Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reading: Second Half of 2016

Well, the blog might be dying, but if there's one thing I can still write about, it's books! Here we go again, in no particular order.

1) Author Shannon Hale. I've had so much fun reading her YA books, including the Princess Academy trilogy and the Books of Bayern. They all feature strong female leads and I really, really want somebody to make a movie out of the Princess Academy. Austenland and Midnight in Austenland were also fun, so if you're an Austenite maybe start there. They're a little more adult though, so if you want something fluffier definitely go for the Princess Academy books.

2) Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach. Not as much fun to read as Stiff, but still educational and entertaining.

3) The Darkborn Legacy, by Michael Griffo. Teen Werewolf and her posse. 'Nuff said. (Actually, of course I'm going to put another comment in parentheses, because that's what I do. I liked it. I thought it was kind of predictable, but there were enough little twists to keep me interested. I also appreciated the relationship between the main character and her younger brother, because it seemed pretty realistic.)

4) Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. I don't think there's anything I could say about this that hasn't already been said by someone else, better than I could say it. If you're an artist, or looking for inspiration or purpose, or you're a mentor, or looking for a mentor, or just want to get nostalgic over good letter-writing, read this.

5) Inside Out and Outside In, both by Maria V. Snyder. One of my recently favorited authors, though this pair was not my favorite. Distopian future, reminds me of Lord of the Flies in a more urban setting, but with Big Brother watching. Maybe...Meh.

6) The BFG, by Roald Dahl. It had been a long time since I read anything by Dahl, and there was a BFG mural/exhibition at Buckingham Palace when I visited this summer, so I got inspired to pick this one up. I forgot there was a new movie too, and now that's also on my list to watch. Classic for a reason! The BFG gives the best speeches with the most interesting vocabulary and I can't wait to see that realized on the BS (big screen....).

7) Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel. I powered through this one but didn't enjoy it overly much. Bizarre incident, bizarre artifact, lots of fake-science, whiny protagonists. It's like something Stephen King might have written when he was 19. But hey, if that's your thing, go for it!

8) All of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Reading these reminded me that as much as I think I'm a badass, I would not survive a zombie attack. Can you imagine giving your five year-old a pig's bladder to play with? Grinding wheat in a coffee grinder to make bread, every day, in sub-zero temperatures? No, me either. Kids these days are so spoiled...

9) When We Wake and While We Run, both by Karen Healy. A distopian future book I actually enjoyed. It's set in Australia so some of the references were unfamiliar to me, but it makes me want to recycle and conserve water and do all the things I know I should be doing but don't, or am only half-assedly doing, to help save our planet. Also, be nice to each other, because we never know who we're going to have to go on the lam with.

10) Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't, by Simon Sinek. Yawn. Turns out I don't like reading leadership books when I don't have to.

11) Before They are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie. Tony has been raving about this author for a while, so I picked up the first book. I enjoyed it, though it was a little hard to keep track of the characters. (Abercrombie has nothing on George R. R. Martin in that respect, however.) I will continue on with the series.

I also took a mythology class and a photography class this fall for academic credit, and did lots of reading for each of those. One of my favorite sites for photography information was It has lots of short articles and tutorials and examples, and I experienced several lightbulb moments due to that site. One of our main sources in the mythology class was Bulfinch's Mythology, which I found quite difficult to wade through. For one, it's from the mid-1800s so the writing style is different from what most people ready on a daily basis. And second, he often assumes a level of familiarity that modern scholars just don't get in the classroom. Still, it's worth delving into if you want to learn more, particularly about Greek and Roman mythology.

I know there were more, but that's about as good as my record-keeping gets. There were a few cooking and cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and fluff books, plus I re-read the first HP book again. It's been a good few months for me, book-wise! I hope 2017 yields as many good finds. Next up: In the Woods, by Tana French. It's the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series and I've already read the first two chapters, but put it down and got distracted and accidentally left it behind when I went on vacation. Oops!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

When Winging It is Wonderful: Modena

Somewhat spur of the moment, we decided to head down to Modena (accent after the first syllable, I just learned) with a couple of friends and do some Ferrari-driving and balsamic vinegar tasting. We hoped to squeeze in some wine tasting as well and were on the wait list for a highly touted restaurant, but neither of those things panned out. I can't be too bummed about it, because it ended up being a really fun day.

We hit the road shortly after 0800 and started heading South-ish. With good conversation and little traffic, the miles flew by. I suspect they went even faster because we made the other couple take charge of driving. Hah! Don't think we're total responsibility abstainers though, because we did chip in for tolls, which I think came out to something like 18 Euro for the round trip. It took just a little more than an hour and a half to get to Pit Lane, just south of Modena in the town of Maranello. I'd sent an inquiry the night before, but they were closed so we weren't sure if we'd be able to actually drive the cars or not, pending availability. We found ample parking right out front, and were promptly swept the opposite direction from a sweet-talking competitor. Because he was standing pretty much directly in front of Pit Lane, we assumed he worked there, and it took a few minutes before we realized he didn't. However, he assured us there was a bar and the two ladies could wait while the men did the driving. You have a bar, okay, I'm sold! Turns out, there was no bar, but there was a least a shaded outdoor seating area (and coffee vending machine) where I could wait.

Pricing for the test drive started at 70 euro for ten minutes and increased based on the model of car you chose and the length of driving time desired. Having little desire to drive one of those machines and no clue about the difference between the types of Ferrari available, I left all the deciding up to Tony, who ultimately chose to drive a California for 20 minutes. His pal hopped in the back seat and their co-pilot - after a brief demonstration of the paddle shifters - took the passenger side. They started up the video camera and took off. About half an hour later, they came back with big goofy grins on their faces, so I think they deemed it a successful outing. It must have been, because they sprung for a cd of the video and photos to take home. As it turns out, all of the driving was on streets and they had to contend with normal traffic, so they didn't get to go too terribly fast. Only 150 or 170 kph or something like that...(rolls eyes) And the route happened to go by a dog food factory, so I'm sure that was an awesome smell (carne for cani, said the co-pilot). But all-in-all, the gents seemed satisfied so it was a good choice. I do think we're going to have to make a return trip so they can test drive Lamborghinis later. You know, for scientific comparison.

