Mid week in Toscana and the beauties of spring, la primavera, have blossomed around us even more than in previous days. Having been here almost two weeks, it’s been interesting to see the season unfold. The yellow broom, a high-ish bush with spindly leaves, was barely putting forth a bud, and now it’s starting to explode in brilliant saffron yellow blossoms along country roadsides and in the hills. The poppies have taken note of the warmer sun and are preparing for their decline. The delicate lavender irises are stalwart in their attempts to remain regal, but they, too, are showing the signs of giving passage to new colors. Roses, so incredible in their ability to thrive here, are budding and blooming out for a truly grand late spring/early summer parade, and the spring light greens are beginning to take on the darker, comfortable tones of summer green. Tuscany is a tapestry, and she is weaving new threads.
We chose to make this day relaxed and somewhat unplanned. What unfolded were country drives, first through nearby Lilliano – a tiny area that maintains an active vineyard and wine production, a grand villa from the 1600’s (maybe 1700), and a few farmhouses. However, the drive down the gravely road to Lilliano is worth the effort. It is a picturesque little jaunt down a brilliantly tree lined strada that is an overhang of vibrant greens. Sky is hidden, and the heavens become a ceiling of glowing tomato-stem green that causes one to instinctively slow and gaze. From there, we drove on through wonderful little villages, some made up of no more than a few buildings, others not much larger…place names like Bibiano, LaGruccia, San Fabiano – all so fun to roll off the tip of ones tongue.
Everywhere we traveled, there seemed to be workers in the vineyards. One person on a row…leaned over clipping, possibly, or working some other kind of magic those of us peering in from the outside are not privy to. What we are privy to is the joy of tasting the fruits of these efforts – the rich, complex Chiantis of this area, the subtler Nobile of Montepulciano, the grand Brunello of Montelcino, and the practically worshipped sweetness of Vin Santo. An analogy came to me at one point in taking all the activities of the vineyards in: as we savor and drink the wines of Italy, or of any region, we are not just enjoying a beverage that is more akin to an art. It is the act, too, of ingesting the land – the soil, the sun at just this certain angle, the artisanal care of certain human hands, and the air that envelopes and surrounds it all. It is taking in the entity of a place, even its culture and history, in a mere sip.
As we made our way, another classically beautiful vista came into closer view; the boxed tower of a castle, positioned with another tower of some sort, sitting serenely on a hilltop. As we continued, it became evident that the road we were traveling would lead us to the to the turn off for the castle! Of course, I immediately pleaded to make the detour, and up we went. Italy, being the land of many small castles, doesn’t find it as necessary to make them available to the curious public as we seem to do in America with anything older than about 75 years. This particular castle…and a very cool one at that…was private property, someones home, and of course, a gawking tourist isn’t on the guest list. The church/abby with the castle-looking spire was the same…something that was no longer serving a community, but a place that now was someones everyday abode. I was disappointed at not getting to roam about these buildings, but I was also very charmed by the fact that I was not welcome in someone’s “Home Sweet Home” ala Italia.
Ah well....back on the road to further adventures!
As we meandered along Chianti paths, we continued on the "slow" approach...taking our time enjoying the nature scape, as well as slowing to try to take in the intricacies of each small village or borgo (actually means a small village outside the protected walls of a city...thank you, Wikipedia!) we found ourselves as brief guests of. One small place - name escapes me - consisted of not much more than what looked to be a few dwellings, along with a nice looking little caffe bar and small ristorante. A little creek ran right through this place, so undoubtedly it was at one time an important waypoint for travelers along this same path. What a great thought imagining all who had passed this same way before us.
We noted a small, quite run down little place right off the road across the street from the bar. "Let's stop!" escaped from my mouth, and before you knew it --- we were poking our noses into the building, all the while permitting ourselves a quite fun "What if??" conversation of buying and restoring. However, after having already viewed a number of window fronts of Italian real estate offices, even a fixer-upper such as this comes at a steep price. Want to take that journey? Be sure your pockets are deep and even better, bottomless!
Nonetheless, it was a fun diversion, and as in many little villages mid-day, we seemed to be the only ones about, save for a nice assortment of butterflies.
Continuing to the west, we wound our way up one of the prettiest drives in the region to a small community called Lamole. We’d come across this last trip, thanks to Ray's once-again swell advice, and were instantly taken. It’s the sight where we were able to sit on the veranda of the only ristorante in town, sip wine, and watch the little tractors haul the abundant harvest of the deepest purplely red grapes we’d ever seen towards the press to begin the process of the year’s wine. There’s a charming little chiusa (church), and 4 or 5 friendly cats. We seated ourselves at a small table with a view – not hard to find being the only folks there at the moment – and ordered wine. The young waitress entered conversation with us, and we enjoyed about 45 minutes of solving the world’s problems with her.
