Dining in Tuscany took taste of place to a whole new level to me. Pasta, rabbit and wine, oh my!
Tag: Italy Travel
Let’s be honest, overnight trains are tough. It doesn’t matter how experienced a traveller you are, how many times you’ve ridden a train, 15 hour train rides from Munich to Rome suck hard.
If you are not lucky enough to snag a deal on a sleeper car, or if you want to save a little ched’ and take an overnight train, then listen up. I too have been enchanted by the idea of a moonlight train speeding along the Italian countryside, the slight rocking of the car lulling me to sleep. Glamorous right?
Here’s the thing: Unless you spend triple the money on sleeper car or high speed train, you are going to be squeezed into a sweaty little car with five other cranky, tired people for 15 to 20 hours.
The last time I rode an overnight train (from Salzburg to Rome) I sat upright in a tiny cabin with a girl from Hong Kong asleep on my shoulder, a snooty Italian couple rolling their eyes at my cheap prosecco, and an animated Somalian guy who drank beer and smoked in the car all night long.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some awesome people on trains, other travellers enduring the grueling adventure with me, but it’s tough no matter who you are.
Here’s how you survive on a sleeper car in Italy.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
Headphones are crucial to getting any kind of sleep. They are also useful for creating the mirage of privacy when you’re forced to sleep sitting up facing four strangers.
If you are a light sleeper, a eye-mask is key. The politics of turning on and off the light in your little car are difficult, and it’s best to expect some people in your cabin will not want to sleep at all and have the lights on all night.
Snacks, water, and booze
Essential. Make sure you have enough food; train food is generally not the best, and if you’re travelling alone, it’s a big pain to cart your baggage to the dining car and back.
Bring wine, bring cheese, have a train picnic!
Layers are crucial!
In the summer time, these budget transports are sweaty. Wear light and breathable clothing in layers so you can adjust without digging into your backpack for a new sweater.
In the winter time, some idiot will inevitably want the window open, so wear layers.
A good book
You will definitely need multiple forms of entertainment for the journey. A great book (or two), cards, and crosswords are all very useful. Take the time to catch up on your travel journal and to write some postcards, you have lots of down time.
A smile and a knowing nod
When you get seated next to a chatty Somalian returning home to Rome after 3 years in France who is 5 beers in when you get on the train, you need to make sure that you have your polite smile and nod perfected. Make sure you acknowledge comments and politely pull out your book and mind your business (this is where those noise cancelling headphones come in handy).
This might seem rude, but otherwise you might be involved in a night long heart-to-heart that you didn’t really want to be part of.
The trains get really crowded the closer you get to a major city like Bologna or Rome. Many commuters will jump on the long distance trains to get into the city, so don’t be surprised if you wake up to find your sleeper car full of people, it happens all the time.
I’ve had some amazingly thoughtful moments on trains. Introspection is inevitable while watching a foreign country speed by. Enjoy the views, they are the best part of the train ride. One thing that always lives up to expectations is the sunrise. This is always beautiful whether you sit in first class, or in the cattle car. Gorgeous. Awe-inspiring.
Overnight trains are far from romantic, but they are a great way to travel long distances for cheap. You save money on a hotel room and you have a great story.
Many of the evenings I spent in Italy began like this: A hot evening, a crowded patio, an Italian sunset, and several Aperol Spritzes. During Aperitivo, the supersonic happy hour hosted by many bars in Italy, you can munch on a simple but plentiful buffet of breads and …
First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope everyone had a great time ringing in 2013 and that the upcoming year is full of great friends and great food!
Despite the fact that my holiday trip to Newfoundland resulted in a five day binge as it usually does, and that Adam and I had a fabulous meal at Bistro Le Coq to ring in the new year, I was still eager to cook a delicious New Year’s Day feast like my family always has. Inspired by a thoughtful Christmas gift of a lovely Italian cook book, Adam and I decided to prepare a five course Italian meal on New Year’s Day.
