Traditional recipes

Eating Rituals While Traveling in Tuscany

Eating Rituals While Traveling in Tuscany

New Jersey-born Sam Hilt is a seasoned tour guide for Tuscany Tours, who recently wrote Turning Tuscan: A Step-by-Step Guide to Going Native, a book that changes the rule of what a "guide" should be.

The book itself has a certain casual and friendly prose, almost as if Hilt himself were reading to you and walking you through various places in Italy. His first-person style gives it a genial tone that never sounds like braggadocio.

As an expert in Renaissance art, Hilt will take you on narrative walks with him, not just through museums and countrysides but to local families sharing meals. In fact, his chapter on Eating Rituals has some amusing and insightful moments that The Daily Meal has excerpted below.

"The chapter doesn't deal with specific recipes or rave about how wonderful Alfredo's lasagna was," said Hilt. "My focus is on the rituals surrounding food in Tuscany: the unwritten rules around when, what and how people relate to their meals."

"Much has been written about the glories of Italian cuisine,” he goes on to add. “And the passion that all Italians share for eating very well whenever possible is hardly a secret. What is less well known are some of the rituals that Italians observe around what, how and when they eat. Since virtually everyone follows these unwritten rules, it's something that native Italians never notice and certainly couldn't tell you about. As a foreigner exploring this terrain, it's when you unwittingly commit a faux pas that you begin to discover that there actually are rules. Welcome to the ritual mysteries of eating in Italy."

Turning Tuscan is literate, gracious, and touching at times and feels like a very well-written, nuanced journal. There are even poems by his wife, Pamela.

Excerpt from Turning Tuscan: A Step-by-Step Guide to Going Native:

Eating Rituals
In many of the places that one travels, it seems that people enjoy similar things: music and films, food and wine, and the other good things in life. Certain people, however, may take a special interest in one of life’s pleasures. For example, people who can tell you the names of supporting actors in a movie you saw fifteen years ago along with the names of other films by the same director might be described as “film buffs”. What’s unique about Italy is that the percentage of the population that might be described as “food buffs” is probably somewhere around 99.6%.

In the bigger cities where there are tourists aplenty, you can find some mediocre restaurants. They know that as long as they keep their doors open, the flies will come in and the day-trippers are quite likely to follow. In the smaller towns and villages, and in the countryside, the restaurants are always good. If they weren’t, no one would come to eat there, and they would go broke in the course of a season.

Even the chain restaurants along the freeways often have delicious entrées. Imagine having a shrimp risotto at an Autogrill where the shrimp are sautéed and blended with the rice and broth right before your eyes in few minutes for a mouth-watering dish. It may not be quite as good as a first-rate restaurant risotto, but it beats a fried clam sandwich at Howard Johnson’s any day of the week.

There’s a little town near us of about 1500 people where I often stop for my morning coffee after dropping off the girls at school. The proprietor of the local café-bar was a gracious woman named Bruna whose untimely passing was mourned by the whole town. I remember the first time I complemented her on her coffee and asked if it might be possible to purchase some to take home with me. She told me that they were running a bit low, but that she could order some extra for me for the following week. I asked if it was a particular brand that I might be able to buy at the market. She smiled and grabbed a scoop, then returned a moment later with her scoop filled with coffee beans. There are the four different beans that I mix. The dark ones give the coffee its kick. These are the ones that give it body. The little ones like this one give it a pungent flavor. And then I mix in a sprinkling of these to sweeten it just a touch.” I’m standing there in a mild state of shock and astonishment when she adds the kicker:

“And of course I vary the grind every day based on the barometric pressure. When it’s raining or about to rain, the moisture in the air makes the coffee less absorbent so I always use a finer grind.”

This is small town Tuscany. Think about having a cup of Bruna’s coffee. Then, think about that pot of Farmers Brothers that was made for lunch and is still on the burner at 4 pm when you walk in.

Rather than continuing to rave about the marvels of Italian cooking and the sophistication of Italian appreciation of food, I want to veer off into a less explored direction—the rituals surrounding preparation and eating of foods. It’s one of those areas that requires a certain depth of cultural immersion before it begins to become visible.

***

"Breakfast served 24 hours a day”. It’s a sign you’ll find in small cafés and truck stops all over America. You won’t find a single one in Italy.

Breakfast is eaten only in the morning and typically consists of coffee and a sweet roll. By noon many of the bars have been cleaned out of their pastries except for a few odd strays. It’s not like Starbucks or Peets where you can get an apple-walnut muffin to go with your whipped-cream mocha any time you like. In our part of Italy, near Siena, people have lunch starting between 12:00 and 1 p.m., and dinner starts any time between 8:00 and 9:30 p.m. By and large, everybody from pierced-lip teenagers to tottering elders eats at these times. If you walk through our village at 1:30 on a summer afternoon when the shutters are closed but the windows are open, you’ll hear lively conversation and the scraping of spoons on plates from every kitchen window. At that time, and for the next couple of hours, no one is outside. An elderly woman who is hard of hearing has her television set turned up rather loud, but apart from her the streets are empty and silent.

In addition to broadly shared mealtimes, convention also embraces the ways in which food is prepared. Unlike French cuisine, with its intricacy and intellectual complexity, Tuscan dishes are based on the use of very few ingredients, simply combined. What makes the food wonderful is the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the careful balancing of flavors, and the perfect timing with which everything is prepared and served. The menus that you see in restaurants throughout Tuscany are virtually interchangeable: mixed crostini, gnocchi with pesto, tortellini in broth, grilled sausage, torta della nonna. People generally patronize a particular locale because they prefer the way they make their favorite, familiar foods.

The conventionality of cuisine very much resembles the carefully honored conventions in Tuscan religious art. The artist’s ingenuity, like the chef’s, lies in taking the familiar elements and creating a variation on the theme, one that honors the tradition while bringing a special flavor to it. In the light of this discipline and restraint, one begins to appreciate T.S. Eliot’s description of radical originality as the hallmark of a second-rate mind.
When we come back to California and go out to eat, we always chuckle when we read the menus in our native language where each entrée description has at least one or two words that we’ve never seen before. As the name implies, our Nouvelle Cuisine caters to our insatiable appetite for novelty.

***

During one of our first seasons in Tuscany, we ate panzanella at a friend’s house and asked how it was made. We were given a careful summary of the basic ingredients and how they should be put together, along with the explanation that this was a traditional peasant dish. With the help of some diced up tomatoes, sautéed onions and a bit of parsley, our dried-out bread could be recycled to provide a tasty summer salad.

And so, my wife, Pam, threw some rock-hard bread in a large bowl to soak, sautéed the onions and garlic, tossed in the parsley and other ingredients and made a delicious panzanella. The next day, as we sat with the others under the chestnut tree, she shared the news of her success. Everyone was interested to hear the details of how she made it. They followed along, blow by blow, nodding and smiling, until she mentioned the garlic.

“Garlic?” they asked in disbelief. “You put in garlic?”

“Yes, I did.” she confessed somewhat taken aback. “Is there a problem with putting in garlic?”

But everyone just laughed and shook their heads. “You don’t put garlic in a panzanella!”

We tried to explore the whys and wherefores, but it was a fruitless endeavor. They seemed to be vaguely amused about being pressed for an explanation, the way you might feel when your two-year-old asks why she shouldn’t use her sleeve for a tissue. “It’s just not done.”

Cappuccino after dinner was another one of the local taboos we violated regularly until our friend, Angela, quietly took us aside one day. She asked how we could possibly want to have such a heavy, milk drink after a big meal. And hadn’t we noticed that Italians never drink cappuccino after dinner? Coming from the land of Starbucks where people order grande vanilla lattes or venti frappuccinos whenever they damn well please, I was a bit incredulous. But once we began to pay attention, we did in fact notice that Italians drank cappuccinos mostly for breakfast and occasionally in the late morning. And no one, absolutely no one, ever drank them after dinner—except for the foreign tourists.

You could challenge the logic behind this rejection of cappuccino after dinner by pointing to the rich creamy desserts like tiramisu or panna cotta that Italians certainly do eat after dinner. But that would be to miss the point. The reason no one drinks cappuccino after dinner is really because “it’s just not done”.

When we compare and contrast the cultures, we realize that, as Americans, we very much like to make up the rules as we go. We aspire to define our own style and follow our own inner guidance systems, and we’ve learned to be generally disdainful of social conformity in matters large and small.

Many of our images of the human collective, particularly out in the West, have been appropriated from herding and ranching practices. The cowboy and his horse are the solitary ones who have the intelligence and the upper hand. The sheep and the cattle huddle close together, look to each other for cues, and wind up in the slaughterhouse. We’ve learned which side to identify with in this contest between the individual and the collective. And since the horse is our ally in this quest, we could never imagine eating horses. Our rituals support individualism and initiative just as other cultural practices strengthen the sense of being an integral part of the collective.

Instead of seeing them as sheep or cattle, I prefer to imagine the Tuscans as a flock of birds. Though they might fly off occasionally on their own, they usually stay close and take comfort in one another’s presence. They enjoy the feeling of being connected, of facing the world in a shared stance, of having a safety net of community to catch them should they fall.

After our seasons in Tuscany, whenever we return to the States, we poignantly feel the ruggedness of our individualism. We’re on our own in America, for better and for worse, in ways that are still unknown and unimagined in the villages of Tuscany.

Excerpt courtesy of Tuscany Tours.


Eating Out in Italy

Eating a leisurely Italian meal is one of the pleasures of traveling in Italy! Italians take food very seriously. Each region, and sometimes even a city (like Rome), will have regional specialties that they are very proud of. Your experience might be enhanced by telling your waiter that you want to try the specialties. Understanding how Italians traditionally eat will help you get the most out of your travel experience.


The Basics for Tuscany

Like all Italian cuisine, Tuscan cooking is based upon using the most fresh and simple ingredients of the season including many legumes, cheeses, vegetables and fruits. Typical dishes are based upon what Tuscans find fresh and local at the market that week, making them often very easy to prepare and involving few ingredients. Although the food may be simple, it is rich in flavor, very hearty and quite filling. All meals are served accompanied by the regional bread: a white, plain, unsalted loaf. This tradition dates back to the 16th century when there was a tax put on salt, changing the way locals thought about baking bread. This old tradition of unsalted bread has carried on and now marks Tuscan bread apart from other regions in Italy. It may seem flavorless at first but its real job is to soak up all the leftover juices left on your place, giving it all the flavor it needs and leaving your bread basket empty at the end of the meal.

The bread is also flavored by using a variety of ingredients for crostini such as crostini di fegatini (liver paté) or the simple and delicious fettunta, a grilled slice of bread with garlic, olive oil and salt. The fettunta is a great way to take your hand at olive oil tasting too - there is nothing better than unsalted bread to truly indulge in the pure flavor of local olive oil, which is the base for all Tuscan dishes. Other appetizers that you will commonly come across are wooden cutting boards covered with cured meats which include prosciutto, lard from "Colonnata" and different types of sausages, all cured for long periods of time creating distinct, rich flavors. A wonderful place to get a taste of Tuscan bread and different crostoni is at Fuori Porta, a wonderful restaurant in the area of San Niccolò, just before heading up to Piazzale Michelangelo with great outdoor seating and a long wine menu. They are famous for their crostoni, which is a larger version of a crostini topped with either set ingredients or with whatever you please such as roasted ham, mozzarella, fresh tomatos and porcini mushrooms.


When I feel stressed out, I feel all throughout my body – so it’s imperative to combat it.

You can be eating well, but if your mind isn’t on the same wavelength, you’ll never feel your best. It’s a mutualistic relationship – if you’re stressed, it will affect your gut and digestive health. For me, if I have anxiety, I feel it all in my stomach to the point that I don’t even want to eat on the off-chance that I’ll get sick. On the flip-side, your gut health directly affects your mood too. It’s a balancing act that I know I’ll be working on for my entire life, but it’s a worthy cause!

Combating stress is a major thing that so many people struggle with. Most of us really don’t know how to balance work and personal life, and I hate to say it, but it’s one of my worst problems. When everything came to a head and I felt worn down beyond function years ago, I had to force myself to stop thinking about work after hours, and learn how to be more present at home… and that wasn’t just for me! I needed to be more mentally present in Jade’s life, too, and not be worried about work while spending quality time with each other. Everyone in your life will appreciate a more balanced version of yourself – and yes, counter-intuitively, that includes the people you work with and for.

For me, it took awhile to find out what works to de-stress, as it might for you too. I resisted meditation for so long… to be frank, my mind just doesn’t shut up. Instead, I slowly started to incorporate quiet time wherever I could – even if it was just pausing for a moment in a corner of the bathroom or in my closet. Now, I find that sort of mindfulness in many activities. In your daily routine, take notice of what things bring you the most joy and peace. Your time for mindfulness can be anything! Here are a few of my favorite ways to feel grounded and calm every single day – and maybe some of them might help you combat stress, too.

Taking Bruno for a quiet and relaxing walk. My animals are my happy place. Being able to take Bruno out on a quiet walk is such a great time for me to decompress. I used to sometimes look at it as a chore that stressed me out a bit – I’d think, I have to rush through this to get back to work – but now I’ve flipped that idea on its head.

The act of cooking a meal for my family (without the cameras!) Cooking really is my ultimate form of meditation. It’s a creative act that’s full of love. Baking, in particular, is very therapeutic to me – which is probably why when quarantine began, I couldn’t stop baking constantly!

Drawing a bath at the end of a long day. Is there anything more relaxing? Curate a lovely environment for yourself – with music and candles, if you like – and just allow yourself some solid time to soak in the hot water. It gets your body ready for sleep and, for me, it helps feel like the stresses of the day are literally “washing away”.

A skincare routine. This might sound a little silly, but bear with me. Everyone makes fun of me for how long my nighttime skincare routine takes, but it’s not just about the wellness of my skin – it’s about my wellness, too. It’s my daily ritual that gets me relaxed and ready for bed, and it’s something really nice I make sure to always do for myself.

Deep breaths. A good way to calm down is just taking a deep breath through your stomach. A good belly breath! It’s the expansion of allowing yourself to let go, breathe into your stomach. So many of us, especially women, were always taught to “suck it in” – stop sucking it in, ladies! Let it out, really relax, and work it out. Let your whole stomach expand with your breath. It gets everything flowing in your body and reminds you to relax.

Put your feet on the floor and feel them there! When I wake up in the morning, especially if I’m facing a day that brings me a bit of anxiety, I make a point to plant my feet on the ground before I fully get out of bed. It’s really just a grounding technique – I plant my feet there and I feel and notice them while taking a few deep breaths. It takes just a minute, but it kicks off my day with a better mindset.

Move your body – even if it’s something super low impact and simple. Exercise can be one of those daunting things that’s always changing trends, but listen – you don’t need to commit to any kind of class, gym membership, or super involved regimen. My doctor literally told me once to just do some jumping jacks when I’m feeling stressed out – or even just shake my body and do a dance! (Feeling a little silly is a good thing sometimes!) On a scientific level, when you’re full of anxiety, your body is experiencing a biological fight-or-flight response to a situation. Making yourself work out in some capacity raises your heart rate and literally takes you out of that mindset.

What are some of your favorite ways to combat stress every day? Let us know in the comments below!


All the Droolworthy Food Seen on Bobby and Giada in Italy

All episodes of Bobby and Giada in Italy are available to stream now only on discovery+.

At the Table in Italy

Feast your eyes on all the savory and sweet delicacies Bobby and Giada ate while traveling in Rome and Tuscany. Then watch every episode, streaming now only on discovery+!

A Casual Lunch

Simple but spectacular, this pizza bianca is stuffed with rich and flavorful thinly sliced mortadella.

Room for More

From classic to creative, there's no shortage of gelato flavors at Otaleg in Rome.

Classic Roman Flavor

There are four pastas that define Roman cuisine. One is carbonara, pictured here at Santo Palato. Can you guess the other three?

Answer: Gricia, Amatriciana and Cacio e Pepe

Incredible Technique

Chef Stefano Callegari of Sforno made a cacio e pepe-inspired pizza for Bobby and Giada. His secret? A few ice cubes on top of the first layer of cheese, which help regulate the temp while in the oven.

Feasting with Friends

Bobby and Giada ordered all four classic Roman pastas while lunching with their friends. Peek at the cacio e pepe and amatriciana here &mdash and prepare to drool!

Balanced Choice

In Italy, even a "small" order of gelato can include more than one flavor. This one features scoops of creamy chocolate and tart raspberry.

Perfectly Simple

Humble butter and anchovies are the key ingredients in this beloved pasta dish at Rome's Roscioli.

Antipasto Tasting

After browsing a local market, Bobby put together a quick-fix crostini featuring sweet eggplant and herbs.

Pick Your Piece

With big trays of pizza on display at La Renella , each customer can decide how big or small of a slice he or she'd like.

Fresh Picks

Ripe and oh-so-sweet, these ruby-red figs will soon be made into gelato at Fatamorgana.

Made from Scratch

See how yellow that fresh pasta is? It's because the egg yolks in Italy are so incredibly vibrant.

Savory Meets Sweet

Rosemary focaccia is an Italian staple, but Giada and Chef Giancarla Bodoni took that one step further while cooking at Monteverdi in Tuscany. They added tender grapes atop the bread for a sweet, juicy bite.

Hidden Surprises

Moist mortadella-studded meatballs are nestled below bright-green pistachio sauce to create one of Giada's all-time favorite bites in Rome.


Cantina Do Spade

To embark on a cicchetti crawl in Venice without trying Do Spade’s polpetta di spianata calabra would be like visiting San Marco and overlooking the basilica. It’s a meatball, but, oh, what a meatball: fiery Calabrian sausage mashed with smoked cheese and potatoes, and lightly breaded and fried. “We wanted to open a cicchetteria that serves more than open-faced sandwiches,” explained Francesco Munarini, a former bank executive who opened Do Spade a decade ago with his wife, Pilar, and sister , Giovanna. (The storefront has housed an osteria since 1488.) Inspired by the Rialto fish market nearby, the Munarini family decided to specialize in seafood seasoned with the big-flavored spices that made the fortunes of Venetian traders for centuries.

