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SAY CHEESE!

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And by “cheese,” we mean the very best — the Italian varieties.  Provolone, Grana Padano, Asiago, Caciotte, and a whole variety of delicious others we were fortunate to experience. How did that happen? Here’s the story of one more trip highlight from our recent Italy travels (click for previous posts).

Our dear friend, client and well-known restauranteur Giacomino Drago was our go-to for how to make this cheese tour happen. He connected us with the amazing folks at Monti Trentini.

From our hotel in Venice, the drive was under two hours. When one considers this included a water taxi and endless tolls, we made it to the destination fairly fast. Italy is not shy about collecting money for use of their roadways, but at least they are extremely well maintained. Thus, driving is easy (outside of major cities, that is).

The factory location in the Dolomite mountains (although barely above sea level) is breathtaking.  It is in the northeast region of Italy. Most impressive is the business began in 1925 and continues today with current family members actively working. Our tour was conducted by cousins Mavi and Pietro, both of whom answered every question flawlessly. We saw all aspects of the operations. Mavi’s father (below working with provolone) and Pietro’s father arrive each morning at 3am. Obviously they love what they do.

Below, provolone in various stages of aging.

There are currently about 100-110 employees. Many had already finished their shifts by the time we toured. The family did everything possible during the height of Covid to maintain the staff; not an easy feat. Some 50 cheeses are made at the factory (see the full list here), and each requires a different process.

Many know Parmigiana Reggiano as “the king of cheese.” Why is it not produced here? First, it comes from a different region in Italy and is made from a different type of milk. The aging process is longer; thus it is generally more expensive. Grana Padano, on the other hand, has a shorter aging process and Monti Trentini produces vast quantities all year. For comparison of the two, I use a good olive oil for cooking but a great olive oil for finishing a dish. The same could be said for the two cheeses.

Below, the enormous copper vats are only used in the production of Grana Padano.

Above, the mold used to imprint critical information on each wheel. Below, the wheels “rest” in huge tubs of salt water as part of the process. 

We were delighted to taste many of their products as seen below. Their retail shop on the premises offers their cheeses along with spreads, crackers, sweets, wine and more. My favorite was the Asiago! What a delicious treat.

So, after seeing row after row in room after room of finished product, just one thought remained. Who else is craving pizza?

Below, NOT in Italy but at a restaurant in Southern California!  Wonderful reminder.

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should Know

COOKING IN CHIANTI!

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Cooking like Italians means using simple, incredibly fresh, minimal ingredients.  But wouldn’t you love to know some secrets?  Well, ditto for me and my kids.  Thus a cooking class while in Florence (see “Spring Trip Part 5” post) was prioritized as a must-do activity.  The hubby? Not interested (in the cooking part, but definitely in enjoying the end results).

The Westin Excelsior knocked it out of the park with their recommendation for a class in the lovely Chianti home of Paola Paggetti (www.cookingwithusinchianti.com).  The day began when her husband Mario Anichini picked us up at the hotel at 10 am for the drive to the home. Mario pointed out many sites in Florence and then beyond.  Some were ancient sites, while others included several wild baby boar dashing across the road!

We got started almost immediately. We spoke with Paola the previous day to decide on the menu:  Bruschetta, fresh pasta (sauce to be determined), a veal dish, and finally tiramisu. We would learn how to make all the dishes and then enjoy them for lunch.  Below, what the French call “mise en place” — everything in it’s place before one begins.

Paola organized the order of the dishes based on the time needed. For example, the tiramisu requires chilling so that was up first up.  And the meat required some time to cook so we got that going as well.

Above, Paola teaching Sam the delicate art of “folding” ingredients required for the tiramisu.  Below, the proud team with our finished dessert. 

During the entire “course,” Paola pointed out key takeaways, including discarding the “core” of garlic cloves. I never knew that; in fact, it adds bitterness if left in.  Likewise the timing for adding salt to a dish (if at all), and the reason.

Of course, the biggie is making pasta from scratch.  Three ingredients. Flour (a superfine Semolina – see photo), egg, water. And a million possibilities. No fancy pasta machine either; just our hands and very clean wooden boards. Of course Paola’s years of experience benefitted us. In the end, it is all about how it feels — the texture of the dough, etc. So simple and yet so necessary to try again and again. Mario captured us in our very serious mood of trying to get it right. We did ok!

 Below, the garden tour. Clockwise from upper left:  bearded iris; apricots; artichokes; lettuces; fava beans.

Below, Mario with a basket of just-picked fava beans.  We shelled them and enjoyed with a bit of salt and olive oil.  Delicious!

