Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hot soups, cold nights, and maple farm delights!

I realize everyone is talking about the impending arrival of spring blooms.  I see photos of little crocus buds breaking through the soil in the southern states, shop signs that beckon passersby to buy their garden seeds soon, and recipes of soups made fresh vegetables in light broths.

But, the Kenney's are still thoroughly enchanted with the scenes of New Hampshire's stunning winter vistas. We haven't tired yet of  discovering the many winter weekend activities in this state.  We've trekked to nearby Ragged Mountain almost every weekend of the winter to ski the snow covered slopes. We've purchased ski boots, ski mitts, and ski pants for the first time in our lives...which is quite the novel purchase for southerners.  We can be found riding "The Magic Carpet" and sliding down the mountain passes with whimsical  names like "The Flying Yankee" and "Gobbler's Knob".

So with winter in full swing up here, we're taking full advantage and spring, with all of its soon to arrive delights, can hold off just a wee bit longer this year so we can continue our newly discovered fun.  Hours of waddling through ski hills usually means we land somewhere in the lodge afterwards with hefty appetites looking for steaming hot soups and cold frothy beers.  We've been in the humid tropics of the south for the last 4 years, so this wintry adventure is not only a change but a treat for us indeed.

Upper left: typical scenes alongside the road: turkeys
Lower left: the most handsome barn that houses a local pewter artisan

But, reality rears its ugly head and the winter fun has been curtailed a little recently.  We took the big plunge and made a move to purchase this farmhouse that has served as our resting spot for the last 3 months.  Because of  that holiday fiasco in purchasing a previous home that had us fraught with indecision and self doubts, we've been hesitant to move on but know it's time to make plans anew.

Unfortunately, we have sadly learned that the owners of this farmhouse are only interested in a number close to full asking price.  With the amount of renovation work required on this old farmhouse, doubt has crept back into our thinking.  With heavy heads and even heavier hearts, we've had to re-enter the house hunting market at full force since our lease is up in May.  With winter ebbing closer to spring, more and more options are coming on the market, but it is tough to let the dreams of this farmhouse go...

Celery root, potatoes, apples, smoked herring, and dried pumpkin seeds for a warming winter soup

We've decided to gather our supporters around us and plot out the next steps in a continuing adventure that is insisting on pushing us onward.  We had a winter luncheon with our realtor in order to pull out maps, look at market offerings, and march onward on our quest and determination to make New Hampshire our home.

whisking eggs for a creamy filling for my Goat Cheese Tart

I decided to make a comforting meal because comfort is what is needed right about now.  I made a creamy celery root soup, a simple but delicious goat cheese tart, and warm rich buttery carrots for our meeting with our realtor, Hilda.    

I love this celery root soup, but I must admit, I've noticed it is a "love it" or "hate it" kind of reaction to this particular soup.  I literally could eat this creamy smooth soup for lunch each day and it would be a while before I would tire of it.  For others, the creaminess is wonderful but the slight taste of celery from the celery root is a show stopper.  This soup contains chunks of potatoes, broth, and a little bit of apple to create layers of flavor.  To jazz it up a bit, I added whatever I had on hand...toasted pumpkin seeds, chives, smoked herring, and a dollop of crème fraîche.

Goat cheese tart, on the other hand, seems to be a perennial favorite with just about everyone.  I must admit, I could eat a slice of this for lunch just about every day as well as the celery root soup.  I'll spoon, slather, or swipe creamy goat cheese on just about anything!

Top Left: Authentic British scones with gooseberry jam and Devonshire cream

We are all trying to think positive thoughts about our future direction with house hunting.  I have to admit, it's tough.  Finding the right "dream home" is much harder than I thought it would be.  Not having geographic constraints is a wonderful blessing but can also leave one wandering in quite a wide span of directions with choices and options...which lead to uncertainly and indecision.  

So our realtor  brought over an absolutely wonderful treat for us!  English scones, devonshire cream, homemade gooseberry jam...and...to top it all off...a pot of gorgeous deep purple hyacinths, just ready to bloom.  What an absolutely mood lifting gift of generosity and creativity along the lines of...just what the doctor ordered!