We elected to skip the museum and head directly to lunch. We headed somewhat east of Modena to the small town of Rubbiara di Nonantola. We got a little concerned to be in such a tiny, residential area, and actually drove past the acetaia twice. On the second pass, we were going slow enough to see the signs and determine where to park, and we saw a few people sitting out in the back. They clearly saw us drive by and turn around, because by the time we parked and headed in, the older gentleman was standing outside the door to greet us. He shook all of our hands and introduced himself, and an English-speaking waiter appeared to help translate. My friend asked if they got our reservation, and the old man said they don't read their emails. Baffled, we started backpedaling and trying to ask about lunch, but the waiter started laughing and told us the old guy was joking. Ha ha, you got us! The older guy (I later learned his name was Italo, because I missed it during the introductions) then proceeded to tell us there were only two rules in his osteria. The first was: no cell phones allowed, to which we all promptly and happily agreed. The second was told to us more or less thusly: "No ordering. You eat what I bring you," to which we all promptly and happily started drooling all over ourselves and fighting for seats at the table. Just kidding, first we had to stop and lock our phones in some wooden cubbies. You thought Italo was joking about the no phones rule, huh? He wasn't. As the waiter led us to our seats, the cute little aproned nonna disappeared back to the kitchen.

We sat at a table for four, in a large covered patio surrounded by wisteria and I think boxwoods. Off to the side was a little swing (in the smoking area) and we had a nice view of a big backyard. The weather was perfect - sunny and clear, not too hot, with a slight breeze, and I was so happy we got to enjoy the meal outdoors. In short order, the waiter brought out a bottle of something white and bubbly, produced and bottled on site. To go with it, our first course was a delicate pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach, which we were meant to drizzle with balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano cheese. We didn't fight over the last few pieces, but only because we knew there were more presumably equally delicious dishes coming. We switched to Lambrusco and had a very nice pasta with ragu for the second course. The main course was actually a platter containing balsamic chicken, guinea fowl with prosciutto, balsamic pickled onions, and fritatta (also drizzled with balsamic vinegar). We polished off another half bottle of Lambrusco, and then for dessert we had gelato drizzled with more balsamic vinegar. I couldn't tell if the gelato had a lemon flavor to it, or if the acidity in the vinegar lent a citrus flair to it, but either way it was delicious. Next our waiter brought out coffee and grappa - four kinds of grappa, to be exact. A traditional, a Lambrusco, a walnut, and a limoncino. I tasted the walnut and found it to taste like, well, walnut, with a decidedly coffee-like finish. It was fine, but I'm glad I just had a little sip as a little goes a long way. I had a shot of the limoncino, which really hit the spot after eating such a rich meal. I didn't try the Lambrusco grappa, but as we were walking away Tony left his shot on the table so I went ahead and downed it. Waste not, want not, right?

After the leisurely lunch, we joined a British couple on a tour of the acetaia. First we went to the large aging room and got an explanation of the process, and our eyes started watering from the acrid nature of the air. I noticed a confessional near the door and asked about it. Inside the confessional was a small flask and bottle, for the local priest. I guess that's one way to tithe! Next we went into the small aging room and learned a little about the Pedroni family history. They are in their 7th generation of making balsamic vinegar, though the family name can be traced much farther back. I asked about the family crest and learned it was created in the 1600s, when Leopold I (of Austria) made the family part of the nobility. Traditional Modena balsamic vinegar must age at least 12 years before it can be sold, and the Pedroni acetaia had 12-, 20-, and 40-year old vinegars for sale. The oldest cask in the small aging area dated back to the 1800s! Most of their aging is done in barrels of chestnut, though they also use mulberry, juniper, cherry and I think a few other varieties.
Photo from
After the tour, we went back to the greeting area/lobby for a vinegar tasting. First we tasted some balsamic-pear jam. I could probably eat half a jar of that stuff with a spoon and feel no regrets. Then we tasted their daily balsamic, the IGP which I think I preferred over the 12-year and 20-year stuff. Sadly, we did not taste the 40-year old vinegar. The family sells their wine and grappa (including a cherry grappa we didn't get to sample) along with the vinegar products, and some local honey. We paid 35 euro per person for the meal, tour, and tasting, and it was definitely worth it. You can learn more about the business and products here, and there's even a portion of the website dedicated to recipes:

After lunch we headed to the Vinoteca Modena, recommended by our waiter Lucas. He told us it would be closed but if we knocked and said he sent us, they would open up for us. However, when we got there it looked really really closed, so we decided to head on home.

And by home, I mean we went to the neighborhood gelateria by our friends' house, and then walked across the street to the local butcher and picked up steaks and salsiccia. Then we went to THEIR home and had dinner and played a few games of LRC and dice bowling before heading to our house. For a trip we totally winged, it turned out beautifully.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reading: First Half of 2016

I just realized if I blog this week or next, I can say that I'm still posting at least once a month! Woohoo! Anyway, it's that time of year again, and for once I'm going to be on time, or even early, and not two months late like last time!

This year I've had so much traveling back and forth that it's also given me more time to read for fun again. I've been mostly reading YA stuff, and I've discovered some fun authors.

