Russ and Elke's European Travel

It's not only what you see, it's how you see it

Russ and Elke's European Travel is a small company run by husband and wife team Russ and Elke Beck, a professional travel agent.

Over the years we have experienced some fantastic places, people, food and wine.  Out of our love for travel developed the idea to create very exclusive, intimate and interesting itineraries and let our clients experience, taste, smell, touch and hear what has given us so much joy in our travels. 

Great Pasta Bolognese

Russ's Bolognese in process

It should come as no surprise to people who know us that we love food, in particular great Italian food. There was a time when our son cried mercy and requested any meal other than another Italian dish or variation thereof.

He stated that though he enjoyed our cooking, he simply needed a change. We were baffled that he felt that way since the two of us frankly could have merrily continued creating those lovely dishes which we enjoy so much on our travels.

Our son has moved out of our house since then and Russ and I cook many different meals now in the heart of our home, and to this day some of our go to choices are still traditional Italian dishes.

We would like to share Russ’s Pasta with Bolognese recipe here today, which is based on the great Marcella Hazan’s version. And whether it’s due to the fact that he doesn’t eat at home every day anymore our son actually enjoys this recipe and digs in when we cook it, even going for seconds. We hope you and your family enjoy it us much as we do. Buon appettito!

 

Pasta with Bolognese sauce (serves 6 -8 )

Ingredients:

1 lb ground chuck beef

½ lb ground veal

3 carrots (chopped fine)

3 stalks of celery (chopped fine)

1 medium onion (chopped fine) 

1 cup heavy cream (divided)

4 cups veal or beef broth (divided)

1 cup dry white wine

28 oz chopped San Marzano tomatoes

Large pinch of saffron (optional but recommended)

1 ½ tsp dried thyme or 1 Tbsp fresh

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

In a heavy bottom pot, such as a Dutch oven, heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil until shimmering over medium heat. Add Onion, carrots, and celery along with a generous pinch of salt and sauté until dry.  Add all meats to the pan, season with the thyme as well as another generous pinch of salt and cook until just browned. Reduce heat to medium and add ½ cup of the heavy cream and allow to come to a bubble while stirring (this protects the meat from the acid of the tomatoes once they are added).

Turning the heat up to medium-high, deglaze the pan with the wine. When the wine has nearly cooked off, add 3 cups of the broth, hold 1 cup in reserve in case it’s needed later. Now add your tomatoes and the saffron. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a very slow simmer. Allow to cook for 3 to 6 hours, the longer the tastier.

As it’s cooking if the mixture looks too dry feel free to add the extra broth as needed. Approximately half an hour before serving add the remaining heavy cream. Serve over al’ dente linguini pasta or papardelle.

 

Getting ready to depart for Tuscany

View from an olive grove we picnicked in toward San Gimignano

All  travelers feel that wonderful rush of excitement when they are within a month of departure to their long dreamed of vacation destination. To get there is somewhat of a lengthy and often very stressful process. It starts with that dream but is then followed by extensive research and a ton of planning. Then, reservations need to be made and money has to be paid to the suppliers. After all that the only thing left is to wait until it is time to pack the bags.

For all of the Russ and Elke tours, we cover 99% of those tasks and work hard to eliminate any worries for our clients. We want to make sure that this is an easy, stress free, experience and leave them to their often busy lives. Vacation should be just that, a time to relax and enjoy every moment. We take care of all the planning, booking and organizing. 

Everything is done discreetly behind the scenes and starts approximately a year prior to our client’s departure. We spend countless hours contacting our purveyors in Italy making sure that lodging, transportation, tours, meals, farm visits, wine tastings, museum visits, castle tours and cooking-classes are set up and organized by times and dates.

In addition, we have worked hard on perfecting and making sure we offer an exciting itinerary that is enjoyable yet manageable for our clients. Russ and I know driving distances and travel times between all the locations we visit and, through years of experience, we have figured out how to tweak our itinerary so we don’t exhaust our clients, or overwhelm them, so that by the time they return home they need a vacation from their vacation.  We detail this itinerary in our final travel documents which are prepared about a month before departure.

While our clients get excited studying their travel documents and fantasizing about the fabulous places they are about to visit, we send out last minute e-mails or spend time on international calls re-confirming all of our arrangements and making sure everything is as perfectly planned as possible as well as having back-up plans in case of bad weather and other unforeseeable circumstances.  This last step is an absolute necessity, since Italians are very passionate and busy people and need a reminder that we are about to arrive.

