The Lemons of Cinque Terre

lemons on display in Corniglia, one of the ‘Five Lands’

Lemons are an ancient fruit, cultivated for millennia throughout the world. Having originated in the Far East, where they were likely used more for ornamental purposes than culinary, lemons made their way to Sicily in about the 10th century. Some centuries later they appeared on the Ligurian coast near Genoa. Today lemon cultivation has spread to several Italian coastal regions, given the ideal climate found here that allows lemons to thrive.

For centuries, lemons have formed part of local agricultural production in the coastal village of Monterosso, one of the quaint and colorful spots adorning the stretch of Ligurian coast known as the Cinque Terre (the ‘Five Lands’). Set within the Cinque Terre National Park, the area around Monterosso is home to numerous acres of lemon groves. Yet even beyond Monterosso, lemons are fundamental to this territory, its history and identity. While enjoying a Cinque Terre hike, visitors will be dazzled by the glorious patches of yellow covering the stunning panorama, the fragrant blossoms and leaves, and the occasional local vendor set up alongside the trails to offer fresh lemon juice mixed with cold water.

From this long-standing tradition, Cinque Terre has given an extraordinary product to the world, limoncello. Made by infusing the zest of highest quality organic lemons in pure alcohol (pesticides will significantly degrade the flavor) then mixing with water and sugar, limoncello is a popular after dinner liqueur. It is traditionally served ice cold in small glasses at the end of a meal, but can also be used in making refreshing cocktails or desserts such as sorbets. Another area specialty is a caked called ‘crostata di marmellata di limone’, made with local lemon marmalade.

Interested in witnessing this wonderful tradition? Join ArtViva’s guided excursion, The Best of Cinque Terre, and experience the flavors and beauty of the Five Lands up close. And don’t forget your camera, good walking shoes, and of course – your appetite!

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Tuscan Truffles: Two New ArtViva Experiences!

black truffles, shaved

Elusive, astonishingly expensive, and beloved by top chefs and foodies, the truffle remains one of the world’s most sought after and intriguing ingredients. To get an idea of just how in-demand this tiny tuber is, consider some recent sales at auction: in 2014 a Sabatino truffle sold at Sotheby’s for $50,000, while a pair of white truffles went for over $300,00 in 2010. They are truly the ‘diamonds’ of the kitchen, as dubbed by French epicure Brillat-Savarin.

The traditional methods relied on for finding truffles are still practiced in parts of France and Italy. Truffle hunters head out into the woods with their hunting dog in search of this precious item. And here in Tuscany, we at ArtViva have arranged some truffle experiences sure to capture and convey what all the fuss is about!  Led by an expert, fully licensed hunter – who also speaks English – discover this fascinating world with ArtViva’s Tuscan Truffle Hunt with Private Transportation, or our Truffle Walk in Tuscany (for those with their own car while visiting or who wish to arrange a taxi from nearby).

Both experiences conclude with a rustic, truffle-themed light lunch at the hunter’s home or in the garden. Before saying your goodbyes, you could have the chance to purchase some of the truffles unearthed on the hunt, at the current market value.

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Invisible Women Artists: A Special Event at ArtViva

We are pleased to share a selection of lovely images from last week’s talk, Invisible Women Artists: Restoration & Rediscovery, with Linda Falcone of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation.

ArtViva Director Rose Magers (left) converses with guest speaker Linda Falcone

some of our event guests conversing

guests enjoying the talk

Linda Falcone, Director of AWA

Follow ArtViva on Facebook to not miss out on future events like this one!

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The Florence Duomo’s Gnomon, An Ancient Astronomical Tool

the solar disc moving across the floor of the Duomo of Florence

A very special way of marking the summer solstice takes place in Florence every year. For one hour at midday, on specific dates on and near the solstice, sunlight streams through the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo of Florence, casting a disc shape in sunlight on the cathedral floor.  The mechanism by which this fascinating phenomenon works is known as the gnomon, specifically a pinhole gnomon, an ancient astronomical device that calculates the position of the sun in the sky.

As sunlight streams in through the hole in Brunelleschi’s dome, the solar disc moves across the church floor until it aligns exactly above a bronze inlaid disc. The highly accurate device, positioned at 90 meters above the church floor, is one of the oldest of its kind, having been created in 1475 by Florentine astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli.

For 2017, the phenomenon can be witnessed on June 21, 27, and 28, from 12:30 to 1:30. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are recommended. Contact the Opera del Duomo at +39 055 230 2885.

