An Italian winter’s tale of grace

I was in Florence for a few days, a stopover of sorts before I traveled on to Umbria. I was staying at the Hotel Hermes, hosted by Patricia Baglioni, the wonderful woman who owns the small hotel. She steered me toward her favorite places in the city, restaurants and otherwise, and told me some fine stories about her childhood in Texas and Mexico and coming to Italy to study and falling in love with an Italian man whose family owned hotels. He sadly died a while ago, too young, but not before they had a marriage full of adventure and travel and great meals. (Her husband was a hunter, and she showed me some photographs of him with wild boar and pheasant and deer, all of which ended up on their family table.)

Patricia Baglioni, the consummate hostess of Hotel Hermes. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Baglioni)

Patricia Baglioni, the consummate hostess of Hotel Hermes, and a guest. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Baglioni)

It was in the middle of December, and Florence was beautiful. Florence is always beautiful. It was to be my final day in the city, and the next morning, the 17th, I would depart for Umbria and Brigolante, the agriturismo near Assisi that Angela and I would use as home base for the winter holiday season. I went for a walk along the river after breakfast, over the bridge and up toward the Uffizi. For lunch I had coniglio fritto at Al Tranvai, a small place I had read about in Saveur. If you are in Florence you must go, and please order the rabbit. I spent the afternoon wandering, no destination in mind, and ended up at a bar run by an American, a guy who had fallen in love with the city when he and his girlfriend had passed through two years earlier. He told me she had left him to return to California. He thought about her rarely, he said.

Rabbit and zucchini at Tranvai.

Rabbit and zucchini at Al Tranvai.

In the kitchen at Sostanza. (Look at the bottom right corner of image and you'll see a perfect piece of beef.)

In the kitchen at Sostanza. (Look at the middle-right section of the image and you’ll see a perfect piece of beef.)

For dinner I went to Trattoria Sostanza, and, of course, had a bistecca. (I will revisit Sostanza, both corporeally and on Mise en place. It is deserving of that, and more.) Communal tables, two seatings nightly, excellent food. I had a view of the kitchen, and my steak was cooked semi-vertically on a grate over charcoal. It is in the top 5 on my best steak list. After dinner I walked along the river and admired the duomo, thinking of Dante and Beatrice.

I was excited about my drive to Umbria, and after a late breakfast at the hotel headed to the rental agency to pick up my Fiat. As I walked past the window of the German shoemaker snowflakes began to fall, wispy flakes that melted as soon as they landed on the street. I ambled along, not quite wanting to leave Florence behind. I stopped at several food stores along the way, and decided to have an early lunch: fried squash blossoms, a few slices of ham, and a half-bottle of Montepulciano.

Blossoms from a vegetable on a snowy day

Blossoms from a vegetable on a snowy day

While I sat eating the blossoms at a table covered in butcher paper the snow grew heavier, the sky darker. The thin slices of ham melted on my tongue and the red wine warmed me. People rushed along the sidewalk, looking up at the sky. I bought a few tins of pâté and some sausages and cheese for the trip, then continued on to the rental agency.

The car, a white Fiat 500, was small, but just big enough for Angela and me and a bag or two. I drove the short distance back to the hotel and loaded my things, bid farewell to Patricia, then took off toward the river. It was snowing heavily, but I had no worries, and entered the traffic stream, the radio playing a Count Basie number.

Five minutes later it all came down. Snow mixed with ice, heavy. The little car’s windshield wipers struggled to keep up, and the traffic came to a standstill. I endured at least an hour moving at a crawl. We were headed up an incline, toward the autostrada, out of the city, but nature had something else in mind: by the dozens, cars began pulling to the side of the road, unable to make it up the hill. The snow grew heavier, and I thought to myself that I was glad I had brought my hiking boots. I parked my car in the best location possible, its nose still jutting into the street. I, along with other drivers and passengers, emerged into the icy early afternoon.

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I began walking down the narrow, icy street and saw cars parked on both sides of it, two wheels on the sidewalks, two on the one-way thoroughfare. The neighborhood in which I interrupted my journey was just outside one of Florence’s old gates, and as I walked down the hill toward the massive structure I began thinking about where I would spend the night. My first thought was to phone Patricia at the hotel, but when I took my iPhone from my pocket I discovered I had no credit remaining. I kept walking and soon saw a restaurant to my right; it was closed, but lights were on in the dining room and I saw a man in a chef’s jacket standing behind the bar. I knocked on the door and he motioned for me to come in; he was on the phone, and pointed to a bar stool. As I approached him I noticed a group of people sitting at a large table at the rear of the restaurant and realized I had interrupted family meal.

A family meal in a warm place.

A family meal in a warm place.

I sat and looked at the wines on the bar, and a minute or so later my host put down the phone. We shook hands, and he said his name was Paulo. He mentioned the ice storm, and I told him I was stuck, had been forced to park my car on the side of the road, and that I was looking for a place to spend the night. I asked if I might use his phone, but he had another idea: he began calling friends who lived in the neighborhood, asking if anyone could put me up for the evening. I tried to stop him, to tell him I would call back to the hotel in which I had been staying, but he ignored me. After a few calls he put the phone down and smiled, offering me a glass of wine. “Don’t worry, a friend has a bed and breakfast one street over, and he has a free room. He told me I could have it for 35 euros.” Perfect, I said, and we toasted the weather.

He then asked me to follow him, and we walked toward the kitchen, stopping at the occupied table. He introduced me to his father and mother, and some of his employees. His father, who had the year before handed over the kitchen to Paulo, had worked in a restaurant since he was 17, and had opened his own, this one, 15 years earlier. I shook hands with everyone and admired the food on their plates, refusing an offer to eat with them … they had already done enough.

Paulo wrote an address down, then told me that I should come back that evening for dinner. How could I refuse? I was reluctant to leave the warm restaurant, but wanted to find my room before it grew dark. I walked back up the hill to the car and retrieved a few things, then followed the directions Paulo had given me.

It was indeed one street over, one snow-filled street. I saw the number and rang the bell, and was met by a man in his 20’s, who welcomed me in and showed me the room. It was wonderfully decorated, warm, large bed, tasteful fabrics – dark green and an interesting shade of red. He told me his mother and he owned the building and that they were glad to do a favor for Paulo. He seemed to be in a hurry, so I thanked him and walked him to the door. I opened my Mac and found an email from Patricia; she wanted to make sure I was safe, and I told her my tale. She laughed and made me promise to stay at Hotel Hermes when I next was in Florence.

I put my bag away and saw a bottle of wine on the table near the window, poured myself a glass, and sat down, watching the snow fall. (The image of that snow at that moment is in my mind still, and when I wish to evoke a feeling of peace I can conjure it up. I see the snow fall, watch it accumulate on the balcony rail outside the window, silently.)

My room with a snowy view.

My room with a snowy view.

After enjoying another glass of wine I showered, then traced my steps back to the restaurant, which was full of people. Paulo had reserved a place for me at a table along the wall, and I sat, enjoying a perfect view of the entire room. The barstools were occupied, and all but one table was full. I ordered some prosecco and looked at the menu, my eyes landing immediately on wild boar, one of my favorite proteins. They were serving Cinghiale al Ginepro, and I ordered it. A leg of a fine animal ­– Paulo told me they had marinated it in red wine – that had once roamed woods not far from Florence. I was deciding on a first course when a waiter came out with a bowl of pasta and set it before me. I looked down and saw truffles. Tartufo. White truffles, alba madonna. Shaved truffles on top of thin, wide noodles, in a rich sauce that tasted of olive oil and shallots. I lowered my head over the dish and inhaled, and tears came to my eyes.

Those tears were not caused by sadness or tiredness, but were provoked by a profound sense of gratitude, a feeling that was almost holy, sacred. I was sitting among strangers, in a warm restaurant whose chef had housed and fed me. That morning I had checked out of a hotel whose owner, concerned about me in the ice storm, called to make sure I was safe, a woman with whom I still correspond and will surely see next time I am in Firenze. I drank and I ate, and thought of nothing else.

Yes, the truffles and pasta were sublime, as truffles almost always are. The wild boar I remember still: gamy (as I like it), rich, perfectly cooked. But on that evening in Florence, as the snow fell and I sat at an unfamiliar though perfect table surrounded by happy people talking and enjoying their food and wine, I was the recipient of kindnesses that outshone even the finest truffle.

Arrival at Amador: long days, great food, and a Spanish triumph

I’m here, in Mannheim, working at Restaurant Amador. I arrived shortly before Spain played Italy in the Euro 2012 final. I was hoping Germany was going to be in that final, and I planned my flight so that it would fall on a day of no Euro matches. That Sunday, the 2nd of July, the restaurant held an “open house” event, and about 300 people attended. We roasted a pig, and the guests enjoyed some fine pork, among many other things.

The star of the show

The star of the show

My first day in the kitchen was Saturday, July 1. I worked hard – everyone in this kitchen works hard – and long. Harder and longer than I have in a while. I’m not complaining, just remarking that 15-hour days are long days.