The secret to the excellent bruschetta was not only preparing the tomatoes but the bread as well. Paola baked thin slices of baguette in the oven until just crisp.  We spread raw garlic on the bread before spooning the tomatoes.  And one must eat this immediately!  We did. Along with the most excellent and simple pasta with the highest quality butter (which label is shown below) and parmigiana of course.  Also shown is one of two bruschetta platters, and the veal stew.

All set for lunch in the lovely dining room below.

Have I made pasta from scratch since the class?  No. But every time I open my cupboard and see my authentic “00” superfine flour, I am one step closer.  I have the recipe in detail.  I just wish Paola were here with me to provide her excellent guidance.  At least I can be reminded of her beautiful philosophy displayed in her home, seen below.  I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

VENICE! SPRING TRIP PART 6

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What a day.

Getting from Florence (see last post) to Venice isn’t really all that complicated.  One can fly, hire a driver, take the train, or rent a car and do the driving.  With all we wanted to accomplish, option 4 got the nod.

Except on this and every Sunday, one needs to backtrack to the airport to access most car rentals.  No problem as we were heading in that direction.  But then the words, “Is this the biggest car you have?”  Well, we’ll manage.  Four adults, four full size suitcases and one carry-on each required some engineering to make it all fit.  All I can say is, the hubby is one helluva good sport (see below).  I drove, Sam navigated and the hubby and Hannah were in the back, wedged in between luggage.

Below — our engineering feat; a very compliant hubby; and finally in the Venice water taxi

What a day.  Did I mention this was Mother’s Day?

Our ambitious itinerary: First to Pisa (how can one not see Pisa?) for the photo op.  Then the walled city of Lucca, but that didn’t happen.  A marathon was taking place and access was impossible. Then to the designer outlet mall (again, how can one not? But where will we fit any purchases??).  Then an attempt at Bologna, but the timing was terrible.  No parking.  I mean NONE.

So, on to Venice.  Here’s a tip:  Do not show up in Venice without first securing parking!  It is easy. We needed the car for our tour the following day so we kept it overnight. And then walking the bags from the garage to the water taxis.  And then the ride to the hotel, the Bauer Palazzo on the Grand Canal.  Here’s some irony:  the rooms were larger and less expensive than in Florence.  A win/win for sure.  But between the endless tolls and the water taxi, it was a lot of euros.  A lot.

As a Venice aside, in case one wonders about the future of this magnificent destination, two luxury hotel brands are making major investments as we speak.  The Bauer Palazzo where we stayed was just acquired.  It will shut down at the end of this year and reopen in 2025 as a Rosewood Hotel property.  Likewise, the Danieli — a few doors away also on the Grand Canal — is shutting down and reopening in 2025 as a Four Seasons.  So it seems the future of Venice is bright.

What was on our itinerary?  A visit to see the artistry of Murano glass being created.  A visit to the remarkable Peggy Guggenheim Museum.  Several strolls through St. Marks square (Piazza San Marco).  Photo ops everywhere.  A gondola ride (I know, but how can one not?) And one helluva dinner (among some great meals).

Above, a Murano artist at work; below, outstanding pizza at 1000 Gourmet

Da Ivo is famous most notably for being a celebrity go-to, long before George Clooney and his pals dined there the night before his wedding.  If one is to believe the proprietor, the group just showed up, with maybe a five-minute advance warning.  One can enter the restaurant directly from a small canal, as in stepping off a water taxi right next to where I happened to be sitting (see below).  There’s also an entrance from the front walkway.  It is very small inside with maybe seating for 40 people.  It is both formal (as in staff in suits and ties) but not stuffy.  An LA restauranteur friend connected us with the propietor Giovanni Fracassi.

That introduction led to a tour of the kitchen — modern, upgraded and producing incredible food in such a small space.  He also took us into the wine cellar, which is out the back and over a small bridge to a nearby building.  Oh, the magic of what is required to run a restaurant in Venice.  It is eye-popping.  That was a wonderful experience.

Above, simply delicious tuna tartare; below, the jam-packed wine cellar.

With Gianni in the kitchen above; words to live by below.

Venice doesn’t require much pre-planning to be enjoyed.  The views, the strolling, the people-watching, the endless shops.  Just go where the mood takes you.  As we did until it was time to say good-bye.  The hubby and I headed home after 24 days of travel; the kids headed to Milan via the train for a couple of days to wind up their two-week trip.  One final water taxi for all, with the last stop at the airport.  Suffice it to say, where else can one take a water taxi to get on an airplane?  Only in Venice …

International TravelThings You Should Know

STOCKHOLM! SPRING TRIP PART 4

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Surprised.  In a word, surprised — but only in the most joyous sense.  And that was the reaction to experiencing the beauty of Stockholm, the fourth destination on our Spring Trip.  (Click HERE for previous posts). Separately, Sweden is the last one of the Scandinavian countries to visit.

