The Dining and Travel Adventures of a wandering Buddhist

Living in the culinary "now" with no attachment.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Driving in Sicily and/or Italy

I enjoyed the challenge of driving in Sicily.  The thought was a bit daunting but the reality was exciting.  A short description would be that it is simply controlled chaos.  However, as long as one shows no fear it can actually be fun.

An example of what I mean would be a time I spent observing an intersection in the afternoon.  Yes, in this situation I sat on a bench watching.  There would be no time for such observations if I were driving.  The nearby elementary school was releasing its children to their parents.  It was the time of day for an afternoon gelato and to have a chat.  Some businesses around the piazza were reopening and were taking deliveries.  The piazza I was observing was a roundabout or rotary with five entrances and no center dividing island.  The potential existed for some excitement.

At the beginning everything was quiet.  I sat in the shade and enjoyed the tranquility.  The perimeter of the piazza had a few cars parked at different angles but none were obstructed.  First, a delivery truck pulled into the piazza, blocking several cars.  The driver got out of the truck, opened the back and began to make his delivery.  A car pulled up behind the truck.  The driver of the car got out and went into a nearby store.  A car pulled into the middle of the piazza and parked.  A woman got out and walked to the nearby school.  Another car honked, then went around the parked car.  Another car parked in front of the woman's car but at a different angle.  The man got out and went into a bar (a coffee shop in Italy).  A man walked across the piazza, encountered a friend in the middle of the piazza.  They stopped for a chat.  In the meantime, several cars entered the piazza, weaved about and exited on one of the other streets.  The woman came with her child, got into her car and honked her horn.  The man who had parked behind her came out, after a couple of honks, and backed his car up enough for her to depart.  She pulled out in front of a car entering the piazza.  The third car stopped to let her enter traffic and then parked diagonally in her spot.  The woman got out and entered a grocery.  The man who had moved his car made some gesture to the woman and went back into a shop.  Another delivery truck arrived and parked in the middle of the piazza.  Now there was a large delivery truck and four cars parked at different angles in the middle of the piazza.  Around the piazza cars were parked two deep and there were several groups standing about chatting.  There was a narrow path for cars to move through the piazza and there was a continuous flow.  There was a bit of honking.  The events above occurred in around 15 minutes.  As I watched I wondered how this would unwind.

Half an hour later the piazza was virtually empty.  For a time there were cars moving in every direction.  It was like a well orchestrated symphony.  I guess that, because they did this every day and the drivers were probably the same each day, they all knew what to do.  The drivers were all considerate and courteous.  There were no accidents.  Noone was angry.  I sat in amazement but with a smile.  Now that the fun was over I went for a gelato.

Many times during my month of driving in Sicily I witness driving courtesy.  Only Palermo...did I get bumped by a man who entered an intersection too far (it was the habit to move one's car into an intersection further and further until someone stopped to allow your movement into traffic...generally, drivers just swerved around the intruding car...the guy I bumped came too far so I bumped him...he made a gesture but I just kept driving).

So, that's my driving story in Sicily.  You can show no fear but you must be courteous.  Don't look at other drivers but just keep moving forward for a little bump never hurt anyone.  I hope that the driver I bumped doesn't read this and track me down.  Safe driving and safe travels, S

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Style of Travel

I've now been traveling for just about a month around the island of Sicily.  One experience that I would like to share with you is a reflection of the traveling style that I have come to practice.  The event occurred after I'd been traveling for ten days or so.  The day began with a good but small breakfast in a nice, little hotel in Marsala.  On that specific day I had decided to head southeast to the small seaside city of Sciacca, which was well known for a specific type of dining experience.  Also, I had noticed that the drive to Sciacca had the possibility of seeing some beautiful scenery.  So, this is my story...and I'm sticking with it...

