Gnocchi made during a class at Spannochia

A Cooking Class at Spannocchia (part 2)

Towards the end of our garden tour, Carmen looks at her watch, exclaims we are running late and says it’s time for us to head to the kitchen. Promised a hands-on experience, we are excited to see what’s on the menu and roll up our sleeves. First we meet our teacher, Loredano, a bona fide Italian grandmother-type, who used to cook full-time at Spannocchia, but is now retired.

We soon discover that the kitchen is her home. She’s deft, brisk, in charge, a tad bossy, very chatty and hyper efficient. Loredano speaks only Italian and we listen to her via a translator, Arianna, who is one of a handful of interns at Spannochia. The entire building has a medieval, built of the ages (and stone) feel to it, and the kitchen is no exception.

kitchen sink at spannochia

In the center of the kitchen is a huge well-worn square marble work table, which we all gather around. To the left, a much-used commercial cooking range, and under the window, a beautiful shallow, yet huge kitchen sink. This too is made of marble, and sensibly, the water faucet is operated by foot pedals on the floor. Side note: it strikes me that in the U.S. we install Carrara and other marble surfaces in our kitchens and then try to keep them pristine, panicking when a splash of lemon etches the patina or red wine marks the surface. But I think we’re missing the point. They are meant to do a job: keep dough cool, offer a smooth work surface and last for centuries.

Back to Loredana’s kitchen.  While it looks like it produces a lot of food, it doesn’t have the militaristic order of many commercial kitchens. Used pots are placed on the floor, and the sink is quite full of dishes and vegetables – overall it feels busy but homey.  We examine the menus after donning aprons. It looks delicious and ambitious – it’s already 10.45am and I’m starving.

-    Crostone pere e gonzola (toasted bread with pear and gorgonzola cheese)

-    Gnocchi al pomodoro (gnocchi with tomato sauce)

-    Rotolo di petto di pollo (rolled, stuffed chicken breast)

-   Sformato di bietola (swiss chard “pie”)

-   Panna Cotta con le fragola (no explanation required – with strawberries) > Read more

gelato from Grom

10 Favorite Things To Do in Tuscany

Traveling from the U.S. to Italy often means scurrying around your destination, hungry to take it all in, but finding time, and possibly money, in limited supply. For one thing, the standard annual leave in the U.S. is a measly ten days. “That’s crazy!”  I hear those of you in Europe exclaim. Sad, but true. The other thing is that until recently – when the Euro dropped to around 1.19 to the dollar – the exchange rate has not been kind.

No matter, there are still ways to get around and in our case, get a great taste of Tuscany.

To get around we rented a car – it wasn’t too expensive – around $200 for seven days, and while I was dreaming of a little Fiat 500, we got a zippy Alfa Romeo instead, which did well on the freeways. Incidentally, I am a big fan of paying tolls to use the freeway. They’re well maintained, not too crowded, and take you mostly directly to where you want to go. We covered a lot of kilometers during our trip – relying pretty heavily on Google maps to find out location. The one thing that isn’t cheap is US carrier data roaming fees. No matter, here are my favorite things to do and places to visit:

1)   Take a cooking class on a farm

We saw a cooking class taking place inside the main food market in Florence – all gleaming stainless steel and uniforms – but what appealed far more, was visiting an organic farm and cooking in its historic kitchen. We went to Spannocchia, just outside of Siena. The class starts at 9am with a tour of the gorgeous terraced vegetable gardens before heading to the kitchen to cook. The group of around 8 eats the meal prepared – a lovely lunch with wine. Tutte bene! Detailed write-up here. The price is 90 Euro per adult and half that for kids. Monkey came along and really enjoyed himself.

Gnocchi made during a class at Spannochia

Gnocchi made during a class at Spannochia

> Read more

the view

Spannocchia – A Tuscan Organic Farm

Tuscany in June, it turns out, is a mixed bag of weather. One minute it’s thundering and pouring rain, the next the sun is shining hot and bright.  Coming from California, where our farmers would dance a merry jig with multiple downpours, it’s interesting to hear a different point of view from the farmer in charge of the vegetable gardens at Spannocchia, a working organic farm and lodging not far from Siena.

Carmen, a beatific, expressive, salt of the earth type, who apologizes in perfect English for her lack of good English – really it’s excellente – is touring us through the areas she farms at Spannochia before we take a cooking class in the kitchen where we’ll prepare a typical Tuscan meal. We gather on the grassy terrace lined with poplars, next to the gorgeous stone manor house.

