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Tuscany and La Volpaia B&B

Saturday, April 8, 2000

Saturday evening.
La Volpaia B&B -- Vico d'Elsa, northern Tuscany

The drive from Venice began with my usual wrong exits and having to turn around and retrace steps long enough for it to take an hour to get out of town. Once on the right highway, however, my world changed. Here were hills of artistically apportioned plots in gorgeous greens, chartreuses and caramel browns not yet planted, dotted by cypress clusters which look like an artist put them there to paint.

This is what the pictures and paintings show, but they cannot capture the extraordinary sense of light which I couldn’t grasp before seeing it. It is real. A heavenly transparent veil filtering the sun into unseeable glitter. The bounty of the rain I’d complained about in Venice spawned the beauty of a Tuscan spring sprawling out before me.

When I finally found La Volpaia, the B & B I’m to stay at for the next week, I was greeted by my hosts, Silvia and Andrea. Both are Italians who speak shamefully good English--she from Milan and he, an historically Jewish Italian from Roma whose family goes back to 300 bc.

Andrea is a retired architect [or lawyer, can't recall now which] and abstract artist in his 50's with a grizzled beard and an affection for plain old Italian cigars, which he enjoys chewing and puffing on only somewhat discreetly, depending on whose presence he’s in. Of course, everyone asks him if he likes Cuban cigars, and he makes it a point to say “No, just the Italian ones”. I figure he’d get inundated with Cuban cigars if he said he liked them. He had been working in his profession for many years, but during the 80’s got sick of the indignity of the corrupt patronage system in Roma and decided to buy and remodel this property, which, according to the photographic diary, was no simple task. He’d always wanted to have a guest house because he “likes people” and wanted to be out from under the dominance of the clan.

The property was once a typical old Tuscan farmhouse, crumbling down, but now refurbished into a country home of brick archways, dark old wood beams, and a mishmash of furnishings ranging from antiques to economically recovered couches to oriental rugs of unknown origin, which, by the way, need that rubber stuff under them because they slip on the shiny wood floor. First day I fell flat on my butt stepping onto one and in process my little Canon camera hit the wall and appeared to be dead, but was later saved by another guest. A Chinese fellow named Freeman who lives with his Japanese TV commercial producer wife in, guess where, Tiburon--a town in my home county, fiddled with the camera a bit and presto!

The house is filled with Andrea’s sculptures and art. He slices pieces of driftwood with a saw on the horizontal, juxtaposing the smoothness and upward reach of the wood with jaggedness of the horizontal cuts. He is a recycler by nature and several of his pieces are made for practicality’s sake into unusually configured lights or lamps, or tables. The walls are full of his abstract watercolors in orange and yellow Chinese ink. Some incorporate carved, painted styrofoam. Sounds strange, but makes good abstract art according to guests I met. Being an impressionist art fan, his work doesn’t scratch my itch, but I appreciate its intensity and gutty boldness.

The house nestles in a hilly area with multidirectional views of breathtaking Tuscan terrain. There’s a stable and pastures for 6 horses--their prize a beautiful chestnut quarter horse stallion with long flowing mane and tail in butterscotch. The oldest is a mare about nine looking somewhat apolussa.

There are also 6 cats, only 2 of whom have names, the rest numbers, and 2 dogs, although Silvia tells people she only has one dog, which means Paco the lovably spoiled chunky black lab. They both love and treat him like the child they never had, and old photos show her feeding Paco at the table with a napkin around his neck in a way which, if done by a New York dowager would be sickening, but in Silvia’s case, is very amusing.

The second dog, Cuchco, a black and white border collie mix, stays chained up because, as she says, with fierce resentment, “He’s a cat killer”. Apparently Paco brought him home one day and he turned out to treat cats like prey, and they were never able to find a home for him. So they keep him chained up except for daily runs, and while Paco’s in the dining room with guests being treated to amazing bones and scraps, poor old Cuchco is alone outside. I, of course, took him my scraps, making it a jokeful matter. To be fair, he does have a good chunk of freedom during the day when the cats are “put up”, when he runs for miles, and they give him treats sometimes, but not like Paco. Talk about identifying with the underdog.

Silvia joined Andrea a few years after he’d begun his project, and what a pairing they made. She appears in jeans, flannel shirt and ancient down vest with a head of short brown curly hair, naturally mussed from cleaning out horse stalls, helping Andrea with the fence, and getting dinner on in the afternoon, cheerfully offering cappuccino, espresso, Coca lite, or anything else she can, saying “Please, please, please” or “Sure, sure, sure” in a thick Italian accent so fast the words run together.

Silvia’s usually talking about something or other she might do for you in the delightful Italian way where her enthusiasm and energy make her talk over you and it’s hard to get a word in crosswise. If she’s not talking with you, she’s prattling on while she walks around the property working, talking to Paco or a cat or a horse or the air.

Silvia and Andrea together are a hoot, rattling on over each other and then apologizing one to the other midstream, as if they’re really trying hard to stop doing that. Many delightful after dinner conversations are peppered with such antics making the rich history and opinions they vehemently express unclear sometimes, despite their good English. Silvia is by nature a political analyst who sees most issues in terms of politics and economics, while Andrea’s preferred window on things is historical, and depending on the guests, the conversation can become very engaging.

Joseph is an absolute sweetheart Filipino man who lives and works there with his wife, Leta, and their 3 month old girl whose name I forget. They clean up dishes after dinner and prepare breakfast, clean rooms and such. I trudge downstairs sleepy eyed each morning for my cappuccino which he happily makes for me, calling me “Miss Karen”. I think I might have known him before, as the affectional click clearly went off. We share musical tastes and he was thrilled to be able to tape my Beatles CD’s and a compilation CD of soft rock hits from the 80’s.