"The town of Mazara del Vallo was behind me.  I was on my way to Sciacca for a lovely lunch of Gamberoni con Conza.  There was plenty of time so I decided not to drive the faster strada statale but to follow back country roads.  A few kilometers beyond Campobello di Mazara I rounded a bend in the road, began up a small knoll and at the top of that knoll I came upon a lovely spot.  There, atop the hill, under a large olive tree, was a small stone bench.  I pulled the car into the shade of the tree and, with my bottle of water, I took a seat on the weathered bench.  The seat was very comfortable, gently carved by what may have been centuries of others sitting in this same spot.  The cool sea breeze was refreshing on this warm spring day.  I sipped my water.  My shoulders relaxed as I sank further into the bench.  I felt as though I could nap.  My eyes followed the undulating hills, covered with vineyards and dotted with groves of olive and almond trees, as they seem to roll into the turquoise sea just beyond.  There were occasional spots of bright pink oleander to give a certain color and depth to this beautiful sight.  I listened to the birds and watched them swirl about the clear blue sky.  I languished.  My mind did not wander but became fixed on the beauty of the many shades of nature but, mostly, it focussed on the deep turquoise of the sea.  Finally, I napped.  Hunger awoke me.  I sat up, looking about a bit longer but soon resumed my drive to Sciacca and food."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Thoughts on Sorrento, Amalfi, Capri

My entry into Sorrento was memorable for the city is couched in a very beautiful place.  The old city of Sorrento was very nice, much like many other cities in Italy, but distinguished by its place overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  However, as a result of the wondrous environment, this city might be a bit more crowded with tourists than most in Italy.  The surrounding expanse was similar to most every city in the world, overgrown, overcrowded and noisy.

The food in Sorrento was very good and will be discussed with each restaurant.  Dinner at the only Michelin starred restaurant (Il Buco) was very nice but the only place I revisited was L'Antico Trattoria. 

Driving the Amalfi Coast was astounding.  The coastline was so beautiful.  Trying to look at the steep marble cliffs dropping into the deep blue sea made it difficult to negotiate the narrow, curvy roads.  Couple the narrow roads with countless tour buses and one has the potential for serious driving adventure around each bend in the road.  The countryside was, even in late autumn, full and lush and green.  Orchards of olive trees and lemon trees were everywhere.  While the countryside was breathtaking, the villages were, if they were scenic, very overcrowded.  If the villages were not rustic and well maintained, which many were not, then there was no traffic and few tourists.  So, I concluded that taking a quick look at the beautiful spots was sufficient but for a coffee, I'd stop in a poorly kept village.  There were fewer tourist, better service and better coffee in the plain, out-of-the-way cafes.

My trip to Capri Island was, I'm sorry to overuse this word, breathtaking, too.  The ferry ride, while crowded and very noisy due to the utter excitement of the hordes traveling to this unique island, made a lovely cruise along the coast and then out to that most amazing place.  I must admit that I've seen few islands more beautiful.  Once again, the wonder has drawn many people.  They seemed to wander about in groups around the marina and in the city of Capri.  However, in the upper city of Anacapri, the congestion was much less and the overview was spectacular.  I really enjoyed strolling about Anacapri.  My mind was set to determine if this would be a good place for me to write my novel.  However, the tone was a bit off for me, so, despite its beauty, and a quite inspiring beauty I'm sure it would be, I don't believe this will be the place.  Perhaps next year's visit to Sicily will solve that riddle.

My conclusion regarding my week in the Amalfi area was that the time was well spent.  The beauty was memorable, I was very happy that I visited those places but it is not a place to which I will need to return for a few years…and I am not a young man.  So, it's off to the next adventure, Torino and the Salone del Gusto.

Il Buco, Sorrento

I had scouted the restaurant, the only Michelin starred place in town, and it seemed very unpretentious.  As I dressed for dinner I wondered if just a sweater would be correct but, finally, elected to wear a jacket.  As I was ushered into the lower climes of this deceptively beautiful place I was happy to be, at least somewhat, well dressed.

The lower dining area was elegant and subdued.  The service was attentive and friendly.  Before the menu arrive I was served a very large Campari with Prosecco.  Also, a serving of thinly sliced polenta with salumi, spiced tomatoes and dried tomatoes arrived.  I settled into the evening, watching and listening to my fellow diners.  However, in this place they were difficult to listen to because of the stone ceiling.  I relaxed.

