Tag: christmas

An Extraordinary Christmas Lunch! (25/12/2022)

An Extraordinary Christmas Lunch! (25/12/2022)

Happy Christmas everyone! Sorry – it’s just the timing and nature of these blogs. I have a busy working life, and between that, social balance, blogging, vlogging and writing fiction I just don’t have enough time to post more frequently. As it is, this blog may be going on hiatus for about a month after a couple more weeks… we’ll see.

Anyway, we got up and exchanged gifts – that was fun! I got my main Christmas present early: a gimbal to help me shoot video more steadily with my phone. I got a fab bottle of Jo Malone from Niamh’s sister and brother-in-law. I will wear any scent if it smells good on me, whether traditionally male or female. I love what I was given, and will buy another bottle of it for meself in Dublin airport next time I fly to Italy!

Here’s what Christmas looked like from our terrace this year:

We had another breakfast of cereal and panettone, and settled in for a couple of hours screen-watching or reading. A good few weeks previously, I had booked Christmas lunch with La Vecchia Lira. Their main fare is traditional Tuscan, but they do have some modern twists. Both of us have a few favourite pasta dishes there, and we couldn’t wait to show them off to Niamh’s cheffy sister. Unfortunately, none of them were on the menu. The menu itself seemed a little small, only offering what we thought were a few choices for each course. None of us would be going for the tongue, we joked. I saw that it included wine, and surmised that whatever we will choose would be cooked excellently. And it was all for only €60 per person.

Irish and English people might balk at the idea of not having roast turkey or goose for Christmas, but it really does pay to expand your horizons. Here’s the menu:

We arrived slightly ahead of time, and gave our now ubiquitous cylinder of Bailey’s truffles to the owner, whose name we sadly don’t know (yet!). He was extremely grateful, and thanked us for coming to his restaurant today. It was at least half full, but he was disappointed, because a few tables had cried off, leaving some space empty. Later on in the meal, I saw he actually also turned over a couple of tables with new families/couples, so it wasn’t that bad a day for him, attendance-wise. The owner’s English is pretty good, but he has waiting staff there with excellent English. I still tried my hand at Italian!

We were sat at a decent table in the back where it was warmer, and were given a printed menu each, and then set about deciding what we’d have. We had a glass of prosecco each… very nice!

Anyway, we were wondering where the waiting staff were to come and take our order when the first dish arrived: fried pumpkin fritters. I began to wonder.

We were then given a glass of red each. And when we were done with the fritters, the artichoke came out, and finally the penny dropped: we would be getting everything on the menu! I still marvel at the value of it all, not least the amount of work put into it all by the chefs. I had never eaten in Italy on a celebration day such as Christmas, New Year’s or Easter – so I now assume that all restaurants that pubish a special menu mean for customers to experience everything on it. Please correct me if I’m wrong. If I’m right, I’ll be doing this again!

To round out the antipasti, we had a carpaccio of Chianina beef. Very tender and lovely. The salad was perfectly dressed.

Next up – the first primo: a beautitful onion veloute/soup. It was souper flavourful (sorry!). But it really was!

Ok, it isn’t the sexiest looking morsel, but the heck with that – it went down very well! I could have downed a pint of it (I like soup – always have – what can I say?).

Then we had the pasta course. People who aren’t familiar with Italian cuisine, please take note. That’s one pasta course, out of nine courses. And not a pizza in sight. See? It’s not just a carb-fest in Italy! It was agnolotti (a filled pasta), stuffed with cinta senese, with a sauce of mostly chicory. Now I’m not a fan of chicory – I find it bitter, but don’t mind a little bit of it. If the stuffing and sauce had been swapped, I would have been a bigger fan. Having said that I know the others liked it, so it was a matter of personal preference. What I *will* say is that the pasta was, of course, cooked to perfection.

Then it was on to the first secondo, and the most contentious dish of the night. Certain among us Irish and English – those of us of a certain age – may remember offal being used much more frequently back home than it is today. In particular, I remember my grandmother having tripe with milk, onions and bread, and to this day I have rarely seen anything so gross. This is why I shy away from Trippa alla Volterrana and Lampredotto. For the ladies with us today, it was tongue. They couldn’t do it. In fairness they gave it a quick go, but pushed their plates towards me and Niamh’s brother-in-law. We both yummied down both portions!

I can sort of see why it might not be to some peoples’ tastes… again it’s a texture thing. It was very soft, but at least it wasn’t gristley or chewy. To me it was gently, broke down very quickly in the mouth and had a fabulous beefy flavour. The sauce complemented it really well.

Another thing slightly contentious in certain circles is veal. I almost never order it when I see it on menus, as there is rumoured cruelty involved in raising veal-cattle. However, I think modern methods are supposed to be more humane than they used to be. The Irish and British are also voracious consumers of lamb, so the ‘baby’ aspect has to be somewhat muted. Anyway, we all got a plate of it, and we all ate it!

I think we’d well moved onto our second bottle of wine by now, and to be honest, I think we were beginning to get a little bit merry. The veal was tender and delicious, and served with fanned, roast pear and pomegranate seeds. These added alternated hits of sweet and sour to the meat.

Finally, there was my favourite dish of the night. Roast fillet pork with a light gravy and delicately curried creamed potatoes.

Niamh’s sister isn’t a huge fan of pork, so there was more for her husband, the lucky b….. blighter! I loved the meat, and the creamed potatoes were sublime – I could have eaten a kilo of the stuff, despite it being the eighth savoury course. It was so delicious.