High-speed train was the transportation of choice from Oslo to Stockholm (just under 6 hours with one change).  Wifi, meals, spacious seating all provided the opportunity to see a bit more of both countries and some downtime as well.  Now, if we only could read our tickets to actually travel in the first-class car on the train for which we paid.  “This is first class?  Oh, well, fine.” Interesting that the conductor mentioned nothing to us when he took our tickets.

Once in Stockholm’s station, we hailed a taxi for the relatively short ride to the hotel.  But not one of the innumerable Tesla taxis, another surprise.  Teslas receive a substantial tax break so many of the taxis are Teslas.  There are charging stations conveniently located.   Some models are very fancy with expensive matte paint.  Go figure.

As I am sometimes inclined to do, I switched hotels two days prior to arrival.  It was a very good decision.

Grand Hotel Stockholm is a member of Leading Hotels of the World.  It is “grand” in the sense of design, but in no way haughty or stuffy.  The staff was amazing, given that they cater to many “famous” guests.  The hubby loved talking Foo Fighters with one of the staff as they have stayed there many times.  Both Mr. Grohl and the late Mr. Hawkins were a joy to receive there.  But I digress.

Below, the view from our room; the very “grand” hotel bar and insanely delicious schnitzel

The hotel is ideally situated on one of Stockholm’s countless waterways, with a beautiful view of the Royal Palace.  That building, like the one in Oslo, is the official residence but likewise functions  as a center of government and is open to the public.  Still, the structure is beautiful as seen below.  Tulips were planted everywhere and in full bloom!

Most fascinating was watching people fishing in the shallow water right in front of us.  As in, we’re in the middle of the city and people are out catching their dinner.  Can anyone translate the photo below?  I gave up trying.

Below, the fisherman from a different angle.  Our hotel is seen in the distance (green roof). 

The architecture is beautiful, like Paris or Prague or other major European capitals.  Where Oslo is quite modern, Stockholm has more of an “old world” feel.  Both are excellent cities in which to meander into different areas, including very high end shopping and quaint shops in the old town area.

A high point was exploring Fotografiska, a unique museum of photography and light installations.  Our visit coincided with an exhibition of more than 100 photographs by Andy Warhol, much from his infamous Studio 54 era.  Rather eye-opening to say the least was this surprising Warhol quote:  “I told them I didn’t believe in art, that I believed in photography.”  Perhaps I’m naive, but I think of him first as an artist (as in canvases) rather than photographer.   Some snaps of the work on display follow.

Photo booth “self portrait”

Socialite/fashion muse Maria Schiano with Jack (no last name necessary), circa 1978.

My personal fashion icon, Carolina Herrera, with whom I share my birthday (not to mention Elvis and David Bowie – Jan. 8).

 

Sweden’s greatest export?? Stunning Ingrid Bergman, circa 1950, as photographed by Lennart Nilsson (from the National Museum)

Finally, we asked a restaurant owner why Stockholm doesn’t do a better job of promoting itself as a world-class city of beauty.  His response?  “We’re a humble people.”  That’s one way to maintain a sense of elegance….  Below, our transportation to the restaurant that evening via the hotel “courtesy car.”

Next stop:  Part 5 takes us to Florence and our kids!

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

NORWAY! – SPRING TRIP PART 3

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Did you know it’s barely more than an hour flight to get from The Faroes to Norway’s capital city of Oslo?  Well, I didn’t either.  After a couple of days in the scenic Faroes (see last post HERE), we did just that.  It’s important to give a shout out to Atlantic Airways, a very efficient service in this part of the world.

Below, Karl Johans Gate — sort of a main boulevard — leading up to the Royal Palace

No plans were on tap unlike the prior detailed itineraries (especially Iceland — read about it HERE).  Seeing the iconic fjords was preeminent.  My thinking is always that a good concierge is best employed in these matters.

Thus, with guidance we made a quick decision to experience “Norway in a Nutshell.”

The tour embarks in Oslo and ends up in Bergen (Norway’s second largest city), with our choice for a short flight back to Oslo. Other options are either train or car, but a flight seemed like the obvious choice.

Definition of Norway in a Nutshell — the fjords

So out of our four days in Norway, a day and a half would be spent on every type of transportation possible.  That means trains (2), a boat (cruising the fjords), a bus (a relatively short ride), another train to Bergen, and the next day’s flight.  We left most everything in our room at the Oslo hotel (the excellent Hotel Continental).    Our room and belongings were just as we left them upon our return.

