April 23, 2014

Celebrating Asparagus

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:24 pm by newsurroundings

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It’s spring and, in Ticino, that means it’s asparagus season.  Every menu in town features asparagus in more ways than you can imagine… in soups, salads, on pizza, in risotto and pasta, and simply sauteed with fried eggs on top  (asparagi alla milanese).

Almost too cute to eat

Almost too cute to eat

Before asparagus, it was artichokes that were in the spotlight.  In the fall, it was pumpkin and chestnuts.  The Europeans are big on eating what is in season and grown locally.  It makes perfect sense… it’s more economical and just tastes better.  Buon appetito!

 

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December 22, 2013

Mom and Me in Strasbourg, France

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:11 pm by newsurroundings

Guest blogger Erin here. I have provided a headshot to make the read easier (you can picture me speaking the words while peering over my reading glasses). Mom has asked me a few times to write a guest blog post but today is the day that I declare it will happen as I have plopped myself down at the kitchen table with my Grinch t-shirt, librarian glasses, and block of Toblerone swiss chocolate until I finish this post once and for all. Last May, after our trip to Barcelona, I was going to write a post blasting EasyJet since we were less than impressed with our 3 hour wait to board the plane, and especially the stout man who demanded our carry-on luggage meet dimensions barely large enough to contain a purse. In summary, we showed EasyJet that we weren’t playing their games, but I won’t go into that. But instead of listing my airline grievances, I will write about our recent trip to Strasbourg, France.

Photo on 2013-12-22 at 13.51Mom and I decided on Strasbourg because I had one requirement for our annual mother-daught trip: I wanted to go to France. On my first two winter trips to Europe, we had “holiday” in Paris and Lille, and then my summer in France was spent in Marseille, Montpellier, Aix,  Nimes, and Provence. So we (mom) researched other places in France that neither of us have visited- and we (she) discovered  Strasboug, in Alsace, with the most Christmas spirit of any place I’ve ever been. (Yes, Americans, even more than the Rockefeller Center in NYC on Christmas day with Santa Claus himself there on the ice rink).

To start the journey, a small Italian man (I don’t remember if he was small, but by default I describe any semi-kind Italian as a “small Italian man”) took us to the Lugano train station for our five hour train ride. Luckily, as I was still jet-lagged, I was able to sleep for about 3  hours. Meanwhile, mom studied her Italian. Unfortunately, all this studying would not prove helpful in France, particularly at our last dinner where she showcased a blank stare each time the waiter spoke- more on that later.mom stdyingHere are some photos of the town. It has a lot of German flair- note the half-timbered buildings- but also very French areas. I really enjoyed “Petite France,” mostly because the shopping was supreme. Also, note the Christmas decorations everywhere!strausburgstrauburgfranceerbeareuropeandecorationme and momcathedral

Strasbourg had really really really REALLY really great shopping, which we took advantage of because the prices are much better in France than Switzerland. The first day we found a journal shop where we both went crazy- 8 journals total were purchased. I was able to buy a new planner, which I had been wanting. Side story: I have used a planner from the same company for the last two years, and it’s not a secretive company, but now everyone has them so I had to buy a new journal that cannot be purchased within U.S. borders. End of story. But my most prized purchase was a fur hat!  I had really wanted a piece of fur attire because that is the hot thing over here! Mom kept telling me to think about it, sleep on it, etc etc, especially since wearing fur can be frowned upon in the US. But I had already made up my mind and so a few hours after finding the perfect fur hat, we marched back in and purchased it. Mom enjoyed shopping in a yarn shop, where we spent probably 2 hours total (not exaggerating). She bought some Alpaca yarn, so I guess she bought fur too in her own motherly way.

