We have frequently visited France where we always choose to spend time in a self catering establishment where we can shop at the local markets and cook our own meals. When we planned our Italian adventure this year I was determined to spend as much time as possible in rural Tuscany, doing the same.
Many people complain that Tuscany ‘over run by tourists’ and has been ‘over romanticized’ via a plethora of books and movies! I am sure it is in the peak holiday season, but it has a wonderful charm that everyone needs to experience. There are other areas in Italy where you will see fewer tourists and where you can immerse yourself in the local life, but then there won’t be so many quaint hilltop villages and fabulous wineries. The best time to visit is out of the European holiday season which stretches from Mid July to early September. Also avoid Easter if you can!
I feel that the only way ‘to do Tuscany’ is to hire a car. There are narrow, winding roads with crazy Italian drivers, nervous tourist drivers and cyclists. Valleys and hillsides are a patchwork of olive groves, vineyards and vegetable crops. Tall cypresses and pines (bearing the delicious pine nut) and beautiful stone clad houses make this a photographer’s dream. It’s the breathtaking views that I love and that is the subject of so many artists work.
As with Bologna, it would have been nice to spend the odd night in a village to soak up the evening atmosphere and dine out at a few local trattoria or osteria. We prefer to sightsee and explore the area during the day and in the evenings we relax with a few glasses of wine and enjoy a leisurely meal. This time we wanted to stay at one place, with no packing and unpacking every couple of days and…….
this time I wanted to shop at local markets and cook!
If you want to immerse yourself in the Italian lifestyle and to cook it’s best to look for ‘agritourisme’ style accommodation that has a kitchen and an attractive eating area. There is a huge selection ranging from luxurious villas to basic apartments in renovated farm buildings. Most have en-suite bedrooms with good bathrooms (we always insist on the latter!).
I would also not exceed a distance more than 20kms from a larger town. Small villages usually only have one shop stocking the very basics and may not have a weekly fresh produce market.
Summers get hot, so I would recommend that a pool and air-conditioning or fans are essential. Italy does not have malaria carrying mosquitoes, but the ‘stinging variety’ is prevalent so go armed with a stock of insect repellant! The supermarkets don’t have our familiar brands such as Tabbard & Peaceful Sleep, so it’s better to take your favourite ‘muti’ along!
Via friends and family we found excellent accommodation in Adine (pronounced: Ah-di-nay). This tiny medieval hamlet dates back to the 11th Century. It consists of about 11 houses (some of which are subdivided into 2 or three apartments). Nearby villages include Radda (19kms), Castellina and Panzano. All these charming villages have grocery shops, small but well stocked supermarkets, delis and have weekly local markets.
The house we stayed in consisted of the owner’s main house and two very well appointed apartments (one with 2 en-suite bedrooms and another with one bedroom) which are rented to visitors (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The buildings in Tuscany are very typical of the area and by the way, nothing like the pseudo Tuscan style houses in South Africa! Most of the buildings are clad in natural stone or occasionally have a terracotta or sandstone stucco finish. The roofs are made from terracotta tiles that have naturally weathered. The walls are thick, some almost 70cm wide. Rows of terracotta pots are filled with geraniums, lavender or roses. Windows are small and mostly open inwards with interior shutters. Ironwork on gates and fences is often intricate. In rural Italy floors are either travertine or terracotta or sometimes stucco cement.
Many old houses have outdoor cooking facilities in the form of a covered barbeque, a wood burning oven or pizza oven. Outdoor dining areas either in a courtyard or a terrace are popular. These are often vine-covered or sheltered by a shady tree. This is part of Tuscan charm, so check that your accommodation offers this.
We had access to the lovely kitchen in the main house with its beautiful terrace overlooking the Tuscan hills, vineyards and olive groves. Every evening was a wow sunset and we dined until late.
In Adine we were a group of 8 fellow South Africans. The men saw to the wine supply and the women cooked! Every meal was a feast!
Starting with sun downers…..
There were no formal arrangements and we casually chose to cook a meal or part of a meal. Every evening started with a very convivial group in the kitchen discussing the adventures of the day, one preparing the main meal, another making a starter or salad, and another topping up the vino! Unforgettably happy moments!
I will share our favourite recipes with you in small snippets rather than all at once. Some dishes I have remade at home and others I will simply savour the memory. Watch this space!
If there is sufficient interest I may consider planning a ‘cooking’ holiday together with Elissa, a delightful lady, a resident in Adine, who has been cooking in Tuscany for years!
Our visit coincided with a number of wine festivals. Here every large village forms a sub wine region which defines the characteristics of the wines. The wine festivals have a similar format to those in the Cape where you pay an entrance fee, receive a glass (with a neat glass-bag that you hang around your neck!), tasting notes and a list of producers.
Generally the wines were delicious. Many of the producers are picking the grapes at optimum ripeness and using far less wood and producing less tannic, fruitier wines that are more accessible than traditional Chiantis. Chianti Classico is a vast area in Tuscany which covers 7 sub-zones. The area stretches between the two main cities, Sienna & Florence and includes 14 muncipalities.
The black rooster (Gallo Nero in Italian) is the symbol of a Chiant years Classico wine, which has to comply with specific rules. It can consist of 100% Sangiovese grape, but it may also be blended with 20% of other grapes from the region. Native varieties that may be used are Canaiolo or Colorino, and in recent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are popular additions.
The best Sangiovese grapes are used to produce Chianti Classico Riserva which requires a minimum maturation off 24 months in oak and minimum of 3 months in the bottle.
In 2014 a new category of Chianti Classico, Chianti Grand Classico Selezione was established. Here the grapes must come exclusively from the winery’s own vineyards; minimum aging requirement of 30 months in wood, including 3 months of bottle aging. The wine is scrutinized and tested by the authorities.
There is more to come…..
Detailed recipes & foodie experiences!