1. The "His Fair Assassin Trilogy", by Robin LaFevers. I'm on the waitlist for the last book, and the person in front of me is supposed to turn it in by tomorrow, so hopefully I'll get to wrap up this trio soon. I raced through the first two and quite enjoyed them. They're loosely based on historical events surrounding Anne of Brittany in the late 1400s, with some added bonus magic and lady killers thrown in. Not ladykillers, but ladies who are killers. Wait, whaaat? I just learned there might be a fourth book in the works! Sign me up!

2. The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. Boastful - and heretofore successful - thief Gen gets snagged by a powerful king and his henchmen and is forced to go on a mission of utmost political significance. Like that tagline? I made it up myself. The pacing was a bit slow, but even so, I couldn't put it down. I know there are other books in this series and they've now been added to my list, too.

3. Poison Study, by Maria V. Snyder. What captured my interest in this book was the basic premise of a murderer being released from prison to become the king's food taster in accordance with local law, after the previous food taster died of, you guessed it, poison. Ooh, I do love a good intrigue! (Bonus points to you if you caught my movie reference.)

4. Janet Lee Carey's Wilde Island Chronicles. Here there be dragons! Mythology meets fantasy as this blessed (or cursed) family estranged from their Pendragon bloodlines in England seeks to rule over the isolated Wilde Island and all of its many inhabitants. This series is filled with witch hunts, rulers with long-held grudges, fairies with slow-burning political ambitions and, of course, dragons.

5. Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel, by J. Ryan Stradal. Food, family, friends - bildungsroman! I've been waiting forever to use that word in an actual sentence. Probably better to type it than try to pronounce it, though. This is a coming-of-age story woven around the flavors and people of the American Midwest, and I'm so happy Amy made the recommendation.

6. A Pocket Full of Murder, by R. J. Anderson. Magic, murdery, and mystery! Boy, I'm getting good at this alliteration thing. A young girl's father is sent to prison for insurgence and murder, and she pairs with a wise-cracking street urchin to help keep her family solvent - and to solve the crime. 

7. Laurie Halse Anderson. I read four of her books in a row: The Impossible Knife of Memory, Prom, Catalyst, and Speak. The only one I didn't cry and ugly cry while reading was Prom, which was surprisingly upbeat considering the other three. In The Impossible Knife of Memory, a girl and her veteran father try to settle down after their long-haul trucking days come to an end due to the dad's struggle with PTSD. Catalyst is about a teenage girl trying to escape home by getting into a great college (!) when she comes face-to-face with her neighbors' great tragedy. Speak is about bullying, rape, and using art and friendship to win the daily battles a person faces after undergoing that kind of trauma. I think I added these to my list after reading Wintergirls last year, and this is an author I'll keep an eye out for in the future.

8. The Uncommon Reader: A Novella, by Alan Bennett. What happens when the Queen of England discovers a love of reading late in her life? An imaginative and fun little read - if you like the British sensibility, which I do.

9. Life from Scratch, by Melissa Ford. Divorced New Yorker teaches herself to cook - and blogs about it. Like Julie & Julia, but more real.

10. The Peach Keeper: A Novel, by Sarah Addison Allen. I picked up this book because I loved the author's name. Just kidding, I forget how I found it. Not my favorite, but superstition, social class warfare, and small town secrets all play a big part in this book. I did love the throwback Southern vibes and mystery aspects, but some of the petty sniping between key players just made me tired.

11. Bloodroot, by Amy Greene. This is a multi-generational story about an Appalachian family touched by healing powers, madness, and a longing for various kinds of freedom. Here's the tagline from Amazon: "Named for a flower whose blood-red sap possesses the power both to heal and poison, Bloodroot is a stunning fiction debut about the legacies - of magic and madness, faith and secrets, passion and loss - that haunt one family across the generations, from the Great Depression to today." This was just as sad and moving and depressing as The Peach Keeper, but had a certain juxtaposition of grit and grace that kept me interested in the family in more than a superficial way.

12. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Novel, by Mark Haddon. A story of an autistic boy investigating a neighborhood mystery, and discovering some big truths.This one had been on my list for a while, and it was worth the wait. The author did a fantastic job unfolding the story so the reader knew more than the protagonist, and my heart just ached waiting for that lightbulb moment I knew was coming. 

13. Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green. Two boys named Will Grayson accidentally meet. Another good story by the indomitable John Green. I accidentally checked this book out in Spanish the first time, and was so sad that it was beyond my scope. One cannot read stories of teen angst in anything other than the mother tongue, I'm convinced. 

14. Find Me: A Novel, by Laura van den Berg. Meh, this one was pretty forgettable for me, but if you like dark post-apocalyptic/disease sagas, this one might be for you. An addict has an inexplicable immunity to the plague that is running rampant across North America, and she goes to a hospital to participate in an important study before breaking free to find her long-lost mother.

15. Go Set a Watchman: A Novel, by Harper Lee. Despite the brouhaha surrounding this novel, I couldn't stay away. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favorites, and I just had to dig in and find out a little more about Scout and the world in which she grew up. While it wasn't as good as the first book (could anything be?) I'm not sorry I succumbed to my curiosity. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Learning to Speak "Army"

I joke (probably too often) that I don't speak "Army." With all of the acronyms and buzz-words and specialized terminology, it really does seem like a second language. But now I'm a +2 years Army spouse and I've worked on the base for about 10 months, so I'm starting to pick up a thing or two! I thought I would pass that knowledge along in the form of a dictionary-style entry, but I must warn you that all of the opinions and definitions contained herein are my own, or else they are entirely made up. They do not belong to my spouse, the Army, the Coast Guard, my employer, etc etc. It might also be slightly more offensive or profane than my normal posts, so read at your own risk!