Probably the most adventurous thing we did, but didn’t intend to do, was climb to the top of the cathedral. We were trying to find the entrance to the monstrous place, and we ended up blindly following a crowd into a small room with a desk, where you pay a fee to enter. Warning sign #1: Don’t follow blindly. Warning sign #2: Usually cathedrals are free. Also, everything was in French so we didn’t stop to try to decode the signs, but instead we assumed that the signs said exactly what we hoped they said. After we paid and got our tickets, we started walking up a tightly wound spiral staircase. Warning sign #3: Cathedrals are not elevated above ground. Typically (always), you can walk directly into them instead of climbing up stairs. So we kept walking and walking, making comments like “This is not what I signed up for!” Then “Why are we going up so high…?” and finally “I think this goes to the top..” Warning Sign #4: We are 200 feet above ground. Pictured below is mom post sitting down for a rest. She is starting to stand back up because the people behind up were about to catch up to us.mom on stairs

As you can assume, we ended up walking all the way up the stairs to the tip top of the cathedral. Refer back to the earlier photos to see exactly how high it is. But we did get some beautiful views at the top, which we relished for approximately 30 seconds before we staggered back down the spiral stairs. (We did not care about the views).

viewThe best thing about France is, no doubt, the food. The bread is surreal. Surreal, I say. The croissants are unlike any croissant you have ever tasted. After spending summers in France, when I came back and saw a sign at Wendy’s advertising croissants, I was so repulsed that I had to be bedridden for 2 weeks. The thing is I can’t describe it to someone who has not tasted it, but even here in Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, and Germany, all surrounding countries, they do not even compare. Did you know that France has certain requirements for how to make croissants? It’s a cooking law! You can only tweak the recipe so much. I’m glad the French are snooty because you have got to know what a great thing you have to put laws on it. breadFor our last dinner, we made a reservation at a restaurant we found set back a bit from the busy street. The restaurant did not open until 7pm and when the clock struck 7:00pm we were at the front ready to be seated. Our waiter led us upstairs, through a doorframe so small you had to crouch to get through, to the back corner. This picture doesn’t quite do it justice, but I tried to capture how close mom’s head is to the ceiling. This just shows the table beside us from where I was seated. But on my right was the railing, which had two small buckets hanging off the side- one for our drinks and the other for our bread. It was hard to be relaxed, though, with the fear that one wrong move of the elbow and I could send the buckets tumbling over the edge and crashing onto the guests below up. But thankfully that did not happen, and we were able to enjoy our best seats in the house, overlooking the entire restaurant. mom at restaurantMom had multiple interactions with the waiter, first when he took our reservation, the awkwardness when he was asking for our coats but mom continued reiterating that we had a reservation. Then when she ordered wine and he asked what kind, mom responded with a universal blank stare, he listed options, and then she repeated back probably whichever one was easiest to say. But it’s okay, mom, Italian is your language! I was able to take over the speaking parts for the rest of our meal. Luckily from a few years of French, I remembered some important words for the meal- “water,” “we are finished”- that is about it, I believe. In my imagination we had a full conversation and I was fluent. Here are our delicious meals! hamgerman foodfrench foodcheesecakeFrench food is so amazing. I don’t know why, it must be the way they cook it. But French food is the best, and Belgian food comes in a close second. All other countries do not get ratings- very sorry about that. This was the most appropriate conclusive meal for our trip- an offset restaurant, an impatient French man, a three course meal, and an overall two hour occasion. The next day we bought croissants at a nearby patisserie and were on our way back to Lugano! Au revoir!

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October 13, 2013

White Truffles in Alba

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:30 pm by newsurroundings

Il tartufo bianco- the white truffle- ounce for ounce, the most expensive food in the world and considered to be the ultimate delicacy.  The ones in the Piedmont region of Italy are said to be the best anywhere.  We had visited the area last winter and heard so much about the truffles that we had to return to see what all the fuss was about.

We went to Alba a few weeks ago, near the end of September, and were lucky that the truffle season had just begun days earlier.  The sell of truffles is tightly controlled and it is illegal for anyone to sell them before the official start of the season, so we could have missed out if we had gone a few days earlier.  They were not yet offered in the restaurants (at least not the ones we went to), but we did find them at a shop in Alba.  There they were, in the window, covered by a glass dome- ugly little odd-shaped, mud-caked fungi.  You wouldn’t think that these things that looks like a rocks could command such a high price and transform a simple dish into a gastronomic delight, but they do.  The price varies for each truffle, depending on the size and quality.  So, you just have to pick one out and have it weighted at whatever price the owner decides.  I chose one of the smallest ones and splurged on the little fella.  I did have an idea what they were selling for, so although it was high, I knew it was within the selling range.

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So, why are they so darn expensive?  I guess it’s because they are rare, growing in the forests wherever they please and have to be sniffed out by specially trained dogs.

We took our prized fungus home, wrapped in paper and placed in a little jar, and I couldn’t wait to try it.   As soon as I took it out of the jar, the smell filled the room.

A one-time splurge!

A one-time splurge!

I managed to make it last for 3 meals.  We had it on eggs and pasta, shaved raw, very thinly.  It was really delicious roasted with potatoes and parmesan cheese.

Delizioso!

Delizioso!

Our single prized truffle didn’t last long, but the memory of this “taste of Italy” experience will not fade anytime soon.

May 3, 2013

Buon Aperitivo on Lake Como

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:58 pm by newsurroundings

Sometimes a brief encounter can really make your day.  That’s what happened in Bellagio, Italy, when my friend, Gina, and I stopped in a little shop with a sign outside offering “degustazioni” (tastings).  The shop, La Boutique Del Buon Gusto (the Boutique of Good Flavor), was small but packed with typical Italian delicacies and Italian wines- cheeses, breads, biscotti, wine, grappas, nuts.  The owners, Alberto and Antonella, were generous with their samplings and we were having so much fun tasting everything (especially the limoncello- wow!)

We picked out a few items and then Alberto invited us down in his wine cellar for an “aperitivo”.  He opened a bottle of Chianti and pulled out a big roll of salami that had just arrived that day and was absolutely delicious.  We had our own private happy hour- right after lunch.  Alberto spoke almost exclusively in Italian and it was fun for me to try to converse and translate for Gina.  Much of the time, I was just nodding and saying, “Si, si”, as if I understood.  It’s not often that you get this kind of experience when visiting another country, which makes it really special when it happens.  After the grappa and wine tasting, we were really giddy and in a buying mood.  We bought so much that we asked them to hold it for us till the end of the day.

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After walking around Bellagio and shopping and taking in the beautiful scenery, we bought our ferry tickets to return to Menaggio and then home to Lugano.  The shop was up the hill from the ferry stop and Gina, always thoughtful, offered to go back and pick up our things because my foot was hurting.  Antonella took a picture of Gina carrying our bags and put it on Facebook- good advertising for them.  Under the picture she had written, “Oggi non sono mancate le risate, il buon umore, incontri internazionale e sacchetti che uscivando dalla La Boutique Del Buon Gusto”.  Translation- “Today there have been laughs, good humor, international meetings, and bags that came from La Boutique Del Buon Gusto”.   So true!

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March 6, 2013

Parma- an Italian Delight

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:35 pm by newsurroundings

I knew I would like Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.  A city famous for its ham and cheese is bound to get high marks in my book.  The reason for our visit was to attend an antique fair, but the fair ended up being just a side trip, and we spent most of our time walking around the old city and enjoying some of the best Italian food we’ve ever tasted.

The world’s best prosciutto comes from the Emilia-Romagna region and it is everywhere in Parma.  Every few feet, it seems, there is a macelleria (butcher shop) with prosciutti hanging from the walls and ceiling.  And the wheels of parmigiano reggiano (the finest parmesan)- Mamma Mia, are they ever big!

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We only had time for two meals in Parma, so we wanted to get the most out of them.  For lunch, we had an antipasto of just prosciutto and I had one of the pasta specialties of the region, tortelli d’erbetta.  It’s a stuffed pasta with spinach and ricotta and tossed in butter and parmesan.  Bryan had the spaghetti with tomato sauce, his all-time favorite European meal.  The food was simple, but very tasty.  I think the prosciutto with melone (cantaloupe) would be delizioso, but I’ll have to go back for that since it’s only served when the melons are in season.  My mouth is watering just thinking about the juicy sweet cantaloupe paired with the salty, light prosciutto.

