Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wine in Italy

On my first trip to a grocery store in Ljubljana I stood in front of the wine, pleasantly surprised at all that was available, and for so cheap!! The cheapest was about 1.95 Euros, or about $3.50 CDN. The display, in a small grocery store, was about 12' in length (4 mtrs). Thinking back on that I laugh, as that store couldn't hold a candle to what I later saw in Italy and France!!

The picture below is from a large grocery store. Please note that I was not able to capture the entire length of aisle of wine and that there was another row facing this one. On the left is Kent choosing his dessert wine to serve with the biscotti.

Claudia, who was in charge of our rental, told me that wine with a rooster on the label around the neck, was supposed to be of higher quality, but she wasn't convinced this was always so. I had tried one bottle of Italian wine already and was quite shocked at how dry is was (you could interpret that as a negative) so I asked Claudia how I could find a wine that was nice for drinking before dinner. She said I needed an aperitif wine and she helped me find one that was not too much like vinegar. But that was the last time I found a pleasant wine in Italy. Even though I picked up a number of different bottles of Chianti with roosters on the label, I just couldn't enjoy them. Perhaps if I tried a 30 Euro bottle I might like it, but I think that Chianti is just not my kind of wine.

I have made Amarone from a kit here at home and was looking forward to trying the real thing in Italy. However at 17 (or was it 19) Euros a bottle, that experience was not to be had.

Doing some research into wine before I went to Italy I was surprised to find that there is a great deal of white wine produced there. While I generally prefer red wine, when Rory suggested that we give an Italian Pinot Grigio a try I agreed. To my very pleasant surprise it was not dry. So I guess I should just have stuck to whites.

Liana with a monster bottle of cheap wine, (once again displaying my talent for snapping the shutter at a bad time).

Liana's favourite wine is Barbera, a red made in the north-west of Italy. I lugged a bottle of it from Slovenia and it too was pretty dry. When Liana saw Barbera on the shelves in Tuscany she just had to have some. However it turned out to be bubbly. I think we unintentionally ended up with bubbly wine two or three times!

Evidently so much of of the wine that is produced in Italy is consumed within the country they don't have much left to export!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Close to Our Tuscan Home

Our rental was in the province of Tuscany, but in the mountainous north of Tuscany, without any of the views that one normally associates with Tuscany.

Some building in the nearby town of Camaiore. See the light coloured dots on the mountainside in the background? That is the tiny cluster of houses that is Buchignano, where our rental was.

It was a steady uphill climb from Camaiore to our little villa. The last 1.7km was on a one lane road with tight corners. In fact the corners were blind, so that cars honked their horns when approaching a corner, to give notice that they were coming. If you met a car, one had to back up and/or pull over. The amazing thing was that this was always accomplished quickly and relatively easily, without anyone getting angry. I seem to associate Italy with impatient drivers but we saw quite the opposite. Perhaps this was due to the relatively quiet area we were in.

A very blind corner! The road was paved only about 10 yrs ago.

This old Citroen was alongside the road.

And this plant with so many interesting colours. I have no idea what it is, nor if the berries are edible. Can anyone tell me?

One of our dinners. With my inability to take a photo where everyone looks at least normal, I feel that I had better not show many of the pictures I took!

Our meals were often eaten in stages, so this table looks rather bare. Only the brie baked in filo shows there. Wait...weren't we in Italy? Why a French cheese baked in filo, which I think of as being Greek or Turkish? Ask Rory, it was his meal and he chose this. Actually, he wanted to have foods that were only available back in Roman times, so no tomatoes, corn, peppers....many of the foods we associate with Italy. But wait, cheese, butter and wheat were in that dish. Maybe it did apply.

Kent has a food blog and is showing pics of the meals at the International Blog of Food.

It was chestnut harvesting time in Italy and the hills around our rental were full of chestnut trees growing wild.

