Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lost In Medieval Times.....In Tuscany's Hill Towns

Today we took yet another step back in time and climbed high into Certaldo, one of Tuscany's most charming hill towns. Definitely off the beaten path and much less touristy than some of the others, it is literally a tiny village where time has stood still. This tiny hamlet in the heart of the Elsa Valley it sits between Siena and Florence. The name Certaldo in Latin translates to, "a rise covered in oak trees," where it's origins date back to Etruscan times.

Certaldo Alta From A Distance

Walls Of The City

Quiet Streets...Yes People Do Live Here

Frescoes Everywhere

While is was easy enough to find the lower more modern part of the town the upper part was another story.  We could see it perched high up on the hillside with it's church towers, turrets and ancient walls but how to get there...hmmmm?  From a distance we spotted a "funicular," or cable car to the top but even finding that was impossible.  Finally I spotted a familiar brown sign that said, "centro alta," meaning the high part of the historic city so up we went.

Cute Planter

Birthplace of the  famous Tuscan writer Giovanni Boccaccio author of the Decameron and The Life Of Dante whose house is now a museum in the town. We strolled along the almost vacant cobblestoned streets, breathing in the fumes of yesteryear.  Since we were there during mid-day most all of the shops were closed for that long 2-3 hour Italian lunch break.  This gave the place an even eerier feel or maybe it was just that we couldn't find an open gelato shop and were having sugar withdrawals? Whatever the case may be it was a delightful town to visit.  From the old churches to a grand old palace and finally to Boccaccio's house it was a pleasant few hours.  And wherever there are stairs leading up we climb, to yet another tower giving us another breathtaking view of the Tuscan hillside. Fortunately for me my witty husband always knows where we parked the car.  Today according to him our landmark was simply that we parked next to the olive trees, which were next to the vineyards.....which of course are EVERYWHERE in Italy!

Last weekend we headed over to San Gimignano, a more touristy hill town that features about a dozen towers, an old castle and hoards of tourists.  We went from one parking lot to another, and three or four more before realizing there were no free spots left.  We gave up and decided to return on a weekday hoping for less of a crowd. Today we headed there first hoping that the cloud cover would discourage visitors which did seem to work.  We managed to find parking pretty easily and began our climb to the top of the walled city. We walked the narrow streets, browsed through the shops and stopped for a large quarter of a pizza slice of pizza and a drink for just 5 euros each. Since take away is the more economical way to go in Europe we found a seat amid the pigeons on the church steps.  As we ate we did some people watching and avoided being stepped on by the bouncing kids that were tormenting the pigeons nearby while their parents ignored them.

San Gimignano

An Old Blacksmith's Shop

Back at the casa we cooked up some fresh spinach and cheese ravioli with Clyde's home made tomato sauce and leftover chicken. We added some wine and fresh baked bakery bread before relaxing for the evening.  Another tiring day of climbing hills, exploring castles and living like Italians.....along the gringo trail.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Lost Between The Fennel, Figs And Faro.....In Italy

The Mediterranean Diet is ALIVE and everywhere here in Italy!
Yesterday we headed to the grocery store to stock up on some essentials. The store is a chain throughout Europe called, "Coop," that features everything from breads, produce, pastas both fresh and dry, local wines, cheeses and SO much more. Our journey began in the bakery where Clyde stood in line to wait his turn.  He would ask for, "pane di grano duro cotto al forno di legno." Loosely translated that means, "bread made of durum wheat cooked in a wood oven." Our hosts here had a partial loaf that they gave us a taste of drizzled with their home made olive oil.  The bread features a "cake like" consistency although it's not sweet. Our hostess wrote down the words so that we'd know what to ask for.  This stuff was baked in a gigantic round loaf and they cut off however much you want and charge accordingly.  What we brought back here is a large chunk that we will probably never get through yet it cost just 1,30 euros. 

The Two breads we bought
The pane di grano duro cotto al forno di legno on the left.  It's much bigger than it looks.

While I was waiting for Clyde I picked up a freshly made pizza to take back and cook for just 2,90 euros before heading to the produce department.  Seriously we must have spent an hour there, amazed at the choices.  At one point I turned to look at our cart and Clyde had almost filled the whole thing with produce. Fresh spinach, basal, potatoes, fennel, onions, tomatoes still attached to the vine, grapes, apples, zucchini, eggplant, to name just a few.  Then nearby I noticed a massive section of grains, nuts and dried fruit.  Wow.  Some familiar stuff like quinoa, chia, sunflower kernels along with other stuff that I'd heard of but never prepared.  Couscous, faro and so many more wonderful grains were there for the picking at very low prices too. As I browsed through the vast array of nuts trying to find something that looked familiar like walnuts I was amazed at the selection.


