14 May 2012

Let's discuss our next book in Codilupo, Italy

Last spring Linda, a member of my book group, brought her Italian sister, Ann, to one of our meetings. Ann enjoyed herself so much that she offered to host a bookgroup meeting whenever we could all get over to her place in Italy. Ann lived and worked in Florence, but she had a weekend home out in the countryside, which she thought would be a fantastic venue. The idea had irresistable allure and we immediately gave it serious consideration, crazy as that might appear. And quite incredibly, a year later five members of our book group found ourselves at Ann’s spacious, medieval stone house in Codilupo.

After my oh so wonderful week in Paris, I got on a plane and flew across the Swiss Alps to Pisa.
From there I took a train to Prato, the big city near Ann’s tiny village of Codilupo. Ann and Linda were waiting for me at the train station with bright smiles. It was a warm, sunny spring day. The scenic drive along the steep, windy mountain road to Ann's place set the tone for a most enjoyable two day party. Jen, Chris, and Leslie, the three other book group members from Santa Barbara, drove in from Rome via the Chianti Valley bearing bottles of Brunello di Montalcino.

Ann pointed out the plaque on the garden wall in front of her sister, Gina's house when we arrived. Gina and Ann live on the same property, a few hundred meters from each other. The houses on this estate were built in the 13th century. 

This is the view from outside Gina's house. Codilupo is in the mountains outside of Florence. Even though this is Tuscany, the vegetation is subalpine. The mountain slopes are covered with deciduous trees, which were still mostly bare when we were there. A few blossoming fruit trees provided cheerful color to the pretty scenery.

So, don't look for lanky cypresses and ancient olive groves here.

This is Gina's house. The interior is every bit as charming as the exterior promises. Gina is an artist and everything, from the furniture, to the paint colors, to the home items, is carefully selected and arranged. Even the staircase leading to the upstairs rooms is a work of art. On our first night Gina prepared a sumptuous meal which we relished in her huge farmhouse kitchen.

Ann lights the fire in Gina's kitchen as dinner is being prepared. The hearth is enormous, creating an ambience of intimacy in the spacious farm style kitchen. As the sun disappears the temperature up here in the mountains plummets. We're sitting around a long, wooden table, grateful for the warmth from the fire as Leslie, Jen, and Chris gush about the Sistine Chapel and other great sights they'd just visited during their two days in Rome. 

Time to open up the Prosecco. Gina was busy adding the finishing touches to the fagiole. There was a traditional version, made with cured ham, and a vegetarian version for me. 

Gina went all out to make our first evening in Codilupo an evening to treasure. Beautiful flowers, Andrea Bocelli's haunting arias, candles ... Wow! We all felt quite special to receive this treatment.

A bowl of fagiole served up for me. This is a traditional Tuscan bean stew made with a selection of beans and thickened with farro. It is slow cooked for hours and seasoned with rosemary, thyme, and parsley. Gina past around a bottle of exquisite olive oil -thick, dark, fragrant -to drizzle over the dish before eating. Linda sawed through a humungous hunk of crusty Tuscan bread, which she past around. I cannot even begin to describe how flavorful, how utterly satisfying the fagiole was. An incredible meal prepared by a real Italian, who takes the art of cooking quite seriously. 

The cheese course consisted of several pecorinos, a Reggiano, and a soft cheese. We were a contended group as we munched through this feast and shared travel stories in a most remarkable setting. A rustic farmhouse kitchen with a crackling, robust fire, in the company of caring friends who would normally be chatting up a storm, laughing, and making merry. But alas, the long, adventurous drive from Rome on unfamiliar roads took its toll on Leslie, Jen, and Chris. So the mood was more subdued than would have been expected.

After our feast we headed out to Anne's place, another house filled with character and charm. The centuries old stone floor is uneven and the tiles are worn. The thick walls lean, though not in a scary way. Enormous wooden beams spread across the ceilings. This house felt incredibly solid, and safer than any modern house. Just walking through the halls and into the rooms was an experience. Despite its rustic looks, our stay here was pretty damn luxurious. We slept on comfortable beds in charming bedrooms. Period furniture and traditional linen reminded us that we were indeed in the Old World, thousands of miles from Santa Barbara, California. The fact that everything was so different to what is familiar to us made it all feel so utterly romantic, exotic, and exciting. One of those big differences was the plumbing. Upstairs, there was no hot water and low water pressure. So, we couldn't have hot showers. But there was a proper bathroom, with all the fine touches (potpourri, candles, fragrant soaps and lotions) and a proper toilet, so really, it was all pretty luxurious. We slept well, out here in the countryside, away from the disturbances of the city.

