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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Pretty Stones

I developed an interest in pretty stones. No, not diamonds. Diamonds are beyond boring. They do sparkle with internal fire and that is pretty much all that they do. I discovered that there is a huge variety of pretty stones that can be made into jewellery and these hold qualities of...

- Adularescence: 
A milky or bluish glow/lustre that seems to emanate from just under the surface of the stone. It is a property of moonstones.

- Labradorescence:
Iridiscent flashes of colour that seems to come from just under the surface of the stone.

- Aventurescence:
A metallic glitter observed when inclusions create a pattern of brilliant flashes.

- Opalescence:
A shimmer of different colours when viewed at different angles, caused by the reflection of shortwave light.

- Jellylike
The stone is hard but looks like jelly, High quality jadeite does this.

I have found that the beauty of the stones have NOTHING to do with its cost. There are beautiful stones that no one seems to want. For example, the chrysoberyl below is even harder than jadeite. It plays light off in a way that mesmerizes the eye and yet, it was only 49 euros.

Italy has a long tradition of jewellery making, dating back to the Etruscan period. In effect, people in Italy started making jewellery even before they started to write. Everywhere you go, there are jewellers in Italy. These are not simply retail merchants. They actually make the jewellery they sell, on site. Many of these jewellers use precious stones, gold and silver. If you look carefully though, you can find those who work only in brass and copper. They do beautiful work and each piece of jewellery costs less than 50 euros.

I don't hang out with people who like jewellery. So, the only people I have found to share my fascination with pretty stones are two 10 year old little boys who both own a rock collection. It is a bona fide hobby with a long tradition ok. See below an 18th century rock collection belonging to a Cardinal. 

 18th century rock collection belonging to a Cardinal.

Brass necklace with labradorite stones. It looks beautifully Etruscan.

A yellow agate pendant.

Alabaster pendant.

Amber (I think). I shall soon be conducting a shortwave UV light test. The most convincing fake for amber is copal, which is also tree resin but instead of being millions of years old, it is only a few thousands of years old. Under shortwave UV light, amber will glow blue. Copal will not. I did not pay much for my amber jewellery so I will not be surprised if it is only copal.


To test for fake chrysoberyls, immerse the stone in a clear glass of water. Hold it up to the light. If you see a honeycomb structure as above, it is real chrysoberyl. Chrysoberyl make beautiful stones and it is harder than jadeite. Yet, it is so cheap!

Chinese New Year Cookies by Kookii

A dear friend of mine is a talented baker. She isn't just a talented baker. She is a very PARTICULAR baker. I know because she taught me how to make her pecan rocks. She gave very specific instructions to me to get Spectrum coconut oil (from Cold Storage) and to get UNsweetened coconut flakes.

I got sweetened coconut flakes and was too lazy to go to Cold Storage. So, I bought the Phoon Huat coconut oil. She tasted them and eyed me like Gordon Ramsay. I don't know what she was thinking of saying to me (but did not) but I think it was something Gordon Ramsay would say to an offending chef on Kitchen Nightmares. Then, when she found out that I had bought sweetened coconut flakes, she rolled her eyes when she thought I was not looking.

During our cooking session, I was trying to lure her upstairs when my helper was washing the oven. She insisted on sitting in my kitchen to supervise the cleaning of my oven to ensure that my maid did it right. Then, when she asked for a glass tupperware, I produced one with some black marks on the seal. She looked at me and gently said, "You know, you can remove the seals and wash them."


Despite all the aggravation I gave her, she still spent about 5 hours in my kitchen teaching me to make gluten free nut cookies to die for. The problem is that they are only to die for when she makes them, because when I make them, they only taste alright.

Her cookies are really good because she is uncompromising on quality. At CNY, she supplies them as corporate gifts to discerning top execs. Do give her a text at 9792 9990. Book your cookies before she closes orders.

