Monday, April 12, 2010

From Puccini to Pasqual

Oof, what an action-packed weekend! Lots was done, seen, and eaten - and plenty of fun was had to boot!

We started out Saturday on a day-trip with our study-abroad program API to the city of Lucca and an olive oil tasting. Lucca is a bit to the north of Florence, only about an hour or so away. I had actually been here several times already because the summer before my freshman year in college, my family rented a villa for a week just outside of Lucca. It was a great vacation, and I was happy to return! [Have I mentioned I love Tuscany? Cause I do. A lot.]

We began, as most of our API trips often do, with a guided walking tour of the city. It was a bit on the long side, but our guide was a little whacky, which always makes things more interesting! I do wish that the tour had been shorter so we could wander around more, but alas, it was not to be. I did learn some stuff though! The city is surrounded by a big old wall built (medieval era, I think - don't quote me) to protect the city from the warring larger city-states nearby (like Firenze!). They even built a moat around the city and got all prepared for a HUGE battle, but on the day that the battle was set for, their opponents never showed up because they decided Lucca was too small to bother with! All dressed up and nowhere to go and no one to fight, they just kept the wall as is, and now it's what Lucca is known for. I thought that was cute!

The amphitheatre (anfiteatro) here is actually one huge elliptical-shaped piazza! It was built in 2 AD and did look like a traditional amphitheatre (think small-scale Colosseum); in the Middle Ages, houses were built over the ruins that remained. You can still see a lot of the original wall layers here and there. How cool would it be to live over a Roman amphitheatre???

We also got to see the musical school that Puccini, who was also born in Lucca, studied at!! He went to the Boccherini Institute of Music, Boccherini being the dude that statue is of. I looove me some Puccini - my favorite Broadway musical ever is RENT, which is based on his opera La Boheme, but he also wrote Madame Butterfly and Tosca, to name a few. This may have been the coolest thing I saw in Lucca [music nerd alert!] ;)
This tower has a pretty cool story too. Those trees you can see on the roof are in fact growing out of the building - if you climb to the top room, you can see the roots in the ceiling! Unfortunately we didn't have time to do it. Next time, right?

For a small town, Lucca sure has plenty of churches!
Actually, in the 2nd-to-last church we visited, I got rather angry. Just inside the church--a beautiful, centuries-old place of worship--were racks and tables of souvenirs and postcards. Inside the church. Really??????? Aaaargh, it was just so outlandishly wrong to me, I couldn't handle it. That just seems beyond inappropriate and downright offensive. At that point, I was ready for the tour to end. And what better to turn my mood around than food?!

I ordered, of course, one of the local specialties:
Minestra di farro (spelt soup)
I actually had this first on our little day trip to San Gimignano, and adored it! This one, however, was a bit too "soupy" for me - I only like soup that is suuuper thick, otherwise I just feel like I'm eating water and it's just not as fun for me. The flavor was good, and the bread helped (what doesn't bread help, really?), but I think I will stick to Sergio's & Mario's for my Italian soup fix.

It wouldn't be a complete trip without gelato!
Raspberry + soy vanilla
The raspberry was just ok - a little artificial-y tasting, but the soy vanilla was really good! It was without sugar, which I think hlped because it let the nautral sweetness of the vanilla flavor to really sing. Not quite as good as Perche No in Florence, but that would be near-impossible to beat. I have been noticing soy vanilla/chocolate gelato flavors more and more, and I think it's great! Eating too much processed soy is something to be aware of, but in general it has a lot of benefits. And I really like the flavor of soy ice cream - creamy with a really nice nutty taste. I was content.

After our [short] afternoon in the city, we hopped back on the bus and headed for Fattoria il Poggio, a nearby  farm we were visiting for an olive oil tasting!
Though this would be my second olive oil tasting, at the first one we didn't get much guidance as to how to go about tasting the oil or what to look for in the taste. At this one, our guide explained that the best way is to take some oil on a spoon and let it go directly to the back of your mouth/tongue, then roooooaaarrr like a lion! The roaring will send the oil closer to your nose and you can feel/taste/smell the fresh aroma of the olive oil. It was, needless to say, a very amusing day at the farm.

These are the machines used to make the olive oil! [Below is the cold press the squeeeeezes the olivey goodness right out!]

Olive trees galore!

Much like my first tasting, we were served bread and other little snacks to enjoy with our oil. No complaints here!
Olive oil with a dash of balsamic in it, sundried tomatoes, olives, and some the best Tuscan bread I've had yet. And I have had a loooot of it. I will admit, I liked the olives/oil from the San Gimignano farm better, but this bread was whoa-so-good.

Salami! Took me back to when I was little and would go to a little Italian specialty shop in my town with my mom and they would give my slices of cheese and salami over the counter. Food memories are the best kind :)
This is a kind of salami specific to Tuscany called finocchiona because it is dotted with fennel seeds. Now while I am generally at all interested in any kind of meat except seafood and the occasional turkey or chicken bite, this was delicious. I made a mental note to seek this out in Florence--it would make a phenomenal sandwich!!! I need to describe it as I eat it because the flavor is so different and complex I can't find the words, but just trust me - it's good.
We finished with the classic Tuscan dessert of cantucci (basically Tuscany's biscotti) and vin santo, a sweet dessert wine.

These are little bites of almondy sweet wonderfulness. They are not obnoxiously break-your-tooth crunchy but juuust soft enough to really bite into and then crumble in your mouth. 
This vin santo I actually really didn't like very much; too alcoholic-acidic and not very sweet. I have had vin santo before and really enjoyed it, but this was meh. Blame my underdeveloped palate, I guess.
I am planning on trying this again in Florence [pretty much any restaurant you go to in Tuscany will have this on their dessert menu], just because I know I've had it before and liked it. And those cantucci rock!

We returned to Florence for a few hours and then went right back out - to our first soccer match!!! I was SO excited. Soccer is the sport here, and Florence's team Fiorentina is like the Red Sox to Boston. They were playing Milan's team Inter, who have been doing reaaaallly well and if they beat us tonight they would go on to  play for the championships. All donning our purple Fiorentina gear (I wore my Firenze sweatshirt), we took the bus to the stadium and let the games begin! I didn't bring my camera because they warned us about the intense security checkpoints and I was afraid they wouldn't let me in with it or something [you just never know in Italy], but it was lots of fun! I forgot how much I love soccer, both watching and playing. I guess a lot of people find it boring to watch because it takes a lot longer for a team to score than in football or basketball, but that is what I love about it! It's so tense and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but not for too long, and I really like the fact that they have to work so hard for just one goal. It makes it all the more exciting when it happens! It was so fun to be in the stadium surrounded by the Italian fans and feel the atmosphere (and learn Italian swearwords). The game ended in a 2-2 tie. I also developed a major crush on defenseman Manuel Pasqual- #23, because he was reaaallly good and wore neon yellow cleats. 
It was the neon cleats that really did it for me.

My weekend adventures took me even further north on Sunday...stay tuned!


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