Monday, September 26, 2011

Chioccola (Snail)

I have always felt “at home” in Siena. It was an instant inexplicable feeling. Like Colorado and Courmayeur, Siena has captured a piece of my heart. I know the streets of Siena so well that even when I try to get lost, I end up in the Campo. I have my favorite gelato shop, my favorite cheap pizza by the slice vendor, my favorite bar to get coffee, my favorite hair stylist, favorite pastry shop for Ricciarelli cookies, my favorite running route on the fortress walls, and of course my favorite pasta is here….PICI! I have brought multiple people to Siena (both in person and virtually) and introduced them to her beauty and spirit. I’m not sure what it is about Siena that makes it feel like home to me, but every time I am there I am more certain of it. 

The biggest event in Siena is the Palio. On the surface it is simply a horse race. But in reality it is an event that gushes with community spirit, honors tradition, celebrates cultural history, secures and renews life long camaraderie, and continues the essence of what makes Siena not only a beautiful walled medieval city but gives an insight into the true meaning of what it means to be Sienese.

The Palio occurs every July 2nd and August 16th. It has occurred on these dates since 1656 (the August 16th date was added in 1701). There are 17 neighborhoods (contradas) in Siena, each with their own symbol…. Duck (Oca), Snail (Chioccola), Panther (Pantera), Shell (Nicchio), Giraffe (Giraffa), Dragon (Drago), etc. There is only space for 10 contradas compete in each Palio so nearly half of them do not actually run. Even when not running, they are still very much a part of it in their spirit.

Contrada members waiting for the trial race pre-show and contrada dinner

The race itself is at 7pm and it lasts all of 3 laps around the Campo, totaling less than 2 minutes of action. But as I learned, it is not even so much about who wins the race more than it is about the ceremonies, the traditions and the love of the event and for the contrada. For the three days leading up to the race, there are dinners, chanting sessions, parades (and not the kind with beads), blessings of the riders and horses (yes the horses go in the churches and are blessed by the priest), numerous trial races, and streets so packed with people that you better hope you have no where else to be because you are not getting there anyway. 

Showing of the Chioccola contrada horse- all male contrada members create a circle and then march together  toward del Campo chanting. The women follow.

My beautiful Sienese friend, Carlotta, wearing her Chioccola scarf. These are given to Sienese babies on the day they are born.

Each contrada has assigned sections in the campo and the women, men and children all sit separately. If the Sienese can’t sit in their section, they would much rather watch the race from home on the TV, instead of being crammed into the center of the campo with the rest of us. Balcony seats go for upwards of 500 euro.

The day of the race I attended the blessing of the horse in the Panther district and then followed all the contrada members through the streets of Siena to the Duomo for the flag marching and display. Then I staked out my spot in del Campo. It was a blazing HOT Tuscan summer day (upper 90’s and with high humidity) and the only place in the Campo that was not yet full was in the direct sunshine. So I sat there for 3 hours, loving my frozen water bottle that was thawing. I watched as each contrada (whether or not they were running) marched in drumming and showing off their traditional attire. I was sweating and felt the hottest I had been in months, and I was dressed in a tank top and shorts. These people were in heavy velvet cloths and metal armor. This was some serious commitment to the traditional wear. 

Priest blessing the horse in the Pantera contrada church

The Pantera contrada members marching together toward the Duomo for the flag throwing parade

Drummers wearing traditional attire

After all the contradas marched in, the 10 horses lined up and we waited through 6 or 7 “false starts” before the gun fired to begin the race. In order to begin, each horse must be in their assigned spot and at the line all at the same time. If one horse moves out of his spot then they all have to re-line up. This sounds simple but it difficult when in a tight space with many spectators surrounding them and other horses and jockeys bothering them too.

