Tales of a wandering lesbian

Golden tickets

We really did see a lot in New Zealand.  We saw mountains and waterfalls.  We saw goldtowns and giant rocks.  But one of the most memorable parts of our trip, honestly, was Cadbury World.  That’s right.  The people that make the cream eggs have a world in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Even though the sign outside told us we needed to call ahead for reservations, we walked in and gave it a go.  As luck would have it, there were two spots left on the tour leaving 5 minutes later.  Awesomeness!  We paid our $20, unsure if we’d really get that much out of the tour, but slightly giddy from all of the sparkliness and chocolate around us.

The first thing we did was walk through a series of displays – vignettes showing the history of chocolate.  When we entered, we took a couple of cacao beans from a basket and began nibbling.  Krista made a face and handed me hers.  I happily chomped away at the bitter beans, imagining them combined with cream and sugar and spices.

Before we’d seen much of the display we heard an announcement for the tour to gather.  The tour kicked off with a mandatory screening of a safety video/history lesson.  In addition to the video, we all received hairnets – super hot – and plastic bags containing one chocolate bar:  a “Chocolate Fish.”

Once we had our hairnets in place,

our tour guide, dressed in purple overalls, took our cameras, phones, hats and everything else that wasn’t attached to our bodies – except for the baggies.

“You will need these bags once we’re inside,” she told us.  This is a competition.  “Let’s see who can collect the most chocolate by the end of the tour.”

Excuse me, what?  Krista and I looked at each other with our mouths hanging open.  A competition?  For chocolate?

(For those of you who may not know, there are a few things held sacrosanct in the lesbian world.  Softball is up there.  Our pets, which we treat as children, rank as well.  But at the top are two things above all else.  Competition.  And chocolate.)

I honestly didn’t notice that the entire rest of the tour, probably 20 other people, was made up of families and children, until somewhere near the end of the tour.  Krista and I were the only interlopers in this family-friendly scenario.  And we had just been baited beyond belief by our tour guide.

She led us through the actual, working factory, stopping every so often to show us another video and tell us about what we were seeing.  “That palate there is one ton of chocolate heading to commercial customers.”  “Those pipes overhead are carrying chocolate.  Red is dark, blue is white, yellow is milk.”  “We keep our chocolate in liquid form in the factory.”  “You should never refrigerate chocolate.”

Then she would put her hands in her pockets full of little chocolate bars, and start quizzing us.  “What color pipe carries the dark chocolate?”  “What other industries use cocoa butter?” “Where does our sugar come from?”

I’m unsure if I physically blocked any children from receiving chocolate, but I do know that parents began participating in the little trivia sessions.  Parents, who will usually prod their children forward, whispering answers in their ears, began yelling out answers trying to beat Krista and me to the chocolate.  And I had planned to hold back.  I really had.  But the words of our tour guide rang in my ears, “it’s a competition…it’s a competition…it’s a competition…for chocolate.”

“Red! Cosmetics! Queensland!”

Some of the rooms had displays of different products.  Cadbury sells all over the world, and most of the products in New Zealand and Australia are things I’d never seen in America.  So I’d rush over to the products, studying the packaging, the flavors, and the colors.  Soon, I was beating the native kiwis to the answers before the questions were finished.

At a certain point, the tour guide clearly had enough of me.  Pretending that she couldn’t hear my voice, she’d ignore my answers, which were obviously first, favoring anybody else.  So, I had to resort to trickery.  Sometimes, I’d stand to her side, just out of her vision, so that she’d hand over the little bars of approval before she saw it was me.  Other times, Krista would tag-team, hearing my answer and bouncing it forward to collect the chocolate.

Eventually our guide resorted to “kids only” questions.  Which worked for Krista and me, but not so well for the dads, who were now totally worked up and in full competition mode.

Here’s another thing about lesbians:  we’re usually pretty good about rules.  We want to know them so we can decide what to do with them.  And I generally obey rules.  So I backed off.  But I knew all the answers.  Sometimes I’d whisper them to the kids so they could beat their parents, who were unable to control themselves now that they were competing, too.

