walking by laundry lines, looking out over rooftops.

Lucca Torre Guinigi

Speaking of rooftop views, all the guide books will tell you to climb Torre Guinigi for the best city views. But we discovered something better…

Lucca rooftops from Sant’Alessandro Maggiore

… which is to climb the tower of the Chiesa e Battistero de San Giovanni e Santa Reparata. (Try saying that 10 times fast.) With 110 steps, it’s an easier climb than the Torre Guinigi’s 230 steps. Plus, you actually get to see the Torre Guinigi from here. Kinda like going to the Top of the Rock, not the Empire State Building, for the best views of New York.

Lucca Sant’Alessandro Maggiore archaeological site

San Giovanni also has ornate ceilings, a small chapel to St Ignatius (of interest if you’re Jesuit-educated, like myself) and a multilayered history. This 12th century church was built on top of a church from the earliest days of Christianity, which was then built on top of a Roman temple, which was then built on top of even older Roman houses. Still with me? The entire archaeological excavation is on display for your viewing pleasure.

Here are a few other highlights from our day in Lucca, the walled city.

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San Miniato: Tuscany’s truffle town

If you’re driving from Pisa to Florence (or vice versa) and looking for a pit stop in between, may I interest you in the lovely hilltop town of San Miniato?

Because, truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany pasta with black truffle

San Miniato is the center of Tuscany’s truffle-producing belt, an area responsible for a whopping 25% of all of Italy’s truffles. That alone should tell you this little town shouldn’t be missed.

Marlon and I stopped here for lunch on our way to K and J’s Tuscan wedding; because we liked it so much, we dropped by again on our way back to Pisa airport. We had truffle everything. I’m not talking about that nasty chemical impostor, truffle oil, either. In San Miniato, generous shavings of the town’s signature product make even the simplest lunch—from fried eggs to a parmesan-and-olive-oil pasta—a sublime stopover.

San Miniato Tuscany white truffle

You can also buy San Miniato’s precious white truffles to take home. At 90 Euro cents per gram, or about €100-135 per piece, white truffles are a bargain right here at the source. But beware: truffles must be used up within four days from the date of purchase. That’s not a whole lot of time!

By the way, San Miniato hosts a white truffle fair during the last three weekends of November. Too bad we were a few months too early.

San Miniato Tuscany black truffles

Black truffles are a more affordable alternative. But they also have the same use-by time frame as white truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany truffle salsa

We decided to go for bottled truffle products, such as truffle oil, salt, butter, honey, salsa and more. Although they have a longer shelf life, they must be consumed within 10 days of opening (even with refrigeration). It makes more sense to buy multiple smaller jars instead of one or two big ones, so that’s just what we did.

Once we got our truffle fix, it was time to turn our attention to the rest of San Miniato. Yep, there’s more to this town than just truffles.

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Siena: Pattern love at the Duomo

While traveling in Italy, you can end up seeing so many churches that they all start to blend together after a while. The one church that jolted me out of my “church fatigue” after two weeks in Italy was the Duomo at Siena.

When I first walked in, it wasn’t the immense scale of the Duomo that got my attention—it was the feeling that, for a church built in the 1200s, there was something so strikingly modern about it. Then I realized what it was: black and white stripes!

Siena Duomo

The tones of midnight blue and copper in the ceiling also seem so current. I would love to use that combination somewhere in my home—to perk up our deep blue bedroom walls, maybe?

Siena Duomo ceiling

I have zero education in design, but I love patterns and I love spotting them on trips. My eyes were drawn to the marble floors of the Duomo, with their bold graphic patterns in black, ivory and rust. Don’t these look so maximalist chic?

Siena Duomo tiled floor pattern1 Siena Duomo tiled floor pattern2 Siena Duomo tiled floor pattern3

It makes sense for a church to remind people of heaven, doesn’t it? That must have been the motivation behind these celestial-inspired patterns on the dome…

Siena Duomo starry dome

… and on the floor of the aptly named Piccolomini Library, a small but stunning collection of illuminated manuscripts housed in the Duomo.

Piccolomini Library floor tiles

I know I can’t be the only secret pattern junkie around here. Now that I’ve outed myself, won’t you lovers of pattern reveal yourselves too?

By the way, this is my last post from our Italy trip. I can’t believe it took me so long to blog about everything! I dive right into Kleine Fabriek as soon as I get back from my trip, so I won’t get to post about Iceland immediately.

However, I’ve prepared something special for the weekend. It’s something I’ve never done on the blog before and combines two of my favorite things: travel and food. I’m excited and I really hope you’ll like it. Stay tuned!

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Siena: people-watching at Piazza del Campo

One of the things I love to do when traveling is watching people… and, since I got my amazingly discreet 50mm lens, taking pictures of them. Does that make me creepy? I hope not!

A day trip to Siena gave me the chance to do just that. It was a hot sunny day, and like any open-air public space in Europe on a hot sunny day, Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo was filled with people basking in the sunshine.

Siena Piazza del Campo

It looked like it could be a scene at the beach. A beach with coins in its turquoise waters…

Siena Piazza del Campo fountain

… and a herringbone pattern imprinted on its shores.

Piazza del Campo herringbone bricks

Okay, you probably wouldn’t see a 13th century town hall like the Palazzo Pubblico at the beach… so I’ll give up the comparison. By the way, the picture is curved not because of distortion from my wide-angle lens, but because the piazza itself is curved like a shallow bowl.

Siena Palazzo del Publico

In a wide open space like this, I don’t mind so many people. Besides, there is something different about the atmosphere of a town square that makes it fun. I love the luxury of doing nothing—you get to observe little differences, details, that you would otherwise miss.

This kid in a wheelchair was having the best time being wheeled by his friends up and down the gentle incline of the piazza. That made me smile…

Wheeling around Piazza del Campo

as did the sight of a giant tour group leaping into the air in sync…

Jumping in Piazza del Campo

… and these two crazy American girls dancing for a video camera. Well I don’t know for sure that they’re American, but the crazy ones always turn out to be. Just like the loud ones turn out to be Filipino!

Dancing in Piazza del Campo

Check out this Italian gentleman, looking oh so cool in his full suit. The Sartorialist I am not, but I just had to take this man’s photo. I do believe this is what they call swagger.

Italian man in suit

Oops, huli!

Italian men in suits

But this is Italy, after all. Even the police are stylish!

Italian police in Siena

Do you photographing people when you travel? Are you the bold type who takes their photos right up front, or are you shy and have to do it from a safe distance like I do?

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