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Could an art historian and a wine fanatic visit Tuscany, steer clear of museums, avoid Chianti and still have a ball? You bet.
It all depends on just what part of Tuscany we're talking about. Nancy, the art historian, and Tim, the wine fanatic, had just a few days in the rural South, an area dotted with medieval hill towns and surrounded by near-ripe sangiovese grapes. But this is not Chianti country. It is the land of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino.
We could try to fit in food, wine, art and history, take lightning visits to Florence and Siena, buzz past a couple of Etruscan sites -- and find ourselves thoroughly frustrated. Or we could stay in the countryside, focus on the abundance of our immediate surroundings, and save art and archeology for the next trip. We chose to savor the visual and gustatory glory of this little corner of paradise and wound up feeling that we had accomplished a great deal in a very short time.
To begin with, we discovered that rural Tuscany really does look like the photos in the travel books, only better. Medieval hill towns like living museums, dot the dusty plains. Their dense protective walls reflect the region's bloody past and the endless wars between Guelphs and Ghibbelines. Some of the towns are downright new, dating perhaps from the Renaissance. The largest have an upper old town and a modern one on the plain.
No matter how old the towns, no matter how many gems of medieval architecture they contain, they function like towns anywhere. Laundry hangs from 13th century windows, Vespa scooters hum endlessly and people stand on the battlements chatting on their cell phones.
It was the end of summer. The fields around us were filled with grapes, sunflowers and silver-leaved olive trees. The grapes had started to ripen, already showing purple in the shadow of their leaves. But the sunflowers were past their prime, still tinged with yellow. The heads would remain on and the seeds allowed to form so they could be pressed for oil.
We were delighted to discover that roads big and small were well marked and easy to navigate. All we needed was a good map and a sense of direction because each crossing bore pointers with cities and distances. If you knew your route passed through Pienza, you just followed the appropriate sign and awaited the next crossing.
And pass through Pienza we did, more times than we could count, as we ventured constantly from the generic resort town where we stayed to Montepulciano and Montalcino, the two red wine capitals of South Tuscany. Both towns have distinguished winemaking traditions as old as their architecture. And while they use sangiovese, the same basic grape found in Chianti, the results are vastly different.
Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano -- the "ordinary" reds -- are tasty, serviceable, sometimes a bit rustic and always affordable. But the higher-end reds -- Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano -- can be serious wines indeed, denser, more concentrated, heftier than most Chiantis, suitable for aging and savoring. In contrast to the blending common in Chianti, both are made entirely of sangiovese and neither is likely to have spent much time in new oak -- large old oak casks being the preferred vessels for aging.
Nowhere in Italy is the juxtaposition of the old and the new in the world of winemaking more pronounced than on these venerable hillsides. The contrast between traditional methods and state-of-the-art innovation can be found not only with each turn in the road, but often within a single winery. It is not hard to find an international superstar making one wine with an approach handed down through generations, and another with a technique learned at a seminar in Bordeaux the previous winter.
Avignonesi, one of the most respected producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, takes its name from the founding family's move from Avignon in France hundreds of years ago. Besides its stellar Vino Nobile, Avignonesi makes a Vin Santo -- a traditional Tuscan dessert wine from dried, raisined grapes -- that seems like a visitor from another winemaking planet. The intense nectar pressed from grapes that have spent the winter on drying racks goes into small barrels, along with a "mother" from the last fermented batch; the barrels are then sealed and left absolutely alone for eight years before bottling!
At the same time, Avignonesi makes wines from cabernet sauvignon, and a highly-regarded barrel-fermented chardonnay. The prevailing philosophy around the winery is that Avignonesi sometimes follows traditions, and sometimes starts them: a hundred years from now, people may well be talking about the "traditional" Avignonesi chardonnay.
Down the road in Montalcino, Castello Banfi is a comparatively new kid on the block (founded in the 1970s), as well as a very big one. Established by John and Harry Mariani, two wine merchants from the United States, Banfi remolded a large chunk of the Tuscan landscape to get the soils and exposures right and constructed a gleaming, computer-controlled winery. Here a production facility that shares space with a 12th-century castle uses technology usually associated with mass-market wine to produce premium and ultra-premium bottles.
