Valdirose | Florence, Italy

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After our stay in Venice came to an end, we traveled by high speed train to Florence. I had been dreaming about visiting Valdirose for what seemed like the longest time and was thrilled we had the chance to spend a few days at the incredibly charming bed and breakfast. If you follow Irene or Paolo on Instagram, everything you see is just what to expect. Their breakfast sunroom is straight out of a movie set, evoking warm fuzzies and instant “I want to live here forever” feelings.

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The natural light that streams through the glass ceiling and windows floods every square inch of the room. Each morning when you come down for breakfast you are greeted with freshly baked cakes or pastries, yogurt topped with homemade preserves, granola or cereal, fresh juice and authentic cappuccinos, espresso or lattes.

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As a prop stylist, I found her dish collection enviable. Aren’t they so pretty stacked up in the blue cabinet? And I love that they’re used daily for guests and family.

The outside grounds are just as gorgeous with pea gravel lined pathways and old stone steps flanked with rosemary leading you to the small grove of olive trees.

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It’s easy to see how captivating the entire place is but to be honest, the most memorable part of our stay was the kindness of the family. We were greeted with warm cups of coffee and conversation of stories about traveling, family, and creative endeavors. It was wonderful to learn about the history of the home (Irene grew up here) and how they transformed it by adding the sunroom and turning it into an inn for guests. They use the home for family gatherings during the holidays and it’s where Irene creates delicious recipes (and stunning photos) for her books.

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Something I always find fascinating are the connections you make with people half way across the world. The commonalities you share as humans. My husband and Paolo were so much alike -both Italian, love to build and repurpose things, bring home old “junk” to fix or make new, talk endlessly about construction, make a great cup of coffee, why they even unknowingly dressed alike every single day. We joked that they could easily be brothers. Those are the memories you take with you and tuck in your heart so you’ll never forget.

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On the morning we were leaving, I came down to find a gift from Irene of her charming cookbook. It was so beautifully wrapped that to this day I still have that dried hydrangea. My husband had tucked it away in an antique box he found at the flea market and carried it in his backpack our entire remaining journey. Now when I open her book I’m reminded of both their thoughtfulness.

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If by chance your travels bring you anywhere near Florence, do yourself the good fortune of staying with the Moretti’s. You will leave refreshed, inspired, and immensely grateful for having had the opportunity that your path brought you to Valdirose.

Valdirose Charming Rooms
Via val di rose, 35
50055 Lastra a Signa
Florence

The Rialto Market | Venice, Italy

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Scenes from a morning spent wandering the stalls at the Rialto Market. It’s an incredibly vibrant and lively place; overflowing with intoxicating bounty and delightful Italians. In my mind, this is always the best part of travel – mixing in with the locals and doing your best to chat it up using your broken language skills and awkward hand gestures. I can still recall the mushroom guy yelling to anyone within ear shot – “Funghi Freschi, Funghi Freschi”!
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If you plan to visit go early. They open at 7am and vendors start packing things up just after noon.

The canal Vaporetto stop is Rialto…you can hop off, pick up a few things at the market, take a walk over the Rialto Bridge (snap some iconic photos) and look for a quiet place to have a picnic.

Rialto Market
Campo della Pescheria
San Polo, Venezia 30125

Spicy Orange Marmalade

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Every year I challenge myself with finding new ways to use all the oranges we have at our disposal. In fact, I have a secret Pinterest board dedicated solely for this purpose. I’ve saved all kinds of things; cakes, breads, glazes, salads, donuts, infused oils, cleaning products, holiday decorations …you name it, I’ve pinned it.  I’m not sure I’ll ever attempt making all of them but they’re there as inspiration should the mood strike. With oranges being in season during the winter months, I figure those cold lazy days could be made useful by making a few things.

Since becoming a Certified Master Food Preserver from UC, I’ve been spending some of my free time volunteering to teach others the art of food preservation. It’s been a rewarding hobby and I’ve learned so much through the experience. I recently invited one of my fellow alumni over for a day of marmalading. It was my very first time making it and I knew I could use her expertise during my first go round. My mom and niece came over for the afternoon as well and we put on our aprons, turned up the music, and got to work.

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After reviewing recipe options (some varied in sugar from 3 to 9 cups! for nearly the same amount of fruit) I decided to use a recipe from So Easy to Preserve a book we refer to when teaching others about canning. I adapted the recipe to suit my taste preference for all thing spicy by adding dried chili flakes. I wanted a sweet and spicy marmalade I could also use on grilled meats, as a base for salad dressing, or to stir in couscous for a little extra kick.

