This trip to Italy was short. All trips to Italy are short. All trips to Italy are too short. There, third time’s the charm. But seriously, earlier this month I had the opportunity to engage in some inner peace, some quiet reflection among friendly faces, familiar places and bucolic wonderment that only Tuscany can provide. Although accompanied by friends in the evenings, most days I was a sole traveler that simply set about with no itinerary, limited appointments and the desire to let Tuscany come to me. While many articles will come as an outgrowth of this trip, today I’m beginning with a sort of travelogue which partly illustrates this amazing journey.
It’s hard for me to be in Tuscany without visiting San Gimigano. Despite that this picturesque hill town is often filled with tourists, my enjoyment of this beautiful place isn’t lessened in the least. In fact, it often adds to it. If you’re sitting at the bar on the Piazza della Cisterna with a caffe or Fernet, you need someone to watch while planning your next move. This is where I started my week; with un espresso doppio e un cornetto ripieno con nutella. Magic!
Every Sunday morning during the summer, a market springs up in the center of San Gimignano where local artisan producers sell their wares. The treats range from local honey, cured meats, breads, cheeses, all manner of goods laced with truffle and every kitchen implement you could imagine carved from olive wood. It’s a browsing paradise and while it can seem “tourist trappy” in a sense, when you show some understanding of the craft and converse in even the most basic Italian, you are greeted warmly and genuinely.
There was no way I was leaving without some provisions for a casual Sunday lunch. After tasting some of the sweetest prosciutto imaginable, I ordered about 300 grams sourced from a butcher’s Cinta Senese pigs. This gentleman also insisted that I try is homemade sausage raw – straight from the casing. He smeared it on a crostini like lardo and so I dove in. I’ll admit, with trepidation. Sometimes my American digestive system can revolt against such local treats but it was delicious and no problems ensued!
Summer truffles followed, along with a wonderful olive oil and some spice packets for bruschetta. These may be completely catered to tourists, but I implore you to season your tomatoes with this mixture and then add nothing but fine olive oil. Trust me!
Each time I return from Italy people always ask me if I bought a lot of wine. Typically, the answer is no. I usually have somewhere between 4 or 6 bottles in my suitcase but not much more. The reason is two fold. First, I’m fortunate to live in an area with exceptional selection so there is little I can’t find at home. When you factor in the shipping, it’s not much of a savings. The key is to find things at great prices or find things that don’t make it to the export market. So how do you find things at great prices?
Remember these 4 words: Off the beaten path. Wine = Food in Tuscany. It’s everywhere and everyone drinks it. Just like great food, the locals know where to go. So yes, if you’re in the center of Siena or Castellina where a wine shop has its doors flung open, inventory spilling into the street and tons of foot traffic, you’re not going to find any bargains.
Enter, Monteriggioni. This wee little castle turned hamlet is an imposing fortress set high atop a very, very steep hill. The only way in is to climb. If it’s hot, by the time you reach the town’s central Piazza Roma, you’ll be ready to grab a chair, relax with a Spritz and watch the world go by.
That’s what I did and while I was sitting, I noticed a rustic wooden sign that said “Enoteca ->” and so I had my plan. Under a stone archway, down a little alley, through a garden and around the corner, this shop was tucked away as if it were trying to avoid people. It was air-conditioned! A sure sign that the proprietor is serious about wine. Not 10 minutes later I exited with 2015 Asinone and 2016 Tignanello in my arms. All for a fraction of US retail. The kicker? Carrying it back down the hill to my car! A small price to pay…
Another stop along my way of “tooling” was at the Querciavalle farm in Castelnuono Berardenga. Cared for by the Losi family since the 1800s, this estate will be the subject of a longer feature article in the coming weeks. We toured the entire estate and cellars, tasted and had a wonderful lunch over looking sleepy Vagliagli.
Another hill town I adore is Castellina in Chianti so it’s hard to imagine a trip to central Tuscany without stopping here at least a few times. Despite the fact that the town has lots of modern amenities, it boasts a large ZTL and hasn’t lost its charm at all. An espresso and cornetto at the Bar Italia sets the mood for exploration and on this trip, it was meeting a friend for a visit to Gagliole. Where did we meet? On the steps of the Church of course!
The terraced olive groves in the photo above are a combination of practicality and necessity. Hundreds of years ago, farmers working in these fields would plow up large stones and boulders. Not having the means to move them, they simply started laying them into walls. This terracing also made it easier to work the olive trees and the vines because it limited the impact of the steep slope of the land.
To close out the first night in Tuscany, I met my friend Daniele for dinner at a wonderful local ristorante near San Gimignano. It was the perfect end to a busy first day and featured two things the area is famous for: Summer Truffles and Chianti Riserva.
And when in Tuscany, try something new!
The 2013 Nittardi Chianti Classico Riserva is black as night. The color is nearly impenetrable and shows no sign of fading at all. While the truffle sauce really brought out the fruit in this wine, by itself, I think it was produced in a more austere style.
On the nose, this Riserva presented itself classically with ripe cherry notes backed by floral tones, spices and smoke. Tightly wound on the palate, this seemed compact throughout the dinner even with being decanted. Medium bodied and balanced well between acids and tannins, the fruit seemed a bit reticent. I suspect that’s both a product of the vintage (2013 is not my favorite in Chianti) and the style of the wine. More austere than typical wines from Castellina. 88 points. Cellar 5-7 more years before trying. About $35 Euro from the list if I recall correctly.
So……that’s a wrap for what is only the tip of a very, very deep iceberg. Tuscany doesn’t disappoint and I’m sure over the next few months, you will share that sentiment through these pages. Salute!