Banfi works with all the "international" grapes -- cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, you name it. But the soul of the winery is what the staff calls the "Brunello Cathedral," a vast underground cellar holding three vintages of glorious Brunello -- 1,200,000 bottles! -- in row upon row of stately oak botte (huge wooden casks). The sight was certainly enough to put us in a reverential mood.
As to another of this area's great products, we were excited to discover that Ruth McVey, an old friend and professor from undergraduate days, had retired to South Tuscany where she farms an olive oil estate. The quality of her oil is so highly regarded that Saveur magazine wrote about her several years ago -- to our good fortune or we might never have rediscovered her.
At Il Picciolo, Ruth's farm just outside the walled town of Montisi, a classic two-story Tuscan farmhouse rears up through rocky fields surrounded by short, stubby olive trees. Sheep, Ruth's natural form of weed control, graze peacefully beneath their boughs.
Come harvest time, the olives from Ruth's gnarled old trees are picked by hand and taken to the local press. It is a modest harvest, averaging 1,000 kilos a year. Half goes to the pickers by way of payment. After setting aside what she needs for herself, Ruth sells the remainder directly to her neighbors and townspeople who drive up and fill their jugs.
Though we had expected to find great wine and exquisite olive oil in this corner of Italy, we were totally unprepared for its cheese which amounted to the greatest culinary discovery of our trip. Cheese in South Tuscany is synonymous with pecorino for the dairy animal of choice is the ewe. This is not the sharp grating pecorino romano we purchase in the US, but a mellow table cheese. With their nutty flavors, South Tuscan pecorinos range in age from four to 18 months. All are different and all are delicious.
Which brings us to the issue of meals. To begin with, we ate far too few in our short time. But what we did eat confirmed everything we had heard about the austere grandeur of Tuscan food.
Tuscans proudly trace their cultural roots to their Etruscan forebears in food along with everything else. The simple and straightforward character of their cuisine, their fondness for game and large roasted or broiled cuts of meat and the use of minimal but carefully selected ingredients hark back to an earlier era when hunting and herding played a far greater role in the local lifestyle. These "big" meats also serve as the perfect foil for the region's Brunello and Vino Nobile.
But big meats are not everyday fare. If there is a favorite food of the region, the vote has to go to the humble cannellini bean which goes into soups and is served on its own as a side dish with little adornment other than a drizzle of olive oil and perhaps a sprig of rosemary. Other Italians mock the Tuscans by calling them "mangiafaggiole" or "bean-eaters," but those who mock them have never sampled the velvety glory of white beans Tuscan style.
Every meal we had in South Tuscany lived up to our expectations and then some. Even fast food was a joy. At a tollway stop driving from the Rome airport to Chiusi we ate white beans, prosciutto and fresh fruit. Compare that to a Big Mac and cry.
But three meals stand out both for their setting and the quality of their food. A five-course lunch at Castello Banfi following a tour of their facilities matched each course with one of Banfi's great wines. The highlight of the meal was wild boar stew followed by a cheese course matched with a Brunello.
The next evening we visited La Grotta in Montepulciano at the foot of the old walled city. We sat in the garden beside a 15th century church, its lighted cupola glowing overhead. Here we sampled bisteca Fiorentina, a steak from the increasingly rare Chianina cattle whose texture resembles veal though its flavor is as rich and robust as any beef we ever tasted. Naturally we accompanied it with white beans.
But for rustic romance, a simple lunch on a bench in the medieval town of Buonconvento probably takes the prize. We brought with us a hunk of pecorino and a Tuscan sausage along with a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. We spread out our treasures on butcher paper and hacked off pieces with our Swiss Army knives in a park behind the church. The wine we swigged from paper cups.
Pigeons cooed from the nearby steeple and Vespas hummed around us as we drank in the scene, a dusty, ancient little town so much older than anything in our country.
"Save your pennies," we said to each other. "We're coming back."
I never thought I could like anything made with chicken livers, but that was before I went to Tuscany. Crostini of various hues, particularly topped with a chicken liver puree serve as a typical appetizer in the region. One of the most delicious we found was at La Grotta, an outstanding restaurant at the foot of the old town in Montepulciano. Not only is the food delicious, the atmosphere is outstanding as well. We are grateful to owner Davide Mazzuoli for his recipe.
