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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...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Paris (con't)

On day two in Paris we decided to part ways.

I studied a lot of art history during my time in high school and college. Brian, studied a lot about the military (go figure). I wanted to go to the Louvre (as most people do when visiting Paris). Brian, did not. I didn't want to drag Brian along - I had seen that glassy look in his eye after only 20 mins at Musee de l'Orangerie, what on earth would the Louvre do to him??

Luckily, during our wanders the previous day, we happened to stumble upon a small building called Les Invalides...perhaps you have heard of it?

Basically this is a gold mine for Brian - it holds the Musee de l'Armee (Military museum) with lots of armor and guns and the whole history of the French military. It also holds Napoleans tomb.

BINGO - military museum for the husband, world renowned art museum for the wife. So, after a late breakfast of pain au chocolate and cappuccino (man I could get used to that) we went our separate ways.

The Louvre was amazing. Foolishly I didn't book advance tickets so I had to wait in a ridiculous line - but it was worth it (word to the wise - book your tickets ahead of time, you'll be so glad you did). Since I had limited time for my visit and wanted to make the most of that time I edited my visit to the main attractions:
- Ms Mona Lisa
- Winged Victory
- Venus de Milo

These are some of the most famous works of art at the museum - there are signs all over pointing you in the right direction and crowds of people clamoring to get a glimpse of these iconic masterpieces. To be honest, I like the two sculptures better than the Mona Lisa.

Heres the thing about the Mona Lisa (which I am sure you have heard before) - shes smaller than you would think. Shes behind glass and a rope barrier (for good reason, see photo below). At any given time there are over 100 people pushing and shoving each other trying to get a photo of her. I dont even think that they are looking at the painting and admiring why she is so famous in the first place. If it were anything else I would have just walked right by, laughing at the fools who are falling over themselves to see this painting. But...I thought that might make me the fool this time. So I too pushed my way to the front of the ropes and started snapping away.

Next up was Winged Victory and Venus de Milo

In short The Louvre was amazing. Considering I only covered about 1% of it in a couple of hours, it is easy to see how you could probably live there for a year (and by there I mean IN the Louvre, not Paris) and not see all of it.

We worked up an appetite taking in so much culture - next stop was a Paris icon...of a different sort...

Apparently Paris has a restaurant (though I use that term loosely) that is famous not for its cheese or Chateaubriand or pate. No, no. This place was famous for...


Don't believe me? Check out the crowd outside this place (ps its called L'as du Fallafel incase you are in the 'hood)

Why are these falafels so famous you ask? One reason could be because they are cheap - even with the exchange rate this place is super affordable (especially in Paris) and the servings a generous. Or it could be because they are super fast - while you stand in line you pay for your falafel and get a ticket. When its your turn at the window, hand in your ticket and within 30 seconds you have a piping hot falafel in your hands. OR it could be because they are DELICIOUS. Thats probably the real reason. The others are just perks.

After we devoured our lunch standing on the sidewalk with 40 other hungry people from all over the world, we did some window shopping, tried to keep warm and got a snack. Then it was au revoir Paris - we were heading back to London for 12 hours to unpack and repack for our 12 day trip to Italy!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


As some of you know, Paris was the unofficial kick off to our two week vacation to Italy.

Stay with me.

Paris for 2 days - London for 12 hours - Italy for 12 days. Ok, so Italy was technically less than a two week trip. Details, people.

We took the Eurostar under the English channel early on Saturday morning. I cannot emphasis how pleasant it is traveling by train (at least on this train, that is). Going through customs is a breeze and happens before you start your journey, you only have to show up a half hour before the train leaves, and once you arrive - au revoir! No baggage claim or long transfer into the city as many airports have.

We immediately checked in to our hotel and set off to see the sites! First up - the Eiffel Tower. We had only seen it from a distance during our last trip to Paris and we were excited to visit one of the most iconic buildings in the whole world (building? monument? hmm...).

It was awesome. I think awesome is the only word that accurately describes it. And not in the "oh thats like totally awesome" high school definition of awesome. Its like "standing at the base of the Empire State Building and looking up" awesome.

Spectacular, that could work too. I should really buy a thesaurus.

After spending a couple of hours admiring and walking around the Eiffel Tower (and taking approximately 930483920854209 pictures of it with two cameras, god we are cool and dont act at all like tourists) we made our way across the river. I insisted we take in a bit of culture during this trip and managed to get Brian to go to Musee de l'Orangerie - where 8 of Monet's Water Lilies paintings are on permanent display. I had heard about the unique set up of the paintings from a friend and had to see it for myself.

The paintings are displayed in 2 oval rooms, 4 paintings to a room. There are sky lights in each room with filters over them to soften the daylight. The walls are a creamy white and there is a place to sit in the center of the rooms to admire and reflect. The paintings also curve with the walls of the oval rooms and seem to wrap themselves around you. I loved every second of it.

Except for the obnoxious tourists who kept taking photos of the paintings and getting in my way.

And then I thought, if you cant beat 'em - join 'em!

After that we were cultured out (ok, more like Brians eyes were glazing over and kept standing by the door) so we ventured out for some lunch. We decided to cross back over the river and "see what we could find". Sometimes you leave things to chance and they turn out just ducky. You stumble upon a hidden gem populated by locals. You find a wonderful bakery and eat a meal that consists of bread and cookies. And sometimes, you find nothing.

We apparently wandered into the only area in Paris that didn't have any restaurants. I will spare you the details but it included a lot of walking and two very cranky Americans.

Instead I'll skip to the good meal of the day - dinner. We asked the concierge to recommend a restaurant for dinner that the locals go to. We didn't want a tourist menu or anything fake french. We wanted the real deal neighborhood joint. Lucky for us that joint was only a couple of blocks away. We managed to snag a table without a reservation (although only barely) and dined on escargot, scallops and veal, and a delicious duo of desserts (creme brulee and chocolate mousse incase you were wondering).

Full of good food and a good bottle of wine we called it a night.

Coming up - day 2.