Monday, June 27, 2011

The Italian Word for "Pause": Strawberries and Cream

A note from the start…I’ve been waiting. Waiting to say so much because it felt like I’d never have the time to do it. It’s not the first time I’ve done this but, as happened before, just because I’m not writing about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It’s been an adventurous couple of months. Marked by more travel than I’ve ever done so close together. By the end of June, it will be 18 airplanes, 7 cities and three places I’d never been before (Austin, Asheville and Oklahoma). 19,710 miles all told. Most of those miles garnered on an Italian vacation with my family in which I felt a million miles away from anything but was in fact only 2% of that.

Vacation sounds pretty Griswoldian. Not bad (and not always inaccurate) but not the best word. 2011 by definition seems to move about a mile a minute and several fast-paced projects have had me rotating at an occasionally brutal clip. I love it but eventually I needed a break. It couldn’t have been timed any better. So yes, it was a vacation. But more than that, it was a rosemary-scented, sun drenched, mossy tile roof-topped, highly tannic, golden garlicky pause. To the tune of rolling bouts of laughter as only your immediate family can provide. I start with this picture because it’s the view from my bedroom window that week, taken very, very early in the morning. It is the beginning.

My parents rented a house on a working vineyard in a tiny town called Pianella, 20 minutes outside of Siena. It was a grand old farmhouse that had been lovingly kept seemingly for the full 500 years it’s graced the crest of a characteristically Tuscan hilltop. The trip in was pleasantly uneventful. Feeling the need to always dress in character (casually posh European jet setter, natch), I arrived in Florence wearing red suede heels and a favorite straw hat though in the 12 hours of travel post-Chicago, the person between those two items was rumpled and dazed with a bit of melted chocolate on her white button-down. I’d been re energized by a sparkling conversation with a retired Stanford Physics professor on my way in from Munich. Then the entire family met me at the airport (Dad, Mom, Brother, Aunt and Uncle) so that level of enthusiasm just about counts for an extra couple hours of sleep.

Day 1: Rain, sleep and a bath with perhaps the prettiest view in the house from the tub. It was the only real rain we had the whole trip and it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on the rest I’d been missing while being unapologetically immersed in a new book. Various family members tried their hands at making coffee from the French press and the fridge had been stocked with various meats, cheeses and fruit prior to our arrival (a girl could get used to this). As had the wine closet. With the windows open, all those rich, related smells of coffee and bath steam, ripe pears and rain on dark soil, fresh pages and a juice glass of Chianti (because we couldn’t find the wine glasses) made it easy to imagine never going home.

Oh yes, for those of you new to TKTC, the toothy foursome first pictured here would be my true, nuclear north. My friend Danielle made note when I was first back that I am, at 5’9, a shortie in my family. We all drank tall glasses of milk with dinner (or at least that was what my Dad attributed it to growing up). I like that none of us can quite believe our luck here.

Day 2: A different day entirely. I was up with the sun to snag the second shot above and it was one of about 10 I took, not quite believing it to be real. Along with Mom, Aunt Pat (Mom’s sister as will become rapidly apparent to you, the reader, when you seem them in photos together) and Uncle Bill (Pat’s husband and the co-chairman of I Married a Kirwan Anonymous) and I struck out early toward Cortona, nestled on something more akin to a mountain than one of the rolling hills in our bit of countryside. We toured a museum, had some lunch and I slowly started to get that familiar feeling of insignificance whenever I’m in Europe. Everything is so much older. That town was settled and civilized 1,000 years ago.

From there we drove to meet my Dad and brother in Montepulciano. I’d been there for the first time in 2005 on an exquisite post-college adventure with the one and only Molly McGuffin and was excited to be able to go back with family. We tracked down some Brunello to fortify ourselves for the trek uphill to the main piazza and were again rewarded at the top, not just with wine but with a view that was quite simply the most remarkable set of views in the entire region.

Alright maybe I’m exaggerating but if I am it’s only because there are so many views to choose from so until I see all of them, it would be impossible to properly judge. I agree with you, I should really start committing myself to seeing every vista in Tuscany. It would be irresponsible not quit now.

Brother greeting the sun in Montepulciano. Poor Boston had it worse than Chicago last winter and he was locked away with some intense projects for what Spring Beantown did have. We both showed up looking a little sallow so every uninterrupted sunbeam in Italy was gulped from a crystal cup. This picture reminds me both of the Rapture and of Twilight. I’ve made peace with that.

You guys know how much I adore brother dearest. I will likely tell you again but right before we arrived in Italy, Brother found out he'd be moving to Chicago in August for grad school. First time in 10 years that we'll live in the same city and I'm a big ball of joy for it. Tack that bit of awesomeness onto Dad's retirement, parent's 30th anniversary, aunt and uncle's 40th...keep the wine opener out and maybe buy a spare.

The rest of the afternoon was spent tooling around town, Brother and I sharing my Dad’s old D100 and my humble point and shoot (the family mantra is “Langsens share” after all). We even managed a short, wonderful stop at Susanna Crociani’s cantina. She’d introduced herself via Twitter prior to my trip and I was so pleased to find her there when we were in town. I walked out with a few beautiful bottles, my favorites being the one she made for her brother George and her “experiment”…a sweet, almondine VinSanto. This made it's way into the first of a few Italian kitchen concoctions I've brought home to keep. More on that later.

