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

Tuscany, Italy ~ The Thing About Cooking for Italians

Sunset aperitivo picnic in Tuscany

The thing about these Italians is that they like things the way they like them. I’ve been here for a month now, and I am galvanized that I have never seen a people so determined that their way is the way -  the right way -  the only way! Whether it’s their gnocchi burro e salvia, their borlotti beans and tropea, their asparagus frittata, their tagliarini with artichokes (a very common topic).

I have fallen flat in my attempts to impress with food here more than any other place in all of my food travels.

 I’ve been to Italy many times. I’ve eaten in Italy (a lot) and most of my cooking education came from Italy (thank you Enrica!), and yet, here, at the Villa, with a new set of Italians, somehow, all that I have eaten and seen and learned and done is rendered nearly worthless. I am again a babe in the woods. For these Italians, there is The Way to cook risotto with garden fresh zucchini. There is The Way to make a ragu. The Way… is their way, which is to say their mother’s or grandmother’s way,  which is why your way will not be right now matter which dusty, obscure cookbook or television celebrity chef taught you and how many songs of praise you’ve received before.

I came here fresh off a solid year of experimenting with the exotic;  learning the notes and colours of the world’s great pantries and spice cabinets – the dry spices of Morocco, the smokey, cured goodness of Spain, the pungent, spicy, fish-saucey language of Thailand and Vietnam, the heat and vibrancy of the Levant (a fellow Mediterranean cuisine no?)  – and each time I’ve tried to infuse even a glimmer of this complex flavor knowledge that veritably springs forth from the corners of my culinarilly saturated mind, I am rebuffed, shrugged, dismissed.