The Great Outdoors

This time around in Italy we were determined to spend more time outdoors than in museums. And how could we not? The landscape is just absolutely stunning, and there’s so much variety within two or three hours’ travel of Milan. And really, if you go to Italy and you don’t spend time in the fields and the mountains and the seaside than you really haven’t been to Italy. There’s something about the way the centuries-old villages and farmhouses and villas are such an integral part of the landscape that makes it even more picturesque and beautiful.

In addition, it’s a super economical way to spend the day, especially if you pack a picnic. Most of the places we went were easily accessible by public transportation, but if we had wanted to do any serious hiking in the mountains or stay at an agriturismo we probably would have needed to rent a car. There’s always next time!

Varenna

We didn’t even mean to go on a hike, it just sort of happened. Behind the hotel we were staying at (Hotel Montecadeno), there’s a small road (Via Vezio) that rises steeply up to Castello di Vezio and a tiny village at the top of the hill. The castle was closed by the time we arrived, but the town is worth a short exploration.

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We found a hiking path (Sentiero del Viadante) that passed through some farmland and across the spine of the hill. The signs aren’t exactly straightforward but it’s a relatively easy hike, in fact I was wearing my fancy (flat) sandals and it wasn’t too much of a problem.

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We saw some stunning views of Lake Como from up high, and it was early evening so the sun was just behind the mountains and the light was totally amazing. And best of all in that hour we didn’t encounter a single other person.

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The bottom of the trail ended up on the opposite side of Varenna so it was an easy loop back through the town to our hotel.

 

Trebbia

Francesco, Chiara and Giovanni took us to a gorgeous spot on the Trebbia river and we spent the day sunbathing and swimming.

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The river is at the bottom of a wooded steep valley filled with rocks that makes for some dramatic scenery. The water was such a clear blue turquoise color that you could see all the way to the bottom. The water was freezing when we jumped in but felt so good after being in the sun for so long.
 

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There really wasn’t anyone else around for the whole day, and it was just a magical place – getting there definitely involves driving on some carsick-inducing curves. I wish we had spent more time in that area, we saw some trails that started around Bobbio that seemed worth a look.

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Cinque Terre

We planned on hiking the path between the five towns of Cinque Terre, but it was closed due to the danger of falling rocks! So we revised our plan a bit, started out in Riomaggiore and had a picnic overlooking the village from up high.

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We then walked on the Via dell’Amore to Manorola as it was the only part of the trail that was still open.
 

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We finished the rest of the picnic on a bench overlooking Manorola and eavesdropped on some old ladies talking about food.

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 We took the train to Corniglia in the evening, which proved to be ideal – we caught the best sunset I think I’ve ever seen in my life.

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As Corniglia is up high, you have a very wide view of the ocean and you can see Manarola in the distance. Just be prepared for the 368 steps from the bottom of the hill near the train station to the village at the top of the cliff.

We had dinner the next night in Vernazza, but it was rather disappointing. I think in general it was the most disappointing for me because my most vivid memories of Cinque Terre from the first time I visited more than ten years ago were of Vernazza. I remember it being a bit on the shabby side, kind of deserted (I visited in the fall) and quiet with some older people who were hanging out in the piazza. This time it just seemed overrun with tourists, the piazza was filled with tables with Americans stuffing their faces and everything was loud and brash and maybe a bit overdone.

That being said I think that Cinque Terre still retains some of its charms, we certainly enjoyed our time taking photos and sketching the afternoon away in Manarola. I guess I just shouldn’t have expected a quiet village on the seaside when it’s the height of tourist season.

Camogli

Camogli was definitely more low key than Cinque Terre and much more geared towards Italians. In fact I recommend staying at a town anywhere on the Ligurian coast that isn’t Cinque Terre if you want to get a feel for where Italians like to vacation on their own turf. Each town has its own character – Finale Ligure has a laid-back beach town feel, Santa Margherita delle Ligure is a more happening, social place and Levanto is the young-dudes-in-their-twenties-learning-to-surf kind of spot.

Camogli definitely has a local vibe, lots of 19th century buildings near the train station and older farmhouses up the slope. We didn’t explore the town itself as much since our main goal was to hike from Camogli to Portofino. Both towns sit on a pennisula, so the hike involves following the coastline of the pennisula (or over the top of the mountains) from Camogli, which is in the northeast corner, to Portofino, which is in the southwest.

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We heard conflicting reports about the length and diffculty of the hike, and we thought it would be around four hours and a moderate hike. Picking up the trail at the beginning is a bit of a pain as there’s a bunch of construction and it was totally confusing, but the first bit is pretty easy in that it’s mostly paved. It is sort of straight up the hill, but at the top you’re rewarded with a tiny village that overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea past Genova all the way to the Alps. And yes there is even a restaurant on the trail where you could probably enjoy some prosecco while watching the sun set.

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We continued on the trail and we passed some signs that said “DANGER FOR EXPERT HIKERS ONLY” (or what I gathered from my rather lame knowledge of Italian) with some more details about being prepared with lots of water and not going in the middle of the day. We pshawed the sign thinking, dude, we’ve climbed a volcano and the Great Wall, how hard could this be? The trail we were just on was just a piece of cake! But then quickly realized that they weren’t joking – there were literally parts of the trail that consisted of a vertical rock face, a chain attached to the rock face that you had to cling to and a 300 foot drop straight into the sea.
 

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Needless to say I tried to ignore the fact that I am afraid of heights and just plunged on ahead – we were too far into the trail to go back and that just seemed more painful.

