Ah spring. When the first tiny Fiats pop up.

Midge and her Fiat 500C come out on a spring day

It is a sure sign of Spring in Maine when motorcycles and convertibles peek out from under their winter covers. Last week, inspired by day after blissful day of seventies and sunshine weather, some of us even took the snow tires off our daily drivers. And coaxed their little red Fiat and little green Ape out of the barn where they’d been happily hibernating.

And, of course, it snowed and snowed last night.

But all those early, and fleeting signs of spring, certainly do have us counting the days until we arrive in Umbria. Look out Panicale, here we come, ready or not.

By the way. We ARE ready!

We miss our roses when we are apart. And, in truth they do only come out for a week or two. But what they lack in longevity they make up for abundance and punctuality. They spread out over the pergola in a sea of yellow, regular as clockwork on May Day. And this year, on May first, we’ll be there when they come out.


DO WE HAVE VIDEOS SHOWING WHY WE LOVE ITALY IN SPRING?
WHY YES, YES WE DO:

Here are our Lady Banks Roses on Display on a typical but magical May day a year or so ago in Umbria.

And here is May Day luncheon outside Siena (with our buddy Al Fresco and a few of his fair weather friends) at the Spannocchia estate in nearby Tuscany.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Just a bit of nostalgia if you don’t mind

We own our house in Italy with our friend Kiki. Our favorite thing is when all three of us can go there at the same time. Second choice is either of us being there. And making the left behinds jealous. Which we got to do to Kiki in March. And now it is her turn. She just wrote saying she was in the garden, bathed in late afternoon sun, listening the swallows swooping and the tower bells ringing while having nibbles of pecorino cheese under a pergola of yellow Lady Banks roses.

It is the best time of year. I’ll be there in daydreams and in the meantime will be happy with memories and photos.

Here is a video of what Kiki is suffering thru there in the garden. From this exact moment last year.

And its not just all about our garden. The whole countryside is the Garden of Eden as we speak as evidenced by this video shot on May Day at Spannocchia last year. With thanks to our buddy Steve Callen of Panicale and Australia for his magical music and editing. Speaking of Spannocchia, they are the 1,000 acre agricultural tenuta outside Siena, but they are also sponsors of the Italian Life Expo coming up in Portland, Maine next month. See, if we can’t get ourselves to Italy in June, we’ll bring the whole county to US. If you are going to be near Portland’s harbor the 9th – the 11th, come get your daily requirement of Italy there.

ok, see you in Italy (or see you in Portland, June 9-11)

Stew Vreeland

Bringing Italy home with us

If you are like us, you get a taste of Italy and you don’t like letting go. We just got back from Italy but some part of us feels that we’re still there basking “Under The Tuscan Sun.”

But! Did we tell you we’re working on a way to stretch out that “being there” feeling? That’s why we’re helping start the first ever Italian Life Expo in Portland, Maine. June 9-11th at the Ocean Gateway right on the harbor, across from lead sponsor Auto Europe’s world headquarters.

madampresidenteDozens of exhibitors including generations-old, but undiscovered family vineyards from Lake Garda to artisans in copper from Montepulciano, prosciutto and cheese makers from Parma to tour operators from Siena, so many shiny objects to hold your attention.

Here’s Midge outside Spannocchia who, with Institute for Italian Studies, are lead presenters of the Expo. One day last week, after this picture was taken, Midge, Paul Turina of Turina Italian Wines, and other board members went into Siena for a festive dinner at Antica Osteria da Divo by Chef Pino di Cicco. Everyone came back raving about him and counting the minutes till they could see him again at the Expo.

Good times coming. If you are in New England this June, the Italian Life Expo may be your ticket to Italy. It’s never been closer.

Tickets go on sale this weekend. Check it out.

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland

Slow Food? Funny, it doesn’t last long on my plate.

This is where I was a couple days ago. And a world away. May Day Celebration of Spring and an Italian Slow food event at the 1,100 acre non-profit AgriCultural estate of Spannocchia. It is just outside Siena in Tuscany. And only an hour from our house in Panicale, so we find ourselves there often. There are several mini videos below of the festivities so you can enjoy the sights and the sounds of Springtime in Italy.

boragefarroradish1

“OH, WAITER, TABLE FOR SIXTY, PLEASE. AND COULD WE SIT OUTSIDE?”

