Brunello Aperitivo

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Brunello di Montalcino is a very special wine variety made in the Tuscany region of Italy. It is known the world over as being a very good wine. Our friends Erin and Chris, who lived for a year in Florence, had a bottle that they wanted to share with us. They had fond memories of a night in Florence that they spent with friends savoring a bottle of this wine, and wanted to spend another evening like that with us! So of course we were game and very excited to taste wine from a very different bracket than what we are used to.

Since they were bringing such a nice bottle, I offered to find some tasty morsels to go along with the wine, so we could have a proper Aperitivo – or the Italian version of Happy Hour! If you would like to learn more about Aperitivo, please check out Ms. Adventures in Italy. Sarah has a great passion for Aperitivo and has great tips on how you can have your own – or where to go for the best ones in her hometown of Milano!

I knew this was a special wine, so I enlisted the help of a professional to come up with food ideas to compliment it. With the help of my buddy, Vince DiPiazza (no known relation – though I am sure there is one somehow, not many of us DiPiazza’s in the world) from D’Italia – an online specialty store of food products from Italy, we came up with a menu of aperitivi, or small plates:

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Variety of cheeses of different flavor profiles served with Rosemary Grissini and Garbanzo Crackers

Parmigiano-Reggiano is Italy’s most famous cheese, known as Parmesan in the English language. We know it well as a cheese for grating on top of pasta. However, if you eat it in cubes, it is a whole other experience. The cheese is made from raw cow’s milk, it is then put into a brine bath for 20-25 days to absorb salt, and then aged for 12 months. My favorite part (and Erin’s too) are the little crunchies you get in a good Parmigiano – the crunchies are bits of crystallized salt.

Morbier is a raw cow’s milk cheese from France. It is a Gruyère-like cheese with a vein of ash running through its middle. The two layers of the cheese originally came from two milkings, one in the morning and one in the evening, over it with a protective thin layer of tasteless ash, both to prevent it from both drying out and to keep away the flies. The next day, they would add the leftover curd from the morning milking and production. The result was a two-layered cheese.

Goat Fromage Blanc is from a batch of the pasteurized goat milk cheese that I made recently. I added some basil and a little dried dill – as well as a few sun-dried tomatoes (Vince said they pair well with Brunello) stirred in.

Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar is one of our favorite cheeses, and we decided to add it at the last minute. It never tastes the same from one batch to the next. It is the cheese variety that Cabot used to sell to hunters and truckers…on their way out of town. Chris said it tasted like ham to him, which as a vegetarian, was a weird experience. This cheese is amazing paired with a sweet bread and butter style pickle.

Miscellaneous Treats

Sautéed Mushrooms
Hummus
Assorted Nuts
Assorted Olives
Pickles

Dessert

French Truffles
Chocolate covered mint cremes

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The Tasting :

When Erin and Chris arrived we opened the bottle to give it about 20 minutes to breathe. We decided to do the tasting in two stages, the first without food, and then one with food. We each had a piece of paper and a pen. We spent about 5-10 minutes sniffing and tasting the wine, and individually writing our impressions of both the nose and the taste without sharing.

NOSE:

Erin: cheese – brie, sweet chocolate, metal
Chris: robust, dank – wet wood or earth, finishes smoky
Roberto: cherries
Jenn: woody, tannins, blackberry/cherry

TASTE:

Erin: milk chocolate, cheddar, old smoke – like what your clothes smell like after a BBQ or fire
Chris: pungent, truffles, finishes with citrus (mild burn, fruity end) and something like ginger, but not quite ginger
Roberto: old fermenting cherries, blueberry and ends with citrus
Jenn: black pepper, herbal/smoky, cherry

After we shared our observations, we found it interesting that both the guys had noticed a citrus end, while the ladies had both noticed a smoky taste. Is it coincidence, or do males and females taste wine differently?

Once we headed over to the food, and had a second glass with food, we all agreed that the wine tasted much sweeter, and it was at that point that Erin and I noticed a bit of a citrus taste.

It was a really fun night. I can’t say that I have ever really enjoyed wine in this way, and I think it is a really great way to spend the evening with friends. We decided we had so much fun, that we definitely need to do it again, with different wines and food pairings.

Day Trips in Tuscany: Part 3: Siena

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Siena is another Tuscan hillside city that was founded by the Etruscans (just like San Gimignano). It was less than an hour’s drive from the Torraccia di Chuisi and finding parking was very easy. The minute we got out of the car and started exploring, I knew I was going to love it. Isn’t it strange sometimes when you are in a place, and you really like it, for no other reason than a feeling? That was what it was like for me in Siena. I found it to be aesthetically beautiful – cobblestone streets, lots and lots of hills, red shingled rooftops and a most majestic Gothic cathedral.

