Tuesday, June 29, 2010

From Rifugio Martina to Monte San Primo (Bellagio)

Monte San Primo

Monte San Primo. Agile hikers aren't the only ones to climb up here in summer because the tell-tale aroma of ovine and caprine droppings invaded our nostrils long before reaching the top. Our intent was to go up then return on the mainly forested trail (right side of photo) that commences behind Rifugio Martina, but the ascent is so steep (average 14% grade) that I wasn't too keen on going back down through the bug-infested environment again. The top photo was taken looking back at S. Primo as we descended to connect with sentiero 1 and continue on a loop trail to the starting point. For those who may have ended up here for trails near Bellagio, take a look at this site to see what the fuss is all about and tell me that ain't gorgeous (scroll to bottom). Unfortunately, it was a hazy experience for us this past Sunday and thus the wait continues until a clear weekend comes along. In the meantime I've set our hiking goals to explore more of the area that is just 30 minutes drive from Bellagio (lightened square in the photo below).

Rifugio Martina to Monte San Primo - nearly 600 meters straight up

It is supposed to take only 60 minutes but whoever calculated that figure must one of the ungulati (hooved ones). We slowly made our way in an hour and 45 minutes in the humidity and I advise sturdy boots/shoes and even hiking poles for this trail. It almost felt like a hike in a tropical forest with all that foliage scratching across my legs, plus you can't see the very peak and just keep trudging along, expecting to get above the treeline any minute. Avoid it if there has been recent rains because it will be muddy and slippery.


View enlarged map (A = Monte San Primo)

Rifugio Martina (english). Open from mid-June to mid-September.
Google map from Bellagio to rifugio parking (B). 20-minute walk to reach the rifugio (C).

All pain and no gain is plain rubbish in my book and we try to end a day of hiking with a reward of gelato. Eupili Cafè (Via Mazzini, 68 in Pusiano) has some of the best gelato that I've ever devoured and the guy behind the counter has always been great to give us little taste samples. Here: fragola (strawberry), pistacchio and fiori di sambuco (elderflower).

Gelato at Eupili

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Deboning quails

Three days after our anniversary and I'm still thinking about those Cailles ‘en sarcophage’, the quails stuffed with foie gras and truffles. Home cooks who might want to attempt this dish should know only one thing - deboning quail is EASY. In the case of Babette's Feast, all that needs to be removed is the rib cage. Heck, she even stuck their itty bitty little heads into the dish, and the dear General ate it! There's an excellent video on how to remove rib cage and leg bones, but first, rule #1: use a very sharp paring knife (I busted out my Sanelli). A boning knife was too awkward for my petite hands. Starting just to the side of the backbone, I cut through the skin and ran my knife down against the rib cage until the breast meat, carefully cutting through wing and leg joints only to separate them from the rib cage (I wanted these intact for better presentation). Repeat for the other side. To remove the flesh, gently pull away from the rib cage as shown in this video (the chef does a complete deboning procedure). If necessary, assist the process with a little help from your knife. Remove any small bones/cartillage that may have broken off.


In the event of an error message, the video can be viewed here.

Stuffing quail

Many recipes say to truss the quails after stuffing, but in Italy the toothpick keeps everything together for smaller items. I placed a small scoop of foie gras and a couple slices of truffle. In retrospect, it should have been at least 3 slices, because summer truffles aren't as intensely flavored as those in autumn. Bring up the sides and fasten with a sturdy toothpick (or truss them). Fasten the leg joints with kitchen twine and voila!

Stuffing the quail
Stuffed quails

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A toast to Babette's Feast and 7 years of marriage

Of all the memorable meals brought to cinematic life, Babette's Feast is the one to have whetted my appetite the most. It is a classic. But it wasn't so much for the turtle soup that got the wheels turning in my head (realistically, I wouldn't eat turtle meat), and neither for the dramatic presentation that comes when serving quails in "coffins", but because of how the movie slowly starts off in grey somber tones then explodes in gastronomic color. As the lead character of Babette deftly pulls off a sumptuous affair for a gathering of dour-faced parishioners, her culinary "mojo" is propelled to the forefront where the repast becomes not only the climax of the story, but remains a subtle aftertaste as the film draws to a close.