Cavolfiori does these marvelous dinners all around Italy. Check their site to see where their next event is. Come hungry.

longtable

THE MENU FOR THE DAY WENT SOMETHING LIKE THIS

Farro, asparagi, fave e uova.
With Bianco Toscano 2008 vintage grown right there at Spannocchia. As were all the other ingredients for this course. Farro is an ancient type of grain grown here that has been rescued from obscurity in recent times. They told us there is something about this grain’s tassels that tickles their tusks or in some way bugs the wild boars and those cinghiale won’t eat farro any more than kids will eat broccoli. Big benefit / built in defense system for farro.
Isn’t it interesting how they sliced the asparagus long ways and made it look so different? At a glance it seems to be something else. It looked fantastic and with a hint or two of lemon it just took you away on this sunny day.

Crema di borragine, ricotta di pecora, with more white wine
Borage is basically a weed, harvested by a New Zealand lady staying at Spannocchia. We sat with her at the table and went on a plant identification walk she led after. Oh, the blue flower is the borage flower. And the green is the warm borage colored, potato-based soup you pour around the sheep ricotta. Sure. We eat like this at home, too. Pretty much. In our dreams

Coscia di Suino Cinto nel forno a legna insalata di campo.
Full leg of Spannocchia pig (The famous cinta senese. They are black with white belt like a Belted Galloway cow) slow cooked in a Spannocchia wood oven with Spannocchia wood, too. With a red 2007 Spannocchia wine

Brownie, yogurt e mele
and there were tiny flowers involved, tiny pale yellow flowers. If I knew what kind of flowers they were, I’ve forgotten now. Note number of wine courses. Forgive, forget.

2006 Vin Santo dessert wine from Spannocchia.
Very light, very drinkable. We did. See above.

The whole meal presentation was a thing of great beauty. Afterwards we went on a forage-for-borage walk-about with the lady from NZ who sat with us. She harvests whatever greens she needs from whatever woods she’s in. She was an inspiration. And a font of logic. Made it all sound so reasonable. Biggest tip on eating weeds? Shouldn’t have to actually say this but . . . tiny bites. And, remember “no mushrooms please.” Just don’t. We ate tons of what she had harvested at the meal. That crème of borage soup was wonderful and bright, bright green poured around fresh white ricotta and garnished with the ever helpful borage’s blue flowers. Startling colors of white blue and green on my plate. I was so surprised it was warm and served in glass pitcher. I’ve got to get out more. Really, I do.

The photo of the camera is mine. As are the clunky videos. The luscious food photos were by our buddy Paul Avis. He is a pro. I’m a pro too. But just at eating all the food they put in front of us. Slow Food group was doing this food fest two days in a row there. All sold out. We just barely got squeezed in. glad we did. What a day. Roses in bloom up to the top of the third story of the villa. Wisteria all about, lemons on the trees in pots, grass was green green. Fine, fine, memorable moment

cameratablewisteria
About the camera that sat on the table next to me. Its owner was Francesco, a Roman from Naples he said. His wife from Sardinia. Tan, with slicked back, pewter gray hair, black wrap around sun glasses, articulate, wry sense of humor, very sociable, laid back. I can see him contentedly filling his pipe from its leather tobacco pouch. I want to be him when I grow up. Just dying to be cool I think Mick Jagger might say. For contrast, I had my rats’ nest of iPhone, italian cell phone, Flip cam and old pocket camera. All of which are disposable at some level. He had this show piece. The word pristine does not do this 1957 Leica justice in any way. He bought it new. The case gets polished. The camera is more pristine than the case. And he had little accessory leather covered parts. Separate but right at hand. Right there. How does this happen?

Anyway, this is a case where the camera does tell a story.

The mid afternoon in seventy degree breeze and the sun and the food made for a day that was off the tracks good. I was like Where ARE we? I knew but it was a kind of out of body experience.

TABLE TALK VIDEO

TALK ABOUT SOME WHITE WINE! THE VIDEO

MAY DAY, MAY DAY, ITALY IS ON FLOWER!

And to go backwards, just in time. Let’s talk about the May day celebration at Spannocchia that happened just before the Slow Food lunch. Everyone in folk costumes, bandanas, woven hats with flowers in them, and even one with tomatoes. hopefully fake. There were flowers in baskets, flowers growing up the walls around us. No question it was spring and we were all glad to see it and celebrate it. Farm manager Riccio’s merry band started entertaining at ten in the morning. From Spannocchia they headed out and entertained in towns all over the region. Coming home at ten that night well fed and can you say well drunk? Not really but just happy, lubricated and probably ready for a long night’s well deserved sleep. The videos here are a snatch of folk singing and then a quick view of the chaos around the snack table right after the singing but pre lunching. The fun never quits at Spannocchia on May Day.