Chioccola (Snail) contrada flag bearers

The race was literally less than 2 minutes in length and from my wonderful spot (2nd row in from the sideline), I could see each horse pass by in a flash. The riders ride bareback and the horse can win even if the rider is not on. The campo is not that large and the “track” is packed with sand. The campo is my favorite spot in Siena and I have spent countless hours and days just plopped in it, reading, napping, watching the Sienese walking around, the tourists fumbling through their guide books and children running and playing. It was fun to see the same “square” packed with people, sand, horses and the excitement to be attending the largest event of the year.

The Giraffe contrada were crowned the winners of the August 2011 Palio. I was there to see it, feel it and know that this “once in a lifetime” event was completely worth the 6 train rides, sunburn and near heat stroke to be there. One of the best surprises was that I also got to meet up with my American WWOOF friend, Reva and spend the evening with her. She and I met in Siena in March so it was extra special for us to be there together for the Palio. 

Experiencing the Palio has only strengthened my love for Siena and made me feel even closer to the Sienese community. I hope I will be able to witness this incredible showing of tradition and community again. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Piemontese Cuisine

Besides Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, Piemonte is regarded as one of the culinary capitals of Italy. It is where the Slow Food movement was born. It is the home of Nutella, Barolo and Barbaresco wines. It is the leading producer of rice (think risotto) and corn (think polenta). Piemonte specializes in creamy cow cheeses, butter and cream galore! Like the rest of Italy, the cooking here is simple. But the end result is pure, unadulterated peak flavored dishes that will leave your taste buds happy. 

Living with a 100% Piemontese family gave me great insight into Piemontese cuisine. All Italians are proud and loyal to their region. But the Piemontese take it to a level I had not yet experienced- in a good way. They are proud to be Piemontese, they cook in Piemontese style, they buy only Piemontese products and will not accept anything less. 

Grissini are served at every meal! Grissini are large, dry breadsticks that are particular to this region and each town makes them slightly diferently. They can be made with flour or corn. They can be dunked in milk & honey for breakfast, and then are used to push food onto your fork or wrap a piece of salami or lardo around at lunch or dinner. 

Another thing that is typically Italian, not just Piemontese, is the table setting. Table cloths are very important and are not shared for multiple activities. There is one for meals, one for food prep, and one for display. It is not acceptable to eat on the "display" table cloth or vice versa. Also, Italians don't like to mix courses or food on their plate. This results in A LOT of dishes that are used at meal times. There is a bowl for the pasta/rice course. Then a plate for the meat course, with a smaller plate for the side vegetables. A new plate for the salad course. And then yet another plate for the fruit course (which is also served with a knife because they always peel and cut their fruit). Following all of this is the coffee service, which has it's own cup, saucer and cucchiaino (little spoon). And this is not a special holiday occasion. 

This is every day, lunch and dinner. And always in that order. 

In the photo above you can see the table set for the first course of pasta. Notice the table cloth, long grissini bread sticks and of course the yummy pasta! This is what I call Bruschetta Pasta because it is cooked pasta that is then lightly tossed with Bruschetta (fresh tomatoes, garlic, EVOO, basil) and then served immediately. The tomato is not cooked, giving the dish a fresh taste, straight from the garden.  This was one of my favorites. 

Farinata. My least favorite northern food. I can't believe I am actually saying this, but I do not like Farinata. It is like a pizza, made with chick peas. The dough is baked and then served in slices like pizza. It is not very flavorful, and is very dense and just feels heavy and a bit oily. Non buono.

The Torinese are famous for their invention of Gianduia- a gift from the chocolate hazelnut gods! Gianduia is the cadillac of chocolate hazelnut, putting Nutella to shame. It can be found in gelato flavors, as soft chocolates and also in a chocolate liqueur. Caffe San Carlo in Torino has the BEST Gianduia gelato. I love it with Nocciola (hazelnut) or Torino nougat (almond and hazelnut flavor).

YES! Gianduia and Nocciola gelato from Caffe San Carlo!

