Like the number of paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican, the culinary delights of Italy have been presented to us so abundantly and so often that we are overwhelmed. They just keep coming, one piled on top of the other until my senses are no longer reacting properly to the opportunities before them. Food in Tuscany was just not like food in America. To put things in perspective, our original itinerary called for a stop in Orvieto to eat on the way from Rome to Cortona. Schedule constraints apparently didn’t allow for the four course meal referenced in our trip planner, and we pulled off to take a quick break at AutoGrill, an Italian roadside rest area. Since by this time we had grown pretty accustomed to four course meals, we were pretty disappointed that we weren’t getting into Orvieto for lunch. So we trooped into the Gas Station to see what we could find. Rather than the Subway or McDonald’s or day-old sandwiches one might find in the US, Autogrill had an espresso bar, a panini station with fresh-made sandwiches pressed to perfection, a salad bar with fresh fruits and vegetables, a pasta bar with several types of homemade pasta, and a grill to serve up beef or veal, cooked on the spot however you like it…there are grilled patatas and carrots, and all manner of other items to complete our lunch. The fragrance of light garlic, sweet grilled onions, and coffee waft over the racks of chips and gum and candy, beckoning us to try one food station or another. We make our selections, with members of our group getting everything from wine and cheese to prime rib to fresh pasta and ravioli. The grilled carrots and the potatoes are excellent. As we eat, our disappointment over not stopping in Orvieto dissipates, and as we compare our menu selections, sampling from others’ plates, it’s official: food at a truck stop in Italy is better than a lot of Italian restaurants in America. In Rome, we fell in love with gelato and began adjusting to the Italian tempo for eating, getting acquainted with not peas, but with the “p’s” of culinary Italy: Prosciutto, peccorino, paninis, pasta, parmesan, pairings, panna cotta, and patience. Meals are savored, not in the wham-bam American way, but more like a time spent lingering over your lover with sweet kisses and conversation. Our time in Rome, more restaurant oriented, less familial than our stay in Tuscany, only prepared us for our time in the country. Although we didn’t realize it, we needed some transition time to prepare us for Tuscan food, much the way divers need to decompress on their way to the surface. Had we jumped right into the food at our villa, there might have been some sensory overload that would have actually limited what we could eat there. As it was, we were able to ease towards gastronomic excess like finely tuned Olympians coming to the games. The Villa Laura schedule and meals have not only surpassed my expectations but have pushed back the boundaries of my food fantasies. I have been on cruises where I could order 3 appetizers and 3 entrees if I wished, but I have never eaten this quality of food, this much, this often before. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of cooking have so many cooked so much that was eaten by so few. The Villa Laura brought in two sets of chefs to prepare our meals, probably because of the sheer impossibility of one set being able to perform the pure physical labor of cooking for our group alone. There is Francesco and Christiano, two young Italian chefs who learned to cook from their grandmothers. They don’t look like chefs in the sense that they are buff and seem very young to have so much experience in their profession. But man, can they cook! Francesco has most of the English, and he tells us on request about how they watched their grandmothers and mothers cook, then worked in the family olive business (so of course they grow and press their own olive oil, which they claim is absolutely the best in the world), and who learned their craft in restaurants before starting their own business, catering and cooking. I’d say they are no less than world-class Tuscan chefs. Then there is Terracina, who we all call Mama, a pleasant, happy woman who has brought her daughter and her daughter’s friend to staff our kitchen. Mama is, if possible, probably an even better cook than Francesco and Christiano. She doesn’t speak much English, but we all fall in love with her instantly, enjoying her sunny disposition, her hard work, and her luscious culinary delights. Her bread salad and panna cotta were some of the best things I have ever tasted. So it is a Tuscan tag-team of chefs gone wild, each presenting us with dishes made from local produce and ingredients in “typical” Tuscan fashion. For breakfast, there is always coffee, homemade bread, various kinds of cheese, eaten with homemade jam or preserves, yogurt, fresh granola, fruit, juice, and breakfast pastries. At dinner we feast on bruschetta, artichokes blessed with parmesan, zucchini soup, fava beans made several ways, several kinds of cheese, and all sorts of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth homemade pasta and ravioli. There is bread salad, balsamic glaze, roast and grilled meat (beef, chicken, pork medallions–rumored to be perfect for late night snacks, 28 seconds in the microwave–and one night even a little rabbit!). We had wood-oven pizza, spelt, stuffed zucchini, and a souffle or two. There is creamy, delicious panna cotta, and a couple of kinds of tiramisu. We had the reknowned Chianina beef, which is presented with a certificate detailing the cow’s birth date and date of death. I really didn’t want to know that my cow’s name had been Matilda, but she still tasted very good. The famed bistecca alla Fiorentina, a big T-bone cooked rare, was delicious, although I’d have to be honest and say that Texas beef is pretty