Italian Fig Cake

End of  June, as we enter July,  figs are in full season here. Although I have never been quite a fan of dried figs, fresh figs are a little better and I was curious how they would taste like baked in a cake.  So here we go…!

150 g of butter softened (or 100 g of light vegetable oil)
4 large eggs room temp
120 g sugar
a pinch  of salt
1 grated lemon peel
250g plain flour
1 tsp of baking powder
50 g milk
350g fresh figs

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and line  a round baking tin with baking paper.

If using butter, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Then add in the eggs and whisk it for another 2 mins before adding the lemon peel.

* If using oil, beat the eggs, sugar and salt together until thick and creamy about 5 mins on high speed – afterwhich then blend in the oil and continue whisking for 2 mins. Add the grated lemon peel.

Sieve the dry ingredients and add in 2 portions alternately with the milk, into the egg/butter mixture folding well.  Pour the batter into the prepared tin.  Add the fresh figs that have been peeled, sliced on the top of the batter. Bake the cake for about 40mins or until the skewer when inserted comes out clean.
fig cake

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Rome – Day 1

colosseo

I said this before and I will say it again – “Rome was not built in a day, so it was not possible to see Rome in 3 days either!” Essentially Rome for 3 days was possible but you have not seen her properly. If you are rushed for time, like we were and you have only got 3 days – you have to plan your time and sights carefully!

Hotel – through last minute.com we found a 5 star hotel (Hotel Aldrovandi Palace, by Borghesse park in the quiet and affluent neighbourhood of Parioli) with a decent deal, where you stay 4 nights you get one night free. So on an average night it came out to be about €210 per night including taxes and breakfast. The hotel’s location although a little far from downtown where the action and sights were, is still alright. We had a car with us and the hotel has its own parking complimentary for hotel guests and that was mainly the deciding factor. The hotel provided free shuttle bus ride to the Spanish Steps each day every 30 mins. Driving in downtown Rome can be rather nail biting especially if you are unfamiliar with the roads. Smart cars everywhere , they are worse than the scooters/mopeds. Decision made, hotel was ok for our needs.

breakfast

Verdict: By the way it also has the 1 michelin starred restaurant called ‘Baby’.  The hotel room is of a good size, clean and comfortable. The breakfast buffet was good.

Day 1 – Vatican City (22/10/2009)

st peters

I wasn’t sure if there will be long queues for the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel – it is October after all, but I did not want to take the chance as we were on a tight schedule, I bought the admission tickets online (€28 ticket + €8 booking fee for 2 adults) through the official vatican website http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html . As it turned out, on the day itself, the queues were not bad – probably a 15 minute wait all in all. So you could take the chance and come and queue up instead of buying them beforehand. I read that it is alright to do so if you are visiting on Tue-Thurs, but for Fri, Sat and Mon, the queues can be longer and crazier.

Some guidebooks say you will spend at least 3 hours , you can easily max out to 6-8 hours. We spent 6 hours plus a little more. So I suggest to make it a full day trip to the Vatican if you want to savour and really enjoy the Vatican’s art collection to your heart’s content. Although there are cafes in there, it may also be wise to bring some little snacks with you as we forgot to eat! Hahaha – yes but then suddenly we were starving, late in the afternoon – luckily we had muesli bars with us. We happily ate them and when our blood sugar level was up to normal again, we were refreshed and could continue on.

Here are some of the fantastic art pieces awaiting you especially by the Renaissance masters.

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Laocoon, 1st AD – studied by Michelangelo the human form and copied them inthe Sistine Chapel frescoes

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Raphael’s Transfiguration in Pinacoteca

the map room

The ceiling of The Map Room ( I was most fascinated by it) . Coordinated by Giralomo Muziano and Cesare Nebbia, together with a large group of artists, they made the ceiling frescoes. The decoration depicts a series of 80 episodes taken from the history of the Church and the lives of the Saints ; each episode is linked geographically to the region represented below it on the walls.

last judgemernt

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. If you look at the bottom right hand corner, you will see a man with his genitals bitten by the snake, that is  Biagio , a contemporary of Michelangelo who complained that there were too much nudity in the Sistine Chapel and insisted that these exposed parts should be painted over. Tongue in cheek, and fed up with Biagio’s complaints, Michelangelo painted Biagio with the snake mouth covering his private parts!