In front of us are huge terracotta pots, planted with limone trees where a few straggling lemons still cling to the branches. Behind us, a wonderful, lofty limonaia, with huge glass doors and high ceilings. This is where the lemon trees live in the winter –  it’s too cold for them to stay outside so they are hoisted with tractors and kept from freezing. In the summer, the space is dedicated to visiting art students. Whether you’re a lemon tree or an art student, it seems like a pretty awesome place to hang out.

gate and limone at spannochia

Our group, a friendly bunch who quickly reveal their knowledge of organic gardening—it’s clear if you find yourself at Spannochia, you have some kind of affinity for slow, real food—is guided by Carmen through a well-worn gate. “Please close the gate behind you!” she sings out. Apparently, there are all sorts of animals who roam around from cinghale – wild boar – to deer, who are only too happy to feast on the produce being grown in the terraced garden.

> Read more

City Kitchen

5 Favorite Food Finds in NYC

Landing in a city I’m unfamiliar with always feels like a food-oriented scavenger hunt to me. The challenge is how many clues can I glean from Facebook, Twitter, trusted friends and restaurant reviews, to unearth the gems that will give us special memories. Our recent trip to NYC yielded a few finds I want to share with you:

  1. The Fat Radish - living on the West coast, where so many of the buildings are new, relatively speaking, it’s easy to forget that buildings which are 150+ years old, bring their own charm and personality to the table. The Fat Radish is one of those fabulous New York dining experiences – painted white brick walls, rather long and narrow, with great art on the walls and a dimly lit interior, you immediately know you’re in for a unique experience. The meal starts with a fat radish, natch, and the menu is punctuated by locally-sourced produce prepared in an often unexpected way. Take for instance the monkfish green curry ($27) or the beet root crumble ($16). The banoffee pie for dessert was a blast from the past, although not made quite as I recall ($9). Back in the day, I spent many a long Sunday boiling an unopened can of condensed milk for hours, hoping it didn’t explode and longing for the rich dulce de leche to be revealed at the end of the day. I digress. Check out Fat Radish next time you’re in town.
  2. Empellón Taqueria – an upmarket take on Mexican cuisine, Taqueria satisfied everyone at our table with its fresh spin on  old favorites. Salsas were reinvented and updated to include a smoky cashew salsa which was so good we asked our waiter how we could make it at home. Cauliflower came with almonds and an almendrado dressing ($9). The sopes ($9) – open bite-sized dumplings made from corn with various fillings were satisfying – we liked the meat ones best. And the tacos, which range from $12-39 for 2-3, depending on the filling, couldn’t be a further cry from the sad little splats by the same name at Taco Bell. From Brussel sprouts with burnt jalapeño hummus, to chicken with black kale, crema and salsa, every single one was delish and gone in the blink of an eye. Highly recommended. Get thee down to the West Village stat. taqueria nyc > Read more

bellbookandcandle

Bell Book and Candle – Roof-to-table Dining in NYC

What is the point of travel, if it doesn’t offer the occasion to gather old friends and new around a heavily laden table?” said nobody ever, but they should have.  Our most recent trip to New York, presented us with the chance to renew friendships and forge new ones, while breaking mighty fine bread – mostly in the West Village. And one of our favorite dining experiences was at Bell, Book and Candle on West 10th.

A basement joint, BBC links together a series of rooms that almost feel like individual restaurants – from the brick cellar-like tavern up front to a modern, booth-filled back-room complete with skylights and big art.

Known for its “roof-to-table” cuisine – BBC boasts a roof-top organic garden (I can’t vouch for the produce being pollution-free). This is definitely a great place to eat with a group so you can try out as many items on the menu as possible. From burrata to beef, grilled lamp chops to grilled cheese, and oysters to onion soup, there is a dazzling array of dishes to choose from. Luckily, with six in our party, including two tweens with adventurous palates, we got to sample much of what was on offer.

The younger members of our party immediately ordered the crispy fried oysters with green chile buttermilk dressing ($12). The bright green purée was super fresh tasting and a nice balance to the saltiness of the oysters. The crispy roasted jalapeño deviled eggs ($8), crunchy yet creamy, drew oohs and aahs and quickly vanished. The soft warms rolls were served with a satisfying slab of ice-cold unsalted butter. (By the way, I truly believe that great quality butter tells you a lot about the chef’s attitude to selecting ingredients. After all, it’s typically the only unadulterated item on the table.)

creamy_burrata

The house-made burrata ($12), served with perfectly cooked acorn squash, made us remember what it was like to fall in love. It was so lusciously creamy, you just kept on wanting more and more… and more.  The drunken bean dip ($8) appeared to fall victim to a magician’s trick – it went so fast. The Brussel sprouts salad, a special for the evening, came with a clean, herby ricotta.  The only mild disappointment was the crisp pork belly and rooftop arugula ($12). I kept hoping to discover the crispy part and not finding it. Done right, pork belly is insanely rich, while being meaty, a tiny bit salty and having a satisfying crunch. This version didn’t quite hit the mark. > Read more

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