The Kenney's are back on the house hunt again...but, we're determined to continue having winter fun whenever we can slip in some free time.  We adore winter activities and accumulating the assortment of  hats, mitts, and scarves that go with combating the cold temperatures.  For skiing, we now have black ninja-like face masks with little pointy protrusions for the nose when the weather is particularly bitterly cold.

So... all of a sudden, all chit chat around the small villages of New Hampshire is turning to noisier chit chat about everything maple! People are buzzing about maple trees, and running sap, and boiling syrup, maple snow candy, maple cream...well, you get the picture!

it's sugar maple making  season in New Hampshire!

...and we know nothing about this wonderful sounding endeavor.  But, we are ready to learn and more specifically, we are ready to taste the goods and weigh in!

Top Left: different "grades" of maple syrup flavors
Bottom left: drizzling maple syrup on freshly made pancakes

So, we looked around our area to see if there are any maple farms around here.  We discovered about 40 minutes away, there is a little family run working farm called "Charmingfare Farm".

Not only is the maple sap running from the trees right now, but at Charmingfare Farms, they offer sleigh rides that take families out in cozy comfort  into the woods to the sugar shack to see and learn how the maple sap tapped from maple trees is boiled down into maple sugar.

It is appropriately titled "The Maple Express" and their huge draft horses pull the sleigh about 20 minutes to where the maple sugaring process takes place.  

We bundled up in several layers, put on our sturdiest  snow boots, drove out to Candia, New Hampshire and had a marvelous stress relieving day learning about the maple sugaring process.

The air was frigid on Sunday.  Little plumes of frosty breath hovered over our huddled group as we snuggled deep into the sleigh behind the magnificent horses as they lumbered us through the woods and over the little rolling snowy hills.  

The children in the group, bundled from head to toe, squealed as they pointed out sap buckets as well as  large happy snowmen cut outs made of painted wood encircled with twinkling lights.  

Weeknight cooking: Pan seared swordfish with browned butter sauce and roasted tomatoes

In the distance, we could see the plumes of smoke swirling from the metal stack protruding from the top of the lopsided wooden sugar shack.  We stiffly climbed down from the large creaky hay strewn sleigh. Almost everyone was drawn to the warm fire lit in the middle of the woods that was crackling and spitting sparks into the frosty air.  After warming our hands for a bit (those who dared remove their gloves) we were invited to gather inside the sugar shack to learn about the process of gathering the sap and how to best boil it down to produce different grades of syrup.

I concentrated hard on trying to listen attentively to the farm's sugar maker as he pointed out the proper type of taps to use, how long to boil down the sap for the preferred flavor, and how much sap it takes to produce 1 gallon of syrup...alot!

But, it was difficult to stay focused because dozens of little golden pancakes were being poured, baked, and flipped right in front of us.  The scent was delicious.  The steam from the skillets wafted into the air and rolled around the tiny little sugar shack enveloping us in this delightful experience.  Each sample plate was then being drizzled with just boiled amber colored maple syrup.  

We were listening but many pairs of  eyes were darting back and forth from the farmer to the pancake making table as it sputtered and steamed.   The little ones were positively staring wide eyed as each pancake flipped and sizzled as it puffed up on the hot buttered skillet.

After the farmer ended his talk on maple syrup making, we were treated to those just-made pancakes doused with Charmingfare Farm's homemade maple syrup.  We were offered hot chocolate or maple coffee to keep us warm by the toasty fire as it was being fed continuously with heavy chunks of forest wood.  After a few minutes laughing and chatting with one another while enjoying our forest treat, we all prepared  to climb back into the sleigh to continue our ride to the barns that hold the farm animals.

The barn animals were all snuggled inside keeping warm from the winter chill.  There were baby chicks all bundled together looking like one large wiggly furry yellow pillow.  There were tiny baby ducklings flapping their fledgling wings as they stumbled and tripped over one another.

The stalls were filled with a variety of breeds of goats who where bleating loudly with glee as the little children fed them goat food from their tiny mittened hands.  

Eventually, back to the farmhouse we returned.  We sampled maple candy, maple cream, and maple cotton candy.  Maple cotton candy was everyone's favorite as it tasted like toasted marshmallows.  We bought a jug of bonafide New Hampshire made maple syrup to drizzle on our Sunday pancakes and waffles that I know will last for weekends to come.