We ended the tour by entering the St Peter’s Basilica – impressive as it is, the church itself besides the size and the grandeur, is an art piece herself! I went over to rub St Peter’s foot as it is believed that the Catholic pilgrims rub his foot to give thanks for having arrived in Rome safely. As a show of respect too, I went over and continued that tradition.

Here you can also see the humongous work of Bernini – the Baldacchino – a baroque canopy , which marks the holiest part of the basilica. Under it is the papal altar, where only the pope may celebrate Mass and straight beneath that is the site of St. Peter’s tomb.

baldacchino

Beneath the Baldacchino, my attempt to take a photo of the papal altar…

Also in St Peter’s basilica, you must not miss Michelangelo’s Pieta – he made this when he was 23 yrs of age – you can see why he was one of the best in his time.

By the time we finished with the Vatican city (we started at 11am), it was already 1745hr.  We headed back to the city – towards Piazza Navona . We had dinner at a charming but small vinoteca called Mimi e Coco on Via del Governo Vecchio, 72 (close to Piazza Navona).

NB: Keep in mind many proper restaurants are opened late, from 7.30pm onwards. Quite likely places that are opened all the day long are very touristy and Rome restauranteurs (the more scrupulous ones) are known to also cheat tourists.. so just keep your eyes and wits around you when ordering making sure you ask the price for what you order if they are not stated in the menu.

Shopping in Milan

duomo

Duomo

Last Thursday,  I took the early train* out of Venice to Milan to spend a day in Milan – I had 8 hours.. so what did I decide to do, besides a very little sight seeing, it’s shopping and some eating! Because everyone tells me you go to Milan to shop! I hear you all… so I went shopping.

I tell you, it is a big feat because Milan is DESIGNER heaven, and I don’t mean fashion designers only. You have furniture designers headquartered there, home interiors,kitchen wares, to cars (Ferrari has a spot smack in the city) and food too!

So the night before, I made a carefully laid out plan what streets to hit and which shops. I knew I was not interested in the chain retailers like H&M, Zara or Mango but specific young Italian designers – and of course  Gucci, Prada , D&G and Ferragamo stores .

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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele

Arrived at around 1030hr, I headed straight to the shopping street, breezed through Corso Buenos Aires (good place for your popular chain retailers like Muji,Zara, H&M, etc) ended up at Corso Venezia (starting to see a few upmarket boutiques), Piazza San Bilaba area ( a mixed of popular high street Italian brands like Diesel , Oltre and luxurious as you approach Montenapoleone/ D -Magazine outlet although small,  is quite good , located here too on Via Bigli) and towards Duomo, you get to La Rinascente (your Harvey Nichols – which is worth a look and a good spot for a toilet break) . Here at La Rinascente, I made my first purchase, a black leather handbag by Sissi Rossi.

While you can’t miss Galleria Vittorio Emanuele , I took a whirlwind look,  crossed the Duomo square and walked towards Via Torino. Before I proceeded further, it was lunchtime and I had made a reservation at Ristorante Cracco just around the corner.

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Lunch @ Ristorante Cracco

Ristorante Cracco, awarded the no 22 spot , in the top 50 world’s best restaurants for 2009 and has 2 michelin stars is on Via Victor Hugo 4, very close to Duomo and Via Torino. The food there was excellent (it had to be otherwise the review would have been rubbish) and the service too, although may not be seamless sometimes, but they get the credit for trying without being intimidating or overly eager!  As the white truffles were in season , I chose for my main course  a veal steak with toasted shaved white truffles from Alba. Wonderful!

custoAfter lunch, I continued  on Via Torino towards Corsa di Porta Ticinese – this is the place to be if you are looking for something made by the young designers where you will get a unique piece of clothing, at a more affordable price and still good quality. Here I got my 2nd purchase, a dress – this time not an Italian but Spanish brand called CUSTO (see photo on the left). In fact I bought exactly that top except in a different colour!