The final course was lovely and light – a nougat mousse and a local vermouth. I then asked for an amaro, and was was given a shot glass of it. I asked what it was and when the waitress (whose English is excellent) told me it was Jaeger and asked if I’d heard of it, I couldn’t suppress my laugh. The poor girl asked if I would rather something else, and I said no – that it was perfect. Jaeger is a fine digestif, but has become much maligned because of how it’s been abused in British and Irish drinks cultures. You basically drink it to get pissed. In this situation, however, it’s absolutely fine.

The mixture of prosecco, wine and digestivi were bolstering my bravery somewhat. As you may recall, Niamh’s sister had just completed a 3-month intensive course in the prestigious Ballymaloe cookery school, with distinguished results. I knew she would have loved a tour of a busy Italian kitchen, so I got up out of my chair and asked the owner if he wouln’t mind. He was only too delighted, but given the space in the kitchen and the need for a translator (the waitress), I wouldn’t be able to accompany. That was ok – she couldn’t believe her luck and spent about 20 minutes in there, having a good look and a good chat.

Incidentally, she has her own business as a private chef, so if you’re planning a stay in Suffolk and want to impress your friends, family, or colleagues please do check out Noble Prawn‘s feasts!

We finally left and left a pretty big tip, which, much to my embarrassment, the owner trumpeted all over the restaurant. You have to be careful with tipping in Italy. I do it frequently, but I have made a mistake on at least one occasion where I left a tip with someone who was in fact offering a gift to me – that still haunts me, although she was ok about it – if a little mock-grumpy at first.

On the way out, the owner offered Niamh’s sister a chance to volunteer in the kitchen for a week or two, and she grabbed at that with both hands. I tried my best to let the guy know that this wasn’t an offer made ‘to be nice’; she really wanted a shot at this, so I told him so. He still seemed amenable, so she has that to look forward to now too.

We went for a walk through the town in an attempt to burn off the excess alcohol. It was mostly misty and very quiet. There were one or two breaks in the cloud, but then the sun dropped very quickly. I remember that when I’d posted these shots in Instagram and Facebook, that a couple of the residents were upset at how quiet it was. I reminded them their town is still lovely, no matter what, and that it was in the early evening; not quite passeggiata time. And it is lovely, and always will be.

We then went back to the apartment, where we bloated and still had room for wine and the occasional chocolate or olive. I was last up, as I’d found Ed Wood (the biopic of the worst ever film director) and watched it through. I hadn’t seen it in years – a good little movie!

I hoped you enjoyed this oddly-timed Christmas-themed blog. Please share it with your friends if you did. If you have any other recommendations for spending Christmas Day in Tuscany, please let me know!

Christmas Markets in Montepulicano and Dinner at Del Duca (23/12/2021)

Christmas Markets in Montepulicano and Dinner at Del Duca (23/12/2021)

I didn’t feel like a walk the next day – which should have been my trigger to take one, but them’s the breaks. In fairness to me I didn’t want to tire myself out, as I knew I’d be driving to Montepulciano. It’s about an hour and three-quarters, but only a smaller portion of it would be on unfamiliar road. Still, I had two more people in the car I had to keep safe, so it adds to the pressure a little bit. We got in the car and fired up Mrs. Google. I prefer Google Maps to on-board GPS, as Google has a far better chance of being up-to-date, plus we know she does a bang-up job of keeping us out of ZTLs (Zona Traffico Limitato). We’ve never been fined whilst using our phones to navigate.

I was hoping the latter part of our drive would take us through the Crete Senesi, or maybe even part of the Val d’Orcia, but sadly this wasn’t the case. We had chosen to go on the highways, as to take the purely country route would have taken us at least 30 minutes more – no thanks! The result was that about half the journey was on dull, multi-lane roads. Still, these are first-world problems when you have a chance to spend some more time in a new (new to us) hilltown in Tuscany. The last 20 or so kilometers was by country route, but wasn’t terribly interesting until you began to see Montepulciano in the distance. In any event, I didn’t take photos of the journey, because I was driving. The only issue I had with driving was with a seriously stubborn 3rd gear… until we got to the very end of the journey.

The carpark. It was full. Literally. There was a market where my GPS target lay. Slightly panicked, I had to backtrack a little and follow the ‘P’ signs to another free carpark somewhat below the one I had chosen. This was handy – I didn’t see this carpark on Google (most likely my fault, not Google’s). It was a short climb back up to the market.

I can’t remember if Niamh’s sister bought anything (she’s a foodie and chef), but we wandered about at least. It looked like it was beginning to shut down, though. It was still busy with people buzzing about both here and the nearby bus station. This must have been where all the people were, because the town itself was very quiet!

We went past the bus station and spotted stairs leading up to the walls. There was a lift beside those stairs. A bundle of cigarette-smoking mid-teen girls sat on the first flight of steps, and informed us that the lift was broken. I find myself a little untrusting, but trudge upstairs nonetheless. When we reach the top and enter a park (Giardino di Poggiofanti), in which lies the top ‘floor’ of the elevator. I push the button, and am immediately remorseful as there is no electric whirring of the gears and pullies. The button doesn’t light up. Next time give the younger folks a little more credit, dude.

