Monday, September 22, 2008

A Very Spoiled Woman

I have arrived back in Arles safe and sound from a wonderful week in Italy with my two buddies, Martha and Monette. I flew to Rome on September 10 to meet their flight from the US. I spent several hours in the airport waiting for them to arrive and had a little corner table in an all night coffee shop all to myself. I managed to read, write a letter, file and polish my nails (washing dishes and cleaning toilets has done nothing for my manicure, needless to say), and watch countless airport employees throw back little cups of espresso coffee while standing at the counter.
Martha and Monette arrived on time and the reunion involved a lot of laughing and crying. I was assured that I do indeed still have English-speaking friends who would travel several thousand miles to visit me in a country where none of us speak the language. I had thought about that fact a little bit prior to heading from the Marseille airport to London Gatwick to Rome but not enough to be worried. Afterall, I speak French, Martha studied Spanish and Monette is just plain old fearless about asking for anything she needs or wants in English. Martha went to Durham Academy Middle School the day before she left for a crash course in Italian from Daniela Harrell, a colleague, very dear friend and the only Italian I know. No problem, we thought.
We did manage just fine, even throwing in grazie, ciao, buon giorno, buena sera, and prego as often as possible. Luckily for us, most everyone we met spoke English. We did eat in a restaurant close to Trevi Fountain one night, coming in wet from pouring down rain, where the owner was a bit grumpy and spoke no English. He could've been saying anything at all to us, but we chose to believe he was complimenting us on our lovely rain-soaked Nikes and umbrellas! Even though he charged us 4.50 euros for the bread he served us, we managed to laugh. Not our finest choice of restaurants during the week, but it was late and we were hungry. Most of the time we relied on Rick Steves' recommendations (along with thousands of other Americans- if he ever goes public, buy stock) and he was very helpful, although his maps were a bit hard to follow in Florence.
I quickly realized that I have become a very spoiled woman - une femme très gâtée- in the three months that I have been living in Arles. You see, I have had to make no decisions about food. No meal planning, no shopping except to accompany Chef Érick to the market and help carry the purchases, and no cooking except in my assistant capacity. Whenever he asks me if I am hungry- Tu as faim, Teresa? On mange?- he already knows what the answer will be. Bien sûr. Of course, I am hungry and we should eat. He just laughs now and usually already has his head in the refrigerator or is rummaging through the vegetable basket to see what the possibilities are. In Italy, I was on my own. Well, Martha and Monette were there, too, of course, but they also a bit weary of food decisions. Between the three of us we have seven boys, ages 25-15.
So, while in Italy we had to actually chose the restaurants ourselves. Imagine. One night in Rome at our hotel near the Spanish Steps, we decided to go up to the rooftop bar, have a couple of glasses of wine and watch the sunset. "Moustachio" waited on us and told us all about his city. He has lived there all his life and loves Rome. Everything was magnifico or fantastico in his world that night. He brought lovely glasses of pinot grigio for Martha and Monette and chianti for me. He also brought little bowls of olives, nuts and chips. Voilà, girls, dinner is served! Not terribly nutritional, but absolutely wonderful as the setting sun changed the colors of the rooftops and church domes in the city of Rome. Thank goodness Martha was using reward points to pay for the hotel since we spent a handsome amount for those glasses of wine and olives! It was well worth it.
The best meal of the trip, in my opinion, was at the San Donato winery. We took a day trip from Florence to San Gimignano and Siena, with a stop at the winery for lunch. Lunch was laid out on long tables and consisted of various hams and cheeses, salads, lovely little white and red onions, and bread soaked in the olive oil also made on the premises. Dessert was almond cookies, cantucci, dipped in Vin Santo del Chianti, a sweet wine made there, also. Holy Wine of Chianti. The owner served his white and red wines to accompany our meal. I do believe our group would have stayed there all day if we could have! We met a couple from California on their honeymoon, two very nice guys from Austin, Texas, and three other couples from the US. We ran into almost all of them again the next day at the train station as we were heading to Monterosso in Cinque Terre.
It was my first trip to Italy. Highlights of the trip-- seeing David at the Accademia, the Trevi Fountain at night (I did not jump in), the sheer size of the Duomo in Florence, hiking between the five villages in Cinque Terre, coloring my hair in Florence at the hotel while Martha and Monette practiced pilates (I swear it looked orange under the lights in the bathroom of the Hotel California- oh, yes, that was the real name, luckily, my hair is NOT orange and we were able to check out), sitting on the beach at sunset in Monterosso, the homemade pesto from the little shop in Monterosso, the 10 hour train trip back to Arles, even though we were sold the wrong tickets in Italy and had an hour's delay in Nice while they found a working locomotive, and almost missing the stop in Arles because we were all fast asleep. It was, afterall, 12:30 am and way past our bedtimes!
I am happy to be back in Arles and am once again being fed very well. Lunch today was grilled tuna steaks with a fresh tomato and caper sauce followed by delicious goat cheese, chèvre. Fall has arrived. The leaves on the chestnut trees are changing colors. The sky is a beautiful shade of blue that we usually only have in October in North Carolina. It was 12 C or 54 F this morning when I woke up. I already miss Martha and Monette- the world's best traveling buddies. We often looked at each and remarked that there was no where on earth we'd rather be than just where we were at that exact moment in time. In addition to being a very spoiled woman, I am a very lucky one!
While I was in Italy, Chef Érick was hard at work with a week of Hiking and Feasting with three women, two Americans and one Canadian. I did make it back for one night and this is the dessert we made.

Fresh Ricotta/Brousse Cheese Cake

500 grams or 17 oz. of fresh ricotta or brousse (do not use skim)
1/2 cup lavender honey
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
the zest and juice of one lemon (3 Tbsp juice)
the zest of one orange, if desired

In a mixer or with a wooden spoon, blend the honey into the ricotta, then add the sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Then add the juice and zest.

Pour into a lightly greased spring- form pan and bake at 175C or 350F for 45 minutes or until just about set, with the center still a bit wobbly. A bit of light browning along the edges is fine.

Remove from the oven and place in the refrigerator to cool and set.

Bon appétit!

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