Ummm….. yeah. It really is. I keep saying this but it reminds me a lot of Sonoma in that you’ve got rolling green hills covered in fields of green, olive groves, or vineyards, only the scale here seems much bigger. The roads are longer and have more turns, the hills are higher and the valleys are larger. Also the buildings date back frequently to the 1300s. As far as I know only two houses on our block in Santa Rosa LOOK like they’re that old, and those owners keep promising to repaint once they get their pickup trucks running.
We’re staying in a farmhouse that has been renovated over the last 6 or 7 years into an agroturismo stop. It is stunningly true to the Tuscan spirit without being cloying. They have a garden and about 75 acres that is half planted with vineyards and the other half with olive trees. Our view looking out of our room is gorgeous
Let me say what I’ve said over and over to Karen since our trip started. This is definitely the best time of year to be here. There are almost no tourists around, whereas in summer places like Florence, Umbria, and Tuscany are absolutely overrun by them. When we have gone into restaurants on our own or with groups there are very few other customers. In the high season every restaurant requires a reservation. Lines are short at museums and except for the Sistine Chapel and the Pope’s Playhouse the crowds are not at all overwhelming.
We have decided to take this week and we’ve joined with a small group of six others and our focus here in Tuscany will be strictly on the wine and food… ok, others are less strict about this than I, but they shall be punished when their credit card bills arrive. The day before we went up to a small town to devote our selves to understanding the cult of the truffle. This is one of the two prime truffle areas in the world (the other being Piedmont in the north) and they treat the truffle as the gastronomic equivalent of Panama Red. The truffles are only available at certain times and there are two types: black and white. The blacks are great but they are more common and the real prizes are the white ones. They are rare, have a better more subtle taste and require a large line of credit to buy. Recently a large white truffle was auctioned off to a Chinese real estate investor for $160,000. It weighed 3.3 lbs. and yes it is perishable. The thing about the truffles is its not just how they taste, its also about their aroma. I can’t and wont try to describe it but you’ll have to trust me, it is extraordinary. Because of the cost it is only shaved onto dishes, yet these tiny portions change your food entirely and help you to see angels, saints, Sophia Loren and the occasional Alfa Romeo dancing before your head. Anyway, we headed up across the valley to a town that was in the last of a two weekend Truffle Fair. I didn’t know exactly what to think about this kind of fair. Would there be truffle clowns? A truffle merry-go-round for the children with giant tuber/mushrooms for them to ride around in circles on? Well we started by going to the newly opened Truffle Museum. Here’s my advice, this maybe the world’s least useful museum. I thought it would be like other natural history museums with dioramas with exhibits like “When Truffles Ruled the World” and showing them battling with dinosaurs. They had a couple of posters, a smell-a-thon machine and then it was time to leave. Actually, may be this is the best tuber museum going. The Truffle fair did feature some medieval cross-bow hunters giving demonstrations.
This was great because I was able to hone my cross-bow skills (watch out Napoleon Dynamite) and will go well with the pouring-hot-oil-out-the-castle-wall-slits that I had perfected when we stayed in the castle. If I keep this up (and wait about 250 years) I’ll soon become a renaissance man. In any case if there’s one thing you can say about crossbows it is that kids love to watch them. Here they are all lined up on a wall watching the crossbow dudes.
At the truffle fair the main thing you do is eat. Our lunch started with plates of truffle infused local salamis, pecorino cheese with truffles and honey, and toast with olive oil and white truffle shavings. Then on to a simple pasta of butter, olive oil, and white truffles. Then a dessert of riccotta cheese followed by what is known as cafe correcto. This is espresso with truffle infused grappa. The only word I could use to describe this drink is “startling.” Briefly after sipping this I saw Jimi Hendrix playing Ave Maria while Nureyev danced in the background. The Fabulous Miss K needed Ventolin.
The next morning we began with a wine-tasting. We headed out to the winery that makes the four wines from the grapes grown by our hosts here at the farmhouse. This included four other wines by another winery, with an extra white wine thrown in. Yes, it’s true we had tried 9 different wine between 10:30 and noon. We received the pitch as to why their wines were the best in the world, which may be true. We discovered they had a low opinion of California wines. But overall it was fascinating. We all decided to skip lunch and just go straight into rehab. After our 20 minutes in rehab we decided it was time to have lunch again. So we drove up another mountainside to a well known resturant. Before I describe the lunch I just want to give a tip to future travelers. If you’re going drink nine wines in the morning, you should probably avoid extremely windy mountain roads for the next day, instead of packing a van with 8 others and pretending you’re riding the tea cups at Disneyland. We finally arrived at the next restaurant again high on a hilltop.
We were offered two more wines (which really helped to smooth out the windy roads we’d just ridden) along with cured beef and cheese, barley risotto (which I didn’t even know existed until that very moment), and a choice of stewed hare or beef cheeks. I was hoping for some hare cheeks but they weren’t available that day. Of course it was followed by an aperitif.
We headed back to the farmhouse totally satiated, although after 12 minutes half the group started to get the shakes. After an hours rest we headed out to an organic farm where they raised sheep and goats and made raw pecorino cheese. It was an interesting collective founded and run by a swiss gentleman and his family. While we were there a new goat was born. Then we went inside for pizza and some select wines from their farm. I believe it all must have tasted excellent. I wonder what I’ll be drinking next?