Zucchini, sliced
Garlic, quartered
Ricotta cheese (soft and unsalted)
3 Eggs
Salt, Pepper and Herbs
Pastry Dough

1. Sautee zucchini with garlic halves in EVOO, covered and with no salt.
2. In a separate bowl, mix together ricotta and eggs.
3. Add salt to zucchini and cook until just soft.
4. Add hot zucchini to ricotta mixture and mix together. Season with salt, pepper and herbs. 
5. Line pan with paper and pastry dough and fill with zucchini mixture.
6. Top with other pastry dough (remove paper) and pinch sides together to seal pie.
7. Bake at 200 C for 25 minutes and then lower to 180 C and bake for 10 more minutes or until golden brown.

Lardo: Flavored pork fat. A delicacy here. It is cured with fresh rosemary and actually has a delicious savory flavor. Sliced very thinly and served on crostini or grissini.

Polenta! This is served in Piemonte as well as in the Val d'Aosta. Often served with sausages and/or with cheese mixed in (typically Fontina or another good melting cheese)

Val d'Aosta cheese selection. YUMMY! From top and then clockwise, we have Parmiggiano, Butter, Seasonal/Aged (Staggionata) Toma, Younger Toma, and Aged Fontina. All from cow, and all tasty!

Genepy: The digestivo of the north. This after dinner liquor is infused with the Genepy herb. Tastes a little like juniper berry (if you like Gin, you will love this), has an herbal and pine tree quality and is slightly sweet too.

Chestnuts soaked in honey. Very typical of Piemonte and Val d'Aosta. Walnuts and hazelnuts are very common in this area and the honey is delicious as well. 

Piemontese peaches (pesce). They are so sweet, juicy and delicious!

A common recipe has the peaches peeled and then filled with a mixture of crushed amaretto cookie, cocoa powder, and peach pulp. They are then topped with a sliver of butter and baked. 

The end result- what I call "Piemontese Peaches". I have also seen this made into a cake form and pears are another great alternative to use if peaches are not in season. 

Piemontese garlic...

Even the garlic is different here. The bulbs are huge, some are the entire garlic is in one whole piece. It is more flavorful and slightly more delicate than other garlic and the large size makes it easier to cut and harder to burn!

One of the most famous dishes from Piemonte is Bagna Couda. It is literally an anchovy paste that is heated and spread on bread, and veggies. It sounds a bit sketchy but it is delicious! Like Indian families and their varying curry recipes, the Piemontese also have differing family recipes for Banga Couda. This is the delicious one I had the pleasure of trying! Also, this is usually served in the fall, not in the heat of the summer. 


Garlic, thinly sliced
Spanish Anchovies, de-boned, cleaned, rinsed again and then soaked in vinegar
Red Wine Vinegar
Olive Oil
1 L Milk
1 TBS Red Wine
Tomato (a half)

Items to Dip:
Cauliflower, Celery, Bread, Grilled Bell Peppers


1. Remove gills from anchovies, and wash well in water.

2. Split in half and remove backbones, hair, etc. Rinse in vinegar (soak).

3. Rinse in water again and then in vinegar again and drain.

4. Barely cover anchovies in EVOO and let sit for 2+ hrs.

5. In a pan, heat butter and add anchovies. Cook over LOW heat. Simmer and mash anchovies into the butter - they will literally melt into the butter. 

6. Add garlic and continue to heat on low.

7. Add milk and keep adding small amounts every 5 minutes (a little bit each time).

8. Add a drop of wine and tomato and continue to cook.
9. When garlic is cooked and soft, mash with fork and combine into mixture with anchovies. This will take approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour.
10. Add Olive Oil (not Extra Virgin), remove tomato and serve with dipping items!

Finished product! This delicious "paste" is served in it's own individual "fondue-like" ceramic pot with a tea light under it. Serve with fresh veggies, bread and anything else that you might like to enjoy. It tastes like a soft, slightly salty garlic butter spread with a hint of anchovy. SO GOOD!