Saturday, April 7, 2012


Montepulciano – Day 7 – Thursday

Today was market day in Montepulciano.  Our class went to the market to expand our vocabulary and force us to speak with Italians.  The leather goods here are wonderful, but my suitcase is heavy enough without adding to it.  I love the smell of the leather when I pass the shops on the way to school.  There are shoes and bags in every imaginable color available here.  I bought a pork sandwich for lunch.  The vendor was carving slices off an entire roast pig.  It was crispy and spicy and delectable.  I am not fond of all the condiments that Americans put on sandwiches.  The plain meat, cheese and crusty rolls that they serve here suit me perfectly.

Montepulciano from Below
The market was just outside the walls and it was good for me explore the area and discover the location of the bus station.  I will be making my first solo excursion outside of Montepulciano this weekend and needed to figure out how to accomplish it without missing my connections.  After class, I went to the tourist office and bought a train ticket to Orvieto for Saturday.  I managed to accomplish this task without the lady in the tourist office addressing me in English, so I was proud of myself.  The train station that serves Montepulciano is 16 km away, so I also needed to go to the bus station and buy a ticket for the bus that will take me there.  In the bus station, there is a tobacconist and a snack bar, but no ticket window.  Tickets are sold at the same window where one would purchase an espresso.  I imagine this could make for quite a crowd just before departure, but it was slow when I was there and now I am prepared for Saturday.

Valley Below Montepulciano
For the first time since I got here, there were no activities planned for the afternoon.  I walked outside the walls from the bus station to the other side of town and then climbed back up a long flight of stairs to explore the half of Montepulciano on the other side of my house from the school.  I encountered a couple of restaurants that looked like they might be good for lunch and discovered a Laundromat not too far from where I live.  It’s a steep climb, but I should be able to lug my laundry up there.  It was green and springlike outside the walls.  Lilacs and wisteria are in bloom, as are apple and pear trees and the famous red poppies.
I took a nap before dinner and then Fiorella sent the dog in to wake me.  We had pasta left over from last night for a first course and then nuggets of tender beef cooked in a sauce with black pepper and balsamic vinegar for the main course.  The meat was served with steamed finocchio (It grows wild in California.  Why don’t we eat it there?), spicy grilled eggplant and salad.

A Rare Bit of Open Space in Upper Montepulciano
I was starting to think about bed when the drumming started.  At first, I thought it was some kid drumming on a plastic water bottle of something.  The street is so narrow and the walls so thick that I cannot see the ground.  Eventually, the din grew so loud that I realized something organized had to be happening out there.  I threw open the casement and leaned over to see what was happening.  There was a full scale parade, complete with flags and drum corp, marching down my street at 11 pm.  It is the Easter holiday here and I’m sure this was some sort of religious procession.  There was something very atmospheric about uniformed men marching through this 15th century street in the dark.  I could just imagine the Polizianos marching off to battle the Siennese with all their banners waving.

Montepulciano – Day 8 – Friday

I have been in Italy for a week, but it feels like I just got here.  Time passes so quickly.  There is so much to see and do and learn.  My head threatens to explode.

We passed the morning studying reflexive verbs and vocabulary for parts of the body and types of weather.  This was good for me, since my Italian vocabulary is long on food and short on everything else.  Today was a sad day because it was the last day for some of the students.  I guess I will eventually see everyone I now know leave.  I can only trust that new and wonderful people will arrive to take their places.

Gnochetti with Truffle Sauce
My friend, Donna, is leaving tomorrow.  She completed her course today.  She took her friend, Linda, and me out to lunch to celebrate.  The restaurant was in a cellar, but was very elegant.  We shared a divine bottle of dry proseco and the food was excellent.  I had gnochetti in a truffle sauce served in a bowl baked from fresh pasta dough.  The bowl wasn’t really edible, but it got high marks for presentation and didn’t need to be washed.

Valley Below Il Casale

After lunch, the school had arranged for us to tour a farm where organic cheese is made.  In Italy, dirt roads are called "strada bianca" because the gravel surface is whitish.  The farm was midway between Montepulciano and Pienza.  We went in private cars, since most of the people going lived in the direction of Pienza and weren’t returning to Montepulciano.  I drove with Donna and Linda.  The scenery was honestly the most beautiful I have ever seen.  Green rolling hills, fields of mustard, cypress trees lining the roads, stone farmhouses with red tile roofs and castles on every hilltop.  I felt like we were driving through a VanGogh painting.  Agricultural plantings in Tuscany are so beautiful that they seem to have been arranged by a landscape architect.

Goat Pen at Il Casale
Times are hard in Italy and it seems that every farm has turned to tourism to make ends meet.  Some rent rooms and others offer small campgrounds.  Il Casale, where we went to taste cheese, had a campground with a nice restroom and showers and a tasting room/breakfast room for the guests.  The farm raises sheep and goats and makes cheese from the milk of both.  Pecorino is made from sheep’s milk.  The owner was a Swiss woman named Sandra who has lived in Italy for many years.  She and her children run the farm.  She took us on a tour and explained to us how the cheese is made.  Pecorino goes through a number of stages as it ages.  Organic cheese which has not been pasteurized grows a lot of furry mold.  Sandra petted the cheeses as she spoke and it was obvious that they were made with love.

After the tour, we repaired to the tasting room, where we sat at a long trestle table to taste the products of the farm.  Besides cheese, Il Casale also produces wine, honey and several types of jam.  We tried three types of goat cheese, some fresh ricotta and six types of pecorino.   As the pecorino ages, it grows harder and stronger in flavor.  We began with a very young, soft, creamy cheese and worked our way up to the crusty old reserve.  There was also pecorino with truffles and pecorino aged in a tub of grape must.  We all preferred the three month old pecorino (reddish one on the right) because it was soft and creamy, but had a fairly strong flavor.  Most of us bought some to take home.  I brought a chunk to Fiorella and she liked it, also.  The cheese aged in grape must (the moldy one in the center) was also tasty.  The must gave it a sour finish that was a nice contrast with the cheese flavor.  I also enjoyed the carmelized pear, plum ginger and sweet pepper jams, both with the cheese and on the homemade bread.  They were especially delicious with the fresh ricotta.  After our tasting, one of the young men from the farm brought us back to Montepulciano.

This evening, Fiorella made wonderful spaghetti with calamari, shrimp and some form of mild white fish.  We sat eating dinner, drinking wine and watching a program on TV about the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that destroyed Aquila in Abruzzo three years ago today.  Nearly the entire city collapsed and 309 people died in the quake.  A medieval city is no place to be in an earthquake.

 There were no drum corps marching through the streets this evening, but there was a candlelight procession, accompanied by a singing priest, that passed by about 9:00.  The priest actually had a nice voice and his chant was quite haunting.  It reminded me of some of the better muezzins in Turkey.

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