Just as the bride threw the last rose, as if on cue, my plate of food arrived. It was the silkiest linguine with cabbage, wild mushrooms and shaved truffle. The aroma was intoxicating.
The overwhelming emotion caught me by surprise as I walked through the iconic, medieval village of Cortona, Italy. It felt like I was walking through a dream on steep, narrow cobblestone streets that are lined with the most enchanting stone buildings.
I heard church bells ringing in the distance as a warm breeze whipped by me carrying luscious scents of nearby trattorias. Local residents walked among us while speaking heartily in their romantic language. As two older women passed by, one of them, an angelic-faced Nonni, gave me a nod and a smile. As if she knew I was now under the magical spell of Cortona.
Over my lifetime, I have had a few experiences so incredible that the memories are forever imprinted on my mind and in my heart. My visit to Tuscany in 2013 is one of them.
During my visit, I remember spending the better part of two weeks keeping tears of joy and wonder at bay. My head felt light and my feet seemed to float across rolling Tuscan vineyards that were flanked with breathtaking views spilling onto majestic pink and gold sunsets. And as I had anticipated, my culinary heart was captivated by the many plates of food I sampled.
Occasionally, I’d notice my husband looking at me with a knowing smile. I’d smile back, but with a little embarrassment of my childlike response to this spellbinding place. I couldn’t help myself. I felt as if I was experiencing life for the very first time.
This trip was part work and part pleasure, but truthfully, it was all pleasure. I was granted this lovely trip by winning a winemaker’s contest. A friend and colleague had won the same trip a few years prior and sent me the link to apply. I was honored she thought of me. But at first glance, I couldn’t imagine winning something like a trip to Tuscany.
So, I filed it away and almost forgot about it until I saw it in my inbox a few days before the entry was due. I read the email again and thought, why not? I sat down at my computer, filled out the application, wrote my heart in a 500-word essay, and hit the send button. It was done.
A few months later and some time spent lobbying for votes, the contest was over. It all boiled down to me and two other culinarians. Just getting to the final three was exhilarating. I felt so grateful to have been acknowledged for my work and to be among such great company. The final decision would be announced within the next month. As the daily work of life prevailed, I let the thought of winning slip from my mind.
That same summer, my family and I were in the middle of a move to our neighboring state, Oregon. Leaving Washington was weighing heavy on my heart. This is where we raised our daughters, and for the first time in my adult life, it is where I felt a sense of community and belonging.
It is where I started my private chef business and where I gained a wealth of experience as a culinary instructor. It is where I discovered my love of writing and where I recognized my enchantment with mother earth’s beauty. It was a glorious place to live, even when the rain never seemed to end or that our house was in a constant state of remodel.
I remember the day we left Washington. My youngest daughter and I loaded our luggage into the car, placed our little dog and his crate carefully between our seats, and headed out of our beloved town for the last time. My husband was already in Oregon, and we were to meet him at our new house that evening.
After a few hours on the road, we stopped in a small rural Washington town just outside Portland. My then 15-year-old had her driver’s permit and she had been begging me for the last hour to let her get some highway driving practice.
I finally relented, and let her take her place behind the steering-wheel. I moved to the passenger seat and braced myself. I knew the next half of our drive might be a little tense. We buckled up, I said a quick prayer to the universe for patience and safety, gave our little dog a biscuit for being so good, and then we set off down the highway once again.
It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was high and bright. This was one of those magnificent Pacific Northwest summer days when the sky is cloudless, and it sparkles the color of a cornflower blue crayon. The car windows were down letting in the warm summer breeze that gently kissed our faces.
My daughter looked at me for a quick moment and smiled. I could tell that she was enjoying the drive and for a few moments we rode in silence, relishing the beauty of the day.
Traffic began to increase as we got closer to the city, so I launched into driving instructor mode to help my daughter navigate the complex highway system. During the slight chaos of driving into the city, my cell phone rang but I didn’t recognize the number.
I looked at my daughter while hesitating to answer it, but intuition prevailed, and I answered the call. A woman on the other end of the line identified herself and began to talk about the winemaker’s contest that I entered 3 months previously.
As the woman continued to speak, the wind and traffic noise went silent. I glanced at my daughter and saw her mouth moving, but I didn’t hear a word she was saying. All I heard were the words, “you won a trip to Tuscany”. As I looked up, I noticed we were driving across a bridge and the sign on the bridge read, “Welcome to Oregon”. It was a surreal moment. We had just driven into our new home state and the woman on the other end of the phone told me I was going to Tuscany. Life was about to get interesting.
To say I was joyously floating on a mountain of air is an understatement. I couldn’t believe I had won a trip to Tuscany. Although I’ve been fortunate to live in various regions of the United States, until 2013 I had only traveled as far as neighboring countries. This time I was actually going to cross the Atlantic.
The entire plane trip to Italy wasn’t quite the delightful experience I had imagined. I envisioned the many lovely scenes from movies, where passengers look comfortably seated with cozy blankets, and gracious flight attendants served delicious-looking food and cocktails.
However, I sat in a very stiff and small middle seat, in a five-seat middle row. My husband was seated on my right and a very tall man, who obviously hadn’t had a shower in days, was on my left. He was much too tall for his seat, and for 9 long hours, squirmed into various positions trying to get comfortable. As badly as I felt for him, I silently hoped he would stop moving so his odor would stay still and not reach my nose. I kept telling myself, “I will be in Tuscany soon and this entire plane trip will be worth it”. And then I ordered another gin and tonic.
During the flight, I wrestled with admitting to my husband that I wanted to visit Cortona. We had our week planned but Cortona wasn’t on the list. The second week I’d be busy with the winemaker’s tour, which was an exciting event in itself. But I knew I wouldn’t have time to see Cortona. I had read the book, Under the Tuscan Sun and watched the movie version at least 50 times. I had quickly become a fan of Frances Mayes writing and studied her books as if they are a curriculum for living life.
Before our trip, I had thought about mentioning this secret wish. But we had so many places we both wanted to visit, and I didn’t want to seem like a giddy, blurry-eyed tourists on a quest to see a place they’ve only read about in a novel or seen in a movie. I’m not sure why I felt that way now. I just knew that I wanted to experience this village through the eyes of the locals and not what I’d seen or read. I wanted to feel this unique culture deep in my bones while drinking in the new landscape and sampling the local cuisine.
Our last day together in Tuscany was quickly approaching and I’d soon be on my way to meet colleagues for the Winemaker’s tour. The night before our last day, my husband asked me, “what do you really want to see on our last day here?” I replied, “I really want to visit Cortona.” He smiled and said, “then that’s what we’re doing tomorrow.”
Excitement welled inside my chest, and then I admitted I didn’t bring it up previously because I didn’t want to seem like an eager dreamy-eyed tourist. He laughed and gently said to me, “Babe, it’s too late, you have been walking around like a dreamy-eyed tourist for the entire week”. I smiled. I knew he was right. I realized that each new place we visited my eyes gleamed with excitement while my heart soaked up the moment with newfound amazement.
Our perfect day in Cortona ended with a meal I will never forget. We dined in an outside Trattoria overlooking the Piazza della Repubblica. Across the Piazza from where we were sitting, was the stunning 13C Town Hall Building with a majestic looking clock tower.
From inside the building, a young couple in wedding attire walked onto the balcony. They waved to wedding guests below and to everyone in the Piazza. The beautiful raven-haired bride, dressed in a ruffled white gown, began to throw red roses off the balcony. It was such an unexpected romantic moment and prefaced what would be one of the most delicious meals I tasted while in Tuscany.
Just as the bride threw the last rose, as if on cue, my plate of food arrived. It was the silkiest linguine bathed in a garlic laced white wine cream sauce and tossed with cabbage, mushrooms and shaved Pecorino Romano. The dish was garnished with paper-thin slices of black truffle and fresh parsley. The aroma was intoxicating.
I took the first bite, making sure a little bit of each ingredient clung to my fork. When the food met my lips, I knew this was going to be one of the most exquisite meals I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.
Visions of mouthwatering food were still fresh in my mind as I flew home. However, this time I was in a more comfortable aisle seat, and still bemused from my adventure. I wrote in my journal about that day in Cortona. I wanted to remember every delicious moment and I wanted to remember that simple, but glorious linguine. I knew the first thing I’d do when I got home was recreate that luscious dish.
It has been 7 years since that trip and it is still so vivid in my mind, it feels as if it was yesterday. I did recreate the mouthwatering pasta dish from Cortona, which I simply call, Pasta Cortona. The recipe is slightly different than that of the linguine I dined on that day. It is heavenly, but not quite the same. I think the magic was in the chefs’ hands, in the fresh ingredients grown locally with love, and with the moment in which I consumed it.
Pasta Cortona is a delightful reminder of that perfect day in Cortona. It is my reminder to relish the simplest things like a warm breeze laced with scents of luscious food or a knowing smile from an angelic faced stranger. It’s a reminder to find the magic in every moment, whether at home or in an enchanting village like Cortona, Italy.