5 things I’ve learned about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

5 things I’ve learned about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

When I left my career as a middle school principal, I gained some immediate benefits. I traded in my neckties for t-shirts and long meetings for behind-the-scenes tours. Recently, though, I learned of another great switcheroo that came when I left my job in public education to pursue travel writing full-time: Cafeteria mini-corn dogs have been replaced with delicious Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

The Chef & The Dish

When Jenn Nicken of The Chef & The Dish asked us to take part in the complimentary cooking lesson that Ann wrote about HERE, I was definitely interested. And when she explained that all four of the recipes would feature Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, I did a happy dance.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at the store.

All my life, I’ve loved parmesan cheese. It tops pizza, spaghetti, lasagna, and even popcorn perfectly. But, as I quickly learned, our cooking experience wouldn’t be with tiny salty pellets of cheese product from a round plastic container. Instead, we’d be working with the real deal, the king of cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano. At the beginning of our cooking class with The Chef & The Dish, our chef, Paola Martinenghi, made sure we knew just how special this ingredient is.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Here are 5 things she taught us about the most delicious cheese.

1. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is NOT parmesan (it’s way better)

The world is full of cheese called parmesan. This name simply means that the cheese was made in the style of Parmigiano Reggiano. What makes Parmigiano Reggiano cheese special is that the cheese maker must follow a very specific set of rules that have been around for generations. A consortium of cheese makers governs these rules which are designed to produce a consistently high-quality product that consumers can trust.

First, the cheese can only be produced in a certain part of Italy. That region has the necessary climate to produce the perfect cheese of this style. Then, a specific process must be followed. At the end, every cheese wheel undergoes an inspection. Those that pass are marked with dots that say Parmigiano Reggiano and are branded with a seal on the rind of the wheel to show it’s authentic.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grated

A pile of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grated. Note the rind with the dots showing the cheese is authentic.

If you want to buy real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, make sure any piece you purchase still has the rind on it and that you can see the dots. Otherwise, you might well be buying an imitation. And trust me, after trying the real stuff and the pretend side-by-side, there is a difference you can clearly taste.

2. It takes a huge quantity of the right milk

All cheese starts with milk, and that’s true for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Cows that produce the milk for the cheese must live in a certain area of Italy and be grass-fed. Only. The milk they produce is used unpasteurized.

The cows are milked twice a day. The evening milking is put into copper vats, and the fat is skimmed off. The next morning’s milking is added creating a part skim, part whole milk mixture that then moves on to the cheese making process. By now, each vat has more than 260 gallons of milk, though all that milk will produce only two wheels of cheese.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese twins

Each vat of 260 gallons of milk produces only two wheels of cheese. These are called the “twins.” (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

During the cheese making process, natural ingredients are added to cause the curd of the milk to separate from the whey. This curd is then put in to molds and wrapped in a belt that leaves the distinctive Parmigiano Reggiano dot markings on the rind. The whey of the milk isn’t wasted. Instead, it’s fed to pigs. This may well be part of the reason why prosciutto di Parma is so delicious.

3. The cheese takes a swim

The next step is to put the new cheese wheels in a vat of salt water. It floats around and is turned regularly, so that the wheel can absorb salt. The cheese will spend 20 days in this magic brine.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in salt water

A worker turning wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a vat of salt water. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

4. Aging properly is key

Then, the cheese wheels are put on long wooden shelves in a large room to age. Because humidity is different from the front of the shelves to the back, the cheeses are turned regularly. According to Chef Paola, there are enough shelves to go 20 or more cheeses high meaning each row might have more than 1,000 cheese wheels aging in it.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels aging

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels aging on shelves. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

5. Then, the final exam

After one year of aging, each cheese wheel is inspected to see if it meets the requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Someone from the consortium comes and taps the wheels with a hammer, listening for imperfections. If the inspector is satisfied, the cheese wheel is branded with the seal of the consortium, and that wheel is officially Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. If it does not pass inspection, the dots are removed and the cheese is sold as plain old parmesan cheese.

Inspection of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

An expert inspects the wheel of cheese by tapping it with a hammer while listening for imperfections. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

After hearing all this, I tasted the cheese and delighted in the explosion of pure deliciousness that filled my mouth. Last summer, when we traveled to Italy, we marveled at the quality and flavor of the food everywhere we went.