Airborne: Can refer to a paratrooper (person who jumps out of aircraft and parachute into locations as part of a military operation), a qualification, or a type of unit. Thought of as a prestigious qual that turns you into an arrogant know-it-all, if you weren't already.

82nd Airborne Division: The B-Team. Cuz they never go anywhere anymore, apparently, even though a Division is bigger than a Brigade and hypothetically grander and more important.

173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team: Infantry Sky Soldiers or some sh!t. AKA the A-Team.

BDU: Battle Dress Uniform. That's the camouflage, which can be traditional or pixelated and is designed to help soldiers blend into their grandmothers' couches.
BDUs in Action
Brigade vs Battalion: A group of battalions or regiments. Mind your own battalion business, d@mmit! Battalions are made of groups of companies. Companies are made of groups of platoons. Got it? I hope so, because I'm still not 100% sure I do.

Camaraderie: Being so close to a group of people you work with that you can identify them, sight unseen, by the smell of their farts or their feet.

Civvies: Civilian clothing, or those which mark you as an American soldier when you're out and about in public.

ERB: Enlisted Record Brief. That piece of paper with your professional/life story on it, only it's all wrong. Can only be updated the day before a promotion board.

ERD: Early Return of Dependents. The government pays to send back family members for any of a limited number of reasons. Don't ask me more about it. Also don't ask your spouse or your neighbor or that girl who works with your best friend or your sergeant's roommate's cousin's brother-in-law's barber. Go to JAG or look it up yourself in the JTR (Chapter 5, Part B3c).

Formation: Stand in rows and count heads. Usually at a very unpreferable time of day, like 0500 or 1645.

FRG: Family Readiness Group. A support network designed for Army families. Full of well-intentioned but often highly misinformed and bored individuals, usually women, some of whom actually volunteer for it and some of whom get coerced into it because of their spouse's rank, title, or position.* 

G.I. Joe: A Hasbro action figure in the National Toy Hall of Fame. Also a General Issue or Government Issue Soldier. Refers to the guys with stinky feet and 100lbs of Army gear in a backpack.

Hand-receipt: The piece of paper you need when you have to sign out some sort of important, expensive, secret, or special equipment to someone else. Everyone needs them, no one does them.

Hollywood: When paratroopers get to jump without all their heavy-@ss equipment.

Joe: Soldier. Like "G.I. Joe." 

Mandatory Fun: AKA Mandofun or Mandatory Morale. When your boss or unit tells you to be somewhere "fun" like a BBQ or going-away party and you'd rather be at home with your family or out drinking. Closely related to "Voluntold" which is when you are told to volunteer for something or it's strongly hinted that it would be highly beneficial for you to do something or be somewhere.

Mentor: That @sshole who writes your evaluations.

MOS: Military Operational Specialty. An alphanumeric code describing what you do all day. Ex. MOS 11B means Infantryman and refers to your basic G.I. Joe.

NCO: Non-commissioned officer. Usually in charge of a lot of things. Probably yells a lot.

P-Hour: When sky soldiers start falling out of aircraft. 

Platoon: A group of 30ish who have to answer to that idiot warrant officer or lieutenant.

Promotion Board: Completely subjective process in which you spiff up in a uniform, get inspected by three random people who probably already know you, and answer a bunch of questions about the Army, soldiering, current events, and useful knowledge like what the soldier ate for breakfast.

PT: Army Physical Training. (APFT is the Army Physical Fitness Test.) That time between 0630 and 0800 that you have to exercise, or pretend to, before work "officially" starts at 0900. There's a special PT uniform, and usually involves wearing shorts and a tshirt even when it's 30 degrees (Farenheit) outside. 

Rainbow PT gear: The opposite of PT uniform. You can wear whatever you want for workouts.

Roger: "I have received all of the last transmission." In other words, "I heard you." Not to be confused with, "I understand" or even "I agree." 

Rucksack: The most manliest of manly man-purses in the world. A soldier's backpack.

Sh!t-hot: Awesome. 

Sky-Soldiering: Having to figure things out and fix sh!t without guidance.

Tactical: The highest compliment you can give a person or piece of equipment.

Tracking: Shorthand for "I'm on it," "I got it," or "I follow what you are saying."

Warrant Officer: I'm actually not exactly sure what they do, or what they're for. But if you see their hat, it means they're somewhere nearby. Definitely haven't gone home for the day if their hat is still on the desk.

Truth about Warrant Officers
Zero Dark Thirty: 12:30 am, 0030, or really early in the morning.

Asshole: That friend you would kill or die for. And can identify by the smell of their farts or their feet.

*Kidding aside, I highly recommend you get in touch with your FRG if you are affiliated with the Army. They have some great resources and often have fun get-togethers! And if you ever have any sort of emergency, they will drop everything to help out.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Four-Leaf Clovers

I find more four-leaf clovers than the average person. I joke it's because I spend more time actively looking for them than the average person, but I do think I have a knack for it. I would say that maybe it's genetic, because my dad has also found more than his fair share, but my brother says he's never found one at all. If you ever want to give it a whirl, here are my very highly scientific (ha!) tips and tricks of the trade.

1. Look for them.

I'm not joking or being facetious. You'll never find one if you don't look. Go to a local park, find a big patch of clovers, and start looking. Convince your spouse to go on a picnic. Just devote an hour to it and tell your kids it's a treasure hunt. Look along the curb when you're walking to your local coffee or gelato shop or to the mailbox. Even if you don't find one, you'll still have passed a good afternoon outside. Just, you know, be mindful of sunburn and bugs and cow poop. Or sheep poop, if you live near Vicenza...

2. Don't waste time looking through the wrong sort of clovers.

White Clover
If the clovers have triangular or heart-shaped leaves, you probably won't find a four-leaf clover. Most four-leaf clovers come from your every day garden variety White Clover. Also, quadrifolia plants masquerade as clovers, but they're not. Sorry to burst your bubble!