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We didn’t even make it to Portofino, the hike just to San Fruttoso was so difficult that we basically ran out of gas by that point. We got on the boat instead – and then while we were sitting on a bench in Portofino a guy who had passed us on the trail earlier walked down into town past us and we felt totally lame. I’m really glad that we did the hike because the view was unforgettable, but if I did it again I would be much better prepared with a better trail map, a good pair of hiking shoes, two extra liters of water and a ton more food. Note to self: take signs seriously, even if it’s in Italian. I still recommend exploring the pennisula if you have any sense of adventure because the views are amazing and the landscape just feels so unique.

We were really glad that we got off the beaten path (so to speak) this time around in Italy. And remember: always pack a bottle of wine because you never know when you’ll need to break out the picnic!

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Widening the circle: Friends of friends of friends in Istanbul

As we ride our train away off to Eskişehir, Istanbul remains one of the most remarkable places in our travels. I know that sounds kitschy and cliché but go to Istanbul. Check out some of the tourist attractions and then figure out how to navigate the buses, trams, ferries a bit and head out into Istanbul proper. Meet somebody. Take a chance. It’s so easy to do in Istanbul, you just have to try.

We lucked out and found a cheap accommodation in the bustling European neighborhood of Beyoğlu (pronounced: Bay-oh-loo). A Turk, a Greek and a Hungarian all came together and built an upcoming and busy little hostel called the “Stray Cat Hostel”. You might think of the band but it actually references the cats that wander in from time to time off the city streets. If you don’t mind them, in general the cats are a clean bunch, then it’s a great place to choose as a homebase to explore the city.

Sadath, Maya and Chris were always near when a question arose or we just needed to know something practical about how to get to a local site. Tracie and I, as usual, were always challenging the limits by asking about areas not even on the tourist maps. We lucked out and visited places that most tourists would never see. That’s partly because we really aren’t tourists and partly because we are a fortunate pair.

At the Stray Cat Hostel you can choose to get up and head out as early as you please or wake up in the leisurely way that is Istanbul and rise in time to catch a Turkish breakfast from 9am to 11am. For us it turned out to be filled with a trove of remarkable individuals, many we spent countless hours passing the morning and evenings discussing our “plans of action” present and future. The Stray Cat hostel provides just enough amenities and space to sleep well, get ready for your day and get the information you need to enjoy the delightfully European city with an Islamic flare. Anyone willing to step out and off the tourist map just needs to come armed with a little information and a few questions to get Sadath going.

Of course we checked out some of the most intriguing sites of Istanbul but there are enough to keep you busy for a lifetime. Mission bound as we have been we set our sights to find out about volunteering for a farm stay somewhere in Turkey. Before we left the states we had found an organization called Buğday (Pronounced: Boo-dye-meaning wheat in Turkish) but the majority of their information seemed to be in Turkish so we opted to procrastinate and head to Turkey before we really got our nose into planning. This lead to a lot of down-to-the-wire communication and coordination that eventually cleared into clouds with silver lining. We finally got in touch with the right person, a gentleman named Victor Ananias who has been working with the organization for over twenty years. Victor told us to come find him at an upcoming Saturday organic market close to the Osmanbey Metro stop.

We set out late on Saturday morning and eventually found the market. The way it works when you want to find something, not just in Turkey but any country that has a foreign language you don’t know, is to copy down the words as best as you can and show them to people. One person sends you to one corner with some hand gestures and tells you to ask again when you get there. And you do, and eventually you find it. We ended up at a crossroads of a road and what seemed to be a walled parking lot and a Turkish woman overhead me saying that “…I don’t know if this is a road…” that it was. This took us across to another road where a bicycle bound Turk asked in Turkish if we knew where the market was and switched to English when we looked perplexed. We told him no and he said he’d ride down and check. He waved us to the right place.


Once we arrived we found the Buğday information table front and center and managed to track down some people that knew where Victor was. We sat down at a table and met a Woman named Gizem and a woman named Esra that both spoke English and were chatting with a Turkish friend that was there to play saxophone for the market’s 4th anniversary. Gizem it turns out was the communications director of the organization and Esra was on the board, so we’d stumbled into the hands of the right people. Victor was also there and we talked to him intermittently until he got up to greet a few people that had come to visit with him. Victor was a busy man and the charismatic and intellectual leader of the organization and was being beckoned at every turn.

But Esra and Gizem had dropped in just to hang out and celebrate the market’s 4th anniversary and welcomed us with some local food and flavor. We quickly all hit it off, them recounting how our blog had made the rounds in the office, which explained while they shook their heads yes as we introduced ourselves to them and we all settled down to talk. We chatted about everything and nothing and eventually Esra declared it was time that they (Gizem and Esra) figure out who we should try to volunteer with as it seemed Victor had his hands full with just saying hello to everyone that had come to celebrate the market’s four years of success and hard work.

Esra and Gizem quickly settled on a woman named Gürsel Tonbul (Gew-sel Tahn-bull) and her farm and restaurant near a city called Izmir. When Victor finally was freed up they mentioned this to him and he explained her requirements and some things we could do to try and set it up and then we launched into a short history of his experience with the organization. The market itself, thriving over the past years took six years to build via the bureaucratic layers as they are and continues today as one of the four examples of organic markets for the ordinary consumer in Istanbul today.

Victor recounted how Buğday began as a restaurant, as he was a cook for many years who traveled the world learning many ways of vegetarian cooking. He decided to open a organic vegetarian restaurant to help educate and spread the word about sustainable ways of living. He figured a restaurant could be one of the most direct ways to connect with people and eventually, eight years later, the restaurant spawned an organization that works to connect people of all levels of experience and profession to organic and sustainably raised foods. They also provide trainings on sustainable living and much of there work is hands on learning. Not only did his early ideas sound akin to our own, but his passion and sense of direction radiated from his being and he quickly helped us realize we’d stumbled into a group of golden individuals. Our luck had come again.