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As we were wandering around Siena we were wondering why there were so many statues of Lupa, the Roman she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. This is the story behind the founding of Rome and is a highly recognizable symbol of Rome. But apparently, according to Wikipedia Siena was named after Senius, son of Remus, who was in turn the brother of Romulus, after whom Rome was named. Mystery solved. But since Siena was not along the major Roman roads and trading routes, it wasn’t really a major player during Roman times. Its prosperity did not come really until the invasion of the Lombards of Northern Europe in the 4th century. When they surrendered to Charlemagne in 774, the Franks then married all the Sienese nobility. This is when Siena became known as a major money lending center. By 1200 the huge cathedral or Duomo was constructed, as well as the Piazza del Campo.

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Siena is probably best known for the Palio, a horse race which take place twice a year, during the summer, on the Campo. The Sienese have kept the medieval tradition of having various Contrade, wards or districts within the city walls. Each ward is represented by an animal and the rivalry between wards really come out during the Palio. I read about the Palio for the first time in the book Too Much Tuscan Sun by Dario Castagno
Since reading the book, and Dario’s descriptions not only about the Palio, but also the history of Siena and other areas of Tuscany, I knew I wanted to visit Siena someday.

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We spent the first part of our visit just wandering around the Campo and taking lots of pictures of the Duomo. This amazing building was perfect fodder for my budding interest in photography. What really struck me about the Duomo was how much detail, art and craftsmanship was involved.

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I was also overwhelmed by the amounts of marble that covered not only the building in stripes, but also the stairs and walkways surrounding it on all sides. You could literally spend a day just taking photos of this one building.

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After this we went in search of a restaurant that Bruno and Grazia had recommended to us. It took us a while to find it, and when we did, we saw that it was closed…on Saturdays…huh. So we just decided to check out some of the back streets to find a restaurant off the beaten path. We came across a cute place, Trattoria Papei that had a nice menu of Tuscan regional cuisine and good prices. So we decided to go for it. The interior was very cute, cozy and warm with brick walls and ceilings, exposed beams and lots of windows to let the beautiful sunshine in. It was cold the day we were in Siena, so cold it even snowed a little. So we were looking again for some warming food. First we ordered a bottle of the house wine…something we learned you just do when in Italy. For food I decided on a Ribollita con Pane – a delicious vegetable and bread stew, swimming in olive oil. The perfect comfort food on a snowy day. I look at the pictures we took of it, and still drool. Roberto loves Scallopini of Veal and so he opted for that – it came with a mound of deliciously sautéed mushrooms. It was an extremely enjoyable lunch full of good wine, food and conversation.

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After lunch, we decided to do what the rest of Siena was doing, and go sit on the Campo and watch the clouds roll by. It was a great thing to do, because even though it was a cold day, the bricks that make up the Campo were nice and warm (maybe it was the wine?), and really helped take away the chill. After some time spent there, we decided we were ready for something sweet. We were both too chilly for gelato (which is crazy, I know) so we decided to head to a pasticceria in search of a nice pastry to have with coffee. We found this GIGANTIC pasticceria, and ordered our goodies. I went for a bignè di crema alla nocciola and Roberto got his favorite Italian pastry of all times, a diplomatico. I also got a macchiato…I love anything hazelnut and so I really enjoyed my hazelnut filled donut. It was a nice sweet end to eating in Siena.

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The rest of the day we spent walking through the many neighborhoods of Siena, taking lots of pictures, because just like San Gimignano, it was impossible to get a bad shot! We really enjoyed our day in Siena, and it is most certainly a place I would love to spend more time in.

Day Trips in Tuscany: Part 2: Firenze

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Our good friends Erin and Chris over at The Olive Notes spent a year studying Italian in Firenze and so when we found out we were going to be spending some time in Tuscany, I immediately set up a lunch date with Erin, to discuss spending “The Perfect Day in Florence”. Her recommendations were based on having only one day to spend there, which was all we had. If you want to check out a map of her suggestions (with descriptions of the places), you can click here.

We were not able to squeeze in all of her suggestions, unfortunately, but I think it warrants another visit to Florence. Not only because there is so much to do, but because much to our disappointment, we didn’t have the best time there and I think it needs to be re-visited.