We walked past some lovely views of the surrounding countryside (photos later), and entered the old town via Porta al Prato. I know some people say that the hilltowns are very ‘samey’ and while I totally get why they say that, the need to look more beyond the superficial, past the bricks and flagstones on the road. Take a look into the shops, look at the local produce they’re selling. Often, the foods can be different, the stones of different hues, the surnames just that little bit more regional. Italy is so incredibly segmented that even a 30 minute jaunt in a car can find you looking at dishes you haven’t seen before, new histories and art to discover. It’s what makes Italy such a dream to explore. So, yes – hilltowns can look the same – but please inspect and observe, rather than just cast your eyes briefly from one pretty thing to the next.

Anyway, rant over. We were soon to also discover that we were at the lowest end of the old-town and had a heck of an uphill journey to reach the main square (Piazza Grande), where the Christmas market stalls were. I did at least take some pics on the way, but I will still filming a lot too.

All the while, I was looking for an open gelateria, but no joy.

About 15 minutes or so later, our epic uphill struggle was at an end! We heard the unmistakable tingling of Christmas music. We scouted the stalls briefly, as we were hungry.

In the square iteself we only found one team selling wurst. There were very few people about browsing, which was a little disappointing, but it was lunchtime on a Thursday.

The ladies were looking for a sitdown lunch, but Niamh’s brother-in-law and preferred I a dirty wurst! Ultimately, we settled on something of a compromise. We saw a sign for an open-air foodcourt and headed towards the Fortezza Medicea, but swung a left just at the gates which promised no ends of adventure in Santa Land. The food stalls had annexed another one of the carparks. The teams were lined around the edges, with partly-covered open-air bench-seating placed in the middle. We scouted around, and 3 of us were too tempted by a BBQ burger stall, while Niamh’s sister went for the fritto misto of fish and veg. Wine was had by three of us, the fourth would be driving.

Once we had our faces fed, we moved back to the square, with a couple of brief stops:

  • A little walk around the garden of the Fortezza Medicea – and no, we didn’t either check out the wine seller’s there, nor pay the fee to go to Santa Land!
  • We stopped at a stall where the ladies indulged themselves with cups of fabulously gloopy (and tasty) hot chocolate. I had a quick taste of Niamhs; it was delicious. But I still had gelato in mind.

I raced to the Laboratorio del Cioccolato, as I’d heard they also sell gelato there, but sadly a lady was literally locking up as I approached the entrance. It was time for her riposo, I guess. Oh well. I sulkily trudged back to the square. (It turns out they seem to only sell ice-pops/ice-lollies/popsicles anyway, so I didn’t really miss out.) There were a few more people wandering about than before, which was nice to see. The first stall I saw there was selling chocolate truffles. I was given a sample of a pistacchio one (samples!), and to compensate for the gelato absence I bought eight of those, and four each of milk chocolate and white chocolate. They were big truffles! And tasty too.

Niamh was looking for me in the main square, as she wanted me to sample(!) some cheese at one of the stalls there. We ended up getting a chunks of parmigiano, and a sort of grana padano from Sardinia. Both of these went back to Ireland with us. You can get parmigiano reggiano at a pinch in Irish supermarkets, but the quality isn’t the same as is in Italy. The good stuff doesn’t make it beyond the border, unless you wish to scour the countryside looking for specialist cheese shops.

Remembering we had failing light and lengthy journey home ahead of us, we decided to go back to car. We hadn’t really gotten out of the piazza proper, before we saw the cellars of Cantina Contucci were open to outside visits. We had our temperatures taken, and scrubbed our hands, and dived in.

At the end of the self-guided tour, the inevitable selling occurred, but once again successful due to us having a couple of samples. I bought a Rosso di Montepulciano, and discovered that that there are a bundle of names for the sangiovese grape variety. When people say that there are 1,000 varieties of grape in Italy, do they take these synonyms into account, I wonder? Niamh’s sister bought both a red and a white, but I don’t remember the variety I’m afraid. Once done we wandered back (downhill at least!) to get to the car.

I was still looking for a gelateria, but still had no luck, and sadly let the grumps get the better of me for a short while. The ladies stopped in a fancy haberdashery/accessory store (down on Google maps as ‘af luxury‘) for 20 or so minutes. I headed down on my own to see if there was a gelateria (nope), and to get some cash out (Bancomat out of order). My mood sadly detiorated while we waited for the ladies to be done. They seemed happy – which ultimately is the most important thing!

Once outside the town we entered a bar which proclaimed itself to be a gelateria, but left when we saw it’s just pre-packaged factory-made stuff. On a dime, I ashamedly told myself to cop on, and by the time we reached the car, I was back to being my contented self!

Below is the video of our trip!

The car journey home was a little stress-inducing – it got rainy and foggy, and when you’re unfamiliar with the road you find yourself tensing up, but thankfully it only was dark for us during the last quarter of the trip when we could see Volterra cresting on its butte. Niamh’s brother-in-law doesn’t seem to have been too stressed – he even noticed the headlight feature in the car where the lights light up the direction you’re aiming on corners, bends etc.

We were turning onto the road on which our resident’s carpark lies, when I did something unfortunate. I sneezed. I’ve been told I’m a loud sneezer sometimes (like a cross between a shout and a cough), and our unfortunate driver jumped when one leapt out of me. He didn’t know if I was shouting a warning or if he’d just run over something. Niamh was in tears laughing. I guess he was a little tense after all!