Pre Packaged Spinach

After five years of living in Panama we had forgotten how little selection there was there.  And if we could find those kinds of things they were rather pricey and old. But when we had to adapt we did and managed to use what was available to us at the time.

To us the grocery store was more like a museum of fun things to marvel at rather than a place to pick up life's essentials. Prosciutto, a cured dried ham is on most everything here and varies in the regions of Italy.  One of the more common types is prosciutts di parma, made from locally grown pigs who are fed a strict diet of whey from locally made Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It features a slightly sweet taste unlike prosciutto crudo Toscano, a savory ham with pepper, garlic, rosemary and juniper. Basically prosciutto crudo is eaten raw; prosciutto cotto is a cooked ham; and prosciutto arrosto is the roasted variety.  If we order pizza, sandwiches or most anything else with meat on it in Italy it's ALWAYS prosciutto.

Then there is the pasta that spans aisles and aisles and refrigerated sections for the freshly made variety. Unlike the stuff sold in the US pasta is Italy is healthier made with various types of wheat and grains.  There are more shapes, colors, sizes and fillings to pastas here that we have ever seen before.  And where there's pasta there are sauces and olive oils to top it with.

Fresh Pasta, both filled with cheese
in the refrigerated section

Speaking of Cheese
The Parmagiana is in the front middle

The Italians use this on their pasta just plain
We like to add Garlic, Onions, Bell Peppers and seasonings. These huge bottles cost just .63 euros.

Peperoni In Italy Is NOT Meat, but instead Peppers. Our new favorite for sandwiches and stuff
sliced bell peppers in a jar

Biscotti the Italian word for, "cookie" also takes up a significant amount of space in the grocery stores too. Aisle after aisle of packaged cookies overwhelm the eye and the senses and we really need to just pick one and go.  Not to mention the fabulous bakery types of cookies and pastries also that we try to stay away from. 

Biscotti....Just noticed these are made by Barilla the pasta people.

They love their Nutella here and now so do we.

Then we approached the HUGE selection of wine.  Each grouping was labeled as to what part of Tuscany is was from. NOT all of Italy just this region, Tuscany.  Prices ran as low as 1 euro a bottle and up. We picked a few bottles somewhere in between on the price scale and then added two bottles of Chianti also.  Simply put, chianti is a type of wine made in this region of Italy.  Sometimes it refers to the type of grape but typically just the region it's from.

Yes, we bought a few wines

Speaking of wines the vineyards that surround us offer direct sales of wine and olive oils to make shopping even easier.

Grape Vineyards everywhere
Olive trees in the background

And then it came time to check out at the register.  The cashiers here sit and scan your groceries like most anywhere else we've been.  But throughout Europe purchases are NOT bagged by the cashier but instead by the consumer. Plastic bags are offered at ONLY some stores here and usually there is a charge of a few cents per bag, when requested. Otherwise the cashier just scans the items through and they sit there in a pile waiting for the consumer to take them. We find that when we DO bring our reusable bags into the store we get stressed trying to bag  them items fast enough to keep the line moving. Yesterday we left the bags in the car and bagged the groceries in the parking lot.  A different way of thinking, living and doing business and again something that we need to get used to. 

What we can't get used to is saying the word, "euro, " instead of "dollar."  By the time we finally wrap our mouths around the euro word we will surely have moved on into the UK where we'll be dealing in "pounds."

We did notice something innovative here in Italy. In the front of the Coop grocery store there is a large section of hand-held scanners.  A consumer can choose to use one ONLY IF they have a special store card.  The consumer will then take the scanner and use it while they shop to scan their own groceries AS they put them into their cart or bags. Upon checking out they will simply have to PAY their bill and leave the store without waiting on line.  Cindy the owner of the house told us that every once in while they will pick people at random to see if they are being honest with the self scanners.

The customer scans their card on scanner in the middle,
One of the scanner Wands lights up and that is the one they take

Upon returning to our temporary home here in Chianti country we filled up the fridge with our food purchases.  Surely it's not enough to JUST SEE Italy but instead one must TASTE it as well.  The tastes of Italy will LONG be in our hearts, minds and bellies as we "mangia" or way through Italy, one house sit at a time......along the gringo trail.