In our final documents for our clients we include a list with suggestions for packing and commonly forgotten items so all they have to do is check off the lists, and decide which clothes to pack and whether or not they want to splurge on some new fun items for the upcoming trip. Those decisions are generally easy, and if in doubt we are only a phone call or e-mail away.

We take the stress out of departing on a Europe adventure unlike any other. And by coincidence I will shoot off some reminder e-mails to our friends in Italy today, since our next tour is right around the corner and we are excited to take a new set of clients to explore Bella Toscana with us.

Italian Shepherds Pie Casserole

 Italian Shepherds Pie Casserole

Italian Shepherds Pie Casserole

Russ and I are blessed with one wonderful son so our home has always been open to  his friends. We enjoy the vitality and boundless energy that their youth brings to our life, and enjoy being a part of their growing up. Over the years we have watched them turn from children into young adults and shared with them our love for great food. We gather in our kitchen and everyone has a chore; chopping, stirring, blending, clean-up and getting the food on the table in a timely manner. We try to teach these boys the value of good, local ingredients, healthy nutrition and simply how to cook. I, in particular, love to observe the banter and endless chatter, Russ instructing at the stove, and the miracle of amazing dishes making their way out of  the heart of our home. Over the years we have cooked many meals together and have developed traditions that hopefully give a sense of warmth and family to all these young adults.

 Our son has since moved out of our nest but Tuesday night dinners and Sunday brunches remain  here at our home for him, his girlfriend and an assortment of his childhood friends. There are the occasional guest appearances from family members or family friends that make for an even bigger party and force Russ and I to be creative with our menu choices. At a minimum we will have to come up with recipes that feed six people, of which three are growing young men.

You all know about traditional shepherds pie, which goes a long way in feeding a bigger crowd and is always well received in our home, but we wanted to do something a bit different.  So Russ put his thinking cap on and came up with a version that he calls ' Italian Shepherds Pie'.

I became the guinea pig for this new recipe and absolutely loved it. So for our next Tuesday night dinner we tripled the recipe and cooked it for everyone. I kid you not when I say that they scraped their plates and finished every last bite. It was a huge success and is easy to prepare ahead of time so it fits into busy work schedules. The recipe below feeds six people comfortably and we hope you enjoy it as much as our family did.


  • 1 cup dried polenta cooked to package directions (do NOT use instant polenta)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp salted butter
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1/2 lb ground veal
  • 1 small yellow onion diced
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground fennel
  • 1 pinch of ground cloves (optional)
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • one small basket of fresh cherry tomatoes or 1 can Sicilian cherry tomatoes
  • 1 small eggplant cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
  • 2 zucchini sliced diagonally about 1/4 inch thick 
  • 1 lg red bell pepper sliced into 1/4 inch rings
  • 1 lg red onion sliced into 1/4 inch rings
  • 1 tbsp GOOD balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground pepper

Eggplant can be bitter, so to remove the bitter taste gently sprinkle both sides of each slice with kosher salt and layer the slices in a colander.  Place a full bowl of water over the eggplant in the colander to press the juices gently but firmly.  Let stand for 30 minutes.

Over medium heat gently saute the yellow onion in 1 tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt.  When the onions become translucent and just golden turn the heat up to medium-high and add the meats.  Sprinkle the fennel, garlic powder and clove over the meat and stir to incorporate.  Stirring constantly and breaking up any lumps, cook just until there is no more pink meat visible and immediately remove from the heat.  Gently mix in the cherry tomatoes and set the entire pan aside.

Pre-heat the oven on broil to 500 degrees.  

When the eggplant is ready, brush each side with olive oil and place on a baking sheet.  The remaining vegetables can be tossed in 2 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tsp salt and fresh ground pepper.  This is easily done in a large bowl, use your hands to make sure they are evenly coated.  Eggplant is super absorbent so it must be done separately as above.  

As there are a significant amount of vegetables, working in batches, place the vegetables under the broiler for 3 minutes on each side.  Watch them carefully, they can go from under-cooked to burnt in 30 seconds.  Beautifully golden or a little char is perfect.

When all the vegetables have been broiled, sprinkle them with the balsamic vinegar and set them aside.

Turn the oven on to bake and drop it down to 375 degrees.