Bruschetta with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Fresh bruschetta topped with thin slices of genuine Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

All over Italy, we met with wine makers, bakers, and butchers. As each explained her/his craft, we learned they take no shortcuts. They simply do things the old fashioned-way, even if it takes a little longer or costs a little more. Our experience with The Chef & The Dish reinforced this idea. Sure it might be a complicated process to make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Yes, it might take longer to produce than other mass-produced cheeses. But in the end, all of the attention to detail creates a product that is of incredibly high quality that adds so much to food. The extra effort is definitely worth it.


While our cooking experience with The Chef & The Dish was complimentary, the opinions and our newfound love for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are our own.

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The Chef & The Dish Skypes a chef right into your kitchen

The Chef & The Dish Skypes a chef right into your kitchen

The Chef & The Dish brings world-class chefs right into your kitchen and it couldn’t make me happier.

Lasting memories

I will never forget the taste of the beautifully presented, fruit covered waffle we had in Belgium or the spinach pie we learned how to make in Mykonos, Greece. If I think about it, I can almost taste the the paella Steve and I shared with our daughter, Meghan, on the square in Salamanca, Spain and the ricotta stuffed ravioli we prepared ourselves in Tuscany last summer.

A fruit covered waffle in Belgium, spinach pie in Greece, Paella in Spain, and ricotta stuffed ravioli in Tuscany.

A fruit covered waffle in Belgium, spinach pie in Greece, Paella in Spain, and ricotta stuffed ravioli in Tuscany.

Yes, I have a love affair with food. Trying new cuisine is one of my favorite things to do when we travel. And when we have the opportunity to learn how to prepare an authentic local dish, it becomes a fond and lasting memory of our time in that place.

We loved learning how to make pasta with Opera in the Kitchen while traveling through Tuscan in 2018.

We loved learning how to make pasta with Opera in the Kitchen while traveling through Tuscany in 2018.

So when we got an email from a company called The Chef & The Dish, I was instantly intrigued. The company was founded by Jenn Nicken, the former head of marketing for the entertainment division of Apple/iTunes in Canada who left to pursue her love of all things food and travel.


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Creating The Chef & The Dish

After traveling the world and tasting foods of each region, Jenn returned to Canada and put together the recipe for her own new business, The Chef & The Dish.

Jenn found her way into a chef's kitchen in Thailand and he taught her to make this colorful dish.

Jenn found her way into a chef’s kitchen in Thailand and he taught her to make this colorful dish. (Courtesy photo)

She created a company that brings world-class chefs into the home kitchens of people (like you and me) all over the world. Through the magic of the internet and video conferencing software called Skype, The Chef & The Dish connects its customers with a highly trained chef. She or he teaches you, step-by-step, how to create a specialty meal from her/his region.

The Chef & The Dish website

There are dozens of different cooking classes to choose from, including Hungarian goulash, traditional Spanish tapas, and okonomiyaki from Japan. The chefs may be home cooks, have Michelin stars or have been trained by their grandmothers. But they have all been selected for being great cooks as well as great teachers and effective communicators. And, they are fun!

We had the pleasure of taking a complimentary cooking class via Skype with Chef Paola Martinenghi who instructed us from her small village near Milan, Italy. We’ll write more on that, later.  For now, just know that she is FABULOUS!

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, and she also made us laugh.

How The Chef & The Dish works

First, let me tell you how this whole The Chef & The Dish thing works. The first step is to make sure you have a laptop or tablet (like an iPad or Samsung Galaxy). It needs sound, a built-in camera, and a high speed Internet connection. Second, you just visit The Chef & The Dish website a book a class online.

Booking a class with The Chef & The Dish is simple with easy to navigate online options.

Booking a class with The Chef & The Dish is simple with easy to navigate online options.

Cost of the classes begins at $299 for two people, which we found comparable to cooking classes we’ve taken abroad. Once they receive your booking, a kitchen assistant will contact you to set up a personal kitchen prep session. Our cooking assistant (Jenn herself) reviewed our shopping list with us, answered all our questions, and even helped us find the best camera angle for our online class.

We were fortunate that our kitchen assistant was none other then The Chef & The Dish Founder, Jenn Nicken.

We were fortunate that our kitchen assistant was none other then The Chef & The Dish Founder Jenn Nicken.

