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21 06, 2017

Visiting an Italian Food Market

By | 2017-06-22T12:01:47+00:00 June 21st, 2017|Feature, food, General, hidden gems, Italy Shopping|

Italian Market
Italian food market

Visiting an Italian Food Market

To really live like a local, you need to shop like a local.  Generally, Italians do not stockpile.  They are generally not visiting a Costco and buying large quantities of food in bulk to store for lengthy periods of time.  Fresh is the name of the game and there’s no better place to find fresh food than at a local Italian food market or “mercato.”

The markets are full of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts, cheeses, salumi, bread and more!  It’s an embarrassment of riches and a way of life at the same time.  The prices are reasonable, goods are seasonal and it’s the perfect time and place to sample the local cuisine.  As you walk through the beautiful market and take in all the scents, sights and people, notice how relaxing the experience can be.  It’s what living like a local is all about.  For an authentic Tuscan experience, visiting a local market is essential.  You can soak up the culture and rub shoulders with the locals.  Watch the many different colorful personalities selling their goods—the local farmers, cheese-makers and artisans come to sell their goods every day.  While at the local market, you usually can enjoy other culinary delights like fresh pasta, desserts and even, sample some wine .

I personally use the farmers market not only to buy fresh produce and cheeses but also to socialize with friends and acquaintances.  It can be an adventure, a time for socializing and practicing or keeping up your Italian language skills.  You can also get the latest on all your questions from the locals—ranging from recipes and the best produce to buy right now to politics and elections around Italy and more. Everyone has an opinion!  Italian food markets are weekly, bi-weekly or even daily.  It depends on where you are located.  Most Italians frequent the food markets regularly as a means of buying their fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, breads and even desserts.  Much of the shopping is done before lunch so that the food purchased at the market can be incorporated into the lunch menu and is supremely fresh.

For me, visiting a local Italian food market is much more than just buying fresh tomatoes, burrata and basil even though I usually make a caprese salad right after my visit!  It’s an essential part of Italian life, shopping with the locals, seeing old friends and making new ones, maybe stopping for a coffee after and generally catching up on life.  It’s a feeling of connectedness that is hard to find in a US grocery store with lists in our hands and little time for enjoying the moment.  I always leave the market with a fresh perspective and a smile on my face.  I look forward to experiencing a local food market each time I am in Italy.  It reminds me of what’s important in life.

We invite you to join us on our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience so you can experience Italian food markets, an essential part of local life!

3 05, 2017

A Day in the Life—the courses of an Italian dinner

By | 2017-05-04T09:19:21+00:00 May 3rd, 2017|Feature, food, hidden gems, Wine|

For Italians, mealtime is a social and friendly affair.  Italians love to take their time, savoring each course and enjoying good company and great wine.  Meals can take several hours with plenty of time for socializing and if the weather is nice, soaking up the beautiful sun.  It can be intimidating to understand what all the courses are and the cadence of the meal in Italy.  To help put you at ease, we’ve put together some information on eating dinner like an Italian.

So what are all the typical courses of an Italian dinner?  Well, after you’ve had your aperitivo (more on that in an upcoming blog) where you’ve enjoyed a pre-dinner drink with a few snacks at a bar or café and shared the latest news with your friends over a glass of wine or two (or spirits or prosecco), now it’s time for dinner.

Assuming you are dining in a ristorante (we will also write more on the differences between the various types of places to eat in Italy), generally the courses are as follows:  antipasto, primo, secondo (with contorno) and dolce.  Of course, not everyone orders or eats all the courses and that’s the beauty of it all—the point is to have a great time and enjoy life.  La Dolce Vita!

Now, let’s start with the antipasto (no pun intended).  This is the starter course and it can consist of charcuterie, cheese and bread or it can simply be a beautiful bruschetta made with fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil.  The next course, il primo, is the first course.  Typical first courses or primi (plural for primo) are pasta, soup, gnocchi and risotto.  Portion sizes tend to be smaller than in the US so you should still have room for the main course, il secondo!  Generally this is your meat or seafood course.  Depending on the region where you are dining, you can choose from various seafood or meat options.  In Tuscany, the bistecca alla fiorentina is your best option if you love steak.  It’s tender, juicy and grilled to perfection after having been drizzled with olive oil and herbs.  Magnifico!  Also, Italians normally order a contorno or a side with the secondo and the contorno is usually vegetables (raw or cooked).  I tend to order a salad—arugula salad to compliment the taste of the steak.  I add a little extra virgin olive oil, squeeze a fresh lemon and add a dash of salt to my arugula salad.

The last course is the dolce or dessert.  There are many delicious options to choose from including tiramisu, panna cotta, cake or gelato.  Keep in mind, wine is served during the meal and after dinner, most Italians have an espresso (no milk).  Some Italians will also have a digestivo to aid in digestion after dinner.  Generally, the digestive after the meal is a grappa, amaro or limoncello (depending on the region of Italy).

I hope you find this content helpful in living like a local.  Please feel free to send us any topic you are interested in learning more about and we’ll be happy to write about it.  In the meantime, Buon Appetito!

