Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Fondue – It’s a Swiss thing

Each country has its own traditions, but I do like the whole "let's gather" for fondue tradition that they do in Switzerland.

The best part is the "cheese crust" at the end. But there's a knack to getting it out.

Fondue is one of those totally delicious meals that you can't have by yourself.  It just seems wrong to melt a big block of cheese, chop up a loaf of crusty bread and the chow down on it without other people.  It's a meal that needs to be shared...and you need to share it with good friends as you really don't want strangers dipping their fondue forks in your cheese.

To go with this tradition of eating a pot of cheese with friends, are other traditions.  In some places, I've been served little boiled potatoes to dip in with the bread (very good idea) and my co-worker says no fondue is complete without Swiss kirsch liquor.  He says you dip your bread in the liquor and then in the cheese to give it an extra punch.

I will warn you, this liquor is strong and not for everyone.  I tried it and prefer my bread with plain old cheese. Besides, the liquor makes the bread soggy which means there is more chance of it breaking off and falling into the cheese.  This is a big "no-no" when it comes to fondue.

And of course for dessert, meringue and cream is the Swiss way to end a traditional meal.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Hunting for Truffles in Tuscany

These are not truffles, but this was the woods where we found them.

Google is a wonderful thing.  Or maybe it's a dangerous thing for my it lets me act on a whim. The whole reason I needed to go to Tuscany in November (in addition of being in desperate need of hermit weekend) was that November is white truffle season. How did I know this? Google.

I was re-reading one of my favorite books "A Year in Provence" and came to the part when they went truffle hunting.  Now some people just read that part and think, "Mmmm...truffles are yummy." Me, I think, "Hmmm...I wonder when truffle season is?"

The truffle sniffing dog doing his thing

I google it and it turns out truffle season is apparently all year long, but the rare white truffle season is November. White truffles can go for $15,000 a kilogram. They are like tasty diamonds in the dirt -- so naturally, I decided those were the ones I should hunt for.

Keep in mind this was the first of November when I was doing researching this, and I already had committed to volunteering at a vineyard the second week of November (read blog entry) and was running the Las Vegas Ragnar one of the other weekends that month.  But the last weekend of November was free. Yay!!

Now all I had to find a truffle hunter in Tuscany who could take me out on a hunt.


Surprisingly there aren't that many truffle hunters who do tours listed online. But all I needed was one - and the one that I found was  The tour was fantastic and worth the $160 I paid to do it, as I got a full day that included shuttle service from Florence to the truffle farmhouse, truffle hunting, lunch and then Chianti tasting.

The van picked me and my friend up at 9am in Florence (when I told her about the truffle hunting, she couldn't say 'no' to the experience) and then drove us to the farm in San Minato. The woods where the truffles were located was about 90 minutes outside of Florence so it was nice to see a little of the countryside along the way.

Now in my "Year in Provence" book, they used a pig to find truffles, but this place had trained a dog to do it. They say the problem with using a pig is that the pig will eat the truffles if you aren't fast enough to snatch it away when the truffle is found. The dog can be trained to find it and will be happy with a dog treat.

The truffle dog was just a normal looking dog with a well-trained nose
You would think that the dog that they used would be some sort of fancy truffle hunting breed, but nope. The dog was a normal looking scruffy dog. He was super friendly and really seemed to love his job of leading our group of 8 people through the woods while he sniffed out truffles.

We followed him around the woods for about an hour.  In that time he found two truffles.  How it worked was that he would sniff them out and then dig a little to get to the edible treasure.  Frankly, I don't think I would be able to find any truffles without him.  Even when the Truffle Hunter showed us where it was in the ground, it was hard to distinguish what was a white truffle and what was a dead leaf.

That white thing beside the hoe is a white truffle

Also, truffles might be super expensive, but they do look a little bit like poop.

The white truffle cleaned off

After the hunt, they brought us back to the farmhouse where we had a three course meal that included soup with truffle oil drizzled on it, some sort of egg dish with truffles and a pasta with truffles in it (tagliolini al tartufo).  It was a nice way to see how to use the truffles in cooking.  Each course was also paired with wine to help bring out the flavor.

During the lunch, we also learned more about truffles -- like how to store them to keep them fresh. If you wanted, you buy some truffles to take home if interested.  You could also buy any of the wine that was served during lunch and the olive oil that they made on the farm.  It was all so amazingly delicious, and while the truffles were expensive (as they always are), the wine and the olive oil was relatively cheap.