Not only were we lucky to meet Victor, but we were lucky to meet Gizem and Esra. We chatted about the World Cup as it seems it had taken two more victims, both of their husbands, Esra’s from France and Gizem’s from the United States. Both were home separately watching the game while we shared Gösleme in an organic market. When we finally all decided that we’d better explore the market and say our goodbyes Esra invited us to join her, her husband Damien and friends for a dinner later in the week. We said yes and exchanged information.

A few days later we were standing in her kitchen looking south out the kitchen window into the Sea of Marmara and North into the Bosporus. You could stand in one place in the kitchen and see both. That evening we met her friends she’d grown up with since middle school and we chatted about food ad life and ate food, drank wine and enjoyed the evening. We all sat around the table at one point and Esra declared that this wasn’t the “real” Istanbul and let out a shriek of laughter. But for us it was Istanbul is nothing if it isn’t diverse. We experienced the streets and the mosques by day and the European blend of partner pair ups at a party like this. Istanbul is truly a city where cultures and continents collide.

Take the fact that a simple email to my sister, who has a Turkish friend that she hasn’t seen in over a decade, whom we’re on a train heading towards. We called up Nusret and he not only welcomed our visit to his home in Eskesehir, but seemed genuinely determined to help us find our way in this vast beautiful land that is Turkey. He even went as far as to call up his brother who live in Istanbul who then offered to come welcome us to Istanbul, Hosgeldiniz Istanbul! We called up Selvet and he arranged to pick us up the next day for lunch.

Selvet showed up right on time the next day. He whisked us off to a lovely fish restaurant in his neighborhood near Levent that sat overhanging the Bosporus. We chatted about our ideas for farming and his life. After lunch, gracious of another host that brought us to another beautiful place in the world I sneakily paid for lunch, much to my regret. Selvet boiled at the server in Turkish about how a Turkish host was supposed to pay and we left under a weight of silence.

I felt terribly bad for having insulting him, that wasn’t my intention. It began to clear up a bit after I re-iterated our thankfulness at his welcoming us and the fog cleared and he announced we’d share dinner together too. He took us to his house where we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon chatting about ideas about life. He told us about his business, his farm and his family and we told him about our ideas for our project. We finished off the day watching Japan lose to Paraguay in the quarter finals of the World Cup and then set off to a lovely dinner that served up fare from his hometown area Adana. After stuffing ourselves fully he took us up and over the mountain back to our cozy little hostel.

Despite ourselves, things work out. Despite our inability to speak or read Turkish we saw things and went places few tourists from other countries have or will. Over the course of the previous week we finally figured out that the bureaucratic way is not the favored way of making connections in Turkey and that meeting and talking to people is the best way to operate. We got in touch with Gürsel Tonbul who welcomed us to come visit and told us where and how. So, now we’re nearly to Eskisehir, and by the time I post this we may already have come and gone from there. But we travel in a familiar landscape into friendly hands thankful for the goodwill that truly fills the globe.

 

 

 

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More on the Food of Italy: Milan and Lake Como

Tracie and I happened upon a couple of really great finds in Milan on the first three days we were there. One night, we took my friend Peter’s recommendation and dropped in to a Birreria and Osteria called La Libera that served up a terrific seasonal fare. I had one of the best Cottoletta alla Milanese that I’ve had at that restaurant. It was served on the bone and the loin portion of the veal had been pounded about 3mm thick. It was served with a side of lemon and a small salad. Tracie had god knows what as mine was too good to even pay attention to what she was eating beyond our initial saluté and diving into our plates and vino.

When we ventured out to Varenna and Lake Como we found a hidden treasure up a cozy little alley just beyond the boat docks. We walked past and saw a nice contemporary dining room set subtly back off the corridor, we only looked because there was a little table set for two outside the door and beautiful flower arrangements that the wife and owner of the Chef was watering at the time. We were famished as we’d spent a good part of the day wandering up and down and staring at the beautiful streets and alleys that make Varenna the quiet and charming gem that we hope it will remain. If you are ever in the Lake Como area head to Varenna and Varenna Mon Amour.

There we sat down for lunch the chalkboard out front mentioned a special priced primo and secondo for about 20 Euros. We found a menu full of seasonal delicious sounding options yet the menu remained simple and of a manageable size, so rather than sticking to the special we chose a la carte. We made our selections and dove into the bread basket filled with a nice variety of breads: pane integralé and the ubiquitous white bread but nicely hand shaped.

For primi, of all things, since I was overwhelmed with lobster trim from Per Se everyday back in the states, I chose a lobster dish. It had Pacherri di Gragnano pasta, which is like a very large rigatoni. The Chef chose to serve a half a lobster seemingly chopped up with no regard, but as you dig in and used the gleaming custom pliers and meat picker tools provided one gets an idea that this Chef is not your ordinary Italian Chef. Every knife cut in the lobster was deliberately placed for ease of access to meat. A feat only a lover of lobster could accomplish. This opened up the shell to allow for even and complete saucing of the meat. The meat melted in my mouth like a warm piece of butter. Tossed into it all with the generosity of a farmer sharing his first harvests were plump cherry tomatoes and crisp broad beans. Simple traditional fare served up with a style and sense of care that would put most Chefs in the states to shame.

Tracie’s choice of a broad linguine pasta, handmade in the restaurant, was cooked al dente and carefully tossed with perfectly cooked scallops, giant cherry tomatoes and topped with farmer’s mâche that tasted of the earth like no other mâche I’ve tasted. Somehow, we both managed to finish these generous primi piatti and loosened out belts for the next round. The moment they arrived we knew somehow we’d manage. My calamari and Tracie’s monkfish both exploded with the flavors of a well seasoned grill. This guy knew not only how to cook fish he knew how to make love to your mind with them.