And, as if the chocolate and trivia weren’t enough, the tour itself was really great.  We saw a lot of the process.  We saw white chocolate being squirted out into chips, and huge milk chocolate ingots being removed from molds.   We climbed into a pitch-black silo, and watched as a floodlight illuminated a 1-ton milk chocolate “waterfall” spilling out before us.  And, at the end of it all, we piled into a little, warm room to receive shot glasses of molten chocolate fresh out of the pipes.

And then, we counted.  “Who has the most?” our tour guide asked, scanning all of our bags.  “Oh, well, you.  You have a lot.” She said, pointing at my bag.  “And you,” she said pointing at Krista.  We grinned and clutched our prizes.  When she reached the kids, she dug her hands into the depths of her overalls and emerged with handfuls of shiny treats for all of them.  Like a grandmother making sure everyone had the same number of m&ms, she evened out the bags of chocolate and sent us on our way to take pictures in the old-fashioned Cadbury milk truck.

Back in our van, Krista and I dumped our bags onto the dash to evaluate our haul.  It was kind of like Halloween for adults.

We ended up with a lot of chocolate.  Which we immediately began bartering.  It was a beautiful thing.  She didn’t want the marshmallow, I didn’t want the gluten.  In the two-hour tour, we had collected enough chocolate to take us through the last week of our trip.  And we won.  It was hard to say which was better.

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January 28, 2011   2 Comments

Fornaci on ice

Yesterday was another good day.  After a couple of hard days, I was able to settle back into my surroundings and really enjoy where I am.

The morning was filled with the usual routine:  coffee, breakfast, a trip to the fashion outlet, work in the studio.  You know, the usual.  Lunch was a makeshift affair, during which I made one of the tastiest sandwiches ever from some wonderful bread, eggs, cheese and zuccnini.

Best sandwich ever

While at the house of Luigi and Andre, I learned about a tradition where the kids leave their Christmas lists out in their boots for Santa’s elves to pick up.

Elf Boots

Evidently a candle is left out for the elves to blow out.  That’s how you know they’ve been there.  That and the trail of glitter they leave.  It seems like a rather messy tradition to me, but I was assured that it’s really quite wonderful.

After lunch, I hiked up to the duomo.  I hadn’t been up there for a while, and it was a beautifully blustery winter day.  The views from the duomo are fantastic.  The town of Barga stretches out beneath it and the alps reach up from the horizon.

Pane from duomo

I walked in front of the duomo to snap a picture, and saw its doors standing open.  I realized I hadn’t been inside yet!  Insanity.  So I pulled off my little knit hat and ducked inside.  The duomo is beautiful.  It’s dark, but beautiful.  I took a moment to let my eyes adjust and then walked around a bit.  A lone photographer was crouched in front of the famous pulpit, trying to capture the light on the marble lions.  I didn’t even try.  My little camera is no match for dark spaces.

I walked up to one of the side chapels to light a candle for my families – American and Italian.   These were the electric variety, so I plunked in my coin, picked one out and plugged it in.  And I chuckled.

Electric duomo candles

Then I turned back to the cathedral door.  I’d forgotten how beautiful the view is from inside the duomo itself.  I can understand why people travel here for special ceremonies.

Pane from inside duomo

I took a couple of minutes to absorb the beauty of the mountains, then headed down the hill back into the town itself.  This weekend is a long weekend, due to the feast of the immaculate conception.  Yes, Italy shuts down for a couple of days to celebrate the immaculate conception.  In Barga the weekend also happens to be a celebration of chocolate.  “Barga Ciocolata” is in town.  Many of the storefronts that usually sit empty are filled with chocolate vendors.  There are tents with chocolatiers hocking their goods, and little ciocolata calda stands everywhere.

Barga ciocolata

The town is alive with chocolate-crazed tourists and locals hopped up on sugar and cocoa, and possibly thoughts of virgin mothers – hard to say.  The chocolate really seemed primary.  After making a circuit of the chocolate route, I picked out a little ciocolata calda stand that looked like it was a non-profit fundraiser, and bought 4 cups to take back to the studio.  Once I got back there, I looked up the words from the sign on the little table.  I was glad to find out it was the anti-leukemia society.   I hadn’t been sure exactly what I was supporting, but the ladies selling the chocolate were nice – and smoking.

The chocolate was divine.

Ciocolata Calda

The ladies had some kind of electric chocolate pot that warmed up the mixture.  They just pushed a button and sat back.  I need one of these magic pots, I think.  I walked around the bustling town, enjoying the excitement of a destination location.  The hilltop town of Barga in the midst of one of its festivals reminds me a bit of the sleepy Idaho town I grew up in.  One day it’s dead-quiet and the next inundated with an influx of visitors.  It might feel like an invasion to some, but the ebb and flow of this kind of place is a comfort to me.  New people bring new dollars, but they also bring smiles.  In a small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, it can seem easier to smile at strangers.

We drank our chocolate, packed up, and headed down the hill.  On the way down, we were treated to a spectacular light show that also reminded me of Idaho.

Barga/Fornaci sunset

The sunset was soft and pink and dramatic on the newly snow-covered mountains.

The day belonged to Barga, but the night to Fornaci.  I had a date.  The main square of Fornaci had been flooded to make an ice skating rink, and I’d promised Tommy I’d go with him.  This was the night.  But it was cold.  So, I reached into the closet, pulled out several layers of Icebreaker and got myself ready for some serious fun.

One of the bonuses of growing up in a world-famous ski resort is the excellent winter sports opportunities it presents.  Sun Valley is known for its ski hills, but it also has a pair of Olympic-sized ice rinks.  The Sun Valley Ice Shows are legendary.  My sister and I even spent one season testing whether we were cut-out for competitive skating.  It turns out we were not – but we did get to skate with folks like Scott Hamilton in one of the shows.  What that means is that, while I’m not a good skater, I’m not terrible, either.  And I like to go fast.  The best day I had on the ice ever was the day I rented a pair of speed skates and spent a couple of hours being told to slow down.

(Sidenote:  I’ve seriously considered joining the Rose City Roller Derby.  Like in rugby, I’m not big, but I’m fast, so I think I could make it work.  I’ve already picked out my moniker:  Maxi Pad.  I figure I’ll put padding all over my outfit just in case.  Let me know what you think.)

So Tom and I rented our skates (which were blue plastic hockey-type skates, and soaking wet inside) and headed out onto the bumpy rink.  The rinks I’m used to are pretty big, and smooth.  The rinks at Sun Valley kick people off every hour or so to clean the ice with a Zamboni.  This ice on the little piazza in Fornaci is a week old, and has endured several days of rain.  Tom assured me that it was smooth the first day.  Regardless, it was great – just a little extra challenging.

Piazza ice

The scene put me back 20 years (I can’t believe I can remember 20 years ago) to an outdoor rink where the boys in the skating club were playing “chicken” and jokingly challenged the girls, thinking nobody would bite.  I can remember the look on Clay Josephie’s face as I looked up at him from the ground after running headlong into him.  Shock and amusement.  It’s a shame the women’s hockey league didn’t start up until after I left Idaho.

Anyway, we did a lap together, and then Tommy found some of his friends who were watching.  He seemed content chatting and skating little bits at a time.  I, on the other hand, took a couple of warm-up laps, remembering how to push off out of the cross-over , and turned up the speed.  And then I fell.  It was a great, flailing, turning, choppy, nearly-recovered fall.  Hockey skates are very different from figure-skates.  They’re really maneuverable, but they don’t have the comb on the front of the blade that you can use to stop yourself.  If you try, you will fall.  Consider that a public service announcement.

