Mellowing in Italy - Siena, Saturday 2007 May 12

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May 12th 2007
Published: May 19th 2018
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Cooking classCooking classCooking class

Ready to make pasta
Cooking lessons again. Today we learned to make Aquacotta soup – literally “cooked water”, once an equivalent of “stone soup”. This version has a tomato base, is cooked for a long time, and is served over stale bread, topped with parmesan. The second dish, beef stew, is similarly an old recipe, originally made by the wives of brick-makers. Traditionally, all the cold ingredients were put into a large casserole which the husband took to work to cook in the brick fire. Then at dinner (mid-day in Italy), he brought the dish back home – inexpensive and easy. And delicious.

Several people from our class ordered the special casserole-dish because it is a beautiful, large round bowl with large, integrated handles, and a heavy lid, made from Siena clay glazed chestnut brown except on the bottom. You just soak it overnight once, then it can be used directly on gas or electric burners or in the oven. Fortunately, I came to my senses and didn’t buy one – I rarely cook that style and I have nowhere to put it. My cast iron pot will probably deliver the same results.

Leila made a wonderful apple cake. She peeled, cored and sliced
Making piciMaking piciMaking pici

I don't make pici anymore but I do wear the apron.
a lot of Granny Smith type apples (with some help from participants). She made an egg-rich batter (lovely, dark orange eggs) and combined the two. The whole was baked in the oven and tasted creamy, tart and sweet all in each bite.

The great accomplishment of the morning was our learning to make “pici”, the Tuscan special pasta. This is in soft, long strands and has no eggs. We started with the usual 200 grams of flour and added water freehand. She advocates adding too much water at this stage rather than too little, because it is easy to add flour to a ball of dough and not vice versa. After a while we all accomplished the ball. What was hard and tricky was rolling a long string to the suitable thinness: a small portion of dough is cut off and rolled with both hands using the fingers held together. She said it could be done easily with ten strokes, as she demonstrated. We all made varying degrees of kindergarten snakes! Most of us persevered. Although the pici were a bit tough and doughy, we were all pleased at lunch – and vowed never to make it at home!
Poppies against a Sandstone wallPoppies against a Sandstone wallPoppies against a Sandstone wall

Beautiful splashes of colour
(Served with tomato sauce).

Later in the afternoon, we met Sylvia, our art history guide, in a meeting room of the hotel. She showed some slides of the cathedrals in Siena and in Florence (which we will see) to illustrate the basics of history, art and architecture.

What is amazing is how the Siena Cathedral consists of four continuous buildings joined in ways that are still not clear. Only in the modern restoration did they discover that the part of the cathedral under the gigantic dome is built on top of another building, that was at some time packed tight with sand to form new foundations. At one point during the modern testing, a portion of the cathedral floor collapsed, luckily not injuring anyone. They have excavated a portion between two sets of pillars, but the span between the pillars of the dome is so wide, there is no way currently known to guard against collapse, so the exploration has stopped.

After the lecture, all this we saw in the cathedral. Sylvia toured us through the highlights of the complex, magnificent church. The décor is designed to appeal to people of all faiths, because Siena was very
Panther ContradaPanther ContradaPanther Contrada

Communal dinners in the street are attractive community events.
cosmopolitan due both to wide-spread trade and to being conquered many times. Over the high altar, the fresco shows a golden cloud highlighting the Hebrew word for God. And the lower half of the walls and pillars are undecorated, in Islamic fashion. The pillars are made from alternating horizontal widths of black and white marble. Because the altar area has only white marble pillars, historians think that it was one of several extensions. Not the least was the attempt to build the cathedral bigger than Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence. This effort ended unsuccessfully before the nave was completed, probably because the population of Siena crashed during the plague.

Also interesting were the marble mosaics, which picture secular scenes for the most part. Because the modern pressure of tourists and pollution is wearing away the floor too quickly, most of the inside of the cathedral is covered in brown linoleum, with several mosaics left open to view. They are so graphic – wonderfully depicting scenes and crests in cuts of coloured marble, that is, not tiny stones mosaics but pieces cut according to the artist’s cartoon. This is a very expensive style because if the marble piece breaks during the cutting, the stone is virtually wasted. Little holes, now often visible, were dug into the stone to depict the internal lines of, say, a flower or a face. These holes were “anchors” for black wax that was pushed in, until the holes formed into a continuous line. Some of this was still evident and seems marvellous, once one understands how it was done.