Preparing with a kitchen assistant

Before our video conference, Jenn emailed us a detailed grocery list and recommendations for kitchen supplies we’d need. She walked us through each list and even offered to call around to help us find specific ingredients for our recipes. Jenn also explained how our cooking class would work and what to expect from Paola. By the end of our video conference, we felt well-prepared for our culinary experience.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods.

Several days before our class, we did all of our grocery shopping and were easily able to find everything we needed. Next, we prepped our kitchen with all of the necessary pans and mixing bowls. We also made sure we had a bottle of Prosecco chilling in the fridge because drinking wine while cooking just seemed to make it a little more Italian.

Some of the dry ingredients we purchased for our Italian cooking class.

Some of the dry ingredients we purchased for our Italian cooking class.

On the day of our cooking class, we gathered all of our supplies in the kitchen, and set up our computer. Then, at the appropriate time and from her kitchen in Italy, Chef Paola appeared on the screen of our laptop. We were ready to begin our culinary journey!

What’s next?

Coming soon – Part two of our series on The Chef  & Dish, including all the details about what we cooked (and lots of beautiful pics). We’ll show you how we prepared four dishes, all featuring Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese! Seriously, you’re gonna wish you could taste your computer/smartphone screen.


While our cooking class with The Chef & The Dish was provided complimentary, the opinions and excitement for cooking at home are our own.

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A unique wine tasting in the woods and our stay near Montepulciano, Italy

A unique wine tasting in the woods and our stay near Montepulciano, Italy

When we went wine tasting in Tuscany (can I just interject that I’ve dreamt about saying those words for quite some time) I had no idea what to expect from our visit to the town of Montepulciano, other than we would likely be tasting Vino Nobile, the typical wine of the region.

Montepulciano, Italy

One of the beautiful views near the Podere della Bruciata vineyard.

Made largely from the Sangiovese grape, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is a full-bodied, ruby red wine and I couldn’t wait to taste it in Tuscany (there, I just had to say it again). But before our hosted tasting at Podere Della Bruciata winery, we had a little time to explore the medieval city on the hill.

Our wonderful host and driver, Massi, gave us a complimentary transfer to Montepulciano. He graciously offered to drive us right to the Piazza Grande at the very top of the hill. From there, we were able to take in the incredible views of the Tuscan countryside.

Montepulciano, Italy view

A view across the countryside from the walled city of Montepulciano, in Italy.

Steve and I spent several hours walking slowly down the hill through the narrow streets, stopping at small shops that sell everything from wine and cheese to shoes and clothing.

Our Stay at Villa Ambra

Later that afternoon, we went to the Villa Ambra hotel, whose owners had invited us for a complimentary stay and wine tasting. We got settled in the Doppia Superior room which was absolutely beautiful. The Villa Ambra is an 18-room, family owned bed and breakfast. The hard work and love that the family puts into every detail makes this an absolutely stupendous agritourism destination.

Villa Ambra guest room, Montepulciano, Italy

Our room at Villa Ambra was both clean and comfortable. In addition, it had a king-sized bed, private bathroom, and air conditioning that worked extremely well.

Our room was newly renovated. It included a comfy king bed with luxurious bedding and an artistic wall covering that made me feel truly immersed in Tuscany. We took our time settling in to our lovely accommodations and relaxing a bit before the wine tasting.

Our wine tasting in Montepulciano at Podere Della Bruciata

By late afternoon, it was time to head to the lobby to meet other guests for a tour and tasting at the family’s winery, Podere Della Bruciata. We got in vehicles and drove down the highway a bit to the vineyard entrance. We parked, and then walked down a dirt road while learning firsthand about the vines.

Podere della Bruciata vineyard, Montepulciano, Italy

Andrea explains the processes they use to grow and select grapes at their winery.

Andrea Rossi, a third-generation wine maker, was a wonderful guide and explained the processes they use to grow and select grapes for their wines. He was a great teacher, and answered all our questions along the way. As we continued our walk with him through the vineyard, I noticed the people in front of me turning off the road and following Andrea into the woods. Now you should know I’m not exactly fond of unknown nature excursions and was a little apprehensive about what was in store. Would there be more hiking? A wildlife encounter? Was I going to regret not bringing bug repellent?

Podere della bruciata wine tasting

Wine tasters head into a small clearing in some woods for the wine tasting.

Nope. We were actually being led to the site of our wine tasting. To watch a 47-second video with my reaction, click here.