Cook the polenta according to the package directions, usually 1 cup of polenta to 4 cups of fluid.  Feel free to experiment with the cooking fluid, I like to use 1 cup of chicken, veal or vegetable stock and 3 cups of water.  When the polenta is fully cooked remove from the heat and stir in the butter and parmesan cheese.

Now we are finally ready to assemble.  Layer each ingredient in a deep baking dish beginning with the meat, then the vegetables and topping it with a layer of the creamy polenta.  I like to layer each vegetable over the meat  so when it is served on a plate all of the beautiful colors are shown. 

At this point you may stick the assembled casserole in the refrigerator as a make-ahead option for up to a day,  I think this actually tastes better as the ingredients blend nicely.

When you are ready to heat the casserole place it in a 375 degree oven.  If coming out of the refrigerator heat for 45 minutes, otherwise 20 - 25 minutes is fine, and serve immediately family style.

This pairs wonderfully with a Pinot Nero (Noir) or a Sangiovese based Super-Tuscan from the Maremma region.

 The finished product dressed with a bit of olive oil and black pepper

The finished product dressed with a bit of olive oil and black pepper

Novembre a Toscana

     Fall in the US is the season for apple picking, pumpkin carving, deer hunting and preparations for Thanksgiving. The air smells of hot apple cider, fresh cider donuts, pumpkin bread and turkey's roasting in the oven. In Tuscany this time of year, a different kind of harvest takes place.

     With the smell of damp earth, roasted chestnuts and wood fires in the air, November is the time for olive and saffron harvests in Tuscany. Combined with wild boar hunts, and the exciting search for porcini mushrooms and truffles it's most certainly a busy time for the local's and a different experience for the handful of tourists braving cooler temperatures and potential stretches of rainy days.

     November 1st marks the opening of the wild boar (cinghiale) hunting season and I, who generally don't particularly care for gamey meats, have to admit that parts of those bristly, grunting and intimidating animals make a wonderful ragu.

      On our tours we take our clients to a small restaurant outside of Siena, heavily favored by the locals, that serves homemade 'Pici con Cinghiale'. Pici is a thick hand rolled pasta, like super fat spaghetti, that originates in the province of Siena and compliments the succulent wild boar perfectly. After finishing our meal I always glance around our table and notice there are never any leftovers - as a matter of fact, the last bits of sauce are wiped up with bread and flushed down with sips of the vino rosso a casa. This is often as a new culinary experience for most, and I always observe with a smile more than one satisfied rubbing of a full belly.

     This is the reason Russ and I did research and found a purveyor which raises and delivers wild boar meat in the US. We ordered a shoulder and created homemade pasta and ragu with our clients at the reunion in our home. It was very tasty, but I have to admit, I did miss the scenic setting of the Tuscan Trattoria, the golden summer sun, and the local's chatting away on their lunch break. It just adds that extra touch of whimsy to a fantastic meal.

      The forests in Tuscany are abuzz with activities during the late autumn months. On a leisurely stroll you may encounter the hunter - or the hunted - or local's searching for the tasty porcini mushrooms, another great ingredient which will make it’s way to the menus of the region. There is tagliatelle with porcini, risotto with porcini, meat dishes and flatbread with porcini even porcini flavored gelato. Russ isn't too crazy about mushrooms, as a matter of fact he calls them pencil erasers, so it's up to me to order those lovely flavorful,earthy dishes whenever possible.

      He, on the other hand, loves truffles, yes, I know, he is a bit funny that way. And actually love is an understatement. He is like the trained dog or pig that hunts for those treasures under big old oak trees and has a keen nose when visiting a restaurant. He knows they are on the menu before he takes a look at it and without fail if it reads “con tartufo” there is no way anything but that dish will make it in front of him. We love to share those specialties of the region with our clients by taking them to our friends restaurant and have a fabulous pasta dish, ricotta mezza luna with the treasured truffles shaved over the top as part of our dinner. To quote a past client, "This is the best meal I have ever eaten!"  Truffles truly are small treasures but come with a hefty price tag and the harvesting sites are well kept secrets. White truffles are more aromatic than black truffles, and a heck of a lot more expensive, but they taste delicious.