Now if you all remember, in the last post Roberto and I were hiking through the Tuscan countryside from Torracia di Chiusi to San Gimignano…and getting very lost and tired. Well the next day was our day in Florence. Florence is a city of art and amazing Renaissance beauty. It is also known for its towering church, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as “The Duomo”, which dominates the skyline. The Duomo is the largest brick dome ever constructed and we figured that with only one day in Florence, the duomo was a high priority of something we shouldn’t miss. So after parking the car on the outskirts of the city, we walked in the direction of the duomo. Well it was a chilly and gray day. Walking from the parking lot, I was taken unawares by the swarms of motorini (crazy Italians on mopeds) driving like bats out of hell through the city. I had prepared myself for dealing with this in once we got to Rome, but I wasn’t ready for it in Florence. So it kind of started my day off on the wrong foot. I am not a big city kind of person by nature – so lots of traffic moving erratically at rapid speed trying to run me down kinda freaked me out.

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However, once we got closer to the Ponte Vecchio things quieted down a notch, and I was able to take my eyes off of oncoming traffic and enjoy the views. Which are quite lovely by the way. So off to the duomo we went.

Santa Maria del Fiore, “The Duomo”

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We stood in the windy line for tickets for only a few minutes. Once inside we were greeted with lots of signs telling us that there are no elevators, and people with heart conditions should not take the tour to the top. We really didn’t pay it much mind, paid our tickets and started to climb the 463 steps to the top of the Dome. No big deal, right? We just did a major hike the day before and we are very active people. Well at first it wasn’t too bad, but the passageway is very tight, dimly lit and the stairwells spiral, so after the first few minutes, I started getting a little dizzy. Luckily there was a little rest area with some beautiful marble statues of various popes not too far up. I was thankful for the rest and figured we had to be at least half way…not too bad. After the little rest, we started up again. The spiral staircase continued and by this point both of our leg muscles were starting to feel taxed – especially since we just had a big hike the day before. At this point the steps began to get steeper. Way steeper. And the oxygen was getting thinner. Well that is what I thought at the time, but later I realized it was my fear of heights that were beginning to take their toll. I am a very earthy person, who prefers feet solidly on the ground, and although I did have a sturdy passageway beneath my feet, my brain knew better.

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At this point we were lead out of the stone passageway, and onto a circular glass enclosed bridge that went around the perimeter of the dome, with the dome above us. This is one of the highlights of the tour – where you can see all the beautiful (and macabre) artwork that covers the interior of the dome. You can also see how far up you are, as you look down to the center nave of the church. Here we took lots of pictures and video.

The interior of the dome is painted vividly with scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy as well as stained glass depicting Mary and Jesus created by the greatest Florentine artists of their times, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno. It is really a sight to behold and very exciting to be so close to such masterpieces, all the while marveling at how difficult and frightening it must have been for the artists to paint them. At this point we thought we must be finished with the tour, since the closer we got to the exit to view the dome, in the stone passageways, there were people going in two directions, those going up to “the top” with us and those coming back down again. But we were surprised to see more, even steeper stairs continuing up. At this point there were handrails on both sides of the stairs to help you the rest of the way up. The last bit was quite a climb. Some people decided then and there they had enough and didn’t go the rest of the way. But I was determined, we had gotten this far, I wanted to go all the way. Once we got to the very top, there was a very short staircase and above it, you could see the sky. So we knew we were close to the top.

Breathing fresh air was a relief. I am not claustrophobic, but that said, I now have a real appreciation for those who are. Once I got all the way out, I became pretty numb as I realized how high we really were. We were at the top of the dome for sure (when looking at the photos of the dome, where we were standing is ABOVE the red brick roof, on the little circle below the small spire a top the dome), with all of Florence laid out before us. The wind was whipping and it really took my breath away. I couldn’t believe how many people were leaning against the very short fence around the edge taking photos. I stayed as close to the inside wall as possible. I managed to go around the whole circle, and take photos, but neither of us really felt like lingering. Except for the fact that we had to face going back through those tight stairwells again…but we managed to get down without incident. When we were finally down on the ground again, looking up to where we once were, it was a so weird. I was thrilled to have been able to experience it all, but would never do it again. In fact, I think I am finished with tall towers in general! ;)

