Sunday, November 27, 2011

Renaissance Running...The Florence Marathon

The Florence Marathon has made significant strides since I first settled in Florence 3 years ago. As a spectator in 2008, the marathon had a genuine neighborhood feel with an indigenous buzz. Most participants were Italian and Western European.  The website was parochial, the logistics untied.  Publicity was limited and it was not on the then-mayor's priority list.  Neither was Florence on the destination wish-list of serious runners and marathoners around the world.  I liked it that way because it felt so untechnically Italian.  It felt like it belonged to the Florentines.

In the past three years, Florence's marathon has grown up and it's been fun watching it grow as I have grown closer to my city. The marathon organization has tweaked every detail, from the course, to the publicity, to the ease of registration, traffic and spectator control, and especially the staging at the start and finish lines, not to mention free massages at the end.  This year 11,000 runners participated from all over the world.  After today's race, the Florence Marathon now ranks among the 20 most widely recognized marathons in the world.  Once they decided to do it, they brought out their old Renaissance thinking caps and designed a seriously marathonic masterpiece.

For the past few days, the city has played host to these 11,000 visitors and their families, and you can feel the personality of these athletes all over Florence. The streets have been packed with a welcoming spirit.  It's fun to watch others appreciating the city that I love.

The marathon was a spectacle to behold, the best one since I've lived here, not to mention we were blessed with outstanding running weather, blue skies and crisp, cool air.  I cannot imagine the high of running through Florence, with a mass of 11,000 people, being aroused by the energy emanating from 700 years of art and architecture smack in front of you on every street, not to mention the natural beauty of the Arno and the hills that encase and crown the city.  The Florence Marathon outdid itself this year.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Autumn Highlights

The touring season ended a month ago, bringing my second year of guiding bike tours in Tuscany to an end. Guiding tours in the Tuscan hills while sharing its wine, food and culture from such a unique office chair is pretty awesome. It's something I dreamed of when I took my first cross-country bike tour of Italy in 1996.  It's something I dreamed of from my office on the 23rd floor of Chase Manhattan Plaza.  But who woulda thunk that there would be the place, the space and the time to live it out?

While the prolonged summer resulted in an underproductive grape and olive harvest, not to mention no porcini anywhere, we've been rewarded with an equally prolonged, unseasonably warm autumn. Which has beckoned me to soak up these last days outside before surrendering to the winter. And so in the past month, I've abandoned my touring saddle to immerse myself in outdoor events, fairs, as well as riding for pleasure in the Tuscan countryside with friends.

But that's not all.  Despite the political and economic disarray in Italy, over the past few months Florence has been outperforming itself in its repetoire of cultural events and there's no end in sight.  The city has played host to an extravagant program of concerts, fairs, feasts and exhibits.  New museums continue to pop up everywhere and the ever-more popular Mayor Renzi has launched countless new community initiatives, improvement projects, cultural events and forums.  It is also the season for theater, classical music and opera, which abounds in Florence, making it hard to decide what to do next.  Just in the past week, we've had an international documentary film fest, myriad ethnic feasts, sagre, truffle, wine and olio nuovo fairs, the Sicilian Fest, the Maggio Musicale.....the list goes on, leaving me litte time to blog.

But thanks to my IPhone, I've been able to capture a photo here and there! Memories of Autumn 2011.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another Sunday on Two Wheels

Another great ride with Bill and Christie. Savoring the last days of autumn.

Nice 100k loop took us for the steep climb to Castello Poppiano and a schiacciata stop in San Quirico.

Wore my booties for the first time.

Winter is on its way.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Favorite Local Loop Ride

Just discovered my favorite ride today, although I seem to say that with every new road that I discover.  But today's route comes in first place. Bill and Christie were wonderful riding company.

Riding the ridge from Tavarnelle to Cerbaia is breathtaking, rich in scenery, hidden castelli and great schiacciata stops.  Even after years living and riding here, I am constantly taken by the urge to stop and take photos, which runs counter-intuitive to the impulse to keep pedaling.  And as much as I want to stop and snap a photo, I seldom do, because that would interrupt the high of the moment. Having the roads of Tuscany so accessible and being able to experience them all year-round is a true blessing. 

We've been lucky to have such enduring, crisp autumn weather, vivid colors, sharp blue skies, the smell of wood burning, birds still chirping, roses still blooming, and we're taking advantage of every lasting day before winter strikes!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Panelle....Simply Addictive


I couldn’t wait for the annual Sicilian Feast to come to Florence, because it’s the only place outside of Palermo and Brooklyn where I can find one of life’s most addicting comfort foods…..the panelle panino. And so, I will take a momentary diversion from my Florentine life to write about something terribly un-Tuscan.

A “panella” is a lusciously light, flat fritter made with chickpea flour, water, salt, and parsley. After being deep-fried, a sizzling stack is topped off with a generous heap of fresh ricotta fresca and slivers of ricotta salata and immediately placed inside a hot semolina toasted sesame roll. The fusion of warm, nutty and cheesy flavors, punctuated by the contrasting crunchy and creamy textures, makes for a categorically indulgent, albeit calorically decadent panino. Try it only once and become addicted.

Panelle are eaten as simple street food in Palermo, made and sold at outdoor "friggitorie" stalls, but otherwise only found in heavily populated Sicilian communities such as Brooklyn, New York where it is sadly on the verge of extinction. Making panelle is not only an art, but a profession in and of itself.  Panelle-makers are called “panelleri”, and they are a dying breed in the U.S.