There were so many people crammed onto the little rink that I couldn’t go very fast, so the fall was more humorous than anything.  I ended up skating into and picking up people more times than I fell, and only one boy pushed me (clearly jealous of my super-cool cross-over).  I even controlled myself when a girl who looked about 12 darted out in front of me, raced into the corner, crossed-over, and looked back at me.  I wanted to take a few running steps and spray her with ice.  But I didn’t.  I’m much more mature than that – I’m like 14.

After an hour, I was tired.  I’d been skating hard.  Tom, however, was ready for more.  “10 minuti, Tom, okay?”  “Si!  Or 20 or 40…”  Fortunately, the rink closed in 20 minutes, so our fun was coming to a close.  My feet were not so happy with me, and my right hip-flexor was ready for a break.  I kept thinking “okay, 2 more laps and it’s time to go”.  Eventually, I wrangled Tommy, and we headed home for taco night.

That’s right, folks, taco night!  I’d picked up tortillas, chips, salsa and refried beans.  These were all specialty items and there wasn’t much selection.  The chips came in a tiny little bag, and the beans looked like they’d been on the shelf for years.  While the others had chicken tacos, I served up veggie tacos with cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, peppers and leeks.  Super-yummy!

Veggie taco

These were a staple when Leigh and I would cook.  If you haven’t tried making tacos with veggies, try it.  Just start with the slowest cooking veggies first and basically stir fry them with taco seasoning.

We all had fun assembling our tacos and sharing our different techniques:  mozzarella cheese substituted for cheddar and refried beans made their debut in the household.

Bruised and contentedly-full, we all climbed into pajamas to watch a movie with Luigi, who was spending the night.  All said, it was a pretty perfect day, what with the chocolate and skating and tacos and pajamas and all.

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December 8, 2009   Comments Off on Fornaci on ice

The Universe Is Conspiring In My Favor

So, I’m in the Amsterdam airport, waiting for my flight to Italy.  It was a long flight, and will probably be a very long day.  But, so far it’s been a good one.

I don’t know if you’ve flown lately (flown is a word, right?  It looks weird right now.  Maybe my compression socks are effecting my brain.  Effecting?  Affecting?  See!?!?!), but the airlines are charging for stupid things.  You want to bring an extra bag?  $50.  You want an aisle seat?  $50.  This morning I wanted both.

I’m bringing an extra suitcase full of snacks and whatnot that I can bring fun things back in.  That’s in addition to my big pack that has all my clothes etc.  So, I checked in, used my credit card to pay for the extra bag, and then got a message that I qualified for a discount, and the bag was free!  Fabulous!

Then came the seat selection.  I was in a window seat (which is better than the middle seat on the big plane), but could upgrade to a “premium” seat (read aisle-seat) for $50.  I seriously considered it.  I mean, what’s another $50 if it’s going to make my trip significantly better?  (I get restless legs on long flights.  In fact, my doctor recommended compression socks, so I’m wearing awesome, therapeutic socks today.  They’re working, though, so I’m pretty happy.)

Awesome compression socks

When it came down to it, I have a moral issue with charging for things like an aisle seat.  I know everyone can’t have one, and I know it’s the market.  I also know that if I get my ticket early enough, I should be able to get something like an aisle seat.  I’m tired, so I’m not even going to try to make a cogent argument here.  I am going to use the word cogent, though.  Cogent.  Anyway, I can get a veggie meal if I ask for it early enough.  (Which was yummy, by the way.  Both meals were totally better than the non-veggie options.)  So, I didn’t buy the seat.

After like 20 mins of saying goodbye to Leigh (I might have had a hard time saying goodbye.  Just saying.)  I made it to the gate just in time to board.

As I walked onto the plane, there was a young woman talking on a cell phone right in front of me.  She was seriously engrossed in her phone call, and totally oblivious to the fact that I was the person sitting on the inside of her “premium seat”.  I stood there patiently, and eventually she moved from the aisle and saw that I was waiting.  We sat down and exchanged the usual, where you headed, info.  Turns out she had been scheduled on a flight that was canceled and that’s why she was on the phone – figuring out how everything was going to work.  Also turns out, she wanted to sleep, and generously offered me her aisle-seat.  Fabulous!  Free upgrade!