The Lampredotto Incident

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After the nausea subsided we decided we were hungry. Erin had told us about their favorite sandwich shop in Florence, Il Ritrovino dei Servi . She said that she never saw any tourists there and that it is a little tiny place, but really worth it. That sounded good to us! She recommended getting the roasted veggie and brie sandwich, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get, as I was really enjoying all the cured meats I had been enjoying (Erin is a vegetarian). As began to read the menu board I saw they had a Florentine specialty, Lampredotto so I figured in the spirit of being adventurous, I would give it a try. I was in Florence, I should get the full experience. To prepare this speciality, first, a huge soft bun was taken over to a woman in the back who was standing over a simmering pot. She dug into the pot with some tongs and pulled out what looked like shaved meat of some kind. I thought to myself, “good, this is a hot one, it’ll warm me up”. Roberto less adventurous, went for salami. We got the sandwiches to go, as there was nowhere to sit inside and we wanted to take pictures of the food a little more discretely. So we found a nice wall to sit on outside and dug into the bag. I pulled out my sandwich, and took a nice big bite. Roberto was video taping, and so it was funny to look back at my expression. He asked me if I could tell what it was. I said no, but that it was very likely some kind of organ meat. It wasn’t that bad, and so I kept eating. But after about 3 bites, it just got so rich and offaly, that I couldn’t finish it. So I threw it out, and Roberto let me share his unadventurous salami sandwich. I should have gotten the roasted veggie that Erin suggested. Bad me. Later that night when we got back to the Torraccia, I asked Bruno what Lampredotto was, and my suspicions were confirmed, it is a dish made of the fourth stomach and intestine parts of baby calves (not to be confused with tripe, or trippa in Italian). Bummer. I am not a veal person at all for a variety of reasons, but I ended up having a part of a baby cow none the less.

Coffee and Donuts…Italian style

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At this point I was in desperate need to turn this day around. So we headed out to two other places Erin recommended – one for coffee and the other for ciambelle, Italian donuts. If anything was going to do the trick, this was it! First we headed to Chiaroscuro for a special coffee . Now for those of you who have been to Italy and to a coffee bar there, you will know that there are very few choices. Italians enjoy their coffee simple and to the point – no skinny venti hazelnut lattes. This is what makes Chiaroscuro so unique, as they like to create unique coffee creations. So I ordered a Vaniglino which is essentially a vanilla macchiato – no, not like a Starbucks macchiato, an Italian macchiato – where macchiato actually means “stained” because it is just espresso with just a stain, of milk or foam. It was delicious. Just perfect for getting the chill out of our bones, and the taste of Lampredotto out of my mouth.

Next we headed to Cucciolo for hot and fresh ciambelle. Erin said she remembered that they made hot fresh ones at around 4 or 4:30, but when we asked they said no, they had them all the time…so I am not sure if they stopped doing that, or if we weren’t clear. But they did have 3 different varieties – one was a circular piece of fried dough(with a hole in the middle) with sugar on top. The other two were circular with fillings – either chocolate or custardy cream. So Roberto went for chocolate and I went for cream. They were delicious and totally hit the spot.

After our little treat, we headed back to the Ponte Vecchio and strolled around for a bit, taking photos of the river Arno and just enjoying the afternoon sun that decided to finally come out! So it looks like the day turned around after all.

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I want to thank Erin so much for creating this awesome map of Florence and advising us on the best way to spend the day! We certainly did have an adventure in your second home and look forward to exploring some of the other ideas you had someday! For those interested in visiting the places Erin recommends or for more recommendations, please follow this link.

Day Trips in Tuscany: Part One: San Gimignano

Don’t be fooled by the title of this post into thinking that any of these places I will be talking about doing day trips to can be fully explored in just a day, as that is so far from the truth. These are just the places we took day trips to, while we were staying at the beautiful Torraccia di Chuisi.They are mere suggestions for day trips if you are staying in Tuscany and want to explore some of the cities in this region.

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Our first day in Tuscany, we decided to explore the closest town to the Torraccia, San Gimignano. San Gimignano is a small medieval, walled town located in the province of Siena. It is well known for its towers and other medieval architecture. Its history spans back to the time of the Etruscans. During the middle ages it was a well known stopping point for Catholic pilgrims on their way from Canterbury, England to Rome. The pilgrim’s trail is still called Via Francigena and from the Torraccia di Chuisi you can use it to walk to San Gimignano “in less than an hour”. From the Torraccia, San Gimgnano is clearly visible, so we decided to make a day of it. Roberto and I are big fans of hiking and nature, and so we decided to follow the Via Francigena to San Gimignano, giving us a good chance to enjoy the Tuscan countryside.

