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Italy, Wednesday October 7, 1930–9 hours ahead of PDT

Happy Birthday Aunt Susie! We could not get online last night to call you and so we are a day late, but we love you and wish you a wonderful birthday nonetheless.

We are here at Parco Fiorito and today is the first day of our official tour. We arrived yesterday by train and what a wonderful surprise, Roberto met us at the station to pick us up! Mom, dad, Mark and I are not staying at the 16th century convent-turned-agriturismo proper, we are atDoumina’s rental house just a 10 minute walk away. We slept so much better last night as the cacophony of the city was replaced with the quiet sounds of the country. Much better! Roosters and dogs we are used to! As the other guests began to arrive we greeted them with wine and everyone began to relax into the pace of this lovely setting. There were only 12 of us last night for dinner and Roberto & Giacomo knocked our socks off with the fabulous 4 course meal.

Roberto brought out some bread fresh from the oven to tease our palates and it worked! As we were seated around the table and enjoying the ambiance of the candle-lit table they started bringing out the first course. Lightly fried, as in tempura light, carrots, eggplant, and zucchini. The crust was crisp and light, the veggies were ‘al dente’ and fresh. There was a salty bite that enhanced the sweet vegetables perfectly. The pasta course highlighted Roberto’s ragu, which is a recipe from his Neopolitan mother. The artisan pasta was tube-shaped, about 2 inches long, and ridged around the outside to hold the sauce. Fresh tomatoes, bites of pork, fresh herbs… the sauce was a taste of Tuscany.

The third course, or ‘secondi’, or the meat course, was Polpetti. Meatballs made from the pork that is raised on this farm, mixed with bread crumbs, some lemon zest, some sage… OH. MY. GOODNESS. They were lovingly tossed in a marinara and these little morsels were the most tender, lovely meatballs ever to exist in the history of meatballs. The recipe is old, and the story goes that the young couple who had just married would go to visit the groom’s mother. The mother-in-law would make these meatballs and set them outside the door to be there upon the new bride’s arrival. The bride would have to decide what to do and if she chose to eat the meatballs and enter the mother-in-law’s house, she was signalling that she recognized that she was second fiddle, and the mother-in-law was in charge. In this way she knew always that she must defer decisions to the mother of her husband and she could not change her mind later. This was a different time, to be sure.

The final course was a simple and elegant dessert. A small ‘cake’ of fresh ricotta cheese, next to a pear poached in honey and cinnamon, and all was drizzled with the honey collected here on the farm. The juxtaposition of the cold, creamy cheese ‘cake’ against the warm, slightly rough poached pear was a wonderful feeling in my mouth. The sweetness of the honey was the perfect thing to round out the flavors on the plate and all of it taken together in one bite made eating dessert extra fun! I was stuffed at the end and we are glad we can walk back and forth from here to the house that we stay at.

Ok so I started writing this morning and we had to leave so we went out on our adventures and now we are back. So this post will be a double day post, how about that! We are getting ready for dinner and I am so hungry!!! We shall see how I do.

This morning the final guests arrived and Fabio chauffered us all in a big 20 passenger van. Doumina picked up the slack in the SUV, a couple of the more delicate ladies were made motion sick by the van, so they rode in the SUV. (Poor mom and Ann!) We headed for the walls of Cortona and were dropped at Piazza Garibaldi, where we could see wonderful territorial views of Umbria spread out below. We strolled up Via Nazionale to the best shop in town, ‘il Pozzo’. Doumina takes her guests here to give Ivan the well-deserved business. He greeted us with glasses of wine, fresh bread and both tomato and chicken liver pate to choose to top it. We learned a bit about the history of the city and how the geography has changed over the years. The shop is filled with beautiful, hand made paper, ink pens, stationary, beautifully framed photos and maps, and many other things. When you make a purchase the clerk will ask if it is a gift and when you say yes she wraps your package and makes it look like a work of art.

Soon our illustrious guide for the day, Giovanni, joined our group and began his rapid-fire style of talking and teaching us about the city we were visiting. Giovanni is filled with information about his beloved city and we could spend days with him and never retain half of it, but it is really fun to try. The architecture, the churches, the culture and traditions are all things we learn about and Giovanni’s fun, almost irreverent style is a pleasure to be around.

We hoofed it up and down and all around the city, then back on to the bus to see more. To the top of the hill and back, we toured a basilica, a cathedral, saw works of art, and then down to the first hermitage that St Francis created (before he was a saint, of course), Le Celle. It is so beautiful there, still a functioning hermitage, though with just a handful of monks as opposed to the hundreds who lived there centuries ago. I won’t bore you with all the wonderful details, if you want to know more about Cortona you can join us on our trip next year and love it for yourself!

Fabio then drove us to the site of Etruscan ruins just outside the city. Older than anything most of us have ever seen, it is amazing to see the work of restoration that is an ongoing project on this site. Giovanni filled us with as much education as he could and then bid us ‘arrivaderci’ as we proceeded to our next stop.

We were running late of course, so much to see and marvel at! We went down to the olive oil pressing mill and got a tour of the old style mill that is not functioning for the season quite yet. In another 3 weeks it will be filled with olives and workers; farmers will drop off their olives at the back door and pick up their oil at the front. The stones will be turning, the mats will be pressing and the fabulous green liquid gold will pour from the spouts. It will run for about a month and then be quiet again until next season. Last time I was here at the right time to see it and I am seriously considering changing next year’s dates so that we can be again. It was worth it and we get to taste the fresh oil instead of last year’s crop. While that is still wonderful, it is not the same.

On we moved to the farm of Giovanni Pucci and his family. They raise the white cow of Tuscany, the Chianina, for breeding stock. These cows are over a ton each and all white… big, brawny girls and boys, whose job it is to bring home awards and prizes for their strong lineage. This family does not speak English; they are not accustomed to having tourists or other guests on their farm. Only Doumina, who has forged wonderful relationships with the people of this region, gets to bring visitors in to have a glimpse of this simple and proud life.

By the way, for those of you who know Joyce Merkel, we got a picture of her inside the barn next to a cow. She even touched the cow’s nose! We were proud of our city girl!! Now we are all relaxing and getting ready for a dinner of the Bistecca ala Fiorentino– call it a meet and eat! The 4.5 lb steaks are resting near the man-sized fire place where they will be grilled rare and served in slices for each of us to taste. What an amazing experience!

So that is ciao for now… for now we chow.