1 red onion, chopped small
2 carrots, chopped small
1/2 stalk of Chinese celery or 2 narrow leaf-bearing stems of a celery stalk, chopped small
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
2 sprigs parsley
1/2 pound chicken livers, cleaned and cubed
1/2 apple, cut into small cubes
1 1/8 cup red wine
6 Tb. cognac
2 1/2 Tb. anchovy paste
10 capers, rinsed
Sliced, toasted Italian bread
Brown onions, carrot and celery in extra virgin olive oil. Add pepper and parsley.
Add liver and cook on low heat for 20 minutes. Add apple and cook for another 10 minutes. Raise heat and add red wine.
Meanwhile warm cognac. Flambe and add it to mixture. Add anchovy paste and capers and mix thoroughly.
Puree mixture and serve on toasted bread with Vin Santo Glaze.
Vin Santo Glaze
2 teaspoons apricot jelly or conserves
1/2 glass Vin Santo
Whip ingredients until foamy. Glaze prepared crostini slices.
Zuppa di Pane (Bread Soup)
Tuscan's like their soups thick and satisfying and white beans are a frequent component. Remember to cook the beans the night before making this one. Castello Banfi provides us with another classic.
4 or 5 yellow onions, chopped
1 pound carrots, chopped
1/2 small bunch celery, chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for garnishing
1 bunch fresh spinach
1 bunch Swiss chard
1 pound cooked cannellini beans (save the cooking water)
1 pound peeled tomatoes, fresh or canned
Hot pepper to taste
Toasted slices of day-old bread
Chopped spring onions
Stew onions, carrots and celery in 1/4 cup olive oil on very low heat for 30 to 40 minutes. Add spinach and Swiss chard and simmer until tender.
Add beans and 3 cups of cooking water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and allow to simmer for at least 3 hours. Stir constantly to prevent sticking and add more cooking water if mixture becomes too thick.
Serve over thin slices of toasted day-old bread. Garnish with chopped onions and drizzle with olive oil.
Serves 8 to 10
The origins of this hearty stew lie in the Middle Ages while the name probably derives from the word "scottare" (to burn). This may refer to the burning aroma of the hot pepper in the dish. Almost any type of meat can be prepared as a "scottiglia" -- chicken, rabbit, lamb, pheasant, etc. Saltless Tuscan bread is difficult to find outside its homeland so use any good Italian bread. For this delicious recipe, we are indebted to Castello Banfi.
3 lb. wild boar, not overly lean, cut into small cubes
1 clove garlic, crushed
6 Tb. extra virgin olive oil
Sprig of sage
Sprig of rosemary
3/4 cup Brunello di Montalcino
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound peeled fresh or canned tomatoes, chopped
1 hot pepper
Sliced Tuscan-style bread
Brown boar cubes on all sides in their own fat. If boar is too lean, use 1/4 cup olive oil.
Fry the crushed garlic clove in the 6 tablespoons of olive oil until it is golden brown but not burned and remove. Add boar, sage and rosemary, saute briefly and add Brunello. Simmer gently until wine evaporates -- approximately two hours. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add chopped tomatoes and simmer for another hour until a dense, abundant sauce forms. Adjust seasoning and serve over slices of Tuscan-style bread.
Stewed Veal in White Wine
Serves 8 to 10
Another treat from Castello Banfi. For more of their delicious recipes, look up their web site at www.castellobanfi.com.
3 pounds boneless veal shoulder roast
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
8 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig sage
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig marjoram
1 sprig thyme
1 pinch cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
2 bottles dry white wine
Brown roast on all sides in olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over a slow fire.
Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, herbs, spices, salt and pepper and stew covered over a moderate fire for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring vegetables occasionally to brown. Add wine to cover meat completely and simmer for 2 hours on a low fire.
Remove meat and keep warm. Puree sauce and adjust seasonings. Return to fire to thicken briefly. Slice meat and serve covered with sauce. Pass any remaining sauce.