Beware though, some shops do still have their siesta from 1300-1530hr, so not all shops will be open that time. After scouring the entire street, I did not get anything else, wanted a pair of shoes, but since the autumn/winter collection is now out, there were not many I could buy from as I will be moving to Singapore this Nov. Nope I don’t need any of those warm clothings – I guess good in a way, less to buy!

After Porta Ticinese,  I went to Corsa Genova just a street up parallel to Porta Ticinese, to check out another outlet, Biffi (*for another outlet, a friend tells me Serravalle  – at the outskirts of Milan is a good outlet to head for) and continued back up on Via Torino. Soon it was time to head back to the train station for my 1905hr train to Venice. My feet hurt and alas I could not walk anymore, I had to succumb to the convenience of the Metro. Thank god for that as I could not really understand the bus routes at the bus stops!

Verdict: It can be done, shopping 1 day in Milan – although you have to know what you are looking for and what to get! Otherwise I would recommend a minimum 2 day trip!

*For those interested in the transportation details, you can take a train from Venice, the one I took was at 0750hr, arriving in Milan at 1025hr – at the train station Ferrovia you pay €29 one way , if return too, just multiply by 2. On the internet though you can book your tickets with a slight discount and pay €27.60 instead. The journey takes approximately 2 1/2 hours. For online information , go to http://trenitalia.it/

Historical Regatta – Venice 6/9/09

regatta

Every year , the first sunday in September – the historical regatta is being held. It is one of the most traditional events in Venice, for the entertainment of both locals and tourists alike. Venetians and the neighbouring towns come out with their families, some will gather in their boats or bring their foldable seats setting them at the banks along the Grand Canal and Riva Degli Schiavoni to watch the race.

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This year it fell on the 6th Sept and we caught most of it from our window in the living room! Bright colourful and well decorated boats headed the water parade. Apparently the 2 men gondolini race is the most prestigious, the rest is just for show !

The following excerpt taken from http://venicexplorer.net/tradizione/storica.php?hlangs=en

The Historical Regatta starts out with the colourful procession on water, formed by the Bissone, the Bucintoro and the boats of the venetian rowing clubs; the event commemorates the Queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro, coming to Venice, which marked the beginning of the Serenissima rule over the Mediterranean islands. The historical parade has now just a picturesque importance, memory of the distant economical and political greatness of Venice on the seas, while the regattas represent still today the climax of the agonistic season in the world of the rowing alla veneta: winning that day for the rowers means to become a part of the history of this sport and, to a certain extent, of Venice.

The climax of the Venice Historical Regatta is the champions´ race on two-oared gondolini, light boats shaped as a very slim gondola. Unlike the regattas on the most popular lagoon boats, these competitions exalt the rowers technical abilities more than their power

Starting around 4pm ending at about 6-7pm in the evening and madness over Accademia bridge (see below) – Venice was at a stand-still.

crowd

At the Accademia bridge – far from the maddening crowd – not! Noticed the police? Not doing much it seems.

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  The leading gondola (2 men)

Il Redentore

 fireworks

Il Redentore is one of the biggest and well loved celebrations here in Venice. Every 3rd Saturday in July, Venetians mark the end of the plague (1577) which devastated the city leaving about 50,000 dead with prayers, fireworks at midnight and off to Lido to party until dawn.