At first things went pretty well. We were escorted for the first leg of the tour by one of the feline residents of the Torraccia, Leo. After he left us, we followed all the cute little Via Francigena signs, until we got to Montauto.

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I am still not clear what exactly Montauto is. But it a big castle-y looking thing that is midway between the Torraccia and San Gimignano. From there, the dirt trail turns into a paved road. We are still to this day not sure if that paved road is a part of the Via Francigena because at this point we could not find another cute little sign for the life of us. We didn’t think at first that the paved road would be part of the Via Francigena so we tried several other dirt roads to no avail.

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About an hour into the walk, with San Gimignano still looming far off in the distance, we decided to walk back to Montauto and take the paved road, since we knew that at least got you to San Gimignano even if it wasn’t part of the Pilgrim’s Path. Although the hike was much more than we had bargained for, it was a beautiful day.

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We saw many vineyards, farms and other agro-turismo everywhere. No matter which way you turned you were greeted with another view of the beautiful landscape. Granted, this hike was very hilly and so if you are not in fairly good shape, or into hiking, you might just want to take a car. But we were happy to have had the experience we did…as it provided a guilt free opportunity to eat to our heart’s content once we got to San Gimignano!

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Once we got to San Gimignano, we were exhausted. As the paved road was pretty much all up hill, and it was at least a 45 minute walk from Montauto. We had no watches, so we really don’t know how long our hike was in terms of time, but after looking at our trajectory on google maps when we got home, we realized it was about 4 miles – counting the getting lost parts…mostly up hill…so like I said, once we got to San Gimignano, we were hungry. We decided to first take a quick look around, and get the lay of the land before eating. Plus we had several restaurants that we wanted to check out before making a decision.

One of the things I immediately loved about San Gimignano is that it is not very crowded. Even though there were a lot of tourists, there were many streets that were empty, and so it was easy to get a lot of beautiful shots. It was on this day that I really started getting into taking photos. Roberto had our video camera, and so I was in charge of the camera during our trip. I had a great time taking photos in Venice as well. But in San Gimignano, I really got into it. Plus I love Medieval architecture, not to mention that once you are high up in San Gimignano the entire Tuscan countryside is laid out before you . So I was in heaven.

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After taking some photos and exploring restaurant options, we decided on Ristorante Beppone which basically translates to “Big Pepino”. So of course we had to go. It is a bit off the main streets, but once you get inside, you know you have picked a winner. The whole inside looks like a wine cellar – it is like a brick tunnel – super warm and cozy. We were tired and hungry and so we decided to order a “fiasco” of house wine. I asked Roberto what a fiasco was, and he said a small bottle of wine. It was only 5 Euros, so I figured what the heck. Well what they brought out was a regular bottle of Chianti in the basket. But for 5 Euros, even if you don’t finish it, you haven’t lost much.

Beppone is known for its Tuscan specialties and so we were really excited – already being fans of Tuscan cooking. I ordered gnocchi with a truffle cream sauce and Roberto got roasted wild boar. We figured the two dishes would go well together, and did they ever. My gnocchi were extremely tender, and the sauce, full of the flavor and aroma of black truffles. Roberto’s wild boar was incredible, it was in a tomato base, and there was enough olive oil in there that it was literally swimming in it. Delicious. We really enjoyed that meal. The weather was chilly and so after a long walk in the hills, this was the perfect way to warm up.

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After lunch we decided to continue exploring the town on our own, taking lots of pictures and enjoying ourselves. We also were scouting out all the specialty stores. Bruno was going to be away that night at a Tuscan food producers gathering, and even though he would have missed it to cook for us, we didn’t think that was right. Plus we decided it would be fun to have a picnic in our room that night to celebrate our 11 month anniversary which was that day! We had also been told by Grazia that there was an incredible gelateria in the square called Gelato di Piazza. Now even though I know di Piazza means “of the square” and that was the reference in the name, it is still pretty cool to find a gelateria “named after you”. This particular gelateria has won many international awards for it’s gelato, and so we were excited to try it. I went with nocciola (hazelnut) which is my favorite because I figured this was closest to the best nocciola gelato in the world, that I was ever going to get. I also got “santa ….” because I had never heard of it before and wanted to try it (something that usually works in my favor, but really did NOT in Florence…which we will get to in a later post) which had a lemony flavor dotted with pine nuts. Roberto got his classic pistachio and coconut. They really were so excellent. The texture was perfect and the flavors very true to their names.