She does close orders you know. Last year, my order went in late and she could not make for me.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Lapone Vineyard Paradise

When all of us got here, we wailed because we only have 2 nights here. This is just a stopover on the way back to Rome before we fly home. Everyone said that we should have skipped Florence and come straight here to see what this place has to offer. Aaaaargh! Bad decision to go to Horrible Florence!

The Husband is especially taken with this place. The remoteness appeals to his introverted nature and whilst the house is built in the style of a centuries old cottage, it really is a new construction with all the proper insulation and electrical work. The house is very comfortable and there are stunning views from every window.

It is such a nice place that all 3 of us lobbied The Son to NOT go out to see Orvieto, the town that I had planned into the itinerary. We all just want to enjoy the house! Hey... people book Balinese chalets and stay a week. Why can't we book an Italian cottage and just stay in?

Outdoor seating.

Kitchen with SMEG fridge and Bose speakers.

Look at the views out the 2 large windows.

View from the kitchen.

The main cottage where the host stays.

View from our bed.

Our cosy fireplace.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


Since the children were 0 years old, The Husband and I have been avoiding the major cities in favour of countryside driving tours in Europe. This started when we were students in France when we would drive off to nowhere and find things to see along the way. We traveled cheap then because we would just recline the seats of Hub's car and sleep in the car, in a campsite. Till today, we find it hard to do 3 different countries in 3 weeks. We can only manage a small part of one country in 3 weeks because we move very slowly and sort of mosey around looking for anything that might turn up.

Every discovery is a surprise.

Even before AirBnB, we were already booking cottages in the middle of nowhere and using them as a base to search for local things to see. There used to be multiple sites advertising holiday cottages until AirBnB consolidated everything.

I like to use our overseas holidays to teach my kids lifeskills. When I am old, they will need to step into leadership roles. So, it is wise to let them lead me during the holidays. See HERE.

Little Boy has come a long way and has now become The Son. He is now 1.5 heads taller than I am. He now navigates in the passenger seat whilst I chill in the back seat. He is a better navigator than I am. He is calm and steady. I tend to yell at the driver when I am navigating. Before we trained him, we trained The Daughter. So, I haven't been navigating for 10 years already. The Husband stares at me wild-eyed when I get into the passenger seat during the holidays because he knows that he will get yelled at when I navigate.

The Daughter and The Son pick the sights and manage the schedules. I just chill and let myself get herded along. It is now very stress free compared to those days when I had to keep an eye on my Little Boy because he liked to wander off and make sure the kids did not fight. Now, The Son keeps an eye on me and The Daughter makes sure her parents do not fight.

Since I already do so little, I thought I should still contribute by cooking the meals.

Then, overly stressed by having to live like a refugee in Horrible Florence, I fell sick. I could not cook. The Son likes to eat and so he naturally stepped into the gap. He made 2 yummilicious meals. Now, he has become Cinderbrola. He does it all. He navigates. He shops. He cooks. He finds things to see. He herds us all into the car. He supervises the packing.

I like.


Volterra is so small that its old city needs 30 minutes to walk from end to end. It was exactly our kind of town. Volterra is the centre of alabaster artisanal work. It was lovely to see the beautiful alabaster carvings. There is also a rather disturbing Museum of Torture, featuring torture instruments of times gone past. I missed that museum but in case readers are interested, there are some photos below taken by my family, who reacted in distaste too.

We stayed in a clean an cosy apartment in Volterra here. It was such a comfort after Horrible Florence.

Horrible Florence

We all agreed that Florence was a waste of time. The top tourist draws in the big European cities just do not fit our Pooh Bear travel style. I made a bad decision to spend 3 days in Florence. It was the least enjoyable 3 days of our trip.

People come to Florence to see the past glories of the Medici family whose DNA now runs in the veins of many European royals. The family produced many popes and married 2 daughters into royalty. We toured their gardens and palaces. Then, The Husband asked me why I planned Florence into the itinerary just to see rich men's houses.

Ok... point taken.