Just a few steps into the woods, we found ourselves in a sort of secret hideaway. We stood in a cleared area shaded from the hot, Tuscan sun, surrounded by rock benches. In the center sat a large boulder that served as an exquisite table for our wine tasting and food pairing. It was glorious. I’ll pause here and let the photos do the talking.

Podere della Bruciata wine tasting, Montepulciano, Italy

Our hosts put out quite a spread for our wine tasting. It included bruschetta, cheeses, jams, salamis, and prosciutto.

Elisa and Andrea, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

Both friendly and hard-working, Elisa and Andrea make every guest feel special and welcomed. Their efforts made this unique wine tasting experience something we’ll never forget.

Wine tasting at Villa Ambra

Andrea explains all that went into making the wine as guests listen and savor the result in a beautiful clearing in the woods.

We enjoyed the company of the other guests in a relaxed atmosphere as we tasted a variety of wines, each paired with delicious cured meats, cheeses, and homemade jams. It was almost surreal; we were tasting wine in the woods in Tuscany. Pinch me! At the conclusion of this amazing experience, we walked back to the cars while watching the sun set over the Tuscan hills.

Podere della Bruciata wine tasting

The group of wine tasters walks along a road in the vineyard.

Our dinner at Albergo Ristorante Villa Ambra

Back at the hotel, we met up with our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband Massi the Driver, for dinner at the Albergo Ristorante Villa Ambra. Andrea helped us select two wines, one that he’d crafted and the other created by his uncle, Marzio Pagliai. Then, the family began serving us a traditional Tuscan meal that turned out to be one of the most exquisite dining experiences we had during our entire stay in Italy.

Podere Della Bruciata wine, Montepulciano

The family’s winery, Podere Della Bruciata produces several wines including, “Ermete,” a Rosso di Montepulciano (red wine from Montepulciano).

The first course was bresaola, a cured beef sliced thinly and placed atop a bed of lettuce dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

Villa Ambra bresaola, Montepulciano

Our meal started with bresaola, cured beef sliced thinly and placed atop a bed of lettuce dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

Next, came my favorite course (pasta of course) which was linguini pasta with cinghiale, otherwise known as wild boar. It was incredible. Perfectly cooked al dente noodles in a creamy, savory sauce garnished with fresh parsley. Yes, I ate all of it. Every bite. And Steve was noticably disappointed that I didn’t ask him to help finish my plate.

Pasta course, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

The pasta course: linguini pasta with cinghiale (wild boar). It was a-maz-ing.

Our main course was rosemary beef steak served with a grilled, stuffed onion and freshly picked garbanzo beans from the owners’ garden.

Sliced steak, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

Our main course at dinner: sliced steak cooked to perfection and topped with fresh rosemary.

Appetizer at Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

On the side: a baked onion half topped with crunchy, seasoned bread crumbs served alongside garbanzo beans freshly picked from the owners’ garden.

Unsure if we could eat another bite, we somehow found room for a slice of lemon cheesecake for dessert.

Villa Ambra dessert, Montepulciano

Dessert: Lemon cheesecake with a pineapple slice. Yum!

After dinner, we sat and visited with Deb and Massi under the stars on the patio outside before heading to bed for a wonderful night’s sleep. Honestly, does it get any better than this?

Villa Ambra patio, Montepulciano

Guests can retire to the patio after dinner to enjoy a relaxing Tuscan evening.

The next morning, after sleeping like babies in the comfy bed, we woke to a farm fresh breakfast spread. We enjoyed a table filled with breads, meats and cheeses and a host of other delectable treats, including homemade cakes and jams.

Breakfast buffet, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

A beautiful breakfast buffet greets guests in the morning.

Let me just say that one night at Villa Ambra was not enough for me and according to the owners, most people feel the same. Andrea said many of their guests stay for one or two weeks at a time. He said people relax at the hotel or by the pool and enjoy wine and cheese tours and tastings in the area. In fact, some guests even come during the late fall to participate in the grape harvest and wine bottling. Villa Ambra is open from March through November.

Villa Ambra hotel, Montepulciano

The main entrance of the Villa Ambra hotel.

We want to thank Andrea and his wife Elisa and everyone at Villa Ambra for hosting us and making us feel like a part of their incredible family. We can’t wait to come back.


 

Note: While the goods and services mentioned in this article were provided to us free of charge, the opinions are our own. For more information about Villa Ambra, visit their website at http://www.villaambra.com/en/.