After gelato, we decided to start getting provisions for the evening. We started with getting some local cheeses – all pecorino – some fresh and some slightly aged. If all you have ever had before is Pecorino Romano, like I have, you will be amazed at how different these fresh pecorinos are. They are not salty and hard, but more like a havarti both in flavor and texture. It made me even more excited than I already am about having sheep and making cheese someday. Then we got several varieties of salami and prosciutto – some made from boar meat and others from regular pigs, as well as some olives and preserved mushrooms and of course chianti produced in San Gimignano. I had also heard somewhere before about Panforte and how it is a Tuscan specialty. So I saw lots of shops selling all kinds of varieties of panforte, and we decided to get some for dessert. We chose chocolate and marzipan flavors. Once we were finished with shopping we both agreed that although it was the wussy way out, we needed to take a cab back to the Torraccia.

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We had a great evening really delighting in our room, eating all these great Tuscan treats and talking about our own future plans for having a farm and enjoying a more rustic lifestyle. We loved being able to buy all local products, much like we did when we were in Vermont and really taste the difference. It is these moments in life that make you think about your priorities in life and really how you want to live it. Being in Tuscany and enjoying all the flavors confirmed for us our desire to live a more sustainable life, where most of the food we either produce or get locally. This is not something that happens overnight, but it is a goal for us that we are looking forward to pursuing in earnest and we have the people of the countryside of Tuscany and their dedication to producing local foods to thank for that reminder.

Tuscany is The Vermont of Italy

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We found ourselves saying this a million times on our trip. Anyone that knows us, even for 5 minutes, knows how much we love the Green Mountain State – all the mountains, the green hills and valleys, the local producers of everything from meat to cheese and from fresh produce to beer, wine and cider. That coupled with the independent spirit of Vermonters and we feel very much at home. Which is why we hope to make it our home one day. But this is not a post about Vermont, this is a post about Toscana…

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(Tuscan view- San Gimignano in the distance)

After our first day in Tuscany, we were finding a lot of similarities to our favorite state. In fact, the similarities are what brought me to Tuscany in the first place. I have been finding myself becoming increasingly interested in the slow food movement, locavore eating, farmers markets, sustainability, gardening, animal husbandry and cheese making and I have been writing about some of this on my blog over the past months (and there will be more on these topics to come). As I am learning more about these things, I am finding that when it comes to vacationing that I like to have an option of staying somewhere that is more in line with this lifestyle and where I might learn a thing or two about my budding interests. In Italy that is Agro-Turismo, a thriving vacation business where Italian farms offer accommodations to tourists and visitors who want to experience a bit of the country life instead of the more common hotels, or even bed and breakfasts. Tuscany is full of such places.

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( The “Torraccia” or tower of Chiusi)

I had a fantastic opportunity to go to Tuscany and visit a gorgeous agro-turismo, Torraccia di Chiusi right outside of the beautiful and medieval village of San Gimignano.

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(Grazia, Bruno, Jenn)

Just reading about the Torraccia on the website got me really excited about this place, especially the part about the food. You see, there is an amazing chef/ cookbook author/ artist at the Torraccia di Chiusi named Bruno, who is on a bit of a slow food adventure himself. Not only is he a master of Tuscan cuisine, but he also likes to dabble in Medieval and Etruscan cuisines, and grappa production. But what I didn’t know until I got to the Torraccia is what a personable and truly generous person Bruno is. Let’s just say we ate dinner at the Torraccia every night of our stay in Tuscany and enjoyed immensely the wonderful after (and during) dinner conversations about farm life, sustainability, sheep, cheese, olive oil, wine and all the good things of a simple life that revolves around living off the land. The Torraccia produce their own wine, olive oil, olives, eggs, grappa and cured meats and plan on adding chickens and perhaps some other meats to that list later this year. We had exceptional meals there.

At this point I will explain about what “dinner” means to Italians. Everyday, for dinner, Italians in every region, and of every age enjoy a large, at least 4 course meal.

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It starts with some kind of antipasto platter or bruschetta, this is sometimes followed by a soup,

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(Ribollita Sienese)

but it is always followed by a pasta course, then a meat or fish course, a salad, then dessert and then either grappa, amaretto, sambuca, or some other after dinner drink.

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(Jenn with Bruno’s homemade grappa)

Dinner is always enjoyed with sparkling (or natural) bottled water and wine.

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(red wine produced right on the farm)

So of course this was no exception at the Torraccia. We enjoyed, seasonal, local and amazing prepared meals. Tuscan cuisine is very rustic.