Sylvia confirmed for me that the many statues on the cathedral façade are restored originals, not replacements as some one told me. The Italian government is investing heavily in the restoration of Siena.

We had a brief free time before going to a restaurant on Il Campo - to a tourist trap. The food was uninteresting, but the walk was fun.

The Cevita (Owl) contrada was setting up and then having their annual celebratory dinner in the main Via de la Vita (a road still only two cars wide). Hundreds of chairs were set at many tables. On our way to our dinner, Michele had to take us on another route, and on our way back, young men (drunk mostly on pride) were singing martial marching songs in celebration of the Owl contrada winning the Palio last year. (Early the next morning, I heard some men (drunk more likely on wine) singing sloppily on their way home.) The contrada colours are dark red and blue with white. The flags were on all the buildings and special light brackets were out. We noticed that these were permanent brackets with electrical plugs high on the walls.

Acquacotta Senese

500 g porcini mushrooms (or mixed varieties)

150 g ripe tomatoes (or crushed canned tomatoes)

2 cloves garlic

1 large red onion

Handful of chopped mint or Italian parsley

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper, red pepper optional

1 ½ litres of water or broth

Grated parmesan or pecorino

3 eggs

6 slices of Tuscan bread

Clean the mushrooms with a damp cloth and cut into pieces. Sauté in oil with garlic, mint/parsley, and onion. After ten minutes, add seeded tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook for ten minutes more. Add the water or broth and cook for 30 minutes.

Beat the eggs with 4 large spoons of cheese and pour into the soup while mixing vigorously. To serve, place a slice of toasted bread into each bowl, then pour the soup over the bread.

Peposo (Peppery Stew)

1 kg chuck steak cut into 1” cubes

6 cloves garlic

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 glass of red wine or broth or water

1 can of tomatoes


1 tbsp black pepper

Put all ingredients cold into a large earthenware dish or similar. Cover ingredients completely with liquid. Put on lid and place in the oven, previously heated to 220C (475F). Turn down oven to 180C (350F). Cook at least two hours (three hours if possible). If it is drying out too much, add a little water. Meat should be very tender and the sauce thick.


For 6 people

500 g flour (250 g cake flour, 250 g white flour)

300 g water (approximate)

A pinch of salt

Sift the flour onto a wooden board and shape into a “volcano”. Pour the water and the slat into the centre and mix into a smooth dough. Knead energetically for 15 minutes. Shape into a ball and cover with an upturned bowl to rest for 2 0 – 30 minutes. Then cut little pieces of dough and roll out into long strings using the palm of your hands. (They should look like fat spaghetti.) Cook in a generous amount of salted water for about 15 minutes.

Apple Cake

For 6 people

4 large Granny Smith apples, cleaned and thinly sliced

150 g cake flour

300 g sugar

100 g butter

Raisins and pine nuts to taste, soaked in sherry or rum

16 g baking powder

1 lemon, including rind

A pinch of salt

3 eggs

½ glass of milk (in reserve if batter not liquid enough)


Add lemon juice to apples (to avoid browning). Reserve some slices of apple for the top. Beat 250 g sugar into the eggs. Add melted butter, flour, baking powder, lemon rind, pine nuts, raisins and salt. Should be able to pour the batter; add milk as necessary to thin. Grease and flour a baking tin. Alternately pour in batter and place the apples over the batter to make 2 or 3 layers. End with reserved apples as the top. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake for one hour – start at 400F and shortly bring down to 350F.


19th May 2018
Cooking class

Italy and food
We took 3 cooking classes the last time we were in Italy. Food and Italy go hand in hand.
26th May 2018
Cooking class

Italy and food
They do go hand in hand! Delicious food and wine.
22nd May 2018

You went to Siena and got the t-shirt
Well, the apron, I guess. Excellent. I can just see everyone making the equivalent of play-doh snakes. (Most things requiring any dexterity are harder than they look, as I know you've commented on before.) A good write-up - it really gives a sense of your day. And your poppy photo is lovely.

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