Then, people in Florence were aggressive. There were many leather shops with aggressive touts. When we refused to buy, they got angry! In Gubbio, the same leather jacket they were trying to sell us for 500 euros, retailed for 220 euros. Then, there were so many tourists. One restaurant we went too filled up entirely with PRC tourists. It did not feel Italian at all.

It did not help that our AirBnB in Florence here, was awful. We have always had great experiences in AirBnB but this one was the other extreme.

The place was cold in winter. On the first night, I could literally feel dust mites crawling on my face as I tried to sleep. My face was itchy! The Husband's back exploded into red welts and he itched terribly. The Son sneezed non-stop. One bathroom window could not close and it happened to be the unheated bathroom. Another toilet door could not lock so we had to be careful not to walk in on each other. The listing advertised a washer and there was one but there was no place to dry clothes because the host was so stingy that she bought the tiniest drying rack possible. So, I had to hang my laundry all over my bedroom like a refugee.

The house is 200 years old. The sexy Florentine art deco style furniture you see in the listing is about 100 years old and smelled musty. The whole house smelled musty because it was winter and the host was too stingy to open the windows and doors to air the place. You see, once you let in the cold, you incur more costs in re-heating the home.

The worse thing was that we were forbidden to touch the heater controls. The house was cold but we could not adjust the heaters. The host pointed to some old and tired looking blankets and said that if we were cold, we should use more blankets.

Gee... if I wanted to get warm just using blankets, why not just find a cave somewhere. I don't have to book a house, you know. Luckily, we had had the foresight to bring our own electric blankets and a radiator.

I wondered if the host themselves lived in such squalor or were they just very poor business people who believe that advertising alone will guarantee a good pipeline of customers.

Then hor... Italy has a robust recycling programme. Each house has separate bins for plastics, metals, paper, organic waste. In every other house, proper bin liners are used. This host was so stingy that she used supermarket bags 1/3 the size of the bins. I kept having to pick garbage out from the bins in order to cram into the tiny bags.

Most AirBnB hosts expect that their guests will arrive near nightfall. They are considerate enough to provide coffee, some cake and some jam. This host provided a bottle of tap water and instant coffee powder. Right now, I am sitting in an AirBnB near Orvieto, looking out on a stunning view, with a glass of wine provided by my host here. I am also listening to music wafting out of Bose speakers and my food is in a SMEG fridge. It is a huge contrast from our lodgings in Florence. The irony is that I am now in the middle of nowhere, with wild boars grunting down the hill from our AirBnB. In Florence, I was in one of Italy's largest cities.

Moral: Do NOT look down on kampong living ok.

In Florence, I really felt like a refugee living off the scraps of the stingy host's heat resources and having to use stuff that I would not even dare to donate to charity. It was such a relief to get out of that house and it left all of us with awful memories of Florence.

See lah! This is my retribution for wanting to see a dead rich man's house and wanting to live in a place that looks royal. Royal looking could well mean slum dwelling!

I will never go back to Florence again.

Antonio Food Tours: Giuseppe Cattani's Balsamic Vinegar

Most of the balsamic vinegar that you get from supermarkets are a poor imitation of real balsamic vinegar. You would be lucky if it does not contain caramel. Real balsamic vinegar is grape juice (sometimes, apple juice) aged in different types of wood barrels consecutively over decades. Every year, the vinegar is transferred into a new type of wood barrel. Over the years, the vinegar picks up the flavours from the wood - oak, juniper, mulberry, chestnut, ash and acacia. Traditionally, in this region, you start a new barrel of ferment when a daughter is born. When she gets married, she brings her barrels along with her to help her continue making balsamic vinegar as the mother of her own family.

Every time you transfer the vinegar into the next type of wood barrel, you must leave 10% of the ferment in the original. These contain probiotics that will ferment the new grape juice you put in there. Real balsamic vinegar has heath promoting properties and was often given to old people as a health tonic.

Basically, your parents start fermenting grape juice on your behalf so that when you get old, you can eat your own fermented grape juice as a health tonic.