We're still unsettled about the dream farmhouse of our own.  I must admit this is a difficult time for our family.  But, New Hampshire is a gorgeous state.  There are farmhouses around every bend, down every country lane, and tucked into mountain valleys.  We remind ourselves each day how fortunate we are to be taking this journey, free to make dreamy decisions, and slowly but surely we willfind that one home that  will become the place we hang our little Welsh plaque that says "Croesco" that we brought back from Wales many years ago.  It has hung on each front door of the many houses we have owned.  "Croesco" means "Welcome" in Welsh.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Taste Florence Food Tour...romantic, delicious, magical

It seems that periodic trips to Florence, Italy are becoming  markers of my life's major turning points.   On this recent visit to Florence,  memories of a large and menacing pile of dog-eared math flashcards pervaded my memories and pointedly marked the stage of life I was in years ago.  I was in those elementary and middle school years and consumed with managing kids' school work, organizing curriculums, packing lunches (often dinners too), and carpooling hours a day cute little bun headed ballerinas to and from the dance studio.  

Prepping, Packing...Suitcase for one as this Momma is about to step on another of life's stepping stones

On this trip, it hit me like a tidal wave that child #2 is racing to the finish line of his senior year of high school.  The last trip to Florence was as escape from the routine of life and the stresses of parenting.  It was request, a plea rather, to roam the streets alone, untethered by all of the paraphernalia that accompanies family trips.  One of the daily activities I yearned to escape from on the last trip to Florence, Italy was the dreaded menacing stack of math flash cards that stared my son and I down each and every day.  On this recent trip to Florence, those stacks and stacks of math flashcards flipped and twirled and stacked and spewed in a flutter of repetitive memory in my mind...like a stream of consciousness reminding me that we made it...through those elementary school years.  There are so many  memories I would like to cradle in my hands, take a deep breath and softly breathe them in again in order to re-experience their joys and cuteness... 

...but no, not the seemingly endless math flashcard morning memories.  NOT those... 

That last trip to Florence represented a much needed escape from those lopsided piles of tedious task work which manifested themselves in horrid math flash cards.  

Upper Left: Sfoglia pastry from Pasticceria Sieni  Upper Right: Vestri traditional Chocolate shop
Lower Left: Vestri Chocolate and Gelato shop

My son struggled daily with math flashcards in his younger years.  This was painful for us at the time but is a non issue today.  Life continuously reminds me that  each of my children was meant to mature at their very own pace.  It was and is a pace that really has to little to do with their longer term academic capabilities.  Today, his mind can calculate the tip in a restaurant or figure out the tax on an item much quicker than I can perform this task.  He tells me a enjoys... ENJOYS... mental math now and thinks of it as a game.  

But, back then, we had our meager pile of correct flashcards and nearby, our much taller pile of jeering incorrect flashcards.  Day after day, we would painstakingly go through these piles until just the sight of them on the table taunting and provoking him made my stomach turn over.  Perhaps the repetitive daily grind of learning sums is why he can add so well today, but during those earlier years, it was a repetitive chore that left him and this Mom so frustrated.  

Scenes from Mercato Centrale in Florence, Italy

Such daily routines seem to mark my former stage of motherhood the last time I fled untethered to the cobblestoned streets of beautiful and romantic Florence, Italy.  On this most recent trip, other memories of that former self rekindled as well, such as driving, driving, and more driving to and from ballet classes, ballet auditions, and endless Nutcracker rehearsals...accompanied by the ritual of packing up meals...over stuffing quilted Vera Bradley dance bags filled with a half dozen pairs of raggedy pointe shoes, and all with carefully stitched on silk ribbons.  The bottom of the bag was peppered with bent and warbly bobby pins and padded with crumpled up paper schedules listing more and more rehearsals to fit into the bulging weekly schedule.

It may not come across in this current stream of whininess, but I indeed loved all of those days.  I look back fondly at the fun we had through all the chaos.  But, I am certainly also not far enough away from those days to sugar coat them and forget how tough they were...never a moment to breathe, feeling raggedy all the time, knowing there was no slow down mode,  no escape button to press from the repetitive motions of motherhood and child rearing.

But every moment and minute of the role of parenting was worth it and I would repeat it over again with my kids in a heart beat.  For once these kids enter the world, there is no turning back.  There should never be any turning back. 

Now #1  is staring down her Jr year of college and #2 is poised to embark on his college years in the fall.  

How did this happen?  Did I do my best?  Did we make it through the tough times?

Well, it happened gradually.  No, I most certainly didn't do my best.  Mistakes, as plentiful as confetti falling and fluttering down on a passing parade, streamed one after the other in just as colorful and in disarray as those tiny ripped up bits of paper.  Are there any parents that think they did their best?  I've never heard one parent friend of mine feel like their best was achieved. Not one. Parenting is hard.  It is punctuated daily with phrases like "...oh, I shouldn't have said that...or...I should have said this..."

So when Toni of Taste Florence food tours offered to host me on one of her dreamy walking tours of romantic Florence, I realized that I was unencumbered by all of those daily tethers of my role as Mom.   I  realized that for the first time in 21 years, I could fairly easily accept this proposition!  I can honestly say that most of the time,  I had little idea  that my role as Mom would shift and change through the various stages of motherhood. I often felt strapped into a crazy roller coaster ride and there was no way of getting off!  I really thought I would be carpooling and packing lunches forever!   

At this stage, however, I feel ready to peek around the corner and to chase after my own dreams once again.

Taste Florence is a walking food tour that centers around tasting the best foods that this historic city has to offer.  

Those memory bubbles floating above my head kept haunting me.  The realization that my life is going to completely change in the next year is causing me to panic in certain moments but then to feel sheer curiosity about my future in other moments.

I reached into the air, popped each of those memory bubbles of monster math flashcards as well as memory bubbles of  streams of sewing endless pointe shoe ribbons...packed my one suitcase, and with feelings of unfamiliar abandon flew to Florence, Italy.

After all, my job of mothering may be coming to a close...but someone has to walk the streets of histories cities like Florence and carefully taste the succulent morsels on offer, photograph them and then return home to chronicle each tasty delight.  


Upper Right: Toni from Taste Florence Walking Food Tour in Florence, Italy

Toni, or Antoinette “Toni’’ Mazzaglia, as her full name rolls like velvet off the tongue, was our  guide for a food tour experience in Florence, Italy that rivals any food tour that I have had the pleasure to enjoy.  Having Italian grandparents, American born Toni was reintroduced  to her Italian roots as a study abroad student there.  She found she just couldn't resist the lure to come back to Italy over and over again.  

I loved the intimate feeling of the size of our group.  We were five. We didn't have to shuffle along in a large group that pointed out to all of the locals that we are tourists on parade.  Because many of the artisanal food shops were small, we could easily fit inside and listen comfortably to Toni's endless knowledge of the food we were sampling without getting in the way of shoppers.

Toni is instantly likable.  Her passion for knowledge about the sourcing of items like wine, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and cheeses were so impressive.  Her quest to constantly understand Italian flavors and delve into the historic nature of her own Italian food heritage is wonderfully evident listening to her speak.  It was the captivating allure of the food history of her grand parents that kept her staying in Italy longer and longer until her knowledge spilled over into leading food tours to others so she could share her growing wealth of discoveries.

As Toni learned more about the beauty of her Italian food heritage, she looked around the tourist-centric Florence and worried that the true flavors of Italian foods were not being represented well.  In an article for the Boston.com she says, “I realized that visitors are walking around, they’re starving, and they think that these scary pieces of pizza and dried sandwiches are what Italians eat,’’ says Mazzaglia. “That’s just a sin for someone who visits Italy, when one of the greatest masterpieces here is the food.’’

Scenes from Mercato Centrale 

So I decided to follow Toni's observations and leave many of the grand museums aside on this trip.   Instead, through Taste Florence food tour, I embarked on a culinary journey to understand Italy through its other great masterpiece:  Italian cuisine.

My insatiable curiosity about people is one of the delights of a food tour.  After minutes of meeting Toni, I was impressed with her endless knowledge of the city, her warm relationship with artisan bakers, and her complete familiarity with Florence's food markets.  Not only is she so capable of leading a group of newly formed strangers together on a food odyssey but she will leave everyone teary eyed and thankful at the end of it because of her passion for food culture and food history.

Florence is such a walkable city.  Just enough miles can be covered in a day to easily burn off all of the delectable indulgences the city offers in abundance.  Our walking tour started off on the charming little back street Via Saint Antonino, just a stone's throw from the bustling market stalls that encircle the biggest food market in Florence, the Mercato Centrale, or Central Market.

Top Left and Top Right:  Casa Del Vino in Florence
Bottom Left: Piazza Saint Michelangelo

We were an intimate group of five which included Antonio, the owner of Castello delle Serre, a stunning castle minutes outside of Sienna, Italy and Antonio's cousin and head chef for the castle.  Our group's fifth member was the charming and effervescent Lisa, the owner of an interior design firm in California called Just Add Color.

Because food tours bring together people who have a heightened awareness of food culture, there is never a lack of bonding that takes place...usually it happens instantaneously.  Previous food tours in Istanbul, Morocco, and Bali are exchanged among one another in rapid fire conversation... as foodie experiences surrounding  glorious food moments are shared among  like minded souls.

The essence of Italian diversity and attention to detail
...the dooknockers!

We started off the tour meeting at an old butcher and salumi shop called Norcineria.  This cozy authentic butcher shop is a certain stop of Florentine gourmands.  A “norcineria” is a place dedicated to the processing and sale of all kinds of products made from pork meat. Hanging from the roof you will find the famous Italian hams, like Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto Toscano. At a norcineria you can find, taste and buy all the best Tuscan cold cuts like finocchiona, soprassata and colonnata lard. We sampled paper thin slices of prosciutti and salumi as Toni patiently explained to us which regions of the country are known for  particular flavors.

Top Left: Fresh Pasta making along Mercato Centrale
Top Right:  Merchants busy at the many Mercato Centrale food stalls

The daily market stalls that fill this area of Florence, bordered by Via dell Ariento to the west and Via dell Rosina to the east, were bustling and setting up shop for the day. We followed Toni as she led us around the corner from the butcher shop.  A tiny little Italian woman with a bright floral head scarf was busily sweeping the stoop of her shop front.  She stopped for a moment to chat with the next shop owner as they surveyed what the market day had in store for them.

Signs of approaching Carnivale dotting the city of Florence

Top Right:  Toni, from Taste Florence food tour pouring us our first taste of Italian Prosecco

Toni led us toward a tantalizing aroma of baked goods wafting out of one of the shop doors.  We entered the historic pastry and bread making shop, or Pasticceria, owned by Ivana Bruschi called The Forno Canapa.   A man with a little white cap and a crinkly smiley face was wheeling silver trays of fresh dough to the back ovens.  As the mounds of proofing dough waited their turn, he hefted the big oven doors open and slid his long wooden spatula under the beautifully cooked loaves of bread to take them out of the ovens.  Ivana, the owner of the bakery, wrapped elegantly in her beautiful fur coat, had just arrived to the bakery.  She graciously offered us tempting bites of savory stuffed flat bread morsels to sample.

The smells coming from the ovens permeated the tiny little bakery and we each stood waiting and sniffing the beautifully perfumed air to see what Toni would offer to us next.  We sampled soft warm bread stuffed with sausage and stracchino (a type of cow's milk cheese). The name of the cheese derives from the Lombard word "stracch", meaning "tired". It is said that the milk, from tired cows coming down in the fall from the alpine pastures, is richer in fats and more acidic.  According to legend, these qualities were discovered in the milk of these cows as they were moved seasonally up and down the Alps to different pastures. It is believed the milk of such cows gives the cheese its characteristic flavors. 

Another savory pastry we sampled is called Coccoli which was stuffed with velvety soft mozzarella and tomatoes.  These are a popular street food in Florence and can be picked up in many bakery shops.

For a sweet sampling, we bit into little round balls of Budino di Riso.  These were one of the favorites of the group and we ended up eating these soft little rice balls several more times during the trip.  Quite unassuming looking with a subtle sweetness, they appear to be somewhat along the lines of unglazed donut holes found in the U.S.  But the inside is a chewy rice mixture.  Somehow a rice ball doesn't sound like it would be that appetizing but it was truly delicious.

