I can’t believe that it has been over a year since our trip to Verona, Tuscany, and Umbria. We are constantly talking about that trip and are longing to go back, so much so, that we hope one day we can buy a vacation home in Italy.
I have been meaning to finish blogging about our trip to Italy, but other events have distracted me. So, I am going to try and finally finish writing about our trip in the next few weeks.
Mr. BT and I did not spend a lot of time in Tuscany this trip because we concentrated most of the trip on Umbria. However, since neither one of us had been to Siena, we decided to make a detour on our way to Umbria. Siena was founded by the Etruscans and later refounded as a Roman colony. It grew to be one of the major cities of Europe and used to be as big as Paris was. It is really hard to believe that it was once that large and prosperous. Prosperity and innovation came to an abrupt halt with the Black Death, which reached Siena in 1348. The population went from 100,000 to 30,000 and never recovered. Today, it has a population of approximately 60,000.
The center of Siena is its great square, Piazza del Campo. Over four hundred years ago, Michel de Montaigne described it as the most beautiful square in the world. I am not sure it is the most beautiful, but it is surely something to be seen. It is massive, you can see that this was the center of life for the Sienese. It was the location of the city’s marketplace for produce and livestock, the scene of executions, bullfights, communal boxing matches, and the Palio. The Palio is a traditional medieval bareback horse race that is still held today, with all of its pomp and circumstance, one day in July and August.
The Duomo di Siena in its current size was built around 1215. Had it been completed, it would have been the largest cathedral in Italy outside Rome. Unfortunately, the expansion of the Duomo was halted due to the Black Death and lack of funds. But, it is still an awesome structure. It is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture made of black and white marble. The striped, almost zebra-like design is modelled after buildings in Pisa and Lucca. Walking in the cathedral with all of the inlaid marble floors and striped walls puts you in a trance. Donatello, young Michaelangelo, Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, Arnolfo di Cambio and Pinturicchio all contributed to the mass of beautiful art in the cathedral.
It is really hard to take it all in in one visit. We were under pressure to get to Umbria before dark, so we didn’t get to spend as much time as we would have like. This church is a definite must-see.
You cannot leave Siena without trying some of their specialties, such as pici. This pasta, which looks like spaghetti but is about twice as thick, is usually served with a wild boar ragu, but we made it with pesto in our hideaway on a mountain in Umbria.
Some of their other specialties are pappa col pomodoro (bread and tomato soup), tortino di carciofi (artichoke omelette), and salsicce seche (dried sausages). They are also famous for delicious sweets, such as panforte and ricciarelli. The best place to try these are at Pasticceria Nannini , which has been selling its delicious panforte, ricciarelli, and other Sienese delights since 1909.
Ricciarelli (pictured above, upper left corner) are classic orange-laced Sienese almond paste cookies that were once a Christmas delight, but are now enjoyed year-round. We bought a couple of these and wished we had bought some more. But our waists thanked us half-heartedly for not doing so.
Panforte contains dried fruits, spices (such as black pepper) and nuts. Some say that an authentic panforte should contain 17 ingredients to coincide with the number of neighborhoods (contrade) within the city walls. Documents from 1205 show that panforte was paid to the monks and nuns of a local monastery as a tax or tithe which was due on the seventh of February that year. Literally, panforte means “strong bread” which refers to the spicy flavour. The original name of Panforte was “panpepato” (pepper bread), due to the strong pepper used in the cake. There are references to the Crusaders carrying panforte with them on their quests. It is thought that the original panforte was made by nuns.
We tried a slice of the Panforte Margherita, which is made of sugar, almonds, hazelnuts, flour, orange zest, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. It was absolutely delicious.
All-in-all our short trip to Siena was well worth it. More to come….
The supermarket had a very good deal on an inexpensive cut of meat they called “Hamin”, which means a cut of meat for a slow-roasting Moroccan version of cholent. I really dislike cholent, but I figured I could find some other interesting slow-roasting recipe for this good deal. I remembered a wonderful beef and polenta dish that I had years ago in Firenze and I knew this was the perfect recipe for my cheap cut of meat.
Brasato al Chianti is a Tuscan slow-cooked beef dish that is typically made with Chianti wine, but I used a nice Israeli red table wine instead because Chianti does not cost 4 Euros here. For the Piedmont version of this dish, substitute a Barolo wine. A sangiovese or any light-bodied red wine can also be substituted.
The result was excellent: you wouldn’t have guessed that this was about the cheapest cut of beef they had in the supermarket, because it came out tender and full of flavour.
(Italian beef braised in red wine)
1/4 cup olive oil
1kg (2 pounds) beef rump roast
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 bottle Chianti wine
1 cup stock or water
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 spring fresh oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 bay leaves
6 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate for 8-24 hours.
Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium-high flame. Remove the meat from the marinade, drying it off before searing. Brown the meat on all sides. Add marinade and vegetables to the pot. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low, cover and bake at 150C (300F) for 4 hours. Add water as necessary to maintain liquid so it covers about half of the beef. Remove the meat to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil and set aside to rest for 10-15 minutes.
While the meat is resting, strain the pot liquid through a colander. Discard the sprigs of herbs and puree the vegetables in a food mill, blender or food processor. Stir the pureed vegetables back into the strained liquid and adjust the seasonings. Slice the beef and place it decoratively on a warm platter.
If you like a lighter sauce like I do, you can serve the sauce and vegetables as is or remove the vegetables and reduce the liquid by half, adding the vegetables a couple of minutes before serving.
Serve over polenta or gnocchi, or make polenta cakes, like I did, by make polenta according to the directions on the package. Let the polenta cool, form patties, and fry them in a little olive oil.