 

 

 

11 04, 2017

San Giovanni Valdarno

By | 2017-04-11T07:26:26+00:00 April 11th, 2017|Feature, hidden gems, Wine|

It is undeniable that Italy is rich in culture and history and for many, at the top of their bucket list.  Many of its cities are quite well known—Rome, Milan and Florence for example.  All are recognizable by name or landmark.  At the same time, Italy is also blessed with many lesser known cities and towns with their own charm and that also served considerable strategic and historic importance.

San Giovanni Valdarno is one of those towns.  It may be lesser known but its strategic and historic importance cannot be underestimated.  Founded in the XIII century by Florence as a way to consolidate its presence in the Higher Valdarno, that higher ground served as a lookout for and from any impending danger across Arezzo, Florence and Siena, Tuscany.  Located in the valley of the Arno River (“Val d’ Arno” or valley of the Arno = “Valdarno”), the area is divided into the Upper Valdarno (between Arezzo and Siena) and Lower Valdarno (between Florence and Pisa).

Towards the end of the XIV century, San Giovanni Valdarno’s strategic position and in Upper Valdarno enabled a military victory during an invasion by an army led by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first duke of Milan.  Despite this victory, the town continued to be in the middle of many battles, including the battle between Florence and Naples.  Unfortunately, that battle ravaged the territory.  When Florence finally emerged victorious over Naples, a short period of peace began and restoration projects and architectural progress were made.  Despite this progress, a spreading plague epidemic greatly reduced the population and devastated the inhabitants.

When Lorraine’s Dukes “Lorena family” came to power, the fate of San Giovanni Valdarno changed for the better.  The Lorena family was one of the most notable and famous of rulers who cared for the people and the region.  They were great patrons and brilliant politicians who greatly enhanced the people’s quality of life.  They started significant territorial projects and infrastructure improvements which resulted in economic prosperity and the cultivation of wheat and vegetables.  The resilience of the people of the land helped to shape their future.

Today, San Giovanni Valdarno is home to Villa Barberino (Greek for “broken ground”) where we host our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience.  With its strategic position and the role it played in the feuds between Florence and Arezzo, it’s a medieval castle not to be missed!

Boasting of several private rooms (and apartments) located in various historic buildings inside the walls of the hamlet, you can also visit the villa’s museum to learn about all the tools the farmers of yesteryear relied upon to live and make a living.  During our wine tasting experience, we challenge you to find the escape hatch thousands of years old used by the residents of the villa to escape danger in the event of an invasion.  Maybe with enough wine—it will be easier to find!  Running through the hatch, you find yourself in the woods free to run as far (and as fast) as you can.  You might also walk the lush green Italian gardens, visit the vineyards, take in the scent of the surrounding cypress trees or just lie by the pool and sip your Tuscan wine.

San Giovanni Valdarno is a hidden gem and a beautiful canvas for any Tuscan countryside experience.  We welcome you to join us at Villa Barberino to learn how to live, cook, lounge and explore like a local

 

6 03, 2017

So Much Wine, So Little Time… Part 1

By | 2017-03-06T15:31:58+00:00 March 6th, 2017|General, hidden gems, Wine|

Hi Everyone,

For those that follow me, you already know that I LOVE Italian wine, specifically Tuscan reds.  So, it is with great pleasure that I speak to this delicious topic.  I drink red wine year round, and that is typically all I drink with the exception of the occasional glass or bottle of sparkling.  Natalie on the other hand tends to stick with sparkling when it is warm and switches to red when it turns cooler.

What is with all those letters on a bottle of wine?

If you drink Italian wine, I am sure that at some point you have noticed a seal with letters.  Such as DOC or DOCG.  These are formalized grading standards for Italian wine.  In a nutshell, you have IGT, DOC and DOCG.  IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica ) is the lowest formal standards and has loose standards with regards to the grape varieties that are allowed from the area that the wine comes from.  DOC (Denominazione Origine Controllata )  is the next step up.  And at the highest level is DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata e Garantita).  DOCG is meant to represent the most legendary wines in Italy.

There are way too many types of Tuscan wine to discuss each one, so I will touch on a few of my favorites.  Now, to decide on a few favorites – This is a very difficult decision.  I love the king of Italian red, the Brunello di Montalcino but I equally love Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a of course a good Chianti.  I could probably list about 4 more very easily, but I will stick to these for this series.

Brunello di Montalcino-

Brunello is a medieval village in the province of Siena, and the winemaking region is to the Northeast.  Brunello tends to be more expensive than most other Italian reds.  This is primarily due to the smaller production area.  The Brunello di Montalcino area is roughly 3,000 acres while Chianti has about 40,000 acres.  Brunello di Montalcino is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, which is also the dominant grape in Chianti.  The difference in these grapes is that due to the higher and dryer climate, the grapes ripen at a more consistent rate.  This wine also must be aged for 5 years after harvest.  Because this is a heavy red, it is an amazing wine to pair with the king of steaks, the Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

We visit amazing wineries on our Tuscan Wine and Culture Experience as well as our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Cooking Experience

24 02, 2017

Why are there different pasta shapes? Part 3

By | 2017-02-27T20:31:07+00:00 February 24th, 2017|Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun|

Hi Everybody,

Continuing with our discussion about different pasta shapes and what sauces go best with each, we will be talking about the filled pasta today.