We rested back at the apartment for a few hours, before heading out to L’Incontro for an aperitivo – thankfully a table was found at the back for us. Some minor nibbles of bread a chips/crisps were had. Sometimes they do cooked nibbles, but not today. Probably just as well, as we were going to splash out on a dinner in Del Duca!

We arrived, and were greeted warmly by the matriarch of the family, Ivana – especially after we gave them a little present of Bailey’s truffles! If I recall correctly Claudia, the daughter and wine-making somilier, was out with friends that evening (she texted us to thank us for the chocolates the next day).

We ate well at Del Duca (what else is new?!). Niamh’s sister was so enamoured of the artichoke pasta dish she had, that we had to ask for the recipe. We got it a few weeks later, and it was pretty detailed! Alessandro not only covered the artichoke preparation, but covered the sauce and pasta-making too – what a gent! To say nothing of Claudia, who translated it for us. They really went out of their way to make us feel special. I got permission to post it, so I’ll post it separately for you.

Our poor guests had to put up me taking the obligatory photos!

We did something then I don’t think I had ever done before: a cheeseboard after dessert. It was mostly varieties of pecorino in varying stages of maturity. All of it so lovely.

Afterwards, some of us had their homemade limoncello. It is thick and tasty, and also the most uncommonly strong limoncello I’ve ever had, but I’d had it before and enjoyed it! Once done, we were just fit for our walk back, screen-watching and finally our bed.

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Picking up Guests (22/12/2021)

Picking up Guests (22/12/2021)

Bit of a short one this week, and very few photos I’m afraid!

I breakfasted, but got a little lazy and didn’t go for much of a walk – just around the local neighbourhood and back to the apartment. Here’s a snap from my favourite lane in Tuscany… Vicolo delle Prigioni.

We got to Pisa airport early and returned our smaller rental to Sixt. We walked to terminal and waited. And waited some more. We could see that our guests’ flight had landed, but there was no sign of them. We were clock-watching, as lunchtime was rapidly running out, and we had yet to get to the car rental place to pick up the vehicle big enough for four of us. Our original plan was to park at the carpark near the Field of Miracles, and walk into the centre of Pisa to look for a place to eat, but then it was thought it would be nice to get out of the city as soon as possible to grab something to eat. I found what looked like a great place (Hostaria “Il Granaio”) about 15 minutes south of Pisa Airport.

Back to the airport for now. Many people who were definitely Italian wandered out, but no sign of our guests (Niamh’s sister and her husband who were flying in from England). About 20 minutes later or so, the pasty folk began to make their way through the door, but we were waiting a good 10-15 minues more. They came out eventually, commenting that immigration took ages. Pesky Brexit wreaking its havoc once again, unfortunately.

We made our way outside and marched towards the Goldcar desk. Now we usually blow hot and cold on Goldcar, as they often try to sell you everything, and sometimes with strongarm tactics. This time, however, a pleasant slender man greeted us and before 10 minutes had passed, had handed us the keys to our car. We thought we were getting a Dacia Duster, but instead got an ‘equivalent’. I was happily surprised when I saw we had a Hyundai Tuscon instead, brand new, with a modern infotainment system. I was a little apprehensive, as parking such a beast can be problematic in many Italian hilltowns, let alone driving one around the curving, narrow roads. But we’d cross that bridge when we’d come to it. I was also surprised that it was a manual, rather than an automatic, given how new the vehicle was. Niamh and I lean towards automatics, as it’s just one thing less to have hassle about when you’re driving at night (remember, it was Winter, so the chances were that we would be driving sometimes without much light), possibly in rain on dangerous roads you may not be familiar with.

Anyway, we put the name of the restaurant into the on-board GPS and the nice robot-lady cooed that she had found a route. Niamh’s brother-in-law took the helm. He’d driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road before, but it had been a while. Now when Niamh and I first came over, it was our first time driving a left-hand-drive car, and the first time driving on the right. We both were quite nervous at first as passengers, when the car seemed to get too close to verges and roadsigns. It didn’t take long for my inherent trust to kick in, but Niamh still gets very nervous as a passenger. Anyway, I found my nerves had returned somewhat during that first journey, wincing and shelling-up a little when it really looked like the car was going to smack off a roadsign. I was less concerned for myself, as the car is a beast, but more for the €900 deposit for the week that was paid! Anyway, minutes later I was all good again, and we drove towards the restaurant over what isn’t exactly the most enteraining terrain in Tuscany – the Arno flatlands – it’s like driving on wallpaper – featurelessness abounds.

We got to the restaurant in the allotted time, and found it closed. Damn you Google! It was 14:15, and it should have been open (just), but it was definitely shut-up and not just recently. I can only assume the owners hadn’t updated the seasonal opening times – so I can’t really blame Google. Disappointed, we decided that we’d just go straight home instead and maybe grab a sandwich. But providence often provides… which I suppose is what it’s designed to do! We got back to Volterra and walked to the apartment, and saw the Porgi l’Altra Pancia seemed to be still open. Rather than set another incorrect expectation, I checked inside and they confirmed it – still open at 15:30! Woohoo!

We went upstairs, left the guests’ luggage and before we raced out again, I remembered that we had a little box of Butler’s chocolates to give to the staff of the restaurant. What better time? We headed back down, and were shown to our seats. They were very surprised and delighted by the gift, and we found ourselves with a high-end bottle of Prosecco to start off the meal. Not too shabby! We also ordered wine, because it was nearly Christmas! Niamh’s sister had recently just completed a 3-month cookery course in the prestigious Ballymaloe Cookery School, and was eager to tear into some Tuscan goodies. Her husband, much like myself, is always keen to tuck in!

