We’ve been looking forward to this week since our alphabetical journey around the world began! Siena is a beautiful hill town in Tuscany and it’s one of our all time favourite travel destinations. My husband and I both love Siena and can’t wait to go back. Our daughter is also enamoured with Siena and has been asking when S week will finally come. Well, this week it’s here and it didn’t disappoint!
We started by looking at pictures and videos of the city. One of the best we found featured the Palio, the famous bareback horse race held in Siena twice each summer. We watched a great video featuring both the race and the festive, competitive atmosphere that surrounds it. It’s a feature from ESPN and aside from the super awkward scene where the reporter addresses the local crowd (while the all stare blankly at him and wonder why this American dude has crashed their party) it’s really well done and fun to watch.
The heart of the Palio is the city’s system of neighbourhood contradas. There are 17 local districts, each with it’s own loyalties and rivalries within the city. Each has it’s own colours, symbols and flags and each Palio brings about weeks of feasting, singing and celebrating. After watching the video of the race, I showed the kids the different flags of each contrada. The kids each picked out the one they liked best and we made our own Palio flags. My daughter picked the dragon and my son wanted to be the panther. The results weren’t particularly artistic, but we had fun making them.
The kids then took a page from the real Palio’s book and spent some time waving their flags and racing around the house yelling, “Go Dragons” and “Go Panthers”, crashing into furniture and careening off the walls.
For our Siena dinner I tried to find dishes that were not just from Tuscany, but specifically from Siena. I found it a little tough to find recipe collections that were that specific, but I did find a few Sienese specialties. I decided to go fully authentic and try baking real, unsalted Tuscan bread to go with the meal. Although I love many of the foods in Tuscany, I’ve never been very keen on the bread, which I’ve found to be a little bland and tasteless. And sure enough, the bread I made following the recipe I found was extremely bland and tasteless, just like I remembered.
I started the meal with the bread and a soup called Pappa col Pomodoro, made with tomatoes, garlic, basil and some of the Tuscan bread I’d baked, then let dry out the night before. It was really tasty and the dry bread acted like a sponge, soaking up all the flavours of the soup. We then had Pici o Pinci al Ragu di Maiale (try saying that five times in a row!). It uses a pasta called pici, a thick, chewy, spaghetti-like noodle that is from the Siena region. It’s often served with a sauce made from wild boar or rabbit, but sadly, neither of those ingredients was available at my local grocery store so I settled for a recipe that called for pork. On the side I served Cavolfiore in Umido, cauliflower boiled, then sliced and sauteed with olive oil, garlic and tomatoes. To drink we had a nice Chianti.
And the verdict? Both the soup and the pasta were excellent. I think using vine ripened tomatoes imported from Italy really added a lot of flavour. The bread was so-so and I really liked the cauliflower, but once again I was the only one who seemed interested in the veggies. The meal had more than enough carbohydrate options to keep my kids fairly happy too.
For dessert it wasn’t hard to decide on something since one thing Siena is known for is it’s famous dessert, the Panforte di Siena. It’s a dense concoction of dried fruits and nuts with spices, held together with honey and syrup. It’s sometimes referred to as a fruit cake, but I think it’s really more like a sticky fruit and nut bar than a cake. The recipe goes back to the thirteenth century and was an exotic treat for the rich. I don’t think mine was as good as the ones you can buy by the slice in Siena, but I think it turned out pretty well.
And that was Siena. This has been one of our favourite weeks so far. And we’ve enjoyed it even more because our plans for a summer trip to Italy are starting to come together and we’ve been able to tell the kids that they will be able to visit some of the places we’re studying soon. Unfortunately, we won’t be in Siena to see the Palio this time, but at least we’ll be able to see the city and try some of the food! I’m pretty sure my efforts will pale in comparison.