Dinner at la Tenda Rossa, a gourmet restaurant near Florence, Italy

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox

The artwork featured relaxing images of the female form

As we endured a 30-minute cab ride along a curvy hilly road to a small town near Florence, Italy I wondered silently where we would spend the night. While the taxi driver happily discussed the area, politics, his family and just about every topic under the Italian sun, my stomach lurched and I yearned to stop moving. We had left the dry comfort (it had been raining all day) of our boutique hotel in the heart of Florence, with a high priced gourmet restaurant in the lobby, to explore the lesser known Ristoranti La Tenda Rossa, a family restaurant, believing it was only a 15-minute drive away. As we arrived in Cerbaia in Val di Pesa, the town where the restaurant was located, I was certain I would be unable to dine and be incapable of enduring a return drive to our hotel in Florence that night.

Barbara Salcuni, Natascia  Santandrea and Cristiana Salcuni were our hosts for the evening

Inside the restaurant we were greeted courteously and seated immediately.  One couple had already been seated across from our table; otherwise the restaurant, which would be full before long, was still quiet. The decor emphasized muted light, beige walls, wood floors, and quiet surroundings with pleasing artwork and sculptures. Soon I was tasting the crispy Tuscan bread (citrus, milk, croissant, cereal and olive choices) with local extra virgin olive oil. Surprisingly, in addition to the wine options, there were four types of still water and four types of sparkling water to choose from.

The bread was attractive and tasty

I eyed the French foie gras appetizers and Giorgio Grai Spumante Metodo Classico bubbly cautiously while we ordered with relative ease thanks to two of the staff’s English language skills (one of them translated the Italian menu for us). It helped that we were having the tasting menu with wine paring so there were no difficult decisions to be made.

Tiny squid with pumpkin and lobster

The restaurant was lovingly run and the food was prepared by a bevy of ladies. Evidence of the care they took were the decorative touches including well lit sculptures of women by the same artist, a friend of the family, placed around the restaurant, lovely silverware with even a small spoon for the creme brulee dish and a silver toothpick with the restaurant’s initials. The service was outstanding and the staff that looked after us were attentive and polite. We were pleased when our unfinished bread bowl was replaced with a new one filled with warm bread.

Ravioli with Tuscan vegetables

We had a seven course tasting dinner with wine pairings. First we were served a dish of bite sized appetizers, Variazioni di fegato grasso d’oca con pan-dolce: crema bruciata aromatizzato al caffé, Lollipop di fragole e pepe rosa, Club sandwich and Cornetto gelato served with warm brioche. There was a tiny squid stuffed with lobster and pumpkin “Sole” di piccoli calamari ripieni all’astice e crema bruciata di zucca gialla aromatizzata alla radice di zenzero; then we had ravioli stuffed with Tuscan vegetables, beans and olive oil (first pressing blend Tuscan and Sicilian olive oil) Ravioli di ribollita in emulsione di fagioli neri e olio Gemini, con cozze pelose tarantine; there was ricotta with a brown licorice, tomatoes and bitter dark chocolate Fiocco di ricotta in salsa bruna alla liquirizia, con pomodorini confit e bastoncino di cacao amaro; perfectly cooked lamb from the Apenino served with lamb sausage made from lamb liver and heart Agnello dell’Appeninnino in salsiccia di magro e pecorino stagionato costoletta a scotadito con sedano rapa e salsa de frattaglie; a cinnamon caramel iced palate cleanser Cannucia di gelato all a cannella; and dessert was a gelatin with nut cream filling, nut balls, pumpkin and Italian biscuits Cubi gelatina di Vinsanto farcita alla crema di nocciole zucca gialla candita cioccolato bianco e spumone di cantucci.

Paola Salcuni, Cristian Santandrea, Maria Probst, Maria Salcuni and Fernanda Salcuni were the stars in the kitchen

The wines were Riesling Auslese Kerpen 2001 Heribet Kerpen with a slight gasoline nose to counter the strong flavors of the liver dish, 2004 Pinot Bianco Russz Superiore, 2007 Marina Cvetic Masciarelli, a deep 1995 Brunello di Montalcino Fuligni and at the end Brown Label 2006 Reserve Grappa I Balzini.