I didn’t take any photos of the meal (sorry!), as I wanted to relax with the guests without us having to feel like we were always on display. So remembering what we had becomes a bit of an issue for me. I know Niamh’s sister had a form of carbonara, and her husband some fab wild boar stew. I’m pretty certain I had peposo (beef slow-cooked in red wine and black pepper – they do it well there). I’d would put reasonable money on tiramisus too for a couple of us at the end of the meal. And I certainly remember wandering out of the restuarant a good deal more merry than when I’d wandered in!

It was dark out, so we could show our guests some of the Christmas lights in Volterra. It wasn’t a long walk, maybe 25 minutes, as I think we were all perhaps a little ‘tired’ after the meal! At least I got some shots of our meanderings this time!

We got home, chatted, screen-watched and imbibed a little, and that was that day! I hope you enjoyed the read, and I would love to hear some feedback from you! Thanks a lot. Next week: our trip to Montepulciano’s Christmas Markets!

Return to Volterra for Christmas (20/12/2022)

Return to Volterra for Christmas (20/12/2022)

Hot diggity! Volterra time!

The past few months felt up and down with respect to my anxiety, but I always know in my heart that the condition is in a decline, and although I still have some rough months ahead I will be fine in time. I just have to have patience.

Anyway, back to the healing holidays. For the first time ever, we had decided to leave the country for the first time to spend Christmas in Volterra. We had been there in December 2018 to pick up the keys of the house, and it was coooold! We stayed for a couple of weeks, and witnessed the turning on of the lights, but we left a good week shy of Christmas itself. The wind cut right through us when we were outdoors. But we didn’t mind. The town is lovely during all weathers. I know that people who have lived in Volterra tend to get tired of the winter months, the cold and the fog – but for now, Niamh and I find them enchanting. We packed for multiple layers each day. The ceilings in most rooms in the apartment are quite high, so we were unsure how well the central heating worked. The radiators get piping hot, but the volume of the rooms might be too much. We would probably have to look at getting a convection/air heater or two.

We’d also have to make sure that our guests were comfortable. That’s right! We’d have guests for Christmas – Niamh’s sister (who’d just successfully finished a cookery course in Ballymaloe School) and brother-in-law (with whom I go to an annual Prog Rock festival (pandemics not withstanding)). It would be fun!

And because it was our first Christmas in the apartment, we’d have to get Christmas decorations. We picked up the first of these from Robbi – the owner of Terra di Mezzo restaurant – in August, and some others in Valdichiana back in October, but more were needed.

The airport was a great deal busier than I remember it being in July 2020, that was for sure! It still didn’t take us long to get through security. We bought tubes of Bailey’s truffles for various folks in Volterra, and grabbed breakfast, and of course the obligatory bottles of water for the flight and initial stage in Italy. I rarely have an Irish/British breakfast, but today I felt like it. Pork products abound!

We boarded with no issues – I think a cursory glance at our tickets and and passports is all it took. There may have been a check of our vaccination certs, but certainly nobody looked at our Passenger Locator Forms (PLF). We landed on time and with no issues – a good flight!

Because we would be picking up guests two days later, we didn’t go all-out on the rental car. We grabbed something small from Sixt – I think it was some sort of Kia, but I’m not sure. Our guests would pick up something larger. Always good service from them (both Sixt and our guests!).

We didn’t have too far to drive to our first stop: Navacchio! We went to the CoOp first to see if there was anything there we could pick up. We were a little disappointed by what was on offer there. Not keen on the decorations, and the trees were too large for our need, so on to Casa instead. We picked up a bunch of tiny baubles, and a modern spindly tree – the kind that is often used outdoors, but we would use inside the apartment anyway. I was modestly successful in my use of Italian with the shop assistant, but one was soon called who had lived in London for a year, and who could converse more fluidly with the pair of us. She was very helpful, in fairness. They boxed up the tree we selected (it was the last one, and they had to raid their stockroom for the box), and once again we had to explain that we can’t tap for larger transactions (Irish cards max out at €50 per transaction for tapping). Anyway, we were on our way, and with festive goodies in tow.

I am proud that we didn’t stop in Old Wild West this time for a dirty burger/ribs. I am less pleased that we also walked past CoOp’s gelato stall – which was still operating. I think I whimpered. My only real problem with Volterra is that all artisanal gelato stores shut for the off-season – so it becomes a ‘dry’ town. First World problems.

Anyway, we got to Volterra at an awkward time. As we were hungry (and the apartment was cold), we turned the heat on – checked that it was working – and headed out to grab something smallish for lunch, as we generally favour larger meals at night. There was something about the security gate inside the apartment entrance, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It’s often left open during the day so people can get to the insurance office above, and today was no different – but something was off.

We had a brief walk around town to take it in.

They had a tree this year in the piazza. Last year they had an alabaster display instead. I love alabaster creations, but really at Christmas, you can’t beat a tree. I really liked the constellation theme this year, and I think they may still be left up in the main square. I think they look fab. Somehow, even if understated, the Italians dress up their shops at Christmas better than they do back home. Each one is worth examining.