       And speaking of delicious, another great harvest takes place for a couple of weeks in October and November in Tuscany and other parts of Italy. The purple saffron crocus plants produce three pistols per flower of which the stigmas are harvested and carefully dried at a temperature of about 45 degrees Celsius, which makes them lose about 80% of their body weight. It takes about 125,000 flowers to make 1 kg of saffron, appropriately named the 'red gold', since it's price per kg is actually higher than gold. Russ and I love to cook with saffron and he makes a killer Risotto Milanese. It is also lovely in some Moroccan and Indian dishes.

      So if your mouth isn't watering yet with me going on about all those great food options, I simply suggest you should experience some of those amazing ingredients in the right setting.

"And where is that?", you might ask....- In Bella Toscana, of course!


Time to meet the Locals

 Nonnas exchanging gossip in Lucca

Nonnas exchanging gossip in Lucca

     As you all know by now Russ and I love immersing ourselves in the Italian culture and have made some wonderful friends in Tuscany.  After an arduous eight hour flight over the ‘great big pond’, retrieving our rental car and finally looking at the airport in the rear view mirror, I take a deep breath and feel instantly at home.  Driving through the rolling hills of Chianti, seeing the landscape dotted with old stone houses and the grapes ripening on the vines makes my heart jump with joy.  It’s a feeling hard to describe, but if I had to put it in words I would say: “Something bigger than happiness and contentment - warm, welcoming and simply right.”

       In our many years of travel we have always tried to fit in with the locals and to observe and learn as much of their culture as we can.  I strongly believe it’s important to show respect and gratitude toward them for allowing us glimpses into their lives, sharing their traditions, their food, their homes, businesses and their homeland with us traveling folks. 

 On the daily agenda: town and world news

On the daily agenda: town and world news

      One of our favorite pastimes while in Italy is to get up early and sit in the town’s main piazza and watch the world come to life around us.  For me it’s heartwarming to see how social and warm Italians are with one another.  There isn't any rush to find a chain coffee shop, which provides the much needed caffeine boost to get started in a fast paced cooperate environment.  People aren't beginning their days harried, with their mobile devices glued to their ears and running to get to their jobs.

     Instead, if you sit and observe you’ll see businesses opening with the staff happily humming away, straightening up produce or setting tables with an elegant ease. The line begins to form in front of the local bakery from which wafts a heavenly smell.  People chat and greet each other warmly and discuss the upcoming day’s events, their family matters or the town’s latest gossip. The older generations love to socialize.  They grab a cappuccino or espresso, the local paper and then find each other.  Any bench will do to sit outside and be friendly with one another.  Looking at this from my observation seat I marvel at the stress free, leisurely way to take on the day ahead. 

      The waiter serving us our cappuccinos has a smile on his face, which broadens when listening to our broken Italian language attempts.  It’s a nice smile though, not a condescending one, at our efforts to fit in.  A little goes a long way in Italy!  Approach the locals with a friendly attitude and don’t be afraid to use your Italian words, even if they are not perfect. 

      Know that you are in a different world from what you’re used to at home and I promise you a much better vacation experience.  Get to know some of the locals, take the time to get away from the often crazy vacation itinerary and make time for the more simple things.  You’ll have to return home soon enough, and the worst thing that could happen is that you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation before you join the rat race once again.

      Our best recommendations and services were and still are given by our wonderful Italian friends.

Friends and Family

Tuscan Cooking Class

     On our 2014 Bella Toscana tour most of our clients kept detailed travel journals to remember all the beautiful experiences and sights that their cameras couldn't adequately capture. I loved seeing them at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee from Simonetta's kitchen or near the pool on their devices typing away and trying to remember every detail from the previous day.   Russ and I frequently were asked the names of our friends that served us dinner at the restaurant the night before, the spelling of Tuscan hill towns we had seen or the names of pets at the farm where we had stopped for lunch.  After their private cooking class, we all put our heads together the following morning to remember the ingredients and procedures taught to recreate those delicious Tuscan dishes upon returning home. Nothing was left out of those journals. Not a single smell, touch or sight was lost to the observant writers. 

     Our small group of people came with us to Tuscany for different reasons, but they all had one thing in common...they quickly succumbed to the beauty of the Chianti region and discovered a love for it and it's people.