 

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Our incredible private tour and cooking class in Chianti with Italy Unfiltered

Our incredible private tour and cooking class in Chianti with Italy Unfiltered

After spending a day on our own exploring beautiful Siena, Italy, our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband Massi the Driver picked us up at our hotel and we began our complimentary tour of Italian food, wine, and culture in the Chianti Region. As we got in the car, Steve confided in me that he’d already set his belt one notch looser in anticipation of the day.

Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband, Massi the Driver.

Of course, our first stop of the morning was for an espresso. This is a very Italian thing to do when you are having what Massi likes to call an “espresso deficiency.” I’m used to my Americano style coffee and still need a bit of milk in mine, so I ordered a caffe macchiato which is espresso with a dollop of foamed milk on top, typically served in a something that resembles a shot glass.

Cafe machiatto was a great cure for our espresso deficiency.

Now with the proper amount of caffeine in our systems, we headed down winding roads and up and down hills into the Chianti Clasccio region of Tuscany. The drive was incredibly beautiful and we were thankful that we had a personal driver and tour guide to not only tell us about the food and wine of the area but to actually get us there as there is no way we could have found this place by ourselves.

The family home where we did our cooking class and explored their winery.

The family home where we did our cooking class and explored their winery.

When we arrived at our destination, Deb and Massi greeted the owners who appeared to be old friends and they welcomed us into their home and winery. Our time with there began with a private cooking class.

Steve and I laced up our aprons and we got right to work. Our first lesson was in making traditional tiramisu, one of my all-time favorites.

We "mostly" separated six eggs for our tiramisu.

We “mostly” separated six eggs for our tiramisu.

We mostly separated six eggs and began beating the egg whites with an electric mixer. Sadly, we had spilled just a touch of yoke into the whites which was enough to ruin it. No worries. We started again and the second time around was successful.

As you can see, the the little bit of yolk that accidentally fell into the white ruined the process.

As you can see, the the little bit of yolk that accidentally fell into the white ruined the process.

Steve beat the egg yolks with a bit of sugar and then we folded the whites and yolks back together along with some mascarpone cheese.

Next, we dipped individual lady finger cookies in cooled espresso and placed them in a small, square dish. Then, we added a layer of the cream filling and sprinkling of cocoa powder before repeated the process again.

Our tiramisu, ready to set in the refrigerator. We marked each our creations with a colored band so we could see which one turned out the best.

Next, our instructor insisted that we take a few of the extra lady fingers and dip them in the left over espresso, then dip in the cream filling, and eat! Of course we had to try, I mean, we wouldn’t want to offend our host.

Then, because we’d worked so very hard on our tiramisu, our host broke out the Prosecco and served it with some fried pizza dough that had been sprinkled with sea salt. Prosecco and a snack? This was my type of cooking class.

Steve got very happy when the glasses of Prosecco and the fried pieces of pizza dough came out for a snack.

Steve got very happy when the glasses of Prosecco and the fried pieces of pizza dough came out for a snack.

Next, we learned to make fresh pasta using semolina flour, farm fresh eggs, and just a touch of Tuscan olive oil.

We kneaded the dough before rolling it into a ball and covering it with a bowl to prevent it from drying out.

Next, we used a rolling pin to roll our pasta out into a long rectangle. Once the dough was smooth and thin, we rolled it like a scroll from the top to the middle, and then up from the bottom so the rolls met in the middle.

After kneading and rolling the dough, we rolled it up from each end until they met in the middle.

Then we cut the rolls into small strips, separated them with our cutting knife, and voila — we have pasta!

Next, we cut the rolls into thin strips with a sharp knife.

The fun part was slipping the knife under the noodles and lifting in the middle to see them all unrolled.

Our third and final dish was traditional Tuscan bruschetta — that’s pronounced bru-sketta–which is an antipasto dish consisting of grilled bread topped with garlic and olive oil or other fresh things like tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella.

Tomatoes, basil, and garlic are the main ingredients in tomato bruschetta.

I’ve made bruschetta many times before, but a new tip in our class is to leave any extra tomato seeds and juices on the board after cutting the tomato. These hold much of the acidity of the tomato and can make the bruschetta too runny.