3. Start at the fringe of the patch.

For some reason, most of the four-leaf clovers I find are toward the edges of the patch rather than the center. I think maybe the runners are more exposed to things that could cause damage. Or maybe just the runners are more likely to be genetically corrupt. Who knows. I like to look around the edges of a patch, maybe moving in a circle, and tend to skip looking in the middle.

4. Don't look too hard.

That might sound counter-intuitive, but I find I have better luck when I scan rather than search. It's easier for me to notice a disruption in the pattern when my eyes are less focused and moving quickly. Sometimes I'll stand over a patch and lean over it a bit, and just poke around with my foot if something catches my eye. I don't look at the leaves too much; I tend to look for the white rings at the center of the clover. If I'm sitting down, I might run my fingertips through the patch to sort of separate the clovers from each other, but usually it's not necessary unless something catches my eye.
I count four...
5. If you find one, don't stop looking!

I remember walking through a disc golf park with my brother and mentioning that I find them often. No kidding, within two minutes I glanced down and one just jumped out at me. He said something like, "No way" and then within a few steps I found another one. This is how it goes though: where there's one, there's likely another one nearby. Last weekend I looked at dozens of patches and didn't see a single four-leaf clover. I was about to give up when I saw one more patch at the base of a tree, and stopped for a peek. Within 10 minutes I found 14 clovers! One of them had five leaves and one of them even had six leaves! I don't normally look around trees, but I definitely will in the future.

6. If you find one and choose to pick it, press it right away.

Clovers will shrivel up quickly after being picked. I've tried plopping them in vases of water and I've even tried plucking some with bits of roots to see if I could get them to grow at home, with no luck. (Yet.) I like to put them in the pages of a book (my Italian cookbook, to be exact) but a lot of people swear by wax paper. You know what else is a good option? A good old-fashioned phone book. If you use a book to press your clovers, use a nice heavy book with thin or textured paper, not the glossy kind. Trying to press a clover in glossy paper might result in mold or mildew. Yuck. That's why I personally avoid wax paper. Just beware that the clovers become brittle after time, and a sort of dull gray. Some people recommend pressing twice - once fresh, and once after a quick brush with green food coloring. I've never tried using food coloring on a clover, but since I've got such a collection going now, maybe I'll give it a whirl and see what happens. You can laminate them for bookmarks, use in coasters or paperweights, or even make jewelry out of them. I personally believe your luck is even better if you share your finds with a friend. 

Happy hunting, folks. The sky is the limit!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Kaiserslautern, Germany: KTown for the Win!

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Kaiserslautern, Germany for two weeks of work-related training. I've been to Germany once or twice before, but until this trip never had any real time to spend in the country. I stayed fairly busy from 0800-1600, but after that I had free time whenever there weren't work dinners to attend. And for the record, I am not normally a fan of "mandatory morale" functions, but I have such a fantastic group of co-workers who also happen to have excellent taste in food, so these outings were never a burden!

The flowers in Germany knew it was springtime, but someone forgot to notify the sun. I think if I'd stayed another week, I would have seen many more buds and blooms on the trees, but it was still a little gray and dreary when I was there. One of my favorite weather adjectives is "Seattle-ish" and if you've ever lived there, you know exactly what I mean. It only really rained once or twice in two weeks, but that's about how many days of sunshine we had, too. Mostly it was just a bit overcast, cool but not cold enough to be uncomfortable. 

When I arrived, there was some sort of street fair going on right outside my hotel. I stayed at the SAKS, which straddles the line between new and old Kaiserslautern. It's a great location for walking and exploring, and happens to be situated right on a plaza. After I unpacked my bag, I wandered outside for some exploring. At first I didn't see anything out of the ordinary - roasted nuts, carousel, lavender soaps. And then I saw my first pretzel! Have I mentioned that I am a fan of pretzels? I can be a bit leery though, as I had both the best and the worst pretzel of my life on the same day in Munich, about two blocks away from each other, which just emphasizes that one just never knows. I did a little pretzel research (by this I mean that I both ate a lot of pretzels in the name of "research" but also did some Googling and lots of reading, not that I went to a library or searched specifically for scholarly articles on pretzels, because, duh, that would be overkill) and discovered there's quite a deal of history to this seemingly simple concoction. Some stories say pretzels were invented in the 600s by monks in the area where Italy and France currently meet, while others of course give credit to the Germans. There is a distinctly Venetian version of pretzels called precedella, which are traditional pretzel-shaped but sweeter, flavored by such additives as wine, anise, or cinnamon. Then there are American-style hard pretzels, credited to the Pennsylvania Dutch, who aren't really Dutch at all but German, and those pretzels are distinctly different from their European counterparts. There's also debate over dipping the pretzels in a very caustic lye bath or a more moderate baking soda solution, or just foregoing that part for a water mist or quick boil, a la bagel. And then there are all the delicious things you can top a bagel with! Salt flakes, of course, being the most traditional, but then you have cheese (my favorite, especially when it gets all crispy) or cinnamon-sugar or chocolate.
German Pretzels
I'm digressing. I noticed it when I started drooling. Sorry about that. Anyway, the street fair was fun, the pretzels were delicious, and I especially enjoyed listening to all the music. There were two different marching bands, plus an accordion player and a pan flutist. I passed several booths of vendors selling cheeses and of course sausage, but my euro stayed safely in my wallet. 

