Friday, July 16, 2010

Memories of Dining in Tuscany

After Rome, we went to Tuscany to stay at my brother’s villa in Montefienali. This place was incredible in so many ways and is available for rent much of the year. Although I haven’t written about our time in Tuscany much, I did write about a luncheon we had. Here is that story.

Memories of dining in Tuscany

When my fiancĂ© and I discussed our time in Tuscany with our family, I asked Donna what single moment or event stood out beyond all of the rest. She talked about some of the special moments that we experienced such as arriving in Montefienali and discovering the Villa for the first time. She also mentioned when we were visiting Florence and were in the piazza della Signoria, the heavens opened up and the most incredible deluge fell from the sky. We were driven into the Loggia dei Lanzi which must be at least thirty feet deep and yet the wind and rain was so powerful that we were getting wet against the back wall. And then it began to hail. Balls of ice the size of large marbles were bouncing all around us. But I digress…

The one single event that we easily agreed was the crowning moment of our time in Tuscany was the lunch that we had at country osteria called Villa di Sotto near Castelnuovo Beradenga that as we were arriving seemed to be out in a field in the middle of just about nowhere. We had to drive through someone’s front yard and along the side of their house to get to this field first; then down an old dirt road to a group of farm houses that were the restaurant and the residence of the owners. Turns out that it is also a bed and breakfast. Entering the restaurant was like a blast from the past. Stone walls, some plastered, some not. Walls two feet thick. Tile and marble floors lots of heavy woodwork and upstairs where we ate, half the room was floor to ceiling bookcases with different types of wine. Clearly not much had changed here in centuries. Looking out the window I saw olive trees and fields of grapes! I had arrived.

The menu was on a chalk board leaning in the window at the end of the table. The owner, who was also our waiter reminded us of an Italian version of the English comedian ‘Mr. Bean’. Actually, although he looked very much like Bean, his mannerisms were also very similar. It added a whole new dimension to the experience and he gave us excellent service. We were a pretty large group; there was our (extended) family of eight another couple and a family of three that lives up the hill in the Borgo making us a group of thirteen. The wine was on shelves behind us and we began the meal by selecting a few bottles of the house wine which is made from the grapes growing in the fields around complex. An excellent Chainti!

In Italy, many meals begin with plates of antipasto, olive oil and bread. This meal was no different except that the variety and selection of cured meats that were served was superb. The olive oil was also a product of the farm as, I was told, are all vegetables and salad greens that would be served today. Rumor had it that when you ordered it, they would go out and harvest your order. Naturally, the menu on the chalk board was in Italian. Those of us that understood it translated for those that didn’t. In the end, it boiled down to a few special plates that were ordered in quantity. More than a few ordered the local (fat) spaghetti covered with what was described a boar stew sauce. Others ordered risotto with zucchini flowers. Gwynne was in heaven when she tasted the risotto, a smile brightened her face and her eyes shrank to slits as she explained that this was the best risotto that she had ever tasted. Gwynne and Donna had also ordered the most incredible combination of grilled vegetables which I was happy to share with them. At our one end of the table we all decided to have bistecca alla Fiorentina. This is the flagship Tuscan steak made from the region’s Chianina breed of cattle which are prized for their tenderness and flavor. It had been years since I had eaten it and Leonardo assured us that no trip to Tuscany should occur without enjoying this meal. As good as all of the other plates looked and tasted, the steaks were incredible. They served a pile of enormous steaks cut into strips and piled on a large cutting board in the center of group and we all proceeded to dig in. Leonardo had ordered wild boar steaks in a berry sauce and potatoes ‘al forno’ which he shared with those around him (he really didn’t have a choice). This was a group that understood the concept of fine dining Italian style. What a meal, loud boisterous conversation, fine conversations, family all around, everyone eating off of everyone else’s plates, fresh from the field country salads…and then for desert, at Leonardo’s request (he called in advance) they had baked two ricotta and hazelnut pies for us that were out of this world! Naturally, espressos all around were in order with this delectable pastry. What a meal!