We’re just back from a whirlwind trip to Italy to prepare for our Villas of Italy: Tuscan Adventure in September, jamming in visits to favorite Tuscan winemakers, sheep farmers, goat farmers; percorino cheese, pig farmers, prosciutto, coppa, and traveling around Toscana, Chianti and Val d’ Orcia.
Since my Italian-American childhood, I have always been interested in everything Italian—history, culture, art, architecture, fashion, and especially Italian food. Whenever possible, we find ourselves on a plane headed to Italy for pleasure and sometimes work. One of the biggest lessons we've learned traveling abroad is that we can only make a general plan of where to go, stay and eat. Rather than rigidly holding on to our expectations, once we arrive, we find it best to be adventurous, to see and taste everything as new and go where our instincts and hearts take us. Like childhood, every day is a new experience.
After a mostly-sleepless 14-hour plane ride, my wife and I arrived at Americo Vespuci Airport in Firenze. Our Villas of Italy tours director Giacomo picked us up at the airport to take us to Hotel Certaldo.
The next 6 days would prove to be very busy, but very enjoyable. First, Podere Le Fornaci to meet owner Marco. It was raining pretty heavily as we drove up to his rustic farm where they produce Formaggio Caprino Da Agricoltura Biologica. Marco is a great guy, very friendly and laid back. He showed us his cheese production facility which was quiet as this is the season where his goats are delivering so no cheese production. We then donned our boots to slop up the hill in the mud to see his goats. We watched the newborns receive their 'ear tag' as these are a controlled breed and the lineage of each goat must be documented. A few goats were ready to give birth sometime that morning! We headed back down to the tasting room where we tried some aged cheese.
We headed into Greve in Chianti stopping for a cappuccino in the piazza. We walked the shops as we will in Sept. then a few doors down to Antica Macelleria Falorni, the oldest butcher shop in Italy (1806). Hundreds of all types of salumi are hung from the ceiling to dry. We hung around for awhile (pun intended) then on the road.
We drove further into Chianti to Renzo Marinai, an upscale winery that produces biological wines, where we met Catia. She walked us through their wine making process, cellars, etc. (they play classical music over speakers in their cellars, an experiment to see if it effects the wine. Mozart was playing). They have also erected art pieces in the vineyards, e.g., LOVE spelled out in big bold letters to see if it will effect the quality and amount of grapes. Their wines are excellent.
We drove about 100 yards down the road to a very small winery, again a biologico winery, on the same hill, Vallone di Cecione, to meet Francesco and his father, Giuliano. In contrast this winery is much smaller run by the father-son team. Francesco, probably about 35 and his father who looks to be in his early 80's. Very sweet, friendly and authentic people. They were eating lunch but stopped to clear the table so we could taste their wines. They make three wines and I wanted to taste their Canaiolo wine made from 100% Canaiolo grape. This is wine as made by the ancient Romans. Same grape, same process (aged in clay barrels), so I would assume same taste, complexity, etc. When else could you taste a wine as probably drunk by an ancient civilization . . . Antonius Maximus is my new name! Oh yeah it was very good! As a small yield vineyard their wines sell for $12-15 per bottle!? Deal! Francesco's mother, Anna, will serve our group a lunch of her homemade pasta and sauce and her specialty roasted rabbit while seated in the lowest level of what was once an Etruscan tower dated thousands of years old! While it looks it, it is very cool!
We stopped by Ristoro l’ Antica located at the foot of an old monastery to say Ciao. Their pizza is probably the best in the valley. We will have a dinner here with the group.
We drove to Castellina in Chianti, a picture-perfect ancient town in the Chianti hills. Many wonderful sights; the imposing 14th Century Rocca (Fortress), offering spectacular views of the town and surrounding countryside, the 16th Century San Salvatore Church and the Via delle Volte medieval arched passageway. Just outside of town the pre-Roman Etruscan burial tombs of Monte Calvario and the Necropolis of Poggino.
We visited Raymond and his wife Anarita at Casamonti. This is no ordinary farm, it is a combination of scientific marvel and culinary delight. Their place is also thousands of years old. It use to be a refuge for pilgramages, people would stop to refresh themselves on their journey to Rome. They raise a special breed of Tuscan pig called Cinta Senese that they make salumi from . . . their capocollo and salami is wonderful, but unfortunately their prosciutto is cured offsite so we could not taste today. . . but what we did taste was phenomenal. Anarita is an excellent chef and will make us a farm-to-table lunch for our tours paired with their wines . . . oh yes, which we tasted, and are wonderful. They also produce olive oil from the property, yes we tasted it as well . . . and yes it was also fantastic. We sat and talked with Raymond and Anarita for a long time. They are quite the characters in a lovely way.
Over the next few days we stopped at a cheese producer where we will buy our cheeses for our villa, literally hundreds of cheeses, many we knew, many we didn't, all delicious. A little further down the road we stopped at Famiglia Gambassi Terra di Siena Salumi. Their family has a long history (1800's) of butchery and we tasted their capocollo, prociutto, guanciale . . . all delicious, so we will buy our meats for the villa from them.