dang good by comparison. Buddy might say that the pork medallions in Italy are superior to ours, but the beef–while good– did not just blow our doors off. There is a bit of wine partaken with every meal, usually a local vintage in red AND white(and of course, I am only describing our average LUNCH here). We had biscotti dipped in Vin Santo. We tried grappa. We drank prosecco(ha! another “p”!). Sadly, I was not a wine connoisseur before going to Italy, but I can honestly say that I now know far more about how wine can complement a meal than I did before. I can also honestly say I probably drank more wine over the last two weeks than the rest of my life put together. I did NOT, however, drink enough to diminish the memory of the amazing tastes of our Tuscan vacation. I wish that my words could do justice to the cuisine of Tuscany, because the local, natural culinary delights we experienced there were a huge part of our immersion into the culture and flavor of the region. I can only describe the pure impact of Villa Laura’s gourmet meals by reverting to a final “p”, which succinctly provides a summary of the fact that Italy has stayed with us, how we have brought home delicious memories of Tuscany, how we are reminded daily of all the wonderful things we got to eat there. That “p” word: pants. I can’t get in ’em anymore.
As you drive to Tuscany from Rome, you pass through lush green hillsides and rich farmland. The hills vary from gently rolling to steep-cliffed formations that hearken back to volcanic activity, visible in the abrupt formations of rock that later submitted to the almost tropical growth that flourishes in the temperate climes. As you look either west or east as you take A1 northward, there are scenic hillside retreats dotted with Olive trees and vineyards, and fields of grain or grass… These fields are almost all surveyed by a villa or some larger dwelling placed at the top of a hill, looking down upon them protectively. In the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union held “good ground”, or defensive positions that were elevated above the infantry that would try to dislodge them. Historically, having such a position, above would-be attackers, provides tactical advantages and makes defenders stronger and less vulnerable. Everywhere you look in rural Italy, villas, churches, monasteries, and forts are built on ‘good ground’, providing a haven for those who worked the farms and vineyards surrounding them. As we toured Tuscany, we often remarked on the cities on the hills, the beautiful scenic villas overlooking their domains, and the old towers that dotted the volcanic landscape. Their presence spoke of protection and defensive strength.
In Rome, there is an ancient city Wall that rises majestically around its antique center, protecting the ruins of the Forum, the Colisseum, and the parthenon. It is a marvel of engineering and construction, using techniques that would be considered brilliant by today’s standards, much less those in use 2000 years ago. The wall seems to be about 5 stories high (actually 8-10 meters) and is 4-5 meters thick. There are several different sections of the wall, some dating back to 378 b.c., some built well into the Christian era. Walls were built to defend the city from hordes of marauders who roamed Europe in those days, pillaging and plundering all who lay in their voracious path.
One of my strongest impressions from having toured Tuscany and Rome is that man has been a violent, brutish, greedy animal. The people who lived there in bygone eras really, really needed to defend themselves. They were invaded enough to know that they needed to live, sleep, and work on ‘good ground’. Violence could come upon them at any time, and it was worth the amazing amount of cost and labor it took to build protective walls, and to live within or around defensive positions that may have been hard to build, or inconvenient to get water to, or even to get to at night, but which might just save their lives if they were suddenly attacked. The beautiful Tuscan countryside, with old towers and ancient steeples dotting the tops of rocky aeries or balanced along the cliffs, is actually a fortress style testimony to the historic greed and violence of man. For much of our history, men have simply taken what they want by using violence or the abuse of power, without really caring who might be harmed in the taking. One might hope that today, in such an advanced age of social evolution, men are beyond such things, that we are not capable of this kind of evil anymore… but it is entirely possible that the human heart has not changed all that much in 2000 years. The holocaust was only 68 years ago. There may be different ways to try to take things today (such as picking pockets in Rome, or sending bogus emails trying to get suckers to fall for a scam, or stealing someone’s identity online), but men are still greedy, and there is still violence. While our modern weaponry has made good ground less effective, and has rendered large walls somewhat obsolete, the beautiful scenes of Tuscan villas and churches set upon the hills remind us of a long history of greedy violence. I know, it’s definitely a “glass half-empty” kind of observation, but seeing so many towers and villas and forts and churches occupying ‘good ground’ made it difficult for me to see the lovely pastoral landscape without acknowledging the grittier reality behind it. There were some mean people in the world back in the day; and although methods have changed, and those villas and churches are now safe from imminent attack by marauding hordes, there are still mean, greedy people in the world today. Evil is not limited to to the past, and protection will not come from position. Until we begin some kind of construction within the human heart, all the forts and walls in Tuscany will not protect what we value most.