Doug and Julie - Castello Verrazano

     Russ and I try to show our clients Tuscany the way we have experienced it for many years. We introduce them to our friends, take them to our favorite restaurants and show them incredible views and vistas. We take pride and joy in watching them getting excited and snapping hundreds of pictures of gorgeous views or old doors - which seem to be at the top of everybody's lists. In essence, we enjoy it through their eyes just as much as through our own. Even though we have experienced this many times before we get to see it anew by being allowed to witness their happiness and watch their reactions.

     I loved an early encounter on the last tour between one of our clients and an older local lady. We stopped for a quick bite to eat at an Autogrill ,a highway rest stop which serves great food and coffee, after retrieving our clients from the airport in Milano. We all crowded around the panini case to make our choices. A sweet elderly Italian lady in front of us turned to our client and had a whole conversation with her. Even though our client didn't speak Italian they somehow were able to communicate and share a laugh. Whether it was our friends body language and kindness that attracted the older lady, or simply the fact that she sensed her joy of being in Italy,  I'm not sure what  the motivation was, but it was very sweet to watch.

Anna and Harry with Kalinka and Simonetta after the cooking class

     It's not absolutely necessary to be fluent in Italian when traveling in Tuscany but a few words and a good attitude go a long way with the locals. Italians are proud people ruled by emotions, and once a connection is established it can lead to friendships for life. Russ and I have met many wonderful people in our travels and we take clients along on our tours to visit friends who welcome everyone warmly. Building these personal connections, really getting to know the locals and their traditions, has always been a focus in our travels. 

     Good friends make great hosts, which became apparent in some interactions between our group and our Tuscan friends. On our day trip to Sienna we had reservations at 'Osteria Da Divo' for dinner.  Pino, the owner, and a personal friend of ours, wasn't able to greet us at the restaurant that night because he was home sick. Instead though, he had the entire staff including his mother- in law fuss over us, and he himself kept calling every few minutes to make sure we were treated properly. On my way to the restroom his exasperated mother-in-law summoned me to the phone so that I could assure Pino we were well take care of so he could leave the poor lady in peace to do her work.  I reassured him that everything was lovely as always and we had no complaints. It' s those personal touches that make everybody feel special.

Elke and Filipo

     On another night at our dear friend Fillipo's 'Ristoro Di Lamole' one of our ladies broke out in silent tears...tears of joy. She was so touched by the warm welcome, the incredible food and the service that she reflected back on her Italian heritage and was overcome by emotion. It was a special moment for her and we felt privileged to share it with her and the rest of our group.

     Sometimes it's those little gestures that touch us the most and deepest. And I for one cherish every one of them and feel very blessed that I can share my experiences, my amazing friends and this beautiful country with a handful of people that cross my path in life.  We started out with clients who were new to us and a few friends, but by the end of the tour we all felt like family

With Ulysses (the tall one) at Podere Il Casale



Don’t get drunk, just follow these tips when flying

Russ and I have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in both directions too many times to count, but I still get the same jitters I felt the first time I boarded a plane to visit the United States from my home country Germany. Looking back on that day, I can only be compared to an overly excited puppy. Upon taking my seat I pressed my nose to the window and I watched in amazement as all the bags disappeared into the belly of the plane. I buckled my seat belt tightly and checked it four times to make sure I was secured properly and not going anywhere before shifting my attention to the flight attendants safety demonstration.

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Florence- City of History, Art & Traffic tickets

A little known fact of visiting Florence is that after 4 PM, many Enoteccas serve "finger food" as a draw.  It is a simple thing to stop in, pay less that 10 euros and enjoy a glass of wine and whatever they are serving.  Some places have a few bruschetta and others have tables groaning under the weight of a buffet. On our way back to the train station we stopped for a glass of vino and were surprised to see tables laden with all kinds of different bruschettas, cheeses, meats and other small bite size delicacies. When we ordered our wine we had a nice conversation with the owners and were told we could eat as much as we wanted for the very small price of 8 Euro. 

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Hotel, Villa, B&B?

Choosing the right place can be a daunting and confusing task, even for me, a professional Travel Consultant. There are so many options available that it’s quite common for people to end up stressed, frustrated and still lacking somewhere to stay, after hours and days spent cruising the internet.  It's simply overwhelming to choose the perfect place with hundreds of hotels, bed & breakfasts, agriturismos, farms, villas and apartments at your fingertips; and let's not  forget that everyone has an opinion on TripAdvisor, you may be traveling with children or companions, you want to see everything there is so you need to be central - but what is central in Tuscany - all of which just adds to the cacaphony. 

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