I did come to the realization that buying really good marmalade is expensive because it’s very time consuming. Some recipes suggest soaking the fruit 12-18 hours and take up to three days to make. And there’s all the peeling and chopping. I found the whole process therapeutic instead of a chore. In fact, we made two batches and the next day I made another on my own. It was good practice as one batch came out a little undercooked and runny and the next was a tad overcooked. But all in all it was a great day of learning and I’m looking forward to making more!

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If you suddenly have a hankering to eat marmalade but aren’t all gung-ho to make it you can buy a jar here. I haven’t tried their Spicy Orange (although I bought some!) but have had their Ginger Pear Preserves which I could eat straight out of the jar by the spoonful!

If you’re looking for a great book on preserving, this is my favorite. Worth it for the stories alone.

Spicy Orange Marmalade
Author: 
Serves: 7 half-pint jars
 
Adapted from So Easy to Preserve
Ingredients
  • 4 cups thinly sliced orange peel (about 6 large oranges)
  • 4 cups orange pulp, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup thinly sliced lemon (about 2 medium lemons)
  • 6 cups water
  • Sugar - about 6 cups
  • 1½ - 2 teaspoon dried chili flakes, depending on preference
Instructions
  1. Add water and prepared fruit in a saucepan.
  2. Heat to simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
  3. Cover and let stand in the refrigerator overnight.
  4. Sterilize canning jars.
  5. Measure fruit and liquid remaining in saucepan.
  6. Add 1 cup of sugar for each cup of fruit mixture.
  7. Bring slowly to boiling, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
  8. Stir in dried chili flakes.
  9. Cook rapidly to the jellying point, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  10. Pour hot marmalade into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace.
  11. Wipe jar rims and adjust lids.
  12. Process 5 minutes in a Boiling Water Bath.
  13. Remove from water bath and let stand overnight.
  14. Marmalade will be shelf stable for one year.

Venice, Italy

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We arrived in Venice during high tide. Approaching the city on a slow moving boat felt almost magical. As the city crept closer through the fog, I remember imagining what it must have been like for those arriving here hundreds of years before me. I knew we were going to experience something amazing. Something our eyes had never seen. I will never forget the anticipation.

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On our first full day we booked a walking and boat tour from an experienced guide who had lived here his entire life. His love for Venice and passion for it’s history was infectious and we found ourselves relishing every newfound detail he shared. Especially the story (or most probable explanation) of how the body of the apostle Mark came to rest at Saint Mark’s Basilica. Mystery has it, that under the cloak of night there was an exchange of gold between Venice merchants and Greek monks leading to the abduction of the body and relics to be brought to the Basilica.

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Another interesting element of Venice is that they allow no cars or bicycles on the island. You arrive by boat and then walk, everywhere. We loved this because walking gives you a more intimate experience of a city. You’re not whizzing by everything and you’re able to pop in and out of shops, snap your 1,898th photo, eat gelato, grab a cappuccino, stand on a bridge and watch the gondolas float by, stroll the markets…in other words live like a local.

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Cafe Florian – Words cannot express how much I adored this place. Maybe it was heightened by the fact that our first visit was on a drizzly rainy morning when we tucked in one of their jewel box rooms to wait for the brief storm to pass. We sipped delicious overpriced coffee, nibbled on decadent pastries served by waiters in impeccable white jackets and listened to the live orchestra playing concertos outside our window. I remember telling my husband that if we lived here we would soon be penniless because I would want to come here every. single. day.

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Once the rain subsided we headed to the top of the Bell Tower to take in the panoramic views. The sky was still grey and ominous but it didn’t hinder the spectacular scenery. There was a riot of color below us from the centuries old buildings and terracotta roof tiles. We ended up staying here until the sun started to peek through and the clouds began to disappear.

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I’ve had many conversations with Europeans about why Americans are in love with their cities and it always seems to drift to architecture and history. The allure of walking through buildings dating back thousands of years is like a magnetic force and they will always astonish me. Even a simple walk under the porticos is inspiring and memorable.

In Venice, high tide happens about twice a year, usually in the winter. In the morning you can witness the water begin to flood the entire square. It lasts until around noon when the water levels start to subside and before you know it, the streets are dry. You can see from the two photos below how quickly it comes and goes. I’m actually glad we were able to experience it and wade through the water in our 20 euro orange plastic galoshes.

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I took more photos during our walks than on any other vacation. It’s literally the most photogenic city I’ve ever visited. The mix of crumbing facades, bright and muted colors, romantic canals, narrow secret pathways, it’s a paradise for those of us who love photography.

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We spent a morning at the Rialto Market (I’ll share in a future post) and enjoyed picking up a few things to stock our apartment from the smaller stands located throughout the city. I thought they were so charming with their stacked wooden crates and green awnings.

