Monday, June 23, 2008

Tuscany - Through Its Wine and Food - Part Four

Ah, bella Tuscany! I count myself fortunate to take a group of people to Italy and share with them the Italy that I know, in the same way that I have come to know it - through its wine and food. Yes, indeed, I LOVE doing that. I feel that through wine and food, one can understand a culture. It is not the only way, but it is one way. I like that old saying - "a way to a man's heart is through his stomach." I believe it is also be true for women. When I see the look on people's faces when they taste something that is quintessentially Italian, or a flavor that we do not have at home, you see this look of "Ah Ha!" or "Wow!" Then when one tastes the local wine with the local food and has spent time with the locals, all the elements start to come together and one's understanding of the culture bloom on many different levels. But enough of philosophy.

My most recent Tuscany tour began in Florence, where after a welcome dinner, we departed the following morning for Montepulciano, in southern Tuscany. Our first stop was to the spectacular Avignonesi winery. Our VIP tour was lead by the lovely and elegant Signora Fulvo, the owner, who led us down into the ancient barrel caves,

then into their Vin Santaio, where there very special Vin Santo is made, or should I say where it rests and makes itself. The mother for their Vin Santo is centuries old, and they treat their aging wine like gold, as they should. These little half bottles of very precious liquid sell for over 100 euros a bottle and fetch perfect scores, yes 100 points, from top wine magazines. Amazing. Here is a shot of a barrel of Vin Santo:

We also visited the stunningly beautiful property of Vignamaggio in Greve. Vignamaggio is the ancestral home of the Monna Lisa - yes, there really was a Monna Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci painted at this property on several occasions. Because of its beauty and views, I understand why. With their delicious array of Chianti Classicos and Super Tuscans, we were served a typically delicious lunch.

After lunch, we walked around their immaculate gardens where "Much Ado About Nothing" was filmed. Leaving was the difficult part. "Celebrating the Harvest" (my title). One of the many garden sculptures at Vignamaggio.

One of the highlights of the trip was a day of cooking lessons at Badia a Coltibuono winery, the home of Lorenza di Medici and her family. She founded the famous cooking school and now her son runs it, deftly teaching typical Tuscan dishes with a great sense of humor. Everyone loved it so much that after the long lunch with dessert, dessert wines, grappa and coffee, I had a hard time getting everyone on the bus!

My group, firmly planted, not moving from the comfort of Coltibuono.

Some of Coltibuono's cellar collection.

Some of the many bottles enjoyed at tastings and at meals.

We started our Montalcino tour at Poggio Antico winery, owned by the talented and lovely Paola Gloder. Her Brunellos are always elegant, stunning and top-rated. The winery and grounds are extraordinarily situated and beautiful. And by the way, there is a fantastic restaurant at this winery if you are ever in Montalcino.
Next stop was Costanti winery, ancestral home of a long line of Counts. Yes, Conti Andrea Costanti gave us the royal treatment. Don't let his title deceive you, he is one of the most accessible, gracious, generous and sweet human beings. He is devoted to making small amounts of some of the best Brunellos coming out of Montalcino. They are worth seeking out! He spoiled us with giving us a magnum of 1999 Brunello to have over lunch. That was one of the best bottles of wine we had on the whole trip!

Our last winery tour was in Chianti Colli Fiorentini, close to Florence, at Le Sorgenti. The make elegant Chiantis as well as some powerful Super Tuscans. The winemakers cooked us lunch in this gorgeously painted room.
In between all this wine tasting and fine dining, we had time to tour Florence, Siena, San Gimignano and Volterra. This was a tremendous group of people, all genuinely interested, kind, easy-going and responsible. The tour could not have been better. We celebrated its success with a fabulous meal our last night in Florence. At Il Latini, known for their roasted meats, we not only ate like kings, but drank like them as well. The staff treated us great and stuffed us like pigs! Most of us took a late walk around Florence that night to help digest what we ate.

I invite you all to come on one of my tours. I will be posting two 2009 trips on my website in the next month or so. Hop on over there and sign up on my email list if you want to receive more information when I have it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

So Many Reasons to Celebrate!

Happy Father's Day to the Best Dad in the World!

My husband and I (and our dog Ruby) drove up to Santa Barbara to celebrate Father's Day with my dad. This morning we had breakfast in a cafe' right on the beach - and how glorious it was! I happen to love the fog and cool weather, and that is what we had, but it was the company that was the best. To be able to take my dad out, and have my husband there as well, was a real treat.

The second reason to celebrate is that this is my 100th post and my blog is one year old today!
I wish I had so much more time to post more - more pictures, more stories, more photos, more recipes. Alas, life is a balancing act, isn't it? I am so grateful for this outlet and the wonderful readers who find there way here, and especially those that keep coming back. You make me feel heard and validated. Does that make sense? Thank you!!!
There are many more reasons to celebrate, like:
Being alive
Having a wonderful husband
Having a sweet, smart dog
Having a roof over our heads and food in our bellies
Not living in a war zone
Being blessed with wonderful friends and family
Having good health
...I could go on and on!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tuscany - Through Its Wine and Food - Part Three


I count myself very fortunate to have met the lovely Erin of The Olive Notes while I was in Florence. We met at a hip wine bar called Sei Divino (or "You Are Divine" - but it can also means something like "You Are Of Wine" if it was written like this: Sei di Vino.) Erin has a delightfully bubbly personality and is full of knowledge of Florence. She gave me lots of tips for my short visit there and even escorted me to a palazzo that evening that was open for a poetry reading. Her blog has followed she and her husband's year in Florence and is full of lots of travel tips for many parts of Italy. They just moved back to Florida where they are adjusting back to the American way of life. I can tell Erin has the enthusiasm and lust for life that will lead her many interesting places.