As we sat there in their dining room, a stone’s through from the lake, we knew our choice of Varenna as a quick retreat from the busy streets of Milan had been well placed. We set out that first afternoon on the shores of Lake Como with fat bellies and sated hearts. We’d be back one night for dinner. I wanted to set all the clocks forward. Sleep for days, do anything to bring the next meal at Varenna Mon Amour closer.

A few nights later, sadly we chose another restaurant for that evening’s dinner, we made our ways down the coastline and back up the steps to Varenna Mon Amour. Because when you think you have a good restaurant you don’t want to give it up. You want to explore, to test, to feel it out, to see if it can turn those feelings back on inside you again. For a second time we sat down to a glamorously affordable meal. Glamorous because we felt like VIP’s from the flavors and presentation but managed to walk away without an empty wallet. I wanted blood this time and went straight for a ribeye like cut seared on the charcoal grill to a perfect medium rare and garnished with a heaping mound of vibrant flowery pink peppercorns and rosemary. Nearby sat a carefully piled medley of summer vegetables. As the beef melted in my mouth our hearts began to soar.

Tracie opted for local fare and tried a sardine like fish fresh from Lake Como. Pan fried and then oven roasted with a dash of vinegar and olive oil. It was all draped with fresh herbs and bursting forth from the parchment cartouche aromas of fried fish, crisp summer veggies and the astringent waft of vinegar drifted from her plate to mine. Our eyes were filled with anticipation. As we let our wine breathe, a Refosco from Venezia, we dug into our main courses. This time we’d held back and only ordered an appetizer and a secondo each saving room for the brilliant desserts that we’d spied a few days before resting on the tables nearby.

That evening sits in a place in the minds eye. A place where colors and aromas and the gentle clink of wine glasses resides. We past the evening making new friends with a lovely Italian couple to our left, the husband a cinematographer with an ear problem and the wife with a knack for languages. She claimed her German was better than her English, but we chatted away from a few tables across and discovered that the restaurant was new to the area and that the chef was a friend from childhood. Later on as our bellies filled to capacity the chef came out and he told us about his life and how he came to have this treasured little location tucked away in the alleys of Varenna. He’d plied his knife on the shores of many countries and every dish struck a beautiful balance between the rustic seasonal traditions of Italy and the sweeping breadth of his career of over fifteen years in the kitchen.

Looking back this remains the best restaurant that we chanced upon in our travels this time in Italy. Other would come, but this remains our favorite. Its hard to beat the walks and view around the restaurant and the lulling pace of Varenna life is hard to pull away from as well. Some would say Varenna’s too sleepy of a town and we would say fine, keep your Bellagio and your Menaggio. We’ll always have our Varenna.

As we set our sights back on Milan, to join back with our friend from the states Peter, before we set out for the countryside, we looked back on our stay as a lovely quiet rest. In Varenna, we buried the dust and grime of the Beijing city streets. In Varenna, we put behind us the shock of Asia and headed back into the warmth of our western heritage.

Here’s a brief interlude of our meals in Varenna. Somehow I failed to take photos of food in Milan.

Back in Milan, Peter whisked us over to his apartment, with high hung ceilings and wall of ten foot windows overlooking a lovely yet boisterous courtyard, to a local delight that we couldn’t find on our own. Over fifty years ago a man by the name of Luini arrived from southern Italy and opened the doors of his restaurant to share the rich goodness of panzerotti. Made from dough similar to pizza dough, filled with an unfathomable variety of fillings they are fried up and served to clamoring throngs of Milanese. We shoved past the crowds surging into the building into the Piazza and found a bench to sit down and share a small variety of fillings: spinach and ricotta, tomato sauce and mozarella, prosciutto and salame, and funghi. From there we zipped along the Milan streets and happened upon his favorite gelateria and shared bites of lemon basil, pistachio, nocciola, and blackberry.

That evening we set out for a quiet Osteria just outside of the old part of Milan, Osteria dei Fauni ( Via Turati, 5 in Segrate, about 10 minutes east of Milan ). Peter had mentioned the place weeks ago when I’d asked him about places to visit or possibly stage. He had spent several days a week over a few months working with the Chef Michael his new friend from Philly who had married an Italian woman and was currently cooking up a storm in this quiet yet sadly empty little gem. The proprietor has an astute palate for wines and wanted to create a place that challenged traditional boundaries of Italian Cuisine. Michael took the challenge and with a staff of one serves up some maddeningly inventive and delicious takes on traditional Italian fare.

To start, Tracie chose a mouth watering terrine of a burrata garnished with anchovies. I never would have thought this would have worked, but here it was and it all came together perfectly. Peter and I settled for a mixture of Salume. Michael’s wife, who was our server, had mentioned a guanciale that Michael had house cured and we selected that with a few other choices. Tracie’s dish was the star of the first course but our appetites weren’t sated as we settled in for our second course.

For my second time in Italy shoved my way into a plate of Cottelleta alla Milanese. Michael’s was a contemporary take on ‘a la meuniere’ style. The crust crackled and crunched in a way that only Japanese Panko can and my teeth sunk into a tender perfectly cooked pork loin, thin but with enough to bite, and the juices of the finest Italian pork mingled delightfully with drips of butter that unfamiliar to the Italian kitchen somehow forced their way onto the plate. Later that evening when I remarked on his use of butter he smiled and told me it was so important in his cooking style that it was the only thing his Italian cooks couldn’t understand and that when he returned from a short vacation once, he returned to find the mound of butter that he’d mistakenly ordered to be delivered the day before his departure untouched and waiting for his gentle hand.