In quick succession, I downed calamari ripieni (tender squid stuffed with olives and bread crumbs), fiori de zucca farciti con baccalà mantecato (fried squash flowers filled with creamed codfish), moscardini in umido (stewed baby octopus), la buzara (scampi simmered in ginger- and pepper-piqued tomato sauce) and what may well be the best sarde in saór in Venice. The local-leaning wine list is ecumenical enough to include bottles from Istria, now part of Croatia, but which belonged to Italy before World War II. Recognizable by the crossed sabers in the window and spillover crowds in the alleyway, Do Spade (“Two Swords”) offers seating in a warren of simply decorated blue rooms, but most customers prefer to eat standing by the open kitchen or in the street.

Cantina Do Spade, San Polo 859, Calle do Spade cantinadospade.com


If you're a foodie, chances are you'll come to Tuscany. This region, where you'll find Florence, produces some seriously good food, from steaks to stews and everything in between. One of the most common street foods here is a lampredotto sandwich. Brace yourself: It's cow stomach. Sounds gross, but it's cooked in a broth and served with a rich tomato sauce inside a fresh crusty roll. It tastes amazing, once you get past what you're eating.

The food of this northern region is influenced a lot by the borders it shares with Austria — traditional dishes include a lot of meats and stews. But when it comes to desserts, this is one of the best places in Italy. The apple strudel made here is off-the-charts good, with delicate pastry and just the right amount of flavor.


Book Review: Eating My Way Through Italy

When I first moved to Italy in 1984, there were a couple of Italian guide books with an emphasis on eating in Italy. Often food is a part of a guide book, but for people like me, often the destination is all about the food.

Recently I received a review copy of my friend Elizabeth Minchilli’s new Italian food guide book, Eating My Way Through Italy. Like myself, Elizabeth is an American expat, living in Rome. Her love affair goes back to when her parent’s moved the family to Rome to live and then her returning to study in Florence, where she met her husband. When she was doing research for her app EAT ITALY, we joined her on her eating research, sharing some of our favorite places in and around Florence. You will read about it in the book too.

I read the book like a novel and finished it in two days.

She has written many books and articles on all things Italian. Recently she began a food blog and running food tours in Rome. Right now she is on tour in the USA promoting this new book.

If you get a chance, attend one of her events, here is the list for her events in the USA.


Click on the book cover for link to order now!

I adore how the book is written, not simply a guidebook, but rather a personal journal about places she has been, where she goes and a couple of recipes. PERFETTO. Elizabeth has already done a book on Rome, EAT ROME, and also has an app on where to eat in Italy, so this was a natural for her.

She covers these wonderful food destinations by region and their specialties with tips on where to enjoy the best of the area and then also gives you a few or her favorite recipes for you to have a taste in your own home. The best way to travel in Italy and enjoy the best food is to go where a local sends you. If that is the way you like to travel, then get this book. It is a trip around Italy. I am not sure if everyone knows, there is no such thing as Italian cooking, but rather regional cooking. Italy was only united in the 1860’s and still today, recipes don’t travel.

This book will give you an insight into those regional recipes. Traveling in Italy with food in mind is really like a giant treasure hunt! Each region has it’s specialties which you don’t want to miss. Menu’s maybe repetitive in one region, such as always seeing the Bistecca alla Fiorentina and Arista in Tuscany, but you won’t find them on the menu in other regions. Elizabeth has given you a very personal list of places to go, things to do and where and what to eat, simply sharing some of her favorites. This culinary trip takes you to Venice, Milano, Emilia Romagna, Florence, Rome of course, Umbria , Naples, Puglia, Sardegna and Sicily. Just a taste.

I have made a couple of recipes from the book, her Pugliese mother-in-law’s octopus recipe, which is also how I cook mine, with no water. These are the recipes you want to know how to make! Even though this is a guide book, the recipes are a bonus.

Another specialty from Puglia which you need to know about is eating at the butchers. There are small restaurants called Fornelliwhich are meats cooked over the grill. When in Puglia going to these butcher owned restaurants is a MUST on my list too. Recently Elizabeth posted the recipe for the Bombette, small rolled pork involtini, filled with cheese and grilled which her daughter Sofie learned while apprenticing at a butcher shop.

I used pork shoulder pieces, cut thin and then pounded out. Salt and pepper, then small chunks of cheese, I used an semi aged pecorino, not caciocavallo and parsley. Then you wrap and roll the meat around the filling and grill.

Cook until you don’t see any pink meat. This is usually done over coal and the flavor is much more intense.

