It was a wonderful surprise to get the opportunity to recover from my Achilles tendon surgery in Spello, since I could not drive, I was still wearing a boot cast, and I was going to be home alone with my husband gone on business for several weeks. He had booked tickets for me to spend six weeks in Spello, but the time here quickly flew by. In what seemed like an instant, I was preparing to close down the house and head back home.
A couple of unrelated photos, first. This one is one of my favorite meals in Spello, and I always have the ingredients on hand when I am planning on eating alone. It is a quick salad that I learned to make from my Austrian friend, Irmy, who has lived in Italy for 30 years. The base is arugula, and this was fresh from the local farmer’s market held every Wednesday morning—as fresh and spicy and substantial as arugula can be. Dressed with fresh lemon juice and new Spello olive oil, the next layer is bresaola, an air-cured beef product sliced thin like proscuitto (air-cured pork). It turns to almost a purple color, and is so lean that I have wondered if it comes from the filet. Next, shavings of parmiggiano Reggiano cheese, pine nuts, and then a last sprinkling of olive oil and lemon juice finish the dish. Here, I added a few of the taralli on the side (from Puglia, in southern Italy) for crunch—small round “pretzels” that contain fennel seeds (my favorite flavor of these snacks). Almost every week, I restock my bresaola supply, so that this flavorful and simple dinner is only minutes away.
Next, this is actually the setting moon, disappearing in a fog bank in the valley I overlook from my house. After recent rains, I woke up often to fog, burning off in the first few hours of the morning.
Now, on to “The Last Supper,” just a day or so before I was to depart for Florence, and then leaving for home a day later on several flights. I invited Paola and Leonardo, and also Suzanna and Phil (vegetarians)—so I knew that I needed to put some time into thinking through the menu. I spent most of two days preparing all of the foods, from the breadsticks and appetizers to the pear tarts for dessert. When it was time for the guests to arrive, I lit a string of six votive candles along my garden wall, and opened the gate—unaware that the winds right behind me put the candles out immediately. So much for the flashy entrance I had planned!
The table was set, the wine was opened, the prosecco was chilled for the appetizers, and pots covered nearly every burner of my small stove. In the living room, I moved my two outdoor chairs inside, and pulled in the bedside tables to make more room for holding the appetizers. First, the smoked almonds I made were a big hit, and then the puff pastry “pizza” came out of the oven, covered with sliced apples, gorgonzola, walnuts and honey. So far, I was “on a roll.” We were all sipping glasses of prosecco, and in no hurry to rush the evening along.
To the table for more “antipasti,” including bruschetta with onion “marmalata,” a few dried Umbrian sausages (I needed to empty my fridge, and not everyone was a vegetarian), and fresh Parmesan rosemary breadsticks. Of course, the conversation was entirely in Italian, the common language of us all, and I was kept hopping up over and over to keep the next course coming.
Our “primi” was a derivation of a recipe I came to love on the island of Elba, in Tuscany, in 2003. There, I was served eggs poached in a broth enriched with fresh marjoram and garlic, and served over toasted bread, with the hot poaching broth poured over the egg and toast. The last touch was a splash of fruity olive oil—from the bottle given to me by Suzanna and Phil—and we were all set for the first course. Unfortunately, I was using eggs from the store—when Suzanna and Phil are accustomed to eggs from their own hens—a better choice, certainly, but I was using up what I had before I left for home.
Next, the “secondo” was a baked pasta dish, filled with grilled eggplant, red peppers, and cherry tomatoes, and then blended with pasta, red sauce and grated smoked mozzarella. I was doing my best to keep meat off the menu, and this dish sounded good when I read it in one of my cookbooks, and didn’t disappoint—but we all were getting filled by the time we got to the main course.