Peter’s choice raised their eyes and received an “are you sure?” with his deliberate and quick “I’ll have the Cavallo…” His loin of horse seared a dripping rare arrived to all of our delight. We each took a bite with Peter devouring the rest and found the meat deep with richness yet without a hint of distinction beyond a slight more bite to set it away from the beefiest beef. The evidence that Michael’s time in the kitchen was long and steady came true when he came and sat with us as we finished our last bites. His presence is one of a cook. Large high shoulders, slightly sloped but grown strong from years bending over a chopping board and reaching from burner to pass to put out food to tenuously anxious guests. We chatted for over an hour and his eyes filled with hope and cheer as he recounted stories and shared his dreams of owning his own bakery soon and unleashing his talent on the world.

Once again a dreamers table, we sat talking about our accumulated dreams and goals of opening various forms of restaurants, bakeries and farm to table ideas. All different, all possibilities hanging in the air. I could hear times gear grind slower as we passed the torch of sharing our various ideas. Time is always seeking change in the ticking and pointing and measuring and stretching as the physicality of the possible hangs in the mind. As we finished our last glass the clock surged back into gear and we slumped off to our beds where the light in our heads flashed. Italy is a place that sometimes seems dreamlike, unbelievable and yet it’s there. When you visit you can’t help but wonder what it would take to get people to leave. It seems a perfect place wherever you are.

We finished off our stay the next day at the beach at Finale Liguria a few hours outside of Milan and came back to Peter’s where I made my first attempt in months to share the love that I’ve received from countless kitchens all over the world. And then we were off again. We set our sights and taste buds for the Calvi’s in the town of Varzi southwest of Milan.

 

 

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Istanbul and a evening of Classical music…

As Americans, we are used to having tons of stuff. When we left the states we were very selective about the stuff that we brought. I’ve often bemoaned the amount of crap that we’ve lugged across the world, but people are always remarking on how little luggage we brought. Last night was one of those nights that I wished I had just one more thing with us. I wish I’d brought our Mini-Disk recorder. Then I could have posted the sonorous beauty that we experienced at one of the concerts at a music festival here in Istanbul. Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts back in June of 1973, this year marks the 38th year of it’s inception.

We rubbed elbows with the Istanbul bourgeoisie last night, me in my Birkenstock sandals, jeans and a wrinkly linen shirt and Tracie in a lovely linen dress. Fifteen minutes before the performance began I bought a ticket for a glass of Turkish Malbec and began to warm up to the atmosphere. Tracie could only take a sip as she’s nursing a small cold. The wine was filled with mellow tones of walnut and cherry goodness. The bells chimed ten minutes and then five minutes prior to seating and we all began our lulling march to the toilets and to our seats inside Aya Irini (Hagia Irene) which sits in the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace. Originally an Orthodox Christian Church, it was built sometime in the 4th century, commissioned by Constantine I, burned down in 361 and then restored by Justinian in 537. We sat there underneath the only example of a Byzantine church that retains it’s original atrium. The dome sat high in front and above us and reverberated the sounds of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Beethoven.

According to one of the books we’ve been reading about Istanbul, Istanbul: The Collected Traveler, An Inspired Companion Guide, Edited By, Barrie Kerper , Constantine the Great’s tomb is somewhere within the church itself. We looked and couldn’t find it, but knowing it was there added emphasis to the chill I felt on the back of my neck at the crescendos.

There is something unique about listening to classical performances, the sense of timing, the teamwork and the giant intellect that created the pieces all comes together in a group of musicians hands. All of their experiences and yours seem to hang just above your head, filling the room with dreams, memories and hope. Sharing all of that in such a place, is something that will always stay with us. To experience this all in such a central place to European and World history brings to life those composers that lay at rest yet still stir our imaginations.

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Istanbul, Turkey

We arrived in Istanbul, Turkey a few days ago. It’s been days filled with frequent yet short thunderstorms. We’ve wandering around some of the major tourist areas without visiting inside any yet. We’re crossing our fingers for nicer weather in a day or two.

We have eaten some terrific food all of which is far surpassing Italy in variety of flavors and textures in one meal. I’ve posted a few of the photos from the past few days and we’ll let them speak for themselves for now.

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Ciao Italia!

Maybe we mentioned that we really hit it off with an Italian back in Thailand. Tracie and I chatted with Francesco and another varied group of new friends which included a delightful Italian woman, Alice; a Frenchman,Sebastian;  a Russian, Alex; Jules, an Indonesian and of course a number of Thais that lived and worked on the farm and a few Americans, French and Canadians passing through. Several times a day over breakfast, lunch and dinner we ended up chatting with Francesco. We all worked on various aspects of volunteer work at Pun Pun throughout our stay there from watering the farm to seed saving and shared stories throughout the day and over the delicious and exciting meals of one another’s travels and dreams of the future.

One day, over a meal, it came up that Francesco had a farm back in Italy. I think we had been talking about earthen building and he was talking about which technique interested him for building an earthen  barn for his horse back home. He said it was a shame that we didn’t have Italy on our itinerary and that it would have been great to have us come and cook with his mother and aunt in their home kitchen. We mentioned while we hadn’t planned to go, our itinerary was up to us and open-ended and we probably could find a way. I mean, it’s Italy, right? Italy, farming, food, more adventure and a place to learn more, that fits into our mission for this trip. So, we told him that and he said, “..then you must come…no, you must come…you can come and cook with my mother…”  

Weeks later amidst the turmoil of Beijing we finalized the last of the when, where and how of Italy and set off for Milan. We were set to meet Francesco about a week out and decided to head to the Milan area where my friend Peter from NY was living and hopefully we would get a chance to see him as well. So, like that we shifted things around for the hundredth time it seems and headed somewhere we didn’t expect.  Francesco and his girlfriend were away when we arrived, so in the meantime we explored Milan and then headed out to Lake Como and basked in the glory of the Italian way of life. Ciao, Italia!