Dinner Notes:
Andrea built a fireplace barbeque in the guest dining-room kitchen. The six foot deep brick surface is about waist-high, with the arched opening to the fire-building spot in the back. He works up a fire to collect coals, then moves them forward onto the brick surface, on which grilling racks are placed which hold the skewers of sausages, ribs, steak, etcetera. Truly the most delicious meats I’ve ever tasted. A carnivore's heaven.

Silvia fixes everything else, which is a lot of work and extraordinarily delicious. I followed her around the kitchen like a child, taking notes, as she zipped from one task to the next.

Fusilli in Saffron Bechamel w/Sauted baby zucchini discs
Barbeque: Steaks, pork ribs, sausages
Cannellini beans w/rosemary salt & olive oil
Chocolate Mousse

9 April 2000
La Volpaia B&B -- Vico d'Elsa, northern Tuscany

Brief story. Slept all day mostly after having felt flu aches all night long, and rainy weather invited same on Monday.

Dinner Notes:
Risotto with sauteed porcini mushrooms--special Tuscan dried ones.
Roasted duck with stuffing: baked in oven w/white wine start on hot heat for 15 minutes & then add white wine, roll upside down, cook slow
Roasted potatoes in oven...
Creme caramel flan

10 April 2000
La Volpaia B&B -- Vico d'Elsa, northern Tuscany

Dinner Notes:
Penne w/vegetable sauce:
Eggplant, zuchinni, peppers, fresh tomatoes---cooked in covered pan with salt & later a bit of red pepper--cook in own juices, stirring occasionally. Let it cool & put in processor or blender & pour in fresh olive oil at last moment, then onto pasta w/parmesan.

Pork loin w/mashed potatoes:
Cut meat (use pork loin roast w/bone) to bone in slices so you can add french mustard & edam sliced cheese between each slice (keeps pork moist)…put stick through roast to hold it together. In pan, oven roast 15 mns. very hot heat till crispy on outside...then pour glass of red wine over it, roll bones on top...lower heat...Roll to each side...keep moist w/foil. Spoon drippings into mashed potato servings.

Line pan w/ lady fingers “Savoiardi” in Italian...can get various Italian brands. Soak them in coffee.

In bowl: 4 yolks & 4-5 T. sugar & w/immersion blender, blend it till it becomes white & soft...Add one T. sweet wine marsala? Blend in.

Put in wider pan on stove w/water, low flame, stirring till water is a little boiling, and hot and swells & let it cool. In same bowl add mascarpone galbani: 500 g package, about 1 cup & blend it in w/immersion blender & pour over lady fingers & spread. & cover w/saran wrap & put in fridge for 2-3 hours, can do day before... Sprinkle w/ bitter chocolate powder liberally before serving.

Best I’ve ever had.

Tuesday, 11 April
La Volpaia B&B -- Vico d'Elsa, northern Tuscany

Unable to get connected to internet since Saturday, which is bugging me more than it should. I decided to get out into the Tuscan world even tho it was raining lightly, but by the time I got to San Gimignano, a “main” medieval town to see, it was POURING--big disappointment from photo point of view. Chose not to visit the Medieval Torture Museum, thank you.

But I DID begin my introduction to the extraordinarily beautiful array of Tuscan pottery, plates, vases, etc, which both fill the tourist shops, and are represented by artists who have their own shops. Sylvano, husband of a woman I talked with before leaving, has his shop on the main square, and his work was stunning. The beauty of this stuff is just too hard for me to resist, not that I ever really try all that hard to resist. I got a couple of pieces, vowing that would be all, but we all know how that story goes.

All we guests dragged in to La Volpaia about five all wet and tired. A very dear “normal” American family of 2 charming grandparents, their two handsome, retired military sons with lovely second wives, and a darling pair of daughters of one of the couples had arrived the night before. Nice people not of my page so to speak, but very warm, loving and kind. The grandma Janine took a shine to me, and she and her hubby want me to come visit in Seattle area.

People are taken by my story, I must say. When they hear I'm on a six month trip alone, not knowing how long I'll live, all manner of responses spring forth. "How brave!" or "All alone???" or… I've begun to let myself go wigless, as the damn thing bugs me.

Dinner notes:
Minestrone vegetable soup w/wheat
Barbeque again

Ameretto cake:
round amaretto italian cookies--process to powder.
Bitter cocoa power mixed with it; add mascarpone….If too thick, add 1-2 T of the cream. Line pan w/foil, & put crumbles of cookies or something else on bottom, then put mixture on top & put in freezer.

12 April, 2000

Dinner notes:
Radicchio (red trevisano=an oblong radicchio)--sauteed w/o/o pan...Boil potatoes & slice on top. Olive oil on bottom & parmesan then potatoes , then radicchio mix, then...can add other cheeses, or béchamel (a sort of Italian vegetable lasagne with potatoes instead of noodles)…

Baby lamb leg baked in slow oven w/white wine & rosemary & garlic.

Sorbetto Agrumi Clemintine:
2 lemons
1 orange
3-4 clemintines

Juice them, filter juice; add half cup Superfine sugar & some water [half cup] & boil in pan till sugar melts….Let it cool & pour in plastic flat container in freezer...Stir occasionally 1/2 hour...Put in bowl & immersion blender & switch on & return to same container, repeat one hour later. Place one clemintine slice on each serving and go to heaven.

Ricoh Caplio R4
1/330s f/4.5 at 22.3mm iso100 full exif

other sizes: small medium original auto
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