Word of the Day: Il Giorgio

Il Giorgio: THE George, (In Italian, when the article il or la is placed in front of a name, it is a sign of respect and endearment)

There have been about 14 days worth of things I should have been writing about, but today is about George. Tonight was the student going away party. It also marked the end of George’s last semester as a full time teacher. I have felt so incredibly privileged to be part of the life of such a wonderful teacher and human being and I so wanted to make sure that he was properly celebrated. I got to say a few words about the incredible teacher and colleague that George has been across his career. Here they are:

As most of you know, Thursday will be George’s very last day as a full time teacher. As of Thursday, he will have completed 30 years of teaching for Santa Rosa Junior College. During that time he has been recognized many, many times for outstanding teaching, and for leadership and exceptional service to the college.  I have had the great good-fortune of knowing George for almost 20 of his 30 years at SRJC, and I can tell you from first hand experience that not only has he has given his heart and soul to teaching, he has had a tremendous impact on the lives of his students and his colleagues.

His students know him as a passionate, organized, dedicated, and knowledgeable instructor. He is relentlessly prepared for his classes. When he was selected to teach in the semester abroad program in Florence, he began learning everything he could about the Renaissance and became incredibly knowledgeable about not only the philosophy, but also about the art, history, and politics of Renaissance Florence. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is always impressive. He seems to know just about everything there is to know about philosophy, though at this very moment he is shaking his head “no” and trying to convince us that it just isn’t the case. Smart and humble are such a winning combination.

Not only does he hold himself to high standards, he holds his students to high standards, too. He is known as a demanding and fair instructor. Students usually come out of his classes feeling like they really learned a lot. What I find most impressive about George as a teacher, though, is the kindness and compassion with which he approaches his students. He truly likes them and this shines through in his interactions with them. I have watched George in action as a teacher many, many times, and I am always impressed with his ability to draw out the quietest students and guide the more opinionated students toward humility. He delights in watching his students learn and grow. He sees their potential and, even better, helps them to see it, too.

As a colleague, he is fair-minded, diplomatic, thoughtful, considerate, and wise. He is gentle with those who disagree with him, though he knows exactly when to put his foot down on an issue. His colleagues seek his counsel on nearly everything and everyone knows that if you want to get something done, you want George on your team.

Under his guidance and leadership, the Philosophy Department has become a model of collaboration and collegiality for other departments on campus. If the members of his department were here today, they would tell you how very, very much they are going to miss having him in the department.

He leaves behind him the tremendous legacy of having co-founded the Institute for Environmental Education at SRJC and acting as its director for many years. This labor of love has included the following accomplishments:

  • creating and directing SRJC’s Environmental Forum
  • heading up the effort to establish an Environmental Studies Major
  • helping to guide the expansion of the environmental studies curriculum
  • helping establish a General Education requirement in Global/Environmental Studies
  • facilitating the establishment of sustainability as one of SRJC’s institutional goals
  • co-founding SRJC’s Integrated Environmental Planning Committee
  • working with the Foundation to establish a series of environmental studies scholarships
  • and working on the coordination of student environmental events, one of which helped launch SRJC’s move toward green building design

He was also one of the first instructors in the state of California to offer a course in Environmental Philosophy. Sometimes when faculty are involved in something as momentous as setting up a whole new program for their college, they can become quite territorial about it. Not George. He has been a model of collegiality. Over the past few years he has been gradually training the next wave of leaders (and it takes several of them to do what he has been doing for many years) so that the program will continue well into the future.

So much more important than his long list of accomplishments, though, is the fact that he has been such an incredible role model to so many. I like to think of it this way. During the span of 30 years, nearly 10,000 students have come and gone from his classrooms. Thousands of hearts and minds have been opened and expanded by his expert teaching. Hundreds of colleagues have benefited from his friendship and gentle leadership style. But beyond being an exemplary teacher and colleague, he is an exemplary human being. He helps us all to see and understand what it means to live well.

SO, Please join me in raising a glass to George…  Thank you for all you have done for your students, your colleagues, your community, and your planet. And thank you for all that you are in the world. May you have many wonderful adventures as you start this new chapter of your life.

