Friday, May 05, 2006

Tuscany, installment 2

Sorry this is taking so long. Day job. Gots to do what you gots to do, right?

Okay, so we left off after Day 3, which was a perfect introduction to Firenze and Italy, what with the food and the yarn and the more yarn and the other food that was also so good.

The one thing I neglected to mention was my Day 3 faceplant. I am a looker when in a new city, and unfortunately, the only way I should have been looking was DOWN. Uneven [ancient, cobbled!], unbelievably narrow sidewalks were my downfall. Literally. The camera survived and my bruises were gone by the time we took the plane home. :-) But there were a few pictures in Firenze I should have taken that I didn't, because I was watching where my feet were going.

Day 4
This was a miraculous day, but I didn't know that when we woke up. On the schedule, a walking tour of Firenze's San Lorenzo Market with Judy Witts of Divina Cucina. Judy is an American who moved to Firenze 22 years ago, married a lovely local Italian man and has made her living giving cooking lessons and food-oriented walking tours in the city. Evan knows how to pick her partners. Judy is amazing.

We headed out, down the same street hub and I had walked quite a few times already, and were directed to the best baker, bookbinder and fun jewellery store within the first 15 minutes. Stores we'd just walked past before.

Then we were at the market. Abundances of Italian food of every description. Prosciutto! Cheese! Olive oil! Balsamico! I walked around taking pictures, often on macro, just to get as much detail as I could. I wanted to bring the smell home with me -- like the best fine food store you've ever been in. Fresh, spotless, aromatic, tantalizing.

We spent a good half hour with the Conti family, tasting their balsamic vinegars and hearing the story about how the father of the family is the man who invented the Jacuzzi. Seriously.

And then we were off to lunch at the "eating club". Now, this didn't really sound very appealing to me. Posh and snobby, maybe? But the walk was interesting, and I didn't really think about where we were going much until we got there.

[Aside: I am a control freak. But for this trip, because I was a guest and not in charge of anything except knitting, I turned off that part of my brain that was responsible for schedules, people enjoying themselves -- and the guilt that follows when someone doesn't like what you chose for them to do for the day -- and anything else. I just went with the flow. Hub was pleasantly surprised by this. It's not something he's used to. :-)]

Okay, so we're there. There is Teatro del Sale, the eating club. But there's no way you can describe this heavenly place with those two simple words.

First, we're required to read the club rules, which involve things like being respectful, asking questions without feeling self conscious, and sharing the names of great establishments with other members. We sign the agreement and are handed our club membership card. 5 euros for a year. Clearly a nominal fee, but one intended to make you aware that this is not just a restaurant you're entering.

And it's not. It's a theatre attached to a kitchen, faced with glass windows to the ceiling. One window opens to the theatre area where huge tables are surrounded by chairs right next to little seats that surround one of the pillars that support the roof. You sit where there's room at Teatro del Sale, including in the lobby and the hallway, in lush, leather chairs and sofas. Very casual.

In the theatre room, a big table is laden with whatever chef Fabio Picchi decides to cook that day. Help yourself but [rule 1], eat everything you take.

This, people, is not hard. Bowls full of lentils, garbanzo beans, flavorful rice salads cover the table. There is a basket of little round breads. Potato bread. Food of the gods, this bread. Savory, dense, and perfect. I could eat this alone and be content.

Suddenly, the chef, who is a striking man with shoulder length grey hair, leans out the window and shouts in a rich baritone, "venti minuti..." and the rest I never really got. He announces the food as it's served to the crowd, and tells you when the next dishes are coming. He tells you to ask at the window if you'd like a bowl of ribollita, a rich bread-based soup. Hub asks. He tells you the pasta is coming.

Pasta is not the usual food of Tuscany -- Tuscany is all about beans, we were told. But thank god our chef does pasta, because this is the dish that makes me melt. Orichiette with a tomato meat ragu, finished with whole eggs. The richness of the sauce. The perfect zing of the tiny dash of chili he's added. The exquisite combination of spices and meats. It's my definition of heaven, and I savor the contents of my well-laden plate till every single morsel is gone.

He serves raw sausage. After the lardo I'd had the day before, I decided to pass, but watched others stunned by how delicious it was. More potato bread. Then he shouts, in a voice so melodious I want to record it, that the meat course is ready. The full dish is called, with all ingredients and flavors, so you know what's coming. His voice. His cooking. His face. I am in love with this man.

Hub understands. He's in love too.

We are reluctant to leave. No photos [rule 2], but we'll never forget it. This experience is exactly what I'd hoped to have in Italy. I feel like someone's given me a perfect gift.

The afternoon is spent walking, browsing, feeling contented, full and happy.

We return to Beatrice Galli to buy more yarn. Beatrice is happy to see us, as we are to see her. We smell the lilacs in her store, fondle her cashmere.

At dinnertime, no one's really hungry. How could we possibly top lunch? We have a short knitting lesson. We walk more. We have espresso.

Good night.