Here we are. And she is as lovely inside as out!

Here are a couple more of my favorite sights in Florence:

Monday, June 9, 2008

Tuscany - Through Its Wine and Food - Part Two

Upon arriving in Florence, before the beginning of my tour, I had the great pleasure to meet up with the author, chef and photographer, Ilva, of Lucullian Delights. Her blog was one of the first blogs I was drawn to and have continued to be a daily reader of her beautiful posts. If you haven't seen her site, you must! Her photography shows that she has a very keen eye, her recipes are truly original and inspiring, and her personal notes either leave me giggling or crying, as she has this straightforward honesty about her that I so appreciate.

We met in front of the Santa Maria Novella church, and I had no problem spotting her through the crowd. My Swedish aunt insists that in each country, people have a distinct walk. Many times she has shown me the difference between a Swedish walk and a Danish walk. I have no idea if this theory would hold up under scientific testing, but when I saw the Swedish Ilva walking, I new immediately it was her. Maybe it was instinct.

I instantly felt like I had found a long, lost and very delightful friend. She has a bright mind with a natural curiosity about everything. Our conversation covered so many topics, from illuminated texts to food to Alzheimer's. (We have both lost parents to that disease.)

We strolled through Florence, spending quite a bit of time in the San Lorenzo market - the great food hall. It was a feast for the eyes and senses. I was drooling over the products that are available there that we cannot get in the U.S., like these lovely porcinis:

...and capretto, or goat (tail and all!):

...and wild strawberries:
Of course there are some items I could certainly live without, like all parts of the cow and pig that I couldn't imagine eating! (No pictures necessary here.)

Ilva took me to a quiet lunch spot above the crowds with this incredible view:

I took a couple of photos of Ilva, but somehow I think the one of her behind the camera captures her spirit (and I think she is a bit shy of showing her face.)

Thanks Ilva for a great afternoon, and I look forward to our next meeting!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Tuscany - Through Its Wine and Food - Part One

I've just returned from two and a half fabulous weeks in Italy, one week of which I was leading a wine and food tour through Tuscany. I had a ball! I was fortunate enough to have an incredible group of guests. I couldn't have asked for a better collection of people; everyone was easy-going and got along tremendously. We had six days of visiting wineries, beautiful towns and eating well (sometimes too well!) There is no way I can post all the pictures I took, or go into enough detail, but instead will do an entry for each day, including the free days I had before and after the tour. If you are interested in seeing our itinerary, you can visit my Passionate Palate Tours website for the details.

My next trip planned is for Piedmont in November. If you would like to see more details on that trip, click here.

Upon my arrival to Italy on May 22, I drove from Rome to Todi, Umbria to see my friend Stefania. I have mentioned her before, as she owns a terrific language school in that city. You can read about her classes here. I had a delightful visit, walking around Todi and eating one of the best rabbit dishes I have ever eaten. I will try to recreate it and post the recipe at some point.
The next day we visited some of my friends that own a beautiful agriturismo in San Venanzo, Umbria. (An agristurismo is a country inn/bed and breakfast that must produce some traditional product or raise some agricultural or animal product that is typical to that region. It is one of the many ways Italy protects its regional products.) You can see more details about Colli Verdi here. They had just gotten some samples of their nearly finalized first vintage of wine and wanted me to taste through them and give them my professional opinion. I was telling the honest truth when I told them how impressed I was. These red wines, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, were all impressive, elegant, and balanced. I'll keep everyone posted as to whether they ever make it to the U.S. market. In the meantime, I encourage anyone who wants to get away from it all for a few days, to visit their piece of paradise.From there, I went to Torgiano, Umbria for a visit to Lungarotti winery, their wine museum and their lovely hotel. It was a relaxing and beautiful place to stay, and for you wine-lovers out there, I highly encourage a visit to that museum.
A fountain/sculpture depicting the God Janus, after whom the town is named.
On to Tuscany, where the next stop was the famous and picturesque town of Cortona, made popular by Frances Mayes and her UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN book. It is filled with expats - mostly American and British - but still worth a visit for its beauty. My friend Patrizia lives in the heart of the old town in an incredible, ancient house. She is such an inspiration to me, because in her retirement, she decided to follow her dream of living in Italy and packed her bags and made it happen (not even speaking the language.) Now, she can speak very well, and walking through the streets of Cortona she is greeted by all the locals with a big smile on their face. Everybody loves her! "Basta! Stop taking pictures of me!"
I was lucky enough to be in town for an impressive medieval flag-throwing celebration, a reenactment of some of the festivities that happened about 500 years earlier for an important marriage between two prominent families. From Cortona, I continued north to Montevarchi, where my friend Gia and her husband Beppe live part-time (the other part of the year in Chicago.) They produce very interesting television programs and films, many relating to Italy. Gia and I met 25 years ago, had been college housemates and had not seen each other for 20 years! It was a fun reunion and felt like no time had passed.

The next day I made it to Florence where the tour was starting from the following day. I had time to meet up with two fellow bloggers...stay tuned for the next installment for my visit with them.