“She will be fast,” warned Colleen. “Four course lunch for 13 people, less than an hour. The woman cooks fast.”

For this, you envision a stout woman wielding a knife sharp enough to split atoms. A woman who runs a kitchen with military precision. A woman who is…pretty much like a man. Gordon Ramsey in pink chiffon perhaps.

Then you meet Isa.

chef isa
Chef Isa of Relais La Costa

The women of our group tower over Isa.

Yes, we (tall) Americans come from a cooking tradition that began with the French (and Thomas Jefferson’s love for the food and wine) and which continues seamlessly with Julia Child, who snuck onto the scene before Marchella Hazan and managed to stay well past her time on earth.

In any case, Isa doesn’t do French. While we spread around her kitchen work surface like sheep around a shade tree, she hands out the knives. They seem to have been taken off the tables. They are steak knives of questionable provenience.

A couple of us are to cut carrots. She demonstrates the size of cut she wants by slicing the carrot against her thumb with one of these abominations.

Mon Dieu!

When she asks an assistant for a larger pan there is not the usual, “Yes, Chef!” you expect to hear echoing through the familiarly militant kitchen of the type they insist upon showing you on television.

Soon eggplant is being sliced impossibly thin, the carrots have been whacked, potatoes and bread diced—and fingers, miraculously, remain intact.

pork loin

Then comes the part where your confidence in any language spoken in Isa’s kitchen is shattered. After she has tied the pork loin, she tells the assembled magnitudes that she will add, “un po di olio” which the interpreter correctly translates into “a little olive oil.” We wait a bit while the upturned bottle speaks to us. “Glug, glug, glug, glug,” and so forth. The loin is well lubed; the bones she has removed from the roast swim in it meekly while the tied-up loin glistens in its regal coat. Then she will add a little salt…

Let it be pointed out that diminutive Isa does not disparage her adoring minions. The single time a task isn’t being done fast enough for Isa, she rests an elbow on the stainless steel table, cups her chin in her palm and issues a wistful “Oggi”—meaning it would be quite nice to have the task completed before the day is out.

Finally, Isa shoos us out of the kitchen and we filter into a dining room with an enormous table and a view of everywhere. Soon we eat. The best Eggplant Parmigiana I’ve ever had. Creamy Ribolitta. Pork loin with pan drippings. Bones! Glorious, roasted bones: slivers of meat from the god of piglets. Sformata of potato and Parmigiano Reggiano. And then a blistering white panna cotta with berries and a spoon of warm chocolate on top. I see your Facebook inspired, “yum” and raise you a glass of Vin Santo.

And with our hindrance help, she did all this in less than an hour.

Mon Dieu.

la costa dining room
La Costa Dining Room

——

You don’t have to live this little episode vicariously through my fractured prose. You can easily participate in a full week of getting to know how Tuscan women cook, experiencing some of Tuscany’s finest and most traditional dishes and meeting new friends to make pasta with all at the same time. It’s an orgy of cooking, eating, and learning the Tuscan ways of women who cook up a storm. And…let me tell you of a little secret: you can do it even if you have different plumbing. Yes, men are free to join in, just like I did, and even if, like me, you mostly diddled around with a camera instead of cutting carrots against the thumb, there’s no penalty. Except for some cutting remarks I mean.

Check out: Tuscan Women Cook and see some of my pictures on their facebook page.

You can also choose to stay at Relais La Costa in Montefollonico and avoid the carrots altogether, but you’ll be missing some fun.

We stayed at Hotel La Ciusa during the program and had an excellent meal there as well.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tuscan Women Cook program.

Tuscan Women Cook originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 20, 2016, © .

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Voices from the Internet have informed me of the passing of artist and sculptor Pinuccio Sciola. We have lost another great voice in the world.

It was a playful voice. When Paula Loi took me to meet Mr. Sciola, he directed us to a pile of rough sculptures. Hands. A great mountain of hands. Not any hands but the enormous hands of Sardinian shepherds, with their plump fingers widely spaced.

pinuccio sciola hands
Pinuccio Sciola's hands

He compared them to his own and giggled. He had obviously skipped the class in “developing pretentiousness” in art school.

pinuccio sciola
Pinuccio Sciola and the Shepherd's Hand

If you’ve ever extended a hand to a shepherd you know that the artist is right. The hand that will reach out to you is enormous. What passes for that complicated tether to your fingers will get lost in the grip of a Sardinian shepherd. Shepherds hands are strong hands.

Funny thing, though. They are as soft as the basalt hands are porous.

Mr. Sciola was always interested in exploring the properties of elasticity, texture, vibrations and spirit—which lesser artists do with more obvious materials. He explored those properties in rocks.

A while later he placed his hands together. “What am I doing?” he demanded. After a period of silence he relented, “I am praying.”

The way to access spirit is through prayer—and Mr. Sciola began to run his fingers across the surface of the scarred rock.

At which time it sang.

I hope some day you will have the opportunity to shake hands with a Sardinian shepherd. I hope you feel the softness and the power, for then you will have felt the essence and the spirit of Pinuccio Sciola.

—-

See the rocks sing

Pinuccio Sciola: Hands of Joy originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 14, 2016, © .

