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Cortona Italy, Tuesday October 26, Mark’s Birthday! 11:00 pm

This morning started out windy and chilly, though still warmer than it had been up north, partly cloudy and yet gorgeous blue skies and sun kept with us throughout the day. We drove about an hour away to the idyllic hill town of Pienza, which is has stunning views of the Tuscan countryside and wonderful medieval streets to stroll through. First we went to the store called Cornucopia, where we tasted about 10 kinds of balsamic vinegar, each more heavenly than the one before. This is the store where I bought my first great vinegars 4 years ago, after finally tasting this magical elixir that I had only heard about before. Haven’t you heard people talk about balsamic vinegar ‘so good you can eat it on ice cream’, or strawberries, or other foods that you cannot imagine having with vinegar? I had heard that for a long time, and I had tasted some decent vinegars and yet still had no idea how they came to that conclusion. Now I know. Until you have tried this yourself, it cannot be clearly explained. It is syrupy and sweet, but not like candy. It is a savory sweet. It is pure deliciousness! Lucy is the woman who taught us about the vinegars, how they are made, where they are from, and so on, and then she had us taste some other specialties of the region. Fabulous cheeses from sheep’s milk (pecorino), both fresh and aged, as well as a marmalade made from figs, and one from onions. The onion marmalade is made in a certain area, in a certain way, for so long that it is on Slow Food’s ‘Ark of Taste’. What that means is that the grower or producer does work that reflects the values of Slow Food, and the food or product or technique is (or has been) in danger of extintion. By promoting these foods (like our very own Ozette potatoes), we ensure they remain in production and on our plates. This makes the marmalade even more special and when we tasted it with the cheese it was perfect!

We took some time to enjoy the village before departing for Perazetta winery, where a wonderful family lunch and wine tasting awaited us. Another hour or so away, through very windy roads, we arrived sleepy and hungry and ready to stretch our legs. Rita greeted us first and walked us in to the cellar where her lovely daughter Sara took over and showed us around. We saw the cellars and learned about their history from the 15th century, and how the Bocci family took them over and has been successfully making wine since Sara’s grandfather bought the place. Lunch was in the cellar, with Alessandro, Rita and Sara all at the table with us, starting with a plate of delicious pasta made from the last of the fresh tomatoes in the garden. Then plate after plate was passed around the table, including prosciutto, soprasetta, porchetta, pecorino cheese, parmeggiano cheese, bread, bruschettas and toppings, and their 2-day old olive oil that was as green as the olives that were pressed to make it! So fresh and delicious, and we passed the bottles of wine around and we all enjoyed another fabulous family meal. Sara and I had been emailing and plotting for Mark’s birthday and she had told me not to worry, she would take care of everything. After a break from the food we asked everyone to sit down at the table again, they shut out the lights and she brought out a beautiful cake with a candle in and we all sang Happy Birthday. The cake had the words ‘Buon Cumpleano’ spelled out on it and she had done it by adding flour to stiffen the cake batter! It looked like cookies had been baked on top into letters… it was so neat! I got some pictures that we will post and you can see how special she made it for him.

Finally after long farewells and promises to see each other soon (Alessandro and Rita are hoping to come visit again in January, so watch for that announcement!) we tore ourselves away for the 2 hour drive back. A few of us snoozed on the road and then at sunset we arrived at the farm of Giovanni Pucci and his family. Signore Pucci is a farmer who raises the beef cattle of Tuscany, the white Chianina cows. He is a breeding farmer and is highly awarded in his field for his successes. They are humble farmers who invite us to their home to see what they do for a living, all because of the relationship that Doumina has cultivated with them. We need an interpreter for this one because they do not speak any English, as they have no interactions with outsiders normally. It is difficult to see how these cows, much cherished for the tenderness of their meat, are held in the barn (sunlight and exercise make the meat tough) for their lives, and yet the farmer and his wife have so much respect for these cows as the only way they know to make a living. I still think it is important to know where our food comes from, and if I have difficulty with the practices yet I make the choice to acknowledge it and still eat the food that is produced, I am doing this in an educated manner. I am not blindly eating mass produced food and I am proud of that. I choose to eat differently, and to feed you well with this knowledge and love, and it all seems to work out the best for me when I do this. Everyone gets to make her own choice and that is what life is all about!

So anyway, enough of my soap box, it was again an honor to be shown around this private family farm and I don’t know how long we will be able to do this. The Puccis are aging and no one in their family wants to take over the business, so it may not be around for many more years. Or if it is, whoever takes it over may not welcome us as warmly as they have. We have been so lucky to have time with them and I count my blessings for any more visits that we may have. We got back to Parco Fiorito with about a half an hour to freshen up for dinner. None of us were particularly famished, but it is Mark’s birthday and he wanted pizza, so we arranged for a group dinner at Canta Napoli, a great local restaurant owned by some people from Naples, and they do only Napolitano food. They have the freshest seafood around, and the prices can’t be beat. Mark decided we would share an artichoke/tomato/mozzarella pizza and spaghetti with clams (it IS his birthday!), we shared a bottle of wine, and desserts, for 32 euro! Total! And it was FABULOUS! We didn’t eat it all and we were stuffed to the gills, but we had lots of fun. Our friend Corrine, who works at Parco Fiorito (and visited us at the cafe last February)joined us, and so did Doumina, so there were 11 of us together. It was light and relaxed and everyone was talking and laughing and we had a great night.

One of the fellows on the tour has a unique instrument that is a cross between a banjo and a ukulele. I think it is called something like a ‘Banjute’, but I keep messing it up and calling it a ‘banjulele’, which seems to fit just fine. Roger brought it along tonight and he played old songs while we all sang along (Henry the 8th, Goodnight Irene, Down in the Valley, and so on…) and he played some silly songs that we didn’t know, and just entertained the heck out of us. He has brought it along a couple of times now and he is a kick and half! His daughter has grown up with this and knows all the words to all the songs and together they are the loveliest pair! We have thoroughly enjoyed them and I hope they come out to the cafe for one of our parties so you can be charmed by them a we all have been.

Again my connection is not good enough to call tonight (it is as windy as Kansas tonight!) so I will bid you all farewell and will post again tomorrow. Have a lovely Tuesday, I know we did!

Ciao for now!