The Redentore Church on Giudecca was commissioned by the Doge at that time and designed by Andrea Palladio as a solemn symbol of deliverance through prayers by the survivors of the plaque and the residents. The second church  built to commemorate the significant diminishing of the plague was the Santa Maria della Salute Church. For many years later, the ruling Doge will make the pilgrimage every 3rd Sat in July to give thanks for the end of the dreaded disease.

boats

Today, Venetians continue with the celebration albeit in a more lively fashion. Normally in the late afternoon (around 6pm) boats, barges and floating structures will make their way down to the basin of Saint Mark and Giudecca canal.  It appears almost all Venetians who have boats or access to boats are out in full force. The boats are decorated with lanterns. Those with young revelers had loud music blasting while the others – Venetians out with their families  were a little more subdued. But most of them had chairs and a small table decked out on board for the feasting . They were all headedtowards the basin of Saint Mark  to ensure they have prime viewing positions for the firework display later that night. (See if you can persuade a Venetian family to let you join them on their boat)

On Giudecca, the residents started reserving spots by marking it with a chalk and stating their apartment no, on the canal side as early as 1 week ago. This was to ensure they have their spot to set up their tables for dinner on Redentore night. Traditional Venetian food is normally being served for this occassion.

redentore

A floating bridge (on pontoons) is then placed across the Giudecca canal, connecting the Redentore church with Zattere on Sat (this year it fell on 18th July). At 7pm , the bridge was opened by the monks of  the Redentore church followed by prayers.  Venetians, politicians and tourists alike crossed the bridge after that, to Redentore .

snailsIn keeping up with the tradition (sadly I don’t own a boat) – we too had traditional Venetian dishes.. one of them was bovoletti with garlic and parsley. Thanks to my friend Bruno, at Pesce Pronto (Rialto) he had them ready made so I did not have to get down to the nasty business of preparing the snails.. I don’t think I would have eaten them later on in the evening if I did.

As the night went on, people started to make their way, staking out spots on Saint Mark’s square, along Zatttere, Punta della Dogana and Riva degli Schiavoni for the fireworks. We took a walk to Zattere around 11pm, to see how crowded it was, we headed back to the Accademia bridge when the fireworks started around 1145pm. It was a magical moment – all the boats on the canal, with lanterns  bopping in the water – everyone was out as they waited patiently for the fireworks. The lights dimmed along Zattere and Giudecca, just before it started. It was a damn impressive sight – I must say!

The firework display lasted for 30 mins. We  got quite a decent view, standing at the Accademia bridge as we had little children with us visiting and we did not want to risk the jostling and large crowds to cross the pontoon bridge to Giudecca side.

After the fireworks, we headed home, while others – more energetic folks headed towards Lido to party until dawn. I heard that free breakfast was served in Lido!

buy a seat

If you can’t get a good viewing spot for the fireworks, you can look out for entreprising Venetians, offering a window seat in their apartments for a fee.

Tip: for a good view of the fireworks, best place to stand is along the water on Giudecca facing Venice , Punta della Dogana, the water side of Saint Mark’s square and Riva degli Schiavoni. Alternatively Salute church and Accademia bridge are fairly good spots. This may mean though you would have to bring your picnic blanket and hang on to your position from about 7pm!

Imperial Red Shrimps from Sicily

pasta

Appearing this time of the year, imperiale gamberi rossi di Sicilia (imperial red shrimps from Sicily) has a beautiful sweet flavoured flesh, best eaten raw. Their texture is similar to the scampi but sweeter and lighter.  They are at their best in terms of tastes and size  from June – August – spawning season too. AND SO I bought like 1 kg of them the other day.. and here are some of my favourite ways of eating them. RAW  with a simple marinade “tartare” or mixed with CORIANDER PESTO, stirred through some pasta. Yum!

 A. Red shrimps pasta with coriander pesto (2 persons) – photo above

Coriander Pesto – in a blender whisk the following all together :
1 large bunch of coriander (circa 1  cup) just the leaves and not too much of the stems
1 tbp of parsley
1 large pip of garlic
1/2 red chilli (deseeded)
1/4  cup of grated parmiggiano depending how cheesy you want your pesto to be
1/2 cup olive oil
pinch of salt
——————————————————-
16 pieces of fresh red shrimps
2 tbp of olive oil
200g small tubular shaped pasta
salt and pepper to taste
extra grated parmiggiano
a few coriander leaves for garnish
a squeeze of lime or lemon juice

Peel and devein the red shrimps and set them aside in a bowl.

Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. When the pasta is done, drain and reserve 2 tbp of the liquid.