 

Word of the Day – Buona Pasqua

Buona Pasqua: Happy Easter

We had a lovely day, although it didn’t end as we would have liked. After writing for about 4 hours last night, George read me his post on the Easter traditions in Florence. I laughed out loud several times. It was the funniest post he has written to date (and one of his rare writing stints for this blog, since he is so busy with school.) A few minutes later, he told me that he pressed the “save draft” button and lost nearly everything. What remains of his post is about a quarter of what he wrote. Makes me a little heart-sick because it was so good. He doesn’t want to post it until he can re-create what he wrote. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few pictures and a far more prosaic description of our Easter Sunday here in Florence.

The day started out with a few friends coming over to watch the Easter parade come right under the window of our apartment here on Borgo Ognissanti. We heard the drums at 9:00 and soon we saw people marching solemnly down the street in their medieval costumes. There was a drum and bugle corp, women in renaissance garb, and men dressed as soldiers who looked like they were straight out of the crusades (minus all the muck and grime from sacking and pillaging).

Next came the Renaissance cart, carefully rigged with fireworks to be exploded in front of the duomo after the Easter mass. This cart is pulled by 4 chianina bulls, the largest cattle breed in the world. These bulls can weigh up to 3500 pounds (nearly two tons) and their backs stand about 6 feet tall. They are absolutely enormous. They are decked out with flowers in their horns, celebrating spring. The cart is followed by women pulling small carts filled with flowers and eggs.

When this procession reaches the main square of town, the oxen are unhitched and led off for a nice breakfast in the neighboring Piazza della Republica. The cart is parked right outside the door of the duomo, and a wire is attached to it that goes inside the duomo. At the end of the mass, the bishop lights a mechanical dove on fire which then zips out the huge cathedral doors and comes into contact with the cart, starting the fireworks on the cart. While onlookers are waiting for this rigging up to be completed and for mass to end, they are entertained by traditional Tuscan flag throwers and music. This is also the time that lots are chosen for the mid-summer sporting classic – the calcio storico (historical soccer match) – in which men from the four quarters of Florence compete in a soccer match in which it is perfectly acceptable to tackle, throw punches, and brawl their way into position to score goals. The winning team receives a chianina bull (the huge ones that pull the cart) as a prize.

The fireworks display lasts about 10 minutes and at the end, 3 flags unfurl at the top of the cart. It looks and sounds like a battle scene, with smoke everywhere and the deep reverberations of gunfire (fireworks fire) echoing through the piazza. The procession then leaves the piazza to the sounds of drum and bugle.

It began to rain about 45 minutes before the fireworks were to begin, which thinned the crowd considerably. Several of our party went home to get warm, but the stouter souls stayed for the entirety. At the end of the fireworks display, the revelers in costume process out of the square, followed by squadrons of amazed onlookers. We found a group of Renaissance dudes hanging out on the corner and wandered over for a photo. They were happy to oblige. My friend, Diana, and I got into the middle of the big group of guys for photos. They began joking and laughing. When George tried to join in the photo opp, they said, “No, only women!”

A few of us returned back to our place to finish off the mimosas, fresh ricotta, deviled eggs, and other easter delights. This unique and colorful festival is one of the highlights of the spring season here in this city of history and art.

Here are few photos of highlights from the day:

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Word of the day: Giardino

Giardino (jar-DEE-noh); Garden

It is spring in Florence and we are getting some much needed rain, which is bringing out the leaves and blossoms in great abundance right now. It seemed appropriate to head out to a green space between the rain showers and enjoy the fresh air and flowers. We could have headed for the Boboli Gardens, the enormous green jewel that sits behind the Pitti Palace, but we opted instead for the smaller, less well known Bardini Gardens.

The Bardini Gardens are in the Oltrarno (the area on the other side of the river from the main area of Florence) area, up the hill toward Piazzalle Michelangelo. This means that not only do you get to meander through the beautifully laid out garden, you also get spectacular views of Florence.

I’ve been waiting until April to go there because I knew the wisteria would be in bloom. I think I’m still about 2 weeks too early to see them at their peak, however. That just means I will have to return. There is a coffee house and lots of great little spaces to sit in the garden and read or just listen to the birds.

