22 June 2008

California has turned into an oven!

Another day of roasting temperatures - 86ºF/32ºC - here in California. Ever since we've been back from Italy we have had day after day of record breaking heat. This never happens on the coast. Usually after two or three hot days you can guarantee the fog will roll in. We wilt in the daytime, lifeless, lethargic, and stupefied by it all.

And on the topic of mystifying phenomena, would you believe I lost weight in Italy? I'm serious. Daryl is equally astonished at his lack of weight gain, considering how we totally pigged out for the 17 days we were there. We had been so disciplined about healthy eating and exercise over the last months and consciously decided to indulge while in Italy. In Tuscany we sampled different types of homemade pasta. Pici - a thick macaroni type pasta - was the a regional specialty which we had frequently with either fresh funghi porcini or truffles or pesto sauce. I especially enjoyed the ravioli - loaded with veggies - and you could taste the freshness. We had gelato practically everyday. We had rich desserts - panna cotta, zuccoto, tarts, etc. We had lots of lekker cheeses, especially fresh mozzarella made with buffalo milk. Hmm, soft, creamy, yummy mozzarella. Almost a reason unto itself to go to Italy! And of course, we couldn't help but chug down gallons of wine. We were, after all, in a wine producing region. We sampled Chianti Classicos, Montepulciano Nobiles, and Brunellos. We ate pretty darn well the entire time. Then when it was all over and we were driving home from LAX Daryl said something about going on a crash diet. I was all for the idea. "Oh yes. Fruit for breakfast, a green salad for lunch, and something light for dinner." We felt a bit depressed about the prospect of certain weight gain from our sinful indulgence. So imagine my utter bewilderment when I stood on the bathroom scale back home! It showed a pound less than the last time I had stood on that scale. Daryl got on the scale. He couldn't believe it. No change from three weeks ago. Is it the air in Italy?

Hey, do you know what I found out about olive oil in Italy? What does extra virgin olive oil mean to you? I always assumed it meant the first cold pressing of the olives. Well, guess what, the term has nothing at all to do with which pressing the oil came from. It has to do with acidity level. So regardless of the process of extracting oil from the olives, if the oil has less than 1% acidity it can be labelled "extra virgin"! I also learned that California has stricter standards so the local olive oil is of far superior quality to the Italian and Greek oils at Trader Joe's. In Italy, the folks who take their olive oil seriously buy directly from farmers who use the cold pressing methods. Depressing, hey!

In case you are wondering, our time in Tuscany was delightful. The weather was a tad cool and it rained a fair amount (most unusual for the time of year), but that didn't matter much. Daryl and I met up with my sister-in-law, Julia, and her son, Fabian (my nephew) and a friend Katie, and her two year old son, Tom. So, we filled up the old stone house that we rented. We were out in the countryside near Siena in the area called the Crete. The name has to do with the special clay soil of the region. We spent our days visiting Tuscan hill towns like Pienza, Cortona, Montelcino, and Montepulciano. We did allow a day each for Florence and Siena. In the evenings at our agriturismo, we prepared great meals which we had out in the garden from where we had gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. The two two year olds kept us busy. For Fabian, an inner city Sydneysider, running around in the countryside where there weren't cars and buildings, but lots of fresh air and trees, was a new experience. He loved it. He worked up quite an appetite, opening his tiny mouth for pasta with pesto with gusto. Julia thinks that there must be some Italian in his genes. In Sydney meal times are a challenge, but in Italy, he couldn't get enough.

We spent the last day in Pisa from where we were all flying back to our homes. When Fabian saw the Leaning Tower, he looked up and then pulled me to the entrance. "Up, up," he demanded, trying to get past the ticket ladies. He loves climbing, but I didn't think I could get him to go all the way up. So I tried to explain that we'd do it when he was older. Then I distracted him with a gelato. It worked.

So, back in Santa Barbara, where everyone's plum trees are laden with ripe plums. Everyone's plums in the whole entire city are ready this minute. You can't walk two meters without encountering a conversation about plums. We filled two huge bowls from our tree. Daryl has plans to make jam. For my part, I made a sorbet, and also ate as many as I could.
I think I'll head now to the kitchen and gobble a few more!

Happy summer! Or winter! Oops, that doesn't work. I'll just stick with "Happy summer".

05 June 2008

Tuscan dining

Thursday, June 5, 2008

You know those Italian meals you hear about? The ones that go on forever, course after course, accompanied by rivers of wine and then more stuff? Well, we had one of those last night. And miraculously I didn’t die. In fact I’m awake enough at 9:00 in the morning to tell about it! No hangover. No headache! I do believe in miracles.
So yesterday (Wednesday) was a conference outing day. There were about 50 of us – maybe 44 mathematicians, 5 spouses, and a lovely tour guide called Laura. We spent a big part of the day in Lucca which is separated from Pisa by mountains (Monte Pisano). We learned about the great rivalry between the folks of Lucca and those of Pisa. Pisans hate everyone, we were informed. In Lucca we walked along the city walls – a 4 km stretch with great views and lots of greenery, but we only did about a km. Then we entered the old city and took in the highlights. Narrow streets, beautiful piazzas, towers, Roman and medieval architecture and Renaissance churches make this little town really charming. It’s also the birthplace of Puccini which excited me and this year it’s the 150th anniversary of his birth. There were cafes with names like Turandot and Tosca.

We spent the late afternoon in a little village called Montecarlo which is perched on the slopes of a mountain. From here there are sweeping views down to the plains. We got a tour of the imposing fort which is now someone’s private home.

Then, at 6:30 we got taken to a wine farm just outside Montecarlo. This was where we were booked for a prepaid dinner. Again, views from the farm were quite stupendous. Lush fields (it’s been raining a lot), vineyards, olive groves, wildflowers like broom and red poppies. The air was heavily scented with star jasmin, white lavender, and a special lemony mint bush which seemed to grow everywhere.
At the farm we were seated at long wooden tables in a ‘cave’. At each table of about 15 people there were 8 bottles of wine – whites and reds – produced right at this farm. We were invited to do a ‘tasting’. So we dove into it with gusto, having been hard at work sightseeing all day. Plates of antipasto arrived – bread accompanied by cold-pressed olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, bruscetta, sundried tomatoes, olives, prosciutto, and slices of cheese. After this came a Tuscan soup – ribolleto – delicately flavored and delicious. This hearty soup is made with cabbage and lots of veggies, and thickened with white bread. I was now on my 4th wine – the 1st red – and loving it. After the emptied soup bowls were taken away, the primi piatti – pasta course - arrived. Of course it was home-made pasta – parpadelle – with a light tomato sauce for the vegetarians. Heavenly as would be expectd. I tried to get through as many of the reds left to sample through this course. A robust red was on its way for the main course!! The company around me was getting increasingly animated. They seemed to have no trouble chugging down the wine. The main course arrived – a mushroom terrine (I think - it was brown and tasted meaty, but we were assured it was vegetarian!) for the vegetarians. Meats of various kinds for the carnivores. The robust red – a pure Merlot – arrived. It was quite special – dry, a little smoky, with hints of blackberry on the nose. Excellent food, and bloody good wine.

At this point me and the folks at my table were engaged in a long discussion about Obama and Hillary. Sitting beside me were a German mathematician living in Illinois (Champagne-Urbana) and a woman mathematician from New York who was an ardent Hillary supporter. Across from us were three young male mathematicians - a Polish, a Belgian, and a German from Berlin. I can’t remember anyone’s name. The woman was pissed that Hillary lost. She was convinced it was because of sexism. When I pointed out that Obama had trouble clinching the nomination because of racism, she denied this. “Oh no. Hillary had a lot of supporters, that’s why the race was so close.”
“But, look who voted for her, and look who voted for Obama?” I pointed out.
She wasn’t budging.

The three Europeans were quite intrigued by the whole affair. They related stories of meeting Americans who claimed not to be racist, but said to them, “I can’t bring myself to vote for a black man.” They laughed. “Americans don’t even know when they are being racist!”
But, clearly, this exciting period in American politics is causing a lot of excitement in Europe.

By now my tummy felt like a lump of lead. The main course dishes were cleared away. Bottles of Vin Santo - a dessert wine – and plates of biscotti for dipping in the wine arrived at our tables. We obliged. And just as we were about to collapse the grappa arrived. We were told that grappa is a digestif – necessary after a meal of heavy eating and drinking. So, of course, we gulped down the grappa. Finally, shots of espresso came around. Not for me – I don’t do caffeine at night. A meal that started at 6:30 and ended at 10:30!

