Super Tuscany: An Epicurean Love Affair
SOMEWHERE IN ANOTHER LIFE I must have been an Italian. Despite my Canadian birth certificate and Asian roots, I am in love with everything Italiano, most of all the landscape, food and wine of Tuscany. La Toscana embodies what most people imagine when they think of Italy: Renaissance cities steeped in history and rich in literature, art and architecture; ancient castles and fortified villages perched on hilltops overlooking an undulating tapestry of cypress trees, olive groves and vineyards. From a hilltop or in a valley, in every direction, the view in this central Italian region is bellissima! Beautiful!
Late autumn, just after the wine harvest, is perfect timing for the introduction of the novello (new) wines and the start of the olive picking season. I took my lodgings in an elegant country apartment at the beautiful Poggiarellino Vineyard near Buonconvento, a quaint little town easily accessible by train from Florence or Siena. What better way to learn about viniculture than to stay with a wine producer and his wife!
A neophyte in Italian wines, I had a lot to learn as I embarked on my journey through Brunello country, and what was a Super Tuscan anyway? A session with the sommelier from Castello Romitorio, a boutique wine producer in Montalcino, acquainted me with some of the wines of the region. Sangiovese is the dominant grape in Tuscany and many of the red wines contain 100 percent Sangiovese or a significant percentage thereof. The particular vineyard, concentration of grapes, the length of time in oak barrels, and how it is aged determine the quality of the wine. A Super Tuscan is a blend of Sangiovese and another grape such as Merlot or Cabernet. At last I knew the difference between a Brunello and a Chianti, a Rosso and a Morellino di Scansano! Better still, I understood the labels DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), the system introduced by the Italian government in 1963 to define regional wines and guarantee their origins as well as singling out wines of particularly high quality.
If wine is considered an aphrodisiac, the next most sensual liquid must be olive oil. Is there such a thing as extra, extra, extra virgin olive oil? Absolutely! Freshly harvested and pressed olives produce a deep emerald liquid that is both aromatic and delicious. Perfect for dipping Tuscan bread along side of a plate of 'drunken' cheese (ubriacato) and slices of Salame Finocchiona. The best salami with fennel is from a heritage breed of Tuscan pigs called Cinta Senese. These animals are native to Crete and their lineage can be traced to the fourteenth century. The breed is now protected and the pigs are raised by small producers in the manner of ancient times. The animals feed only on acorns and what they can forage out of doors. Their meat is used to produce prosciutto, salami, and lardo, a specialty made from the fat of the pig. Products made from this rare breed are distinguished from other pork products and carry a special recognition by the Italian government. Likewise, the white cows of Tuscany, i chianini, are also identified as DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or Protected Designation of Origin. The tender and succulent Bisteca Fiorentina (a grilled T-bone steak served by the kilogram in Florentine restaurants) is from this creature. The labelling of meat and dairy products assures consumers of the origin and standards by which the animals were raised and processed. Needless to say, the taste and quality of these products are far superior and justify a higher price tag.
From Buonconvento, I took daily excursions along la strada del vino (the wine route) visiting picturesque towns and enjoying some extraordinary meals. In the small town of Montalcino, enotecas (wine stores) offered the greatest variety and quality of Brunellos di Montalcino, Rossos, and other well-known local appellations. Most producers will ship personal orders right to your door internationally. A highlight on the wine route was a four-course evening meal at Ristorante al Giardino that began with a lightly breaded egg yolk nesting on a bed of potato purèe kissed with truffle oil and garnished with truffle shavings. A ricotta ravioli with chestnuts and a Brunello reduction followed. The main course was a saddle of rabbit drizzled with a vanilla glaze, resting on a bed of seasonal vegetables, and to complete the meal, a semi-freddo with moscadello, passionfruit and strawberries. All of which was washed down with a bottle of Bolsignano Brunello di Montalcino 2004.
If you are not up to the standard Italian midday meal of a primo and a secondo, (usually a pasta dish followed by a main course), a great place to eat is an osteria (wine bar). At La Porta Osteria in Monticchiello, a stone-walled medieval town and UNESCO World Heritage site, I feasted on a generous plate of antipasti and local cheeses coupled with a bottle of Montecucco Rosso and freshly baked Tuscan bread. I finished with some cartucci and a small glass of vin santo. Can life get better than this?
For travellers who prefer a rural holiday, agriturismo is gaining popularity in Italy. Visitors stay with local farmers and experience a way of life dedicated to keeping balance with the environment through agriculture, animal husbandry, cheese making or vegetable growing. Agriturismo is alive and well in Tuscany. At the organic farm of Santa Margherita in Monteroni D'Arbia (Siena), you can walk, hike, bike, or simply enjoy the fruits of Mother Earth. The farm restaurant, Vecchio Mulino, features the freshest ingredients produced on the farm. I enjoyed a meal composed of varying forms of goat cheeses including panna cotta for dessert. For a less rustic experience (with outdoor swimming pool), there is Vergelle, situated in the hills of San Giovanni D'Asso, a postcard perfect landscape in the region of Crete Senesi. The farm's cheese factory produces a delicious regional Pecorino.
The view of the surrounding hills and valleys from the central piazza in the hilltop town of Pienza is beyond words. This historic town has a fine cathedral and other monuments, plus artisan shops filled with ceramics and wares typical of the region. Culinary enthusiasts can pick up a truffle slicer here at a reasonable price. I bought one just in case...
My last weekend in Tuscany coincided with the annual Sagra di Tartufi (Festival of Truffles) and I had the good fortune of taking part in the hunt for one of the world's rarest and most expensive foods. White truffles, globular subterranean fungi that sprout from the roots of certain trees, often near streams in wooded areas, are rarer and more expensive than black truffles because of the way they are harvested (by specially trained Lagotto Romagnolo dogs) and the precise conditions needed to produce them. These highly sought after gems exist only in a handful of places in the world, Northern Italy being the most prominent. A mere sliver of white truffle will lend a rich earthiness to any dish and an aroma like no other.
Each November, a celebration is held in the ancient town of San Giovanni D'Asso during the truffle hunt. Italians come in droves to sample and buy truffle oil, truffle butter, and the most recently unearthed truffles. The biggest and best truffles are usually snapped up by restaurants, but I was astounded to see locals putting down 100-Euro bills for something the size of a very small potato. These gastronomic delicacies can command up to 300 Euros or more per kilogram. The highest price ever paid for a white truffle was a staggering $330,000. Perhaps I'll need to start thinking of other uses for my truffle slic...
For my final birthday indulgence in Tuscany, I joined a group of friends to taste the special Truffle Menu at Ristorante del Castello in San Giovanni D'Asso. Housed in the medieval fortifications of the town, during truffle season this restaurant offers an exotic degustation menu focussed on tartufi bianchi. Each course was composed of some element of white truffle. To say that the meal surpassed our greatest expectations would be an understatement. Along with the countryside and the fabulous wine, the taste of Truffled Butter Tagliatelle will forever linger in my heart and my memories of Tuscany.