I cooked, I cleaned, I conquered!

7th wedding anniversary eats

Yesterday marked 7 years as MotH & Missus but instead of making reservations, I threw on my apron and started channeling Babette. Tiny quails are as common as white meat chicken at the supermarket (4 for 2.50€) and all I had to do was debone them. Pre-made puff pastry - pasta sfoglia - comes in 13-inch rounds or squares, ready to place into quiche pans or cut out into shapes. This site suggests a fine alternative to turtle soup and the rest of the article is very helpful in simplifying some of the courses without downgrading the feast to an ordinary meal. All in all, it turned out a big success *ahem* even if I ended up washing the dishes.

Cin! Cin! Veuve Clicquot Brut
Consomme a la royale
Buckwheat blinis with creme fraiche and lumpfish caviar
Quails 'en sarcophage' with truffle-infused brown sauce (cheat version of Périgourdine sauce)
Salud! Château Latour Martillac Grand Cru
Green salad (from the garden)
Goat cheese from a local producer and french Pont-l'Éveque
Charentais melon, cherries and apricots
Kugelhopf soaked with rum syrup

Quail 'en sarcophage'

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hiking Pizzino to Fraggio (Val Taleggio, Bergamo)


Pizzino (24 miles north of Bergamo)
to Fraggio (light blue line)
It shouldn't come as a surprise that I consider this to be more of a stroll because all it involves is less than 30 minutes of putting one foot in front of the other. The trail begins from Agriturismo Il Pavone in Pizzino that continues on a dirt path passing their farm, and the point of interest here is an ancient (15th century?) church - Chiesetta San Lorenzo - which sits amidst rural surroundings. So rural, in fact, and so quiet, that after I took the image below and walked around the church, I returned to see a cow in the exact same spot where I had been only minutes before. Apparently the beasts come and go as they please.

Chiesetta San Lorenzo
Italian cows are happy cows...

Getting to Pizzino is a natural wonder in itself since the road through Val Taleggio follows along a deep gorge that has no shortage of splashing, flowing, cascading water during spring. There is one "the Rock fountain" in particular that sits on the side of the road as a sort of ambassador to the valley. Too bad he's not spitting wine. I got the westie to pose but the doxie wasn't having any of it. To find it: here's the gps coordinates [45.88820N 9.60245E].

Cascata in Val Taleggio Right place at the right time Val Taleggio
Fraggio da "Rock" Maddie and da "Rock"

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Hiking in Fuipiano Valle Imagna (Bergamo) - part II

Picnic lunch
Replenishing the carbs: fried teriyaki-ginger chicken wings, pancit (filipino noodles), brownie triangles with visciola (sour cherry) jam, and sweet Duroni cherries from Puglia.

This is what I consider a picnic snack — food portions that weigh light in my backpack but have greater appeal than Pringles, Gatorade and store-bought energy bars. And why the food image first? Because for non-hiking readers, the rest of this post won't make much sense at all so I figured that I'd take care of the essentials first. This loop trail follows in the opposite direction from where we had hiked above Fuipiano Valle Imagna a few days earlier, and to be honest, I felt absolutely cheated when the GPS stats revealed the actual dislivello completed (difference in height from top to bottom). It was about 487 meters...only 1598 feet! It took us a brief three ½ hours total - a piece of cake worth snacking on.

Hiking in Fuipiano

Again, the trail starts at the end of via Milano but upon reaching the 2nd fork, you take a right instead of a left. Trail 579a to Tre Faggi (FAH-jee) immediately leads into shady woods before opening out onto a pasture and watering hole for cows. Soon thereafter is where we ran into a bit of trouble when the red/white marker stones led away from the main road and up into the woods again. It was clear going in until a thick layer of fallen leaves made us lose sight of the path (that would be the red hiker below), forcing us to blindly go along until we heard voices from higher up. It was almost comedic because Maddie must've thought we were on an easter egg hunt or something - yap! yap! yap! - while Mr B was pulling hard at his leash, causing the MotH to lose his balance on the leafy incline. The doxie probably knew where to go but who's to say that he wasn't onto the scent of a fox or rabbit? Fortunately it was only a small section of woods, and upon meeting the above-mentioned hikers who knew the place like the back of their hand, we were pointed in the right direction.

