Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cheese Lovers in San Francisco

Not much to say on this rather sleepy Saturday in Macerata: it's grey outside, and we've spent the good part of today inside, watching really bad movies and getting some chores done. We're about to escape into the cold though--as it seems like it is quite cold outside--to head to a birthday party. We also need to get started on some Thanksgiving day shopping: it looks like we are going to have the dinner here at our house, and I'm already a little nervous about all of the cooking that will have to happen over the next week. Am I ready? Hmmm...that's a good question! I'm eager to get a menu set, though!

After starting these cheese of the week posts, I've noticed that The San Francisco Chronicle happens to have a lot to say about cheeses, and now I realize why: they seem to be doing a Cheese of the week themselves. It's called Cheese Course, and every week they talk about a new kind of cheese, many of them being American cheeses, which is kind of impressive. While American dairies may not be especially known for their cheese (and the term "American cheese" conjures up thoughts of yellow Velveeta style stuff), there are so many serious dairies cropping around the country, and, even as recently as our summer visit, I already felt like the cheese scene in America was starting to make a name for itself, as we visited Milwaukee in Wisconsin and were impressed by the cheeses we tried.

I came across this article, which talks about Trader's Point Creamery in Indianapolis, and it made me smile. I've been there before with Corrie--it's an organic dairy in Zionsville--a suburb of Indianapolis, and I've even bought some of their cheese (and enjoyed it!). I wish I had read the article above first, though, as I know I didn't try the raw milk Fleur de la Terre cheese, and I think I missed out! Based on what the article says, the cheese was developed by the Creamery's cheesemaker, Fons Smits, who hails from the Netherlands, and has developed excellent cheeses in the past. This one appears to be no exception, and Janet Fletcher of the Chronicle reviews the cheese as follows:

Finished wheels of Fleur de la Terre weigh about 11 pounds. They have a hard, dry, clean rind, and a firm, butter-colored interior with a few small eyes. The aroma, oddly, reminds me of the fat on a lamb chop - an unexpected fragrance in a cow's milk cheese, but appetizing nonetheless. The flavors are sweet, salty and mellow, the finish creamy if you let the cheese sit on your tongue. Smits has created a cheese with personality that doesn't resemble anything else. I like it immensely.

Sounds prety good, huh? Not only has it got the SF Chronicle's seal of approval, but it has also been winning awards, including first place at the American Cheese Society's Conference and Competition. Hopefully I can pick some up on my next visit to Indianapolis: luckily I'm planning a trip back to the states for Christmas! In the meantime, Corrie, you'll have to check this stuff out for us! Maybe it would make a good "cheese of the week" from Indy?

In the meantime, have a great weekend, everyone!


Friday, November 16, 2007

Say Cheese! Robiola

I must say, I'm starting to rethink this whole cheese idea. I LOVE cheese, or at least I have always thought so, but here I am, the second week into the weekly cheese, and I am not too happy with my choices. The first cheese, as you might remember, made me sneeze. So this week, I was determined to make the second cheese a cheese of note, one that we'd be talking about for years to come, saying "wow, after the sneezing cheese, I sure got my act together, didn't I?"

Not so, my friends. Not so. Okay, so before I get started, I must say that the Robiola that Antonello and I tried this week wasn't bad. It was actually kind of good--really. Well actually, the first bite wasn't good at all, and I was about to say to my husband, "Can we just scrap this one and get another cheese of the week?" But the second bite was good enough, and Antonello made an agreeable face like the cheese was tasty to him, so we decided to go with it. Robiola is a cheese that can be made in either Lombardy or Piedmont (like Gorgonzola), and there are many different kinds of Robiola cheese--the differences can be quite dramatic. In general, it is a soft cheese that can be either fresh or aged, and it is kind of like a brie, as you can eat the strange-looking rind, too (my first bite, I didn't eat the rind, so when I realized it was edible, I liked it much better).

This version of Robiola we bought while we were in Ancona with Corrie at this fancy-schmancy food shop that sold everything at exorbitant prices. But it was such a cute shop! So, checking out their aisle-long cheese counter, I spotted the little round of Robiola and thought it would be perfect. I asked the guy at the cheese counter, "Is that a good cheese?" He looked at me like I was crazy to ask (ALL of our cheeses are good, young lady!), and so I asked him to wrap it up for me. I'd take it.