The menu arrived as I was about halfway through my Campari.  It was quite large.  I perused.  The waiter watched and then returned.  I asked if I could have the wine list.  When it arrived I again perused.  After a time, my Campari finished, I signaled for the waiter, who had been waiting patiently.  We came to an Italian/American understanding.  We would speak Italian when I was capable and he would switch to his excellent English when I was above my level.  We both smiled and I showed him the wine I wanted, a 1999 La Spinetta Gallina, a Barbaresco.  He agreed that he would serve me those things that the chef was making this evening that matched my wine.  We nodded to each other, shook hands,he turned and was off.  I sat back.

I would not labor over the extensive details of this fine repast, for there were many servings.  There were Prawns and Calamari and Tuna and Lamb and Sea Bass.  Each serving was unique in taste and texture.  Each was beautifully presented.  Each serving was not presented until it was clear that I was prepared for that portion of the meal.  Each serving matched the soft, delicate wine very nicely.

However, there was one portion that has been frozen in my memory.  The Risotto with herbs, cubes of encrusted tuna, black truffles and a dollop of outstanding but very light ricotta cheese.  The risotto was tender and sweet.  The tuna,encrusted with caraway seeds, was firm on the outside but moist and tender on the inside.  I tried several combinations before I arrived at the one I enjoyed most.  That tasting involved cutting a small piece of tuna and combining it with a bit of black truffle.  I would allow that to rest in my mouth for a moment, until the truffle began to dissolve.  I would closely follow that with a fork full of the deeply rich risotto swirled in the light ricotta cheese.  A sip of the dark fruited wine was a perfect cap to each tasting.  The range of tastes and textures was vast, so vast that I cannot recall a greater range of single tasting.  I was very happy and, in the end, very full.

My dinner finished, I ordered a coffee with grappa.  The waiter took my order but asked if I would come with him.  He took me deeper into the caves and into the kitchen.  He explained that he wanted to introduce me to the people who had prepared my dinner and to the chef.  The chef and I had a nice chat about his combinations and how difficult it was to get the best ingredients.  It was a very nice gesture.  I returned to my coffee with grappa.  I drink it slowly and as I strolled out of this very fine restaurant the chef came again.  We shook hands and agreed to meet again for another dining experience.

Pictures of this meal appeared on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Capri and Hawaii

After my afternoon stroll I am relaxing before dinner.  Sitting on the sofa I begin to think about my day yesterday on the Isle of Capri.  It is a truly beautiful place and I begin to think of home.  I recall standing at the very top of the island and looking down at the village of Capri, sprawling around and above the very busy harbor.  I could see Sorrento in the hazy distance.  I moved to the other side of the mountain peak to consider the upper village of Anacapri spread about what appeared to be a mountain plateau.  Those two places looked like the only that would be suitable to make a village.  The remainder of the island was a series of stone plates jutting about in different directions.  I considered the violence which must have occurred, perhaps millions of years ago, to cause the earth's crust to rise up and form this now breathtaking place.

As I was riding the taxi up to Anacapri from the harbor and, hopefully away from the throngs of visitors, I noticed that much of the flora was just like Hawaii.  This must be a sub-tropical climate.  So, I was already thinking about this place and comparing it to home.  While on the top of Capri I began to consider the great difference in the very shapes of the islands.  In Hawaii, there were no such violent eruptions but just the slow, unforgiving flow of hot lava.  Rising from the same earth's crust that exploded here in Europe, over those same millions of years the inexorable flow of lava gradually formed the enormous mountains of which the Hawaiian Islands are comprised.  My revelation, while new to me, was certainly not new.  However, the two quite disparate beauties gave me pause.  It is interesting to, occasionally, consider the greater scope of "things."  I smiled as I recalled that "the miracle is not walking on water, the miracle is walking on earth."

I shall, of course, generally focus my attentions upon the simple vagaries of my pitiful life.  The "mana" of food and drink will continue to intrigue me, as will the eccentricities of the people I encounter.  However, from time to time my mind wanders to greater heights, but, I digress.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Departing Montepulciano

It was a sunny day but the air was brisk.  A fog hung over the valley below.  I packed the car and returned to the house for a bit of breakfast.  As I drank my coffee and munched on a piece of torte, I chatted with Lorella and her mother.  The men had already departed for work.  We agreed that our time together had been good.  I thought of last night.  Lorella had made a dinner of the dishes she knew I enjoyed.  We ate her excellent food and we laughed.  We drank good wine and we laughed.  We had extra servings of grappa after the dinner and we laughed.  They took me to see the apartment attached to their home that I could use next year.  It was a very nice evening and they were such lovely people, but, now I was leaving.  I hugged the ladies as I had hugged the men last night and I turned to begin my trip south.

