My son, nephew and I made our way through the winding cobblestone roads of the Tuscan hill town of Siena, Italy to the only hotel room we could find available for the evening, a single room high up in a medieval stone building with three twin beds in a row and a bathroom so small the you could take a shower, brush your teeth and sit on the toilet all at the same time. It made for an amusing evening and morning, but we were there to explore and we were all game to bunk up if it meant we could spend the night in this historic and stunning town.
As it turned out, we arrived the evening before the bareback horse race known as Il Palio where ten horses race around the town square ridden by jockeys dressed in jester-like costumes. Siena retains a ward-centric culture from medieval times. Each ward (contrada) is represented by an animal or mascot, and has its own boundary and distinct identity. Ward rivalries run rampant during the Palio as ten of the contradas are represented in the race.
As we walked through the streets looking for a restaurant for dinner, we saw that each street was lined with rows of long tables filled with townspeople dining and celebrating in anticipation of the big race. With family pride showing by way of brightly colored flags that hung from each home and scarves tied around clan member’s necks, it was impossible for us not to feel as if we had stumbled upon a true gem of an experience as spectators of this ancient ritual.
We made our way to the town square or Piazza del Campo, where couples lounged on the cobblestones, eating out of picnic hampers as children ran around and danced to the music of a small orchestra off to the side. We lay down on the ground, looking up at the stars, listening to the music and laughter.
When the music stopped, we made our way through the streets until we came upon a little restaurant where the interior looked like a cross between a cave and a wine cellar. There we had one of the freshest and most delicious meals that I had ever had. The veggies were harvested from the gardens only hours before, salads were dressed with a simple drizzle of fruity olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, and we were served freshly made pasta, handcrafted cheeses and rich red wine. The three of us oohed and aaahed our way through the meal and then meandered our way back to the hotel where we slept soundly side-by-side.
We woke to the bright sunshine and the sounds of the crowds already making their way to the town square for the races. After climbing back and forth over each other’s beds as we got ourselves together, we were soon amongst the throngs of people walking through the streets along with parades of families proudly escorting their horses to the church where they would enter and be blessed before the race. Next the horses emerged from the church onto the track and soon after a gunshot was sounded the horses and jesters were making their way around the track with the crowds cheering them on. It was over in a matter of minutes but the festivities carried on.
I love the Italian lifestyle which is passionate, colorful and friendly. The culture takes time to enjoy the bounty of the earth, the food that they have taken care in preparing, the wine and the people in their lives. It’s something us Americans could do more of, slow down, enjoy and appreciate all that we have.
Vegetable Bolognese Ragu
1/2-ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 cups hot water
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch rounds
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, washed and leaves pulled from stems
2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves, washed and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces assorted mushrooms (shitaki, crimini or button), stemmed and chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon capers, drained
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 14.5 ounce can crushed tomatoes (I like Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted Crushed Tomatoes)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup cream (optional)
1 pound pasta
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with 1 cup very hot water. Set aside and let the mushrooms soften.
Place the carrots, onion, red bell pepper, and garlic in a food processor. Pulse the vegetables until finely chopped but still chunky. Place the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the chopped vegetables, thyme, oregano, sugar, salt, pepper and pepper flakes and then cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Strain the porcini mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Coarsely chop the porcini mushrooms and add them along with the fresh mushrooms to the pot and give it a good stir.
Mix in the tomato paste, capers, reserved porcini mushroom liquid and red wine. Bring the liquid to a simmer and let the mixture cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Stir in the butter, and cream if you’d like a richer rose sauce.
Basic Egg Pasta
2 cups white flour, plus extra for working the dough
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Put all ingredients into the food processor in the order given and process quickly until a ball forms and it pulls away cleanly from the sides of the container – 30 seconds or so.
If it appears to be sticky, remove the top and sprinkle one tablespoon of flour. Process briefly until it pulls away from the sides. If you plan to use it right away, let it rest for 30 minutes covered with a kitchen towel. Wrap in plastic and store in the refrigerator until needed.
If you have a pasta roller, you can use that as directed and do as Ric does, use a sharp knife or pizza knife to cut the 3/4 inch ribbons of pasta.
Or to roll out the dough by hand, place it on a lightly floured surface and dust with flour. Starting in the middle, push away from you with a rolling-pin. Continue rolling the dough into a sheet, turning occasionally, until you can see your fingers through the bottom. Let dry about 10 minutes. To cut the pasta, dust the top of the sheet of dough with flour and loosely roll it into a cylinder. Using a sharp knife, cut into 3/4-inch-wide slices.
Unwrap the noodles; dust with flour or semolina and gently toss to separate and set aside until ready to cook or freeze in freezer bags for up to 2 months.
To assemble dish, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender (about 1-2 minutes), drain, toss with a bit of olive oil and then salt and pepper to taste. Place pasta in a bowl, top with the ragu and a sprinkle of parmesan and fresh basil.