It is a cool, perfect morning in Tuscany. The pale blue sky has been accented with wisps of clouds by some Artist’s technique that surpass even those of Michelangelo and Botticelli. Birds are singing cheerfully, for they will be staying home in Tuscany to revel in the blooms and rebirth of Springtime in Cortona. It’s interesting, the way the birds sing because it fits the atmosphere so perfectly– their melodious songs are not shrill or in conflict, but they seem to be designed to enhance the air of tranquility that we breathe here each morning. Each call hangs gracefully in the air as it blesses the ear, then leaves spaces for an answering complimentary series of notes that sing, “peace, peace” to all who listen. The first thing I saw out the window this morning was Buddy and Susan’s luggage out in front on the Villa, awaiting the driver taking them to catch a train to Rome. For some reason the sight of Buddy’s snappy straw hat sitting on top of the bags in the driveway accentuates my sadness over leaving. Each day he has announced a winner of the “hat contest”, of which he is the originator and for which he has been the sole judge. The judges’ decision each day has been dictatorial and final, and to be honest, somewhat capricious. I do not denigrate the hat contest because I never won a single day, nor do I second guess the judge’s decisions… But it was clear, as we waited breathlessly for the results to be announced each day, that I was going to finish at the bottom of the hat wearers, foiled each time by some small detail or new entrant. And one day, actually, my HAT won, but alas! I had loaned it to Brian that day… In the last announcement for the hat contest last night, after our Tuscan cooking class, Buddy announced the results of the final day, retiring the trophy to the Smiths, who had won three times. But then he added a “sportsmanship” award, given to the participant who, although he lacked talent, size, or speed, continued to compete with others better equipped and worthier than he. Imagine (as our Italian guides have said, Ih-MAY-gine) my surprise when I won! The prize was a straw hat Buddy bought from a street vendor in Pompeii, which I will treasure. The hat contest was just one of Buddy’s contributions to our trip, which was not only about Italy but was also about fellowship. We have a fairly diverse group who came together to explore Tuscany, and it has been fun to get to know them. Traveling in a larger group (even one full of Christian folks) can be dramatic or exasperating, but this band of tourists has honestly been a delight. The Villa Laura has been a place effective at promoting good conversation and goodwill. Francesco and Christiano, our chefs who were originally taught by their grandmothers, gave us a cooking lesson last night. After finishing our pizza and tiramisu, our group went into the Chapel and sang some hymns. Many of us had sung in choirs, or just sung in the shower, but as we sang together, magic happened. Harmonies were captured and interwoven, choruses were blended ethereally, and for a few minutes we were the songbirds of Villa Laura, complete with complimentary melodies that lifted us out of that chapel into other realms. For a few minutes, we were blessed with a very small glimpse of heaven, where our happy, harmonious voices will be lifted together in praise. I am not an artificially devout man (probably am not devout enough for lots of Christians who are), but those minutes we spent singing some great hymns of the past together in the chapel will stay with me as inspiration and encouragement. I know today’s modern churches have left hymns behind in favor of more contemporary sound, but I’m just gonna say it here: they have lost something important, and they don’t even know how much they are missing! It is sad to leave greatness behind. Seeing Buddy and Susan’s luggage reminds me that they are leaving to catch a train to Rome. From what we have learned about traveling in Italy, this is bound to be an adventure. Our eclectic band of fellow travelers will all be starting new adventures today, but I take solace in my last time hearing the songbirds of Villa Laura, knowing that as sad as it is to leave greatness behind, it is awesome to know beyond a doubt that there are even greater adventures ahead.