At first I tried to open a green casing (see the green one on the left), thinking that the chestnut must be inside. You can't imagine how unpleasant a task it is to try to deal with one of those prickly things. But after finally getting one open I realized that the green ones were a waste of time. Simply wait for the casing to mature and open and then the chestnuts will fall to the ground. Sheesh, its so simple when you know how....

I bought a small bag of chestnut flour, which was needed for one of the recipies for Kent's meal - biscotti made entirely from the flour. True to biscotti tradition, it was dipped in a liquid but in this case in was dessert wine called Vin Santo. Delicious!

In France I was given a bottle of an aperitif wine made from chestnuts. I am looking forward to trying it, but I am still in recovery mode from all the wine I consumed on my trip.

Olive harvesting time is November-December in this area. The olives must be black, as the one below, but by far the majority of the olives were still green in late September.

To prepare for harvesting netting is first strung between the trees like a rope, which is how it was in most olive orchards we saw. Closer to harvest time it is laid out on the ground as in the picture above. If you enlarge the picture you should be able to see the netting on the ground, though you have to look on the left side of the photo to see the contrast between the grey dirt and the dirt that looks red, but in fact has netting on it.

Once the olives turn black they are ready to harvest. Evidently there are 4 methods of harvesting, which vary from using a machine to shake the trees to simply letting the olives drop to the ground. Check out this website for further info regarding how it is done.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Area Around Our Rental

Our rental was up the mountainside, above Camaiore, a pleasant small town not far from the coast.  Here we are in the town and I am sure you must wonder why I would include such a boring picture. Well, we were hanging out there to check Gary's ITouch (a mini computer) to find out if Rory had received our message to bus up to us, rather than us going to the Pisa airport to pick him up. At this particular spot we could pick up free WiFi, so we hung out there for 3 days in a row, checking email. I am sure people must have wondered....

Can you see read the name on the road? It says Lance. Any of you the least bit familiar with the world of cycling will no doubt associate that name with Lance Armstrong. This stretch of road was on a long winding hill and Gary knew that a bike race had been held here. The Europeans are crazy about cycling, and showed it by painting names on the road. And of course Gary needed to get a picture of it.

Our contact for the rental lived here, with this phenomenal view all the way to the coast. Can you see the Autostrada below? The Italians have gone all out to build their freeways. I thought our province (BC) did a good job building roads, but we pale in comparison to Italy!! The country is very mountainous and with the mountains often coming right down to the water, they have long stretches of freeway (between Genoa and the French border) that is almost exclusively bridges and tunnels. If you enlarge the picture below you will see that the stretch of the Autostrada is actually a bridge.

Olive groves and villas.

A day a the beach at Viareggio, a tourist mecca. Unfortunately Italy closes down from about noon to 3 or 4 everyday. Getting a group of 5 to anyplace much before noon was a challenge. So we often wandered around empty towns. By the way, just in case you are wondering, Gary has a vest shielding his head from the sun. It was nice and warm there and most of us wished we had shorts to wear.

A row of hotels in Viareggio.

Sound interesting, but it was just a small shop full of vending machines.

Rory sampled an espresso from one of the machines. I seem to have a talent for catching my family at the worst possible moment. Rory actually declared the coffee to not be too bad, though you would certainly not think that from the photo. And as far as I know, Liana does not normally sit like that.

Gary told us about a ride he got in one of these cars (a Fiat) in the early 70's. All the way through Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany. I hope they got out to stretch often!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Family Reunion - Near Lucca in Tuscany, Italy

The main point of this trip to Europe was to have a family reunion. This was a rare opportunity to get the entire family together. Rory was starting many months of backpacking in Europe and further east; Liana is in London and may not be there much longer; Kent was available to come from Azerbaijan; and Gary was sufficiently recovered from his back operation to sit on an airplane long enough to get to Milan.

I decided I wanted to see Slovenia and accomplish a goal that I have had for many years, and that was to see the Lake Plitvice National Park (check out the blog post to see why). So I went about 10 days earlier than everyone else.

