james debate
james debate

Sunday 19 August 2007

Well at last the time has come. What follows is the ultimate gospel on all things Tuscany. Want to learn what to do and where to go in the region? Want to learn a thing or two about fine wines? Just curious to see what I've been up to this summer? Read on...

First a word about wines: All the local chianti wines tend to be mostly sangiovese grape, for more exotic blends one should try the super tuscans, of which i will detail the highlights. Further more, when purchasing wines, bear in mind that the 2001, 2004, and 2006 bottles can be kept for longer than the 2002, 2003 and 2005 bottles, drink them now.

The trip started with a 2 hour flight on Alitalia. This is an airline i've never been too fond of... its cheap... but it feels it too, seats are crumbling (and seem to have cardboard in them oddly) and food is not great... if british airways feels like a chauffered limo (and costs as much) then this feels more like a new york cab. Other than this though it certainly gets you in the mood for italy, it already feels like youre within a small italian village and gives you your first taste of the culture.

After landing, the villa at which i was to stay was a 2 hour drive down from milan in the Chianti region, near Florence. First thing's first though, a quick trip to the co-op in Poggibonsi for all the necessities, food, big bad bug killing contraptions (vital), and lots of alcohol, especially when friends are visiting. Don't have to get everything though, best to get the fresh foods, cheeses, breads, meats, at the small shops in the villages of Castellina and Rada, where you can get wonderful homemade stuff.
Then at last it is time to go see the casa itself, sitting pretty amongst the vinyards, with a private pool, secluded and peaceful from surrounding towns. During the day one can lounge in the sun with a glass of proseco, go for a drive to visit nearby villages, or head into the big cities of siena and Florence (my personal favorite).

Dinner that first night was at Il Fondaccio, a pizza place located amongst the meandering pedestrian roads of Castellina. Always a favorite night destination, they will prepare for you some of the best thin crust pizza you will find anywhere, and for those who are so inclined you can take a small antipasto as well. The wine for this evening was the Querciabella 2003, a chianti classico, probably the most basic wine we had on this sojourn to tuscany, but a very adequate one, fruity but with the definite strong aftertaste of a cheaper bottle of chianti. A post supper stroll through the town takes us to the main square, a locale where one can often find concerts, movies or other events on show, providing an opportunity to take in some culture and mix with the locals.
Upon returning to the villa (and the roads have recently been paved, making the journey much less of a hassle than before) one is struck by the stars in the sky. With no nearby light source the sky is simply a milky white blanket, the likes of which you will never have seen living anywhere near a city, a few minutes to sit in the garden and take it in is a minimum, especially with the perseids taking place at this time of year. For those wanting to take in such a sight, youll find the shooting stars first being to increase frequency from about 11pm, and increase steadily throughout the night until sunrise, emerging from either the constellation perseus or cassiopoeia.

A late rise the next morning allows a trip into town to buy fruits and fresh foods for a nice buffet style breakfast. A first day to start tanning is a welcome change from the grey misery of London, so i had no problem filling this first day with that.
Dinner that night was at an old favorite, le vigne, a gorgeous restaurant located with a fantastic view over the vinyards. The menu is small but of a high quality, offering juicy fruits and fresh meats, a heavenly cheese cake for dessert, and the pinnacle of the menu, pici melanzane, pici being a thick tuscan variant of spaghetti, this dish works so perfectly, texture and taste-wise. The wine tonight was a castello di cacchiano 2003, a riserva with a very light, easy drinking taste, and a warm aroma.

Osteria de la piazza is a restaurant of a similar ilk, full of interesting quirks, such as the ability to pick out your own porcini mushroom for a side dish, much like one would pick out a lobster at a seafood restaurant. Several dishes here contained truffles, at surprisingly reasonable prices, definitely worth a flutter. This was very nicely complemented by the woody aftertaste of the volpaia riserva 2004 which accompanied the meal.