It’s funny, because up until like a day before we met up with Francesco, we weren’t certain it was all going to work out. While a wonderful and charming individual, and possible one of our luckiest finds on the trip, Francesco is more than anything Italian, and things tend to hang in the air a bit and succumb to discussion before ever finally being settled upon. So, the day before we finally got in touch with him over the phone and made arrangements for travel to his hometown and pickup from the bus stop.
Once, we sat down in his Fiat Panda 4 x4 and headed over to his home, the mystery of Francesco that had built up in our minds began to unravel and the treasures of the Calvi family began to unfurl.

We dropped our bags that day and headed out just to visit and feed the animals and water the plants at the farm or cantina as they kept referring to it here. Because, of course, on the farm there sits a cantina, where the wine is made. In the Calvi’s case it’s a two story rock house, built over a century ago by his great grandfather and used in generations since in continuation of their family tradition in making their own wine and caring for and raising their own food.

The Calvi’s farm is a bit over 3 ½ hectares, it doesn’t sound like much and many would probably think it isn’t, but it’s more than enough for this small family to keep a lovely vegetable garden, grow grapes, care for a vast array of fruit trees and raise chickens, ducks and a horse.  Francesco just wanted to show us around that day, kind of get us the feel for their farm.

He showed us his beautiful horse of 19 years Artu, who had rolled around in the mud that afternoon after Francesco washed and brushed him before we arrived. He walked us over to their vegetable garden and we helped out with watering a bit. His brother Giovanni had just started a spiral shaped design garden bed where he was practicing the principles of bio-dynamic farming to raise some of the vegetables for the season to come. Then walked us over to his own area where his girlfriend, Chiara, and he had started their own plot, having just returned to Italy after a long trip abroad.

After, the garden, we walked across the fields to see the full breadth of the property. A small grove of grapes grows just above the vegetable garden, about ten rows deep, enough to make wine to last the family over a year. A few fields seeded with hay for the animals and laying low for the plans ahead. A gentle jaunt and we were down in a forested creek area where he shared a wonderful sala he was building. He was amidst constructing the platform for retreat from the hot days under the sun, or simply to retreat and meditate on the life rushing around him. We sat there for a bit listening to the light wind rustle the leaves above and the lull of the spring nearby, settling our souls down into our stay.

Next, we were off  across the field where we happened upon one of the many cherry trees and within moments Francesco was up in the tree ripping fresh ripe cherries from the tree. Cherries that burst forth the fragrance of Italian hillsides and floral bouquet of the ripest summer. The flavor was sweet balanced by a bitterness and slight acidity that kept us as reaching for more. From there, we took a lolling walk across the span of trees and listened carefully as his spoke of all the varieties. Peaches, Pears, Apples, Figs, Walnut, and Almond.

That evening was meet the family night. As we alighted up the stairs Francesco, grin a mile wide, braced us with a “…are you ready to meet the family?”  We were of course, actually I was elated with anticipation with meeting the Calvis.  Francesco had been up until our arrival a bit of a mystery in the background department. While we stayed with Peter, on the day we left he had become so concerned that we were heading into the arms of a serial killing stranger that he told us his apartment was ours if we needed a place to escape. Of course, we knew Francesco it’s just what he did for a living and pretty much all of his past that we were clueless about. He’s one of those humble people that actually don’t talk about themselves all the time. It was his heart and open arms that attracted us to visit and it was his family’s open arms and welcoming table that let us know we were safe and at home.

That evening we sat down to nettle lasagna made by Francesco’s mother Carmen. Wait, saying that lasagna was made by his mother may not really get across the the full effect. They harvested the nettles from the family farm, Carmen made the pasta and the nettle filling and the bechamel sauce that gorgeously blanketed the perfectly cooked noodles. We shared wine that Francesco’s dad Pepimade the previous year and finished it all off with a lovely torte she had also made earlier that morning.

The next few days we helped, but mostly watched, Francesco build his platform down in his forest by the stream and finished off our days off weeding, building trestles, picking cherries and watering the garden before setting off for delicious meals whipped up by Carmen. Every time we all sat down, the conversation around the table always wound back around to…”ok, what are we going to eat tomorrow for lunch, what for dinner…?” I joked with Francesco about it at the table when I was listening to his family I could only understand about 10-15 percent of what they were saying so I said “…I’ll bet your talking about what to cook for tomorrow, right?”  He laughed and said they were and then his Mom was curious what we were laughing about and he explained it to her and she said “…Well of course! We have to plan what to shop for and what to pick from the garden!”

I can’t stress how central food is to the Italian day. I mean, you can count on one thing in Italy when you are traveling if you want to eat lunch, you better do it when everyone else is or you won’t be eating for a long time unless you can cook somewhere for yourself.  Lunch is from about 12:30 to 1:20 or 2pm. After that it’s shuttered grates and closed shops. It’s like the whole country goes on break for two or three hours.

And staying with Francesco was no different, every day we met around the table at the same time 1pm. Carmen would always time it to be done right as Pepi walked in the door. It was crazy.  And everyone ate at home generally; the only two times that we ate away from his house for lunch was once on the second day of our visit and once when we traveled for two hours to spend the day at the river, both of those days we picked up Salame and Prosciuto from a local butcher, bread and gathered fruit that we picked from the farm.

On Friday evening of the second night of our stay with the Calvi’s on our way back from the farm we ran an errand to get a specific cut of meat (brasato) from a particular butcher that Carmen had requested for our planned  team ravioli production for Sunday morning. That evening she seared it off and started the cooking, a short two or so hours, just until tender. That was put in the cooler for the next two days. On Sunday morning, we started ravioli production. This commenced around 10:30AM, we had to have lunch on the table by 12 on Sunday, I mean come on it is a day of rest. I walked into the kitchen and Carmen had already measured out the dry ingredients and mounded them on the table for the pasta and I caught her as she was cracking the few last eggs into the mountain of flour (these recipes follow people).

She mixed about a kilo worth of pasta dough, working the whole for about fifteen minutes. Then Carmen showed me how to take the Brasato that she’d braised and minced it down super fine and added  some of the braising liquid to taste, a few eggs and a good helping of Parmesan and I mixed it into a velvety farce for our ravioli to come. We spent the next forty minutes or so and made about 300 Brasato Ravioli, a specialty of Liguria, as nearly all the dishes Carmen shared with us were, rolling out the pasta paper thin and filling them full of the farce. By 11:50 the raviolis had hit the pot and the sugo was already done. She had even made a Porcini and tomato sugo especially for Giovanni, Francesco’s younger brother who is a vegetarian.

I feel like with Carmen’s Ravioli, I just barely am starting to understand the meaning of what it is to make great pasta and great ravioli. And I’ve made pasta for years now. In fact, everyday I learned something new about cooking and about myself and my relationship to cooking for others. I could cook with Carmen for years and learn something new everyday. Now, you probably would love to hear about all the other food she cooked, all the textures, all the subtle changes in flavor and the bright and freshness of it all, but my eyes are tiring as I expect yours are as well so I’ll try and list everything she made for us: Cotoletta di Milanese, Risotto di Milanese (rabbit liver and peas – amazing, truly), nettle lasagna, Brasato Ravioli, lentil soup, Torte di Ciocolatto , Torte di Albicoca (Apricot), nettle noodles, and i’m sure I’m forgetting something.

The food was amazing! And everyday we spent some time at their lovely farm. Even after spending a whole day at the river, we took a back road to the farm to feed the animals and water the garden. That day, Carmen and Pepi were both already there and had watered some of the garden. After we helped out with the rest we walked over to help Carmen and Pepi cherry pick. Pepi has got to be in his late sixties. The man hopped up into a cherry tree like he was a ten year old. Mind you he’s probably been picking from these very trees for years, but he made me in my silly sandals feel like an invalid. My extra height and weight only served to make me dangerous in picking cherries from up in the tree and I resorted to reaching at them from the ground.

When time came to leave and say our goodbye’s, as I gave Carmen a hug, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an Aunt I wasn’t going to see for a while. She seemed to have a bit of glassy eyes and we were sad to go too. Serendipity brought us to Francesco and the Calvi family and well wishing and a lot of love sent us away.

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Giving Milan a second chance

Why so quiet on the blog, you ask? We're in Italy! I always forget about how different the pace of life is here, and we felt it as soon as we got off of the plane. Italy hadn't even been on our itinerary, but a series of coincidences led us back. Back in March we met Francesco, an Italian who was visiting Pun Pun in Thailand at the same time we were. We chatted over all of our meals and found we had a lot of ideals and interests in common, and eventually he said, “You need to come and visit me, see our family farm and cook with my mom!” We thought about it for a couple of weeks. By the time we needed to plan the next leg of the trip we knew we wanted to mostly skip sights for a bit (I felt like if I saw another temple/wat/church/castle/fort/whatever I was going to curl up into a fetal position) and just focus on visiting people, talking to them about their projects, and eating. Italy actually seemed perfect because we've visited the so-called “major tourist draws” already so we didn't feel like we were going to miss out. So we emailed him and said, ok, when should we come? We didn't want to pass up a chance to visit Francesco and see his farm. We thought we'd also drop in and visit Peter, a baker that Wayne used to work with who had been living in Milan for about a year and a half. So here we were, back in Italy.

We had a few days on our own before meeting up with Francesco and we weren't exactly sure where we needed to be. I hadn't really explored the northern part of Italy much while I lived in Florence ten years ago; I think I was too much in love with Tuscany at the time to even give the north the time of day. The impression of Milan the one time I did visit was that it was a big city, grey and grimy, not someplace I'd want to visit again. But we didn't want to stray far and we were flying into Milan so we decided to give it a second chance, just wander around and get a sense of its character.

And it was a totally different experience. This time Milan seemed like such a vibrant city, people were out on the streets walking and biking and having animated conversations. The center of town is so easily walkable and there's an abundance of public transportation options, from the metro to the tram to the bus. And even for a city that has a reputation for being the most uptight, Milan seemed so laid back to us. Almost every bar worth its salt had aperitivi (snacks laid out buffet style eaten with wine between 6 and 8 pm), so tables full of people spilled out onto the sidewalks everywhere we went. Don't get me wrong, Milan is not some backwater place – I've never seen so many Porsches before and everyone is so dressed up – but it just had a more laid back pace than any city we'd been in the past month or so.

We serendipitously found a local saturday market close to our hotel and admired the mountains of fresh produce from all over Italy. People jostled each other for the vendors' attention and a shot at the best produce. We followed their lead and picked up some salame, prosciutto, cheese, olives, bread, cherries and peaches for a picnic. We headed over to a park, grabbed a bottle of wine on the way and commandeered a bench. It couldn't have been more perfect, each thing we ate was like the Platonic ideal of that thing. Mamma mia! Literally I thought I had never really eaten a white peach before until that moment, and the salame was intensely meaty and delicious. The quality of food here always amazes me, and also that it's so affordable compared to what you would pay in the States. The people and dog watching was quite excellent too, we were quite fascinated by the lengthy conversations that Italians would have with the Senegalese street vendors that constantly bother people with random trinkets.