We walked up and down the busy market streets.  I adore the market stalls in Florence. The voices of the vendors, many from Bangladesh, who run stalls along the sidewalk, call out for us to try on leather gloves or feel soft cashmere scarves.  I still wear my carefully selected scarves and shawls picked up from my last trip to Florence.  The colorful stalls surround the Central Food Market and both work in tandem to create a lovely brisk city market.  With eyes squinted and using my imagination, I try to get a glimpse of what Florence may have looked like years ago when traders swapped exotic goods and spices brought in to the locals from far away parts of Europe.  Gorgeous leather satchels, beautifully colored scarves, and all manner of knick-knacks caught my eye as we made our way through the narrow little streets and up the grand steps of Florence's indoor market, Mercato Centrale.

Mercato Centrale is nothing short of amazing and is a draw for foodies from all over the world.  Butchers move carefully through the market with entire cuts of pig shanks slung over their shoulders.  They wield huge sharpened knives and deftly carve the day's slices of bistecca Florentine for waiting customers.  A hubbub of activity is pervasive as everyone claps shoulders and seems to know everyone around.  Small empty cups of espresso litter the countertops. As if on cue, the shops begin their orchestral humming, one after another, seemingly in harmony with each other.

A most delicious stop in Mercato Centrale was the historic Nerbone food stall.  Nerbonne has been around the market since 1872 and is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Toni showed us how to order at the counter and then we sat down at communal tables.   We sampled succulent beef brisket on little kaiser rolls.  The sandwiches come with a side of salsa verde and salsa piccante  and are even more delicious when dipped in a little side of hot broth.

We continued moving through the bustling Mercato Centrale sampling such goodness as Tuscan Olive Oils, Pecorni Cheese, Prosciutto and Finocchiona.  Days after the tour ended, I returned several times to this bulging market to savor each stall and try to grasp the complex production rituals of olive oils, red wines, and balsamic vinaigrettes.

The Mercato Centrale has changed pretty drastically from my last visit there.  On the tour, we learned that a revitalization program has been underway to reengage the neighborhood by completely renovating the second floor of the market of this important historic location.  As explained on their website, Mercato Centrale not only "revives an area of the city left deserted for many years, but fulfils an extremely relevant and necessary goal: to bring people back to a highly important and vibrant piece of Florence’s old centre, with traditional shops that give food artisans centre stage."

The indoor market, flanked by outdoor stalls filled with all manner of Italian clothing and jewelry, contain bread and confectionary, fresh fish, fried food and rissoles, fruit and vegetables, meats and salamis, buffalo mozzarella, cheeses, chocolate and ice cream, fresh pasta, wines, lampredotto and sandwich stalls.  All of the shops are run by artisanal traders who share a passion for their craft.

It was at the next stop, Casa Del Vino, an Enoteche (or wine bar) that we nestled around small wooden tables to listen to Toni passionately explain to us the history and production methods behind Italian red wines as well as Italian balsamic vinegars.

Bottom Left: Ivana Bruschi, owner of The Forno Canapa bakery shop in Florence, Italy

As I tried hard to listen attentively to the quality control processes behind these ancient traditional methods of getting the best flavors out of Italian grapes, my eyes kept wandering to the locals coming in and out of the Casa del Vino Enoteche.  In watching these locals on their lunch break, sidled up to the bar so comfortably, I could see the true Italian appreciation for taste, tradition, and flavor at play right in front of me.  

Conversation among the locals at the bar never stopped flowing.  Hands never stopped gesturing.  If there was a pause, it was to stop and savor a sip from a glass of ruby red wine or to lovingly chew small morsels of cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

I listened as Toni described to us the vinegars that come from Modena, Italy. Italians continue to use tried and true ancient traditions to make the best balsamic vinegars in the world that come  from a small village near Modena where producers have been family owned since the 1800's.  

As we tried to discern for ourselves the intricate differences between flavors of balsamic vinegar, we learned that the climate of Modena as well as a region called Reggio Emilia are perfect for balsamic vinegar production. 

The drastic temperature change between the hot summer and the cold winter enables the grape must to ferment and mature under ideal conditions according to traditional methods. This tradition is handed down from one generation to the next. 

Toni's knowledge of the history of balsamic vinegar only made me want to know more and more about this bottled goodness.  If we understood correctly, balsamic vinegar is made from  Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes and is a balance of sweet and sour flavors. 