We traveled to meet Helena at Colombaia. Colombaia is a biologico family-owned farm, its name comes from the ancient holding where very good “Chianti” wine, olive oil, “vin santo” and “grappa” have been produced since the distant past.The farm is located in a typically Tuscan natural environment, among gentle hills, medieval villages, olive grooves and vineyards, in an area which is particularly interesting from an historical, artistic and cultural point of view. Helena gave us a nice walking tour around her property after which we tasted her wines in her cellar. All very good! Here I began to learn the difference between 'organic' and 'biologico' farming with Giacomo's help. Thinking they were the same, they are not, I became intrigued with how these biologico farmers create their products.
We left Helena's Colombaia, with a bottle of her wine as a gift to us and Giovanni and Giovanna to enjoy with them for our lunch. We stepped out of the car at their farm, Azienda Agricola Podere Paugnano, and looked across the valley at the hilltown Radicondoli, a beautiful vista. Giovanni was already outside waiting for us and we proceeded inside to see his wife Giovanna who was making ravioli with daughter Natalie . . . all from scratch, dough, filling . . . we went back outside to walk the property with Giovanni to see the cheese production room, meet the sheep, many kids just born 8-10 days ago, and over to meet the pigs. In the production of cheese whey is essentially the water being removed from the curds in order to make the cheese. On this small farm they would have to pay to have the whey hauled away so instead they keep pigs in order to feed them the whey. Then they eat, sell, or trade it for other needs. Nothing is wasted.
We went back to the kitchen to find Giovanna finishing her ravioli. We sat at a big farm style table to an appetizer of four sheep cheeses from soft to hard to be enjoyed with their homemade chestnut honey, pear jam, and fresh sliced pears. The fresh ravioli soon arrived with homemade tomato sauce . . . fantastico! Originally from Sardinia Giovanna brought over a platter of wild artichokes, carciofi, coated and fried . . . absolutely wonderful. In a matter of seconds a platter of fried pork and lamb with crispy skin was passed with a bowl of salad fresh from the garden. An amazing meal . . . all farm to table. For dessert, vin santo was served to dip a platter of cantucci (biscotti) into, followed by cups of fresh sheep yogurt . . . Natalie told us her recipe was 1 part whipped cream, 3 parts fresh sheep yogurt mixed with fresh blackberries . . . it was heavenly. I never thought I would enjoy anything better than fresh gelato, but this was as close as you can get . . . SO good, smooth and oh so creamy. A beautiful lunch prepared and served by beautiful people! Il mio stomaco e il cuore era pieno!
We said our goodbye's and headed across the valley to walk through Radicondoli, a lovely medieval town on top of a hill where in the distance you can see the towers of San Gimignano and a short distance south the village of Volterra. A stunning view across the Toscana landscape. We also made it to Montalcino and Montepulciano where we tasted at several vineyards we will visit on tour. Keeping them as a secret, special treat for September. We walked the streets totally void of tourists, only locals here, we stopped into a local bar for a macchiato to finish another wonderful day in the heart of Toscana.
Over the next few days we spent a day with Francesca, our guide in Florence, to finalize what we’ll see on our day there in September. It will be a beautiful day. We selected the ristorante we will take the group for lunch, had a gelato at one of the oldest, and best, gelateria’s in Florence. And, we had a cappuccino with Costanza, our guide in Siena, Volterra, and San Gimignano to talk about our itinerary and timing.
Back at the villa we met with our villa chef Mauro to go over menus. Mauro will be adjusting the lightness or the heaviness of our dinners depending on what we’ve had for lunch while on tour. His recipes are not only authentically Toscana, they are medieval recipes that have endured over the many centuries (some with slight modifications by Mauro). He will also bake fresh bread daily, as well as fresh pasta, and all ingredients will be local and organic. We spent that evening up in Certaldo Alto having a beautiful dinner with Giacomo, his wife Anna, daughter Mirta (son Manu was with Nonna e Nonna) at a lovely ristorante overlooking the valley below.
Each day was truly an adventure in the Italian lifestyle. Days that began with cappuccino with our friends at Jam Café and a fresh pasticceria, followed by visits to surrounding villages, wineries, farms, local bars for caffe and usually a farm-to-table lunch prepared for us by one of our owner friends.
It is easy to see why Tuscany is one of Italy’s best-loved regions. Tuscany has two very diverse faces - the art cities; Florence, Siena, Lucca and Pisa on one hand, and the countryside on the other. It combines a beauty reminiscent of the landscapes of Renaissance masterpieces, a rich artistic heritage including exquisite art and architecture, a glorious history, excellent wines and delicious food all set between the blue-green Apennines and the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea, Tuscany is the joyful heart and soul, the essence of the Italian culture which lives on in every city, town and village.
Ciao . . . a presto . . . until Settembre!
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.