Saturday, 10 September 2011

Only mad dogs and Englishmen. . .


This post is not food-focused, as temperatures have been the focus this last month. For produce market pics, though, please go to rowanbishopfoodwriter's Facebook page. . .

Prato has been hot and quiet over August, as locals generally head for the coast in pursuit of the darkest tans possible and the odd sea breeze.  The temperatures climbed sreadily from low 30's to high 30's with no wind or rain at all. Despite this, I made it to Siena (home of panforte, among other things) with friends, and Lucca. We've also visited the town of Vinci (as in Leonardo da), a lovely little town set in an archetypal Tuscan  landscape.

The town of Vinci

The town has a museum dedicated to Leonardo, and has models of some of the things he conceptualised - from cranes to textile looms, to a helicopter, just to mention a few. Of course he managed to also paint the Mona Lisa in his spare time, plus other famous paintings and sculptures, and 'dabble' in anatomy, physics and writing - so many gifts, so productive in so little time - he died at 67.

By the time the mercury hit 40 C, Prato was almost emptied out. It was low humidity, but stepping out the door was like stepping into the blast of an open furnace door for a couple of weeks. The locals who did remain in town came out in the early evenings for a gelato, often, or to sit around one of the fountains or at an open air bar, hoping for a whiff of breeze; the heat was relentless, day and night. Icecreams and sorbets here are very good, and of course very popular.

But back to the heat. . .at least, you'd be forgiven for thinking, I'd be let off the early morning hill walks, but no! . . . I grizzled quite a bit, and pleaded Irish- ancestry- therefore -intolerance- to temperatures -above -35 C, but it all fell on deaf ears.

We did go into Florence several times - to the Uffizi, which is of course air conditioned as well as a must see, and to the Pitti Palace and to walk around the Boboli gardens; the latter, however, turned out to be a mistake in the heat; apparently my face assumed the colour of an over- ripe tomato before we were even half way around.

A suggestive cherub outside the Uffizi

Florence is a magical city, I just love it. I've waited a long time to see the David, but it is worth any wait - it quite literally takes your breath away. Every last tuesday of the summer months, there is free access to all museums and galleries in Florence, from 7pm - 11pm, so last tuesday night we took advantage of this and went to the Bargello, which is magnificent, then 'popped in' to see the David again on our way back to the station. As for the Uffizi, you could spend days in there. Then there's the Duomo of course, and the Ponte Vecchio; this city is stuffed full of history and treasures. To walk around a corner and see the Duomo in front of you - well, I've spent quite a bit of time in Firenze now, most of it with my mouth open.

This week, Prato is a different city; bustling with tanned locals home from their holidays, and 'invisible' doors have appeared all along the narrow streets, opening into lovely shops. The temperatures have dropped to early 30's again and early mornings and the evenings make it a joy to be out.

We did retreat to the coast ourselves for two weekends, to breathe some sea air and swim, and go to the Puccini festival at Torre del Lago - Madame Butterfly, and then back again to see La Boheme. Torre del Lago is a stunning outdoor setting; the lake can be seen from wherever you sit, the stage set in front of it, creating the illusion that the stage is surrounded by the lake.

From one of the exits at Torre del Lago - almost dark

You aren't allowed to take photos of the production or stage, unfortunately, but there's some good photos on the Puccini Festival 2011 website.  Both productions were magnificent but La Boheme was absolutely stunning on all counts, I'd go again tomorrow if I could.

We stayed at Viareggio, on the coast about 8 km from Torre del Lago, and of course wanted to dip our sweaty bods in the sea, but we New Zealanders are so naive (speaking for myself, at least) - it costs a minimum of 15 Euros (about $30.00) to hire 2 deck chairs and a sun umbrella, in order that you use them and a metre of  beach for the day. Loungers cost more. We bit the bullet, more than once.
Italians literally toast themselves, I've never seen so many deeply tanned people in my life, lying in the sun for hours and hours on end, worshipping those rays.

That was a bit of a culture shock, but it was rather lovely to laze around and swim beneath the Carrara mountains (which look snow covered but are in fact the source of the famous carrara marble).

After La Boheme we left Vioreggio and took a boat trip up the Cinque Terre, as we'll be walking it this weekend, with friends Anne and Terry. The five villages are fascinating, clinging to spiny ridges and nestled into clefts in the cliffs - very picturesque, and it was good to see them from the sea and get some idea of what we're in for. After all the hill training I've been doing, though, it should be a doddle.

As for the kitchen, I've been trialling a green gazpacho containing peas, mint or basil and yoghurt, pureed up with my kitchen whizz/wand of course. I decided it would be nice to have something different from the more traditional tomato based gazpacho, and it seems to me that a gazpacho  is essentially raw ingredients either chopped small and combined, pureed or partially pureed - a 'liquid salad', I've heard it called. It's always served chilled, so is ideal for this weather. I've also been trialling a light, fresh lasagne made mostly of raw ingredients. The idea of this is that the vegetables should generate enough liquid for the pasta to cook, but that the dish retains it's fresh flavours. In any case, I continue to scope out the Monday morning market, making sure I go along early so I'm not lugging my puchases home in the heat...more photos of the markets on rowanbishopfoodwriter Facebook pages - click here

Salted anchovies

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