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Published: April 23rd 2018
I am writing this Thursday morning, because I was so tired last night that after dinner I just prepared for morning and went to sleep before 10:30. I was still asleep at the 7:00 wake-up call. As it happened, I was unusually early because somehow I missed that the excursion today is starting 45 minutes later than planned. “Swings and roundabouts”, as the British say.
Before we left the hotel, Michele stopped a #3 bus to find out for me how long was the trip to the train station. This is in preparation for my bus journey to Assisi
in ten days. Then on the way to the market we stopped at the bus depot and he helped me buy the ticket (11 Euros) in the subterranean office. The seller said that the only window seat left was behind the driver (OK) but now I have the ticket, I can’t see any seat numbers.
The morning’s tour started with a visit to the market. The walk was quite long, taken slowly with many sites pointed out, narrated by Michele. Finally we reached the market. At first we thought it was only clothes, because there were seemingly endless stalls with
Revered patron saint of Siena
dresses and shirts and pants and underwear and children’s clothes. Eventually, however, there were flowers – cut and plants - and then lots of vegetables, some fruits and what we would call deli but they call butchers. (All of these stalls fold back into trailers that move on every week-day). In a housewares stall was a box with wooden tools such as spoons and turners. There I found the spatulas like Leila uses – one in each hand – to stir-fry, chop and turn food in the pot. They work well.
The vegetables astounded us. The artichokes were full, purple/green, and tender looking. The asparagus was large and plump. The sweet peppers were bursting with colour – orange and yellow and bright purple. One stall had about six kinds of lettuce greens. Plus a beautiful while cauliflower – the perfection of its kind. The fruits were strawberries, nespoli (loquat), apples, apricots, lemons, and oranges.
The butchers displayed whole roasted pigs which they sliced as ordered from the haunches. One had the severed head decorated with glasses, a hat and a cigarette (agh!). There is one in a Siena shop like that – minus the cigarette.
Palazzo Chigi-Saracini mid-twelfth-century
Now the Chigiana music academy, decorate with scenes from the area
end of our long slow walk, with some people drifting off, Michele asked where the rest of us were going. I wanted to see the Pinacoteca
, the art gallery, which he had previously recommended. He said “Oh you can see the Cathedral of Santa Caterina
on the way. It is very beautiful.” I asked him to point out the direction. He replied “Come. I’ll show you.” And he gave me a long, thorough tour – never did get to the Pinacoteca.
The Cathedral soars straight up from the cliff on the street of the cooking school, but it is approached from the top of the hill. We entered a large vaulted space (no interior columns). As it is Franciscan, it has a single nave (no transcript), because the Franciscans were a teaching order and wanted people to listen to the lesson. At the end opposite to the altar, was a special painting of Saint Catherine
, believed to be a true likeness because it was painted only a few years after her death (1378) by a man who knew her. She looks relatively tall, aesthetically thin, pale and graceful.
In the chapel of Saint Catherine is her preserved head. From the entrance, which
Chigiana music academy, courtyard
Historic well, surrounded by busts of famous composers and musicians
is barred to entry, she looks much the same as the painting (cameras not permitted). The chapel itself is covered in large frescos depicting her miracles. She is famous for receiving stigmata in Pisa while in prayer. She is particularly revered for exhorting the Pope in refuge in Avignon
, France to return to Rome, which he did the following year (1377). Separately on display was the reliquary which originally held her head: a large gilded bronze glass tetrahedron still containing a “stand’ in the shape of a fairy-tale crown, presumably to hold the head.
When the Cathedral filled up with school kids on tours, and it was time to leave. From there Michele took me around a few corners to the house where Catherine lived, in which the kitchen is now a chapel. The decor was traditional: frescoes on the walls, an elaborate gold and blue “box” ceiling (large ornamented squares), and an unusual floor tiled with majolica
which is now protected by a raised plexi-glass path. In another room, large frescoes of her early miraculous life were painted on the walls. And on the lowest level was a small room (now barred) with a decorative grill through which you can see the stone where she reputedly rested her head as she slept on the floor.
Walking away to the hotel, I happened to mention how much I missed drinking green tea. Michele said I only had to ask for it at any bar. Fairly soon he offered to buy us a drink before returning to the hotel for lunch. They did indeed have green tea, and it was very refreshing. Michele had an aperitif, already bottled with soda. I remarked that tea isn’t very Italian because you can’t drink it quickly. He agreed that it was more a drink for relaxing. On the final stretch to the hotel, I stopped for bottled water, and he went to the tobacconist. I have been drinking the tap water, but I have funny tummy today and decided to switch. A 1.5 litre bottle cost €1.
