How-To: Wine Taste Like a Pro

It's time to get classy! Rome was a great place - exhausting, but great. But it was time to take a vacation from the vacation and go to the no-free-wi-fi town of Greve in the Chianti Region of Tuscany. We went to Castello di Verrazzano for a wine tour, and it was a blast.

The tour started off with a history of the castle, which was actually quite interesting because Giovanni da Verrazzano the first explorer to sail to New York Harbor in 1524, but credit for discovery always went to the country who commissioned the voyages. Giovanni's quest was sponsored by the French, who were taken over by Spain and his history was lost for some time. But his accomplishment is starting to resurface in the classroom, and there is even a bridge in his name in New York: the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

After the brief history lesson, we went through different rooms. Some of the passageways could get pretty dark and narrow. Definitely had to watch our feet (and in Errol's case, his head).

They also make their own balsamic vinegar, which is aged for 10 years. The barrels at the back of the room are the youngest, and get moved every year to the next barrel. They get smaller because the vinegar reduces over time and you get a delicious, sweet, concentrated syrup (not quite that thick, but it's definitely thicker than what we get in our US grocery stores).

Finally, it was time to taste the wine! Accompanied with our tour was also a plate of food, perfectly timed for the meal to count for lunch.

So here's the steps to taste wine like a professional:
Step 1: Make sure you always hold the glass at the stem so you don't warm the wine with your fingers. Lean the glass over a white surface to make sure the wine is the proper color, with no foreign particles in it.

Step 2: Smell the wine. Make sure you really stick your nose in the glass!

Step 3: Swish the wine by moving the glass in a small circle with the bottom of the glass staying on the table. Do this for 10-15 seconds 

Step 4: Smell the wine again (with nose in!). It should smell different because more oxygen has incorporated into the liquid to bring out more scents. This was a really cool part to learn! The smell was always completely different from the first time.

Step 5: Finally get to taste! Take a sip, and swish it around in your mouth. 
Different parts of the tongue sense different tastes.

Step 6: Swallow and repeat again. Or in my case, have a bite of food. 

The food plate was amazing, filled with salami, wild boar, multiple cheeses, and lard right in the middle. We also got to have a tiny morsel of their balsamic vinegar, aka balsamic gold.

And they also make their own grappa, a grape-based brandy.
Not a huge fan, but it was definitely a first.

I would highly recommend everyone visit here while taking a trip to Italy. Just make sure you eat a big breakfast and leave some time after to sober up if you drive. Now I actually have a beginner's idea of what I'm looking at in the wine section of Harris Teeter.
And the views were absolutely spectacular.


Italy Trip: Food in Rome

Food is extremely important... especially in Italy! In Rome, I didn't necessarily learn as much about food history as I did in the Tuscan region, but as our first stop in Italy, Errol and I learned a lot of the "traditions" and restaurant etiquette. 

I rarely ever eat breakfast... I prefer to sleep right up until I have just enough time to change and run to the bus for class. But when you're trying to have enough energy for the physical and mental toll that Rome takes out of you, carbo-loading is a must. And eventually, it became part of my stomach's food clock that has even rolled over to now! 

Of the three places we stayed in Rome (and in the other cities - more on those separately), the breakfast was the same: cappuccino, bread, pastries (filled with cream, nutella, etc.), and various spreads. Another benefit of breakfast was that it was always included in our hostel/B&B, so we saved Euros that way. 

We always wanted to have light but filling (is that possible?) meals for lunch so we didn't get food coma. That usually meant pizza! Pizza in Italy is quite a delicacy, and made me forget the greasy dough I used to get from Little Caesar's for $5 for a quick college dinner. We had lots of different types of pizza, but all menus had generally the same kinds:

  • Margherita - tomato + mozarella
  • Napoli - 4 to 5 anchovies spread across the pizza; only need a little bit for the full effect! 
  • Prosciutto - self-explanatory; delicious, melt-in-your-mouth slices 
  • BIG TIP: "Pepperoni" in America is "salame piccante" in Italy, and is much better! 

My absolute favorite pizza was in Dar Poeta in Trastevere, a quaint area in southeast Rome. This pizza had the perfect combination of tart and savory, and I couldn't get enough of it:

buffalo mozzarella with artichokes topped with parmigiano reggiano

Just as a heads up, restaurants try to maximize tables in a small area, so every place has an outside area. We almost always chose to sit outside! Just keep a look out for the scooters and Smart cars that try to squeeze through; they get pretty close!

Probably one of the more expensive places we ate was at Enoteca Cavour 313, recommended by our Rick Steves guidebook. These pictures are what we had for dinner one night, but count as appetizers in my book. We got to have some delicious cheeses, and a first - beef carpaccio! As you can see it's raw beef sliced extremely thinly, topped with olive oil, red onion, capers, and a couple of anchovies. Surprisingly it was almost too salty for me (those who know me know that's a rarity!), but I still really liked it.