SINGING FOR YOUR SUPPER VIDEO

YOUR SUPPER VIDEO

Ok, party on,

Stew

High on Siena

siena from the duomo to the tower in the Campo
SIENA, Tuscany, Italy–Always something new to discover. Even in a place like Siena where we’ve been a hundred times. How do I miss these things that are so in my face when I finally notice them? Point in case, the bird’s-eye view available to you right at the cathedral in Siena. The piazza-size, open-air section of the cathedral? What was their lame excuse for leaving this unfinished for the last 800 years? Something about the Black Plague? Walls are there, but they forgot the roof. Coming from il Campo (home of the famous Palio, that wild annual barebacked horse race) you walk right through this part to get to the Duomo. This time, Midge noticed a perfectly obvious door over to the side, posters and signs all around it. Step inside and there is a museum of marble sculptures taken from the exterior of the church and then, for another fee you can take stairs up and up and up until you are almost looking down on the bell tower in the center of il Campo. I never knew this kind of panorama was available without being up in a plane. Look up, Stew!
still high in siena, getting there is half the fun
Back on the ground, we hung out, we shopped, we soaked up the spring sun and people-watched all the other Happy Campers in the Campo. And then ducked into a trattoria for some lunchtime treats.

Which reminds me . . .

TO EAT vs ETTO

Looking over the menu there in Siena I saw something that stopped me for a moment. Flash back. Ever notice that “l’etto” notation on the menu when you are in Italy? In the price column? Or subtly just before the price? I skim menus like I skim most things, but should I? Signs point to “no”. Is it obvious what “l’etto” means to everyone else? Well, it wasn’t to me the first time I saw it many years ago. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was in Florence and having a fine weekend on no money per day, I was in the Navy at that time and no money a day was exactly what they paid me. So I was going thru the menu looking for the dead cheapest thing and there was Bistecca Fiorentina. Waaay cheaper than anything else on there. Why not try that? I only spoke a couple words of Italian at the time and bistecca fiorentina was not one of them.
eating with l'etto on the menu
Yes, even I could figure out the “bistecca/beef steak” part of that. But “fiorentina?” that could mean ground chuck for all I knew at the time. As it turned out my “florentine steak” was a massive steak that tasted great and had to be the deal of the century. Until the bill came. And it was ten or fifteen times what I expected. What the heck?! Slowly, ever so slowly, that little, back-of-the-frig sized light bulb came on in the back of my head and I mouthed the words “Ohhh, I get it”. L’etto must mean so much an ounce or a tiny metric version of same. What is wrong with grams. Not metric enough? Sigh. So, fellow travelers, learn from my mistake and know that the smallest number on your menu’s price list doesn’t always equate to the smallest number on your bill.

ROSES IN OUR ROOM

One of the reasons we were spending the day in Siena was because Midge is on the board of the nearby Spannocchia foundation (that is the grand agricultural estate and) and their three day meeting was starting at nine the next morning. And going straight through till evening with breaks for lunch and hikes. There was even a pre-breakfast hike penciled in for the die-hards but she passed on that, wise girl. With a Sunday schedule this full, we decided I should drop her off Saturday evening and see if I could wrangle spending the night in one of Spannocchia’s many lovely accommodations. What a welcome. The white, “Lady Banks” climbing roses covering the villa had even started to spill into our room. I don’t know about you but I wish I could figure out how Italians in this area get away without having screens. It just puts you so in the moment inside or out, not having every view strained through a wire mesh. Be that as it may, the villa is so elegant anyway and then when you frame the window with white flowers, it made us feel like we were spending the night in a Renaissance Painting.
italian roses covering a tuscan villa outside siena
And, it just got better. After a stellar dinner with Randall and Francesca and the other guests, we’d said our goodnights, and sogni d’oro’s and gone back to our room. At some point, the room seemed hot and I got up to open the solid wooden shutters. And the moon just bowled us over as if someone had thrown a switch on a spotlight right outside our rose-covered window. We could see details of the landscape, out to infinity. Miles of moonlit vistas. It seemed like a black and white photo of what we had seen during the day. Truly tried and truly failed to get those late night photos. We could see so well but the poor little camera could not. Probably operator trouble. Next time!

Much more to come. Stay tuned to this channel, where it is all Italy all the time.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland