Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A day in Lucca and Pisa - Our Tuscan Getaway

A day in Lucca & Pisa

Many would be surprised to know that Florence as a city, did not hold much charm for us as its rustic Tuscan countryside did. We are not connoisseurs of museum art and do not quite understand the Renaissance art of Florence. Nor did we strive to understand it.  There are so many charming one-day trips from Florence reflecting the past glory of Tuscany that we chose to explore its countryside in our 4-day trip to Tuscany rather than just Florence alone…The Castle of San Gimignano, the medieval city of Siena, the sprawling vineyards in the Chianti wine region, Lucca, Pisa are just a few of the many touristy places, I quote here.

We made Empoli our base, a city just outside Florence, and rented a lovely AirBnb for our stay. We had our own ride, so covering Lucca and Pisa in a day was not a daunting task for us. We started off early (around 7:30 am) towards Lucca, leaving behind Pisa to be covered on our way back. This is recommended to avoid the crazy crowds at Pisa in the first half of the day. A drive to Lucca usually takes about an hour.


The Walled City

Lucca is an ancient city famous for its 16th century city walls. Once upon a time, it was the capital city of Tuscany and held significant commercial importance. The broad, fortifying walls were built to protect the city from invaders. Now, they have become a popular promenade for the pedestrians and bicyclists alike. Dotted with benches and shaded with trees on both sides, the path takes one around the city providing panoramic views from top.


The buzzing promenade on the city walls

Our favorite way to explore a city is usually on foot. That’s the best way one can explore the essence of a city, according to us. Not that we had much choice in Lucca, as the medieval city has really narrow lanes and it also gets difficult to navigate around and find any easy parking spot there. However, therein lies the charm of Lucca :).  So, we parked our car just outside the city walls and began by climbing atop the wall. The promenade was just so lively… people, pets, cyclists were all over the place and gave a vibrant vibe to the place. Yes, one can rent a bicycle too and explore the entire area peddling! No matter where we walked, we were captivated by the sight of a medieval structure and old residences, some of which are still  inhabited. The towers, cathedrals, squares (piazzas as they are called in Italy), rooftops all seemed so surreal as compared to our modern cityscape.


Baroque gardens in Palazzo Pfanner (as seen from the promenade)


It was not long before we descended the wall and passed by the Duomo di San Martino to enter a sprawling square buzzing with a bazaar. It was the Antique Market of Lucca. Many vintage items were on open display and the energy there was electrifying. I wished I could buy some exquisite glassware but carrying them back home was a task! We continued walking through the maze of lanes till we reached the Basilica of San Frediano. The walls of these structures with its frescoes and ancient splendour is still amazing and one feels transported back in time to the medieval era. 



The Antique Market in Lucca

Basilica of San Frediano

The most notable public square in Lucca is undoubtedly the Piazza Anfiteatro. It was a Roman amphitheatre in the olden days, secured by four gateways and now houses residential buildings built along the elliptical shape of the amphitheatre.

Piazza Anfiteatro (originally an amphitheater converted to residences along an elliptical boundary)

San Michele in Foro is another lovely cathedral which one would not want to miss. The architecture of the facade is simply brilliant. Equally interesting is the Guinigi tower with an amazing roof-top garden of holm oaks. Imagine huge trees growing from the top of the tower!

We must have walked for more than 3 hours by then. Lucca is all about experiencing the charm of an ancient city at one's own leisure whilst enjoying a delicious gelato on the go! All the walking around in the heat took us to Gelataria Veneta, one of the older and better known gelato shops in the town. We ordered a pista and a chocolate gelato cone and set off again to wander on the walls. Savouring the gelatos while walking on the promenade was immense fun. 



Gelatos all the way! Pista flavour is the best :)

It was past noon and the heat was getting on to us. We decided to relax and have some light refreshments in a cafe, which we had spotted near our parking spot. After devouring some freshly squeezed OJ and a quick sandwich, we started our ride to Pisa.

Pisa

The world famous tilted tower of Pisa

Thirty minutes later, we reached the walls of Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa. This is a walled piazza housing the Cathedral, the Campanile (free standing bell tower) alongside it, a Baptistery in the background and a cemetry. The grounds of the piazza are sprawling with lawns and paved paths leading to the structures. The piazza also houses a museum inside its walls. 