Another restaurant we went to was our first full meal with multiple courses, and we learned a lot.
  1. Water is never free in a restaurant. You order one water for 2 people, and they bring out a 500 mL bottle that you ration on your own (generally 2-3 Euros a bottle!).
  2. Sitting costs money. There's lots of standing eating, or getting food to-go and eating at a square. In fact, when I think back I think only tourists eat at restaurants because true Italians think a cover charge is ridiculous (which it is). It will cost 2-3 Euros per person tacked onto the bill. 
  3. BIG TIP: If there's a cover charge, DON'T TIP. Really, don't. 
  4. There's a charge for bread, and you get it no matter what. Most Italian restaurants in America give you bread with olive oil and herbs, or garlic breadsticks. In Italy, you get bread with olive oil and vinegar (balsamic or white wine). And that's normally 2-3 Euros. 
With that, you already have added at least 6 Euros to your bill before you've even had your meal. Crazy, right? As we progressed through the trip, we ate at restaurants less often simply due to all of the extra hidden costs. 

That being said, the food at this restaurant (whose name escapes me) was delicious! Top left is buffalo mozzarella (absolute fave), bottom left was spaghetti carbonara (on my food bucket list), and bottom right was Errol's veal. 

If you are sick of pasta - which you are bound to be no matter how much you love it - there are kebab places all over the place! Super cheap, super delicious, they're essentially the gyros you know of, but in wraps. Once we discovered these, we ate at one every couple of days. I wish we had more places like this to replace McDonald's! 

Last but not least was the sweets! In Rome, I didn't have very much dessert. However, we did have plenty of gelato at any time of day! There are little window shops everywhere, where you can order your cone or cup and be on your merry way. There are tons of flavors, and some are quite interesting... but Errol's favorite was mango! Here he is holding one of the dozens of mango in a  "cono piccolo".

The only other dessert we had in a restaurant in Rome was the nutella calzone... I think you can guess if I liked it or not.

Another dessert on my food bucket list was panna cotta, a creamy dessert that is a mix between pudding and jello and is delicious! I grabbed one of these in a window shop for a couple of Euros.

Overall, the first city in Italy gave us a great introduction to food, and the best was yet to come! If you ever go to Italy, I hope you learn from our restaurant mistakes and try a lot of the things we did.


Giveaway: Custom Handwrapped Earbuds (Chelsea Harms)

To enter the giveaway: CLICK HERE

One of my friends, Chelsea Harms, is celebrating 100 sales on her Etsy shop by giving away her BESTSELLER: custom handwrapped earbuds. You remember those friendships bracelets we made when we were younger? Chelsea beautifully wraps earbuds that are just for you!

The great things about these earbuds are that you can select your own colors and once wrapped, make it very hard to tangle (definitely a frustration with my own non-wrapped earbuds!)

Here's a little screen shot of her part of Etsy shop, where you can see lots of earbuds already made for sale (along with lots of her other unique pieces from materials of the ocean and the land):

But HURRY! This amazing giveaway ends tomorrow!

While you're at it, also check out her amazing blog (CLICK HERE) filled with recipes, reviews, and personal posts about her life in La Parguera, Puerto Rico.


Bake-venture: Peanut butter-banana bread with chocolate chips

During the school year, it was difficult to find time or energy to make anything from scratch. One miraculous weekend, I did! And every time I do, I think "That didn't take long, I could do this regularly"... then the laziness kicks in. 

As I said in my first banana bread post, this is always a great way to use your bananas that seem inedible and engulfed in blackness. 

Perusing online, I found this delicious variation from Brown Eyed Baker

Be warned: this is only for those who love chocolate chips. 

All of the wet ingredients in a bowl. Looks... appealing. 

Chocolate chips folded in last! Ready for the oven! 

And in all of it's fresh-baked glory...
Like I said, this is definitely for chocolate-lovers. I think I would try without next time since it surpassed my [very low] sweetness threshold, but any normal person with a sweet tooth would love it!


Italy Trip: Castel Sant'Angelo

To be honest, I didn't have high expectations of this place. I wasn't feeling well (I unfortunately caught a mild cold), the facade isn't pretty (compared to the art museums), and it was raining almost the entire time (as you can see from the gloomy pictures).

With that in mind, we got the audio guide. It wasn't very entertaining, but it helped. It takes you step by step through the fortress and also has separate numbers for the specific art pieces.

By the end, I came to have great respect for the monument. There is so much history here, as it was once the Pope's fortress! Originally commissioned as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and his family, it was converted to a castle at the start of the 14th century.

Walking towards the Castel Sant'Angelo, we had our very first glimpse of St. Peter's Basilica! Even in the dark clouds it looked majestic, but we wouldn't be visiting there on this day.

As you start climbing up the stairs, you get amazing glimpses outside, such as the Ponte Sant'Angelo (Bridge of Holy Angels) that crosses the Tiber River with statues sculpted by Bernini. Each angel is different: with the column, whips, crown of thorns, nail, cross, etc. These beautiful sculptures seem to guard the fortress themselves!

At the top of the Castel, you get an even better view of Vatican City! On the righthand side of the picture, you can see what looks like a brick wall. If you look a bit closer, you will see that on top of that wall was a covered walkway that the pope used to get from Castel Sant'Angelo to the Vatican safely. 

The museum doesn't have the glamorous, Renaissance art that you see in the Vatican museums or other big-name places, but I definitely recommend it. It was a nice introduction of the history of Vatican City!  Plus, if you're into Assassin's Creed my sources tell me it's a big part in the game...