On tuesday we visited our favorite wine shop in Castellina, Bottega del Vino, with the intention of choosing a crate of 24 bottles to ship over to london at the end of the vacation. This is our favorite shop due in large part to the proprietor, an eccentric man who's two main loves are his wine, and the locals in the town of castellina. A wedding is taking place in the square, and he interrupts our transaction to bring bottles of proseco to share with all present. Similarly he greets us with a glass of proseco each, and throughout our time in the shop he periodically lights up and reaches for his glasses as he declares he has one or two bottles of wine that we simply must have a taste of, and thus proceeds his ritual of rinsing the glases with the wine before tasting, professionally done like a man who has been doing it for decades. There have been a number of fantastic bottles we've tried, castello di ama, l'aura, but the standout bottle of this year's tastings is the Brancaia blue 2004, a very mellow, easy drinking super tuscan with a sweet aftertaste. A blend of 50% sangiovese grape, 45% merlot and 5% cabernet, this one is really fantastic.
Dinner that night was equally pleasing, a new place, Trattoria Torioni di san fabiano. This had only been open for two months when we went there, and provided such a superb mix of beautiful setting (right on top of the highest hills in tuscany), amazing food and a good wine (we happened to be staying in the san fabiano vinyards so this was a veyr local wine for us). This restaurant pushes a number of buttons for me, from bringing out small and delicious home made breads and complimentary pre-dessert treats. The wine tonight was a san fabiano Cellole riserva 2004, not one of the more expensive wines of the vacation but certainly a great one, fantastic value.

That weekend was a highlight of the trip. Friday night there was the local wine festival of the stars in Castellina to celebrate the peak of the perseids. Everyone was given a glass and a card with 14 boxes, you got one box ticked for each glass of chianti classico you drink, and two boxes ticked for a riserva. As such i thought i'd stick mainly to riservas, only to find most people were only ticking me once anyway... maybe they like keeping the young uns drinking. In the end i filled my card, with 12 glasses of wine. I fell asleep in the car journey home.
For this festival the streets were filled with people, and stands serving various wines and food items. The brancaia blue was on show, as was the castellare riserva, another fine bottle, but the two big finds of this festival were the collelungo riserva, an oaky and intensely fruity wine, and the soft and velvetty rocca de macie riserva.
The main draw of such an event is the opportunity to socialise with the locals, mainly people you see around the town at shops and restaurants, but quite a number of kids these days too due to the advent of tourism to the area. I happen to think talking to girls is quite fun when they don't speak the same language as you!

On saturday we made the journey into Florence, one of my favorite towns. This is a place full of markets and shops (and cheap football shirts), a place brimming with culture and music and art, both on the streets and in the many fine museums, churches, and of course, the duomo, the centrepiece of architecture in Florence. Otherwise head over to Piazza della Signoria, the historic focal point of the Florentine Republic, and take in the sculptures by donatello, and a recreation of michaelangelo's david (The original by Michelangelo is being kept at the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts) And of course no trip to Florence is complete without taking a look at the Pont de Vecchio, the 'living bridge' bristling with shops.
The restaurant was another favorite of mine, the savoy hotel in the square de la republica, notable for the fantastic cream of pumpkin soup with chicken tempura i started with, which brought me to the point of being so full that I was almost unable to eat the main course, one of the classic dishes, a fantastic tagliolini with tomatoes. The wine was a vino nobile poliziano 2003, which was something a little bit different than what we had been drinking most nights, but very tasty.

As good as any of these restaurants were though nothing here really compares to Gallopapa, located hidden away in the moodlit tunnels under the town walls of Castellina. A beautiful restaurant, with a mad genius in the kitchens. This is a place that really pulls out all the stops and bring you tiny and peculiar treats (like strange mixes of cheese and melon) and breads of all different kinds (onion, tomato, cellery, etc) and theyre all wonderful, no matter what they sound like, they look and taste heavenly. The menu follows in a similar fashion, full of unusual combinations of ingredients that sound crazy but taste amazing. Case and point, on the menu tonight was a dish of pigeon cooked in cocoa beans, which i was very unsure about, but turned out to be one of the most sublime things I have ever tasted. The wine was another riserva, the castello di fonterutoli, and it was certainly a fine complement to the meal. Another great thing about this restaurant: its one of the only places I have ever seen that has a water menu.

The second week saw a number of new places come into the mix, including Canteena de Ragnama where the highlight was a dish of fresh pecorino cheese with honey... a combination which doesnt sound like it should work, but does, beautifully. The highlight of the week has to be Ristorro Lamolle, which certainly wins the prize for the most beautiful view of the sunset, and the food was very fine too, with a delicious tagliolini with truffles and a small gratis appetiser of pecorino cheese with a truffle flavored honey, very delicious. The wine was also one of the better ones we had: lam'oro 2001, a super tuscan and definitely lives up to its name of 'golden'.

The week signed off with a quick snack at Café Italia in castellina, a place we tend to frequent very often, though not so much anymore as they have stopped selling their homemade ice cream. Still, it is a lovely place to go and have a coffee and read the gazetto dello sport, and pretend I understand most of it.

Two weeks of fun and sun, a welcome respite from life in London, marred only by certain crazy ex gfs, but not enough to ruin a wonderful vacation, fortunately.
I hope you enjoyed this review and learned a little something about the good life. Feel free to leave comments.


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