Heat up the olive oil and the pesto in a sautepan for about 4 mins on medium heat. On a separate pan , 1 tbp olive oil and saute the shrimps and switch to high heat for 2 mins. Once the shrimps lose their transparent colour. Switched off the heat. You don’t want to overcook them.

Add the pasta and the reserved liquid plus the shrimps to the pesto. Give it a good toss in medium heat for about 2 mins. Seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, arranged the pasta on the plates, drizzle the squeeze of lime juice over the pasta and sprinkle the extra cheese on top with a some freshly ground pepper. Garnish with a coriander leave or two.

B. Red shrimps with citrus and ginger marinade (4 persons as part of appetisers)

150 g fresh red shrimps
3 tbp freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tsp lime juice
2 tbp olive oil
1/2 tsp of  sesame oil (optional)
1 tsp of freshly grated young ginger
tiny tiny pinch of salt
*some red currants & coriander for garnish OR
1/2  red grapefruit or blood orange, segmented and broken to smaller bite sized chunks & coriander for garnish.

Dice the red shrimps and set them aside in a bowl. Whisk oils, citrus juice and ginger lightly together with a fork Marinate the shrimps and set in fridge for 1 hour. Sprinkle a tiny tiny pinch of salt and give it one last good toss. Scoop out a tablespoon of the shrimp mixture and place it nicely on a small plate or leave it in a porcelain or chinese tablespoons and decorate with some redcurrant berries and a coriander leaf.

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Florence Weekend

Florence

It was a last minute decision to drop into Tuscany just for the weekend. And what can I say? Tuscany is as pretty as they say and just like the postcards – with gentle rolling hills and cypress trees abound, dotted with olive farms and vineyards.  Weather was rather bad on our way out but thank god it cleared up later that Saturday. Our main target this weekend was to visit Florence. Here is a “brief ” account of what we did and saw in Florence.

  • Stay

We booked a B&B just 20 mins drive outside Florence, called Casa Palmira , for €85 a night for 2 , double bed with own private WC/shower and breakfast. A really nice country house with pleasant owners. The rooms are clean and well kept. Breakfast was good – there was a nice selection of  fruits, muesli, yogurt and eggs if you wish.

Another place we considered initially was Johanna in Florence city itself, but decided to opt for the country house B&B just get a little away from the city. Next time we are planning to check out Johanna for the same price of €85. Through our email exchanges they appear to be very professional and helpful, so I am confident they have a high quality B&B to offer.

Some friends of mine mentioned another alternative, which is in the country side by Saturnia in the Maremma Tuscany area. It is the Saturnia Tuscany Hotel and you can look it up from the link http://www.saturniatuscanyhotel.com/

  • Museums and things to see/do

If you want to go into the museums, a little bit of planning has to go into it. It is true the queues are bad for both Accademia and Uffizi , you can always ask your hotel or B&B to help you book or buy the tickets online through these sites:

1) http://www.b-ticket.com/b-ticket/Uffizi/default.aspx (best place to buy online without the exhorbitant fee charged by other sites – but you need to book at least 1 week in advance)

2) http://www.galleria-uffizi.museum-ticket.it/Home.action

3) http://www.florence-museum.com/

We did not manage to, but will be going back with prebooked tickets for sure. A friend got their tickets without queuing up at another gallery in a quiet street somewhere. Unfortunately she cannot recall the name of the gallery and neither did we discover any quiet gallery selling tickets on our trip.

porta

So what other sights did we see? Well, you cannot miss the Duomo which is worth taking a look . Formally known as Cattedrale di S. Maria del Fiore (below) – this marble church is massive in comparison to her surroundings. Just opposite her front entrance, you have the most famous door Porta Del Paradiso (above) which is located on the building – Baptistery of Saint John across from it .  If you cannot find it, it is on the Baptistery’s eastern door . The Porta Del Paradiso or Gates of Heaven (named so by Michelangelo) is made of gilded bronze depicting scenes from the Old Testaments. Ghilberti was the main man behind that door, toiling on it for 28 years.  The other doors have different scenes depicted on them and were made by different artists – all worth having a look at too.