As I rounded the city I passed the school.  My time there was very rewarding in many ways.  I thought of the teachers, Sara and Cinzia.  I looked forward to spending time with them each day.  They were so lovely and in such different ways.  Sara had a classic, haughty beauty, yet her eyes and her smile were warm and reassuring.  It was always a pleasure to catch her smile.  Cinzia was an elven beauty.  Her laugh and her smile were alive with an enthusiasm for life.  She had a twinkle in her eye and a spring in her voice.  It was such a pleasure to watch and to learn from them.

I thought of the students I had known.  We developed a camaraderie that, while probably transient, was very nice. It certainly had been a pleasure to share that time with each of them.  There was one to whom that I seemed to have been especially drawn, but that is another story, or, possibly, no story at all.  I had considered sharing the Japanese parable "I know that I have a limited amount of time in this life and I am happy that I have spent a portion of that time with you (them)" with the family and the teachers and some fellow students but elected not to share that thought.  However, that very succinctly reflected my feelings for them.

I drove south along now familiar country roads to the autostrada.  I sped along the autostrada past Orvieto and past the Spoleto turnoff.  I drove well east of Rome and on toward Naples.  Approaching that city the road narrowed from six to four lanes and the traffic increased.  I was required to drive through Naples to get to my destination, Sorrento.  The drive had become rather ugly.  There was much road construction and the part of the city through which I traveled was not pretty.  I was battling traffic and dodging road construction and trying not to miss a turn.  My focus was good as I pounded ahead.  Suddenly, something to the right caught my eye.  I glanced and, to my amazement, casted my eyes on a most beautiful sight.  Past the ugly buildings lay the quite lovely Bay of Naples.  I glanced when I could but traffic required a lot of focus.

Again, suddenly, I entered a series of tunnels.  Upon exiting an especially long portion of tunnel I  faced a formidable wall of stone on one side and the sea on the other.  I rounded a sharp bend in the road and there it was, Sorrento, perched on cliffs high above the sea, basking in the afternoon sun.  It was so beautiful from a distance.  I eventually reached the rather hectic city, fought briefly with her one-way streets and finally arrived at my hotel.  I was greeted, shown my room and I immediately planted myself on the balcony overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Bay of Naples.  My shoulders relaxed and I knew I was going to have a few very nice days.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Weekend near Siena

As a weekend getaway I wanted to spend time in Siena.  However, there were no hotels available in the central city so I elected to stay in a renovated monastery just 5 minutes from the central city.  As I drove to my weekend destination a weariness came over me.  One of my Italian teachers, the quite charming Sara, recommended a small trattoria in the village of Rapolano Terme for a luncheon stop.  It was just off of the autostrada so I ventured over to the only eating place in that small town.  I was late for lunch and I can say that they did not appear pleased to see me, but, they gave me a table and served me an excellent spaghetti with ragu accompanied by a very nice carafe of red wine.  I ate rather quickly but still enjoyed each bite.  Shortly I was on my way to what ended up being my retreat.

Deep in the countryside, overlooking Siena I found this walled enclave that was very charming.  I recalled reading that there was a spa.  Massage was on my mind.  However, no massage times were available.  Maybe a dip in the pool would be good.  However, the pool water, although heated, was quite cold.  So, I retreated to my room, poured a hot bath and prepared myself for dinner.  Also, I recall reading that this was one of the 100 best restaurants in the world.  Sure, I thought.  Every one's got a list.  We'll see.

At the appointed time I waltzed across the stone courtyard and into the anteroom of Ristorante Il Canto.  I was enveloped by elegant yet subtle classical music.  I was greeted by a beautifully charming but stoic staff.  I was escorted to my table in the smaller of two dining rooms.  This room had just four tables.  As it ended up, one table held a quite lovely French couple from Brittany, while another table held a very nice couple from northern California.  The fourth table was vacant.  As the evening progressed I talked with the couples and very much enjoyed their stories.