Braving the potential for serious New Year’s Day hangovers, Adam ran all over the city on New Year’s Eve in search of the lengthy list of ingredients, including fresh basil. Though seemingly a basic herb in a lot of cooking, for some reason on New Year’s Eve basil was harder to find than a short line at the liquor store. However, after several grocery store runs, Adam did prevail, and the groceries were put in the fridge until morning while we celebrated the new year in our classic fashion: with food!
Here is a quick summary of our awesome meal at Bistro Le Coq because I know I have discussed it at length in previous posts: Adam had oysters for the first time and loved them, the champagne flowed until midnight at an awesome 6$ a glass, and our server Sarah, who we’ve had three times now, was delightful as usual. I had the gnocchi for my main and it was amazing! The beurre noisette made the filling main sweet and savoury at the same time, and was a great base for the copious amounts of champagne that we consumed. Adam had the Sea Bass upon Sarah’s recommendation, and like always, she did not steer him wrong, it was flaky and delicious! Overall another fabulous meal at Bistro Le Coq, which has truly become our local.
On New Year’s Day Adam and I relaxed, eating little in anticipation of the meal that we were going to create. We started cooking around 5pm, which in retrospect was probably a little late because we didn’t end up sitting down to eat until around 10pm, but part of the fun is in the preparation. Enjoying a glass of wine while preparing delicious meals is enough to make anyone’s mouth water.
The cookbook which I received from my aunt and uncle was Marcella Hazan’s classic Marcella’s Italian Kitchen which was first published in 1986. Hazan is essentially the Juia Child of Italian cooking, inspiring North American and British cooks to delight in the traditional foods of Italy for over 50 years. Having published numerous cookbooks, she is also the recipient of the James Beard Foundation Award for Lifetime Achievement.
After hungrily scouring the cookbook for delicious meals, advice on the order of the courses, and complementing flavours, Adam and I finally decided on the menu inspired by Marcella’s Italian Kitchen. Though I have briefly discussed the order of courses of an Italian dinner in previous posts (in the review of The Bicycle Thief) I feel the need to talk about it a little more in depth here. There are several different orders of ceremony when it comes to an Italian dinner, but both are neither short nor unimaginative. Typically, there are A LOT of courses in a traditional Italian supper: The first being the Aperitivo, which consists mainly of wine or prosecco, and sometimes small snacks like nuts or olives. The second course is the Antipasto, typically served cold with sliced meats, cheeses, and vegetables. The Primo is the third course, which consists of a pasta, gnocchi, or polenta. The main course or Secondo is usually the meat course, where different meats or fish are served. The next course, Contorno, is served with the main on a separate plate and is typically a vegetable, served hot or cold. Following the main is the Insalata, which is a salad course, usually a green leafy salad, but it is not always served. Formaggi and Frutta is the local fruit and cheese course, which is then followed by the Dolce, the dessert, which consists of various Italian sweets like Tiramisu or Panna Cotta. Caffe or the coffee follows, and lastly the Digestivo, the digestive course, where drinks of Limoncello or Grappa are served to aid digestion of the meal.
Adam and I decided to condense our meal down to five courses: We eliminated the Formaggi and Frutta because we did not feel we had a fair representation of a particular regional blend of Italian fruit and cheese available to us, and the Caffe because it was an evening meal and we both had to be up early the next day and decided to avoid the caffeine.
Our first course, or Aperitivo, was white wine and fresh baguette with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which we ate while preparing the meal. We chose my favourite white wine despite the fact that it isn’t Italian, Quinta De Aveleda Vihno Verde from Portugal, because it is delicious and light and would go with all the courses.
Starting off the actual sit down meal was the Antipasto, which consisted of Melon wrapped in Prosciutto. This course was actually not in Marcella’s fine cookbook, but is one of my favourite snacks, and we felt it appropriate for the occasion. Adam and I devoured it hungrily after 5 hours of meal preparation, the sweet melon juxtaposed with the salty cured meat was perfect. This was probably the easiest course to prepare, and took the least amount of time.