Onward to Florence. This is where I can be fully judged. I was maybe dragging my heels a bit Tuesday morning. I’d been to Florence and have a sadly notorious lack of patience when it comes to churches and museums. Small galleries? One after the other after another. But I’m not crazy about crowds, particularly on vacation. I want to be where no one else is. I like the find. I like the local joints. This occasionally leads me to forsaken alleys and mild food poisoning but at least there’s a story there.

Alas, this was the view that greeted us at the top of the driveway that morning (36 cypress trees per side, Aunt Pat counted). You don’t come across a view like that without wanting plow toward it, Manifest Destiny intact. So I gathered my angst and slept most of the way there, covered in crumbs from my Italian breakfast sandwich special (crusty bread spread with Gorgonzola, pears, prosciutto, greens and a dab of jam). To the city we go.

I was wrong in my hesitation. You told me so. Moreso, Mom could have told me so but she has too much grace to actually say it if I am properly abashed. We had a guide for the Uffizi who told all kinds of stories about the Medicis and the art their empire inspired. Even in packed galleries, in unwise shoes (“but I want to look Itaaalian,” said the 14 year old Jessi who follows me on all family vacations), it was fascinating. I was still craving some solo adventuring by the end of it but how fantastic are the photos my brother caught of us with our guide at the end?

The main place in Florence that didn’t exist to me when I was there many moons ago was Santa Maria Novella. The apothecary, named for the beautiful church and piazza above, produces gorgeous scents and it’s a bit of a mecca for fans of fancy lotions and potions. Hundreds of years old, produced by a monastery and a singular luxury I found when I was in no position to have any luxuries. When I moved to Wicked Park, I smelled their potpourri in a shop and fell for it so intensely that I tracked it down at LAFCO in New York. It’s strong but I love it and a little bit goes a long way. So I’ve been using it in my apartment since and I was thrilled to pick up two little packages straight from the source. I managed a few other goodies too. I think I’d have bought magic beans from them if they left me in there long enough. Even Garance loves it.

On the way to meet the rest of the family, I picked up some pistachio gelato using the two full phrases I know in Italian and the man with the scoop spoke Italian back to me, winked and then continued in Italian. As though we were in on some charming little joke I’ll never know the punchline to. I’m good with that. Si si si (wink back)- Buon giouornato! And off I went. Joy in heart.

It was a lovely day but a particularly exhausting one. In Italy for three full days and jumping headfirst into meat, cheese and pasta almost exclusively makes one especially wan and in need of a home kitchen’s sustenance. On the drive home it was decided this would be a good night for dinner in. We stopped at home to drop off the menfolk and Mom, Pat and I rolled down to the tiny market in Pianella. Beyond a rather hilarious driving mishap in which we couldn't figure out how to get the stick shift into reverse and thus pushed the car into a forward facing position while it neutral, dinner was easy, simple fare.

Roasted asparagus with orange zest and olive oil made on the same land we were living on. Fresh farm eggs scrambled and slow cooked with tomato, herbs and prosciutto and a fresh green salad with vinaigrette shaken in an empty olive jar.

But we had dessert too, of course. A team effort that made everything taste even a little bit better.

Photo by Dad, styled by Brother. I was still finishing dinner so the guys took the tray out to the patio to ensure I'd having blog photos. There is nothing about any of this that doesn't make me smile.

Strawberries and Cream Parfaits
1 quart fresh strawberries as red and ripe as you can get them
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 box/package of light crispy cookies (we had yogurt cookies on hand but crisp ladyfingers or even vanilla wafers would work)
3/4 cup Vinsanto or good Sherry
1 Tablespoon sugar

1.) Slice your strawberries into a bowl and toss with 1/2 cup of your Vinsanto, cover for at least 20 minutes.

2.) Load your cookies into a zip top plastic bag and beat them to manageable, uniform bits. Including the cookies was Aunt Pat's moment of genius. I think she meant to serve them on the side but that would require anything be beaten and why skip that part if you don't have to? Don't feel bad for the cookies, they recover beautifully.

3.) Whip your cream and when you start to get soft peaks, add the remaining 1/4 cup of your Vinsanto and your single Tablespoon of sugar. Keep beating until you've got a whipped cream that sits tall on a spoon.

4.) Put it together. Crumble in the bottom then the gorgeous cream, then the tipsy strawberries. Repeat. You see why we don't pity the cookies. Sandwiched between sweet wine-soaked summer berries and drunken, full fat Italian whipped cream. Cookies never had it so good.

5.) Throw them in the fridge until you're ready to serve. After about an hour the whipped cream and strawberry syrup will just be beginning to compromise the cookies. You'll have just the loveliest bunch of textures.

If an unexplained breeze passes under your spoon on your second bite and it smells ever so vaguely of lemons and cypress trees, take a deep breath and enjoy that perfectly Italian pause. Then fill up your spoon again.


GreenSug said...

This. Is. Intoxicating. Molto bene

jones said...

Grazie for sharing! What a trip! :)

TKTC said...

Jo- Thanks...though I think you set the bar on travel posts with Portland. I'm not much of an editor.

Joner- Thanks for reading my little Italian monster :)

Anonymous said...

eeee! i have been eagerly awaiting this post and it was oh-so-satisfying. I am glad you had the wonderful experience that you did. Love you!!

RebeccaC said...

How I DO love your writing. And your photos. And the little mental vacation I just took whilst reading this. Incidentally we had a similar incident with the reverse on our car while in Tuscany. In the words of the Italian gentlemen who explained their gear system to us "you have to squeezy squeezy." :)