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You know what I like about Italy? The balance. Italians have always searched out thermal springs. Ancient Romans pretty much found them all. So what did the modern folks do? They did like we do in the US, they built expensive spa buildings and funneled some of the healing waters into the playrooms of the rich. But they also left some of the water to cascade down the hillsides so that anyone, rich and poor alike, could access it.

Cascata Balena Bianca
Cascata Balena Bianca with Bathers

Thus in Italy there are quite a few places in which to bathe in mineral rich waters, often stinking of healing sulphur. Ancient Romans loved the idea of soaking in hot, tepid and cool pools so much they deforested much of the area around Rome for wood to heat their public baths.

But you don’t have to burn wood when the springs are volcanic and exit the earth at searing temperatures. These are the hot springs that pop from the earth at places like Bagni San Filippo in the Siena province of southern Tuscany, shown in the picture above. This area has natural tubs and walls made from concretions of calcium carbonate. The locals call it Cascata Balena Bianca—white whale falls. If you’ve been to nearby Saturnia or Pamukkale in Turkey you might have a bout of Déjà vu.

bagni san filippo waterfall
Bagni San Fillippo Waterfall

The thermal pools fashioned out of the calcium carbonate deposits along the mineral rich river are a short walk from the town along a well tended pathway and are free to use. There are also places in town where the thermal spa experience is more luxurious—and far from free—but you get to wash the sulfuric fumes from your hair as soon as you get back to you room.

To get to Bagni San Filippo and the Cascata Balena Bianca, here is the secret map. There is no train station in town.

Bagni San Filippo has a fantastic restaurant named after the particular type of regional limestone used in construction in these parts. Osteria Lo Spugnone offers up regional specialties carefully sourced and crafted—all at a very reasonable price. And…you can walk off the extra pounds you might add by trekking on the slopes of Mt. Amiata, just a short drive away.

A highly rated place to stay in town is the Bed and Breakfast BBBagni

We visited Bagni San Filippo on the suggestion of our hosts at the nearby organic farm with villas in Umbria called Il Fontanaro, where we had a great stay and found the slow life very much to our liking. If you don’t mind the drive, we recommend a stay (and perhaps a cooking class) at Fontanaro.

Bathe Cheap!

Free thermal baths and a picnic is all you need for a good, cheap life in Tuscany.

bagni san filippo picnic area
Have a Flintstone moment in Bagni San Filippo

Bagni San Filippo: Bathe Free! originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 13, 2016, © .

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I love staying in apartments, especially in Italian cities. You can live like a local who talks funny.

Too many apartment owners like to spiff a place up for the tourist. You know, fake ceiling beams, fake Renaissance art on the walls. The stuff they think you want. The stuff they think makes it seem like Italy for you.

What I want is a comfortable place, a good bed, heat in the off-season, internet that’s fast and reliable—and I want to throw open the shutters and have Italy come to me. And it doesn’t hurt that the owner is nearby and feels the duty to make herself available to you in case you have questions or want to know what you actually ordered at the restaurant last night that you thought was an prime cut from your favorite barnyard animal in red sauce but appeared to be a part you usually don’t put in your mouth voluntarily.

Yes, between “hover incessantly” and hide, there is the zone of comfort, the bulls-eye of great hosting, making yourself available to your guests.

So let’s say your host is Rebecca and your apartment is inside a 16th century palazzo with a view out the window like this:

assisi town apartment view
Assisi Town Apartment View

Below you is the main square of Assisi. You can casually stroll to the bar across from the Roman temple of Minerva and get a coffee, or better yet a glass of local Grecchetto. It’s a hoppin’ place.

At night you batten down the hatches, closing the shutters over the double-paned glass and there’s silence.

I’d say you’ve got it made.

We’re talking about Brigolante’s town apartments, specifically:

Il Camino

assisi apartment interior
Il Camino - Town Apartment in Assisi

One long room with fireplace. Perfect. A thermostat that keeps the place at just the right temperature. And it’s smack in the center of Assisi!

Ok, so you know there’s the Basilica of San Francisco. Everyone goes there. It’s safe. There are armed guards making sure. It’s a new age.

But Assisi is more. Gawk at the amazing carvings on the facade of the Duomo. That’s the cathedral lost in the tourist’s focused lust over Saint Francis. It’s dedicated to some local guy. San Rufino—or Rufinus of Assisi. You don’t care about him, but the church had lots to do with Francis; in 1209 he preached so well that Clare realized her calling and history was made.

assisi duomo picture
Facade of the Duomo di San Rufino

And there are the little surprises that appear in front of the many churches. Like classic cars in front of Santa Chiara.

classic cars assisi picture
Assisi Classic Cars Exhibition

And if you ask Rebecca she’ll tell you how you can arrange to visit the Roman houses underground. Imagine putting in an elevator and wham! You hit Roman columns. You can stroll up to the castle, where you’ll get great views overhead of the city of Assisi, or you can take a walk in the footsteps of Saint Francis; there are trails everywhere out of town associated with the saint.

Spend a week. Spend a month if you have it. You’ll be cozy. You’ll eat well. You will be in the heart of Assisi. If you’d rather stay 6 kilometers out of town, Rebecca also runs the Brigolante Country Apartments.

You can’t go wrong either way.

Brigolante Guest Apartments, Assisi

Assisi: Stay Where the Action Is originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 17, 2016, © .

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