The Tre Faggi or Tri Fò as they are called in bergamasc dialect, are 3 large beech trees that just beg to be part of some sort of ancient legend with the looks of their gnarled branches. From here, the loop trail changes direction and connects to 571, climbing to even greater heights above the treeline. The views at the top are incredible, and there is one tricky spot where the narrow path hugs close to the side of the mountain. Eventually it ends at the statuette of the Madonna dei Canti before finally pointing the way back down to Fuipiano.

Tre Faggi
From Tre Faggi to Madonna dei Canti Where goats dare to tread Mr B digging for truffles?

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Hiking in Fuipiano Valle Imagna (Bergamo) - part I

Valle Imagna

Il tetto della Valle Imagna (the roof of Imagna valley). We liked this hike so much that four days later I cooked up some yummy Hawaii-style eats and we went back for more. Trails around Lecco and Como may boast magical views of the lakes, but just 19 miles northwest of Bergamo the landscape is no less enchanting. This photo was taken high above the village of Fuipiano Valle Imagna (pop. 240, bottom left). We live over the mountain range in the far distance - you can barely make out the line of signal towers at the crest - so that gives an idea of how right in the middle of hiking heaven we are.

From Fuipiano Valle Imagna to Zuc di Valbona - 50 minutes

A metal crucifix marks the location which is easily seen from Fuipiano on a clear day. Once at the top, you'll have a pick of great spots to spread out a picnic lunch, but be forewarned that getting there means a very steep climb that will give your thigh, calf and derriere muscles a workout! In the photo below, you can just make out the exposed trail on the right that climbs along the face of the mountain.

Looking up from Fuipiano Valle Imagna

Right, left, right, right. Take those directions at each fork along the way and it will lead to the above-mentioned 20% grade that ends at a storage building before finally curving up to Zuc di Valbona. Google map: to get to where the trail begins, upon reaching Fuipiano (A), drive to the end of via Milano (B). There are a couple of parking areas on the side of the road. From here an asphalt passage (authorized vehicles only) goes up to private pasture and you'll soon meet the first fork in this itinerary. This trail coasts along the 579 until it (#579) branches off into the forest after the last fork. Heading in the direction of the red arrow, the ultra steep climb soon comes into view.

Zuc di Valbona itinerary
sentiero 579 crucifix at Zuc di Valbona shot from another zuc
Rambling through cool pine forests the killer knee workout on the return alpine flowers

15th century village Arnosto

Don't miss the nearby località of Arnosto (look for white on brown signposts) when visiting Fuipiano Valle Imagna. It has been restored to picture postcard condition and even has its own page - Amici di Arnosto - on Facebook.

Località Arnosto

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Venetian Masks

I know it looks like I'm getting ahead of myself here, but who says you can't start projecting Carnevale? St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) and the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) may be the first things on the itinerary after traversing the Grand Canal, but if you're specifically headed towards Venice for the greatest, most theatrical, most exciting event of the year, you might want to dress for the occasion. MotH and I attended Venice's carnevale back in 2004 and I really had no idea what to expect. It was miserably cold, raining, people everywhere...but nothing could dampen the bedazzling spectacle of the costumed, masked characters parading through alleys and squares (honestly it was more like they were floating). They were elegant, beguiling - untouchable - a grandiose presence of immortals among mere beings like the rest of us. And I thought it was enough to wear a silly red cape? I knew then and there that if ever there were to be a next time, I'd be going in style and totally vamped.

Vamped, of course, has nothing to do with pale-skinned bloodsuckers and I was impressed with Venetian Masks and the quality and variety of masks which they offer on their website. The company ships from the United States which makes it that much more possible to celebrate Carnevale, italian-style, right in your own hometown. Masquerade balls also came to mind when I saw the more elaborate items. Zanni, Colombina, Arlecchino - the color and details are incredible and you don't even have to fly all the way to Italy (or risk getting ashed out by Eyjafjallajökull) to get them! Here are a few images to give you a small taste of Venetian Masks, but do take a look to see for yourself.