Anyway – back to the food – fortunately, Volaterra was still open. I asked if we could have a snack, but got a strange look. It wasn’t until literally weeks later I discovered that I had pronounced ‘merenda‘ as ‘meranda‘. Oops. Fortunately the latter isn’t offenesive, or even extant! Anyway, we fumbled through it and I got a yummy bean and mushroom soup, and Niamh some bruschette. A glass of wine was also had.

On the way back, it had begun to get dark. We wanted, for the first time ever, to try some genuine artisanal panettone. It’s a kind of sweet bread – I think with the consisency of donuts (but better), and with some sort of finely diced filling – frequently fruit. We popped into Pasticceria Migliorini to see if they had prepared any. Indeed they had – a few varieties. We opted for chocolate and candied orange peel. It was pre-boxed, and we knew we would have to exercise God-like restraint in not opening and devouring it before our guests arrived.

We thought it chilly in the apartment, and so we thought to give our central heating a boost. There is an appliance store 20 seconds walk away from the pasticceria, so we grabbed a fan-heater in there and brought it back to the apartment (yes, we paid for it!). Marvelling at both Vicolo delle Prigioni and the amazing lilac-lighted tree just inside the foyer of our apartment block.

After mooching about the apartment for a couple of hours (what was it with the security gate – it was bugging me!), it was dinner time. We didn’t go to some of our favourites, as we had booked them for later in the week. However, we had another favourite up our sleeves, and we wouldn’t have to brave the cold for too long in order to get to it!

Porgi l’Altra Pancia (the name always makes me smile – Grow Another Belly) is right beside the entrance to our apartment block, and the people who run it are just lovely, and we always get a warm welcome. They might even change the seating configuration to accomodate us during busy periods, or even grab a reserved table, knowing how quickly we can eat! But most of the time, and I especially during off-season, we can take our own sweet time in a set-up that looks like a deli, then becomes a wine-sellers (it’s down as a wine bar in Google for some reason), then finally a restaurant. It’s a great place. We got a seat no problem, and said hello to the waiter who always recognises us… I swear that next time I will actually ask the guy his name. I’m a devil for not doing that.

We walked to the security gate. It was closed. We pushed the button to escape and it duly obliged. Then we noticed what we failed to notice before: the gate’s lock had been completely changed. We checked to see if we could unlock it from the outside anyway. Of course we couldn’t – the lock was changed! We stood like a pair of idiots for a couple of minutes until I had the bright idea of heading all the way back upstairs and asking our neighbours (the people who sold us the apartment) to see if they had a key. There were in, fortunately, and I managed to use my Italian successfully! They have absolutely no English, but I managed to grab a spare key from them, and not only that – the man of the house said he’d get a bunch of copies cut for us and deliver them the next day. They are lovely people! Anyway, with key-in-hand (yes, we tested that it worked), we took the fifteen more steps to the restaurant!

We discovered that we were still a little full from our meal in Volaterra, so we decided just for a pasta course each. Of course, by the time that had finished, dessert was also on the cards. We had opted for a bottle of Rosso di Montepulciano – Niamh rarely goes for red, but she joined me this time. I was to buy a bottle of this in Montepulciano itself a couple of days later – but you’ll read all about that in a few weeks’ time. Our food, unsurprisingly was great!

We said our goodbyes, and although we were fit for our beds, we thought it better to begin the digestion process by having another little walk around to check out the Christmas lights at night.

When we had our fill, we put up the tree, put lights and baubles on it, wrapped lights around our weird upright lamp and toasted the beginning of our Christmas!

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Valdichiana Shopping Outlet, Foiano and Lucignano (13/10/2021)

Valdichiana Shopping Outlet, Foiano and Lucignano (13/10/2021)

I skipped the morning walk again that day. This is a feature that plagued me for much of my December visit too, I’m sorry to say. The best I can offer was that it was down to simple laziness, rather than anxiety. Anyway, I knew we had a journey and a half ahead of us.

For ages I had wanted to go check out one of the few outdoor retail outlets in Tuscany. Probably the most famous is The Mall, in Leccio, a short ways southeast of Florence proper. But it was a little too high-end for what we needed. Another is Designer Outlet Barnerino, but as it’s a good bit north of Florence/Prato, and we didn’t really want to take the car through that traffic-filled nightmare, we opted instead for the much more leisurely Valdichiana Village, which is a good bit east and slightly south of Siena – near the town of Foiano della Chiana.

That would mean another trip on the Siena road, but it’s a far less stressy drive than going through Florence or Prato. The lengthy motorway stretch is very boring, however. So boring, in fact, that I didn’t film the journey part of the day at all – the rest of the day you can see in the YouTube video further on down in the blog.

The first third of it – the part before you hit the motorway – has some special moments:

  • The countryside immediately outside Volterra (around the ‘O‘) and a good bit beyond.
  • The section before Campiglia, where you’re surrounded by vines and hills, and you cross the Via Francigena and hit those hairpin bends (even better on the way back).
  • As always, going past Colle di Val d’Elsa – the part where the old town meanders along the ridge made our jaws drop when we first saw it. Despite dozens of passings-by now, it still impresses!
  • Even when you’re on the motorway, you’ll get to see Monteriggioni on the way there, and it’s easier to see Siena on the way back (if I recall correctly)

But the rest is kinda yawns-ville. The outlet itself is just off the autostrada, so yeah – you’re looking at a lot of multi-lane driving. Anyway, we got there in the end, and very safely!

