Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cooking Class at Azienda Agricola Infantino

Saturday morning, the 21st, dawned cold, windy, and looking like it could rain at any moment.  We were up relatively early.  Les had band practice, dad took off on the bike, and mom and I were off to a cooking class at Azienda Agricola Infantino, an organic farm close to where we live. Les and I had been there before for a of olive picking and lunch so I knew that whatever was on the menu would be fabulous.

Just before 9am Mom and I walked out to the front gate of our housing complex to catch a ride up to the farm. Our wait consisted of trying to find a place both blocked from the wind and in a patch of sun. No easy task.  Once we arrived at the farm we were talking about how cold it was, freddo in Italian.  We were told no, not freddo, fresco! HAH!

Anyhow, after a cup of delicious coffee made with Italian beans and a Swiss coffee maker we began our work.  The cooking class was centered on fava beans. I had purchased some of these beans last spring, but didn't have a clue what to do with them.  My attempts didn't turn out so well so I was excited to learn how to make something delicious with this ingredient.

We were presented with two crates of fresh fava beans, still in the pods.  Our job was to shell the beans.

Before & After

The first dish we made was a fava bean omelette. Ingredients included fava beans (of course), wild asparagus, wild fennel fronds, bread crumbs, grana padana (similar to parmigiano), onion, garlic, salt, and eggs.  While we were waiting for the omelette to cook we were presented with antipasti and wine mixed with blood orange juice. Oh my, what a combination!  It was delicious!  The antipasti consisted of pickeled mushrooms, eggplant, olives, cheese, bread, and salami. Those of us attending the class sat down and enjoyed the pre-feast feast.  After about 45 minutes or so the omelette was done (they cooked it very slow on low heat to make sure that the beans had a chance to cook).  Of course we dug right in.

Fava Bean Omelette

The next course was the pasta course, of course with more fava beans.  This time the beans were boiled and partially cooked and then sauteed on the outdoor stove with onions and garlic while the pasta cooked. When the pasta was finished the fava bean mixture was tossed with the pasta and a generous amount of their amazing homemade olive oil.  We were each served a generous portion to which we added parmigiano and more delicious oil.  Our oil choices included infusions of garlic, pepperoncino (spicy), and other herbs.  I went with the garlic pepperoncino oil. It was sooooo good!  (on a side note, I bought a bottle of this oil and have nearly used half of the bottle, it is THAT good.  I use it on everything, espeically steamed vegies.  Just the oil and a bit of salt and they are awesome!)

Unfortunately, from the omelette on I didn't take any pictures.  The threat of rain combined with the distraction of delicious food kept my camera safely tucked away in its bag.  Oh well.

After the pasta course we were definitely getting full but still had two more courses to go! Meat & dessert.  The meat course was some of the most delicious sausage I have ever tasted.  It came from a butcher up in Mineo that is only open in the evenings. Emilio, the owner of the farm, roughly gave me directions to the butcher shop.  Now I just need to find it.  The meal finished off with some sort of candied dried fruit, grappa, and coffee.  Mom and I were adventurous and even had a few drops of grappa.  Super strong stuff!  Even just the few sips I had kept me warm from the chilly wind for a bit. :)

After we finished eating we had the opportunity to buy some of the farm's products. I came home with a big bottle of the very best olive oil ever, a bottle of the infused garlic pepperoncino oil, and a bottle of lavendar infused olive oil for baths or massage. Nature finally told us when the class was finally completed.  The sky all of a sudden looked very threatening and everyone quickly cleared the courtyard tables and brought everything into the house.  Seconds later it was raining. We said our goodbyes and quickly ran back out to the van.  As the van headed back down the hill the raindrops grew huge and almost looked like they were a little bit frozen. Not quite hail, but close.