Finally, we reached the dessert course. I had peeled and poached pears in sweetened blood orange juice, with bits of the orange peels, and then reduced the poaching liquid to thick, red syrup, which candied the peels at the same time. In small tart pans (not nearly small enough, after all of the food we had already had), I had made a crumb crust with the last of the cheap, “vanilla wafer” cookies that I still had left in the house, but added in butter and almost half the volume was ground hazelnuts—and then I baked off the crust. I filled it with almond-flavored pastry cream, sliced and fanned out the pears on top, with a small spoonful of syrup and some candied orange peel to finish it off. It was certainly an enticing dish, but we were all groaning by then—so we ate slowly, with three sweet liquors on the table to sample: Varnelli (anise, known among some of its fans as “Varnish”); limoncello (sweet lemon liquor, from Sorrento); and Agricanto (dark cherry, and a new product I had discovered at VinItaly with Pall in April).
The desserts disappeared, and we were all uncomfortably full—but the evening went on for hours longer, with lots of conversation and stories and joking. This is a posed photo, proposed by Suzanna—the look of four over-fed guests, after an overly satisfying dinner, all too polite to leave anything behind on their plates!
Following the suggestion of my friend, Debby, we put out the lights and lit a candle to finish the evening in soft light. (She told me to never—after age 50—serve meals by anything brighter than candlelight, which makes everyone look more young and romantic.) By the time we lit the candle, we were all looking mighty fine, I’d say. Or maybe that was the liquor talking. We had a wonderful evening together, and it was a fitting “last supper” with friends before I was leaving for home.
I had one last outing from Spello, to meet a friend in Montevarchi. It is located almost all the way back to Florence, and we had an afternoon and evening walking around the old city center. I happened to look into a sculpture studio we were passing, and I was impressed with the work I saw—good enough to think about returning when the school was open, and the students were working on their pieces.
I saw this bike, too—and it was the colorful door that caught my attention—so I could not pass without a photograph. Then, small streets with laundry hanging were everywhere, and the colors were enhanced by the last light of the day. Finally, as night came on, we headed for the train station, and walked beneath the holiday lights, just being strung across the streets for the coming holiday season. It was a nice afternoon exploring Montevarchi, home of Prada and the obvious destination of dozens of shoppers waiting on the train platform with me, weighed down and juggling huge Prada shopping bags.
The very next morning, I was packed, the house was ready to be locked and left behind, and I was on my way to Florence. Anne left her keys with her sister-in-law a floor below, and I just spent the night in her place before calling a cab at 4 to get me to the airport for a 6 a.m. departure.
Arriving at the Florence airport, I was reminded that I had been sporting a boot cast (I’d almost forgotten, no longer using a cane, and getting around well), and was “treated” to another transfer from the terminal to the plane, via specialized trucks with scissor-lift compartments to lift disabled passengers up to the height of the doors of the plane. The operator was delighted to get the opportunity to get more practice with the new truck, and I was his only passenger. While I was belted into a wheelchair at the back of the compartment, he drove to the plane, out on the tarmac (no jet ways in Florence—only stairs, and then transfer buses that take passengers to the terminal, only about 100 yards away). He got out, put down and secured a “gangplank” from the compartment to the airplane door, and escorted me onto the plane, then followed with my carry-on bags. I was the FIRST person to board the plane, before the buses arrived from the terminal with the other passengers.
Soon I was on my way home—headed for a connection in Frankfurt, and flying over what appeared to be cooling towers of a nuclear reactor. I was only surprised to see the steam billowing out the towers because of the immediate closure of all German nuclear power plants after the tsunami damaged the plant in Fukushima, Japan. Maybe that was just a precaution, and they were already back online.
A great trip, again. The boot cast and pain medications had become “non-issues,” after six weeks of time had passed, and I was getting around well, leaving my cane in the house unless the streets were wet and slippery, and using the Spello “navetta” shuttle van to get to the grocery store in the borgo below. Mike’s idea to send me to Spello was a good one, and time passed quickly as I was recuperating. I was looking forward to seeing Mike when I landed, and counting the few days left before my appointment to get clearance from the surgeon to start walking again without the cast, and slowly returning to “normal”—including driving again!