Small morsels of goodness! When you get these in Puglia, they are bitesize and served in a paper bag. It is normal to order several kinds for the table and then to share.

I am heading down to Puglia next month for a custom tour and will be sure to use some of Elizabeth’s tips!

Whenever you to somewhere that a friend sent you, be sure to let the restaurant know, you want to be treated like a friend, not a tourist.

So after reading Elizabeth’s book…. and heading to her favorite places, say Mi Manda Elisabetta ! Show them the book!

Travel like a local….. and be treated like one.

These shots are from a meal we had in a Fornello in Martina Franca. I am heading back in June with a group to Puglia so was inspired to do a recipe from there for you!

Remember I also have my Chianti app for those coming to Tuscany.!

Judy Witts Francini

Originally from California Tuscany has been my home since 1984. I found the city of Florence to hold all my passions, food, wine, art all in one place. I share these passions in my weeklong culinary programs, food market tours and on this blog. When I am not in Tuscany, I am often found in Sicily, my other favorite place to be. Always searching for recipes to share.

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Travel in Tuscany

How would it be to take a flight of fantasy to the Renaissance in the enchantment of a Florentine evening? Or to witness the legendary Palio? Author Erica Miner reveals this and more in her article:

Travels with My Lovers … An excerpt and exploration of Tuscany by Erica Miner.

A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from. – Lin Yutang

What does Traveling mean? Is it an experience beyond the six senses? How much of our Traveling experience is driven by our emotional reactions to the places we visit?

After all, sometimes your only transportation is a leap of faith. This phrase symbolizes the journey of my life: a voyage of self-discovery that inspired me to write my novel, Travels With My Lovers.

Years ago, I decided to fulfill my lifelong dream of Traveling to Europe. I started in Italy, for that was where I, a musician with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, could explore the roots of my beloved opera.

“In Italy,” I was told, “everything is an opera.” How very true, as I discovered. In my travels and encounters with Italians, whether sight-seeing, on the trains, drinking wine in the piazzas or visiting someone’s home, I observed the microcosm of Italian life that absolutely defines drama.

My experiences were so vivid that I captured them in journal form. Eventually, these journals became my novel about a woman’s journey to inner wisdom.

The wonders of Italy moved me deeply, heightening my senses in ways I had never imagined. The ancient towns, soulful music and fine art that surrounded me brought new psychic energy to my soul. I found a vast history, an inspiring culture and a joyous people and, as you will read in my novel, I also found romance – in the ultimate language of love.

Within these pages, I will share with you a few of my most precious moments from those experiences in Bell’Italia. But to get the whole story, you will want to read Travels With My Lovers and find out for yourself what enchantment awaited the unsuspecting protagonist in her pilgrimage to the birthplace of opera.

Travel in Tuscany. Ph. Jaromatik on depositphotos

Travel to Florence

Firenze (Florence) was, and will always be, my most beloved city – not just in Italy but in the world. When I left the train station and entered this magical world for the first time, I felt I had come home. Something about the orange cupolas, cobbled streets and burnished light felt familiar, as if I had spent a number of previous lifetimes there. I saw Firenze through my own eyes, my children’s eyes and the eyes of the charming Florentine man who captured my heart. It was he who introduced me to some treasures I would otherwise not have been able to discover…

…It was a festival night, and all of Florence was assembled in this famous square to witness a pageant of extraordinary proportions. Costumed knights on horses decked out in full Renaissance regalia paraded in front of the crowds huddled together on risers erected especially for the occasion.

Every bit of this hubbub seemed appropriate since the Piazza had long been thought of as the political heart of the city: a symbol of the prestige and greatness of the Florentine state.

The entire atmosphere created an indelible, unforgettable impression in me, and I became carried away with a fantasy of living the life of a citizen during the former glory of this enchanting city. I imagined myself as a Renaissance noblewoman of the Medici Court…betrothed to a handsome Florentine knight…

And there were more delights to discover: a unique open-air performance, by amateur musicians, of Verdi’s Vespri Siciliani overture, which could not have been experienced anywhere else but in Italy…

I let the music wash over me, its penetrating intensity evoking an opera plot full of intrigue, conspiracy, jealousy and lust for power.

Here was an overture bursting with swelling tunes, searing colors and intense images, which portrayed an event – the thirteenth-century Sicilian insurrection – that held an esteemed place in the history of Italy’s quest for independence and individuality. And here was I, celebrating its magnificence with its extraordinary citizens – and with Carlo, mio bene.