Mom and I were dropped off at the gate of the housing complex and quickly walked home to avoid getting soaked. When we got back to the house Les' band was just finishing practice.  After the band cleared  out we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and evening at home.  Mom and I had put a corned beef in the crock pot that morning and it was already smelling divine. I had intended to make the corned beef on St. Patrick's day but we were in Lipari, so we had our St. Patty's day feast a little bit late.  Later that evening my mom put out a spread with the corned beef, cabbage, and her yummy potato pancakes.  One of my favorite comfort food meals that tastes best when mom makes it. :)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Caltagirone & Catania

Up until this point in my parents' visit the weather had been pretty good.  Cold, but not too bad.  That changed, however on Friday, the 20th. My dad had taken off on the bike and the rest of us were waking up and getting ready for the day. As we were nearly ready to leave dad came back and said it was too windy.  He had been up on a ridge, fought the wind, and decided that it would be smart to come home.  He decided to join mom and I for a trip into nearby Caltagirone.

It was cold and wet up in Catagirone, I didn't even take my camera out of the car. We parked, walked into the centro, and to the famous stairs.  Mom wanted to go back to the cermic shop where she bought a few pieces two years ago. That particular store was all the way at the top so we started the climb.

About halfway up the rain started, and the wind was strong.  I managed to hold on to my umbrella, my dad's got turned inside out.  It was eerie being up so high on the stairs with the wind pulling and pushing me, the steps wet with rain beneath my feet.  I hoped that the wind wouldn't catch my umbrellla the wrong way and pull me down the stairs.

Luckily we made it just fine, a little cold, definitely wet, but safe to the top and our destination. Mom found her pattern and picked out a few new pieces.  We also told the owner that the lid to their sugar bowl had broken and he even through in a new one for free.

As we made our way back down the stairs we stopped in to a few other ceramic shops.  Mom bought a few gifts to take back to people in the states.  When we reached the bottom we were officially cold and I was in desperate need of a cappuccino.  We found a nearby bar and relaxed for a bit.

As we were getting ready to leave Mom remembered that she had been carrying around Blackhorse Coffee cups. Blackhorse Coffee is a coffee shop in my hometown, San Luis Obispo, CA. While I was back in the states for the holidays I became a regular and introduced my mom to the shop. On their wall they have pictures of customers holding Blackhorse coffee cups in different locations around the world. So, we thought we needed to contribute so mom sent me a few paper cups and we went back to the Caltagirone steps for a few pictures. Sadly, I don't have them to share here, they were taken on mom's camera, but hopefully soon she'll update her blog and you might be able to see them there.

After our litte photo shoot we headed back to the car, cold and ready to be out of the elements.  We headed home, had a bit of lunch, and then relaxed for a bit.

Later that afternoon we headed toward base to run a few errands.  We were also meeting several of Les' brothers from the lodge to go into Catania to feed the homeless. We had a very good turnout this time. Last time there were only four of us that volunteered. This time, I didn't even count, but quite a few people came out to help.  When we arrived at the mission we found out that another group had also volunteered that night.  There were so many volunteers that many of us were just in the way.  Oh well :) Too many people helping is much better than too few.

After serving at the shelter our entire group caravaned to a Chinese food restaurant in Catania.  We hadn't been to this one before and it was awesome! By far the best Chinese food I've had in Italy.  We enjoyed a couple hours of declicious food and good company with lots of conversation and laughter. After dinner we made the long drive back home and fell into bed happy and tired.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

It gets COLD in Enna!

The day after we returned from Lipari my dad took off on his own on the motorcycle, mom and I took off to Enna, and Les wanted a day to himself so he stayed home.

On the way to Enna Mom spotted this field of red flowers

Enna is located in the center of Sicily, high on a hill. I had only been to Enna once before so I was a bit nervous about finding the area we wanted to visit and where to park the car (always a challenge in Sicily). After navigating narrow medieval roads, following signs to the centro, and taking a few detours where the roads were closed we finally found our way to the Castello di Lombardia. Les and I had parked near the castle on our last visit. There were plenty of spaces, and, even better, it was free.

Our first order of business was food. We arrived just in time for Italian lunch. We hadn't walked far when I spotted a restaurant with a modern flair. I love the traditional Sicilian dishes served at most restaurants but I'm always game to find something new, a bit more diverse. My mom and I walked in and asked for a table. We were the only customers. At first we thought maybe they had been about to close but it turned out to be the restaurant's first day of operation! After glancing at the menu we decided to share a porcini mushroom tagliatelle and grilled swordfish that came with a tomato and mozzarella salad. While we were waiting for our food we grabbed our cameras and took several pictures of the adorable restaurant.

