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Italy, Saturday October 10, 1 pm-9 hours ahead of PDT

Happy Birthday Niki!! I hope you have a wonderful time celebrating your fabulous self! We will be toasting you at dinner tonight.

Yesterday we learned to make cheese! We traveled back into the walls of Cortona, up a very steep hill (it is a hill town, after all) and into the beautiful cave-like restaurant of Romano, Agostina and Francesca Magi,“La Bucaccia”. This is my favorite family in Cortona: exceedingly generous and gracious hosts. Romano is so endearing as he teaches us the beauty and simplicity in making ricotta and mozzarella out of fresh (milked at 4 am before the class) cow’s and sheep’s milk. It really is easy to do once you have the temperatures mastered and if you can get fresh, raw milk. Agostina is a top caliber chef and their 12 year old daughter Francesca is one month away from becoming a certified sommelier! Now THAT is impressive!

Romano had his newest employee, Marta, translate for him, for he does not feel his English is up to par. Of course, he speaks English well, he is simply more comfortable in Italian. Young Marta, though shy at first, quickly warmed to our silly group and helped us all to understand the intricacies of what we were watching, and at times participating in. Romano talked about the importance of FRESH milk, and all other ingredients being of the highest quality. It was really fun to see the transformation from simple milk to the most wonderful tasting cheese. He had some aged samples for us to taste as well as the fresh cheeses that we made, and he treated us to wine with lunch as well. After lunch he poured us his reserve Vin Santo, from 1977, and it was the best I have ever had. Agostina stays mostly in la cucina, being more comfortable cooking than teaching. As we were enjoying the time with them we realized we wanted to come back for dinner, and 12 of us made reservations to dine with them last evening. What a fantastic decision that was!

As we begin to leave after lunch Romano poured us grappa and probably would have kept serving us until dinner, had we stayed! Some folks chose to stay in town, and some returned to Parco Fiorito for resting and restoring. Fabio, the most wonderful chauffeur in the world, returned at 5 for anyone wanting to go back into town, and to pick up those who had stayed. He then took 12 of us back at 7 for dinner, and waited so patiently for us to arrive a half an hour late for him to take us home! Doumina has forged some wonderful relationships that make her tours extra special, and Fabio is no small part of that.

When we got back mom, dad and Mark went to the villa to rest, and I came up to the convent to work a bit. Between answering emails, checking in with the cafe, updating the web site and paying bills, Giacomo was teaching me to make paste e fagiole, something I have wanted to learn for some time now. I definitely had some things wrong with how I thought it was done! He also went over a couple of other recipes with me… he is truly an accomplished chef. Self taught (and having learned from Roberto and other peers) and true to his culture and region, he patiently answers my questions and shows me things that I could never learn from a formal class. I am so blessed to be here and learning this way!

For dinner we put ourselves in the hands of the Magi family, and sat with anticipation! The first course, or antipasti, was an assortment of their house-cured pork: proscuitto, soprasetta, salame, and other salumi, so typical of the Tuscan region. The wine that they chose for us enhanced the meats perfectly! There were a couple of vegetarians in our group and their plates were so beautifully and thoughtfully prepared that I wished we had gotten one of each. There was really too much for one person on each plate and it would have been easy to share it all.

The primi piatti, in this case a pasta course, was so outstanding I could have cried. The first of the trio of pastas (each of them hand made by Agostina) was freshly foraged porcini mushrooms on a delicate pasta that was similar to fettucine, but thinner and more heavenly. The flavors and textures were straight from the angels and it is hard to believe that a mere mortal made this dish. Mark, who always says he does not like mushrooms, said this was his favorite of the three pastas. I said nothing except ‘mmmmm’ and ‘oh my God’ and ‘oooohhhh’.

The second pasta (these are very small portions, quite perfect because they fill you up and still leave you wanting more) was a delightfully pillowy ravioli stuffed with fresh spinach and their fluffy, fresh ricotta. It was very lighty topped with a style of ragu and it melted in our mouths.

The third pasta had a spicy bite from paprika. It was a more dense pasta, that had the shape of earth worms, but was far more tender and tasted way better than worms, I am certain. It was rather rustic, as compared to the other two more refined pastas, and the porky sauce was a complimentary condiment, as opposed to being heavy and soupy. Again, I find myself lacking in adjectives for this amazing taste experience. I could not tell you which was my favorite pasta: each was very different and served a separate purpose. Each was unique and perfect and lovely and they could all be my favorite at different moments.

The wine glasses kept getting filled and soon it was time for the secondi, or meat course. The best tasting, most tender beef I have perhaps ever had. We cut it with a butter knife! It was cooked so perfectly that again, I am not sure she is human. The beef was clearly of the best quality, natural and grass-fed, and it was perfectly seasoned. The slices of the Chianina beef left wonderful drippings on our plates that we happily sopped up with the perfectly roasted potatoes that accompanied the meat. Mom and I do not eat beef and we both ate this!

When there was nothing left they brought dessert. A cake type dessert that I still do not know what it was. There was some chocolate, and some orange liqueur flavor… it was small and really good. Just when we thought we were done Francesca placed a couple of glasses of tiramisu on our table! Two to share amongst the four of us and it was heavenly! Light and flavorful and fabulous! We were contemplating staying the night when Romano brought out a ‘loaf’ of cantucci! This is the first cooking of biscotti (literally: twice cooked) when you form the dough into a ‘loaf’ and bake it. Then you slice it and if you serve it as such it is is ‘cantucci’ (cookies), or cantuccini if you cut it very small. It is biscotti if you then bake the individual cookies to crisp them up. So he brought the loaf of cantucci and sliced off a cookie for each of us and served it warm from the oven! HOLY CRAP!! This is the epitome of ‘service’!

Suddenly the group at the other table turned to me and told me that it was 9:45! We had promised to meet Fabio across town to go home at 9:30!! We still had to pay and a few were still eating. I jumped up and ran to the kitchen to thank Ago and kiss-kiss in the Italian way, and then mom and I ran across town to wait with Fabio and apologize for being so late. Fabio is of course so generous and sweet he said no problem no problem… but his wife called while we were waiting and I am sure she was annoyed with him being so late. We will have to make it up to them somehow! The group told me that Romano filled them with grappa before he let them leave (he had been pouring a sparkling dessert wine as I left and he is such a character, he poured some right into my mouth!) Mark told me that Romano did not charge us for any service! The meal was very reasonably priced and I will never be able to have enough words to say how wonderful this family, their food, and their restaurant experience is. I love them and want to move in with them!

Everyone else is in Assisi right now, learning about the most popular Catholic saint, St Francis. I awoke with a migraine and could not open my eyes or sit up without waves of nausea so I let them go without me. While I am glad I took care of myself this morning and beat the headache back, I can’t help but be wistful when I wonder what they are doing. I hope they all love the hill town and Duomo, I found it to be a magical place when I was there. I will encourage them to blog about the experience and share it with you. I know we are very remiss by not getting pictures posted on the blog. I admit that I cannot figure out how, and on top of that we have not had enough free time to load any pics onto the computer. I will try to get Mark to do that and at least put them on Kodak or Facebook for you to see. Not all of them of course, but some great ones that show some of the things I have been talking about.

I will begin helping to set up service for 30 people tonight. When the group returns we will have a pasta making demonstration to learn to make picci. (pee-chee.) Then at 8 we will have our final dinner here at Parco Fiorito, Antonio Sanguineti of Small Vineyards will give us a wine tasting to match Roberto’s wonderful meal, and we will roll off to bed for our last night before we head to the Maremma. Off for more adventures and food and wine. We are so lucky!!!!

Ciao for now,