So that takes me back to trying the soft Robiola the other day. I must admit, it's a good cheese. It's soft and the rind is satisfyingly contrasting to the custardy softness of the center, but, and this is the thing: it smells really bad. I know, smelly cheeses are good! But this one, well, it just smells too bad. I almost couldn't take it. Even Antonello thought it was a bit extreme, and he's more open to smelly cheese than I am.

So I guess the verdict is: if you like soft cheeses with an edible rind, this is a good one, and you can find all sorts of different kinds. It's sort of a mix between an aged cheese and a fresh cheese, since the rind really effects the flavour. But remember: get a clothes pin for your nose!

Sorry that my cheeses of the week haven't worked out quite the way I hoped (although I am still crazy about that Castelmagno that I tried weeks ago). Next week, I can't wait to find a cheese just that I can just fall in love with. I'm not giving up! In the meantime, I am learning a little more about cheeses: hopefully one day I can give a more educated opinion, rather than just, "I LOVE it!" Bear with me!

Articles about Robiola:

• The International Herald Tribune: Robiola, a Tasty Italian Secret
• Wikipedia: all about Robiola
• San Francisco Chronicle: It's All in the Blend for this Robiola

- Jackie

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lazy Week

In all honesty, this has been a strange week for me to be participating in the November daily blogging talked about over at NaBloPoMo, since the whole week has rather been a bit of a bore. There are things going on, sure, but not many things going on right here at home, in my little corner of Macerata. That is to say, most of my lessons have somehow gotten cancelled this week, or rain has been pouring and I've avoided going outside, or I've just preferred reading a good book to going running (and the rain hasn't helped! it's not all my fault!), as it seems to get chillier outside each day. I know that this is an odd, out-of-the-ordinary week, and that next week will be busier, I will get my act together and go running again, and work will pick up (the week after next another intensive English course starts, so that should keep things busy too), but for now, I'm bundled up, reading Harry Potter #5 (I am truly addicted, even if I swore that I would never read these books years back), and just doing enough to go to the lessons that DO remain (I had zero lessons yesterday, and just two today. one tomorrow--let's hope it's not cancelled!).

Tomorrow night and this weekend things pick up again, though, as tomorrow is my niece's birthday dinner, and the next day is the birthday of my friend's daughter, who turns one--happy birthday to both of you! And next week, well that's Thanksgiving. I'm starting to feel the urge to get into the kitchen, to make apple pies and hearty soups: the chill of autumn is definitely here. So, here's to the hope that I'll start coring some apples soon, that I'll start making pastry dough, and that some more of my dad's heavenly veggie soup will start to appear on our stovetop. But until then--until I can actually get my act together and cook, and be domestic, and all of that good stuff--I'm going to try to stop feeling guilty about enjoying a lazy, surprisingly-work-free week. I'm going to read more of my book (maybe even finish it!), maybe get a run in tomorrow, and stand near the heater, closing my eyes and wishing it were a warm crackling fireplace.

Have a good Thursday!


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Happy Autumn!

It's been raining all day long, and, since somehow all of my lessons today have been cancelled, I've been snuggled up reading a book and, occasionally, shuffling around to do some housework and some translations, occasionally checking email. It's one of those lazy grey fall days, and, to make it complete, I could really use a big bowl of my dad's veggie soup, a hot mug of apple cider, and a roaring fire. But at the moment, I'm happy with just these pictures from a couple of weeks ago, when Antonello and I drove to Perugia in the Umbria region of Italy. The city itself was a gem, but the drive there, the warm colors brimming from the mountains all around us renewed my faith in Italian autumns. Hope that your autumn, wherever you may be, is beautiful as well.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Weekend Away: Rieti and Castel di Tora

Read here about the first half of our weekend in Lazio.

It was morning already, and from our vantage point from window of our hotel room, we could see the day beginning. All of Rieti's valley was before us, not twinkling with nightlights anymore, but now a clear stretch of green and yellow hills, the sky blue above, the city below, and towns perched on the hills all around. I was ready to explore, even though we still didn't have any definite plans for the day. Going to Rieti, though, made sense--even if the guidebook HAD described the city as "dull," we wanted to give it a shot anyway, as it seemed to be right at our feet. We paid for our hotel room, caught one last look at the small town of Greccio, and settled into the car. We needed to get an early start on the day, even if we didn't know what we were after.