The few out-of-tune notes and other inaccuracies of the playing did nothing to detract from the exquisite feeling of experiencing the deep love of these devoted musicians for the music of their esteemed compatriot and composer, Verdi. And I recognized that henceforth, when I myself played this particular overture, its passion and expressiveness would incite feelings much more profound than any I had ever known in my musical life thus far.

It was not only the city itself, but its surroundings as well, which captured my writer’s imagination. How many travelers have fallen in love with Fiesole, for example?

As we drove the cypress-lined road into the hills of Fiesole, the scenery that unfurled before my eyes was spectacular, completely beyond my imagination. There were awe-inspiring views awaiting us at every turn, a continuous succession of unforgettable vistas across rows of shade trees and beautiful villas, the breathtaking carpet of green-covered hillocks and fiery-orange roofs that unwound in the ever-increasing distance behind us.

No wonder everyone loved Florence. I imagined myself back in the Renaissance, gazing at the same panorama with a handsome young Florentine at my side. I was suddenly brought back to an image of ancient Florence which I had seen in my guide book: young people clad in long, flowing silks strolling along a passageway with the Arno River in the background: a view which had remained unchanged over the past five centuries.

The approaching darkness added an element of mystery to the surroundings. The cypresses took on an air of intrigue. I was in a fantasy world of unimaginable beauty, with no idea what new adventure awaited me at the next bend in the road.


10 Healthy Food Hacks for Traveling Athletes

There is no reason for good nutrition or eating well to completely jump the tracks just because travel gets in your way.

It&rsquos all to easy to fall right into a nutritional pit fall at this time of year running around the mall, hopping around the country, flying all over the world visiting friends and family, making merry, eating that extra piece(s!) of pie, maybe even racing but enjoying all other treats that come with celebrating the season in between. Indulging here and there is expected, and almost welcome. But there is no reason for good nutrition or eating well to completely jump the tracks just because travel gets in your way.

With years of experience racing and traveling internationally, then jumping across states and seas to cook for athletes, I&rsquove learned a thing or two about eating well while on the road. What does this mean for me?

I&rsquove gone to great lengths to eat well on the go and some of the things I&rsquove done could be classified as food-freak status (traveling with a sous vide machine to make the perfect poached eggs in a hotel room?! Been there, done that. And there was that time I made rice cakes in a hotel room before the Rapha Prestige.) Other measures are only mostly-fanatical it goes without saying that I always scout out grocery stores and restaurants before I travel, if not so I know where the healthy options are, because I want to know where the delicious options are. (I mean, you wouldn&rsquot want to go to Paris without eating exceptional croissants, right?) My third grade self would have made fun of my in-flight lunch box, but my adult self is really glad not to be eating a suspect airport hamburger before a 5-hour flight.

The nutshell is this:

Having the intention of eating delicious, healthy food, (instead of embracing that you&rsquoll trip on all the snacking stumbling blocks,) is the first step to eating well on the road. If the desire to have good eats is there, then the forethought comes easily.

Below you&rsquoll find a few of my best healthy food hacks for athletes on the go. They all require you to think a bit, prepare a bit, and be resourceful wherever you are.

1. Pack snacks.

This seems obvious, but the best way to guard yourself from eating pitfalls while on the go is to plan ahead and pack some healthy snacks. Carrot sticks, a piece of fruit, trail mix, beef jerky and popcorn are all TSA friendly snacks that just require some forethought at the grocery store before your trip.

2. Stash like a healthy squirrel.

I keep pouches of Untapped Maple Syrup and Justin&rsquos Almond Butter in the pockets of my carry on at all times for when I don&rsquot have the forethought to pack stellar snacks. They never perish and take lame airport oatmeal, plain old toast, random bananas or apples, lattes, and all the low-blood-sugar crashes associated with travel, to the next level. I also always have single serving sticks of Skratch Labs Rescue Hydration in my pockets, ensuring that I don&rsquot dehydrate from long days in transit (and late nights celebrating with friends upon arrival!)

3. A Lunchbox.

Just do it. No one will laugh at you if you bring your Superman (or Superwoman!) lunchbox on the plane. In fact, your seat mates will likely be jealous because they&rsquoll be resigned to eating the lame in-flight meal or whatever they could grab from the airport kiosk. Any reusable container will do (whether its a multi-tiered gourmet travel case, or a reusable plastic bowl with a lid.) If you&rsquore a real fanatic, a collapsable freezer bag is a great option and will keep all your snacks just the right temperature until you enjoy them. (One of these once kept rice cakes cold all the way to Italy. Ahem.) A big glass jar will also do the trick. Now fill it with salads, a sandwich, whatever snacks you have on hand. Use that spork to eat leftover spaghetti or whatever strikes your fancy!