Lamb with lamb sausage and popcorn

We liked the combination of subtle yet distinctive flavors at la Tenda Rossa, pretty dish presentation including unexpected touches like “lollipops,” “sandwiches,” and popcorn, the small quantity of wine served with each dish of the tasting menu which was enough to go with the dish without leftover wine or the feeling of having to drink it to avoid wasting it, the warm, relaxed ambiance and friendly staff. Thankfully our tasting menu dinner was a foodie pleasure and the drive back courtesy of the restaurant car driven by Sylvano was significantly more pleasant thanks in part to the luxury sedan we rode in and the highway roads the driver chose for our return.

Dessert at la Tenda Rossa

We would gladly return for dinner anytime we are in Florence although although next time I will request a hotel car. We will recommend this lovely restaurant to friends and colleagues heading to Florence who have the time and inclination to have dinner beyond the city limits. It was worth the drive. Ristorante la Tenda Rossa, Piazza del Monumento 9/14, 50020 Cerbaia in Val di Pesa, Telephone +30 055 826132, www.latendarossa.it, ristoranti@latendarossa.it

Our Saint Lucia whale, dolphin watching tour

By Elena del Valle, video and photos by Gary Cox

Hackshaws.com is a family run business

We had been crossing our fingers since the night before in the hope of clear skies. We arrived at Vigie Marina just outside Castries, Saint Lucia in the Caribbean a few minutes early excited at the prospect of seeing dolphins or whales. After a brief greeting we boarded the Lady Anne, a 2004 50 foot Newton custom motor boat with capacity for 60 passengers for a Half Day Whale Watch Safari. The two of us, a cheerful crew of three, Captain Antonious, and deck hands Jonny and Ovar, and 21 other passengers departed at 8 a.m. and returned four hours later. With the exception of one young girl we were all adults on board.

One of two 50 foot custom Newton boats at Hackshaws the day we visited

The crew had a short safety discussion which included a mention of the location of life vests and that there were first aid kits topside and on our deck. They suggested we walk around barefoot and explained there were shady and sunny areas of the boat where we could sit. They also offered us cold soft drinks, mineral water, and rum punch and cheese flavored Pringles potato chips and mentioned there was a small head (bathroom) for guest use.

The happy crew of the Lady Anne

Soon the marina was behind us and we began searching for dolphins and whales. Movement caught my eye and when I asked the captain what it was he said it might be whales. As we approached we saw a pod of 20 or more dolphins, I thought. The crew explained that they were pilot whales, dark gray members of the dolphin family measuring 16 to 20 feet and weighing up to three tons, near the surface. They swam under and around us playfully for about 20 minutes. We were delighted to observe them for as long as we could.

A while later, as we hugged the west coast of Saint Lucia heading south we saw spotted dolphins. These were smaller than the pilot whales and perhaps even more playful. These dolphins, found in tropical and warm waters, are said to measure an average of seven feet and weigh about 220 pounds. We remained with them for about 15 minutes, circling back for a final glimpse.

Once the dolphins tired us playing around our boat and swam away we continued south until we reached the famous Gros and Petit pitons. At Jalousie Bay we circled back, observing the hills and The Jalousie Plantation as we turned back north. During the tour we saw the Saint Lucia coast line close up and the profiles of the nearby islands of Saint Vincent and Martinique in the distance.

The famous Saint Lucia Pitons

On our return we made a brief stop in Marigot Bay to drop off two of our passengers before docking back at Vigie Marina. Hackshaw Boat Charters, the tour company that ran our tour, was owned by three Saint Lucia siblings Chris, Jacquie and Nick Hackshaw. Hackshaw Boat Charters, Vigie Marina Castries, Saint Lucia, Telephone (758) 453 0553, Fax (758) 4581250, www.hackshaws.com, sales@hackshaws.com

Montreal museum showcases Cirque costumes

By Andrea de Gosztonyi
Watermarked photos by Andrea de Gosztonyi (photos without watermark courtesy of McCord Museum)

Cirque costumes on display at the McCord Museum

The Dream Weavers Costumes by the Cirque du Soleil is an exhibition of costumes, props and video clips of some of the key outfits that have been created over the past 25 years by the talented craftspeople that make the stunning outfits worn by the Cirque performers at the McCord Museum Montreal Quebec, Canada May 26 to October 11, 2010. Through this exhibition I marveled at the brilliant colors and the wide varieties of fabrics used in the confection of such works of art. These costumes are more than mere outfits, they actually represent visually the creative spirit of the Cirque du Soleil. Located within walking distance from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) in Montreal, Canada (about a 10 minute walk east along Sherbrooke Street) this costume exhibition is a fine complement to the Inspiria exhibition at the MMFA.