Now here’s the funny thing. I had no trouble standing up and walking to the bus. I didn’t feel tipsy. My speech was still fine. And I don’t have a hangover this morning. Go figure!

Photos of the trip will be on Facebook. If you aren't my "friend" yet, you may ask to be invited!


03 June 2008


June 2008

Ciao from Italie! Yeah, yeah, I know. I see the shock on your face. You’re thinking, “But, didn’t she just get back home after traveling for eight months?” Hey, it ain’t my fault. My good fella that I sleep with got me the ticket – free – using frequent flyer miles – while I was still in New Zealand. I was, of course, unable to protest – even for appearances sake. So, here I am, in delightful Pisa, the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband on a math conference trip. We’ll be in Italy for just over two weeks. After Pisa we’ll go into the Tuscan countryside south of Siena, where we are renting – no, not a villa – one of those agriturismo thingies - a holiday house. We’ll be joined by two mums and bubs. More on that later.

Anyhoo – Italy – well, anything I say about it won’t be original …
We are staying at a charming hotel – the Hotel Victoria – a historical landmark – right beside the River Arno and plop in the middle of the historical center. Just around the corner is Piazza Garibaldi where you can find the best gelato place in Pisa – La Bottega – which we had discovered when we were here six years ago. You might think it’s luck, but I’m suspicious. Tbh my belief is that the only role luck plays in this is that Daryl booked us at the hotel closest to this gelateria and it just so happened to be a great hotel!

In the last two days we chugged down calories like it’s nobody’s business. How can we not indulge in bubbly, smoky pizzas and creamy gelatos and Chianti Classico? We tried to burn as many of those calories as we could circling the leaning tower and the Duomo and marching along the Arno.

If you have to spend a week in an Italian city you can do worse than Pisa. It’s got a terrific historical center and a vibrant café scene. Ah, the delightful cafes of Europe. I’m so lucky that I get to nip out to Europe every summer for a few weeks and ‘do’ the café thing.

Yesterday – Sunday – was Republic Day – and we thought we should go to some interesting nearby place for the day. Lucca would have been the obvious choice, except for the fact that the conference organizers have set aside a day for this gem of a town. We consulted our guide book and the description of Livorno was good so we took a bus out there. It was when we got off the bus that we realized the guide book we had was a disappointment. In the last 4 or 5 years I’ve been using Rick Steves' guides. He was great on France, especially Provence and the Cote d’Azur. He was also fine on Eastern Europe. But the last couple trips Daryl complained a lot, so this trip we decided to get something different – Hunter Travel Guides. I should also mention that I was beginning to get irritated that Rick Steves had such a monopoly on European travel guides. Everywhere in Europe I’d been to in the last few years most of the travelers were using, you got it, Rick Steves.

In Livorno when we got off the bus, we couldn’t quite figure out where we were. Rick Steve’s guide would have had a map of the city center that would have worked to get you to a TI and to the main tourist sites – as well as to his recommended hotels and restaurants. Anyway, we found a TI after meandering around a bit. With a map we explored Livorno, which has quite a large, active port, but we could find nothing charming or interesting. A series of canals run through the center and flanking them are Renaissance buildings. Nothing much was going on and we couldn’t even find a decent café. Rick Steve would have told you whether a place was worth visiting or should be skipped! He isn’t always right, though. Last time in Italy we ignored his advice on skipping Bologna – thankfully. We loved it – and it has some of Italy’s best restaurants. But Livorno does not deserve a visit – nor even the amount of time I’m spending writing about it! So Hunter Travel Guides suck!

Regarding costs and the ‘bifocal’ dollar (you can buy *f* all with a dollar) we have been surprised to find Italy less expensive than we expected. A veg pizza for one person at a decent restaurant is around 5 euros (in Santa Barbara it will be $10 or more). Gelato is 1.50, a glass of wine at a café sitting outdoors is 3 euros (in SB it would be $5 - $8). Cappuccinos are a bit pricy – 3 euros a cup. Gas is $10 a gallon – ouch!

That’s it for now. Stay tuned.

Ciao Bella!