It was time to head back to Castellina for dinner with Anna Rita and Ray at probably our most frequented restaurant here, Fattoria dei Dottorie. We hopped in Ray’s Land Cruiser and began our way out. Needless to say, the conversation and laughter on the way were a grand aperativo for our meal. The owner knew Anna Rita and Ray quite well, of course, and we were warmly greeted and shown to a table. Drinks served, he sent a lovely (huge!) platter of antipasto to our table, courtesy of the house. How kind! Pizzas and almost 3 hours of talk and laughter, and we found ourselves the last folks in the restaurant. Feeling somewhat guilty, we downed the last drops of limoncello and headed home. It’s a delightfully sweet thing to have friends in this beautiful place that, although you’ve known them a relatively short time, feel like life long friends. Anna Rita made a statement later in the week that truly humbled and touched both of us…she told us we are family to them. One of those things more precious than gold.
Today marks the long awaited cooking class with a delightful young lady named Guila Scarpaleggia, creator of Jul's Kitchen! GPS programmed for her country home, we set out with plenty of time to arrive, as well as make a stop at the gas station for an artistic cappuccino. This time, Simone the barista and latte artist, made one with a turkey and one with a bunny….awesome! He probably thinks I’m a little strange at my glee over this, but I also think he enjoys seeing his work appreciated. As I sat, he came over to the table and gave me a calendar that featured his creations, made for the gas station to give to customers, I presume. How thoughtful and sweet, and I will enjoy it so much! Note to self to take Simone something of our Texas gifts on the next visit.
Onward to the outer regions of Colle d’val Delsa where Guila’s family home is. At 31, she, like many young Italians, lives at home with her parents. Guilia obtained a degree in communications and marketing, found work unfulfilling and underpaid, and decided to turn her passion for cooking, writing, and photography into a food blog. This has opened incredible doors for her, and she is now conducting classes and even finding kitchenware sponsors. We choose to take one of her small classes…no more than 4 people, but just us 2 this day…at her family home in the countryside!
The drive was, what else…so very beautiful, and we were rewarded with views of poppy fields unlike any we’d seen thus far. The brilliant red-orange of these flowers seems almost surreal, as if they’ve been lit from within. Alone in expanse of red, or intermingled with the whites and yellows of other spring flowers, the sights were pure delight.
Following the GPS with somewhat less faith than normal – how could all these odd turns and little roads lead to where we were headed? – we decided to push onward, and alas…it was correct! We came upon a conglomeration of lovely buildings, some ancient, others not quite so, that were knitted together in community like only Italian villages can do. Probably no more than 25 individual dwelling places marked by numbers, we wound through the little street until we arrived at the last building on the right….a lovely two story home that is Guila’s family’s. We greeted each other warmly, took in the spectacular view over the valley behind the home, and commenced to talk.
Guila shared that this home was built by her great-grandfather in the 1920’s, I believe, and what is now the kitchen was the barn. Their little village was filled with city dwellers during WWII when many escaped to the countryside to avoid danger. She told us of how people hid in the upper rooms and areas of the home when the French and German troops came through, and of how her grandmother tells of remembering when the American soldiers came through. It was sobering to think of standing right there where this had occurred, and to remember how the war is so much more “real” to most Italians. It was on their soil, in the towns and cities, and not so long ago.
Cooking! Ahhh, yes! We had a wonderful time listening, learning, doing, tasting, experiencing as Guilia took us through the rotations of Tiramisu, made first so the flavors could meld, then fresh pasta – tagliatelle and tagliatellini, fresh antipasto of pecorino, truffle jam, fava beans and salt. Next, preparing a stuffed turkey breast using sliced sautéed little artichokes with onion in a reduced sauce, soon to be seared in olive oil and butter, then roasted on the stovetop. A fresh, lovely lemon sauce and a heartier porcini mushroom sauce where prepared as Marty and I rolled out the rested pasta dough and cranked out beautiful golden strips of pasta using Guilia’s grandmother’s pasta maker. It came out paper thin after having been pressed and pressed through the maker until almost transparent and ready to dry ever so briefly.