Almost immediately I was brought a sparkling wine, Malvasis Giorgio 2007,  along with a small serving tray of powdered pumpkin seeds, a slice of grilled onion and a fruit gelatin.  The serving was excellent finger food and the wine was refreshing.  Shortly the wine list was given to me (it was a rather thick book) and the matron of the dining appeared at my table with a very large menu.  She began in Italian but soon switch, first to French because she heard me talk to the French couple, then, finally to English.  I was sorry that I could not understand the Italian.  However, the menu explanation was too complex.  On the menu there must've been 200 items.  However, as I came to understand, while the menu was fixed, the items available changed every day, depending upon what products were available from the countryside.  So, I listened carefully and came up with the dinner that follows.

My wine was a 2004 Santo Stefano Barbaresco.  I love Barbarescos.  However, while the wine decanted, I was served a vegetable consomme with mussels.  The broth was very light but quite rich and the mussels were tender.  The taste was very nice with the refreshing sparkling wine.

Second came a most beautiful serving.  It was a raw egg yoke accompanied by small pieces of bacon, a cereal bread divided into small pieces, capers and a sweet mustard.  The items were presented separately and spread very nicely across the plate.  As I pierced the egg yoke it flowed into the bacon and the bread.  A bite was composed of a piece of soft bacon atop a piece of bread which was then dipped, first into the yoke and then into the sweet mustard.  The taste texture combination was outstanding.  Occasionally I would add a caper, which added a nice salty spice.  I was thinking that this will certainly be the highlight of this meal.  Little did I know what was in store for me.

I did not drink with the prior serving but now it was time to introduce the Barbaresco, which is an excellent, soft wine.  The next serving was a risotto with capers and olives and pine nuts.  Herein rested the most amazing part of this dinner.  My server, the lovely Elena, said that there would be pine nuts in the risotto.  However I saw no pine nuts.  But, two wafers had been placed atop the risotto.  As it turned out, those wafers were made from pine nuts and the wafers dissolved into the very warm risotto. I had never seen such a presentation and was quite awed by the mind that came up with the idea.  The risotto, which was made in water, not broth, was perfectly textured.  The taste combination of the olives and the capers was very nice, especially when combined with the pine nuts.  I lingered over this serving.

Next came a surprise serving.  The dish was a very rich cream of garlic soup covered with a layer of crystallized sugar.  It was a very nice surprise and an excellent taste/texture break from the risotto and leading to the meat course.

The third serving was another beautifully presented combination of perfectly prepared fillets of young deer (capriolo) with pane integrale, a bowl of pepper consomm√©, pieces of candied quince and pieces of  salted, sauteed porcini mushrooms.  It was a colorful plate.  There was the red of the meat, the orange of the quince and the deep brown of the mushrooms, all encased in the rich aroma of the consomm√©.  The process of enjoying this serving unfolded like this:  a small piece of meat was dipped into the rich broth, swirled and eaten.  After a moment, a small piece of sweet quince was enjoyed.  Lastly, a small piece of the earthy mushroom with its slightly salty taste was allowed to cap off this portion.  At the very end a sip of wine would prepare the pallet for the next tasting.  It was great fun and so enjoyable.  This meal was lasting a long time for it had been consumed very deliberately.

Now, for the final serving to help in finishing off the wine, there was an excellent selection of cheeses.  I enjoyed the aged sheep cheese, the soft goat cheese and a very nice bleu cheese.  Finally, the wine is finished, the cheeses have been enjoyed and I sipped a coffee.  I sat and reflected in amazement at the quality and surprises in this feast.  This may be one of the best restaurants in the world.  It is certain to me that Chef Paolo has an amazing talent.

I retired to my bed, not rising until midday on Saturday.  I wandered about the grounds and gradually elected to have a do-nothing weekend.  I read.  I studied.  I thought.  I relaxed.  I departed mid-morning on Sunday after a quite large American style breakfast.  The drive back to Montepulciano was slow.  I wandered and was very happy to have had such a relaxing and delicious weekend.