The name of the restaurant was Di Vini, and we sat at table #5

Is that a clever sign for the bathroom? I love it! They even had fresh mint growing inside the bathroom! What a great idea!

Yes, those are little pots with fresh basil on every table

Isn't it a cute place? I was so happy to find it and I definitely go back. Our meal was fantastic.  When they brought it out I thought my Italian had failed me.  I had asked that we share each course but the plates they brought out were huge! I was sure the bill would reflect two portions of each. At the end of the meal when the bill was brought I was astounded. We had a ton of food, really delicious food, for only 17 euro.

 Full and happy we left the restaurant and headed down the road to take in the sights.  We didn't get far before we started pulling out our scarves and buttoning our coats.  It was freezing and on top of that the wind was blowing very strong. I know I  had seriouly crazy windy day hair!  Anyway, we walked a bit and then stopped for a caffe to warm up.  I mentioned to the barista that it was cold and he looked at me like I was crazy.  He said no, it wasn't cold, no snow.  HAH!  

One of the churches we ventured into was the church of Santa Chiara. It was unlike any other Italian church I have seen.  The architecture was similar but the adornments were of battles and soldiers. It turned out that the church is a memorial to fallen soldiers.  The mosaics along the tops of the walls show many different battle related scenes and along the walls are plaques marking the names of hundreds of fallen soldiers, presumably from Enna. Some even have photos.

The interior of Santa Chiara church

We poked in and out of several churches that afternoon. At one in particular we had a truly hilarious experience where we were treated to some true Sicilian hospitality. As we went to enter the church of San Giuseppe an older gentleman gently scolded us and asked us to leave. We said we were sorry, assuming we had interrupted some sort of ceremony and continued down the street. As we were walking past the side of the church the side door opened and another man invited us inside. It turned out that it was the final day of the Festival of San Giuseppe and that the church was the staging ground for preparing the statues of the saint that would be carried through the town later that night.

We were given the opportunity to view the statues up close, which we were told is usually not allowed and meet several of the men who were organizers of the event.  They even gave us some of the special bread which is only made during the festival.  These men were having such a great time and were incredibly friendly.  I think the fact that we were so sorry that we had initially intruded gave them confidence in inviting us back in.  One of the gentlemen even invited us back for another festival in April and said that we would join his family and friends for the celebration!  Unfortunately I didn't get his name but he said to meet him back at that church.  Hopefully we can.  That would be so cool!

By this point in the day we were starting to watch the clock. We decided to make our way back up the hill, visit the Castello and then head home. On the way back to the castle we stopped in to see the inside of the Duomo, which was built in the 14th century. We had the place to ourselves, except for a man who was doing a bit of carpentry near the alter.

Interior of the Duomo

We left the Duomo as soon as a tour group entered and then continued to the castle. According to my trusty guidebook:
The Castello di Lombardia was built by Frederick II on a previous Arab fortification, which had been enlarged by the Normans. It was also modified by Frederick III of Aragon who chose to live here. It is irregular in shape, and preserves only six of the twenty original towers. The interior has a complex set of courtyards; the first has been converted into an open-air theater, and the third has the remains of the little church of San Martino. One of the most sweeping views of Sicily can be seen from the best-preserved tower, the Torre Pisana (Pisan Tower). (Authentic Sicily, Touring Club of Italy)
Looking up at the Torre Pisana

Mom, taking in the spectacular view

 Looking out from the top of the Torre Pisana

While we were at the top of the tower we were joined by another traveler, an Australian who was traveling alone. He was a hilarious, good-natured person and we enjoyed his company for about 10 minutes before we headed our separate ways. I wish him well on the rest of his trip and hope he gets the write the travel book he dreams of writing!