The afternoon (after a substantial nap) was spent at the cooking school. We started with a traditional Tuscan bread soup - Pappa col Pomodoro. Three-day old bread and tomatoes (tinned) were the main ingredients, with lots of olive oil and herbs. It was simmered on the stove for 1-1/2 hours in a special clay pot. Leila offered her husband’s services to procure the special pots from the grocery store. I was tempted but came to my senses and didn’t order one – cheap at €27.
Then we watched Leila make Tiramisu. She doesn’t bother with the many layers. The lady fingers are drenched with rum and also “weak” coffee (twice as strong as American coffee). She covered this with blended cream, Mascarpone cheese and chocolate. It set in the fridge.
Then she and a volunteer took the meat off two female pheasants. Then a lemon was cut into small slices (size of scrabble tile) and these were mixed with salt and olive oil (lots!). Later, just before serving, celery and walnuts were added. Aromatic, crunchy and beautiful.
Then we had fun making gnocchi. Leila had previously cooked pounds of potatoes, which some volunteers, including me, put through a ricer. Leila mixed in eggs and cake flour to make the dough. She apportioned this out to those who wanted to help. First we made little balls then rolled each one over a special grooved board to make serrations, which help the sauce stick to the noodle. The gnocci were cooking in slowly boiling water until they floated. There were two sauces. One made mostly of gorgonzola and cream. The other was made of crushed basil, olive oil (lots), and salt. All was consumed for our delicious dinner.
Our walk back to the hotel featured a splendid blue and pink sunset over the green Tuscan hills and fields. Pappa col Pomodoro
(for 4 – 6 people)
600g skinned tomatoes (tinned, diced)
300g stale bread (not a rich variety)
200 ml extra virgin olive oil
500 ml broth (bullion cubes ok)
Lots of basil, chopped
8 – 12 cloves of garlic, chopped
Salt, pepper and/or hot pepper to taste
Heat garlic and basil in a generous amount of oil. Cut bread in thin slices and put in pan, stirring continuously until the bread has absorbed the garlic flavour. Add the tomatoes and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Cover the bread with broth. Leave to simmer very slowly for about 1 ½ hours, adding broth as needed. Pass the soup through a vegetable mill. Serve drizzled with additional olive oil and a basil leaf. Pheasant (Chicken) Salad
For four people
1 cleaned female pheasant or a chickent (900 g)
1 stick of celery
1 medium onion
Boil the pheasant or chicken in a pot with the vegetables. (Put the bird into hot water, not cool water.) Cool and remove the meat.
1 head of celery
1 lemon (washed well)
½ cup of walnuts, or to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and pepper
Section the whole lemon and chop into fine slices. Chop the celery. Add the meat, nuts, oil, salt and pepper and mix together. Let the flavours develop for an hour or more. Serve on a bed of lettuce. Tiramisu
4 fresh eggs, separated
500g fresh mascarpone cheese
300g lady fingers (sponge fingers)
Cup or more of black coffee
2 tbsp whiskey
Dark cocoa powder
Beat the egg whites until firm. In another bowl, mix the yoks and the sugar together until a smooth, even mixture is obtained. Gently mix in the mascarpone. Gently fold in the egg whites.
Dip the sponge fingers one by one in the coffee and the whisky. Quickly lay them in the base of a serving bowl. Spread on a generous amount of the mascarpone and egg mixture and sprinkle with cocoa powder. Repeat until all the fingers and the egg mixture have been used. Leave in the fridge for at least one hour before serving. (Tiramisu does not keep, especially in warm weather.) Potato Gnocchi
600g white baking potatoes
50g grated parmesan
Boil the potatoes in their skins, remove the sins and mash while still hot. Put the potato mash directly onto a clean table and mis with the egg, salt and flour. (Butter and parmesan are optional additions.) Mix the ingredients together until a smooth mixture is obtained. The consistency should allow the pasta to be modelled.
Roll the mixture into “sausages” of about the thickness of a finger, then cut the sausages into pieces of about 2cm long. To give the gnocchi their particular form, roll them delicately in circles over the surface of a cheese grater or on the back of a fork or on a Gnocchi board.
Cook in boiling water, removing when they float to the surface. Drain and serve with Gorgonzola cheese sauce (cheese, butter, cream, black pepper), tomato sauce, Bolognese sauce, or melted butter and grated parmesan.
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