Everything in its place

Everything in its place

Days that long contain plenty of time to peel parsnips for stock, to chop garlic and shallots, to shell and clean beautiful crabs, removing all of the yellow and reddish tissue and leaving behind nothing but briny white meat. Plenty of time to clean and scrub floors and counters and walls and ovens. Enough time to get to know the cooks in the kitchen, from whom I am learning a lot.

On the evening of the open house, after all the guests had gone, we set up a projector and watched Spain decimate Italy, watched the Spaniards show the rest of the world how to play football. We sat in the restaurant, eating beautiful steak, drinking some good wine, tired from the day’s work but happy. (Except for the Italian supporters; they were upset.)

Spanish flags aplenty in the Amador dining room

Spanish flags aplenty in the Amador dining room

As I watched the match and sipped a dry Spanish white, I thought to myself: I am in a three-star restaurant, watching the final match of the European Championships. I just finished a long day working in a great kitchen, a kitchen full of great equipment and ingredients. Some of my colleagues had just dried off from swimming in the pool on the restaurant’s grounds after their long days and were sitting near me, eating and watching the match.

A restaurant with a view

A restaurant with a view

I was tired, and I was just a little jet-lagged. But I was where I wanted to be.

It has only just begun, and I am loving it.

Three people talk about food and cooking and family

I never tire of talking about food, whether the topic be chanterelles or smoked goat butter or pork belly, and I love to hear about what others are eating and cooking. This past weekend I moderated a discussion at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair entitled “Food for Thought: Writing About Eating,” featuring Sally Butcher and Ariana Bundy, and we talked about rice and family and culinary school and kitchens, among other things.

Persian stories: Ariana Bundy, left, and Sally Butcher talk to me about cooking and family and the joy of eating.

Persian stories: Ariana Bundy, left, and Sally Butcher talk to me about cooking and family and the joy of eating.

The two women have new books out – Bundy’s is titled “Pomegranates and Roses, My Persian Family Recipes, and Butcher’s offering is “Veggiestan, A Vegetable Lover’s Tour of the Middle East.” Both are good additions to my library, and if you like cookbooks that are more than merely collections of recipes, these two are for you.

(Iran is something these two chefs and writers have in common, as Bundy was born in Iran – she now divides her time between Dubai and Paris – and Butcher is married to an Iranian and lives in London, where she owns and operates Persepolis. She is also the author of “Persia in Peckham: Recipes from Persepolis.”)

Persian cuisine is not on the radar screens of most people in the West; most everyone is familiar with tortellini and gumbo and chorizo, but how many of you have enjoyed Adass Polo Ba Koofteh Ghelgheli? (For the record, it is meatballs with lentiled rice, sticky dates and raisins, and I will be making it this coming weekend, from a recipe in “Pomegranates and Roses.”)

Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes, Simon & Schuster, 2012

Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes, Simon & Schuster, 2012

Both Bundy and Butcher bring passion and energy to their tables, and it was evident during our discussion that their families have played important roles in their development as cooks and writers. Their latest books are full of touching and wonderful stories about mothers and fathers and aunts and mothers-in-law, and remind us again that one of the best ways to broaden one’s culinary experience is to get in a kitchen with an aunt or grandmother (or uncle or grandfather) and cook.

Veggiestan: A Vegetable Lover's Tour of the Middle East, Pavilion Books, 2011

Veggiestan: A Vegetable Lover's Tour of the Middle East, Pavilion Books, 2011

To close, I’ll include a fun recipe from “Veggiestan,” one that you might want to save for a Friday or Saturday night:

Figs and Halloumi
Possibly one for dinner à deux, this – it is incredibly sensual and exotic. Figs are a known aphrodisiac, as is ginger …

To serve, you will need: an old CD of Fairuz or Googoosh
For the dressing: 3 tablespoons olive oil; small knob fresh ginger, peeled and minced;
1.5 tablespoons raspberry vinegar; 1 teaspoon honey; black pepper and a pinch of salt
For the stacks: 6 slices halloumi; 6 fresh figs, halved; 1/3 cup raw shelled pistachios
To assemble: 1 small bag rocket [arugula] leaves; 1/3 cup raw pistachios; 1 candle

Put the CD in your sound system and hit play. Whisk the dressing together. Heat the grill. Check your lipstick/tie in the mirror. Grill the halloumi on both sides until golden, and the figs for a couple of minutes with the cut side uppermost. Take two plates and pile a handful of rocket [arugula] on each, followed by a piece of halloumi, a piece of fig, etc. They won’t exactly stack, but you can layer them like toppled dominos. Sprinkle the pistachios on top. Give the dressing another quick beating, and trickle it over the halloumi. Light the candle. Oh my.