It was a nice enough day, as you can see – I just wore a light jacket. Much of the perimeter of the outlet was lightly cordoned off, and where we entered a man was taking temperatures to ensure you could enter. Even outdoors in the outlet, you had to wear a mask. At other locations on the perimter, you had to engage with machines to take your temperature – so if you left (which we did to use the bathrooms at the perimeter walls), we had to get our temperatures checked again on the way back in.

There are some nicely appointed stores there – most of them containing clothing or household stock items. We noticed with a little amusement, that there was a youngish nun wandering around with a group of lay-people friends heading into the stores with tremendous enthusiasm. I thought she looked like one of the nuns we saw wandering around Il Teatro del Silenzio a couple of days previously, but then I have an over-active imagination! The first store we entered was, in fact, a pop-up Christmas store! We got a couple of decorations for the apartment, which we put up when we came over for Christmas – more on that in a few weeks’ time!

Niamh was looking for a couple of throws for our couch, which she managed to get (by going past the perimeter). We got them, and put them in the car, and once again went through to get our temperature taken. Fun times.

We continued to wander.

I had half a mind to buy myself a form-fitting jacket, as I had lost a lot of weight in the first 15 months of the pandemic. Unfortunately, I discovered to my cost that my belly had grown back a little. A shame, as I found a couple of lovely looking jackets I really wanted to get.

What better way to console myself than to grab some pizza? I think I might be in denial! We had wandered up to the food court and were on the verge of, once again, heading into Old Wild West for a burger or ribs, but reminded ourselves that we shouldn’t eat too much prior to dinner that night. Maybe a pizza with a thin base might be an option….especially if we skipped dessert! We knew the place we were going to that evening didn’t do pizzas, and so didn’t want pasta either. Our minds were made up!

We saw a bar/restaurant on the perimeter which looked like it did pizzas – Al Borgo. We headed in, and selected a couple from the menu, and a couple of soft drinks to keep the fluids up. I noticed that they had their own sauces (pasta, pizza etc.) for sale, but the place had more of a ‘franchise’ feel to it, than it being a once-off place. In any event, I have to say we really enjoyed the pizza!

Once done, we went back into the outlet to reach our car on the far side (temperature check!), pausing briefly for cash at a Bancomat. We hopped in, and we had plenty of time to visit the nearby town of Fioano della Chiana. It was only a short drive, but to get to the carpark we had chosen, Missus Google took us through parts of the older town. One always gets nervous about straying inadvertently into a ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) and having to pay the resulting fine. Google, in fairness to it, has never done so before – but the worried glances between myself a Niamh didn’t cease.

We wound our way through the town to a carpark at the bottom of a very tall section of the walls of the even older town! A forlorn duvet rested at the bottom of the wall and for some reason I immediately thought that this was the rough end of town, where homeless people kept their domains. We were getting ourselves ready outside the car to explore, when a young lady marched towards us, speaking energetically on her phone. Without word or gesture to us, she snatched up the duvet and marched back towards the small opening in the wall. I looked up, and there it was: the ubiquitous washing line beneath a window, overlooking the carpark. This was probably a common occurence, then.

We followed the young lady a couple of minutes later, and climbed the stairs between an even higher set of walls and a church. We saw part of the road we had travelled on to get here, but to our left another collection of steps led through a lovely arched entryway into the ‘even older’ part. We went up, and within minutes were blown away by the beauty of the place. Curved laneways lined with red-bricked 4-storey buildings, strewn with potted plants – almost as if there was constant competition between the neighbours as to how many plants they could pack outside their front doors. We had a wander, and took some photos.

All was quiet, as it always is in a non-touristy town during riposo. There wasn’t much to wander into, as this area seemed largely residential, but the main square was nice. Unfortunately, we seem to have missed Bell’s Pub – I only see it now when looking at maps. An auld pint would have been nice, but such is life.

Instead, alternative refreshment was in order, as we left our exploration of the old town, and headed (past hordes of emerging schoolchildren). We stopped off at the improbably-named “Gelateria Fiordilatte Di Presenzini Mattoli Manuel & C” for (as the name would suggest) gelato. I had coconut and white chocolate, if I recall correctly – I really liked the coconut.

Back in the car, we checked the clock and realised we had a bit of time before we had to get home, spruce-up and head over to the restaurant for dinner. So, we decided to head to Lucignano! It’s only about 15 minutes away. The carpark, while decently located – just outside one of the arched gateways to the old town – was almost completely full. We managed to squeeze into an awkward spot on a bend, and headed into town!

We were enchanted as soon as we entered the town. Like Foiano, the central part is arena/oval shaped, but Lucignano is just a little bit nookier, a little bit crannier – if that makes sense. It just appealed to us a little more. We found ourselves going ‘Oooh’ and ‘Ahhh’ every time we turned a corner. There were stairs here and there leading up to a higher level of town, on which lay a residential area and what must have been nearly a dozen churches or chapels.

For some reason, the photos just don’t do the town justice. We honestly both came away from the place thinking it was one of the top 3 towns we’d visited.

We ended our trip under an arch, on which little platforms were placed to provide seats (presumably for the customers of a nearby bar) – I thought this was was very cute. If there was any regret, it was that we visited just after lunch/during riposo, and during the off-season – so it was extremely quiet. I would love to see it a little bit more lively – even at night – at least we have excuses to come back!