Work was good, though it made my brain tired, and my co-workers are lovely. That's about all I'm going to say about that. Mostly I carpooled to work, but sometimes I caught the hotel shuttle and once or twice I even walked. While there was a little break room on site, our food options were pretty limited nearby, but we made do. We ate out a few times, walked to a local bakery a few more times, ordered food to be delivered (once, with sad results), ordered food to be picked up, and survived. The Asian buffet was okay, the Indian food from the Curry House was delightful, I thoroughly enjoyed the wraps from the bakery, and we should probably never speak of the delivery food ever again. Okay fine. I had falafel and some sort of red sauce eggplant ratatouille, which I really enjoyed once I added some salt. But my poor coworker ordered fish and potatoes, and the potatoes tasted fishy and the fish tasted bland; all of the food was white and boring and entirely off-putting. I later learned that Germans are not known for their fish-cooking prowess, but I'm not entirely surprised to learn this. As much as I love Italy and Italian food, I thus far have not been impressed by their fish dishes, either, but I haven't given up yet. For the most part, Italians seem to stick to Italian food. There are a few international cuisine options, but they are few and far between where I live, so whenever I travel I always look to try new food, whether it be local or from far-flung corners of the world.

In Germany, a few people particularly recommended I try a dish called Flammkuchen. It's basically a flatbread, traditionally with creme fraiche, onions, and bacon. Sign me up, please! I couldn't believe how light it was, when I was expecting something heavy. I can't wait to try making this at home sometime. (The picture is from a food website and will take you to a recipe.) My other favorite German food is now kase spaetzle. I had it twice, and tasted somebody else's once. (Really, that time I wanted to devour my co-worker's food but decided to be the bigger person and politely try a bite instead of stealing her plate and running away to a corner to shove my face into the food.) It's better than macaroni and cheese, when done right. And I don't feel even remotely guilty or un-American for saying that, either. It's egg noodles with cheese and magic and caramelized onions and possibly breadcrumbs and gravy and unicorn love. It's another dish I can't wait to try making at home but also feel will in no way do justice to the meals I consumed in Southern Germany.
By far my favorite meal was from my last night in Germany, when my boss introduced us to a Greek restaurant called Sorbas (or maybe Zorbas?) about 20 minutes outside of Kaiserslautern. We were a group of seven people, and we left the ordering to the two Greeks. They ordered an assortment of food for us, sort of tapas-style, and we dug in. I haven't been so very full in a long time. There was tender octopus, crispy fried eggplant, garlicky tzatziki, chicken, lamb, bistecca patties, salad, and of course warm, homemade pitas. I think there were a few more things but honestly I can't remember. Suffice to say, it was really good.
(I stole this collage from Angie's Instagram page because I was too busy stuffing my face to take photos.)
Trier, Germany
In the non-food-related topic of things I did in Germany, the highlight was definitely my trip to Trier. The town, nestled along the Moselle River near the Luxembourg border, came highly recommended by so many people that I braved public transport in a foreign country in order to visit it. Woohoo, look at me adventuring forth! It took about 2.5 hours via train to get there and my co-worker/friend and I arrived sometime before lunch. We trekked off by foot to the Porta Nigra, the oldest Roman gate North of the Alps, and then took a left-hand turn into the historic center of the city. We wandered along the cobbled streets for a bit, and found the ruins of the Roman baths, too. We visited the Constantine Basilica and the Trier Cathedral, as well as the Trier Diocese Museum, which we had all to ourselves! It was light and airy and fully of beautiful art and artifacts. For lunch we stopped at a potato restaurant. Yes, you heard me: a potato restaurant. I had potato dumplings stuffed with meatballs, and they were lovely. I had a wave of dizziness at the restaurant, I think because it was really warm in there, but I did enjoy the food. After some more wandering and hot tea (it was cold!), we went to the Trier city museum. I loved it! I was very impressed with both of the museums we went to. I think my favorite exhibit was a floor full of old clothing. People were tiny a few hundred years ago, and the clothing looked so heavy! I bought a couple little gifts but we were pretty much done after the second museum. We headed back to the train station a little early, and waited a while. Funny story: we got on the correct train, but my friend heard announcement that half of the train was going one direction (to Luxembourg) and the other half was headed the opposite direction. And guess who was on the wrong half of the train! I'm so fortunate I was with someone who understood some German, because that announcement was NOT made in English. Whoops. Anyway we got off the train and sprinted forward a few cars and thankfully made it. The trip back was more or less uneventful (the lady in front of us had a horrendous nosebleed, but was ultimately fine) and I did nothing else interesting or productive with the rest of my weekend.
Porta Nigra Roman ruins viewed from the Trier City Museum courtyard
All in all, it was a good balance of work and play (i.e. food), and I'm happy to go back in the fall for more training. I would love to make a side trip to Heidelberg when I go back. That's my one regret from this trip, but hey, I still had a great time!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Wine-Tasting in Valpolicella Region

I recently went wine-tasting with a couple of girlfriends from work. (I work! I have girlfriends from work! Whoa.) We made plans to carpool to the Valpolicella wine region, just north of Verona. It takes about an hour to get out there from where we live, but the drive went by very quickly despite horrendous rain. We arrived for our 10:00 am appointment at Antolini in the town of Marano just on time, and were met by a very cheerful Paolo. 

First, we went upstairs into the grape-drying area. When grapes are dried for wines like Amarone and Recioto, it is important to have a cool temperature and just the right humidity. Many wine-growers use lofts of barns or warehouses, and control the temperature and humidity with a mix of old-fashioned ways and modern technology. Unfortunately, we just missed the Amarone pressing by a couple of weeks so we didn't get to see (or smell) the drying grapes or witness the pressing. Allora. Next we went to the cellar, where juice was fermenting in a variety of barrels. Antolini uses a mix of sizes and materials - 225L, 500L, 1500L, etc. I was most surprised to find they use not only oak barrels, but also chestnut, cherry, and mulberry. The wood is sourced from Italy, Slovenia, and America. Next we went back to the tasting room - but only after Paolo pointed out some of the vines next to the driveway. With thick, gnarly trunks, the vines were 40-45 years old and trained with a horizontal spread much like a scarecrow on crossed sticks. I learned that often the oldest vines produce the favored grapes for Amarone and Ripasso.