I found my flight by using Orbitz, and was able to fly Spokane-Venice return for $674, by booking in June. I could also have flown into Milan, Verona or Munich for the same price. Flying to Frankfurt, Paris or London was much more expensive.

Our reunion was held at a rental in northern Tuscany. I found the rental on a holiday rental website. By booking during the shoulder season, we were able to find a nice place, that slept 5, for just over $100CDN a night. I specifically looked for a place with a good kitchen as we planned to do a lot of cooking.

Kent requested a wood burning oven, and I was able to search for that on the above website. You can see more pictures of our rental here.

This is a picture of the kitchen, with marble countertops and sink, before the empty wine bottles began to accumulate....
These are bags of flour - 1kg only as big ones just weren't available. Note the bags labelled Manitoba.

Some bags are of flour specifically mixed for use in making pizza crust (the Farina Tipo 00), which is mainly soft wheat. It has much less gluten than hard wheat, which is the wheat used for bread. I much prefer the softer crust, and the crust is easier to make thin.

First you make a fire in the oven, well ahead of eating time. It must be reduced to hot coals, which are then pushed to the side, before it is ready for pizza. With plenty of flour on the underside of the pizza crust, you slide it onto a long paddle with an aluminum blade and then slide the pizza onto the base of the hot oven. Place the metal door in place, wait about 5 or so minutes, and take out a magnificent and tasty pizza! Kent had both the technique and the recipe mastered!! Best pizza ever!!

For more info about these oven, visit this amazing website: Forno Bravo. And if you decide to build or buy such an oven I would love to be invited over for pizza!
The white on top is buffalo mozzarella. Yes, its made from the milk of water buffalo. These animals produce a rich milk while eating low grade vegetation.

The cheese is very different from the firm, grateable mozzarella cheese we buy in Canadian stores. It is packed in water. Looks a little weird doesn't it? It melts beautifully. I wished I could have brought some home, but Customs regulations prohibit the import of cheese packed in liquid.

I was tempted to bring ricotta too, as it is far superior to that which we have available here, however I wasn't sure if it would be allowed.

However I was sure that Parmesan cheese would be allowed, so I did pick up quite a few packages of it, at a cost of one third of what we pay here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lucca, Italy

I flew with RyanAir from Zadar to Pisa for $38CDN for a one hour flight. Gotta love it! However if I were doing it again I might have opted for the boat across the Adriatic so that I could have stopped at the tiny country of San Marino, which looks like a nice place to spend a day. But the rest of the family would be starting to arrive the day after I got to Lucca, so I could not daly.

Shops selling food in the old part of Lucca had wonderful displays in their windows!

Get pizza, panini or pasta from a machine! This was in a residential area, close to my hostel.

What a shop!!

I visited an art exhibition and the artist was there. His name is Alessandro Casale,
and he is standing beside his favourite painting.

A piece of toilet apparatus that I could not figure out, so I just put it up, as if it were a lid.

Zagreb to Zadar, Croatia

I only spent a day at Lake Plitvice (pictures in the post below) and part of two other days in Croatia, as I had been there 35 years ago. There is a huge difference between Croatia and Slovenia. The latter was not involved in the war that resulted in the break up of Yugoslavia, hence they did not waste money on it. Croatia did and is definitely not as wealthy, yet the cost of living appears to be just as high as in Slovenia. In fact riding a bus cost much more. And there is plenty of garbage strewn about.

Slovenia is in the European Union and of the 8 countries that joined in 2004, it had the highest per capita income. Croatia is currently negotiating to join. From what I have been told in France, when the Euro came into effect there, the price of everything shot up (yes, France is definitely expensive, as is any country that has the Euro), so I can't imagine the hardship in Croatia if it adopts the Euro.