It was astonishing to see the tower leaning so heavily to its left and yet standing tall and safe next to the cathedral. It's serendipitous tilt, which has been attracting millions from all over the world, was caused due to an inadequate foundation laid in the late 12th century. Efforts have been made over the years to stabilise the structure, with the most recent renovation being done around 20 years ago. 

There was a long queue to climb up the tower (as you can see from my pic above) and hence we decided against it. There were crowds everywhere. Coming in the afternoon did not help us much in avoiding the crowds...or did it? ;) Wherever there was some empty space, tourists were either busy clicking selfies with the leaning tower in the background or were posing in a way that they were lifting the tower with their bare hands. We too did the same :D 


Baptistery at Pisa
We explored the piazza in the hot sun and went out on the other side of the wall to grab a delicious veg burger. Mind you! Burgers are not commonly available in Italy, especially in a small place like Pisa. Italy is all about its tradition, pizza and pasta. So when we got a chance, we grabbed the burger from a stall outside the piazza and truly enjoyed it. There are many Bangladeshis selling trinkets and souvenirs outside the walls there. Also, there is a small Indian restaurant serving Indian food and drinks to satisfy us desis. 

Our wonderful first day in Italy had concluded with a trip to these popular monuments. We absolutely adored these visits and got back to Empoli by 6 pm. Trips end but leave behind memories for a lifetime. Don't they! :)


Outside the Pisa Piazza's walls



Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Introduction to the flavours from Odisha 😋


Friend ho to aisi ....

A dear friend from our potluck group invited all of us for a grand Odia vegetarian feast to her place. The spread was really sumptuous as she had made 8-10 dishes right from scratch, each one being as different and as fabulous as the other. In short, she made us taste all the lovely, diverse flavours of Odisha, right from the chatpata starter to the rich cheesy dessert :)


The lavish spread


Odia cuisine - a divine celebration of food with diversity

For beginners like me, it was a gastronomic revelation to be introduced to this grand and unique cuisine. Having been a Mumbaikar, I have always relished Maharashtrian, Kannadiga, Tam-Brahm, Gujarati and North Indian foods of our country. However, as I figured out, Odisha, the land of Lord Jagannath, rich in its culture and traditions, has an abundant variety of food items to offer to us lesser mortals. Odia cuisine typically uses less oil and spices as compared to the other regional cuisines of India. The subtle use of spices like pancha phutana and the gentle, less greasy cooking methods employed,  allow the flavours of the main ingredients to float through.

In the days of yore, it is said that Odia cooks were in great demand all over East India as they would cook as per the Hindu scriptures and as per the required norms of purity. Many such cooks were employed in Bengal in the 19th century who took with them many Odia dishes beyond the borders of Odisha and eventually popularised it all over India. One such famous export is Rasogolla whom we inadvertently consider it to be of Bengali origin. :) However, rasogolla was invented in Puri to be served as a bhog at the Mahalaxmi temple, as is the 700-year old temple tradition.

Thanks to the influence of the bordering states, a wide healthy variation is observed within the Odia cuisine itself. Use of mustard oil, mustard paste, badi, coconut, yoghurt, jaggery, dry mango and pancha phutana (rai, jeera, methi, saunf and kaala jeera) is seen which typically coincides with the flavours of Bengal while the use of tamarind, curry leaves, hot chillies and the fondness of vadas (locally called baras) emanate from the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. To add to this variety, the Lord Jagannatha temple at Puri, greatly influences its cuisine in and around the Puri and Cuttack region. The mahabhog served at the temple, especially the chappan bhog (56 dishes offered to Lord Jagannatha) which abstains from the use of onion and garlic, is simply mind blowing and one definitely has to taste the bhog at least once in his or her lifetime! My friend also revealed that being a coastal state, fish is another protein staple in a lot of preparations.



Our lavish feast

Now without much ado, let me introduce you to the vegetarian feast that we enjoyed last week. For the starter, she had made the ever popular street food of: 

Dahi bara alu dum guguni chaat:

As the name suggests, this chaat is a combination of fermented udad dal bara (vada) soaked in salted, watery curd and a spicy potato curry (alu dum). This is topped with guguni, a green peas (usually with white peas) curry, sev and an assortment of sweet, sour and spicy chutneys.

 After whetting my appetite with the starter, I just couldn't wait to move on to the main course. She had a prepared a variety of vegetables and dal to be eaten along with rice and rotis.  Rice is a staple in Odisha and vegetables such as potato, yam, bitter gourds, pumpkin, brinjal, ridge gourd, drumsticks, banana flower and stem are quite common.




