Monday, October 31, 2011

Pasta in Toscana

Lisa and I love to eat.  And to cook.  Both the eating and the cooking, however, have taken on larger roles in our lives in the last year or so for a couple of reasons.  First, eating -- as an activity and a means of sustenance -- seem more important and less compartmentalized here in Europe and two, we've gravitated more toward the 'real food' and sustained agriculture views articulated by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the like.  I remember reading somewhere (probably the NY Times) that Americans spend a much lower proportion of their income on food relative to their European peers and that this may not, actually, be a good thing.  Now don't get me wrong -- I'm certainly not implying that food insecurity and going to bed hungry is in any way a good thing -- but when an entire generation has been raised on mass-produced, low-cost, high-sugar, high-sodium, barely-qualifies-as-food (Doritos!), you develop a new appreciation for what you put into your body (and how you do it) when you move to a part of the world where eating is an experience -- not just a means to an end.  For example, when you dine out here in Austria (and the surrounding countries) and reserve a table, you essentially own that table for the entire evening.  You can enjoy a leisurely three- or four-course meal over the course of a few hours with no pressure, implied or not, to leave as soon as you finish.  Turning the table as quickly and frequently as possible isn't (yet?) the predominant restaurant business model.  Digression aside, though, the dining & shopping experiences Lisa and I are having here in Austria coupled with our changing views on eating and it how it figures into our lives (and that of the larger world) have dovetailed into expanding how and what we cook -- and eat.  And we do that by way of cooking classes. 

The first class we took together was in Istanbul -- a single evening affair where we learned to make, among other items, red lentil soup, imam bayildi (eggplant braised in olive oil with onion & tomato), and dolmasi (vine leaves stuffed with minced meat).  In the second class we took, however, we upped the ante:  we registered for a two-day Italian cooking course in the Chianti region of Tuscany where, in addition to the cooking, you also stay with the Italian family in their house out in the Tuscan countryside.  The cooking school is called Toscana Mia, is run by two fifty-something sisters (Simonetta & Paola), and has been featured in several travel publications, Budget Travel among them.  We arrived late one afternoon, deposited our things, wandered around for an hour or so, then settled in for a "light" dinner:  several types of cured ham (man on pork love!), an array of cheeses, salad, and -- of course -- Chianti to drink. 
The Tuscan countryside
The next two days were structured essentially the same:  breakfast with the family in the morning followed by 3-4 hours of hands-on cooking with the instructors preparing 4-5 different recipes.  Lunch was what the class prepared.  We prepared many dishes, although the standouts were the bruschetta, made-from-scratch spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli, roasted pork, tiramisu, salsa al aglione (spicy tomato-based sauce), and biscotti.  This was an Italian food-lovers paradise. 
Tiramisu batter:  a dollop for me, a dollop for the pan... 
Mad tomato chopping skillz!
Rolling out pasta dough prior to...
...running it through some sort of pasta-dough flattening contraption...
...before cutting and folding it into spinach-and-ricotta cheese ravioli!
Day one was also a birthday celebration (of sorts) since there were a handful of us in the class with birthdays in early-October.  A round of peach-gelato infused Prosecco for everyone!
Lunch was followed by an excursion to a winery...
I don't think I'd be very productive if I were a vintner...
"If God forbade drinking, would he have made wine so good?"  ~Cardinal Richeleu
Day two:
Lisa is the more experienced, skilled, and resourceful cook between us...
...whereas maybe I should stick to eating.
"You may have mocked me before, made-from-scratch Pici pasta, but you're no match for me now!"
Lisa and I posing with our Italian/Tuscan cooking guides at the end of the two days...
"We have confidence in your future cooking endeavors, Lisa, although Clint we aren't so sure about."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Wandering Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre ("the five lands") is a beautiful and rugged stretch of coast along the Italian Riviera composed of five villages -- Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, & Riomaggiore -- that, along with the surrounding hillsides, form the Cinque Terre National Park.  The villages are largely devoid of large-scale corporate development and infrastructure so getting around the region is best by footpath, train, or boat.  (Lisa and I drove to the southernmost village -- Riomaggiore -- rather than take a train since our two-and-half days in Cinque Terre were part of a week-long road trip that included Cinque Terre and Tuscany.)  We arrived in late-afternoon then wandered down to a rocky alcove to lounge around while the sun set. 
Sun setting over the Mediterranean
"I could get used to this!"
"And I to this:  Aperol Spritz and potato chips!"
The primary footpath connecting the five villages -- Sentiero Azzuro -- is suppose to take about five hours to walk although when we were there, the leg between Manarola and Corniglia was closed due to a landslide so hikers were directed on a detour that added one to two hours to their journey.  Most of the trail between Riomaggiore and Monterosso is pretty tame, especially the paved section between Riomaggiore and Manarola. 
The southern terminus of Sentiero Azzuro
Once you leave Manarola, the trail starts to ascend the cliffs overlooking the villages and sea... 
Manarola
View to the south
View to the north
...and continues its up-then-down meander through Corniglia, Vernazza, and then eventually to Monterosso al Mare. 
Vernazza in the background
Afternoon sun over the Mediterranean
View of the Cinque Terre coastline from the northern end
Lisa and I also hiked the following day -- approximately 20 miles -- on a ridge-line trail high above the coast. 
Some of the trail signage we encountered
Looking back from the trail
Looking forward from the trail
Dusk settling upon the Italian Riviera
Another stellar sunset
Our destination on the second day of hiking was Levanto, the first town north of Monterosso:. 
The best beach among all the towns we'd wandered through
And when we arrived, we promptly seated ourselves at the nearest beach bar and ordered a couple of drinks.  No better way to conclude two days in Cinque Terre than this:
Paradise