The balsamic vinegar, subjected to the summer heat and winter cold, is moved annually into another barrel to acquire the different essences of the wood. This operation happens during winter when the balsamic vinegar is “sleeping” because the low temperatures stop the fermentation. The vinegar is transferred from the bigger barrel into a smaller barrel. This process is called Travasi. Italian law prohibits balsamic vinegar producers from claiming the vinegar is “aged.” Vinegar is referred to by the number of travasi, not the number of years it has been in the barrel. 

The wine bar, La Casa del Vino, was an enchanting place for a wine tasting stop. Tall dark wood shelving was filled with dusty bottles of aging red wines.  A beautiful marble bar was lined with bowls of cherry tomatoes where sandwiches were being cut from thick chewy bread and lined with creamy mozzarella.  
We sat tucked into the corner, listening to Toni but also watching the locals fill up the remaining tables and then line up at the bar for their luncheon fill.   A chalk board above the bar was scribbled with a list of  house specials such as cherry tomatoes with burrata (a creamy mozzarella) and fresh anchovies. Along with our red wine, we sampled fresh crostini with chicken liver paté. 

One of our final stops was certainly deserving of the grand finalé of the Taste Florence food tour.   At this point, the conversation among our cozy group flowed ceaselessly.  It would seem to passersby as if we were old friends traveling through Italy together as we all made our way under the shadow of the Duomo, around Piazza Giovani and up the Via del Corso towards the family owned chocolate and gelato shop, Vestri

Street scenes of food markets in Florence, Italy

For over thirty years, Vestri chocolate shop has been creating specialty chocolates from the fruit, "kawkaw" as it is called in the Mexican and Central American languages.  They transform it into succulent smooth chocolates that sell in their beautiful store in Florence.  What intrigued me was, in order to ensure quality cocoa seeds, the Vestri family decided to buy a cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic. 

Toni was explaining the family's story to us as she casually handed us each a small cup of thick warm hot chocolate.  Time as well as conversation ceased among the group after that first sip.  We all crowded together and looked down at our little cups as if trying to make sense out of the thick, rich, layered flavors we had each just experienced.  Never had I tasted any hot chocolate drink so indulgent and complex.  

I was so intrigued about the dedication of this family to producing first rate organic chocolate, I visited their website where I discovered a delightful video that follows the family to their plant in the Dominican Republic.  Here is a link that will entertain anyone looking for further information on cocoa bean farming as well as chocolate production:

Early morning quiet on the streets of Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy at sunset

It is with heartfelt thanks to Taste Florence for this amazing walking tour sampling the delights of Italian cuisine.  Toni gave each us a list of some of her favorite restaurants in the city.  Of the thousands of restaurants available to choose from, this list was enormously helpful to Patrick and me.  

At the end of this article, I've listed some of the memorable visits on Taste Florence tour as well as some of our favorite restaurants that we tried from the list.  Dare I say that I am spoiled behind repair because I can hardly imagine traveling to new destinations without uncovering the delights of other walking tours that canvas cities in order to bring out the best food tastes as well as delightful accompanying stories that it seems only food tours can deliver.  

Having people come together from all over the world with a shared love of food, an enthusiastic guide whose passion shines through, and the romantic  images of Florence passing by make for just about the most perfect stepping stone for this Momma to transition into new territories if not in other countries...at least in her home kitchen!

View from the Piazza Michaelangelo overlooking all of Florence

Sunset from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy

Information about Taste Florence
ph: +393898508036.

Favorite Food Tour stops:

1.  Forno Canapa pastry and bread shop:  
     Via dell'Ariento, 21/r, 50123 Firenze, Italy
     +39 055 214249

2.  Mercato Centrale:
     Piazza del Mercato Centrale 4, 50100 Florence Italy, Santa Maria Novella

3.  Casa del Vino:
     Via dell'Ariento, 16

4.  Vestri Chocolate Shop
     Borgo degli Albizi, 11

Favorite Restaurants in Florence in order of preference:

1.  Santo Bevitore
     Via di Santo Spirito, 64/66

2.  Coquinarius
     Via delle Oche, 15

3.  4 Leoni
     Piazza Passera
     Florence, Italy