She was a great seat-mate, and we spent some quality time laughing at the products in “SkyMall”.  Hopefully she’s on her way to Sweden right now, where she’ll find a fabulous leap for me to take.

Yay for free upgrades!  Now I need to go see if I can get someone to upgrade me some liquid chocolate…stay tuned.

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October 23, 2009   9 Comments

Liquid Love

Yesterday, a couple of friends took me to have liquid loveliness at Cacao, a gourmet chocolate shop a couple of blocks from our office.

Liquid Chocolate

Okay, I know what you’re thinking – this whole “no-sugar” thing I claim to be doing is a load of crap.

But it’s really not!  I’m generally really good.

I’m leaving the country, and a friend wanted to buy me a cup of amazing liquid chocolate – like the kind in the chocolate waterfall in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (you know, the one with Gene Wilder).  So, what am I going to do?  Say no?!  That would just be rude.  Also, I’m fairly certain it’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure.  What?  You don’t believe me?  Screw you.  Look it up.  YOU LOOK IT UP!

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September 2, 2009   6 Comments

World-Changing Agave-Sweetened Peanut-Butter Chocolate-Chip Cookies

About a year and a half ago I gave up refined sugar (for the most part).

On the way home from a bridal shower where I’d come alive from an anti-social stupor after snarfing a large piece of the shower cake, Leigh said to me, “maybe we should give up the refined sugar for a while.”

Like the addict I was I lost it.  “You can’t do that!  There’s sugar in everything!  It’s just not possible.”


After about 5 minutes of rationalizing, I heard myself and realized I had a problem.  The two of us laughed hard and decided maybe we should give up the sugar for a while.  (By the way, refined sugar isn’t in EVERYTHING.)

Being the pastry freak that I am, this was a challenge.  The hardest part was dessert after dinner.  As my grandfather always says, “you must have a little gliko (Greek for ‘sweet’) after every meal!”  So, I set to work researching the best, most natural, least processed sugar-substitute that I could use in baking, and started searching the internet for recipes.  I settled on agave and found a great peanut butter chocolate chip cookie recipe that I modified to use agave instead of a fruit-sweetener.

These cookies keep me sane. I make them practically all the time so that there have been very few days in the last year when these cookies haven’t been in the house.  When I bring them to work, arguments can break out if I don’t bring one for everyone.  I know at least one other person who is nearly as fanatical as I am about making these cookies.  She uses these to control her diabetes.   Don’t worry though, even with the whole-wheat flower and nut butter, there’s nothing medicinal about how these cookies taste.  The might be the best thing ever.  I’m just saying.

I consider them open-source, so let me know if you make improvements on the recipe.


No-Sugar Peanut Butter Chocolate-Chip Cookies:
– 1 cup natural style nut butter. I use unsalted peanut but you could use salted if you like better (you can also use almond)

– put 2 tablespoons of water in a 2/3 cup measure. Add agave syrup to fill the 2/3 measure (I prefer dark, but light works too)
– 1 generous tsp vanilla

– 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (For wheat-free, sub barley flower, or oat.  For gluten-free sub quinoa flour.)
– 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
– 1/2 tsp salt

– About 3/4 cup grain sweetened chocolate chips – or dark chocolate chips if you can’t find grain sweetened

Oven to 350 degrees, parchment paper on two cookie sheets (or butter them, or use nothing at all). Mix wet ingredients in mixer, add dry ingredients, beat until combined. Stir in chocolate chips. Make balls with heaping Tbsp of dough, then squish with a wet fork to get the traditional pattern. I use all the dough to make 12 cookies. I bake Exactly 10 minutes if I want them chewy. (These are easy to overcook due to their color – so watch closely, and take out when they are just barely browning on top.  Maybe start with 8 mins and check the underside of one cookie, just to be safe.  For barley, oat or quinoa, you might want to bake longer.)



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August 10, 2009   27 Comments