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Monday, January 30, 2012

French Travel Adventures: Train from Montpellier to Florence. Part One.

Have you ever journeyed by train alone in France? Italy? How did it go? 

In the circa of fall 2005 I took a long train ride from Montpelier, France to Florence, Italy. And back again.

To be most sure the outgoing excursion was a beautiful ride, all along the Mediterranean! 

I lifted my skirt for the Rhone to empty into the sea at Marseilles, I wiped sweat with the length of my flowered scarf as we teetered along the rocky Calanques at Toulon, then the legendary Cote d’Azur fueled us with Aioli breezes. We chugged ever more stealthily into Genoa and its bay of pesto in Liguria. And even then we lost no steam gathering grapes at the base of the steep vineyards of the Cinque Terre. The train heated our path along the clammy looking Marble Mountains and squeezed into Firenze.

You see at the time I was headed towards work in Florence. And meeting a nice little group of ladies who were quite ready to pull up to a small unassuming villa of 320 rooms some 8 miles east of Florence that was formerly owned by Martini and Rossi, called Torre Cona. We didn't stay in the main expanse of the Villa. But in the gorgeous renovated agricultural or "fattoria" (farm) worker buildings. 

Fattoria Accomodations of Torre Cona Estate

As you might imagine the journey took a long time, a very long time. But there is something so quiet and rapturous about train travel. I was in love dozing by the window, scribbling notes, and lazing like a cat in the beautiful sunshine.

Fall Funghi in Tuscan Market

Making Paolo with Pasta. I mean Making Pasta with Paolo. 

But as much fun as work can be making sure that the cooking classes and the wine touring in Tuscany (read the vehement Gypsy lady story) went superbly well and did the following "going away to write" in Corniglia (read the story of two fires and a muse) it was the return trip from La Spezia, Italy that held yet another, just the opposite,  kind of adventure from my long inward bound trip.

Vin Santo Grapes Drying in the Villa Torre Cona, Italy

By this time I could certainly read Italian train schedules and flashing train numbers and find the tracks and even, get on the right train. This is important. Boarding in La Spezia I was able to board an earlier train. Pronto. I was pleased. I would arrive in Montpelier at the same time, but I would have more time in the train station in Nice to while away the hours sipping café at a café and remember back to 2003 and my first visit there.

Market in the Cours Saleya in Nice, France

Not much happened until the train stopped in San Remo, Italy, just before the French border, but in full view of the Sea. This was not unusual. An announcement was made. Also, not unusual. I was sitting in a 1st class cabin with about five other folks. That was unusual. But no one had stopped me from joining these plucky fellow travelers. 

Setting Sun in the Mediterranean

Everyone in the compartment except for me and an Asian Gentle Man gathered their belongings and departed the train. No one made any motion to us that seemed of dire consequence. Everyone was neat, orderly and totally composed. Then ensued a period of the beautifully tan and coifed and costumed people exiting the train from other First Class cars and standing in the station which looked very crowded to me, but there was never, I repeat not one, single ion (if ions are a viable description of atmosphere) of atmosphere of hmm, something more, something indeed of the “else” variety is going on here.

An elegant announcement began; undoubtedly made by a gentleman wearing cologne but it didn’t sound any different to me than any other train station arrival announcement.

Madame Messieurs.
C’est arrive Montpelier.
Je suis perdue.
Bien sur.
Je voudrais un croissant, peutetre doux.
Avec un grand café crème.
Oui! D’accor! D’accor!
Enfin. Exite.
Au revoir.

(Of course I don’t mean to imply that the announcements always say exactly that. I am not stupid. They are honed to the season. The aromas of the department we are traveling through. And just as often speak about a luxurious confit or a salad nicoise, or pomme lyonnaise – sometimes even mentioning a glass of vin rouge or vin blanc)

Soon enough there were conductors and police passing our cabin, and so we opened our door to inquire. And they kept repeating Bomb, get off!!

Of course we’ll get off. Why didn’t you say so earlier?

Tell me your train travel tale! And come back for Part Two. And Part Three. 

Oyster Mushroom Straciatella

This soup. This soup! Made in one pot, this soup is a wonderful way to warm up to the meal and impending conversations. both while making it in the kitchen and eating it at the table.

makes 8 servings

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
6 dried mushrooms, reconstituted and coarsely chopped
3 cups oyster mushrooms, or your choice, coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 sweet bell peppers, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup each fresh parsley and basil
1 cup white wine
2 quarts chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 eggs

2 tablespoons fresh grated romano cheese
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed soup kettle over medium heat. 

Add the garlic, onions, carrots, celery, peppers, and fresh mushrooms. 

Saute these, stirring and tossing, for 7-8 minutes, or until softened.  pour in the white wine and scrape up any browned bits of vegetables. 

Add the dried mushrooms, their liquid and stock or water and bring to a boil.  

Simmer for 40-50 minutes.  Stir in the cream. 

In a separate bowl beat the three eggs and add to the simmering soup, continue to heat over medium for a minute or two, till the eggs cook.  

Remove from heat, transfer to a tureen or serve right from the stove.  

Top each bowl with some of the grated cheese and the fresh chopped parsley.

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