Here are a few of my favorite photos of the garden and the views out over Florence.

Recipes from Cooking Class

Last week we had our second cooking class at In Tavola, which is a fabulous cooking school. If you’re coming to Florence and want to do cooking classes, you should check out their website. We made a 3 course meal, and then at the end we got to eat everything we cooked. They gave us a little recipe booklet, but I don’t want to carry around little pieces of paper, so I’m transcribing it here so you can try it out at home and I can have it again later, too.

Menu

  • Artichoke soufflè (starter)
  • Fresh egg pasta (used for the ravioli)
  • Spinach and Ricotta Filled Ravioli (main dish)
  • Panna Cotta (dessert)

Artichoke Soufflè

  • 300 g. artichoke hearts, sliced (see note)
  • 20 g butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 25 g grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 dl thick bechamel sauce (see below)

Note: We used small, fresh artichokes. Cut off the top third of the artichoke. Pull off the outside leaves until you get to the heart. Peel the stem. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise. Cut out the choke (the little fuzzy part that you would throw away if you were eating the artichoke cooked).

PROCEDURE:

Prepare the bechamel sauce (see below.) Boil the artichokes for 7 minutes (see note above). Drain and toss with the butter. Grind the buttered artichoke hearts in a mortar with a pestle, then pass through a sieve, or puree in a blender. (We used an immersion blender, with a little of the bechamel sauce in with it.) Combine the artichoke paste, bechamel, cheese and eggs. Puree until smooth. Put the mixture int a greased and floured pan (or ramekins) and cook in a water bath in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, approximately 15-20 minutes. Let stand a few minutes before reoming from pan to a plate and serving.

Bechamel Sauce

  • 60 g butter
  • 60 g flour type 00, sifted (all purpose flour should be fine)
  • 1 litre milk
  • nutmeg to taste
  • salt to taste

PROCEDURE: Melt the butter, whisk in the sifted flour little by little. Add the nutmeg and continue cooking and stirring for one minute to thicken. Put the milk in a separate saucepan and add a pinch of salt; bring to a boil. Slowly, add the milk to the flour mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook sauce for at least 5 minutes over low flame, stirring occasionally.

Fresh Egg Pasta

  • 2 eggs
  • 50 g flour of durum wheat
  • 150 g flour type 00
  • salt to taste

PROCEDURE: Put the flour in a mound on a large wooden pastry board, making a large well in the center of the mound. Break the eggs into the hole, add a generous pinch of salt. Beat the eggs, then slowly begin incorporating the flour from the inside perimeter of the well into the mixture with a fork. Knead well until smooth and elastic. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let rest for at least 30 minutes before using.

Cut dough ball into 2 equal parts. Working with one half at a time, slightly flour, roll with a rolling pin. Fold into thirds and roll again. Using a pasta machine, run the dough through the machine at settings 1, 3, and 5. Fold into thirds again and roll with pin to width of the machine. Repeat until pasta is desired consistency. For ravioli finish on setting 6.

Spinch & Ricotta Filled Ravioli

  • 250 g spinach
  • 250 g ricotta cheese
  • 60 g grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ground nutmeg to taste

PROCEDURE: Clean the spinach, boil and let cool; squeeze well to remove the liquid and mince finely. Strain the ricotta through a sieve then put into a bowl; add the spinach, cheese egg, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Put the spinach mixture into a pastry bag (or a plastic bag and cut a hole to dispense the mixture.) Roll out the pasta dough into one thin strip, about 5 inches wide. Using the pastry bag, place a dollop (about 1 T.) of filling in the center of the strip. Place another dollop about 3 inches from the first one. Keep working your way down. Leave 2 finger widths of pasta at each end. Gently fold the long strip in half. Using the blunt side of a round cookie cutter, press down gently around each dab of spinach mixture. Use your fingers to press out any air bubbles and seal the pasta together. Using a pronged pasta cutter, cut between the dollops to create individual raviolis. Gently flour the tops. Use a spatula to lift the raviolis onto a floured cardboard tray, taking care not to overlap them or they will stick together.