And why not join our Original Florence Walk to learn more about the Florence Duomo, its fascinating history, art and architecture!

(Photos courtesy of Sestini and Duomo Opera)

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Farmers Markets in Florence

green garlic, asparagus, strawberries, and more!

Florence is blessed with a selection of wonderful farmers markets where seasonal fruits and vegetables abound as well as quality traditional products, from meats, fish, and cheese counters to wines, coffee and liquors.

agretti, a local springtime speciality item, similar to spinach in taste

The most notable Florentine markets are the Mercato Centrale di Firenze in the San Lorenzo neighborhood and the Sant’Ambrogio Market near the piazza of the same name. Each has indoor eateries, too. You’ll also find gourmet products that make for nice souvenirs. Another market to know is the Fierucola, a once-monthly organic market in Piazza Santo Spirito run by producers who adhere to eco-sustainable values.

A great way to get to know the local market scene and discover how Italians like to shop for their farm fresh food items is by joining ArtViva’s Italian Passions – Food & Wine tour. Or check out any of our other wonderful Italian cooking experiences!

wild strawberries on sale at Florence’s Central Market

  • Florence Central Market: Everyday, 8am to 12 midnight
  • Sant’Ambrogio Market: Monday to Saturday, 7am to 2pm
  • La Fierucolo Market: Every third Sunday of the month, 7am to 7pm
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Italian Coffee FAQs

cappuccino, an Italian classic

Confused about all the different coffee types here in Italy? Read on to learn about the many delicious options, plus practice your Italian with some examples of how to order coffee! If you’re interested in joining a fabulous Italian food & drink experience, have a look at our food tours in Florence and Rome, and our range of cooking classes.

 

Espresso. Also known simply as caffè, this is a single shot of espresso. Italians sometimes drink their espresso in a single gulp to fully enjoy the flavor. Example: Un caffè, per favore. – I’ll have a coffee, please.

Doppio. A double shot of espresso. Example: Mi fa un caffè doppio per cortesia? – Will you make me a double espresso, please?

Espresso macchiato. An espresso topped with a small amount of frothy warm milk. You can also ask for an espresso with cold milk. Example: Prendiamo due espressi macchiati con latte freddo, grazie. – We’ll have two espressos with a splash of cold milk, thanks.

Cappuccino. The world famous Italian classic consists of a third espresso, a third steamed milk, and a third schiuma (creamy foam). Powdered cocoa may be sprinkled on top as a garnish. Italians tend to drink cappuccino only for breakfast. Example: Mi porta un cappuccino, per favore?  – Will you please bring me a cappuccino?

Caffè latte.  One third espresso and about two-thirds steamed milk with no foam. Note that if you order this by saying only ‘latte’ you will be served a glass of milk. Example: Un caffè latte per me e un latte caldo per mio figlio. – A caffè latte for me and a warm milk for my son.

Caffè alto. This is an espresso that has been allowed to brew longer, with more water pressing through the machine, and thus resulting in a less intense coffee. Also called caffè lungo (“long”). Example: Vorrei un caffè leggermente meno intenso. Mi può farne uno alto? – I’d like a slightly less intense coffee. Could you make me a “tall” one please?

Caffè americano. A cup of coffee that is like an American cup, served as an espresso in a larger cup together with a small pot of hot water. Add the water to the espresso. Example: Preferisco un caffè americano, grazie. – I prefer an American style coffee, thanks.

Caffè shakerato. ‘Shaken’, this is the Italian version of iced coffee, made by mixing ice, espresso, and some simple sugar syrup in a cocktail mixer and served in a tall martini style glass. Example – Che caldo! Due caffè shakerati, per cortesia. – It’s so hot! Two iced coffees, please.

Granita. A frozen espresso drink much like a ‘slushy’ and served in a cup with a spoon. Highly addicting! Example: Che buono! Vorrei ancora una granita al caffè, per favore. – That is so good! I’d like another coffee granita, please.

Affogato. This is a dessert of gelato (usually vanilla or cream flavor) ‘drowned’ in espresso and served with a spoon. Example – Quest’affogato è squisito! This (espresso-‘drowned’) gelato is exquisite!

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May Day in Italy: An Ancient Festival of Flowers & Song

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Dance Around the Maypole, ca. 1625-1630.

The ancient springtime festivity known as May Day marks a period traditionally associated with flowers, abundance, and rebirth. Its observance includes colorful and merry singing rites, in particular troupes of flower-adorned musicians who frolic about country villages and sing auspicious, entertaining songs in exchange for offerings of eggs, wine, cakes and other sweets.