The tasting line-up at Antolini
Next up: the tasting! We got to taste all of Antolini's wines with the exception of the 2013 Ripasso. So sad; I love Ripasso! Allora. The first wine we tasted was, of course, the Valpolicella Classico. It was very fruity, but a little young for me. Classico is not generally my favorite because they tend to be pretty bright and sometimes too acidic for my test. Next up, a pleasant surprise, the Corvina. This is only the second place I've ever seen Corvina bottled on its own and not part of a blend (Monte Tondo in Soave being the first), and it was really delicious and slightly peppery (one of my favorite things to taste in a red wine). This was the first vintage they tried it at Antolini, from 2013, and I think it was a very successful experiment. It was more medium-bodied and fruity, but not nearly as tart as the Classico, and a hint of the oak and maybe some almond smells came through. Next up was the TheoBroma Rosso Veronese, which is a blend of Cab Sav and Croatina. I'm pretty sure the Croatina grape is one that is only used in Italy. The TheoBroma was the most tannic and oaky of all the Antolini wines, and is not something I think I'd gravitate to but I bet my husband would really enjoy. Finally, the moment I was particularly looking forward to, a side-by-side comparison of their two Amarone wines: Moropio and Ca Coato. Both great! The Moropio is more intensely fruity and has an underlying minerality, whereas the Ca Coato was very soft and velvety. I think the Moropio was a little more dry and spicy and the Ca Coato was more fruity, with a pretty good undertone of vanilla and subtle caramel. I'd drink the Moropio with food and the Ca Coato on its own. MWAH! Delizioso. Last, we tasted the Recioto, a very typical dessert wine from this region. And by typical, I mean they have literally been producing this wine in this region for thousands of years, long before Amarone and Ripasso were produced. My main issue with dessert wines is that often they are syrupy and cloyingly sweet. The Recioto from Antolini? Not at all! It's pretty amazing to me the difference it makes when you stop the fermentation process early to produce a Recioto versus letting it go all the way to make an Amarone. Same grapes, same process to a certain point, but wildly different results. This particular Recioto I think could be dangerous, because you can barely taste the alcohol. It's light and refreshing and I'm pretty sure I could just drink it all day if I was in the mood. 

After tasting all the Antolini wines - and putting a nice dent in my pocketbook when I purchased lots of wine to bring home - we asked Paolo if he had any lunch recommendations for us. He said his favorite restaurant was still closed for the winter, and told us about his second-favorite place. He even called and made a reservation for us, and gave us business cards for both places, for whenever we go back to that part of the country. Talk about excellent customer service! Oh, and Antolini is the only winery we visited that did not charge us a tasting fee.

Since we still had a good bit of time before lunch, we decided to make an impromptu trip to Fratelli Vogadori. We called ahead to make sure they were open and let them know we were coming, but it turns out that was probably unnecessary as they only had a few other people in the giant tasting room. We found it pretty easily, though I did have to make a crazy-tight turn into their driveway (fine, I admit, I Austin Powersed my way in there). They have a nice big gravel lot with a great view of the valley below, and the tasting room maximizes that view with lots of glass windows. We sat down right in a corner and one of the three brothers came over to walk us through the tasting session, and set out a plate of bread and their house olive oil -from the trees we could see right underneath us through the windows! First, the Valpolicella Classico, which - no surprises here - was too tart for me. Next up, their Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, aka the Ripasso, which was dynamite. One of my top wines of the day. It smelled like raisins to me but had a hint of cinnamon and maybe some other baking-related smell I couldn't quite identify. We also got to taste both of their Amarone wines, so I got a bonus side-by-side tasting. The first was delicious - very strong vanilla and caramel smells. The second was also delicious, and one of the most distinct chocolate-smelling and tasting wines I've ever had. It was also not as tannic as the first one. One neat thing about the second Amarone, the Forlago, was that every few minutes the smell and taste really evolved. Old-timers say that you should open a bottle at least one hour ahead of time for every year of its age. Many people will open a bottle in the morning to enjoy after dinner, or even open it the night before. Amarone can also age very well in the bottle, so of course it will probably taste very different years down the line. We also inquired about a couple of other wines on the list, and Gaetano (I really hope that's the name of the correct brother) kindly opened a bottle of Raffaello for us. The Raffaello is named for their father, and has been in production for about a decade. I think it's basically an Amarone, but they classify it as a Rosso Veronese IGT, so I'm not sure. It's aged in cherry rather than oak, so maybe that's why. Very yummy wine! Were we done yet? No. There's more! I was so sad to pour out so much wine throughout the day, but as the driver I wanted to be very careful and safe. We also tasted their Recioto, which was slightly thicker than the one from Antolini, and a little sweeter. Still, not at all too heavy. But wait, there's more! Oh yes, there is. The dreaded Grappa. Now, those of you who know me know that I am generally not a fan of Grappa. I like the ones that are sweet and taste like a liquid Jolly Rancher, but traditional Grappa is gross, and the herbed ones I find flat-out disgusting. That said, I actually didn't mind their Amarone Grappa aged in barrique. I don't think I would seek it out, but if someone poured me a glass I wouldn't mind sitting and sipping it to be social, and I might actually enjoy it. 
The tasting line-up at Fratelli Vogadori
I read a bunch of reviews on Trip Advisor, and I was surprised by some of the negative critiques. We had a great experience, and a very relaxed chat with one of the owners. He was very knowledgeable and we talked in a fair amount of depth about the history of the region, methods of wine production, and distinct characteristics of each wine. He did have to get up a few times to attend to other things - after all, it's his business! - but that didn't detract from the experience whatsoever. He was clearly passionate about wine-making and proud to share that their winery is so environmentally friendly - no chemical fertilizers, no pesticide, etc. I can see how possibly the place could get very full during tourist season and people's experiences might not be so intimate, but I have zero complaints or reservations. Speaking of reservations, Fratelli Vogadori also has rooms for rent! Each room has its own bathroom and there's a shared kitchen. I'm seeing an overnight trip in my future! 