After our cooking class was finished, we wandered outside where Massi and Deb told us more about the gardens and vineyards on the property. We had fun checking out 50 year-old wisteria and some 100-year-old grape vines. The property was just beautiful — full of color and life.

One of the 100-year-old grape vines.

The property was filled with beautiful flowers and plants, including lots of fresh lavender.

Then, we walked up a view steps to a patio where the table was set for the most amazing wine tasting and lunch. My jaw must have dropped when I saw the view. It was just incredible.

This view was just stunning.

We began tasting wine, made right there on the property, along with the bruschetta we’d made and some other cured meats and cheeses.

At lunch, we tried the bruschetta we’d made along with other pizzas, cured meats, and cheeses.

Then, two types of pasta arrived, both using the noodles we’d made just a few minutes before. One dish had a mild tomato sauce with fresh torn basil while the other had a spicier red sauce and thyme. Both were delicious.

The pasta we made!

Throughout our intimate lunch, Deb and Massi shared their expertise about Tuscany and tradition. We learned so much about Chianti Classico wine, food preparation, and everything that goes into owning and operating a small, family winery in Tuscany.

The black rooster is a quick and easy way to spot a Chianti Classico wine.

After a long and relaxing lunch which ended with sweet bites of our tiramisu, we headed into the winery where Massi told us all about how the wine is made, stored, and perfected. We had ample opportunities to ask questions and take photographs, things we don’t always have the opportunities to do when traveling in group tours.

Chianti Classico wine.

As we headed back to the car, I couldn’t help but think that this opportunity would not have been possible without the help of Deb and Massi. They knew this family personally and were able to provide us with a Tuscan experience that is not easily found on TripAdvisor or in a Google search. The personalized experience they gave us made our day special, and it was all the more special because we only did things we wanted to do.


While the tour and transport services were provided to us free of charge by Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver, the opinions in this post are our own. To learn more about Deb and Massi’s services, email them at dlarsen5@icloud.com.

Watch a video about our day in Chianti with Deb and Massi at the link below.

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How we learned how to cook like an Italian on our trip to Tuscany.

 

Our swim in Cenote Ik Kil in Mexico

Our swim in Cenote Ik Kil in Mexico

I had no idea what a cenote was before our cruise to Mexico.

With our daughter, Meghan, at Chichén Itzá in Mexico.

With our daughter, Meghan, at Chichén Itzá in Mexico.

In fact, I don’t even think I’d ever even heard the word. But I signed up to swim in one, anyway, because travel is about adventure, right?

After leaving Chichén Itzá, we made a short drive over to Cenote Ik Kil. On the way, our guide explained that the Yucután peninsula is made of limestone covering a system of underground rivers. Over millions of years, water has eroded pockets from the limestone and created huge sinkholes, called cenotes, that can be hundreds of feet deep. Civilizations in the past used these as both sources for water and as handy places to sacrifice someone to the gods. He told us that the one we’d be swimming in today was literally hundreds of feet deep and suggested that even if we were good swimmers we might consider using a life jacket as there was no way to stand once in the water.

We walked down a long, and sometimes slippery, staircase to enter the centote.

We walked down a long, and sometimes slippery, staircase to enter the cenote.

Because there were a lot of steps down to the cenote, Ann opted to stay up high and take pictures from a balcony while Meghan and I swam. After changing into our suits in a locker room contorting our bodies into our suits in a steam bath with no benches, we left our personal belongings with Ann and headed down the somewhat slippery stairs to the cenote.

I will say that the cenote was beautiful and I could imagine it would be as stunning as it was in the pictures on the website if there hadn’t been about 52,000 people swimming in, climbing out of, or standing around it.

Cenote Ik Kil, Mexico

Swimming in Cenote Ik Kil in Mexico. Note the line of people waiting for the ladder on the right side of the picture.

Still, we donned our life jackets, jumped into the cool water, and paddled our way past the mass of wiggly humanity out to the middle where we could relax a little and enjoy the experience. After a few minutes, we decided we’d done all the enjoying of the experience we wanted, and paddled back into the swarm of people to get out. The hardest part of the whole swim was waiting for a turn on the ladder to climb back out.

Meghan and Steve ready to swim in the cenote.

Meghan and Steve ready to swim in the cenote.

Back on solid ground, Meghan waited while I climbed some steps to a ledge where I could jump in from about 20 feet above the water. There were lifeguards on duty, and as a former lifeguard myself I felt pretty confident, so asked Meghan to hold my life jacket because I didn’t want to wear it jumping into the water from that height.