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(Boar roast with greens)

There is a lot of roasted meats, like wild boar, chicken and pork involved, and there are also lots of warming vegetables, like potatoes and carrots. Soups were hearty and desserts were simple and just enough to top off the meal.

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(Marscapone Cream with Biscotti)

Now remember, when we were visiting it was just on the edge of spring. On one of our last days there it actually snowed. So since the food served is seasonal, this was reflected in the meals we were served. Everything was lovingly prepared by Bruno and whether we were alone, or there were other guests, he went all out each night. Believe me, we had a great time chatting about food together, even though he doesn’t speak English, and my Italian is barely passable – but that is where Roberto’s help really was worth its weight in gold. We had such a great rapport that we are now facebook friends! At the end of our visit I took home with me a bottle of their liquid gold – olive oil produced from their olives and Bruno’s first cookbook. The cookbook is in Italian, but they are working on an English version and trust me, you want it and we are going to work with Bruno and Grazia to give you a chance to get one. All of the delicious dishes we enjoyed at the Torraccia can be found in this cookbook, so we can now enjoy them at home. Yay for us.

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(View from our room)

Now let’s talk about the rest of the experience, now that we have the best part covered. The Torraccia di Chuisi is really and truly out in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, nestled in the fertile hills and surrounded by nothing but farms and vineyards.

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(Raja)

For those that love animals, like I do, they have an amazing dog, a border collie named Raja. She loves to play, and she is an unofficial greeter and tour guide. There are also several cats milling about and ready to go on a hike with you.

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The Torraccia is also home to two donkeys and two Pilgrim Geese. There are also chickens. We didn’t get a good look at them, but they are there laying their beautiful eggs for our breakfast. I must admit that the first time we drove up the steep dirt road that gets you to the Torraccia, I was concerned. See, Italian roads are narrow, this one was dirt, there are no guard rails, and if you veer a little too far to the side, there is nothing to prevent you from falling hundreds of feet. I wasn’t really prepared for this the first go around. But like Bruno assured us at dinner the first night – after you drive it a few times, it is just like a highway! I wouldn’t go that far, but it does get better. And it is well worth it, because the views from the rooms (and we had a rooftop terrace) are magical and awe inspiring. Everywhere you look is a painting of Tuscany, just like you would imagine, and with the fireplaces burning, the air is full of its scent. Truly heaven for those who enjoy relaxation and the little things in life.

If you are looking for some luxury the Torraccia di Chuisi can give you that as well. There is a beautiful spa there, where they offer massages, Turkish baths and various other beauty and relaxation treatments. There is also a beautiful pool and outdoor porch to enjoy in the summer months. Pretty much everything you need.

But the most amazing thing about the place are the people. The owners, Donatella and Stefano are very present, and always offering help and suggestions. We had trouble with our internet connection, and they offered to let us sit in their offices and take care of some business. When we needed to make a quick call, the phone was made available. Then there is Grazia, the hostess, who is very knowledgeable about the surrounding areas and the history of the Torraccia and also is there to offer advice on everything from where to eat and what attractions to see in the surrounding towns. Grazia spent many years living in England, and so when I wanted to take part in conversation, she easily went from Italian to English and back again. Everyone was just so kind and accomodating, and for us, that hospitality is exactly what made this destination so exceptional for us. I really cannot recommend this place highly enough. They just do everything right.

Venezia…Venice…Serenissima

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This beautiful city was historically an independent nation, and during the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was a major maritime power and center of commerce. It was also a major player during the time of the Byzantine Empire, trading extensively with the Muslim world, something still reflected in the city’s astounding and decidedly “moorish” architecture. The City of Lights, which it is often called, is cited as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Having been there, even though briefly, I can vouch for that. It is a labyrinth of canals, cobblestone streets and passageways, surrounded by the Adriatic Sea.

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The skyline is all domes and spires jutting up into the blue sky. Venice is literally built in the water of the lagoons that surround it. Making it a most interesting city in terms of its architecture, culture, and food, as all of these developed based on the city’s geography and status in the world for so many centuries.

We flew into Venice and stayed for just one night. We wanted to at least experience a little of what this mysterious city, shrouded in fog, has to offer. We took a public water taxi, the Vaporetto from the airport to the city. It was the cheapest way to get there, but it also offered us an extensive tour of the outskirts of Venice and the many islands out of the main city, like Murano. We stayed at a tiny hotel close to the Rialto Bridge. It was a great central location for us to explore the city’s main attraction – Piazza San Marco and the main tourist port where all the ferries and gondolas park.