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In 1978 my grandparents spent several months traveling throughout Europe and one of their photos was of the Bridge of Sighs. A hand written note on the back said “Last walk and view for prisoners.” I tried to recreate the photo in memory of their grand adventure together and have plans to frame it and tuck their original photo in the corner.

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During our travels to Amsterdam and throughout Italy we stayed in a combination of hotels and Airbnbs. And while we liked the location of our Venice apartment (right above Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, haha!) we didn’t care for the owners or lack of cleanliness. But truthfully, exploring the city from sunrise to sundown was more important anyway.

I did enjoy watching the pigeons stoop on the buildings right outside our apartment window and it became a game for me to try and capture one perched just so.

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If Venice is not on your bucket list it needs to be. I would recommend going in the spring or fall to avoid the crowds and sweltering temps. And stay at least 3 days. It is such a fascinating city with marvelous gravity defying architecture, a history of allure and intrigue and is filled with romantic storybook scenes around every corner. In other words, magical.

Citrus: Sweet & Savory Sun-Kissed Recipes

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What better way to beat the winter doldrums than to immerse yourself in a beautiful book devoted solely to Citrus! My dear friend Victoria Pearson has filled it’s pages with stunning images and well known food stylist and recipe developer Valerie Aikman-Smith provided mouth watering recipes you’ll want to have on repeat in your kitchen. They offered to share a few recipes with us here and give away a copy of their new book – signed by Victoria Pearson.

Personally, I really love this Meyer Lemon & Thyme Hearth Bread. It’s an easy focaccia that makes a stunning addition to a round of appetizers or along side a big green salad.

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Meyer Lemon & Thyme Hearth Bread

Juicy Meyer lemons and freshly picked lemon thyme add a perfumed, zesty kick to this simple, no-nonsense focaccia. It will surely become part of your life very quickly.

1 cup warm water (about 110 ºF)

¼ cup olive oil

1 package (¼ounce / 7 grams) active dry yeast

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

4 Meyer lemons, thinly sliced

1 small bunch lemon thyme

Coarse sea salt, for sprinkling

Pour the water into a measuring jug, stir in the oil, and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Let stand for about 5 minutes, until frothy.

Place the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse until mixed. Then, with the motor running, add the yeast mixture to the flour and process for about 4 minutes, until the dough comes together and forms a ball. Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and turn to coat on all sides. Cover with plastic wrap, set aside in a warm place, and let the dough rise for about 11⁄2 hours, until it doubles in size.

Oil a 9 by 13-inch sheet pan. Transfer the dough to the center of the prepared sheet pan, punching it down to deflate it. Then, using your fingers, press and stretch the dough out evenly in the pan, extending it to the edges. Using your fingertips, dimple the entire surface of the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°F.

Uncover the dough, arrange the lemon slices on top and scatter with the lemon thyme. Sprinkle generously with the coarse sea salt.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm.

Serves 6 to 8

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And one of my other favorites is this tangy Fennel, Tangerine & Olive Slaw which pairs well with grilled chicken or steak. I was lucky enough to be in the studio the day they were working on this recipe and loved the addition of the dill flower heads sprinkled on top…such a pretty detail.

Fennel, Tangerine & Olive Slaw

~Serves 4 to 6

1 fennel bulb with fronds attached

1 Granny Smith apple

4 tangerines, peeled and thinly sliced

14 cup sliced green olives

VINAIGRETTE

Zest and juice of 1 tangerine

2 pinches red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon whole-grain Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

14 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Fennel blossoms, for garnish (optional)

Cut the fennel fronds from the fennel and set aside. Using a mandoline or a sharp knife, cut the fennel bulb into matchsticks and transfer to a large serving bowl. Cut the apple the same way and add to the fennel. Add the tangerine slices and toss in the olives.

To make the vinaigrette, combine all of the ingredients in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid. Screw the lid on and shake the jar vigorously until the mixture emulsifies.

Pour the vinaigrette over the slaw and toss to mix thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper and toss again. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

To serve, tear the fronds and sprinkle them and the fennel blossoms on top of the slaw.

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To enter the giveaway for Citrus: Sweet & Savory Sun-Kissed Recipes please answer the following question in the comments:

What’s your favorite way to enjoy citrus?

For me…I would have to say Lemon Bars!

Winner will be announced on this post Friday, January 29th!

Winner of the book by random number is comment #18: Shelby Mikucanis!

Reprinted with permission from Citrus, by Valerie Aikman-Smith and Victoria Pearson, copyright © 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Photographs copyright © 2015 by Victoria Pearson