A warm salad of fresh fava beans, thinly sliced artichokes, lightly sautéed asparagus, grilled pecorino cheese, dressed lovingly with fine olive oil, salt, and pepper was our antipasto for the meal, and dare I say it’s presentation of colors, flavors, and textures was indeed a Tuscan masterpiece. We commenced to dine together after several hours work, enjoying incredible food, wonderful wine, and the company of a very special and talented young artist named Guilia.
The tiramisu, along with a taste of a local sweet wine made with honey and water, was the crown of the beautiful day we shared with Guilia in her family kitchen. The talk went on until we realized it was 4:30 (we arrived at 10:00), and we felt somewhat bad at taking up so much of the day that surely held other matters to be addressed. Guilia assured us it was not a problem, and that she had truly enjoyed the day, as well. We departed with a warm hug, the day’s recipes, two Jul’s Kitchen aprons, and a lovely hardbound book titled “Le Ricette di mia Nonna…My Grandmother’s Recipes”, Guilia’s first cookbook. Having now had a little time to peruse the book, we both found it to be not only a cookbook holding a wealth of marvelous authentic recipes, but also a beautifully written book of prose that carefully and lovingly paints a picture of the story behind each recipe. Guilia had a true gift for finding the words to convey her thoughts, her joys, her passions….and to share them with you. Her photography is exquisite, as well. What a tangible treasure to take away from our day.
Hurrying home, we arrived and began to prepare for yet another delight to this day….a TexMex meal with Lucio and Francesca! I brought along taco seasoning, freeze dried beans, and Spanish rice….oh, and tortillas!...to see if I could recreate such a meal under this Tuscan sun. Tortillas fried, hamburger cooked and seasoned, beans done, and rice ready…we all gathered at our little table, poured the Corona, and Lucio and Francesca were given their first lesson in constructing a tostado. Much good talk, laughter, eating, and enjoyment pursued as the night wore on. They brought a lovely prosecco and little pastries that look like mini cream puffs for dessert. It was perfect! As the congeniality persued, we again looked at the time in sheer amazement that it was already 11:30pm. There is no doubt that we have stepped into some sort of medieval time warp as the hours slide by like mere minutes.
Warm good byes and thanks exchanged, Lucio and Francesca headed out towards their home in Montesperutoli and we began the TexMex round up of dishes, feeling full, happy, and satisfied in only the way that food and friends can offer.
The view from Montelcino
Catch up for Wednesday’s brain fugue & the dying battery….
After our bodily fueling, the high on the hill town of Montelcino was our destination! The road straightens into a linear path once off the Autostrada at Buonconvento, and it’s not long before an intriguing looking cluster of ancient buildings hugging a steep hilltop announce themselves…terra cottas, ambers, goldenrod blending from afar stand out like a cache of Homer’s sirens. Excitement always mounts when I see “castle-ige” – anything castle looking sticking up -- , and Montelcino offers a nice dose of that with its impressive fortessa and several clock tower/church tower structures. I had visited Montelcino when I was traveling solo a year ago, so it was extra special to share my wee bit of familiarity with Main Man Marty. This town is also the home of the coveted and famous Brunello wine…a mere mention of the name will bring a swoon to the stance of most Italians I’ve met!
Car parked (finally), we entered the town walls (all these towns of any size have impressive walls around them…had to keep out the bad guys, or at least try!) and didn’t walk too far before we found our desired restaurant…a tiny little place secreted inside an ancient building and run by the couple Roberta and Antonio. She cooks, he waits the tables. We had to wait a bit, and barely slipped in before the 2:00 close. Grateful, we thanked Antonio and decided to go with the “Roberta’s Suggestion”, a full course meal featuring a lovely antipasto of typical Tuscan pleasures of uber thin prosciutto, pancetta, and salume, along with a sampling of crostini. One plate would’ve been enough for 3 people, and Antonio gave me a little grief over not finishing. I assured him it was wonderful, but was “abastansa” – enough – or I would never finish the rest of my meal! And before I forget, we absolutely had to add a small (pricey stuff!) bottle of Brunello to our table – very lovely, indeed! The primi was a delicately baked cheese and mushroom dish with pasta sheets thinner than the skin of the hautiest diva. It was exquisite. Didn’t think I could finish, but Antonio gave me “the eye”…so I happily found room! Our secundi was a butter-tender slice of beef cooked in a red wine sauce that I’m still trying to figure out. It was mouthwatering delicious…oh my. We were full to the brim, but still found space, of course, for the dessert offerings. We had a beautifully presented dish of panna cotta, an elegantly simple cream custard, all dolled up in a snazzy mixed berry sauce, and another of tiramisu, that lovely, iconic lady finger, espresso, and custard union. They were indeed as tasty as they were pretty to gaze upon. Roberta is a genius, and we asked Antonio to please share our bravas and gratitude with her. Oh, and this place was yet another delightful medieval space of two rooms entered through a tiny door, with a surprisingly large lower floor where the bathrooms were situated. We’re finding that all these spaces come fitted with the same lower level bathrooms (the architect in 1165 surely couldn’t have known to plan ahead for space upstairs)…and who knows – they may even connect under the streets just as the myriad of alleys and walkways so angularly and efficiently connect the world above them.
