I confess. I love to eat. Let me clarify. I love to eat good food. I enjoy eating said good food, surrounded by those I care about, those who are family and or friends, or simply those who equally enjoy good food and good company. Maybe it’s a quiet evening at home with a well planned out home cooked meal. Maybe it’s a festive time out at a Michelin Five star restaurant. Maybe it’s an unctuous cup of Gelato enjoyed on a street corner in Italy on a hot summer day—good food is often the highlight of the day no matter where or when it is enjoyed. And yes, the blessing of being able to have food, good or bad, is a graciousness that does not go unnoticed. As gratefulness and thankfulness abound.
I put as much planning into where to eat during a travel trip as I do to which hotel I choose for a stay. Often times the well-laid plans of mice and this woman will fall away to a need for spontaneity, leaving way to finding a special place for a special meal on a wing and a prayer. Almost always experienced with memorable results.
I’m reminded of the most delightful little restaurant in Florence. My dear friends the Papinis, who run a very old Florentine leather business (http://papinileather.com/), suggested a very small restaurant just around the corner from their business. My aunt and I wandered in, or I should say down, into a tiny dinning room of an ancient building in an alleyway just off of the small Piazza del Pesce right by the Ponte Vecchio. Realizing that, due to the small dinning room, reservations were a must, as the restaurant’s popularity with locals and tourists alike was abounding—we made reservations for later that evening.
By the time of our reservations, the small dinning room was filling quickly. A husband and wife team, along with a small array of cooks and waiters, ran the restaurant. There was a group of raucous ladies from Texas sitting at a table across from us. A quiet couple form Spain sat next to us. I tend to lean towards Pappadelle with boar sauce as a main course when in Florence, so this particular evening was to be no different. I’m not certain as to why that is—I just find it indulgent as well as most satisfying.
The highlight, however, was the plate of fried squash blossoms. Light and delectable. Reminiscent of fried okra (a “southern thang”). They were so divine that we ordered one more plate prior to ordering desert. There was good reason as to why I ate a bottle of Tums before going to bed that evening as I have never been so “stuffed”…. just thinking about it makes me smile, as well as a little queasy…
And then there is the velvety smooth warm tomato flan I had in Cortona, Italy. Cortona is home to the University of Georgia’s Visual Arts summer abroad program. It is also home to Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun fame. Cortona is a quaint and ancient hilltop medieval town in southern Tuscany.
Perched atop the main piazza in town sits a small yet delightful restaurant, La Grotta. My aunt and I had a table sitting along the ledge overlooking the Piazza della Republica, which is the location for our friend Marco Molesini’s wine shop. His family runs a deli/grocery store and he runs the wine shop—shipping wines, vinegars, olive oils, cheese and meats all the world over (http://www.molesini-market.com/). Much to my surprise when I walked into his shop, he was sporting a Georgia Bulldog T shirt—seems Marco attended the University of Georgia and is an official Bulldog just like me—an instant friend bound by the Dawgs found an ocean away!
It is here that on a warm summer’s evening one my sip fruity Tuscan Chianti wines while watching the swallows (chimney swifts) darting about the courtyard like Japanese zeros honing in on an unforeseen target. The peace that settles in over this small town is heavenly. Families, with their young children in tow, gathered below us, meeting together before deciding where to head off for a fine meal. I was completely content in this moment.
I had ordered the tomato flan and my aunt the Burschetta. Both prepared with the freshest vine ripened tomatoes, freshly picked aromatic basil and the peppery local olive oil that Tuscany is so famous for.
Not only were they both strikingly vibrant with vivid color stimulants for the eye, the taste buds were equally rewarded with the bursts of fresh flavor. The flan arrived in a small dish sitting is a puddle of warm basil infused olive oil. The first bite was nothing short of magical. The setting also helped add to the magically surreal moment.
If it is a sweet one seeks, Zurich is home to Sprungli’s Chocolates/Café (Lindt Chocolates). It was here, this past September, while on the “Great Retirement Adventure”, that my aunt, my friend Melissa and I all found out what chocolate is truly all about.
We had just arrived in town after a long overnight flight. It was still early morning and we were hungry. Who says you can’t eat chocolate for breakfast? Of course there was coffee ordered so that may qualify our meal of Chocolate mouse cakes, our first breakfast meal in Switzerland, as acceptable. One bite of this light, tongue coating smooth concoction of cream, sugar, chocolate, vanilla–an amalgamation of goodness—one will never be the same.
We were in Zurich for a day and a half and visited Sprunglis’ multiple times. They do offer “real” food as well, besides the myriads of pastries, pies, cakes, macrons, and chocolate, but why bother?! Oh I could go on but there will be a posting later on such treats……….
And then there is the fellowshipping.
I have always believed in good company with a good meal. I also prefer being the one whose preparing the meal. I just feel more comfortable doing all of the work I suppose—not that I’m a martyr by any means—just enjoy cooking for those I care for, or for those I don’t really know.
All during my tenure as a teacher, it always seemed as if we were having some sort of shower or party after school celebrating something, anything. There were showers to celebrate the impending marriage of either a teacher or the grown child of a teacher. Showers for a young pregnant teacher or for the coming of a grandbaby for an older teacher.
We had “parties” for the faculty if we, as a school,were to be receiving some honor or accolade. We welcomed new administrators with cake and punch and said good-bye to our retirees with a luncheon. You name it, we gathered together to celebrate at any possible opportunity. And I was always happiest when working behind the scenes of these events.
