October 13, 2012

Our Idyllic Escape from Tourists in Toffia, Italy

While planning our activities while in Rome, April and I discussed taking some cooking lessons so we could perfect our Italian cooking skills. April researched the many options available and instead of staying right in Rome, we found an option about 45 minutes outside of Rome in Toffia with Convivio Rome. Our daylong adventure in Toffia is probably one of my favorite things we did/experience on our entire trip. To quote Liz Lemon, "I want to go there."

Toffia is a small hilltop village with a current population of about 350 people, although their population swells closer to 900 people during the warmer months as many Romans like to keep summer homes there. Located in the ancient Sabina region, the area is an agricultural-rich area with primarily olive oil and wine production.

April and I were joined by two more cooking "guests" who were a mother and daughter from Canada, so it was a nice small group. Convivio Rome is ran by a sweet couple, Guido (8th generation Roman) and Sally (Australian who fell in love with Guido while visiting Rome) who live in Toffia.

We were all picked up at the Fara Sabina train station, about 45 minutes outside of Rome, and driven by a cute Italian boy to Toffia, about 20 minutes away.

Sally met us at the entrance to the city and as we walked towards their home, gave us a bit of a tour along the way.


During our walk into the center of the village, one of the local "wine growers" passed us several times with his bounty of just-picked grapes.

All of the wine produced by the villagers is for "local-use" only, meaning that all of the residents basically bring their bottles and containers to be filled up after the harvest. They do a similar thing with the olive oil production with residents basically acquiring their year-long needs shortly after the harvest and production. I think that they actually pay for the wine and olive oil, but the amount is quite minimal.

Toffia features a community garden and we stopped there to pick some fresh herbs to use during our cooking lesson.


We arrive at Sally and Guido's home and after a brief introduction to Guido, our lesson begins. I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed our day so much here is that Sally and Guido were instantly like old friends. And the food we prepared was amazing!

I loved that we were kind of thrown back into an era where you actually knew all of the people that produced your food; they personally know (and are friends with) the butcher, the guy who grows the vegetables, the cheesemaker, the olive maker and the wine maker. I suspect they also acquired the flour from someone they know who mills it.

First up, we learn to make tagliatelle pasta (your basic egg noodle). April and I have made pasta many times, but this recipe varies slightly in that the ratio of eggs was a bit higher, and instead of using just all-purpose flour, it was a mixture of 50% all-purpose flour (European 00 flour) and 50% semolina flour.

This was the first time we had learned to make pasta entirely by hand, meaning that we didn't use a sheet roller to create the thin pasta sheets. I'm pretty sure my french rolling pin isn't quite long enough for this method, so I'm going to need some supplies when I get home!

After the pasta was completed, it was time to start the Ragu (a basic meat sauce). This is a basic staple sauce in most Italian kitchens and Guido told us that on Sundays, you can smell various wafts of Ragu from most kitchens in the village.

The sauce begins with a basic mire poix of celery, onions, carrots, then flavored with pieces of pork cheek (kind of like pancetta, but the cut of pork comes from the pig cheek) and fresh bay leaf. There was also a generous amount of olive oil. After this mixture was cooked down for a few minutes, we added some ground beef and wine.

Finally, the Italian version of tomato sauce, as well as a can of "San Marzano" tomatoes were added to the mixture and set aside to simmer while we prepared the rest of today's dishes.

Next up was the dessert, Ricotta cake. I loved how everything we did was made entirely by hand; no blenders, food processors, or mixers. Even the pastry dough for the cake was done on the board by hand.

I though it was an ingenious idea to keep the parchment on the bottom of the pastry to line the dish with.

Spread on the bottom was a locally-made (naturally!) cherry preserve that was more similar to a currant (the cherries are tart) then our sweet bing cherries. The ricotta filling was simply sheep's milk ricotta (apparently sheep's milk is sweeter than cow's), sugar, eggs, chopped chocolate (which was also made locally) and some fresh lemon zest.

And voila! In a matter of a few minutes, it's ready to bake and you have a very simple, but delicious dessert.

Finally, it's time to create the meat course: Veal Saltimbocca. It's amazing how something so simple to make can be so delicious. I definitely think it's the olive oil!

Paper-thin slices of veal are layered with a slice of prosciutto and skewered together with a fresh sage leaf. That's it! No salt, no pepper. It's then quickly sauteed (fairly high heat) with some olive oil (but of course!).