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Sound of Music...Drinking Game

I'm not really a Musical kind of guy.  I'm not sure why -- perhaps it's the sudden and frequent bursting into song or the cheesiness that always seems to be part-and-parcel to the whole production -- nevertheless, I've always had an aversion to them.  (I do, however, like and appreciate most types of music, including a cappella (go figure), so I don't regard my aversion to musicals as evidence of painfully poor musical taste.)   At any rate, when I chat with family, friends, and acquaintances about our post to Vienna, the musical "The Sound of Music" almost always comes up:  "Ohhh, Austria is such a beautiful country.  Have you seen 'The Sound of Music'?  Are you going to go on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg?"  To which I reply:  "Yes, Austria is quite beautiful and no, I haven't seen it but if I had, I think I would do the tour in Salzburg."  Lisa and I have tried to make a sustained effort to see and experience as much of Austria  as possible so depriving ourselves of this quintessential pseudo-Austrian cultural experience seemed, well, just wrong.  (Lisa, in a freakish coincidence, also had not seen the musical prior to our moving here.) 

So we set out to watch the musical with a few friends, albeit with the edge taken off:  we made it into a drinking game!  We weren't the first people, though, to come up with idea -- a quick Google search of "Sound of Music" and "drinking game" returned a few decent hits -- so I simply combined the elements and rules I liked and created one suitable for a bunch of thirty-somethings that have neither the endurance nor the livers to handle nearly three hours of shooters.  We drank the flagship beer of Salzburg (Stiegl) instead.
We made it through the entire movie -- substituting beer for liquor was a prudent decision -- which made remembering excerpts from some of the songs much easier, although I'm pretty sure that wasn't a good thing.  Actually, I know it wasn't a good thing -- my frequent and pathetic mangling of "So long, Farewell / Auf Wiedersehen, adieu / Adieu, adieu / To you and you and you" during the following week was an assault to all of humanity and to Lisa in particular, since she was subjected to all of said outbursts.  Maybe next time we'll go with the shooters.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Love the Lederhosen!

We knew it was going to be a spectacle of a weekend as soon as we arrived at the Munich train station and it became obvious that (1) lederhosen for men and dirndls for women were the uniform de rigueur and (2) a lot of beer would be consumed.  Fortunately we were somewhat prepared since a friend of ours who went to Oktoberfest last year tipped us off:  "You'll definitely want to be wearing lederhosen or dirndls -- you'll feel out of place otherwise -- and you'll probably drink so much beer you'll be swearing the stuff off by the end of the day."  He was right. 
"Good morning, Oktoberfest!"
Oktoberfest is an annual beer festival -- the world's largest fair -- held in Munich, Germany from late September to early October.  There are 14 beer tents of varying themes and sizes -- we chose the Ochsenbraterei Tent for no particular reason other than the queue seemed shorter than most other tents -- although we weren't disappointed with our decision:  a variety of ox dishes were on the menu and Spaten was the beer of choice.  The "tent" -- a liberal use of the word there -- conjures up images of a temporary circus-like structure so when we arrived to the field where the tents are (and several amusement park rides), I was surprised to see enormous warehouse-like structures capable of seating upwards of 8,000 people.  The Ochsenbraterei tent has a capacity of 5,900 people on the inside and 1,500 on the outside.  Even though the tents can accommodate so many people you'd think you could arrive at your leisure and have no problem getting in.  Not so.  Official and unofficial resources indicated that arriving early is paramount, especially if you have a moderate-sized party and don't have a table reservation. 
Waiting for the 7:30 train
Posing on the platform...love the lederhosen!
That pretty much described our party of five.  So we schlepped off to the metro station at 7:15, arrived at the venue (Theresienwiese) just before 8, waited in line for 30 minutes or so, were seated by 8:45, and were drinking our first liter of beer by 9:10AM.  In spite of the numerous pictures posted on this blog of Lisa and me drinking -- ordering (and drinking) a beer at 9AM was a new experience.
Nectar of the gods...
...and goddesses.
"Prost!"
A liter is a lot of beer -- nearly three 12 ounce cans -- and not exactly feather-weight.  Lifting one from the table to your mouth can sometimes be a struggle so seeing the German servers -- beer wenches? -- hauling 6-12 liters up and down the aisles is nothing less than impressive.
Mad respect for that beer wench!
Meanwhile, we're counting -- in German -- the beer we're working on..
"Zwei"
"Drei"
"Vier"
...when we're not dancing and singing on the tables and benches.  For reasons unknown to us, this tent had a John Denver fetish and when the band played "Country Roads", the place went ballistic. 
"Country roads, take me home..."
By mid-afternoon we were ready to call it quits and wander around but it turns out that those of us who had arrived in the morning were more or less forced to leave anyway (mid-afternoon crowd turnover).
View of the carnage as you exit
If we were in our mid-twenties we may have considered two consecutive days of Oktoberfest, but alas, we are marginally responsible adults with somewhat battered livers who just couldn't marshal the energy for it.  We went out to the Munich Olympic Stadium -- home of the 1972 Olympics -- instead.
"Perhaps we should run a lap?"
"Yes, of course, in s-l-o-w motion."
"Yes, you can have a head start -- I'm sure I'll lap you."