Giuseppe Cattani's mother made balsamic vinegar in her attic, just under the roof where temperatures in summer can reach 45 Deg C. Giuseppe Cattani turned his mother's skills into an enterprise. He has warehouses full of balsamic vinegar barrels, all made the traditional way.

I have never liked balsamic vinegar and I now realise that is because I have never tasted the real thing. I bought 500ml of this ambrosia and I shall panic when it is all gone because after this, I will never be able to eat supermarket balsamic vinegar ever again.

This place must be worth millions because real balsamic vinegar is not cheap.

Real balsamic vinegar is thick and syrupy. Once you have tasted it, you will be addicted.

500ml of balsamic yumminess. This is aged 25 years.

Here is a selection of vinegars aged over different numbers of years.

Those barrels on the left shelf are home kitchen fermenting barrels. You can buy a set of 4 and because the barrels are small, the fermenting goes faster. The kit comes with a barrel of ferment which you can then transfer after 2 months, and then you top up the first barrel with more ferment from Giuseppe's warehouse. You can then harvest your own home made balsamic vinegar. The Husband asked me if I could ... and I said, No. I am already growing so many things at home!

Antonio Food Tours: Parmegiano-Reggiano

Antonio is a consultant in organic farming and the slow food movement in Bologna. I booked him on AirBnB. You can email him at

His tour was SGD$100/pax less expensive than others advertised on TripAdvisor. Since there were 4 of us, it meant SGD$400 of savings. The disadvantage of Antonio's food tours was that we had to meet him in Vignola. He could not come to Bologna to pick us up. Antonio was a great guide.

We did not mind. The drive from Bologna to Vignola was 1 hr long. Since it was snowing, we chose to take the train for about 3 euros per pax. Stressless since the train station was within walking distance from our beautiful AirBnB apartment.

Making Parmegiano-Reggiano Cheese
There is Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese and Parmesan cheese. My neighbour once gave me a bag of parmesan cheese that her cousin supplies to restaurants. I looked at it and it looked funny. Sure enough, the ingredients list named "filler". Fillers for parmesan cheese are basically cellulose (made from wood pulp) used to add volume. It is not cheese but it adds bulk to what you are sprinkling on your pasta.

Such types of parmesan cheese are tasteless. Don't buy grated parmesan. Buy the parmesan block and grate the cheese yourself as and when you need it.

The Parmegiano-Reggiano is the king of parmesan cheese. It is the gold standard of what parmesan should be and it is what unethical food suppliers hope to convince you, that you are buying (when you are not).

The Parmegiano-Reggiano can only be made from organic milk. If the milk contains antibiotics, it will kill the probiotics needed to make cheese. You will simply get bad milk. This is why the cooperative tracks which farm produces which milk which results in exactly which wheels of cheese. Farmers that sabotage the process with unethical milk will get heavily fined.

The curds from yesterday's milk are bound into a ball and held in a cheese cloth.

The cheese ball is placed into moulds. These are turned every so often for 24 hours before they are transferred into another mould.

These have been transferred into another type of mould. Each wheel of cheese is printed with information about the farm which produced the milk, the date the milk was processed and even the type of cow that produced the milk. Normal parmigiano-reggiano is made from the milk of the Friesian cow. These cows produce high quantities of milk. In 2003, some farmers decided to preserve the local breed of viacche bianche (white cow) which produces less milk, but the milk is high in casein. The resulting white cow parmigiano has a special sweetness and richness that comes from the high casein levels.

It takes strength to make cheese. Both cheesemakers are very fit and muscular. The older one is in his 60s and looks very attractive! Apparently, master cheesemakers are like football stars in this region. They are lured to join this or that co-operative with high pay and good perks.

Ph testing of the ferments.

After some time in the moulds, the cheese are submerged in brine for weeks.

The cheeses are then cured for 1 year. At the end of 1 year, someone comes in to test the cheese. If the cheese is good, it is left to cure another year in order to become Parmegiano-Reggiano. Sub-standard wheels are taken out and sold cheaply as semi-hard cheese with no name.