Place in boiling, salted water and cook for 5-7 minutes. While they are cooking, melt some butter and olive oil together. Scoop the raviolis into the butter and slide around the pan to coat. Sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese and serve.

Panna Cotta

  • 6 g gelatin
  • 40 ml of whole milk
  • 200 ml of whipping cream
  • 40 g of sugar
  • 1/2 vanilla bean (or vanilla extract)

PROCEDURE:

Whisk together the cream, vanilla, and sugar. Put the sheets of gelatin in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes. Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium-low heat until hot, but do not boil. Wring out the gelatin and put it into the warm milk; stir until the gelatin melts. In a saucepan, warm the cream mixture over low heat stirring constantly until just oiling; remove from the heat; add the milk/gelatin to the cream and stir to mix well.

Run individual serving cups or ramekins under cold water. Shake out excess water but do not dry cups. Fill each cup with the panna cotta until full, being sure the tops are level; refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Turn each panna cotta out onto dessert plates. Top with chocolate sauce, caramel sauce or fruit sauce as desired.

Thanks to our expert guides and the elves in the kitchen, everything turned out beautifully. We had a great time, too. It’s always so much more fun to cook with others than to cook alone. If you decide to try these out, invite a friend.

Word of the day: Moda

Moda (MOH-da): Fashion

Professoressa Giuili, the Women’s Studies and International Relations teacher in the study abroad program, was doing a field trip to the Florence high fashion outlet mall with some of her students, and I decided to tag along. The mall is actually about 20 km outside Florence (a 50 minute bus ride), through the now deliciously green countryside. There you can find designer fashions at about half of “boutique” prices, plus additional discounts, up to 70%, on end-of-season items. This still makes it all more expensive than I am willing to pay, but it was definitely an interesting outing.

All the big name Italian brands are there – Pucci, Gucci, Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Fendi, Valentino, Ferragamo, and Giorgio Armani. There were lots of others that I had never heard of, including Balenciaga, Hogan, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, and Zegna. Some items seemed very “every day” while others had that high-fashion, slightly-outrageous edge to them.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from the outing:

Although they are nice, these scarves don't look all that special to me. They were €120 EACH, marked down from €240. Americans, €120 equates to over $150. The next time I see a scarf I love for €5 (or even €8 or €10), I'm buying it!

Cute, right? But almost $1,000 worth of cute? I'd rather stay on a beautiful island for a week.

Awesome heels for going out clubbing. Can't quite remember how much they cost, but somewhere in the neighborhood of $500.

These shoes were more practical and a steal at €85.

I believe this jacket was on sale for a little over €1,000. The black one, right be hind it, with silver bling, reminded me of Michael Jackson.

And for the baby in your life, how about a white fur stroller? This was marked down from €5,760 to €2,880. Love the tiny little jacket next to it.

This photo is actually from the Dolce & Gabbana shop in downtown Florence. This is the store window of a clothing store. The beautiful food is certainly eye catching and it did make me want to buy that hot-mamma chili pepper shirt in the display. I like the idea of using beautiful food to sell a tank top. That works for me.

All in all, I found the outing fascinating, though all I brought home was an empty (very fancy) bag that someone had abandoned on a chair. I’m going to use it to wrap a gift for a friend. What you spend your money on all comes down to priorities, I guess. I know it is tremendously important for some people to have the very best in clothing. I love to look nice and dress well, but I would much rather spend my money on experiences than stuff. I am a huge fan of the fun and the practical in clothing. I could see spending a good chunk of change on the most comfortable pair of shoes in the world, or even a classic black dress that you will wear for years. What I have a harder time understanding is spending this kind of money on clothes that you will wear for one season and then discard in favor of newer stuff next season. Of course, I’ve had the same $20 pair of hiking boots for over a decade. Hey, they’re comfortable and still in good shape. What can I say?

I did stop into the Roberto Cavalli store in Florence this morning. They have a little cafe and I got a very upscale, visually stunning caffè machiato for €1. I admired the gorgeous chocolate easter eggs and fantastic cakes, and went on my merry way with money in my purse, whistling a tune, and keeping an eye out for a good deal at the local street market.

 

 

 

 

Newsflash

I just figured out how to have all my blog entries post to Facebook automatically. I also added the ability to share posts with others by email and Pinterest. Please feel free to send posts on to others you think might like them.

Word of the Day: Olio di Oliva

Olio di oliva (OH-lee-oh dee oh-LEE-vah): olive oil

Most of the day today was spent in front of a computer doing travel planning, but the big treat was olive oil tasting class with the students. Our wonderful teacher, Todd, gave us some background and history on olives and olive oil. I didn’t want to forget what he said, so I took notes. Here is pretty much our whole class on olive oil:

History of The Olive

The Olive is native to the area that is present day Turkey. It has been cultivated in the countries around the Mediterranean for at least 6,000 years. When Rome fell in 400-something A.D., cultivation of olives in Italy was all but lost. Benedictine monks continued to cultivate olives and saved the traditional methods from being lost. During the Renaissance, the Medici family gave land grants and tax breaks to olive farmers to help beautify the Tuscan countryside. This led to the resurgence of olive oil production in Italy.

The Olive in Mythology

In ancient Greek mythology, Athena and Poseidon both wanted to put their temple on the same piece of prime real estate. Zeus was called in to arbitrate the dispute. He devised a competition and whoever won the competition could have the prime land. The task was to create the most useful thing to humans. Athena created the olive tree and Poseidon created the horse. Zeus judged Athena’s creation to be the most useful and she won the competition. The olive tree gave the people wood, oil, and food, and was therefore considered most useful.

Production

There are 750 million olive trees in production worldwide. 93% of those are in the Mediterranean region. About 7% of all olives harvested are cured and eaten, with the remaining 93% being pressed for olive oil. Italy and Spain are by far the biggest producers of olives in the world. There are 5 million olive trees in the greater Florence area alone. Those 5 million olive trees produce about 6.6 million liters of olive oil per year, or, just a little more than 1 liter of oil per tree. In this same region, there are only about 80 olive presses.

Sicilian olives at the street market in Ferrara.

Olive trees can live a very, very long time. Apparently there is one in the small Mediterranean country of Monte Negro that is 2,000 years old. We saw one on Brijuni Island in Croatia that is 1,600 years old. Most olive trees in production are heavily pruned which keeps their size small. These ancient olive trees, however are quite large. There are many, many species of olives in production in the world. In Italy there are well over 500 species. They range in color, shape, and size – from green, to red, to black, to brown – and from the size of a cherry to the size of crab apples. It is the species and ripeness that accounts for the color of olive oil, not the quality of the oil itself.

Olives can’t be eaten straight off the tree. They are tremendously bitter and slightly toxic to people. Somewhere along the line, people figured out how to cure them to make them edible. Olive trees are sexual and vegetative reproducers, meaning they are pollinated and produce seeds that can be planted and grown into new plants (sexual), and they can be cut down (or cut back) and new shoots will grow, which can be transplanted (vegetative.)

There are 4 primary species of olives used in Tuscan olive oil production: frontoio, moraiolo, leccino, and pendolino (the last is primarily for pollination.)

Harvest

Olives are typically harvested in the first 2 weeks of November. If you wait later to harvest them, the olives will be more ripe, which will increase the quantity of oil you get from them, but not the quality. The best time for getting high quality olive oil is early November. Nets or parachutes are placed under the tree, and then long plastic combs or rakes are used to remove the olives from the tree. The harvested olives must be taken to press within 48 hours or quality begins to suffer.

There are basically two methods for pressing olives for oil (in Italy). The traditional method uses a large grinding stone to grind the olives into a pulp or paste. This paste is then spread on to large disks which are stacked on top of each other. The disks are then pressed with a large pressing mechanism and put into containers. In order to remove the water (which is very bitter) and any pulp from the oil, the liquid must be decanted. The oil floats to the top and is skimmed off and bottled. A slight modern variation on this method, is that decanters are rarely used these days, and instead the liquid is put through a centrifuge that sends the oil one direction, the water another direction, and the solids come out through the back of the machine. This discarded pulp material – called pumice – is used in a number of applications, including making it into pellets to burn for fuel.

The other more modern method involves putting the olives into a large stainless steel container, rinsing them in cold (or tepid) water, drying them briefly and then using a machine to grind them into a paste. The paste is then machine churned and put immediately into a centrifuge which separates the oil from everything else. This method can get the oil into the bottle more quickly and may make for a fresher tasting oil by the time it reaches the consumer.

Classifications of Olive Oil

There are four classifications of olive oil: extra virgin, virgin, olive oil, and pumice or SANSA oil. Both virgin and extra virgin olive oil are cold-processed, meaning no heat is used to extract the oil. Sometimes you will hear that virgin and extra virgin olive oil is the first pressing of the olives, which is true, but there is only one pressing of the olives. The difference between virgin and extra virgin has to do with the acidity of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil is less than .8% acid, and virgin is higher than .8%. The process is exactly the same. Pumice oil uses the pumice (or ground pulp) that is left over after the pressing process and uses heat and pasteurization to extract more oil from the pulp. This pumice oil is fine for consumption, it just isn’t very tasty. It is cheap and best used for cooking. Bottles labeled just “olive oil” are a blend of virgin olive oil and pumice oil. You can find all four kinds in stores in Italy, though in the U.S. you pretty much only find extra virgin and virgin.

One of the frustrating things about trying to find a good olive oil in the U.S. (or in Italy for that matter) is that the only way to tell if it is good quality is to taste it. There are lots of labeling “tricks” that are completely meaningless such as “Imported from Italy” which doesn’t tell you where the olives were grown, just that they were pressed in Italy and exported from Italy. “Pure olive oil” doesn’t tell you anything about quality. “Light olive oil” is similarly meaningless, unless they just mean light color. You can’t tell flavor and freshness by color. The best thing to look for on the bottle when trying to select a bottle of oil without tasting it is a harvest date or a sell by date. The fresher the oil, the better. If it is September, 2012 and you find a harvest date of November, 2011, that is the freshest you are going to find because the harvests are done in November. If the harvest date is November 2010, it is almost 2 years old and isn’t going to be as good. The sell-by date is stamped as 1 1/2 years from bottling. The oil doesn’t go bad – it will keep for a couple of years – it just won’t be as fresh and tasty as a newer batch. (You should store your olive oil in a dark bottle in a dark, cool location, by the way. If you want to have some handy for cooking, keep a small amount out at a time.)

Tasting

This is the fun part. Todd poured us three different kinds of oil, in succession. He had us warm the oil by holding the bottom of the cup and swirling it around with our other hand over the top to keep the aroma from escaping. Then we were to smell, then take a good-sized sip. Enough to get the organic compounds and flavors swirling around on our taste buds. This is the best way to get the flavor of the oil itself without complicating it with other flavors, like bread. After you swallow, then you suck in air really fast toward the back of your throat. Really good olive oil will have a slightly peppery taste when you do that. It may have a slightly peppery taste without doing that.

The first one had almost no smell, and almost no taste. It was pumice oil. The second one had a smell like – well, olive oil. It was extra-virgin olive oil from the local supermarket. The third one smelled very green and herby – like cut grass or wheat grass. (It smelled really, really good.) It was also lighter viscosity, and it did have that characteristic peppery taste. It was from a small producer.

Uses

So what do you do with this wonderful olive oil, now that you’ve found it. In Tuscany, Italians don’t dip their bread in olive oil like we do. They do use it liberally on soups, salads, beans, roasted vegetables and as a vegetable dip. A platter of fresh vegetables in Italy won’t have ranch dressing in the middle, it will have good quality olive oil with a little salt and pepper on top for you to dip your veggies in. You can put olive oil directly on pasta or rice with a little parmesan cheese for a simple meal. This is especially good for kids if they have an upset stomach. You can gently heat up some olive oil and add a little garlic tiny dried red peppers (which you find everywhere here) to infuse the oil. Scoop out the garlic and peppers and put the infused oil on pasta.

Italians also cook with olive oil. When you use it for cooking, it loses a lot of its aroma and flavor and pretty much all its health benefits. You have to be careful not to get it too hot or it will burn. If you don’t get it hot enough and you’re using it to fry, it will absorb into the food too much and make it soggy or greasy. However, if you get the temperature right, it is just fine for cooking. Of course, you don’t want to use your very best olive oil for this.

Lots of stores now sell olive oil infused with garlic or peppers or herbs. There’s no reason to pay extra for that when you can do the same thing yourself at home. Keep your batches small and use them up frequently. Many Italian kitchens will have chili pepper infused olive oil to put on pizza.

That’s everything I can remember. If you have any other information about olive oil, by all means, post a comment and let us know. There are lots of health benefits of olive oil and I didn’t take good notes during that section of the class. If I got any of the details wrong, please help me get them right. Also, if you have any good sources for buying olive oil, either in Italy or in the United States, please let us know about that too.

Word of the day: Opera

Tonight we went to the opera. Actually, it is a scaled down version of the opera, with fantastic singing, but performed in a church with minimal staging and cast. St. Mark’s Anglican Church produces a whole season of opera, the proceeds of which go to support an orphanage in India.

Tonight we saw La Traviata, and a few weeks ago we saw Carmen. Before each act, a person comes out and gives a brief synopsis of the action in the scene (in English) so you know the story. The accompaniment is all on piano, and the two piano players for the shows we’ve seen have been phenomenal. Although the operas have been edited for length, they are full opera performances.

I loved Carmen, partly because it is action packed, it has some songs I recognize, and the singer playing Carmen was an excellent actress. She also had a great voice, but her acting really made it come alive. La Traviata was less action packed, especially in the first half, I didn’t recognize any of the songs, and the actress was less compelling. However, she had an amazing, soaring voice and the vocal gymnastics were stunning.

Although the church doesn’t look like much from the outside, it is beautiful on the inside.

The opera season runs February through July. This is one of the many cultural activities that students have access to at reduced rates, though this is an inexpensive way for everyone to see opera. Tickets are €15 – €20.

At some point, I’d like to go see an opera at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentina here in Florence, or at the amphitheater in Verona. Perhaps this summer…

Word of the Day: La Sinagoga

la sinagoga (seen-ah-GO-gah): synagogue

Today I went with George’s Religious Studies class to the Jewish synagogue in Florence. In this city that is so dominated by Catholicism, it was a delightful change of pace to learn something about other religious traditions in the area. The synagogue is a beautiful building both inside and out. (Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take pictures inside the synagogue, but if you go to Google images and type Florence synagogue you get some beautiful pictures of the exterior and a few of the interior.

The synagogue was built after the unification of Italy (1861), so it is considered a “new” synagogue. The distinguishing feature of the exterior is the copper dome that has turned green over time. It is very striking looking. The interior has lots of Moorish design elements which make it look exotic. Since it is an orthodox synagogue, the women are separated from the men during services. They used to only be able to sit in the upstairs area called the women’s gallery, but today they are allowed to sit in a section over on the right of the downstairs area. 

We learned quite a bit about the history of the Jews in Florence. They first arrived during the renaissance and were welcomed and protected by Lorenzo the Magnificent (a Medici ruler). The first ghetto was instituted in 1570 and was located across the Arno near the Ponte Vecchio. In the 1600s the ghetto was moved to the very center of Florence, where the Piazza della Repubblica is now. With the unification of Italy came the Emancipation and all jews were given equal rights with all other citizens. 

During WWII, Florentine Jews fared better than in most places in Europe (that’s largely true for Italy as a whole.) Because they were integrated into Italian life, many Florentines helped conceal them from the Nazis. A local bishop helped hide many of them inside convents and monasteries. Italians have a long tradition of circumventing governmental regulations, so they were skilled at helping their neighbors evade the authorities, often at great risk to themselves. Eventually, 287 were taken to the concentration camps, including the local rabbi who stayed with those of his congregation who couldn’t be hidden. This was about 12-13% of the total Jewish population of Florence, which is relatively low. For Italy as a whole the percentage was about 16%. During the war, the Nazis took over the synagogue and used it as a garage for their military vehicles. Before they left, they exploded several land mines inside which damaged one wall. It was repaired shortly after the end of the war.

Upstairs in the synagogue, there is a small museum that tells some of the history and also displays some ceremonial objects dating from the 17th century onward. There is even a torah scroll in a display case, which our guide explained is very unusual for an orthodox synagogue. Usually, when a torah scroll is no longer usable, it is buried in the cemetery. The one they have on display was damaged during the flood of the Arno river in 1966. They decided to make it a part of their museum so that non-Jews would have an opportunity to see a torah scroll.

One of the things I found fascinating is that Jews don’t consider the synagogue sacred in the same way that Catholics consider a church or basilica sacred. The building itself isn’t consecrated. It is the torah that is considered holy, and by extension, the arc that houses the torah. If the torah is residing in the arc, the curtain will be closed and the lamp will be burning. If the lamp is extinguished and the curtain is open, then the arc is no longer sacred. The building is just a building. This makes sense for a mobile and persecuted people. They often had to meet in secret and their “synagogues” just looked like ordinary homes or buildings. The most sacred part of their religious ceremony was portable. 

Overall, the students seemed to really enjoy the visit. I thought it was a wonderful way to get them out into Florence and expose them to a part of the city that most tourists never see. This is just one of many examples of spending a good amount of time in a place to get to know it well.

Word of the day: Formaggio (Fromage)

Formaggio (For-MAH-joh): Cheese

Today we visited the Montmartre area of Paris, including the gorgeous Sacre Couer basilica. Since it was Palm Sunday, there was a mass going on, but tourists could still walk around the outside. It was kind of weird and kind of cool to participate in a mass from the fringes. The last time I visited Sacre Couer (23 years ago), it was October and it was almost completely empty and dark. It felt like a wonderful sacred space. Today it was filled with light and worshippers and it still felt like a wonderful sacred space. The church is huge and it was completely packed with worshippers. It was wonderful to hear the mass and the singing in French.

We walked the streets that were once the haunts of the bohemian set, visited the Moulin Rouge (well, just the outside), and had lunch in a little cafe. Lunch was the highlight of the day for me. I decided that while I was in France I wanted to have something really French, so I ordered the camembert and a bottle of Languedoc Merlot-Cabernet blend. The cheese came on a bed of lettuce with raisins and walnuts sprinkled around. It was beyond delicious – firm and compact in the middle, almost crumbly, surrounded by smooth creaminess, wrapped in that beautiful white rind. I’ve had camembert before, but not like this. The wine was a perfect compliment to the cheese. The day was cold and bright, and the sunshine added the perfect amount of warmth to make the whole affair just heavenly.

I thought I should say a little more about our food experience in France. It wasn’t too easy for vegetarians, but what we did find was fantastic. The bread was enough to keep a smile on my face for the whole weekend. The croissants were unbelievably tender and flaky. I don’t think I’ve ever had their equal. My favorite new discovery was a dish called “raclette”. I don’t know the exact recipe, but here is my guess:

  • Find the 3 most delicious yellow-fleshed potatoes in the world. Boil them with the skins on, until tender.  Coat them in butter and a little salt. Put them in a bowl.
  • Put several slices of raclette cheese (I don’t know exactly what that is, but that’s what kind of cheese they said this was) on a plate, including the rinds. Put a couple pats of butter on top of that. Put the plate in the oven until the cheese melts.
  • Serve the cheese and potatoes separately and tell the guests to eat them together in whatever way makes them happy.

That’s it! Mind-blowingly delicious. How can you go wrong with cheese, butter, salt, and potatoes?

We were also finally back in the world of big salads and vinaigrette! We had a fantastic salad with warm goat cheese, wrapped in a very, very thin crepe served on top. It also had cous cous, hericots verts (skinny green beans), cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, and some kind of marinated cabbage, almost like a fresh sauerkraut. It was divine.

The next time I go to Paris, I am definitely going to have a picnic from the fresh fruit, cheese, bread, wine, and chocolate sold in the street markets. It looked so fantastic. The weather conspired against a picnic this time around, but that is one of the many things I will look forward to on my next trip to Paris.

Now we are back home in Florence, and we discovered that while we were gone, a gelato shop opened on our street! Gelato is the one thing our neighborhood was missing, until now… So tonight I am very grateful to all the cows out there who provide the raw materials, and all the artisans who produce the formaggio and gelato that keeps me in tasty delights.