duomo

Walking further out towards the river Arno, another historical site is Ponte Vecchio (below), a famous landmark of Florence and probably one of the most famous bridges in the world. The river Arno runs below it. It was the only bridge to survive  WWII when the Nazi bombed all bridges around Florence in order to deter the Allied forces. The story goes like this –  due to a culturally sensitive German commander,  this bridge was spared and instead of blowing it up, he ordered the buildings at the end to be destroyed. Today along the bridge, you will find shophouses selling gold, which reminds me of the gold zouk in Deira, Dubai! I did not check out the prices so I can’t tell you if it is cheaper than Dubai, sorry!

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Ponte Vecchio

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Loggia Della Signoria

At the Piazza della Signoria (main square) you will find the Loggia Della Signoria – which is an open air gallery exhibiting sculptures like Cellini’s famous Perseus holding the head of Medusa and the Rape of Sabine Women by Giambologna.

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And not forgetting, for a panoramic view of Florence, one should go up to Piazzale Michelangelo on Viale Michelangelo. The photo above is from there.

  • Gelato

Generally, I judge a gelateria by the colours of their gelati. They can say anything on their signboards like homemade,etc but I look at their mint flavoured or pistacchio flavoured ice cream first. If the colour is green (too green) to be natural, I would give it a miss.

Vivoli (Via Isole delle Stinche) is being recommended by almost all guidebooks! It is good but for the price you pay for I don’t think it is that great! You pay by the size of the cup. For a double scoop you normally get around Italy, it costs €3.20 – so yes a tad expensive! Not everything is great in there. I did try their fig ice cream, it was good not too sweet. I tried the Riso (rice flavoured) and that was too sweet for my liking.

Vestri ( Borgo degli Albizi) an artisanal chocolate store, hence yes great chocolate gelati.

Carabe (Via Ricasoli) – their gelati I read is good , but best of all besides the gelati, you get to sample their Sicilian sweets like cannoli, cassata and granitas too.

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Fiesole (10km from Firenze) – is a pretty hillside village located not too far from Florence or our B&B. There is a great panoramic view of Florence from there.  Also several great local restaurants. We tried one called Vinandro . We ordered a beautiful piece of meat (beef). Make sure it is controfiletto – which is prime quality meat hence juicier. It is the cut that is used to make roast beef – the english term fails me right now. The meat is commonly served  just simply chargrilled or cut out in strips , on top of  a bed of rucola and shaven parmesan cheese (tagliata con rucola e grana*).

I had also the ‘peposo’ a type of stewed beef with peppercorns – which was really tender. Wine (of the house) for  1/4 ltr costs about €3-4 which is fine enough for a casual dinner. For coffee, forget about asking for capuccino – a major faux pas after dinner . You get an espresso or in my case orzo (roasted barley that tastes almost like coffee minus the caffeine) to end a good meal on the right note Italian style.

NB – For you foodies out there, if you come to Tuscany – you only eat one thing (besides the gelato) – BEEF, forget about spaghetti marinara please or any seafood for that matter, leave that for the Italian coastal cities.

That is why their wines like Chianti or the prized Brunello are robust and deep as they pair well with the excellent meat you get here. The main grape variety here is Sangiovese.

* Parmesan cheese :  both Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padana are very similar. The difference is the forage; the meadows in the production area between Parma and Reggio have certain grasses, while those of the meadows of the section of Lombardy that produces Grana have others. As a result there are slight differences in flavor and color. I find Grana is a little easier to shave into large slices compare to Parmigiano Reggiano, but all depends on the exact age when you buy it to get the precise texture you like.

vinandro

What a nice relaxing weekend. Oh by the way for those of you who drive, we found a good place to park (on Sundays it is free) – along Lungarno Del Tempio or Lungarno Francesco Ferrucci. If you want to park for free on other days and walk down to the old city, go up to Piazzale Michelangelo and make sure you are there early like 7-8am otherwise it will be full full full!