4. Ziploc bags.

Always. Don&rsquot want to invest in a lunchbox? Ziploc bags are just about as good. Fill them with leftover salad greens, your favorite hot oatmeal or breakfast cereal, or even a proper sandwich. Use them to carry ingredients you&rsquoll mix together with an empty cup, or pilfered bowl along your route. If they&rsquore clean once they&rsquore empty, stash them in your carry on they&rsquore super handy to have so you can fill them again for your return trip with fresh fruits, breakfast cereal, or grocery store snacks acquired on your trip.

5. TSA-Approved BYO Condiments.

Think those tiny squeeze bottles are just for inadequate amounts of shampoo? Think again. Pick up a couple of tiny plastic bottles and fill them with olive oil, lemon juice, or salad dressing. Pack them in your lunchbox to boost the flavor of whatever pre-packed or in-flight purchased snack. This is particularly handy to carry Bragg&rsquos Liquid Aminos, rice vinegar and maple syrup in 3oz sizes to make&hellip

6. Hotel Room Rice Cakes.

They will be yours, oh yes, they will be yours. IF you carry on and if you pack along the following equipment:
-a small rice cooker
-a rice paddle or spatula
-aluminum foil or better yet, Skratch Paper
Upon arrival, get yourself a disposable cookie sheet at the grocery store.

Rice cakes can be made in any flavor you wish. My favorite are the Bacon + Maple Almond Butter Rice Cakes, and to make them you&rsquoll need the following ingredients: 2 cups of uncooked calrose or medium-grain sticky rice in a ziploc bag, 8 oz of precooked chopped bacon in a ziploc bag, 1/2 cup of almond butter in a sealed jar, and 2-3oz tiny shampoo bottles filled with soy sauce or Bragg&rsquos Liquid aminos, lemon juice, maple syrup and a small bag of big flake sea salt such as Maldon sea salt.

Cook the rice in the rice cooker. Season the rice to taste with the Bragg&rsquos, lemon and maple in the bowl of the rice cooker. Then add the almond butter to the rice, mix to combine. Spread a layer of rice to cover the bottom of the cookie sheet, sprinkle with chopped bacon, then cover with another layer of rice. Cut. Wrap. High five self &mdash you just made rice cakes in a hotel room.

7. Pilfer the coffee shop.

Empty coffee cups are great resources for wherever you&rsquore headed, pack a ziploc bag of your favorite hot cereal ingredients (mine are oats, chia, cacao nibs and roasted almonds.) Hit the road. When you find a coffee shop in your airport terminal or along your road trip route, stop to ask for:
&ndash two hot cups (one filled with hot water or milk, and one empty,)
-one coffee cup lid
-and a spoon (unless you have your spork on you. Genius! High five!)

Dump the hot cereal ingredients into the empty cup, fill with water, cover with a lid and let steep 5 minutes or so. Eat with spoon. Not down with hot cereal? Add granola and slice a banana into the cup, add milk. Eat. Give self high five &ndash your breakfast is WAAAAY better than one of those gross muffins in the pastry case. You can also use those empty cups to mix together whatever ingredients you&rsquove been keeping in those little ziploc bags&hellip.

8. Hack your hotel room.

Chances are, you have a mini fridge, an ice bucket, and maybe even one of those single cup coffee makers. There might be a toaster in the continental breakfast set up. Get yourself to the grocery store and stock your mini fridge with boxed salad greens, fresh fruits, individual servings of hot cereal or soup, and good quality bread. You can mix up a big salad in the ice bucket, use the coffee maker to brew hot water for hot cereal or soup, and you can port sliced bread to the toaster to make lovely sandwiches with avocado, or ham or whatever you have on hand. Still have those Untapped Maple + Justin&rsquos Almond Butter packets? Your toast just went beyond continental. Need a knife, bottle opener or other kitchen utensil? Don&rsquot be afraid to call the front desk. Any hotel with a continental breakfast (much less a restaurant) will have what you need and they&rsquoll likely be too curious to deny your request.

9 . Easy Eggs in Your Hotel Coffee Maker.

Remember that coffee maker that basically collects dust in your hotel room? You can make eggs in there. Simply place two eggs in the coffee pot, fill the reservoir with water and turn on the machine. Start a timer once the eggs are completely covered in water. Allow to stand 15 minutes for soft boiled eggs, and 30 minutes for hard boiled eggs. You can also use that coffee maker to make rice, steamed veggies and even poach salmon&hellip(!!)

10. Prepare something portable.

And delicious. Emptying my refrigerator and making something truly tasty is one of my favorite travel rituals. Here are a few of my favorite recipes that are carry-on approved:


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