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The true tales of an architect turned food writer travelling the globe in search of a feast | Food Pilgrimage: A Food Writer's Quest for the Greatest Meals on the Planet

The View from the Villa Window ~ Mira, Venice, Italy

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The Bells from three or four different churches ring outside. From my window on the second floor, I can see the water of the Brenta canal running smooth and swift, swollen from ten days of gray and rain. But today, the sky is blue and clear, the curtains are pulled back and the windows are open. I’m back onto the hand-crafted, Italian Bialetti moka-pot coffee after a week of indulging on those little pungent Nespresso capsules that make such predictably good stuff. I’ve mastered the stove-top milk frother, I’ve identified the best of the seven neighborhood pasticerias from which to get my breakfast Pastry (Crème-filled Brioche for those keeping score), and I’ve broken in my new Atlas-150 Pasta maker with a batch of fresh Tagliatelle. It’s a different Italy, but it is still Italy, and I’m going to be here a while.

My summer in Tuscany has come and gone. I’ve watched the full cycle of Tuscan garden vegetables; sprouted, harvested, cooked and eaten. I’ve watched and learned the persnickety ways of frittata and risotto and gnocchi. I’ve pressed olive oil and decanted table wine… and I’ve watched many orange sunsets, some from the garden with a shovel in hand, some sat at wooden table under the grape vine arbor with Campari in hand.

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Now it’s November and I’m in a Villa outside of Venice.

I’ve been here two weeks, and I will be here many more – indefinitely as it were. I’m working with my Italian Cooking mentor Enrica Rocca, to turn this Villa – Villa il Granaio – into a world class culinary destination. It’s already a stunning guest house, with three massive, private apartments, (you can see them here) so half of the work is already done for me. But the challenge – the goal – the vision! is to make it amazing; a place where people come for days at a time to learn about the cuisine, culture and wine of Venice.

Venice is a bit of a second home, so in some ways, I feel back in the swing of things. In other ways I feel out of sorts: Trading the rolling Tuscan hills for the flat canals of the Vento; trading humble vegetable and bean fare of the stoic Tuscans for the seafood and sausage indulgence of the flatlands; Getting used to reliably good cheap northern wine. Small differences that make it a new place, a place that needs settling into and getting used to.

But, here in Venice, besides marketing and brand-building and PR, I am back to my passion of teaching cookery. Villa il Granaio has a stunning kitchen that is just begging to be filled with the sounds of cookery, laughter and learning.  So that is what I will do. I would love for you to follow along. And if you’ve got some free weekends, pop on down to Venice and let’s visit the markets, sample some wine and stop for a prosecco and a bit of Baccala Mantecato.

But at the very least, stay tuned, and let’s see how it unfolds.

~Sage

Venice, 2014

Siena, Italy ~ The Memorable Breakfast

Capuccino and Nutella Brioche

The service station was more crowded than usual. Besides the usual trucks queuing up for petrol, there were about twenty cars full of families, all full of cheer and looking ready for a nice country picnic. The man and the woman pulled their small car into the parking area. They didn’t need petrol and had only stopped at the service station to have a morning cappuccino and pastry because the bar at the local village had been closed and the bar at the neighboring village smelled too much like a school cafeteria to spend any time in. And so they had pulled in here to have breakfast before driving on to Siena.

It took a few minutes to move the small car around to a parking spot. Italian petrol station don’t really have a system of where to leave the car when you want anything other than petrol.

With the car stopped and the wind stopped, it was actually quite a hot day and when the sun wasn’t behind the few white clouds, it was very hot. It had rained all the day before, so the sky was unusually blue and fresh. Locals were calling it a cool summer. There had been plenty of rain so the hills were still green and the smell of pines still hung in the low valleys.

Inside the service station, the bar serving coffee was very busy. People were queued up at the area between where you paid and where you showed your ticket to get your cappuccino. The bar wasn’t designed for a line of people and so it was difficult to push through the crowd to get to the register to pay for your coffee. But the time in line did allow you to see all of the pastries on offer. There were the crisp, folded sfoglia, with their golden edges and sweet cream leaking through. There were the slices of torte, with marmalade and with custard, and there were all the usual sweet croissants, some empty, some with jam and some with chocolate. There will also a few croissants, slit down the length and filled too full with hazelnut spread. People went mad for hazelnut spread in this part of Italy.

The man and woman discussed which pastries to order. They called them brioches, because in this part of Italy, that’s what they were called. The man rubbed his chin and pointed at the plain ones. “Empty” they were called here. The woman decided she wanted the same.

There is no Wi-Fi at Ponterotto Café

Ponte Rotto Cafe

It’s the quintessential Tuscan café. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. It sits where the road curves over an old stone bridge and Tractors and toy Fiat Pandas are the only traffic. There are wood umbrellas and square hedges and thin cypress pines. There’s a gravel path and a painted plaster sign with a coat of arms and a shield. It is called Ponterotto which means broken bridge, presumably because it has been on more than one occasion in the past.

Inside, it is cool and cheerful and there is a big display with the best salumi of the valley and a big enameled slicer and a man with big hands to slice it. There is bar menu where house wine is eighty-cents a glass and one-Euro-twenty per liter if you put it in your own bottle.

On the wall is a menu of bread by the pound and the mirrored bar shelf holds every kind of bitter liqueur you could want.

And it being Italy, there is a long, silver espresso machine steaming and hissing as cappuccino’s slide down the counter to their proper owners.

It is the perfect place to have a coffee, to sit, undisturbed and think ; to ponder, brainstorm and come up with ideas. It inspires creativity and it would be the envy of every café hopping hipster in London or New York: Good pastry, good coffee, cheap. It would be the ultimate remote office for