Near the town of Voss

The plan went exceedingly well, until .. a train delay from Voss to Bergen. And then a flight delay back to Oslo.  A 45-minute flight took off three hours later.  But we did get food vouchers at the airport, so there’s that.  And then I left my jacket in the Oslo train station.   H&M in Oslo to the rescue!

And why share all of this?  Because this is the stuff of travel, no matter how well one plans.  To me it is building a portfolio of memories and experiences, which is a privilege.  The best is getting to interact with people from everywhere.

Below, only one of these two men has been to a Dodger game.  (The other just liked the cap)

As for Oslo, it’s very modern, very easy to navigate and very friendly.  Spring flowers were just becoming visible. Food offerings (not only Norwegian salmon) are plentiful and delicious. As for the salmon, it’s basically the first thing you see for sale at the airport — it’s EVERYWHERE.  As an aside, how “smart” are the airport designers who have travelers exit security directly into a Duty Free store!  Below, my one salmon meal — at a Turkish restaurant.

Above and below, glimpses of Norway’s very modern capital city.

Below, the clear winner for “Best Meal in Norway (Oslo)” goes to Lofoten.  

Hamachi with soy jelly; excellent wine (credit the hubby); bouillabaisse and outstanding halibut.

Below, from our visit to the Nobel Peace Center where the Peace Prize is awarded annually. 

All of the other Nobel prizes originate in Stockholm.  Alfred Nobel’s story is told along with a history of the recipients.

Above, the original medal first given in 1921 (prior winners did not receive this).  Below, recipient Elie Weisel; no words necessary.

As we head to our next stop completing our Scandinavian visit, enjoy a few more photos of the fjords.  On to Stockholm!

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should Know

ICELAND! Spring Trip – Part 1

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It is always a joy to say these magic words:  “Here we go!”  As to our destinations, below is a visual of the itinerary shared in my previous post (click HERE).  If you feel as I do, a picture indeed is worth a thousand words.

And what better way to start off the trip than a spectacularly uneventful, early-arriving flight into Heathrow?  With just 18 hours on the ground before the next flight, booking accommodations at the airport made the most sense.  The Sofitel is literally attached to Terminal 5, with all sorts of public transportation steps away — the Underground (Piccadilly line) and non-stop train to Paddington station.  It is a very nice, reasonable hotel with luggage trolleys in the lobby.  Now, if they had just managed to provide that 5am wake-up call.

Alas, a small hiccup was thus encountered which led to a missed flight to Reykjavik (miles already back in our account).  Fortunately, an afternoon flight had seats so in total we lost maybe six hours.  Activities could easily be made up upon arrival in Iceland with our rental car and flexible schedule.  For this particular ground itinerary — along the “southern Ring Road/Highway 1” including hotel bookings, sightseeing musts and restaurants — I engaged Chris Gordon’s company Icepedition. Chris became know to me from Wendy Perrin’s WOW list of area experts.

Selected shots from Reykjavik below

To a person, the response upon hearing one is going to Iceland is either:  “Oh, it’s on my bucket list!” or “You will love it!”  The reasons are now clear.  It is very friendly.  The scenery is truly spectacular.  There are a great many different things to do.  The food (except horse and reindeer offerings which I can’t even imagine) is contemporary cuisine incorporating local flavors and fresh seafood.  Iceland is easy to navigate on very good roads. There are endless beautiful waterfalls.  And did I mention the scenery is spectacular?

It’s really just since 2010 that Iceland seems to be on most travelers’ radar.  Frankly, I don’t have an answer as to why but it’s a safe bet there’s a connection to Game of Thrones.  Scenes filmed in Iceland are in every season (2011-2019). One thing we did find it a bit curious is few if any signs have English translations.  Just a side note; not a complaint!

As for our experience, feast your eyes on the photos.  Iceland is everything it is reputed to be and more.  Next up:  The Faroe Islands.

1.  Calling all GOT fans — filming site Black Sand Beach

known for the stone stacks and basalt columns in addition to the black sand

2. A smidgen of the Blue Lagoon — it was closed for maintenance during our stay.

 3. Two shots from exploring the Katla volcano

It is way overdue for an eruption (typically every 60-80 years).  The last one was 1918.  Guide Thor (yes, he is of Viking heritage) told us every visitor is tracked in case they need to be warned!  He provided us with “cramp-on’s” which are metal spikes that fit the bottom of a shoe to provide stability walking the terrain or going through the glacier caves (we opted out of that activity).

4.  Diamond Beach   The ice chunks could chill endless cocktails.

Iconic Glacier LagoonIt is just remarkable.

 Seljalandsfoss Waterfall where you can actually walk behind the falls (if you don’t mind getting soaked).