It was a fun jump, but the line for the ladder to get out was now even longer than when we’d gotten out before and I had to tread water for longer than I would have liked while waiting my turn. As a result, I’d recommend a life jacket for everyone who swims here no matter how strong a swimmer you are. There really is no place to go to rest if you get tired.

Ann stood at the top over a lookout area and took pictures.

Ann stood at the top over a lookout area and took pictures.

Feeling cool and refreshed after our swim, Meghan and I climbed the steps away from the cenote and back toward where Ann was waiting for us. By the time we got back to the top of the steps, the heat and humidity had set back in and I was again covered in a sheen of sweat.

Showers outside the cenote

Showers outside the cenote

There were showers where we could wash off a bit at the top of the steps. While we no longer felt refreshed, we were glad to have had the experience of swimming in such a unique location even if we had to share it with 52,000 new friends.

Swimming in the crowded cenote.

Swimming in the crowded cenote.

After changing pasting our clothes back to our bodies, we hopped back in the thank-god-it-was-air-conditioned tour van and set off toward Progresso and the ship, our minds processing a full day of sights, new knowledge and experiences. We’d had a great day, and were looking forward to a relaxing evening on board as we sailed to the next stop, Cozumel.


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That time we got to hang out with Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood in Vegas

That time we got to hang out with Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood in Vegas

Did we ever tell you about the time we met Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood?

We had gone to a TeamMates mentoring program silent auction in November of 2012, and about half way through the evening, we noticed that no one had bid on a package that included tickets to Garth Brooks’ last weekend concert at the Encore in Las Vegas. Many had thought this might be his last performance weekend and having never seen him live in concert, we both were tempted to bid on the package.

The minimum bid was $400, so we placed a bid for that amount. Soon, it was up to $450, so we bid $500 and were overbid again by someone who set the mark at $550. At that amount, it was still a bargain for a night at the Encore, and two VIP tickets to the concert including back stage passes. However, we were on a budget and bidding more would have been a stretch. Oh, and did we mention that the concert was the very next Saturday and the package did not include airfare?

We left the silent auction, enjoyed the rest of the charity event, and went home.

Then, we got a call

The next day, while walking into Memorial Stadium for a Cornhusker football game, I got a call from someone at the TeamMates office. She said that our $500 bid had won the Garth Brooks package. I explained that we had clearly seen another bid for $550, but she assured me we had the winning bid and should make travel arrangements to get to the concert.

Excitedly, I called my mom from the stands and asked her to help us book plane tickets to Las Vegas for the next Saturday so we could see the concert that night. She did. And it cost us. It turns out that booking flights from Omaha to Las Vegas less than a week out, leaving on a Saturday and returning Sunday so we wouldn’t miss work was expensive.

I immediately regretted our decision to bid on this silent auction item. As much as we had both wanted to see Garth Brooks live, it was a lot of money and a lot of panicked planning.

Then, we got another call

The next morning, someone from the charity organization called us again, saying that they had mistakenly told us the wrong date for the concert. The tickets were actually for Friday night’s show, and our flight didn’t even leave until Saturday morning!!!

Thankfully, because it had been less than 24 hours since we’d booked our tickets, and because we’d booked directly through the airline (travel tip, there) we were able to cancel our tickets for a full refund. We hoped we’d both be able to get some time off of work and rebook another flight for Friday.

Steve and I each talked to our bosses the next day who both graciously allowed us to work just half a day on Friday so we could make the concert in Vegas by that night.

Monday night, we booked new tickets (this time at a significantly lower price, thank God) and were set to leave from Omaha on Friday afternoon arriving in Las Vegas in plenty of time to see the late evening concert.

And, another call

Tuesday morning, we got another call.

They had made another mistake and had to let us know that there were no VIP backstage passes like they’d thought, just tickets to the concert and the one-night’s stay at the Wynn.

Now, this was just getting ridiculous. If you know me, I am a planner, and this type of change to our agenda made me want to back out. At this point, we were stuck having to take time off of work and spend hundreds of dollars for seats to a concert where we’d probably be stuck in the back row. I wanted to call the charity and back out of deal if we could.

Steve, on the other hand, is the free spirit in our house and will jump at any opportunity to visit Las Vegas. He assured me it would be OK and we should just go!