By this time, we were more than ready for lunch. We trekked on over to Osteria alla Pieve, in the town of San Pietro in Cariano. Paolo knows the owner and chef, and they knew exactly who we were when we walked in, and walked us straight to our little table in a corner - across from the wood-fire merrily crackling in a fireplace. We each ordered a little appetizer, some acqua naturale, and another bottle of wine. (I tasted the wine, a DOC Valpolicella from La Giaretta, but I didn't really drink any. It was pretty good with food.) We each got to taste the Monte Veronese fonduta (local cheese fondue), prosciutto praga (Prague ham) with pickled onions, and polenta with mushrooms and cheese, if my memory is correct. I ordered pasta with black truffles, and my friends ordered Amarone-marinated steak, with potatoes and salads. And we got to watch the steaks cook on the fire! Color me impressed, and color the steaks the perfect shade of pink. Yum yum. The restaurant also has a huge wine selection, including wines made by the owners. I wish we'd had more time to sit and savor (and let's be honest, try dessert), but we had to head across the valley to our last wine-tasting appointment at Le Bignele.
Four typical grape varietals of the Valpolicella Region
And by across the valley, I mean over the river and through the woods and along some twisty, curvy, narrow roads. I think my knuckles are still white from the experience. I've been to Le Bignele before and definitely remembered some narrow and winding roads, but this time we approached from the opposite direction. We turned on a gravel road and headed up a steep incline, and near the top we passed a couple of farmers loading a tractor. About fifteen yards past them, the road did an exceptionally sharp turn to the left and appeared to dead-end in their "driveway." I backed into a flat area (presumably used for loading and unloading tractors) and pointed back down the hill. My friend rolled down her window and proceeded to tell them we were lost and ask if they knew how to get to Le Bignele. They pointed and said we were only three hundred meters away, back up the hill behind us. Apparently the road did TWO s-turns and it was so steep and sharp that we couldn't see the second one. We thanked them and I backed into the same turnaround spot (thank goodness it was there, or I would have been completely screwed) and carried on. I had to do another Austin Powers back-and-forth turn to make the second bend, and then it got REALLY interesting. Imagine a nice dirt walking path. Now imagine that path with some intermittent patches gravel. And now imagine that walking path has stone walls on both sides. And now use your imagination to picture a charcoal gray 2013 Honda Accord squeezing down that path so tightly that the mirrors only had a couple inches of clearance. Then about a hundred yards down the lane, add in two concrete strips where the tires should go. Now picture me driving that Accord, scootched way forward in my seat and sitting high over the steering wheel, slowly creeping along that road and praying there aren't any sharp turns. That was how we approached the winery. I can feel my heart rate speeding up just writing about it! 

When we finally, mercifully, arrived at Le Bignele, Sylvia (the owners' daughter) was ready for us. We got out of the car and she greeted us. Then she said, "And who is the driver?" I raised my hand and she said, "I commend you. You just took the ancient road. It has been there a very, very long time. When you leave, be sure to go the other way." (Spoiler alert: I did. It was still narrow and windy, but not nearly so nerve-wracking.)

Inside the Bignele Cellar, photo from their website
After a brief tour of the steel tanks, cellar filled with barrels, and grape-drying area, we headed downstairs to the tasting area. We all promptly fell in love with a shelf full of "Olivia Pope Wine Glasses," and then sat around the table. (You can purchase the glasses here: Crate and Barrel Camille ) Before Sylvia poured our first glass, we were joined by a local Italian gentleman who came in to buy some Ripasso but stayed to taste the whole selection when he heard Sylvia was doing a session for us. It was a merry group. We tasted five wines at Le Bignele: a Rosso Veronese, a Classico Superiore, Ripasso, Amarone, and a Recioto. I enjoyed the first very much, and again was not a huge fan of the Classico. I can definitely identify a trend! The Ripasso was dry and fruity, and their Amarone remains one of my favorites. It's a little more delicate than some, but still has great cherry and vanilla flavors. Very well-balanced and drinkable. I think perhaps it's less of an occasion wine than some Amarone out there. The Recioto was the heaviest and sweetest of all the ones we tried that day, but not in a bad way. Syliva served it with chocolate chip biscotti and joked that if we wanted to live, we'd only eat store-bought cookies at her place and not anything she cooked. At that point we told her about asking her neighbors for directions, and she instantly knew who they were, and said the lady is a very good cook. We said we should all go to her house next and ask for more biscotti! Le Bignele normally charges a ten euro per person tasting fee, but it is waived when you purchase their wine. After we made our last purchases, we loaded up the car and hit the road. I definitely remembered to go the more traditional route instead of taking the ancient road home, and was much more relaxed for having made that decision.

Overall opinion: If you want to go tasting in Valpolicella country, you can't go wrong at any of these three places. All three experiences were personalized to us. I think Antolini was the easiest to find and Vogadori had the best view, but I felt most comfortable relaxing at Le Bignele, if any of those opinions factor into your decision. All of the wines seemed pretty characteristic - lots of fresh cherry and red fruits, vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate. I think there's probably something to suit everyone's tastes.

Bonus: Here's a great, simple run-down of the different tires of Valpolicella wines: