Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Where to Stay; Italy & France

When I said I was going to Italy this spring, I got a lot of comments about this being “a trip of a lifetime” and “very expensive.”  I believe strongly in budgeting and spending where it counts.  Europe need not be expensive, after the airfare.  The pillow on which I lay my head is not generally where I want to spend my money.  As my friend L says, “all hotel rooms look the same when the lights are out.”  It must be clean, I must not fear for my safety, but after that, I am not too into “fancy.”  I would rather spend my money on food and gifts and antiques, not necessarily in that order.  I’d rather have a ton of these~


Or perhaps twenty scoops of this~IMG_4712 Or this~IMG_4721In Rome, there are many fantastic hotels; the Hassler, or the Napoleon III; just check out that link for the NIII and tell me you would not love to stay there!  But I wondered…. who has better real estate than the religious in Rome?  Who??  So I called Sister Francine, and she put me in touch with another Nun friend and former teacher of mine who lives now in Rome, and she connected me with the American Church in Rome, Santa Susanna.  Through this  website, I found a wide range of lodging through the Catholic Church.  There is one right opposite the Vatican, but I chose to stay at the Sacred Heart Convent, a short walk from the Vatican; the order is French in origin; and I have many friends who have gone to Sacred Heart; the Villa is beautiful~  IMG_4133 There are other “budget” and former-religious places to stay, like this one, endorsed by Rick Steves, but these rates are not really “budget” to me.  I don’t know if it’s the U.S. Dollar or lodging in general, but this place wants minimum $130 per night for a single occupancy room; wow that adds up fast.  


You will likely not have a TV in your room at Sacred Heart, but you will find a crucifix.  I had a full and very modern bath, bidet and WC in my room; better than most hotels.  And the view from my room, looking down on the complex of buildings, was very pleasant~IMG_4130

Breakfast was included for the $45 per night. They have single, double and even rooms for four.  Here is the refectory; the first day I was the only one lodging, so they set the place setting just for me~


The adjacent kitchen has mostly marble counters; I could not help but think of the meals which have been prepared here, over the decades~


The Sacred Heart of Jesus and Sacred Heart of Mary is over the gate.  There is a bell to ring for entry.  But just as I got my finger close to that bell,even at 11pm,  I heard “Qui est?” on the buzzer…”who is there?”  The nuns were right on it, though there is a police station a few doors up and this is a totally secure neighborhood, with fantastic restaurants and shops nearby,  not to mention the Vatican. 


As with most religious orders, the order is  facing declining numbers.  They have a second residence not far away, for the novitiates and others. Not long ago, this would be full~


The two story chapel with groined and painted ceiling is simply beautiful, though they “go out” now for mass~


Most of the nuns spoke just Italian, but I was helped greatly by the very dear Sister Elisabetta,  “Soeur Elisa,” who spoke perfect French.  She invited me to see the gardens, including the grottos~


Many outbuildings~


The ochre façade was hand applied, not just painted; bell tower on top~


So many beautiful terraces and grounds, a green house where I imagine they grew all they needed to eat, a short time ago. 


Arbors and calm….peace, right in the heart of Rome~


Even a few cats along the walk, though they did not want to be approached~


And then, get ready, I went back to Florence, where I camped out at my sister’s hotel room at one of the best hotels in town. Check out the loo in the lobby. I have never taken a lobby loo pic, til now.  Look at all the marble~~


The lobby was equally sumptuous, very old school with the mail slots; I met a wonderful woman from Newport Beach here; Evie, I hope to see you soon~


This was fun cuz I didn’t pay for it; got to use a white terry bath robe and there was marble everywhere~


This was fun after the convent, but it was free!  Call me cheap!


In Tuscany, on my next trip, I hope to stay at Villa Spoiano; I have no idea what she will charge, I do not know if she knows what she will charge, but the views were as amazing as the olive oil produced on site~


IMG_4901The tasting room, sort of an orangerie~IMG_4905iIn France, it’s a different story.  the French love to stay with friends, and this is definitely the way to go for all of Europe (or the US!) , if you can.  In Paris, I usually stay at Francoise’s flat but after some renter issues they are no longer renting; policy change...  So I will stay at Carole’s this time.  The alternatives were various hotels, all rather dear.  Even the Hotel-Dieu  was 130 Euros a night!  The world has gone mad!  I tried this trip to book us for the Sacre Coeur Guesthouse, but it was full, no wonder at 10 Euros a night.   If you are brave and can manage a little French, outside of Paris try to book a Gites.  This is the best thing, next to friends, all across France. In the South, try the convent of Notre Dame de Laghet.  This books up fast; it is right above Nice, so plan ahead.  In Provence, I have stayed for 15 years at La Ferme Jamet. 

Best bet is to make friends in France. If you can cut that expense you will be ahead!

Email me if you need any help with your travel to France, Rome or Florence! I love to help!!!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Spring Brunching

Let’s start with a Mimosa, shall we? We made ours for Easter with various citrus including Strawberry Orange from Eli’s Farm in San Diego; the fruit is very pretty; this will be good all spring, and through Mother’s Day~


Our mimosa bar included Blood Orange, mixed Tangerine/ Tangelo, and Strawberry Orange.  Strawberry Orange has a beautiful peach colored juice, and is not too acidic, but whatever citrus your local market has will be great!  I juiced all of the citrus right out of the fridge overnight, so everything was very cold & fresh, as the juice went in to the crystal decanters.  These are the same decanters you saw last Christmas for infused vodkas.  IMG_5361

Before I could put Easter brunch on the table though, I had an errand to run.  I went to the Rancho Santa Fe market, which was the only market open in Northern San Diego County.  As I am leaving next Friday for France, I sort of bribed the Market Manager Raquel to mind my booth as her “information booth” while I am gone, and let me scoot early Easter morning.  In return, Raquel got Easter Dinner; a whole leg of lamb dressed in an herb crust, fresh pasta I made for her early Easter morning, and chocolate lava cakes.   I also brought a little giveaway, guess how many eggs are in the basket~

IMG_3851The winner, this was a rather impromptu contest, won this basket of goodies~


Back at the ranch, I made a quick centerpiece from the best of the market, something that would please Monsieur Lapin~


I should say that there is a Monsieur Lapin who has taken up residence under a part of our house, and I have recently seen a few tiny babies; I leave them various snacks, and I know that they love the carrot greens first, then the carrots.

Remember those gnarly carrots I showed you from Santa Monica, the famed “best of the best?” 


Today at Sage Mountain at the Rancho Santa Fe market, they had the same obscure carrots, but this time, they were fresh and with tops and super baby.  I bought a bunch of them, along with a bunch of baby orange carrots~


Also in this centerpiece were pink radishes from Eli’s Corona del Mar, broccolini from Sage, and an XL goose egg I had on hand~


I made a separate Easter basket for my Bro in Law, a special kale, radicchio tardivo and more broccolini~


For breakfast, we had a buffet including eggs benedict with Julia’s Hollandaise sauce, a family favorite.  I bought the BEST loaf of braided brioche bread from Loic the French Baker in Rancho Santa Fe Market this morning, and that became French toast, the best my family has ever had, amazing because of that bread, which Loic makes from scratch~


For the place settings, I used XL dyed Metis dishtowels; though we had a sprit of rain, it later was sunny, and these covered the laps of my lovely  but rather sloppy family~


Before the leg of lamb, they got into the dessert table.  Patricia Wells’ Chocolate tarte with shortbread crust was very very good~


Easter Egg radishes in pink were pretty garnish~


And there was fait maison lemon tarte~


The aftermath~


Oh I forgot to mention, Sunday I found the most beautiful very tiny berries with stems at Sage, which I dipped in chocolate.  Remember the little fraise du bois I mentioned?  Buy what is good…..these were AMAZING~


Biscotti, coffee, tea etc rounded it out. 


This will do for any spring buffet; I will ramp this up for Mothers Day.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

San Lorenzo Mercato, Florence

There are many lessons in food display which can be taken from European Farmers Markets.  I often refer to “planed” displays.  Here is an excellent example, in Florence.  Why we don’t see this more in the States I do not know, because visually this draws me right in. Look at these snaking ribbons of fruits and vegetables.  Crowned with exotic pineapples and artichoke stalks.  Plenty of color, not as boring as simple bins of fruits and veggies.  I think I will ask Monsieur Rick and Raquel if I can test a display one week.  You see all the produce, not just the stuff on top.  I am sure this sells more stuff than boxes.  Oh this is a longer post and merits more comment, but it’s my jumping off point for the Florence Farmers Market, which is called the Mercato Centrale

IMG_4969Note the citrus, perfect fava, cherry tomatoes and squash with flowers; see the strawberries, and of course the artichokes, several varieties.  Here we have “artichokes,” there the varieties and origin are identified.  Love the whole thing, don’t you?

The market in Florence is what is called a “covered” market; it is indoors and a semi-permanent or in this case, I think a permanent space.  The streets nearby are filled with vendors selling every sort of leather good.  The beautiful building dates to the 19C and you see the farmers’ vehicles outside.  Versus the quaint and decorative trucks of Rome, here you have larger commercial vehicles~



Versus the very fresh feel of Rome, here there was much that was dried or preserved.  Hams; oh what a beautiful display, though the pine boughs were out of date for March~


Dried “pachino” or cherry tomatoes~


I liked this vendor, they set out a few fresh on top of the dried, in case you wondered what the dried was~


Large dried porcini; I do not know when “fresh” are in season, but you can find them from Dirk at Palisades market~


More dried, in fact, a mountain of fine dried Porcini~


Spanish anchovies; I will verify the comparable product in France, but the whole display and signage does not make me want to buy this~


There was a lot of fresh stuff, and I have to say, I have become somewhat obsessed with artichokes. At this market I saw mostly Morellini, which I did not see in Rome, it was Violetto and Romaneschi there. 


These are “cleaned/”puliti” and look very tender~


these Morrellini look great, fresh & tender~


In a covered market you get refrigerated foods, like these cheeses~


Fresh Pecorino!~


There is pasta being made, on commercial machines, not by the Nonna~


And there is fresh pasta for sale~


There is a bustle of activity with the butchers~


This man was unpacking cut-up chicken; he is very flexible.  Why he didn’t tip the bucket I don’t know, but he repeatedly half-disappeared into this vat and it was entertaining to me~


Various fresh greens and such were being unloaded, and aren’t these nice greens?  I think the peak times are late morning; before 9am ( I was on my way to the Uffizi) it was rather quiet in terms of shoppers.


As I look back over my photos, it’s not the fresh food that caught my eye.  Here more hams; excellent~


Look at the peppercorn-studded prize here~


and here some fruits~


and of course Biscotti (“cantucci”) with Rum~


The flowers were not like Rome, they were a sort of an afterthought, to me.  This is obviously not where the Florentine go to buy fresh flowers.


I think if I were to tour this market with a local, they would give me a different tour.  I will call Fillipo the next time I am in Florence.  This market to me did not have the emphasis on “fresh” that I wanted.

In one week I leave for France, and I will be touring many many markets.  Stay tuned.