The next course was the Primo, for which Adam and I made Tagliolini col Pesto al Caprino, or thin noodles with goat cheese pesto. We opted to buy pre-made Tagliatelle against the recipe’s directions to make your own pasta because neither Adam nor I have made pasta before and I do not have a pasta maker. Despite the pre-made pasta, the pesto was delicious! The temporarily illusive basil with the goat cheese and pine nuts made the perfect creamy pesto that coated the noodles excellently. The pesto was easier than I expected: it was simply to combine the above ingredients with oil in a blender and press puree! Simple and tasty!
The next course was by far the most difficult and complicated to make. Let us start first with the Secondo, the main meat course. We decided to make Gambe di Pollo Farcite, or chicken drumsticks stuffed with ham and cheese, which sounds easy enough but it is not. First of all we had to debone the chicken legs, which neither of us has done before. In the cookbook, Marcella claims that this process is easy, even for those who have not done it before. However, her explanation of the feat was not overly clear and Adam and I had to revert to youtube for a video example.
Once it was deboned it was stuffed, floured and then fried on the stove top. Though we followed the directions to the letter, we did find the chicken took a long time to cook, and even once we sat down, found the middle to be a little pink and had to cook it for longer! After they were finally cooked properly the chicken legs did taste delicious, although they were not much to look at!
The potatoes were a different story: they looked, smelled, and tasted delicious. The first Contorno, or side dish that we chose to prepare was Patate Maritate, or “Married Potatoes” from Marcella’s cookbook, which are prepared similarly to scalloped potatoes with parsley, mozzarella, and parmesan regiano.
Basically, you had to thinly slice the potatoes and alternate the layers of potato with cheese, bread crumbs, and chopped parsley. The simplicity of this Contorno is its triumph, because it was so easy, yet so delicious. The flavour of the cheeses with the crispyness of the breadcrumbs made for a perfect compliment to the frustratingly slow cooking chicken.
The second side dish that we chose to prepare was Carote in Scapece, or carrots with balsamic vinegar and oregano. This was also a simple dish to create, by simply boiling sliced carrots and adding a mixture of vinegar and spices. The only thing that Adam and I found odd about the carrots was that they are supposed to be served room temperature, and though we did adhere to this directive, both did not fall in love with the carrots like we did the potatoes. I found that I enjoyed them more on the second day when they were heated with the other leftovers for my lunch!
The Insalata, or salad course consisted of a very simple salad that Adam took under his charge to prepare. The Insalata di Limone, Cetriolo e Peperone consisted of cucumber, lemon, and red pepper, and was a simple and refreshing course to follow the complications of the main. The acidity of the lemon and the addition of salt right before the salad is served added a great zing to the simple flavours of the cucumber and pepper.
Following the Insalata, we barely had room for dessert, but we trudged on. For Dolce, we decided to have a Marsala cream (Crema al Marsala) that seemed simple enough, and Marcella described as a great dessert for a cold winter’s day. Despite the fact that the recipe was easy to follow and there were like four ingredients, somehow it did not live up to its expectation, out of no fault of Marcella’s I am sure. First of all, the consistency of the cream seemed to be perfect after I compiled all the ingredients, however, after refrigerating the cream in cute little dishes for two hours, the texture became gelatinous and unappetizing.
Secondly, our Dolce tasted too harshly of Marsala for me. I am not huge fan of red wine in the first place, and for some reason I thought that the taste would be dulled and the cream would be sweeter, but I was wrong. It was too prevalent for me, and neither Adam nor I could get past the gelatonous texture. We laughed for a long time about how horrible the cream was, unable to finish more than a few bites.
Adam and I finished the meal with our chosen Digestivo, Jagermeister. We opted out of Limoncello because of my past history with late nights in Rome with the syrupy drink. Overall, I think that the meal was a success, the only pitfalls being the cooking time of the chicken and the disastrous Dolce. The pasta and the potatoes were the definite winners and we will be adding them to our regular meal rotation.
I would definetely recommend any of Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks to anyone who would like to learn more about Italian cooking. I will be picking up a copy of one of her other works, maybe Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, so that I can better my skills, and have a better idea of how Marsala cream will taste. I will continue to explore the delightful world of Italian cooking that is so much more than just spaghetti and meatballs, and Explore. Eat. Repeat all that it has to offer. I hope this post will encourage you to try a new cooking technique, or a new meal in the new year!