Kalara patua

Our ancient Indian wisdom recommends starting off our meal with bitter foods. The bitterness stimulates digestive juices and apparently aids in digestion...and here I started off with Kalara patua. This dish is made by steaming the bitter guard inside a pumpkin leaf or colocassia leaf, which imparts its own delicate flavour to this dish. Spices such as mustard paste, turmeric, onions and chillies are mixed together with the minced vegetable and then stuffed inside the leaves. This preparation is traditionally cooked inside a burning chulha where I suppose, the leaf gets charred from outside and lends a nice smoky flavour to the karela. (Odia folks, please correct me if I am wrong :)). Small fishes and mushrooms are the favourites for this particular type of cooking method.



Gota bhara potala

Potala (Parval or pointed gourd) is a summer vegetable which can be cooked in a variety of ways. This recipe calls for a stuffing with mustard paste and potato and then it is shallow fried. Bitter gourds are also cooked in a similar way. 


Another flavourful dish made from parval is the Alu potala rassa. It is a must-required dish in all Odia feasts and consists of potatoes and pointed gourds in a spicy rassa (curry) made by grinding the whole garam masalas with ginger, garlic, coconut and cumin.

Alu potala rassa


Janhi alu posta

Ridge gourd (Janhi) and potato are cooked with poppy seed paste (posta) in this particular dish and as per the traditional cooking style, turmeric is not to be used along with posta.




Khajuri tomato khata

This is a sweet and sour tomato chutney where the sweetness of the dates and raisins balances the sourness of the tomatoes; and nuts like cashews lend the scrumptious crunch. 




Besara

The masala of Besara is usually a blend of mustard seeds with garlic and other spices such as garam masalas, jeera or saunf. This particular preparation of masalas is widely used for a variety of vegetables. Dry mango (ambula) is usually used to add tanginess, and a plethora of vegetables (as you see in the pic like drumsticks, radish, brinjal, pumpkins, eggplant, raw papaya, etc) are used to give a nice melange to this dish.




Dahi baingan

The Dahi Baingan is another gem from Odisha's rich repertoire of culinary heritage. In this recipe, the slices of brinjal are first fried, and then cooked in a curd based gravy with minimal spices and a little jaggery to balance the tartness of the curds. Here too, the pancha phutana is required to give that special, typical flavour to the dish. Bhindi too can replace baingan in this wonderful dish.



Badi choora

Badi is a lentil cake made by sun drying a paste of black gram and spices. These cakes are fried and ground to a choora (powder) with peanut, onion, garlic, green chilly, a bit of mustard oil and salt. Usually badi choora is eaten with pakhala ( a fermented and popular rice dish of Odisha, which is prepared by soaking the leftover rice in water overnight, to be eaten with curd and salt the next day).



Dalma

This is the popular dalma, a dish that the cuisine is most commonly known for!  It's a preparation where lentils like arhar or moong dal  are cooked together with a variety of vegetables like potato, cauliflower, brinjal, raw banana, drumsticks, tomato, jack fruit, corn etc.  This recipe does not use onion or garlic traditionally and is to be seasoned with ghee. Freshly prepared jeera powder and red chilli powder are the only spices used in the dish. Yes, it does not even have pancha phutana. :)

Saaga (green leaves) curry is also an essential part of the traditional vegetarian Odia meal (was not a part of our meal here though). Kosala and leutia are the typical saaga found in Odia cuisine and it is prepared by simply seasoning the greens with jeera, chillies, badi, garlic and stir frying it.





Chenna poda and Rasogolla

How could we end an Odia meal without chenna poda, the most famous sweet dish of that state! ...and we were gluttonously lucky to have not just one but two desserts - chenna poda and rasogolla. Chenna means curdled milk cheese and podo means burnt. Yes, chenna poda stands for burnt cheese. This sweet is prepared by steaming the chenna in lotus leaves and caramelizing it by sprinkling jaggery or sugar on top. This dessert can also be baked or steamed in a pressure cooker. The addition of cardamom and nuts to this paneer cake, takes this dish to the next level. 

As you all pictorially witnessed, our feast was fantastic and my pictures (without any visible wafting aromas and with my latent photography skills😇 ) do not do justice to this wonderful spread. However, this is my sincere attempt to bring across to you all one of India's less recognized, yet one of its most delectable cuisines - a cuisine replete with robust, rustic and traditional flavours!