When the time came for my own good-byes, it was to be no different. I had to be the one cooking and preparing. I told the ladies of the school that we would “feast and fellowship” at my house once school was finished for the year. Of course we had the end of year luncheon at school where I was truly humbled by the display of “good-byes”, but it was the feast and the fellowship shindig at my house, with all of the school’s ladies, that was most memorable. In order to protect the identities of all involved, I will say no more 🙂 Trust me, however, when I say that a good time was truly had by all. My salad niçoise and muddled peach juleps—marvelous…. but I digress.
A few years back, when scoping out my Bon Appetite Magazine, I always enjoyed reading the back page. On the back page, the Magazine always highlighted some famous person, always asking about their idea of a good meal, what were the 3 most important things in their refrigerator, and my most favorite question, “what 3 people from history would you invite to dinner?” I’ve always thought about this question wishing someone would ask me the same thing.
Well since you’ve asked, I’ll tell you.
I’ve thought about this question for years. At first I thought about asking some really big name world changer…. Gandhi. But then I thought better of that as he would most likely be on a hunger strike and not interested in feasting or fellowshipping. I couldn’t ask Mother Teresa as she would admonish me letting me know in no uncertain terms that I should be feeding those in need in my community rather than preparing a special meal for her (now I’m rethinking this whole idea).
There is, however one individual, who I know would not only enjoy feasting on a good meal, but he would enjoy taking center stage of conversation, taking the fellowshipping to an all time high. My hero, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill. I would also have to ask my other hero. Father Karol Wojtyla, otherwise known as Pope John Paul II. Two vastly different men but two men I would love to listen to in person, basking in the knowledge and blessing received by being in their presence.
But who will be my third dinner guest? Julia Child? No, her vivacious personality would sway all of the attention of my gentlemen guests in her direction. I would hate being jealous of Julia. What about my hero Margaret Thatcher? No. I fear she would dominate conversation with Winston regarding policies of Great Britton during both of their respective times in office leaving me to feel left out. No fun being left out at your own dinner party.
No, I won’t ask another female. I’ll be selfish. But who…. hummm…Ahhhh…what’s a fine meal without a little good French food and wine? Who would most appreciate French Food (besides Julia)? Napoleon Bonaparte—the little Corsican general and self crowned French Emperor! Who, oddly enough, I so admire. A ladies man to be sure. Charming and polite. However, upon meeting Churchill, that genteel demeanor would most quickly vanish.
Winston and Fr. Wojtyla, will no doubt, talk about the War (remember the War is always WWII). But once Napoleon shows up for the evening, Winston will be in rare form. He will parley with the “little general” taunting him with his study of Wellington and of Russia. Playing up the eventual defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo to a crushing crescendo to my dinner guest’s dismal dismay—and loving every minute of it.
But knowing Napoleon, he will not remain silent, fighting to the end. It will be at this moment that I will ask Fr. Wojtyla if he would like to leave the military campaign behind in order to depart with me to a quiet room, only to enjoy a last glass of wine and discus his latest views of the plight of man. I would sit in rapture and in awe of this bigger than life man, mystic and soon to be saint. That would be a most special evening indeed.
I cannot leave you pondering the joys (and sometimes the tragedies) of feasting and fellowshipping without leaving you something a bit tangible from today’s discourse. You must have a recipe. It is an almost fail proof recipe for a country round loaf of delightfully rustic bread. Now I have had some measured success with a recipe that included the whole yeast, rise, knead, rise some more boule type round…but to be on the safe side we’ll go with this William Sonoma choice. I usually make this for Easter as it has the light hint of Rosemary, the herb of “remembrance” and lemon, which harkens to the renewal of Spring and warmth.
No better ingredient to a true feasting of fellowship then the breaking of the bread, together. The ancient and time honored tradition of hospitality, sacrifice and everlasting Hope…
Rosemary-Lemon No-Knead Bread
This bread is almost effortless to make because it requires no kneading. Instead, the dough is allowed to slowly rise over a long period of time. Then it is baked in a preheated covered cast-iron pot, which helps produce a crispy, bakery-style crust on the finished loaf.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1 3/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
2 tsp. chopped lemon zest
Cornmeal as needed
In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, salt, rosemary and zest. Add 1 5/8 cups water and stir until blended; the dough will be shaggy and very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at warm room temperature (about 70°F) until the surface is dotted with bubbles, 12 to 18 hours.
Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle the dough with a little flour and fold the dough over onto itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel, preferably a flour sack towel (not terry cloth), with cornmeal. Put the dough, seam side down, on the towel and dust with more flour or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise until the dough is more than double in size and does not readily spring back when poked with a finger, about 2 hours.
At least 30 minutes before the dough is ready, put a 2 3/4-quart cast-iron pot in the oven and preheat the oven to 450°F.
Carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over, seam side up, into the pot; it may look like a mess, but that is OK. Shake the pan once or twice if the dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until the loaf is browned, 15 to 30 minutes more.
Transfer the pot to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Using oven mitts, turn the pot on its side and gently turn the bread; it will release easily. Makes one 1 1/2-lb. loaf.
Adapted from Sullivan Street Bakery (New York City) and Mark Bittman, "The Secret of Great Bread: Let Time Do the Work," The New York Times, Nov. 8, 2006.