Eventually our time in Enna had to come to a close, but our day was far from over. We made it home with about a half hour to relax before we had to leave for a dinner reservations at Les' and my favorite agriturismo.  For the next three hours or so we ate and drank and laughed.  As always, the food at the agriturismo was phenomenal, but I have yet to have enough self control to not eat too much of the anitpasti.  It is hard, though when they bring out at least 10 different things to try! Somehow though I still manage to get through the entire meal.  I know...life is tough! :)

Friday, March 27, 2009

I LOVE Lipari

For the next portion of my parents' visit we took off to Lipari in the Aeolian Islands. We got a bit of a late start the morning we left but we finally made it to Milazzo to catch the ferry to the island. We arrived in Lipari mid-afternoon and after checking into our hotel, Hotel Oriente, we set off to explore the town and show my parents our favorite spots. As the sun went down we settled into a bar for a cocktail, pre-dinner munchies and conversation. After we finished our drinks we moved on and ended up at another bar where we sat for quite awhile until we decided we needed some "real" food for dinner (as opposed to chips, nuts, olives, etc.).  We enjoyed a late but delicious dinner and then returned to our hotel, fell into bed, and slept like rocks until morning (or at least Les & I did, apparently my parents' room was freezing and they couldn't figure out how to keep the heater on, ugh).

For our one full day on Lipari we rented modes of transportation - a scooter for my parents and a little go-cart type contraption for Les & I (the same one we had on our last visit).

Mom & Dad with their scooter

We set out to explore the island's main road which runs the perimeter of the island. Our first stop took us to a small port where we got out to stretch our legs and take a few photos. When we looked down into the water we saw massive numbers of jelly fish!  I don't remember seeing them last time we were in Lipari but I sure do remember feeling the one that stung me! I still have the scar.  I don't think I will ever swim there again after what I saw on this trip! Even though I don't want to swim with jellies again I am fascinated watching them.

 Did you see the tentacles!?!

And, just to give you an idea of how many were in the water...

Keep in mind that these picutres were taken from about 10 feet above the water.  These were not small jelly fish, I would guess that the first one in the first picture was about 8 inches, not including the stringy, long tentacles. Anyway, after being mesmerized by jellies we returned to our modes of transportation and continued around the island.

Looking down on Lipari Town

Lipari Town, this time from the other side of the cove

Canneto Beach

Towards the end of the day the breeze kicked up and it got cold. We returned the scooter and go-cart and after a brief freshening up at the hotel headed out for another great evening of drinks and dinner. We even ended up eating at the same restaurant the second night. It was good, but then again we didn't have too many options. Since we visited in the off season many of the shops and restaurants were closed.
Our final day in Lipari was spent packing up and then waiting for the return ferry. While we waited mom and I did a little bit of shopping and picked up a few delicious Aeolian treats. Once we returned to Sicily we drove to Acireale to begin my dad's favorite part of the visit - picking up a motorcycle that he rented for a week.

Stay tuned for my next "episode" :) More pictures and adventures to share!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Day in the Ragusa Province

Nothing gives a traveler an authentic taste of the place they are visiting like traveling with a local. Les and I have been fortunate to become friends with a member of Les' lodge who is also a local who lives in Comiso, near Ragusa. We asked him if he would be willing to help us arrange a couple of activities in that area and not only was he willing to help, he accompanied us as a personal tour guide for most of the day!

We started our day by meeting our friend at a gas station about an hour and a half away from home. From that point we followed him. He took us to a small dairy farm for breakfast where we feasted on fresh, warm ricotta cheese and fresh bread, which were both made that morning.  Oh my goodness was it delicious! We also had a chance to roam around the farm and see the cows, view the milking facility, and watch the cheeses being made. So cool!

Cheese, similar to mozzarella

Fresh Provolone

Fresh Caciocavallo (I think)

After breakfast our friend/tour guide had some business to take care of but said he'd meet up with us later that afternoon. Les & I decided to take my parents to Ragusa Ibla, a beautiful town built in the Baroque style.

I just liked the name of this trattoria :)

Ornamentation on the gate of the duomo, San Giorgio

One of many coffe breaks

After walking around Ragusa Ibla we decided to go toward Modica, a sicilian town famous for its chocolate.  Our first stop was at the lookout for a panoramic view of the town. Along the fence of the panoramico lovers have put hundreds of locks to symbolize their undying love.  The locks have multiplied like rabbits since my last visit.