McCord Museum features Cirque costume show until October

The exhibition is on the upper level of the McCord Museum and is located in one large room that is visually divided by swirling screens into three distinct areas. I remind my friend that on entering the first area they should look on the wall for a large hook with cards suspended on a metallic ring. I passed right by it, looking for indications beneath the objects of which there were none. A smiling museum guide indicated the cards to me and suggested that I might appreciate referring to the cards for information. These numbered cards (about the size of a large playing card) are in sequence with the number of the items on display. Each card explains the costume, or item, and places it in context with the show. The guide retrieved these cards when I left the first area and showed me where to find the second set of cards for the next area. No photographs were allowed in this exhibition.

Paintings from Cirque decorated the exhibit

A selection of 25 costumes from Cirque shows created between 1984 and 2009 was on display. There were also 30 different costume props, masks, shoes, hats and wigs that could be seen up close. At the end of this exhibition there was a large flat screen TV with a touch sensitive screen. By touching an icon located on the screen, I could access over 50 sound bites and video segments pertaining to the various shows including some excerpts of interviews with costume designers and craftspeople.

North American Indian display at the McCord Museum

I found it very interesting to hear about the difficulty of creating costumes for circus performers. Some of the creations were actually conceived in collaboration with the artists. In fact, the overall impression that I got from viewing these clips is that much of what is done in the Cirque du Soleil appears to be in collaboration. Artists, directors, craftsmen and choreographers toss ideas and concepts around before settling on a given creation. Some of the clips were of the costumes on display as seen during the show.

Exhibits from the Notman collection were also on display

It was possible to see this small exhibition in less than an hour. It was certainly worthwhile to visit the rest of this museum, as the McCord, although small in size, is one of the most important museums in Canada. The McCord is dedicated to the preservation, study, diffusion and appreciation of Canadian history. It is home to one of the largest historical collections in North America and is affiliated with McGill University.

Cirque Costume

Only a fraction of the collection is on display permanently and another area of the museum is devoted to rotating thematic exhibitions from their impressive archival collection. When we visited, an exhibition on the Irish immigration to Quebec was on display. Also, the permanent exhibition, Simply Montreal, gave us an interesting background history of the city of Montreal through archival photographs from the Notman collection as well as a selection of objects and artefacts, clothing, toys and sports equipment from the past. McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal Quebec Canada H3A 1E9 (Handicap access through the entrance located at 2175, Victoria Street on the west side of the building), Telephone +1 514-398-7100, info@mccord.mcgill.ca, www.mccord-museum.qc.ca

Charming hotel made our stay memorable in Naples, Italy

By Elena del Valle, photos by Gary Cox

Even before we arrived we were intrigued. We had heard much about Naples, Italy and were curious to discover a little of the famed city during a two-night stop en route to Ischia, a nearby spa oriented island. The hotel we were staying at also seemed interesting. The newest luxury hotel in the city designed by a Japanese architectural team and named Romeo made us wonder what our stay there would be like. The hotel won our hearts and our stay in Naples turned out to be one of the most fun during our two week sojourn in Italy.

Suite at Romeo Hotel

Modern decor in the suite at the Romeo Hotel

We took advantage of the hotel’s port fronting location within walking distance of the old town and the tourist area to explore Naples on foot and in apparent reciprocity the city shared some of its many charms with us. Religion, Catholicism to be precise, is a big part of Naples and signs of it permeate the city. Food and eating also seem to play a big role in Neapolitan lives. We did what we could to discover a bit of the southern city’s foodie finds including some marvelous pizza. Many of our discoveries were facilitated by recommendations and guidance including a book in our suite and in person advice from the hotel staff.

Shops in Naples

Shops in Naples featuring locally crafted goods

We liked the art filled common areas and the modern features of the hotel (although they took getting used to) like the elevator which required us to select a floor before boarding. Our Japanese influenced corner suite (Suite 702) with a view was pretty and functional, our favorite that trip. The staff were very friendly and helpful beyond our expectations. Cocktails and sushi bites followed by dinner at Il Comandante were a wonderful foodie surprise. Click here to read about our stay at the Hotel Romeo.

Samurai Armor by the Sushi Bar

Samurai armor outside the Sushi Bar at the Romeo Hotel