Paired with a simple arugula salad and an orange reduction sauce (which we also made), it was very delicious. Isn't your stomach rumbling just reading about these dishes? Guido told us a funny story about how he tried out his idea of the "orange sauce" to pair with the Saltimbocca on his Roman friends. Their basic response when tasting his version was "it's not like Nona makes." Apparently you can't teach a dog new tricks and they only want to eat something that's exactly what they're used to, and in this case, whatever their beloved grandmother's made. Hopefully my grandchildren will feel that way about my cooking!
It was now time to eat, so we all retired to their "taverna" which is kind of "cave-like" and very cool. What a great place to entertain! Sally told us that they're often asked by fellow villagers if they can host a party in their taverna! It's the perfect spot for a party.

From the flat area where the dining table is located, looking across the room is the entrance to their cellar, also a nice place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine.

Our meal, complete with a generous amount of local wine was one of the highlights of my trip to Italy. The day was perfect! It was warm and sunny, the class was fun and engaging and I am completely in love with Toffia. Remember the movie "Under the Tuscan sun" where Diane Lane's character is on vacation in Tuscany and she falls in love with the village and buys a villa there? I can see that happening! Seriously, this place is fantastic! But obviously, not very realistic for me, but one can dream!
It's now getting to be late afternoon and sadly it's time for us to go. Sally and our cute Italian driver accompany us to another nearby village of Farfa for a quick tour before we drive back to the train station. Along the way, we had some amazing views of Toffia.

The Farfa Abbey is one of the most famous abbeys in Europe. Farfa Abbey played an important role in the history of the Sabina area, having controlled, during it's "golden age", nearly all the nearby towns and villages. The monks of Farfa owned 683 churches or convents; two towns, Civitavecchia and Alatri; 132 castles; 16 strongholds; 7 seaports; 8 salt mines; 14 villages; 82 mills; and 315 hamlets. They even had their own army and navy. It's hard to imagine this fairly small abbey run by monks to have risen to that level of power.
As one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries in Europe, it played a major role in the power struggles between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, opposing the power of the Papacy for centuries. With the crisis in the Benedictine order and the struggle for the Papacy in the twelfth century, the Abbey began to decline and eventually fell under the control of the Papal States. From here on it's history follows that of the Vatican and the struggles between powerful Roman families for it's control. In 1477 AD the Orsini family asserted it's growing power in the Sabina by expelling all the monks of Farfa and replacing them with Teutonic monks. In the following centuries the Abbey passed under the control of various Roman nobles such as the Barberini and the Farnese but it never really reacquired the importance and independence it once had. Finally, in 1841 AD its powers were definitively transferred to the diocese of the Sabina.
Farfa also became a focal point for trade with an important weekly market. After the reconstruction of the monastery by the Orsinis during the Renaissance, new shops were built around the monastery to accommodate the merchants, giving birth to a twice yearly fair lasting 15 days. These shops and the urban structure of which they are part can still be seen today and the street names reflect the original uses of each street, for example "via di droghe e cere" (street of medicines and waxes), "via di panni e sete" (street of cloths and silks) and so on. You can still see the characteristic stone slabs at the entrance to each shop which were used as counters by the merchants. The signage in the village is really lovely too; of course I loved the sign outside the bakery.
While we were visiting the church, a wedding was start about ready to start. We've actually seen quite a few brides during our travels in Italy.

It was an idyllic day. In addition to their one-day classes, Convivio offers 3 and 5-day courses, combined with accommodations in Toffia, either in a shared environment (room of local villager) or sometimes they rent out entire dwellings for the class participants. I'm pretty sure one of these options (3 or 5 days) will be worked into the planning process for a future trip to Italy.

Thank you Sally and Guido for such a fantastic day!


October 11, 2012

Walking in the Footsteps of the Ancient Romans, But With Better Footwear!

I should have brought a pedometer with me. April and I are logging some serious miles in our exploration of Rome. I've been SO happy with my Ecco sandals I bought for the trip. They're not too "granola" looking and have been so comfortable, even walking miles a day over cobblestones. I haven't suffered even a single blister or sore foot on our trip!

Even though it's now almost mid-October, the city is still crammed full of tourists, which has been somewhat of a frustration for us. But it's unrealistic for me to expect that we're going to have Rome (and it's beautiful monuments, churches and statues) all to ourselves. But it would be nice to have a few pictures WITHOUT a bunch of people standing around them.

So I thought I'd share with you some of the highlights. I'll be writing separate posts about some of the things we've done which I feel deserve their own post, such as our visit to The Borghese Gallery, St. Paul's, our cooking experience in Toffia and the Colosseum.


The Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world. The fountain at the junction of three roads that marks the terminal point of the "modern" Acqua Vergine, and the revived Aqua Virgo, one of the ancient aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome.

In 19 BC, supposedly with the help of a virgin, Roman technicians located a source of pure water some 13 km from the city. (This scene is presented on the present fountain's façade.) However, the eventual indirect route of the aqueduct made its length some 22 km. This Aqua Virgo led the water into the Baths of Agrippa. It served Rome for more than four hundred years. The coup de grâce for the urban life of late classical Rome came when the Goth besiegers in 537/38 broke the aqueducts. Medieval Romans were reduced to drawing water from polluted wells and the Tiber River, which was also used as a sewer.

The Roman custom of building a handsome fountain at the endpoint of an aqueduct that brought water to Rome was revived in the 15th century, with the Renaissance. In 1453, Pope Nicholas V finished mending the Acqua Vergine aqueduct and built a simple basin to herald the water's arrival.

In 1629 Pope Urban VIII, finding the earlier fountain insufficiently dramatic, asked Gian Lorenzo Bernini to sketch possible renovations, but when the Pope died, the project was abandoned. Though Bernini's project was never constructed, there are many Bernini touches in the fountain as it exists today, which was completed in 1762.

I found this panorama picture on Wikipedia; we went to the fountain twice (day and night) and the amount of tourists around the fountain (and general area) were 3 times as many depicted in the photo below. When I was attempting to get a photo of the fountain without a bunch of heads in front (you have to "shoot high"), I was actually pushed aside from my perch on a ledge by a very rude tourist who thought that SHE deserved my spot in order to take HER photo. The nerve of some people!

Nearby the Trevi Fountain, in the Piazza di Spagna are the famous "Spanish Steps". To be honest, I was rather underwhelmed. I just don't really understand the fascination with a fairly plain staircase going from a fairly plain square up to a church, but that's perhaps just me? Naturally, there were 400,000 tourists present, so we didn't even bother walking up the steps. According to Wikipedia, the staircase contains 138 steps and is the widest staircase in Europe.

Trajan's Column is a Roman triumphal column that commemorates Roman emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars.

Completed in AD 113, the freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bas relief, which artistically describes the epic wars between the Romans and Dacians (101–102 and 105–106). The structure is about 30 metres (98 ft) in height, 35 metres (125 ft) including its large pedestal. The shaft is made from a series of 20 colossal Carrara marble drums, each weighing about 32 tons, with a diameter of 3.7 metres (11 ft). The 190-metre (625 ft) frieze winds around the shaft 23 times.

Inside the shaft, a spiral staircase of 185 stairs provides access to a viewing platform at the top. I don't think the platform is currently accessible to the public, although I'm not sure I would want to climb that many stairs in that narrow of an area.

Ancient coins indicate preliminary plans to top the column with a statue of a bird, probably an eagle, but after construction, a statue of Trajan was put in place; this statue disappeared in the Middle Ages. In 1587, the top was crowned by Pope Sixtus V with a bronze figure of St. Peter, which remains to this day.

The National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II is not very affectionately referred to as the "wedding cake" building by locals. A tribute to Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of a united Italy, the monument was completed in 1935.

The monument was controversial since its construction destroyed a large area of the Capitoline Hill with a Medieval neighbourhood for its sake. The monument itself is often regarded as pompous and too large. Even our Rome landlords referred to the building as "the wedding cake".

The monument is built of white marble and features stairways, Corinthian columns, fountains, an equestrian sculpture of Victor Emmanuel and two statues of the goddess Victoria riding on a chariot.

Personally, I thought the building was beautiful and offered many spectacular views of Rome, particularly from the viewing platform on the top.


The monument also holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with an eternal flame, built under the statue of Italy after World War I. The body of the unknown soldier was chosen in 1921 from among 11 unknown remains by Maria Bergamas, a woman from Gradisca d'Isonzo whose only child was killed during World War I. Her son's body was never recovered. The selected unknown was transferred from Aquileia, where the ceremony with Bergamas had taken place to Rome and buried in a state funeral on 4 November 1921.

We just happened to be there during the changing of the guard.

As you can see by the ominous clouds in my pictures, a sudden rainstorm tried to soak us while we were admiring the views. Thankfully, we were able to duck into a nearby church to escape the deluge of rain.

Built on the foundations of the ancient Temple of Juno, the church known as Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St. Mary of the altar in heaven) is the designated church of the Italian Senate and the Roman people. Santa Maria in Aracoeli has a long history. The foundation of this church may have been laid as early as the 6th century. However, the church was taken over by the papacy in the 9th century and was given to the Benedictines. It was then passed on to the Franciscans in the 13th century, who added Romanesque and Gothic touches to the church. By the Middle Ages, Santa Maria in Aracoeli was at the center of both religious and civic life in Rome.

It was the first church I've seen with crystal chandelliers.

After spending a few minutes inside the church, thankfully the rain stopped. I might have said something inside the church to the effect of "please, God, make the rain go away". Well, my prayers were answered and we were once again amidst blue skies. We then rode an elevator to the viewing platform to some more spectacular views of Rome.

The views were pretty amazing. I love the diversity of Rome. Ruins, mixed with Renaissance-era buildings, as well as modern structures (which kind of seem out of place?). All of this history! The sad part is that the difficult economy is making it difficult for Italy as a State, to continue preserve some of these ancient wonders. Our new friend Guido (our Roman chef in Toffia -- this will be a separate blog post) told us that it is anticipated that the ruins of Pompeii will no longer exist in 100 years as it is literally crumbling away and Italy just doesn't have the resources to continue with the upkeep.

You would think that the millions of tourists who visit Italy each year are generating the necessary income, but apparently it's still just not enough. In the United States, we don't have 2,000 year-old monuments to maintain, but if we did, I certainly feel it's important to preserve for future generations, yet I don't want to be taxed any more heavily than I already am, so what's the answer? I'm sure that many countries in the world are facing this same issue. But I digress.

Not far from Piazza Navonna is the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the national church in Rome for France.
The church has some fairly famous artwork (as per usual in Rome, right?). The church's most famous item are the cycle of paintings in the Contarelli Chapel, painted by the Caravaggio in 1599-1600 about the life of St. Matthew.
The Piazza della Minerva features another beautiful church, as well as an interesting statue as the base for an obelisk. Santa Maria sopra Minerva is one of the major churches of the Roman Catholic Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans. The church's name derives from the fact that the first Christian church structure on the site was built directly over the ruins or foundations of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, which had been erroneously ascribed to the Greco-Roman goddess Minerva.

Saint Catherine of Siena (one of the two Patron Saints of Italy, along with St. Francis of Assisi) is buried here (except her head, which is in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena).

That's an interesting story. The people of Siena wished to have St. Catherine's body. A story is told of a miracle whereby they were partially successful: Knowing that they could not smuggle her whole body out of Rome, they decided to take only her head which they placed in a bag. When stopped by the Roman guards, they prayed to St Catherine to help them, confident that she would rather have her body (or at least part thereof) in Siena. When they opened the bag to show the guards, it appeared no longer to hold her head but to be full of rose petals. Once they got back to Siena they reopened the bag and her head was visible once more. Due to this story, St Catherine is often seen holding a rose. The head and a thumb were entombed in the Basilica of San Domenico, where they remain today.

I loved the brightness of the colors in the ceiling; such a nice shock of color. Among the artwork in th church is the statue, "Chris the Redeemer" by Michelangelo, completed in 1521.


In front of the church is a statue designed by Bernini of an elephant as the supporting base for the Egyptian obelisk found in the Dominicans' garden. It is the shortest of the eleven Egyptian obelisks in Rome and is said to have been one of two obelisks moved from Sais, where they were built during the 589 BC-570 BC reign of the pharaoh Apries, from the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt. The two obelisks were brought to Rome by Diocletian, during his reign as emperor from 284 to 305, for placement at the Temple of Isis which stood nearby.

Since this blog post is now very long, I'll end it now and start a new blog post to continue talking about some of the other sights we've visited. I'll cover Piazza Navona, Trastevere and the Pantheon in my next post.
You can view my pictures (they will include pictures from upcoming blog) of Rome Sights on Shutterfly.