Similar to caroling, soul-caking, some forms of mumming, and trick-or-treating, these May Day folk performances have ancient pagan roots. In pre-Christian Europe, the night of April 30 initiated a crucial moment in the natural cycle of the year, one that marked the transition from spring to summer. (For the ancient Romans, February 1 was the first day of spring and May 1 the start of summer, which is why we still use the term Midsummer to refer to the summer solstice festivities starting around June 21 and culminating with the Feast of St John the Baptist on June 24.)

John Collier, Queen Guinevre’s Maying, 1900.

European cultures have observed May Day for millennia, from the Celtic Beltane to the Germanic Walpurgis night. In Italy, Calendimaggio (from the Latin calenda maia, meaning calends of May), goes by other popular names that reflect this day’s strong association with song: cantamaggio and cantarmaggio, both related to the Italian word cantare, to singWander about the country villages of Tuscany and other Italian regions on this day and you might catch sight of festive rural picnics, maidens adorned with flowers, and troupes of maggerini, the May Day singers who delight crowds with lively and symbolic maggi lirici (here the word for May, maggio, is the name of a type of rhymed couplet). The maggerini sing songs of rebirth, renewal, plants, flowers, and young love, always with a good dose of lyrical flair and wit.

Notable May Day events in Italy include the Calendimaggio Festival in Assisi and the Florentine Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Interestingly, the Florentine festival formerly called la maggiolata was rooted in medieval folk traditions with pagan roots practiced throughout the rural mountain areas surrounding Florence. In the 1930s, the folk practice was transformed into a modern, organized annual festival, the prestigious Maggio Musicale Fiorentino season.

Thinking about visiting Florence or Tuscany? Have a look at ArtViva’s unique, top quality tours and events.

 

A 2015 poster for ‘Cantar Maggio’ organized by the Pistoia Mountains cultural association

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The Rediscovery of a Masterpiece: ArtViva Hosts Special Event on ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Leonardo da Vinci

ArtViva recently hosted a very special guest speaker, Dr. Maurizio Seracini, art diagnostician and founder of Editech, Diagnostic Center for Cultural Heritage in Florence. Mr. Seracini, whose work applies techniques and processes adapted from science and technology to the analysis of precious art works, is well known for his ongoing research on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari, a lost masterpiece believed by Seracini and others to lie hidden underneath another painting in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.  On Thursday, April 6, he spoke at length about his involvement in the study of The Adoration of the Magi, a da Vinci work that just last month was returned to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence after a significant restoration.

During his talk, Seracini outlined the problematic state the painting was in when he first started working on its analysis 15 years ago. With great detail and intriguing visual aids, he explained the various types of organic decay that played a part in the painting’s deterioration, and the tools and methods used to remedy them. Beyond the scientific aspects of his work, however, Seracini’s analysis revealed some amazing discoveries regarding Leonardo’s original cartoon, a preparatory sketch (sometimes called the underdrawing) used by artists of the time to outline the composition of an artwork before applying paint.

Gasps of wonder and admiration filled the room when Seracini presented images of the original cartoons drawn by Leonardo, which according to Seracini’s extensive study—using diagnostic techniques such as infrared, thermographic, and ultrasound—were subsequently painted over by another hand when the work was left unfinished by da Vinci in 1481. The drawings, in true Leonardo style, contain detailed, extraordinarily expressive images of human activity, including a group of faces considered by many the most beautiful portraits ever done by the master.

Interested in seeing this mysterious artwork by Leonardo da Vinci? Join ArtViva’s Masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery tour led by one of our expert guides, to admire and appreciate this and many other timeless works of Italian art. Or for a truly unforgettable experience, join our Private Tour with the da Vinci Art Sleuth himself, or an evening with Artists, Authors and Aristocrats, for a chance to hear Mr. Seracini speak about his study of Leonardo.

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Italian Carnival: Tradition, Spectacle & Feasting!

Venetian Carnival (Photo by Roberto Vicario)

Italian Carnival (‘carnevale‘) festivities are at their most impressive in the cities of Venice and Viareggio, where often this time of year hotels must be booked a year in advance! Yet Italians throughout the rest of the country will also be observing the pre-Lenten season with a variety of traditional sweets, costumes and masks, music and other street entertainments.