Rieti was a flat little town, or so it seemed as we drove into the neighborhoods that sprawled around it, on the lookout for the city centre. Finally, we crossed a river and then recrossed it again, following the maze of "centro" signs until we had almost given up hope. But a parking lot, some welcoming arches and narrow viccoli got us parked and started on our way. There was an old set of stairs leading up to a town above us, looking almost fairytale-like as we neared a set of vaulted arches and some cobblestone streets leading toward a sunlit main piazza. This was dull Rieti? We smiled at each other, aware of another happy mistake made by our guidebook (we seemed to always go to the "dull" or "boring" towns on purpose, nowadays, as our guidebook had a habit of being delightfully wrong about those very places), and we set on our way to explore. The duomo and the vaulted loggia of the Bishop's Palace welcomed us into the city center, while a morning market brought a glow to a normally quiet Italian Sunday. Rieti may not be the first pick on most people's wanderings in Italy, but we enjoyed it just the same, discovering pocketed little piazzas hidden behind regal palaces, fancy courtyards, and even a secret bookstore stowed away inside an old frescoed church. The simplest things were the most satisfying: discovering a set of medieval arches down a quiet street, a tiny square's perfect church and the row of houses that had the scene all to themselves, a sweet fading fresco painted neatly on the corner of an old palazzo. I imagined that the locals who passed us by didn't care what the guidebooks said about Rieti--the lack of tourists gave the town a very Italian feel, and it was like stumbling over a buried treasure.

It was somewhere after noon when we decided to drive on, not sure if it made sense to go straight home, or make one last stop-over. We chose the latter, looking over the map of the Rieti province (which our hotel had given us) and the little list of towns I had printed out from the Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia website. We had been paying attention to this grouping of tiny Italian towns ever since I had arrived years before, with the name San Ginesio on my list of places to see in Le Marche--a town I had randomly found online after having discovered what was, at the time, a new tourism initiative--the Borghi. Needless to say, we fell in love with San Ginesio then, and we continually try to seek out the towns that are given the "Borghi Piu Belli" title, knowing that we will find a tiny corner of Italy all bundled up into one small hamlet of a town.

And after locating one town--Castel di Tora--on the map, driving the neccessary curvy roads that seemed to wrap in endless bends around the mountains to get there (with me more carsick than I had been the day before), we finally got there, rounding one last turn and finding two lakeside towns before us. We drove through the first to get to Castel di Tora, crossing a frighteningly small bridge while we both held our breath. Signs warned not to cross the bridge two cars at a time, and, as we got safely to the other side, we wondered, uneasily, if this was really worth it.

Luckily, it was. Castel di Tora was an amazing cluster of a town, and I silently thanked the travel gods for leading us to Lazio this weekend. Even with how pleasantly surprised we had been in both Greccio and Rieti, this place took the cake. In fact, it looked kind of like a cake, bits and pieces stacked against itself, it reached up into a tier-like castle. The streets were beautiful, each little alleyway intricately designed with stone mosaics--some almost like little welcome mats in front of sets of houses. We wandered through the tiny town, getting lost on the roads that wound about, up and down, coming across panoramas almost by accident, and discovering tiny streets that climbed up to nothing but more of the most charming sets of stone houses, dead-ending just like that. We were the only ones out--it was lunchtime--and we were lost in this maze of a town all by ourselves. We looked at our watches--we had just enough time to stop for lunch before heading back to Macerata.

We ate at a typical osteria, which seemed to be the only restaurant in the whole arms-length of a town, its sign written in marker and tacked up nonchalantly above the door. While there was a set menu, we ended up making a bit of a fuss (tourists!) about getting something vegetarian. I don't normally have trouble with this in most restaurants, as there is usually something that the cook can throw together, even if the menu is set. But, as we sat down in the small space of a room, the voices of other patrons echoing in loud barks of laughter and friendly chatter, I had the itch of a feeling that this place might not be so accommodating. In fact, once the owner rounded the corner from the kitchen and we explained our ordeal, he seemed quite perplexed by the idea of a vegetarian in his restaurant. When he tried to hand me some meat appetizers and I refused them, he sent us a look like I might as well just go. So, after he complained to my husband about how annoying vegetarians can be ("vegetariani! che palle!"), he tried to force several plates of sauceless pasta on me (okay, so there was parmigiano and olive oil, but Antonello kept referring to that as a sick person's diet). After quietly mumbling five or six times that I really didn't wish for any pasta at all, thank-you-very-much-sir, the owner still decided that I should eat at least one plate, and thumped it down in front of me saying, "this okay, miss?" I gulped, nodded, and ate--finding that it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. After finishing the pasta and a set of side dishes that all involved only vegetables, plus the eggs that he claimed were from his own chickens out back, we finally said "Basta!" got a cup of coffee, and paid for our interesting lunch. Despite the misunderstanding about my vegetarian ways, I still went away happy and full, still humming over the delicious side dishes. The owner, I think, was just happy that we went away.