We headed home via a petrol station. It was a fun, busy day out! You can watch a video of it below:

But we weren’t done yet! No, after a rest and a shower back at the apartment, we headed out to Del Duca for dinner.

We were greeted enthusiastically as usual, and shown to a table we’d sat at a couple of times before; a round table in a corner, which gave us a complete view of the rest of the dining room. A certain level of amusement ensued, when Claudia Del Duca – her English usually being excellent – fumbled a little at explaining a course that had, just that night, taken over from their previous lamb dish. She couldn’t call it anything other than ‘boiled beef’. She assured us it was delicious through laughter from all parties. The phrases ‘sauce’ and ‘baby cabbages’ were mentioned, and the beef was boiled in a stock. I was intrigued, so I ordered it.

About ten minutes later, after we had gotten our wine, a well-dressed couple with a kid sat at the table next to us. Being the people-watchers we are, we snuck glances and listened. Then there was confusion. I could have sworn that she was Irish, and that maybe he was American – but then here and there, there was snatches of a Scottish lilt from him. On top of that, the kid definitely had a north American accent. What was going on here? Anyway, we settled down eventually, and the food came out.

Halfway through the food, the head chef, Alessandro, saw us through the round window of the kitchen door, and gave us a cheery wave. We returned the favour. It’s so nice to be surrounded by people who care deeply about what they do, and who they do it for.

During the meal, the speculation continued around where this other couple and their child were from, but just when I was near to bursting with curiosity, the lady turned to us and said “I couldn’t help myself, but I heard the accents and had to talk to you.” She was definitely Irish, and as it turns out, so was he – but from the North. I reciproated the sentiment and told them that it was killing me not knowing where they were from!

They were living in Switzerland, and their kid was going to an American school, which explains the accent! They were so lovely. We chatted with them for a while. They were staying at a friend’s house a ways outside Volterra, but decided to come into the town for the first time for a bite to eat. They just happened to have chosen Del Duca. Life is full of coicidence and serendipity. It was a fabulous meeting, and, as if the food and the attention from the staff at the restaurant wasn’t enough, it really made our evening.

At the end of the meal, Niamh had a coffee and I an amaro (Ivana (the Del Duca matriarch) was still waiting on a batch of her limoncello to mature). We left the restuarant less high on caffeine and alcohol, but more on life.

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Not very expensive drinks at Terra di Mezzo (17/08/2021)

Not very expensive drinks at Terra di Mezzo (17/08/2021)

We had another relatively light day today. No travel at all, apart from the morning walk. I dragged my brother all over town! Check out the shots.

If I recall correctly, I actively sought hills on the inside of the walls we could go up and down for a cardiovascular challenge. There are no shortage of those in Volterra!

And although our coverage of kilometers was light, we got a good workout!

We even took in the park, before heading back to the apartment, via the fountain and panoramic view.

We stayed in and vegged. My brother and I were brave enough to venture out for the team later to grab some lunch at La Sosta del Priore. I introduced my brother to Ilenia and had reasonable success conversing in Italian. I still have a long way to go, though!

We didn’t eat the sandwiches in the street, but took them back to the apartment to have outside on the terrace. Then we did what we do best: vegitate.

That evening we hit Terra di Mezzo for a bite to eat. I love this place. The food is good, and we have good rapport with the owner, Robbi, and the waitress, Aurora. Most of the time something memorable happens – and tonight was no exception.

I got the Zuppa alla Volterrana, and a steak. Sadly, I can’t remember what the others had. However, what I *do* remember is what we drank. Niamh and I each had 500ml (un mezzo) of white and red, respectively. My brother isn’t a wine drinker, and the restaurant only had craft beers available, so he opted for one of those.

It came out in a pretty fancy bottle, and had a slightly citrusy tang, the kind you might expect of a wheat beer. It was really nice. Because he liked the drink, and that the prices weren’t on the bespoke menu, my brother looked it up on the web. He found that the brewers were selling it for €48. Our jaws dropped, and I just kept thinking there’s no way Robbi would let us order one of those without telling us first! And to be honest, a little of my anxiety kicked in. I looked up the site, but it was a little poorly laid out and seemed to confirm that was the price. Anyway, we enjoyed the meal and had a bit of a laugh at my brother’s expense. So much of a laugh, in fact, that he ordered another one halfway through the food!

I couldn’t believe it. He was thinking ‘In for a penny, in for a pound!’

I stopped eating to have a look at the shopping page again. I climbed back up, from that page and saw that the main shopping site indicated that 6 bottles came in a crate, and the crate was €48. To be sure, I called Robbi over, and asked him for the price of the beet. If I recall correctly, he said it was €8.50. Expensive for a beer, but not the kingly price we had originally thought. I explained to Robbi what happened in my broken Italian, but he must have understood me, because he cracked-up laughing.

At the end of the meal, Robbi came out to us when we had paid the bill, and told us to wait. He came back out a couple of minutes later with a little cube of a parcel. We thanked him and got home, and then opened it.

Of all the things we could have guessed was in it, I would never have guessed this in the middle of a stinking-hot August: it was a snow-globe. Then I remembered that we had told him of our plans to return for Christmas, so it was actually quite a thoughtful little gift – and it is the first Christmas decoration we owned for our apartment!

We went to bed soon after, as we had a cool day of travelling planned ahead for tomorrow: the Crete Senese and the Val d’Orcia.

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