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For dinner, we went to a small restaurant called La Greppia.  I had read good reviews on it and called early in the day to make a reservation.  I practiced what I was going to say in my best Italian accent and proper grammar, and proceeded to make the call.  After I finished my one sentence and was feeling very proud of myself and convinced that I had come across as fluent, the man on the other end replied, “Sure, maam, What time and how many people?”.  We finished the rest of the conversation in English.  So much for practicing my Italian!

The restaurant didn’t even open until 8pm, late for us, but it gave us time to walk off our lunch and work up an appetite for dinner.  For the antipasto, I had spuma di parmegiano con pere al vino rosso, or parmesan mousse with pears in a red wine sauce.  I really liked the contrasting flavors, although parmesan is a little strong for my taste.  Bryan had grilled polenta (it looked like pineapple) with grilled peperoni on top.  He thought he was getting pepperoni (as in salami), but peperoni in Italy is red peppers.  Anyway, he liked it.  For the main course, we played it safe and I had chicken and Bryan had steak.  After the meal, the waiter came by with a huge section of parmigiano-reggiano and he dug out small chunks of it, rather than slicing it, which I thought was an interesting way to serve it.

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After that, they brought a dessert cart by and we shared (Bryan took 2 bites) a slice of banana cake and then they brought a plate of bite-size desserts.  To end it all, we had coffee.  Italian coffee is too strong for my taste and you get about 3 sips out of your cup.

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Obviously, the focus of this trip was food, but Parma is also just a beautiful city to visit with museums, a 12th century cathedral, and a fun atmosphere, with lots of bikers.  Unfortunately, the cathedral was closed, so we didn’t get to see  inside, but maybe another time.

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December 5, 2012

Tastes of Ticino

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:03 pm by newsurroundings

Risotto, polenta, gnocchi- oh, my!   I really love how each country and even each region has its own local specialties.  Pizza and pasta are very popular in Ticino, but there is so much more.  They love their meat here- and so do we.  We’re not adventurous enough to try the tail of a toad offered at one of our favorite restaurants, but I tried lasagna made with game and it was delicious.  The meat choices are plenty- rabbit, veal, lamb, horse (not for us), beef, special sausage from Lugano (Luganighetta).

Bryan getting ready to devour his Luganighetta and polenta.

Risotto and polenta are served everywhere and can be meals unto themselves.  My personal favorite is risotto with porcini mushrooms, but it also comes with parmesan, tomatoes, frutti di mare (seafood), or just about anything else a chef wants to put in it.

Grottoes are typical Ticinese restaurants.  They are usually in very old buildings set back among trees with simple, rustic decor and outdoor seating.   Many of them have big open fireplaces- really cozy on a cold day.  The wine is served in little ceramic bowls and the place is usually filled with locals who all seem to know each other.   At first, we thought most of the grottoes were so run-down that we didn’t want to go in, but now it seems like that is the attraction.  Funny how our attitudes change.

Grotto Morchino in Paradiso

Cervo (deer meat) and pasta.

Cervo (deer meat) and pasta.

One of our favorites in Lugano.

One of our favorites in Lugano.

 

October 24, 2012

Sono Confuso

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:59 pm by newsurroundings

A little word can make a big difference.  I’ve been studying Italian now for a few months and trying to speak it some whenever I’m out.  Before I even get started, I tell people that I’m just learning so they’ll understand if I look confused or take an extra long time to say a simple sentence.  I discovered today that I haven’t been saying what I thought I was saying.

I have been meaning to say, “I speak a little Italian”.  Translation- “Parlo un po’ italiano”.

What I have been saying is, “Parlo lo po’ italiano”.  Translation- “I talk about the little Italian”.

That explains all the funny looks I’ve been getting.

 

Addendum:  March 7, 2013- I now know that the correct way to say this is actually, “Parlo poco l’italiano”.  Always learning.

October 9, 2012

Can You See Me Now?

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:40 pm by newsurroundings

“Am I invisible?”  I often feel that way since it seems like people are always cutting in front of me, as if I’m not even here.  It happened again today at the grocery store.  I was standing in line behind some teenage girls and a boy came up and broke in front of me.  At first I thought maybe he was with the girls, but it wasn’t apparent, so I asked him.  He shrugged and pointed to his one item that he was purchasing and my 5 items.  He did get behind me at that point and I was going to make him wait (as I think he should), but then I let him go in front but with the advice that he should ask next time.  Why do I always go soft??

So, I now know that if the person behind me is not buying as many items as I am, they may feel free to just walk in front of me.  But that doesn’t explain all the other times I have been in line and someone has cut in front of me.  They usually do it rather subtly, so I’m not really sure if they’re in front of me or not until it’s too late.  It’s a technique they must teach in the schools here where you stand just to the side of someone until the precise moment when you seize the opportunity to get in front and leave the other person standing there wondering what just happened.   Well, I say, “Abbastanza!”.

September 15, 2012

When “bad” is Good

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:22 pm by newsurroundings

Spas are big in Europe.  Thermal baths with mineral water, sure to cure all that ails you, are very popular.  I finally figured out that any city with the word “bad” in it is a spa town.  (I know, I’m a slow learner.)  That is, if you’re in a German-speaking area, since “bad” means bath in German.  We have visited a few spas, but I think our favorite was in Leukerbad, Switzerland.  Leukerbad is in the canton of Valais, in the Alps.  We went at the end of August and, though it is always much cooler in the mountains than in Lugano, we were caught off guard by the weather.  We ran into an area of snow on the drive up and when we got to Leukerbad, it was raining and 3 degrees C (37 degrees F)!  We had thought we might do some hiking in the area, but with the weather so bad, we had no choice but to head straight for the spa.  We went to the Linder Alpentherme, which has an outdoor and indoor pool heated to 36 degrees Celsius and a large sauna area, along with a wellness center that offers all types of massages and treatments.  We spent several hours at the spa, mostly in the outdoor pool, surrounded by the scenery of the Alps- not a bad way to spend a cold, rainy day.

I didn’t get a picture of the Lindner Alpentherme, but I took these of another spa, the Burgerbad Therme.   The picture above was taken when we first arrived in Leukerbad.  We spent a couple of hours at this spa on our last morning in Leukerbad and enjoyed it also, though it’s more geared toward families.  As  you can tell in the pictures below, the weather had greatly improved .  The water felt almost too warm in the hot sun.  When visiting thermal baths, bad weather can be a good thing.

September 13, 2012

Have Cat- Can’t Travel

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:02 am by newsurroundings

Traveling is great, except for the fact that we have a cat and cats don’t travel well.  If we had a well-behaved dog, it would be no problem.  Sometimes I look around in restaurants and there are almost as many dogs as there are people.  Someone told me recently that all dogs in Switzerland must attend obedience training.  This country is determined to make everyone behave.  If I was a dog, I think I’d want to live in Europe, where I would always be welcome.  But, I have a cat and he does not appreciate being left at a kennel or at home by himself when we travel.  We found what I thought would be a nice kennel for him.  The owners seemed very nice.  On our first visit there, we walked in to the area with all the cats in cages and there was a harp on a stand in the middle of the floor.  I thought, “How nice, Biscuit will get to enjoy free concerts”.  But, for whatever reason, he hates it there.  The owner even told us that he is not happy there.  He knows that because Biscuit refuses to use the litter box.  That’s his way of getting back at everyone- by messing up his own bed.

I got the names of a couple of English-speaking college students living in Lugano.  Two girls have agreed to come “meet” Biscuit and it will give me the chance to talk with them.  I have been thinking, “What would Biscuit want me to ask them?”  I think I know the answer to that- “What would you do if Biscuit comes up and hits you with his tail?”, or “What would you do if Biscuit hides under the bed and ignores you?”, or “What would you do if Biscuit purrs or meows?”.  The correct answer in every situation would be, “I would give him another can of food”.   Those are his questions.  Now I need to come up with a few of my own.  My daughter, Erin, who is to cats as the dog whisperer is to dogs, has given me a few tips.  So, I’ll take her suggestions and see how it goes.  I am hoping this will lead to less stress for Biscuit and worry-free vacations for us.

Doesn’t he deserve the very best?

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