Lunching on panelle sandwiches at Ferdinando’s Focacceria on Union Street in Brooklyn was a weekly childhood ritual. Owned by Sicilian immigrants, the Buffa family has been in business for over a century. It is perhaps the only surviving panelleria in the U.S. It is my first essential stopover on any trip to New York.  Living in New York I could go to Ferdinando’s whenever I craved panelle.  And I needed my regular fix. Upon moving to Southern California, I quickly learned the futility of trying to make it myself, after many failed attempts. It requires precision, experience, skill.

A little research led me to discover a tiny Sicilian eatery in San Diego’s Little Italy, where Bruno was the only surviving west-coast panellaro. This provoked an incurable weekly habit of driving 120 miles round-trip just for a panelle sandwich. Until one day taken by the urge, I drove to San Diego, desperately salivating for an entire hour, only to find that Bruno had died, and along with him, my weekly fix. Selfishly saddened, I was curious to know why someone else couldn’t make them. While I drooled from the mouth like a wolf ready for the kill, Bruno's brother Tony explained why nobody else but Bruno was capable of making this humble but precious Sicilian fodder. Rrrrrr….the better to eat you, my dear. I bared my fangs and went for his neck.

He explained to me the history and secrets to its preparation. Arabic in origin, it is a poorman’s fare. The ceci bean, plentiful in Sicily, is easier to harvest than wheat, cheaper and more protein-nutritious than pasta. The recipe seems painfully simple….farina di ceci, water, salt and parsley, but the method is truly an art. Similar to polenta, the mixture is thickened by stirring constantly for 45 minutes. When the paste starts to pull from the sides of the pan,  (the critical moment) it is removed and placed in cylindrical containers and left to harden. The secret is in knowing exactly when to remove the paste from the pot. If you wait too long, it becomes unpliable. It must be sliced into flat squares as soon as it cools down, no longer, then deep-fried at the precise temperature until golden brown and MUST be eaten at once. This is not “take-out” food. The panelle becomes gooey, chewy and soggy if not eaten immediately.

After searching all of southern California to find ceci flour and finally finding it at Claro's in Tustin, I attempted to make it myself.  But numerous attempts proved useless.  Either I ended up with a gummy paste or a limp lump of goo that exploded all over the kitchen as I dropped it into the hot oil.  I gave up and set my hopes upon the Sicilian Sagra which was coming to Florence in November.
Anticipating the Sicilian feast with famished fervor, I attended the opening parade and perused the multiple food booths, building up for the final climax. I waited my turn on a long line of customers and ordered my panelle sandwich.

To my utter dismay, the panelle were pre-made and reheated. My heart fell.  Delusa and totally depressed, I brought my soggy, overpriced panelle sandwich to a picnic table where others were eating rice balls and fried calamari as costumed performers danced and played the accordion. Skeptical, I bit in and sunk my teeth into to the highly suspicious gooey, chewy, tasteless concoction and almost cried. I later found out that the mixture was mass-produced in Vicenza, frozen and delivered that morning.

Time to go to Ferdinando's.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Enjoying the Raccolta On My Last Day of Work

My last day of guiding bike tours was filled with surprises.  I was fortunate to have only two clients, and was able to conduct the ride like a private tour, taking them off the beaten path.  A mile into the ride, Chris got a flat tire, my first and only flat of the year!
While fixing the flat on the side of the road, I could hear leaves and branches rustling in the client had wandered into the brush, taking photos.  Suddenly, an enraged hunter, fully decked out in camouflage gear, appeared out of the woods aiming  his rifle directly at my client, angrily shouting and cursing in heavy Florentine country vernacular. He was enraged.  Terrified at first, I realized that Chris had interrupted a potential "kill" while snapping photos of the hunter at work.  The hunterman wanted Chris to turn over his camera.  I tried to explain to the hunter that Chris is a tourist, innocently taking photos, meaning no harm.  I was trying to protect my client without becoming his dinner.  I apologized over and over again, hoping that he would relax and put his rifle down.  Thank God he did.  It was the quickest and shakiest flat I've ever fixed.  We were out of there!

My real objective of that day was to ride through certain olive groves that I knew were already begining their raccolta (harvest).  For all of Tuscany, this is a very exciting time of year.  Last year was the first time that I experienced it firsthand, riding through the olives groves every day, watching them multiply and grow, preparing themselves to validate many a Tuscan dish. 

Last year's raccolta was robust and abundant.  There were ladders and people perched in every tree, nets all over the place, baskets and baskets of olives being transported to the frantoio (press). The buzz of the harvest electrified the countryside. 

This year, the prolonged summer and lack of rain previsioned a meager harvest.  As the months passed by, I could see that there weren't many olives on the trees, and those that were there were small.  On this last work day, I was eager to catch some action, and I had to search it out.  I took some side roads near Pisignano and alas, there we saw life in the olive groves, men and women in the trees, harvesting the olives.  Always a sight to behold.  Of course, we got off our bikes and asked permission to watch, and were welcomed with glee.  On the invitation of one of the workers, my clients were invited to climb up the latter to help them pick!  It was a blast and the clients were tickled with excitement. By the time we left, alot of smiles were shared and photos snapped.

It was a great way to end the touring year.  When we arrived at Le Corti, they too were harvesting the olives and I was able to explain the press while it was in action.  We even tasted the newborn oil, as it poured out of the press.  Here's the video I took!  Can't wait for next year, but very content to get back to city life in Florence.