Cheese tasting!

Making ricotta from the leftover whey (after making the parmigiano-reggiano). They leftover whey contains excellent probiotics. It was also delicious.

Fresh ricotta cheese. The cream harvested from the milk is used to make panna cotta too. If you come here, you MUST try the panna cotta. You will NOT taste another panna cotta like this. I found out with some pleasure that panna cotta means cooked cream in Italian. No wonder I like panna cotta. It is cream!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Prehistoric Bologna

People lived in Bologna since the Paleolithic times, which is the earliest caveman times. I was fascinated by the actual rock tools used by the cavemen from this period. Later, humans progressed to using metals but for hundreds of years, they fashioned tools from stones.

I love stones.
Caveman tools.

Bronze age tools.

I am quite sure that 2 of these axe heads are made of nephrite jade.

Etruscan sculpture.

The Etruscans lived in this region even before the Romans were a civilisation. They were a refined and wealthy culture who organised their social communities in many complex ways and produced art of very high quality. In contrast, the Romans were warlike thugs who arrived, conquered and assimilated all that was good about Etruscan culture so that Romans became Etruscan and still called themselves Romans.

The Romans were good at that. The whole pantheon of Roman Gods were taken from the Greeks. Roman art and frescoes were learnt from the Etruscans. The Romans were simply much more aggressive than the Etruscans.


Italian herbal medicine traditions reach all the way back to the Etruscan times (which is pre-history). People use herbs in much the same way that Singaporeans use TCM herbs. I did a lot of shopping here. I loaded up on pine essential oil (fabulous for unblocking stuck noses), rosemary essential oil (great for all sorts of fungal infections) and propolis throat spray for bacterial sore throats and general antiseptic. The daughter carries a bottle of propolis throat spray with her at all times and has used it successfully on her friends' skin and throat infections.

Bruno Stefanini, Master Violin Maker, Bologna

We spent a lovely morning enraptured by Bruno Stefanini's explanation of how he makes violins. Violins are made of very dry maple (a hardwood) and very dry spruce (a softwood). The spruce makes the top piece, is flexible and vibrates easily. The maple wood gives strength and support to the whole violin.

Each violin he makes, is sold for about 15, 000 to 20,000 euros. The process requires expertise and experience. Bruno Stefanini spent 10 years learning how to make violins before he was judged ready to become a violin master. 

People normally go to Cremona to see violin making. Cremona violins are better known. There are the Amatis, the Rugeris, the Guarneris and the Stradivariuses. All 4 were famous luthier families. A luthier is someone who makes stringed instruments.

There is a collection of Stradivarius violins housed in Cremona. The highest price paid for a Stradivarius violin is USD 16 million. There are only 650 Stradivarius violins in the world and no more will ever be made since Antonio Stradivari died in 1737. We had no time to travel to Cremona so I was thrilled to bits to find Bruno Stefanini's workshop in Bologna.

This is a real life violin master who receives violin commissions from all over the world by musicians who play the violin for a living.

Most violins nowadays are made in factories. Machines churn out instruments by template and technical specifications. Little attention is paid to different wood quality and whether a client prefers a darker or a brighter tone. Bruno adjusts his work to each piece of wood. Is it dryer? Is it more brittle? Is it softer? The nature of the wood and client preferences determine how he will craft the instrument. This is bespoke violin making and only for people who play well and can appreciate the exacting standards of a well-crafted hand made violin.

This means none of us because we are all musical idiots. Still, it was an instructive morning to hear about bass bars, sound posts, scroll bars and the science behind the violin's F shaped holes. See HERE for a scientific study on how the F shaped holes add acoustic value and power to the violin.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Museo delle Cere Anatomiche, Bologna

This is the Museum of Human Anatomy. For hundreds of years, these exhibits were used to teach medical students. I was relieved that the exhibits were made of wax! Even then, they were somewhat disturbing.

Studying the inner ear.

Studying the eyes.

Studying the brain.