Carnival’s arrival coincides with the appearance of cenci at Tuscan bakeries, roughly-cut strips of deep-fried or baked pastry coated in icing sugar and whose name translates to something like ‘rags’.  (See recipe below). In Venice, streets fill with elaborately dressed fun-seekers–young and old, locals and visitors–while music fills the air, street performers dazzle onlookers, and extravagant parties light up the night. The Venetian Carnival represents a grandiose and utterly magical time to be in this majestic city.

Meanwhile, in Viareggio, Tuscany’s glamorous beach-side village, Carnival takes place along the famous art-deco-esque boardwalk, in a very different style–colorful float parades, often political or satirical in nature, stun crowds and onlookers with their artistic and comical flair.

Here is a recipe for cenci from Twelve: A Tuscan Cook Book, by Artviva friend Tessa Kiros.

Cenci (or ‘Chiacchere’) – Deep-fried pastry ribbons

Ingredients for about 35 small pastry strips
280 g plain all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons butter (melted)
grated zest of ½ a lemon and ½ an orange
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
2 tablespoons Vin Santo or port
light olive oil or sunflower oil for frying
icing sugar for sprinkling

Instructions
Sift the flour, a pinch of salt and the caster sugar into a wide bowl or onto your work surface. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Begin mixing with a fork to incorporate the eggs into the flour. Add the butter, the zest, vanilla and Vin Santo. Begin working the dough with your hands, kneading until it is smooth, adding a little more flour if it seems too wet. It should be a soft, workable dough.

Dust your work surface with flour. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and beginning with one, roll it out with a rolling pin to thickness of about 2 mm. Cover the dough you are not using with a cloth to prevent it drying.

Cut into strips of about 10 x 5 cm. Keep them on a lightly floured tray while you roll out the rest. The pastry strips may also be rolled out in a pasta machine to the final setting, and cut.

Pour enough oil into a frying pan to come to about 3 cm. Heat the oil on a medium heat and when it is quite hot, fry the cenci on both sides until they are crisp and golden. They should not become too brown, so lower the heat if it seems necessary. With a slotted spoon, transfer them to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil.

Sprinkle with icing sugar and put a few onto a serving plate with a small pile of orange salad to eat with the cenci and a small bowl of crème anglaise to dip the cenci into. Alternatively, serve them plain as they are.

Keen on seeing Venice for yourself? We have a great discounted Venice tour packages available either as private tours in Venice, or small-group prestigious Venice tour discounted package including a guided tour of St Mark’s with expert Venice tour guide, a gondola ride, guided Doge’s palace tour, and a boat ride along the Grand Canal.

You could also opt for a hands-on cooking classes in Italy to learn to make delicious Italian recipes in Florence.

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New Year’s Eve in Italy – from red underwear to throwing pans and pots

We’ve no doubt that Italians like a good celebration: and New Year’s Eve is no exception to the rule. Another year draws to an end, and people worldwide gather to celebrate the happenings of the year past – and hope for a better year ahead. Different cultures mean different celebrations – and Italy has some quirky, fun and traditional celebrations to add to the list.

Starting off with food – there’s no celebration without way too much food in Italy. Typical dinner on New Year’s Eve kicks off with zampone (or cotechino) e lenticchie – Zampone being a pig’s hoof, and cotechino being sausage made out of the meat inside. Both symbolise abundance – represented mostly by the meat’s high fat content. Lenticchie – lentils, are thought to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year  – mostly due to their nature, representing the shape of a coin. Dessert is grapes and dried fruit – which is said to bring wisdom to all those sitting at the table.

The quirkiest tradition comes after dinner. Originating from southern Italy is the tradition of throwing the past out of the window, quite literally – as pots and pans, clothes or any material thing you do not want to bring along with you in the following year are actually thrown out from upstairs windows. This tradition is said to bring luck and a better year ahead (naturally for the throwees, and not for any bystander who finds himself hit in the head by some pot or pan!)

One can expect more luck and by wearing the right undergarments – red underwear promises a happy and lucky year ahead, as it is said that these help fight off evil and bad spirits. Just remember that it has to be new underwear, and that is also has to be a gift from someone else!

Other than that, Italians like to spend the last night of the year, and the early hours of the new year celebrating with their friends and family, together with a nice glass of prosecco, usually at a concert or in the piazzas in the cities.

If you plan on spending New Year’s Eve in Italy, our tips would definitely be to try some of these traditions, to avoid driving and parking in the city center – as one can imagine how crowded and crazy it can get, and to have a good time, celebrating the past year, and anticipating a great year ahead.

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