We were only in Modica for a short time, just enough to grab a quick, light lunch, buy a few chocolates, and snap a few pictures. Our friend called us as we were finishing lunch and gave us our next destination - Donna Fugata castle. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the castle we found out it was closed, but at least my parents got to see the exterior. Our friend decided to take us to his hometown next, Comiso.  He showed us the centro which contained several old churches and even roman baths complete with amazing mosaics! Apparently a modern construction project had unearthed these treasures.  We would have never even seen them if we hadn't been with a local who took us down a side street and pointed them out.

Comiso Church

Courtyard of the City Museum

After exploring Comiso our friend took us to the Museo Archeologico Regionale di Camarina, an archeological site which dates as far back as 598 BC. Unfortunately they didn't allow pictures inside so I don't have a lot to show for this part of our day, but it was extremely interesting. We were lucky we had our friend with us as the museum guide only spoke Italian.

The remaining part of a wall from the Temple of Athena

The last destination of the day was Scoglitti, the town where our friend was born and where he also owns a ristorante. He walked with us around the town, pointing out interesting features that we may have otherwise overlooked and then took us to his restaurant, Pizza in Piazza, for dinner. His restaurant is completely family run. One of his sons is the chef and while we were there we met his wife, sons, and even a grand-daughter!

Looking out over the Scoglitti waterfront at sunset

What a wonderful day! We were able to see and experience things that we would have never have found on our own without a local guide. We are so lucky to have met such a generous friend who would spend his day off taking my family around and being a tour guide!

Mineo and Giardini Naxos

For mom & dad's first full day back in Sicily I thought I'd start them off with Italian coffee and a pastry. We went up to Mineo to my favorite bar for breakfast, Bar Salerno.  As we were about to leave they brought out a fresh tray of arancini, a fried rice ball usually filled with ragu (meat sauce), my dad's favorite Sicilian treat.  Needless to say we stuck around for a few more minutes so he could enjoy his arancine.

Mt. Etna from Mineo

After breakfast we walked through the weekly outdoor market and then into the town to explore.  Mineo, perched high up on a hill, isn't very big, you can easily walk from one end to the other on steep, narrow streets. We burned off our breakfast over the next couple of hours while exploring the nooks and crannies of  Mineo.

Mom & Dad with Mt. Etna in the background

Another shot of Mt. Etna

After we finished our exploration we headed home for lunch. Before my parents arrived I collected massive amounts of Italian goodies - salami, prosciutto, cheeses, olives, fresh bread, sun-dried tomatoes, etc. We had fabulous lunches (and snacks) with these yummies whenever we were at home.

Later that afternoon, after Les was off of work we headed up toward Taormina.  As an afterthought we decided to go to Giardini Naxos, a place that Les and I had been briefly in the first few weeks we were on the island. I knew that there was something historically significant about this location but couldn't remember what.  Here is what my handy guidebook had to say:
This vast archeological sit on the promontory of Capo Schiso contains the ruins of the earliest Greek colony to be founded in Sicily by the Chalcidians. Its foundation the 8th century BC started the Greek colonization of the island. Prior to this, they had though that it was populated by monsters and fierce pirates. The settlement was destroyed in 403 BC by the tyrant Dionysius of Siracusa. Today, visitors can see the walls and fortifications built of lava rocks, the residential areas built on a regular grid plan and the walled area used for sacred rites, including the remains of a temple dating from the early 5th century BC. Finds from the site are housed in the small site museum. (Authentic Sicily, Touring Club of Italy)
Unfortunately the museum and ruins were closed when we arrived, but we walked the length of the charming beach town, along the water. Les and I will go back soon to see the museum and ruins.

A weathered angel sculpture near the edge of the sea

Mom & Dad with Taormina in the background

The town of Giardini Naxos with Mt. Etna in the background

Another sculpture along the waterfront

What a GREAT name for a ristorante!

 The lights of Taormina

We explored until it was dark and we were hungry. We decided to head back toward home and grab dinner on the way. We stopped in Motta St. Anastasia at one of our favorite restaurants. I can't ever remember the name (and it has changed since we moved here) but they have a wonderful garlic soup. I can make a reasonable copy of it at home but the restaurant always seems to do it better.  Anyhow, we had a delicious dinner and then made our way home.