Full and satisfied, we set out and explored a bit more of Montelcino …and hopefully burned off a handful of those calories we so enjoyed by way of our climb up onto the ramparts of the fortessa. The views found there were expansive and grand. Clouds had formed a bit by afternoon, but this was a mere bonus as the shadows and lighting added such texture and interest to the vistas before us. As far as the eye can see, one is gifted with that ever changing, yet so constant Tuscan landscape. I truly hope some of Marty’s really-good-camera photos catch the essence of what the eye and soul view...to share it would be a joyful thing.
Finishing up Friday, May 4th ….
Ok…let’s see…when we last checked in on the two wandering Reynolds, they were having an exciting time at the lavanda (laundry mat)!! Actually, the day of no plans and hanging loose turned into a really fine one! We decided to load up and head out only with a vague idea of where to go. After a cardinal direction was decided upon, we steered towards the small town of Panzano. We’d been through there last October, but didn’t stop. My recollection of that almost-visit was of finding myself driving up a steep, veeery narrow cobbled street with an end that looked like we’d have to drive straight through the chiusa (church)! It was much more fun to wander up the same street on foot. We didn’t get far, however, before we entered conversation with the amusing, warm, and jovial Stefano, owner of the Academia del Buon Gusto, a whimsically decorated shop offering many local delicacies. A Bocelli song playing in the background is what made us take pause initially, and when Stefano noticed, he stepped out to say hello…with his wonderful medieval style hat and apron on, but more noticeable – his bright smile and twinkling eyes. After a bit of conversation…Stefano being very kind in helping us along in Italian…I commented on how beautiful his eyes were. They were a soft jade green…maybe a shade or two lighter than an olive leaf. He told us his mother was Croatian; thus, his eyes. Ah…va bene! After some fun chat and exchanging of contact info (Stefano told us he learned of the Terlingua chili cookoff and wanted to go some day…he has our number for when that day comes!) we had to quickly walk through the rest of the tiny center, or centro (“chin-tro”), and head towards our next unexpected pleasure of the day—meeting our newest Italian friends, Lucio and Francesca, in Greve in Chianti!
I "met" Lucio when Marty and I signed up on Conversation Exchange as a means to help/receive help with native Italian speakers either over Skype or just through email. Lucio and I traded periodic emails, and both being teachers, we agreed to “grade” the other's typing of mistakes. It worked well, and when this trip was planned, we decided we all needed to meet. It didn’t hurt, either, that their town is only about 15 miles as the crow flies from Castellina in Chianti.
We found our way to each other in Greve, and commenced to talk and get to know one another as we strolled the unusual triangular shaped main piazza in Greve. It was then decided we’d find some nice vino, and with the info gleaned on the street by Francesca, we found our way to an amazing tasting room a street or two off the centro. It operated via a card system; purchase a debit card of sorts, find the wine you’d like to taste (from literally thousands, I’d guess), pop the card in, push the button….salute! It was really quite fun as we got to taste some wines we’d never have done otherwise. The dessert was getting to sit and visit more with Lucio and Francesco – a truly warm and likeable couple.
What a beautiful couple!
They both are way (way!) ahead of us in language acquisition, but seemed to genuinely appreciate our attempts, as well as agree that Italian is a difficult language to master. I’ll just be glad when I’m a little past the stage of an 18 month old! We parted, but agreed to find an evening to have that TexMex meal I’d promised them via an email. How? Well, I packed some corn tortillas, those Taco Bell style freeze-dried frijoles, taco seasoning, and packaged Spanish rice. Add a little Italian beef, lettuce, and tomatoes, and I’m hoping we’ll produce some decent tostados – ole!
Home on the late side, we opted for a quick dinner in town (I really must start writing down these restaurant names!), gobbled it up, then came back to get ourselves to sleep at an hour conducive to an early rise…finally.
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband or friends, or found by way of images.google.com. Photo credit is given when possible.