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Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy (belated) Christmas!

Ok - I actually HATE that the British say 'Happy Christmas' rather than 'Merry Christmas' but it was the only way I could get the title of this post to sound right.


Whew - thats better.

And yes, I do realize that I'm 6 days late. My bad.

Wine tasting in Montalcino

The last part of our trip was wine tasting in Tuscany. We decided to stay in Montalcino, which is about an hour and a half south of Florence. We took the scenic route from Florence and saw some amazing landscape. First the route takes you through the Chianti region through to Sienna. After we passed through Sienna we drove south through Montalcino to our agriturismo, Piombaia.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Taking in the views...

...from Piazzale Michelangelo

beautiful fall foliage
is it just me or does this look fake?

playing around with the manual setting on the DSLR camera 
over exposure...looks like a watercolor painting to me
the glow of the setting sun
over looking my favorite city with my favorite guy

Monday, December 13, 2010

A better way to see Firenze...

After our lesson in cheese making we decided to head down to Florence a day early. We found a charming hotel in Fiesole, in the hills surrounding Florence. The views of the city were magical...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How to make Parmesan Cheese

After we left Castelrotto we drove east towards Cortina and spent the next day or so exploring the eastern and southern Dolomites. We had an extra day before we were due in Florence and didn't really know where to go. A quick google search and tripadvisor consultation and we decided that we would go to Parma. Thats right, land of parmesan cheese and parma ham. *cue angels singing*

We ended up at the highly recommended Agriturismo Leoni, a working dairy farm that gives tours of the parmesan cheese coop that it is a part of. Best. Decision. Ever. We ended up being the only two people in the tour the next day (bonus points for traveling off-peak) and it was definitely in our Top Three Italy experiences.

Without further to make parmigiano reggiano cheese:

1. Milk the cows. Not just any cows - these cows can only be a very specific type of cow, they cannot roam the fields, they must stay inside and eat a very specific diet of grains and grasses.

2. Take the milk to the cheese factory and dispense into large metal vats.

3. Let the milk sit for 8 hours and then skim off the fat that has risen to the top (the fat is taken away to be churned into butter). Add more milk and drain into the copper vat.

4. Add whey and rennet and crank up the heat to cook the mixture.

5. Once the soft cheese curds collect at the bottom of the vat the cheese is scooped up into muslin and hung to drain.

6. After draining (the left over whey liquid is drained, mixed with cereal grains and fed to the pigs that are later used to make parma ham) the cheese is cut into two, each weighing approximately 45 kilos (thats 100lbs for you folks in the US).

*at this point the cheese has very little taste - it is basically semi-skimmed cheese curds, believe me - I tasted it*

7. The cheese wheels are then put into a round mould and shortly after moved to a metal mould that has an adjustable buckle (to be tightened as the water dries out) for 24-48 hours.

8. At this point the cheese is wrapped in a plastic belt with the iconic parmigiano reggiano name stamped into it, along with the plant number and date the cheese was produced, and sits for another 24 hours.

9. Finally the cheese is removed from the moulds and immersed in a salt water bath (60% salt content) and left to cure for 20-25 days.

10. After brining for 3 weeks the cheese is removed and brought to the aging room (aka heaven on earth) and aged for a minimum of 1 year and a maximum of 3 years.

11. After 12 months of aging an employee of the Consorzio inspects every.single.cheese. They tap it with a hammer and depending on the sound that the cheese makes the Consorzio decides if it passes or not. If it passes then the wheel of cheese is branded with the Consorzios logo and immediately worth hundreds and hundreds of euros.

If it doesn't pass it gets an X or line across the outside and is sold as lesser quality cheese. Considering it takes a minimum of 13 months (1 month to make the cheese, 12 months to age it) before the producers even have a chance at making any money from the cheese, you better hope that every single one of your cheeses passes the inspection.

Hiking in the Dolomites

I just realized that at the rate I've been going by the time I finish my Italy recaps, we will be back in Italy! Andiamo!

We ended up doing a few good hikes while we were staying in Castelrotto. On our first full day there we decided to do an all day hike up to a plateau that was essentially "behind" the town. When we were about 1/2 way to the top we saw the first dusting of snow...