We had taken an evening flight out of New York (after flying there from Orlando) and so by the time we got to Venice, it was about 10 AM local time. We had only gotten maybe 3 or 4 hours of very uncomfortable sleep on the plane, but I guess the adrenaline of being in such a beautiful place kept us going. After checking into the tiny hotel and having a much needed shower, we headed out in search of food. This was to be my first ever meal in Italy, and so we picked a nice outdoor cafe’ in a cute little square we found near our hotel. Since Venice is a seaside city, we both opted for seafood.

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I had an awesome salad with tuna, and Roberto got a mixed seafood plate with an assortment of cold seafood salads.

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Both were fantastic. We enjoyed it with a nice class of local wine and basked in the sunlight of the beautiful day. A good way to start our trip. After lunch we both had gelato on the brain. So we went in search of a place that looked really good. It didn’t take long to find one. Venice (as well as most Italian cities) are full of gelatarias.

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There were a lot of flavors to chose from and many that I had not seen before. So I was asking Roberto if he knew what they were. He didn’t so he asked the girl behind the counter for a taste. Well, apparently you are not allowed to taste gelato in Venice and apparently you are supposed to know this, because after this innocent question, the girl got very impatient with us. She couldn’t get us our gelato fast enough.

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She gave us our change on top of the gelato counter, and when Roberto slid the coins across, one fell through a little crack between the glass and a euro went into the chocolate gelato. This of course made the girl behind the counter really mad, and we just dashed out of there! But the gelato was worth it. Mine was full of hazelnuts and chocolate chunks. I am not sure what else was in it, but it was simply divine!

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Next stop – Piazza San Marco – St. Mark’s Square. This is the place to be in Venice. People just go to the piazza to sit and enjoy the sights, feed the many pigeons, watch the people from all over the world and kiss their sweethearts. Dominating the piazza is the Palazzo Ducale di Venezia which is the Doge’s palace, constructed from 1309 to 1424. It is a marvel to behold in person. Such intricate design and details. You could spend literally hours seeing all the parts of this building and looking in awe at this incredible building that was built before modern technology. The craftsmanship and artistry is just unparalleled.

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The piazza is also home to St. Mark’s Basilica and clock tower and from the piazza you have a straight view to the Grand Canal and there are several cafe’s.

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It really is the center of Venetian life, and is a bustling place, full of tourists, street vendors, and flower pushers (different from actual flower vendors), which out of all the people selling things are the most annoying and unfortunately made appearances in every Italian city we went to on our trip.

Wandering around the piazza we saw an advertisement for a Vivaldi concert that night in a little building right off the piazza. They were going to be featuring Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Roberto and I are both huge fans of Vivaldi and his compositions, and since we were in the city of his birth, we decided this was something we needed to do in our lifetime. We got our tickets (which were VERY reasonable) and headed back to the hotel for a quick rest.

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Before the concert we made a stop at Harry’s Bar for a world famous Bellini (which were NOT very reasonable, however, the experience was great) and headed off to the show. It was a wonderful evening, and a great way to spend our one night in Venice.

The next day, we were headed to Tuscany, but not before enjoying a typical Italian morning. Roberto has been telling me about breakfast in Italy for years now – about going to your local bar (what they call cafe’s in Italy) to get a cornetto or tramezzino and an espresso drink of some kind. So we got up fairly early and found a bustling pasticceria full of Venetians on their way to work.

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Roberto gave me instructions, and I ordered myself a cornetto (like a croissant) filled with vanilla pastry cream and a cappuccino…in Italian! I was nervous, but it went fine, and I had an amazing breakfast! Roberto had a nutella filled cornetto and a succo di pera (pear juice). In Italy when you go to a bar for your breakfast, be prepared to stand at the counter and quickly eat your pastry and go. This is not a time for relaxing, people are in a hurry and on their way to work, and space is limited, so scarf it down and get moving!

venice_cafe

If you are still hungry, walk a few more steps and you will likely come to another bar, and you can get something else – this is also a very Italian thing to do, apparently. So that is what we did, we went a few steps down and enjoyed a tramezzino, which is basically a triangle sandwich with a savory filling. We got ham and artichoke heart with a nice smear of mayo. The ham was sliced so thin that it literally melted in your mouth.

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We spent the rest of the little time left we had in Venice walking the streets and taking photos of the canals, bridges and shops before the rest of the tourists got up. It was a wonderful way to see the real Venice and its people.