The most common pasta that is filled are the Ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti.  As we are all aware, there are many variations on these popular pastas as far as sauce and filling is concerned.  The most popular of these pastas is probably the ravioli.  Ravioli is a pocket type filled pasta that is cut into squares.  There are variations of the ravioli that include deep fried, but the traditional and the best preparation is served in an amazing sauce that compliments the filled pasta.  The ravioli is made from very thin sheets of pasta, and then topped with the filling and finally covered with another very thin sheet of pasta and cut into individual squares.  Be sure to make the pasta so thin that you can almost see through it, or it will be too doughy and not great.

Tortellini and cappelletti (little hats) are very similar.  There are some slight differences such as the cappelletti start from squares of pasta whereas tortellini start from circles and tortellini tends to be smaller.  It seems that the biggest difference is really the region in Italy that you are in.  These pastas are filled with a variety of fillings such as cheese, vegetable or meat.

Stuffed pastas are typically served in a lighter sauce since the filling is the main event and packed with the flavor.

Join A Toast to Travel’s Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun 7 day cooking Experience set in the heart of Tuscany to learn how to make some of these dishes.

Buona mangiata!!

 

15 02, 2017

Why are there different pasta shapes? Part 2

By | 2017-02-24T08:16:29+00:00 February 15th, 2017|Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun|

 

Hi everybody,

Last post we discussed long and thin pastas like spaghetti and linguine.  This post we will talk about the long ribbon pasta such as tagliatelle, pappardelle and fettuccine.  Fettuccine is probably the most recognized long ribbon pasta and the famous fettuccine alfredo.  Interestingly enough, fettuccine alfredo is more of an American dish, and almost completely absent in Italy except for maybe the real tourist places.

The long ribbon pastas are ideal for heavier, rich and meaty sauces because they are typically fresh and are more porous.  One of my favorites is Pappardelle al Cinghiale (Wild Boar) and also one of the dishes that you will learn how to cook on our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun cooking Experience.

There are often questions as to what is the difference between fettuccine and Tagliatelle and the answer is they are really the same.  It really just boils down to what region of Italy you are in as to which version of the pasta you will see.

Whenever possible try and make your own pasta, and you will see the difference in taste.  When cooking these pastas, as always start with a large pot and do not overcrowd.  The pasta should have room to cook so that they do not stick to each other.

 

12 02, 2017

Why are there different pasta shapes?

By | 2017-02-24T08:46:12+00:00 February 12th, 2017|Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun, Wine|

To celebrate A Toast to Travel’s Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun, our latest experience, we will explore the different types of pasta and what type of sauce is best paired with it.  We will divide this into a series of posts so be sure to check back often.

There are many different types of pasta to choose from, and this post will discuss the long and thin pastas.  The most common are Spaghetti, linguine, and vermicelli.  Spaghetti a long round pasta and is probably the most common pasta.  Linguine is long and flat while vermicelli is round and thinner than spaghetti also known as spaghettini.  These types of pastas are best suited for light sauces such as seafood, cream or oil based.  Linguine and a clam sauce is a very typical Italian pairing that is delicious.  Pasta should be paired with the correct sauce because of the taste and texture as well as the ability for the sauce to adhere to the pasta for the best result.  Obviously, you can be as creative as you want but we are just discussing the classic preparations.

When cooking pasta you should use a pot large enough for the pasta to move around.  If the pot is too small, the pasta will stick to each other and not turn out well.  You should salt to taste, there are several schools of thought but salt taste.  Remember to reserve some of the water that you cooked your pasta in so that you can use it in your sauce if needed.

Remember to experiment with different ingredients, and when creating your sauce do not skimp on the ingredients.  One of the most important things to remember, and what we spend a lot of time with in our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience is the quality and freshness of your ingredients.  Use fresh vegetables, herbs and meat.  It isn’t always possible to pick your own oregano, but try to use fresh as much as possible.

Check back for our next discussion, and be sure to check out our Experience Tuscany – Live Like a Local Experiences.

Ciao!

8 12, 2016

Ahhh…. The aperitivo

By | 2016-12-15T01:50:20+00:00 December 8th, 2016|food|

Just one of the many great things in Italy. Order your favorite drink, and for a little more you can partake in great light snacks at the buffet. The idea is not to make this your dinner (many do though) but to rather get your taste buds ready for dinner. I tend to visit smaller, off the beaten path places to enjoy my aperitivo.

8 12, 2016

Holidays in Tuscany

By | 2016-12-15T01:51:57+00:00 December 8th, 2016|Christmas, Winter|

I love the the Christmas season, and there is no place on Earth that embodies the season for me as much as Firenze!  From the decorations, to the Christmas Markets, to Christmas Eve Mass at the Duomo- this city gives me my “Christmas Fix”.

Buon Natale!