This story has several beginnings, or perhaps it is several stories interwoven, or perhaps it is one story, but it started four years ago and is more amazing today than I could have ever imagined. It went from Dallas, Texas, to a Calico Corners fabric store in Palo Alto, California, to a kitchen in Coppell, Texas, then into storage for 3 years, then back to a living room in Coppell. While packed away, it was magically interwoven through time and space by literary transport, and established a connection that continues today in Cortona and Arezzo, Italy. It is a story of magic, of relationship, and of miracle! It is a real life version of Julie and Julia, and today I witnessed it with my own eyes. Four years ago Nancy and I were traveling in northern California and stopped into a Calico Corners fabric store near Stanford University. She found some fabric that she then used to make window treatments for our “Italian style” kitchen, which we were redoing with granite and faux Tuscan wall paint. We had never been to Tuscany, but we admired the style and wanted to enjoy it every day. Being an excellent seamstress, Nancy accented the windows with the rich burgundy and gold fabric she had brought home from California, and the cornice looked terrific over the redone kitchen windows. About a year later, when we sold our home, she salvaged the fabric and took it with us, hoping to use it again someday… The magic threads of this story began to weave a tapestry that is far more interesting a tale than I could create.
A little over a year ago, we were sitting in Bill and Cindi’s living room talking about traveling to Italy. Cindi had been wanting to get a group to go to Tuscany, and had found out that the Villa Laura (used in the movie to represent Bramasole from Frances Mayes’s book in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”) was available to rent if we could get a group to go. We joined in enthusiastically, and Cindi made the arrangements. For a year Nancy and I were saving, planning, and thinking about our trip to Cortona. Nancy began researching Cortona and the places we would visit on our amazing journey to Italy. During that time we purchased a fixer upper home, and again redid the kitchen, which again received new granite counters, travertine backsplash, and faux paint. Nancy went into the attic and retrieved the fabric she had used in our previous home. This fabric, I would discover, would connect far more than our two do-it-yourself kitchen remodels. It would span oceans and continents, time and space: and I’m not making this up!
While researching Cortona, Nancy read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun to learn the REAL story about where we would be staying. We learned that the Villa Laura was the home used in the movie, but not the actual Bramasole villa. It was still beautiful, and we were still able to anticipate being where Diane Lane got her groove back in the movie, so it was all good. Near the end of Frances Mayes’ remarkable story, she mentioned that she had used fabric from her home in the states to make window treatments in Cortona. She had bought the fabric at the Calico Corners in Palo Alto, California, had salvaged it from the home she left, and used it in her home in Italy.
At the same time she was finishing “Under the Tuscan Sun”, Nancy happened to be making the treatments for our “new” kitchen, doing exactly the same thing in Texas that Frances Mayes had described in her book. It was utterly serendipitous, and she couldn’t help but reflect on it as she sat in our kitchen, sewing her window treatments. Nancy said, “I felt such a connection with Frances Mayes at that moment, making my window treatments with fabric from exactly the same store, and it made our upcoming trip to Italy come alive!” the connection was deep and sympathetic. Nancy continued to read everything Frances had written, and we both grew more and more excited about Tuscany. Like many fans, Nancy sent Ms Mayes a Facebook friend request and received a confirmation. I think the Mayes even mentioned on their page that they would be traveling to Cortona in May– so we were intrigued that we would be in Italy at the same time. Wow, small world!
Little did we know… After some time in Rome, our travel itinerary today took us to Arezzo, where they hold an open air antique market once a month. Undeterred by rain, we walked the market and bought several keepsakes. Crowds were light because of the weather, and we shopped and looked around some more. I had to sort of squeeze by a tall, silver haired man with an umbrella, and he politely let me slip by him underneath it. His companion, who I did not really notice, was browsing at the table beside us. Then Nancy grabbed my arm. “Bo, I think that’s her!”. I’m a little slow. “Who?” “Frances Mayes and Ed!”
“Well, go meet her!” I said. “No, Nancy said, I don’t want to bother her.” “Nonsense, she’ll appreciate it.” We approached Ed and Frances, who were as nice as could be, and Nancy got to share with the author how meaningful her books had been in preparing for our trip of a lifetime, while I said something inane to Ed about our being do-it-yourselfers too. We spent a couple of pleasant moments there, standing in the rain in downtown Arezzo, somewhat overwhelmed with the unlikeliness of it all. The threads of the tapestry, woven in San Francisco, Coppell, Cortona, and Arezzo had come together: picture street booths, rainy cobblestone streets, umbrellas, and four people meeting impossibly at that moment at that Italian intersection… As we parted, the Mayes said, “See you on the Piazza!”, and there, 5200 miles from our kitchen window treatments, which which had traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Texas, we met the woman whose window treatments traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Cortona. It just took a trip to Arezzo to connect all the threads of the tapestry, woven across time, space, and possibility.