And at 2/3 of the way up that dusting turned to a few inches...

Finally, we made it to the top.

Just in time for the storm clouds to come in...

We debated hiking back down to town, but when the snow started falling I went running towards the gondola and didn't look back.

Once we were back down at the base it was an easy walk back to Castelrotto.

The next day we decided to do a lighter hike, this time it was a half day hike that started a mile or so down the road from Castelrotto. As usual I let Brian set the route as he is one with the mountain where as I am more concerned about having enough snacks.

The hike started off easy enough as we passed by a beautiful lake an headed into the woods. We ran into less snow than we did the day before, even though I am pretty sure that we hiked higher and longer.

As usual my stomach was dictating our pace and just before noon it was telling me that it was time to break for lunch. We trudged on as there was a mountain hut not too far away that would be a good place to stop. We had heard that all of the huts were closed for the season (thank god, otherwise you can bet this blog post would be about our 3 day overnight hike to the top of the highest dolomite mountain) but when we got to the clearing where the hut was located we found it buzzing with activity! Turns out the mountain hunt that we came across is a restaurant and open longer than the average hut to accommodate hungry day hikers. We already brought our lunch with us but we stopped to enjoy the view.

Finally it was time for the final push to the top.

And boy was it worth it.

And then it was time to hike down...and down...and across...and then down some more.

Brian blames the map for not being topographical, I kept my mouth shut. We learned one valuable lesson that day...what goes up must come down, and then go up again. Every time we thought we were on the home stretch we encountered another steep climb. I was pretty sure my feet were bleeding. Tears almost ran down my face when we finally spotted the car park.

Dessert was well deserved.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


We started off our Italian vacation in the Dolomites. As you know Brian loves to hike. We were a little bit concerned about the weather at this time of year - higher altitude equals greater chance of snow. After flying into Verona we drove north to Bolzano for our first night. Bolzano surprised us - we didn't have high hopes for this town, or any hopes at all really, but we found it to be a charming town full of restaurants and shops and markets. When we were ready to leave the next day we happened to stop by the tourist information office to try and get a more detailed road map of the area. The man at the office suggested that we change our destination in the Dolomites slightly and pointed us in the direction of Castelrotto. Best decision ever.

We arrived in Castelrotto and immediately set out trying to find a place to stay for the next few days. It seems that everywhere we looked there was another charming hotel or bed and breakfast. Awesome, this was going to be easy.

Which of course means that it was the opposite of easy. October is a funny time in the Dolomite region. Since it is in between the peak seasons of summer and winter, many hotels and restaurants close down for a month or so. That left us with a lot of empty options. We finally found a hotel that was not only open, but breakfast and lunch were included. Score.

That afternoon after we settled into Hotel Mayr we headed out for a short hike to get acquainted with the mountains and the trail system. We had our usual luck of amazing blue skys and huge construction cranes - so we knew this was going to be a good trip.

We found Castelrotto to be entirely charming and quaint - and the country side with its rolling hills, cattle farms, looming mountains and forests to be some of the most beautiful landscape we have ever seen.

That night at dinner we were totally caught off guard. We didn't really ask what was on the menu for dinner that night and were treated to a five course meal - salad buffet followed by the most amazing gnocchi pasta course. A super creamy and rich soup was next followed by roast meat and finally a banana cream torte. I die. Thank god we were going to be hiking our butts off the next couple of days!

Italy - an introduction

Two weeks in Italy. I'm not going to lie, it was pretty fantastic. We saw so many cool places and learned so many new things...and ate so much good food...and drank so much good wine...yup, fantastic pretty much describes it.

Our plan was as follows - fly into Verona in the north and rent a car. Drive further north to the Dolomites. Spend a few days in the mountains, hiking and generally enjoying the lovely scenery. Drive south towards Tuscany, possibly stop in Bologna or some other Emilia-Romana town. Spend 3 days in Florence. Drive further south through the Chianti wine region to Montalcino. Spend several days wine tasting. Head slightly west and fly back to London via Pisa. The end.

In reality? Well yeah...that was pretty accurate!

Edited photos -

recaps coming soon...