We made it to Vegas

So, on Friday at noon, we each left our offices and boarded a non-stop flight to Vegas. On our way to the airport, I was curious as to what tickets were going for to this last weekend of Garth. A quick review of an online ticket broker showed that even back row tickets were selling for as much as $2,600 each! Maybe this wasn’t such a bad deal after all.

For a quick moment, Steve suggested selling the tickets and putting it all on red, but I had always wanted to see Garth, but I suspected the investment was going to be well worth the experience.

Garth Brooks at the Wynn Las Vegas

Garth Brooks at the Wynn Las Vegas

When we arrived at the hotel, we checked in and then went to will call to get our tickets, which I assumed would be less than stellar seats. The woman behind the counter handed me the envelope and said, “Wow, you’ve got great seats.”

I peeked in the envelope. They were orchestra center, row G.

Hallelujah! Things were looking up.

We checked into our hotel room, which had a beautiful view of the Las Vegas strip, and had just enough time to grab dinner before the show.

Our view from the Encore at Wynn hotel.

Our view from the Encore at Wynn hotel.

When it was time to go to the concert, we found our seats and struck up small talk with the people sitting around us. I told the woman next to me how excited I was to see Garth Brooks in concert for the first time, and asked if she’d ever seen him perform live. She said yes. I explained how I’d gotten off work early that day from my job at the local cable company and asked her what she did. She said, “I’m a song writer. I wrote “The River.”

Oh, I see.

Another surprise

It was about that time a another woman approached us and asked if we were Steve and Ann Teget. We said, “yes.” And she said (get ready for this), “Garth and Trisha would love to meet you two after the concert if you don’t mind sticking around for a bit.”

Don’t mind sticking around a bit? One look at Steve told me he was also willing to pencil it into our Vegas itinerary.

Before I could even process the two conversations that had just happened, Garth strolled out onto a mostly empty stage, grabbed his acoustic guitar, and began singing. No band, no fancy lights, just Garth and his guitar. The evening was made even more special when Garth’s wife, Trisha Yearwood, joined him on stage for a few songs. It was amazing. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

He played all his most popular songs, pausing in between titles and sometimes verses, to tell stories behind the lyrics, or share a memory that meant something to him. He performed for several hours before ending the concert with his iconic, “Friends in Low Places” and waved goodbye to the crowd.

It was and still is the best live concert of any genre I’ve ever seen.

After the concert

As others walked to the back of the concert hall to leave, Steve and I made our way to the front of the stage, along with a group of eight other people who were escorted to a room backstage.

There were four other couples, and us. All of them, far more successful and famous than we were. A professional baseball manager, a horse jockey, a song writer, and a world-famous educator and British Knight we’d seen on TedTalks. And there we were, a small-town lobbyist and a middle school principal, snacking on refreshments and trying to make conversation with people with whom we had little in common.

After a bit, Garth and Trisha joined us and announced they had no schedule for the rest of the night. They said they were happy to hang out and visit for as long as we wanted. And they did. They made their way around the room, greeting everyone, talking about the concert, their work with Habit for Humanity, and whatever else anyone wanted to visit about.

Guitar pick that Garth Brooks gave us after the concert.

Guitar pick that Garth Brooks gave us after the concert.

At some point, it was just Steve and I visiting with Garth and Trisha like they were old college friends. I told Garth how I’d listened to his music for many years with my dad, Bob, who had died of pancreatic cancer 12 years ago that week. I said we’d always planned on going to a Garth Brooks concert together someday, but his illness changed all of that and sadly, he never got to see the country music star perform.

When I told Garth that story, and he gave me a hug. He told me about someone close to him who he’d also lost to cancer. Then, he asked me if I ever just talked to my dad in heaven. I said, yes.  Then, with an empathetic face, he said, “Next time you talk to Bob, please tell him Garth says hello.”

That’s the kind of guy Garth Brooks is. Caring, empathetic, and just an all-around great human being from what could gather in brief time together.

Our autographed Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood concert ticket.

Our autographed Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood concert ticket.

Garth and Trisha were both kind enough to autograph our tickets and Garth gave us a guitar pick. We snapped a few pictures with the famous couple and left them to talk with the others, who they clearly knew better than us. At about 3 a.m., we floated back to our room, lay on the bed, and looked at each other with faces that said, “Did that just really happen?”

It did. And we’ll never forget that night.