In the morning I looked out the window and saw a most uplifting sight. A light layer of mist blanketed the forest and the morning sun, filtering through, shed a magical light over the mountains. Despite the mist the air held the promise of another warm, sunny day.
The aroma of strong coffee wafted through the medieval house. Downstairs Ann had already got a roaring fire going. For breakfast we had strong cappuccinos, fresh squeezed orange juice with oranges from Sicily, and toast with Ann's homemade marmalade. This marmalade is a reason by itself to make that flight across the pond to visit Ann in Codilupo. Imagine the perfect marmalade - not sweet, not bitter, fruity with the right amount of tartness, and the texture somewhere between smooth and lumpy. Who could blame you if you just shoved spoonfuls straight into your mouth?

Somehow we got into a discussion about the Catholic church. Ann, who had long rejected the religion under which she was raised, wanted so badly to believe something good about the Catholic church. But each time she said something in its defense, we all pointed out quite forcefully that in fact, she was wrong. Ann is such a good hearted person, full of warmth and goodness. We didn't enjoy having to take an opposing position with her.

After breakfast everyone went for a hike on one of the many trails into the surrounding countryside. I felt a bit under the weather so I stayed indoors. I sat by the fire and read the New Yorker on my iPad.

Back from their walk, Jen and Linda are enjoying a glass of wine.

Lunch preparation in full swing. Linda is grilling zucchini using the method of Italian farmers. Ann is in the kitchen, preparing an omelette with the blossoms from these zucchini.

For lunch the two zucchini dishes were accompanied by cheeses, Tuscan bread, olives, and prosciutto.

After lunch I felt slightly better. Even though I had a slightly sore throat and my energy level felt low, I knew I had to get out into the beautiful sunshine. So I joined the gals on their second hike. The fresh mountain air, warm temperature, and stunning scenery made for thoroughly enjoyable hiking. We saw lots of wild primroses. Leslie joked that we were walking down the primrose path.

After a delightful day of relaxing, chatting, hiking, and absorbing the peace and beauty of the area, it was time for the big evening of gathering together to indulge in yet more exquisite food and a discussion of our book. We had selected Galileo's Daughter for obvious reasons ..

Linda and Ann did the smart thing of having dinner catered so that we would all be able to relax and enjoy the day. They knew someone in Prato who wouldn't let them down on the food front. We had ricotta filled ravioli in a tomato sauce accompanied by grilled vegetables.

It was all absolutely delicious. The ravioli were obviously freshly made. They were soft and light. The grilled vegetables were superbly seasoned and cooked to just the right texture.

Notice the wine. It's a Brunello di Montalcino, of course. A 2004 vintage. Leslie, Chris, and Jen bought a pair of bottles when they made a stop in Montalcino en route from Rome to Florence. After letting it breathe for an hour this complex, robust wine was like a trip to heaven. So there we were - in Ann's dining room, savoring the delights of gourmet Italian cuisine and the finest wine in the region. Ann's favorite Italian singer in the background enhanced the celebratory mood.

We resumed our earlier conversation about religion and the role of the Catholic Church.

For dessert the caterer made us an entire millefoglie. The French call this Mille-Feuille. In America we have some version of it that we call a Napolean. Flaky puff pastry interlayered with a rich, creamy custard. You know how you see something in a fancy schmancy bakery that looks sensational and you buy it even though it's absurdly priced? Then you take a bite and your heart sinks? I have tried mille-feuille so many times at so many different places. More often than not I've found them to be too dense or soggy or too sweet.
But this beauty that you see here absolutely exceeded my expectations. You should have seen the delight on everyone's faces. My goodness, it was to die for, and I really thought we were going to die. After second helpings we prayed for somebody to tie up our hands.

Our tummies were quite satisfied. It was time to get down to business. Ann lit a second fire closer to the sofas so that we could all get comfortable in the living room.

And there we are. We really did discuss the book. It was quite amazing to be sitting in a house that existed during Galileo's time. And he had spent many years right there in the Florence area. The book turned out to be a great one to discuss because of the many issues raised in it. The fate of unmarried, illegitimate women, the cruelties of the Catholic church, the conflicts that Galileo wrestled with, the incredible intellectual output from him, and so much more that had likely been destroyed, etc., etc. Linda acquired an Italian version and was excited to read it and compare it with the English version.

Our discussion of the book was energized by Ann's lemony homemade Limoncello, the tastiest in all of Tuscany.

This was certainly a unique book group meeting.
We knew it was going to be enjoyable. But it turned out to be an experience beyond anything we could have hoped for.