Our schedule ended up working out quite well with Peter's so we had a chance to stay with him for a few days and had a fabulous time eating and talking. He's been in Milan for about a year and a half so we got the scoop on some good places to go. We made a day trip to the beach at Finale Ligure and ate at a local pescheria (fish restaurant) – I had an unusual dish of anchovies in a green parsley sauce with argula and apples topped with some kind of caramel sauce. We waited patiently in line together at Luini for some panzerroti, basically a small calzone that uses a slightly different dough and that's fried. We also checked out Peck, a sort of high end gastronomic grocery store (think Citarella's but a hundred times more formal, fancy and expansive). We definitely got the sense that the Milanese are just as seriously obsessed and particular about their food as anywhere else in Italy. And of course we were thrilled that we got a chance to make dinner at Peter's house, we've been missing the kitchen so much. Well, to be honest it was mostly Wayne because I had an apertivo of Aperol and something else and was sort of out of commission (whatever! It was delicious and why don't Americans drink cocktails like that more often??), but either way we jumped at a chance to cook a meal at home.

I think Milan, for me, was so different for a number of reasons. Perhaps the city itself has changed in the past ten years. I know for sure that the Duomo had been scrubbed clean – it's glowingly pink now, whereas it was grimy gray the last time I saw it. Of course contextually everything just seemed so convenient and easy after Beijing, I can speak the language and know the basics of how things work (or don't work). Knowing someone who lives in Milan who could give us advice made a big difference in how we interacted with the city too. And what about age? What I look for and appreciate in a city is probably a bit different than what I was looking for ten years ago, now having been to so many other places. All in all our time in Milan couldn't have been more enjoyable and we were more than ready to jump into the Italian pace of life.

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Beijing Is Not Our Best Friend

What can I say about Beijing? Honestly, I'm finding it hard to say something nice about it at the moment. It's HUGE and that's an understatement. The city is on such a monumental, grand scale that it made me feel like I was the most insignificant speck. Every day we were there we walked for hours and we felt like we had gotten nowhere. Blocks of government buildings have been built to intimidate and impress, not to be useful and inviting. Everything's spread out and the city map we had made the distances seem deceivingly short. The traffic (that we've mentioned previously) is horrendous and frustrating and practically unavoidable. There's a neverending tide of people in every conceivable means of transport and on foot. Every major intersection here makes Shibuya seem like child's play because it's literally a free-for-all.

Everywhere we went we were unbelievably frustrated. Take for instance our visit to the Forbidden City. Thinking we'd be clever and to save some time, we decided to take the bus. We got to the end of the line and realized we were at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, not the northern end. All we wanted was to cross the giant ten lane boulevard, either to walk up Tiananmen Square (about 880 meters on one side) or to take a different bus back. We walked around the bus area for literally ten minutes and we could not find any way to cross the boulevard. So we gave up and took the subway (it only had an exit on the northern side of the boulevard if you paid), which took another half an hour to just get to the stop closest to the Forbidden City and was still another twenty minute walk (I am not joking) just to the entrance of the damned place.

By then we were already running out of steam and we were getting run over by hordes of tourists. To us it just seemed like the Forbidden City was a bunch of wide open, weedy open spaces with no places to sit and imposing imperial style buildings in various states of disrepair. Maybe it should be renamed the “Forbidding City”. After walking for another half an hour we finally found some benches in the shade to nap on, and we decided it wasn't worth hanging around so we left to get some food. I had a bunch of restaurant listings and I vaguely knew the street where it was located so we hopped back on the subway. Lo and behold, the restaurant was on the top floor of a crappy mall and of course you had to take eight levels of escalators. Not only did we get stuck behind a family trying to haul a wheelchair up the escalators, we then discovered the restaurant was gone! (Did I mention that this was one giant CCF?)

We took another bus back to the neighborhood where the hostel was and tried to find a place to eat. Finally deciding on one, we sat down and tried to order. You'd think it would have been easy enough, the menu had pictures and all we had to do was point. Of course, the waitress insisted on thinking that I spoke Chinese and kept blabbing on even though I was like “I DON'T SPEAK CHINESE JUST STOP OK??!!” I threw my hands up in despair, we finally got our food, we drank beer. Before we were halfway done they shut off half the lights in the restaurant. We resigned ourselves to the fact that visiting the Forbidden City was a big fail and collapsed back at the hostel.

Almost every day in Beijing had been a comedy (or horror, from our point of view) of errors like that. Every time we felt just confident enough with the buses we would get totally screwed. We took a bus to visit a farm on the outskirts of the city, but of course we accidentally took an express bus (not that there were any signs or indicators there was a difference) that completely bypassed the neighborhood altogether and we had to flag down a cab on a desolate highway. Even getting back to the airport was a nightmare, the bus we took when we first arrived didn't pick up in the same location and didn't even drop off at the terminal we needed to be at. That was another twenty minute shuttle bus ride from where we got off! Luckily we left FIVE hours early for the airport, it ended up being just enough time.  When we've given up on public transportation in exasperation, empty cabs would pass us by, eject us because we weren't going in the direction that the cabbie wanted to go in, or would drop us blocks from the location we wanted to be at because they didn't feel like it. Wayne and I have gotten used to looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and saying “CCF!”

I could go on with the examples (oh wait did I mention the chunks of raw chicken in my curry noodles?) but I think you get the idea. We've had low level annoyances and difficulties in other parts of China on this trip but we've more than managed. We've been able to say, that's not a big deal, we can work through it and brush it off. But for some reason in Beijing it was happening so often that we had a hard time putting a smile on our faces again. I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone could live here long term, it seems like you develop coping mechanisms to the point where you just don't notice anything anymore. Of course we've had some good experiences – hiking the Great Wall, sharing meals with old and new friends, visiting the Green Cow Farm – but this time the bad has outweighed the good. We were not sad at all about leaving Beijing, we were totally ready to say “Zai jian zhong guo!” and “Ciao Italia!” instead.

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