That was it. Our weekend away in Lazio, discovering what we could, taking it all in, or at least as much as you can take in when you have only two days to do it. I wish we traveled more often like this, and I hope to do so in the future. Antonello has always said it is the best way to travel--stopping as you go, not relying on the guidebook or the cities around for direction, just going. The bridge didn't collapse as we left Castel di Tora, and even if we didn't get to do everything, there would be more trips in the future. We drove back the way we came, winding through the Valnerina, passing small towns, and, this time, not nearly as car sick as before.

And...the sandwich shop in the Valnerina with the famously yummy truffle pecorino sandwiches was actually open when we drove home. Guess what we had for dinner?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Macerata Monday

I know it's nearing the end of the day, and I'm just getting around to putting this photo for Macerata Monday online. But it's been that kind of day, and when I finally got home this evening, after racing around here and there to get things done (even though, in total hours of paid work, I only registered a few, I felt like I was running around all over the place running errands and doing last week's shopping), I settled in to read a good book on the couch, and I almost found myself stuck there, tired out from a long day, and wanting to just close my eyes and take a nice nap.

And this picture conjures up the feel of that kind of autumn evening well--with the sun having just gone down, and that beautiful blue sky over Macerata's city centre and, more specifically, the long row of Scalette that runs from low Piazza Mazzini to high Piazza della Liberta'. I have a ton of memories connected to these stairs, the first of which were the walks that we'd take up it in the early morning, coming to class as university students nine years ago, trying as much as we could to find a shortcut that didn't actually involve climbing the whole set of stairs. Maybe that's why I prefer taking photos of it from above looking down, as I'm on my way from the higher piazza to the lower one. At this hour of evening, the whole place is bathed in a golden lamplight that, along with the pure blue sky, gives me a shiver of gladness every time I make my way down the stairs--be it a hurried rush or an evening stroll.

At this hour, with all of the people around, all of the shops open, and the night just coming in, these steps down the Scalette are that moment in the day when I look around and think, "So, this is where I live? Macerata, Italy. Wow. Lucky me."


Sunday, November 11, 2007

I Love Technology

It's been a good weekend. After yesterday's trip to Ancona to meet up with Corrie, we came back home and ate bagel sandwiches for dinner (thanks to Corrie for the stuff from America!) and vegged out in front of the TV. Then, this morning we woke up early to do some caving practice: we go to a place called Sant' Eustachio where there are the ruins of an old church built into the rock. Along the outside wall, climbers and cavers alike have found a place to practice the ropes, making use of the rock wall where hermits once lived and slept. Trips to this outdoor palestra are always among my favorites, as it's a great chance to practice ropes in the sunlight, get some good photographs, and enjoy the sheer beauty of the area. Today was just as good--one of the last few days of autumn that will allow such excursions, as the wind and cold are starting to come in and make days like this few and far between.

One of the best parts of the weekend, though, was just a few minutes ago, as Antonello and I finally signed up for the free video-telephone program Skype, something we've been meaning to do for the longest time, since my brother mentioned getting the program himself. As soon as I signed up and found my brother's username, a call was coming in from him, all the way over in Chicago, while we were here, miles and miles away, in front of my computer in Le Marche, Italy. Since today is our niece Miriam's birthday party (to celebrate her 1st birthday!), my parents were also there, so as soon as I answered the call, there was everyone in front of me, on my computer screen, waving at me and smiling. It was amazing! I have never done video telephoning or anything like it before (I know, we live in the stone age), so this--my first chance being a call from my family with everyone gathered round--was the best way to start.

Happy Birthday to Miriam, and have a great party! It was great to see you all today!