I did pick up a bottle of the new olive oil that I mentioned in the blog before this (read it here) and was glad I did.  I haven't seen it anywhere else in Europe so far - and every time I use it, I think of this trip.

A box full of different sized truffles. They don't look tasty, but they are.

Then after we were all stuffed, it was time to visit a Chianti winemaker and learn about the grapes in the region. The guide explained everything we needed to know about the process of winemaking and, of course, this was followed by a tasting.

The Chianti winery

Again you could wine here and have it shipped back to the US if you wanted to take some home and not carry it with you.

It was amazing day of hunting, drinking and eating.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The weekend I ate too much in Tuscany

The view from the house.

I've had great experiences with AirBnB in last two years.  I've stayed on houseboat in Cairo (see blog post), a fantastic house overlooking the desert in Arizona (see it here) and numerous little apartments in Paris.

Coming up the walkway to the Tuscan Farmhouse

This weekend was another AirBnB adventure where I decided to rent a room in house -- rather than  rent out the whole house.

I have to admit, it was the most decadent bed and breakfast weekend that I've ever been on. (See the AirBnB listing here.)

Our room was on the second floor.

The house was on a farm in Tuscany - which is a little bit unique as most places are in Florence or some city.

I picked it as I knew I would have some homework to do for my masters program, but mainly because it was located in the hills away from the hustle and bustle of everything.  Yes, I was in desperate need of a little hermit time after a busy fall at work.

Took this photo just before they put the fire on.
The farmhouse was located on Chianti's Hill near Florence, and I was greeted by Teresa who welcomed me into her fabulous home.

Teresa is a beautiful woman, both inside and out, with a big smile.  You can't help but like her. She so wants you to enjoy Tuscany, and goes out of her way to make sure you have a fantastic time.

After serving me toast with new olive oil (a local tradition where you rub a clove of garlic over the toast, sprinkle it with salt and pepper and then drizzle the oil on top) and a glass of Chianti, she told me they built this house themselves. She showed me photos of the construction and it was incredible to see the before and after -- and the hard work that went into all the details.


The new olive oil Teresa served me was one of the best things I've ever tasted.  So when she told me it was the season to press the olives and that the pressing was happening just 10 minutes away, I had to see it. I knew I there during truffle season, but had no idea it was also the olive picking time.

It was already shaping up to be an incredible weekend.

Olives waiting to be pressed
She said at this time of year, the pressing place is open 24 hours as the olives need to be pressed as soon as they can after picking to ensure freshness.  And yes, the oil did taste fresh.

Pressing the olives.
The new oil is greener than the olive oil you find in the grocery store and a little more potent -- in a good way.  I'm not sure if you can use it in salad, but it's great for dipping your bread into it or to drizzle over potatoes and other foods.

The new oil is really vibrant -- and tasty.


Already, I was enjoying my weekend. The house was better than I imagined, I was enjoying trying to communicate with Teresa (her English is hit and miss -- but my Italian is worse), and I got to see olives being pressed at a local factory.

But then there was the food.  OMG...I have not eaten so much in my life, but everything was just so delicious, I couldn't stop.  Teresa and her husband Augusto are amazing cooks.  I don't eat red meat so she had to make special stuff just for me, but what she made was incredible.

The Ribollita she made us

Naturally, there were many courses as it's the Tuscan way.

The meal began with a couple different types of bruschetta, cheese and olives.  This was followed by Ribollita.  Ribollita is described as a vegetable, bean and bread soup -- but it's really thick so more like a stew.  I had never had this before, but now if I see it on a menu, I'm going to get it as it was so good.

The assortment of antipasto that we ate too much of before the meal.

The Ribollita was followed by chicken cooked with black olives, garlic and potatoes -- again, I was in heaven.  Everything they served either came from their garden, their farm (they have chickens) or from the area.

My girlfriend who joined me last minute on this trip had requested steak (this was an extra cost as they usually don't serve this).  When it came out, she regretted eating all the prosciutto and cheese before as it was giant -- and she says incredible.

By this time, I could not eat any more, so thankfully desert was small.  It was something that looked like a biscotti, but it was soft. They called it cantuccini and you dipped into this sweet wine called vin santo.


The meal was 20 Euros per person not including your wine. I highly recommend having at least one meal with Teresa and Augusto if you stay at the farmhouse. You won't find food like this in any restaurant.  In fact, I think I may still be full.