Euopean toilets are generally much more interesting than those in North America. Sometimes I couldn't find the flusher, but like magic, it flushed when I opened the door. The set-up above was common. Can you guess what the two circles indicate?

The bus station in Zagreb had some likeness to an airport. This huge egg was one of two that decorated the area I waited in. There was also a display case with Croatian wines, and a bottle of Slivovitza, which is made from the rotten prunes that I mentioned in the email.

This was my accomodation near Lake Plitvice Park, called House Katica Bicanic. I helped this lady with her chores, such as digging potatoes and pitting prunes. Her husband was away, as he is a professional bowler, but he did get home late in the evening and drove me to the entrance to the park the next morning. Staying here was a wonderful experience!

Here we are, pitting prunes, which were to be made into jam. We have already done as many as we could in the really big bucket. Once we got down to the rotten layer they were left to be made into Slivovitza (see instructions on how to make here, but I don't see in those instructions that you can use prunes with mold on them!). The white on the prunes on the right is sugar, not mold.

She used the jam (though it wasn't very sweet) for filling for strudel, which she sells at the entrance to Lake Plitvice Park (where she claims she is the #1 seller). Unfortunately I didn't get to sample any, as she was not making any for a few days.

Slivovitza is often made at home and is the national drink of the Balkans. Although other fruits are occasionally used, the finest slivovitz is made from completely ripe prunes.

As I was told here, "Slivovitza then coffee." Its alcohol content often exceeds 51 percent (102 proof), and believe me, it tasted like it did!

I was offered a couple of these. Nice beer. In the background is Lake Plitvice National Park. This part of Croatia gets a meter of snow in the winter, yet further inland, in Zagreb, they rarely see snow.

The bus station in Zadar, on the coast of Croatia. There were 33 platforms! Generally, the poorer the country, the more frequent the buses. Great for people who don't want to rent a car.

The friendly climate on the coast of the Adriatic allowed for a long growing season. This house used its front yard to grow as many vegies as they possibly could.

The outside of this store in the old part of Zadar was done, but they were working on the inside. I have no idea what it is to become.

The most unusual door I have ever seen.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere - Lake Plitvice, Croatia

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a series of 16 mostly small lakes, with waterfalls and streams connecting them. Hundreds of them.

From a sign at the Park:
"Plitvice Lakes are the results of the living world which inhabits them.

Once upon a time...there was a river in this karst valley.

Its clean and transparent waters offered life to many of the valley's inhabitants both planats and animals. Some of them decided to thank the river by making it even more beautiful.

The rain collected carbon dioxide when passing throught the ground and, thus created tons of carbonic acid, which dissolved the underground rocks. Water was enriched with dissolved calcium carbonate. Microscopic algae and bacteria came to live on the surface of the moss. Their mucus caught the crystals of calcite from the water. From the calcite sediment and fossilized algae and moss, the porous type of stone, travertine, is formed.

The large travertine barriers were thus formed, which slowed down the river and remodeled the valley. The lakes were born.

Even today, on the top of the barriers over which the waterfalls come down, in the the water that never stops flowing, live little travertine makers, the moss and the algae. Everyday they continue to create this phenomenon, which makes their river and lakes beautiful and famous throughout the world.

The process of travertine formation is at its peak in the summertime, and is slowed down by the presence of any quantity of organic matter by each pollution, even the simplest swim in the lake."

The lakes have a beautiful colour, ranging from azure to green, grey or blue. The colours change constantly depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight.

This picture is for a couple of fly-fishing fans I know. Fish lined the shores and were a never-ending source of fascination for the scores of tourists who visit this park everyday (700,000 a year).

The water that is on an angle is flowing out of a hole.

Items under the water also become calcified.

I guess I did not travel on the path that would have allowed me to take the picture seen below, so I have borrowed it from Wikipedia (I hope that is okay). It does a good job of showing the walkways and how the water spills out from the small lakes. I suggest you enlarge it for a better view.