Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!

I have so many posts still in draft that I can't wait to share, but wanted to check in and wish you a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year!

Hope everyone is enjoying great food and good times with family and friends. Tom and I are staying in Chicago and are having a wonderful time with my Parents for the short time they are here!  Lots of good food and relaxing are on the agenda. 



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

{Vacation Recap} Day Trip to Tuscany!

So I knew we were cramming a lot in during our short time in Italy, and we realized there wasn't nearly enough time allotted for Florence, yet how could we find ourselves this close to wine country and not check out Tuscany?

A separate stay in another location was out of the question, so we began to look into a day tour that would keep things easy, yet still give us a taste of what it had to offer.  After narrowing things down, we decided on a Tuscan Wine Tour 

The reviews on Trip Advisor were extremely promising, but to be honest, I was a bit nervous.  Would we be surrounded by obnoxious tourists?  Would we feel like cattle being herded from one location to the next?  Would it be a watered down "Americanized" tour of Italian wine country?  

We would be committing to a solid 8 hours, so if any of these thoughts became reality, we would be stuck.

The price was extremely reasonable considering it included two wineries, lunch and a visit to a small Tuscan town (Greve).  Additionally, they would pick us up in Florence and drop us back off, which meant we wouldn't need to worry about transportation.  In the end, we realized this was our best bet and signed up for the Chianti Food & Wine Tour!

I don't recall what this means, but I remember liking it...anyone care to translate (*cough Aaron *cough)?

As we got closer to the date we began to eye the weather and saw that it was calling for extreme rain and possible flooding in Tuscany the day of our tour.  I thought about calling and seeing if we could perhaps go the next day instead, but when I realized we were committed rain or shine ("wine tastes good no matter what" the confirmation stated...ha #truth), we stuck with our plans.

The morning of, we kept our fingers crossed and enjoyed the walk along the outskirts of Florence to our pick up location (a beautiful tower).   By the way, I felt silly for not knowing this, but we had no idea Florence had city walls. They are so beautiful!

We arrived at Piazza Guiseppe Poggi (the Tower of  San Niccolo) and met Kim, a Sommelier and our guide for the day (already off to a good start...this company hires legit peeps!),  as well as the 3 other couples we would be spending our day with.  I was so relived to see that the group was small and that everyone got on with each other easily.  No obnoxious people at all (although, I guess WE could have potentially been perceived as the obnoxious couple, hehe)!  Also, I was reminded again how small the world is when I found out that one of the couples - a really fun pair of ladies - were from Amherst, MA, which is super close to Hadley.  Once I asked them if they were familiar with the "asparagus capital of the world" and they actually knew what I was referring to, we bonded fast. Also a good sign?  One of them had taken this exact tour before and was back to do it again.

After briefing us a bit about the areas we would be visiting, we climbed into the vehicle and got on our way!  Kim made great use of our commute and filled us in on the history of Chianti as well as telling us about the places we were about to see.

Some of you might be familiar with the huge jugs of table wine which was served in restaurants a long time ago. Oftentimes, it was Chianti and received a really bad rap. After California wine country become popular decades ago, this region apparently re-evaluated what they were doing and upped their game. The Chiantis which snobs used to turn their nose up to are long gone, but unfortunatly the stigma remains.  Now, they are working to change their image.  A similar scenario went down with some of the bourbon brands as Tom and I learned last year, so this wasn't as surprising as it might have once been.

We also gleaned some information about Kim throughout the day and she is definitely a contender for the Dosequis award aka "the most interesting woman in the world".

100% Dutch and born in the Netherlands, she grew up in the Suburbs of Chicago (could the world get any smaller?!).  After a stint in the Peace Corps and work with the United Nations (or maybe it was Doctors without Borders...)?, she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a  Sommelier and moved to Tuscany to learn. She fell in love with a Florentine chef (I imagine that would be easy to do!)  and is now firmly settled in Italy.  Her life would make an incredible movie or book.

 I like to imagine it being full of delicious Italian wine and food 24/7...

Interestingly, the first winery we visited, Corzano e Paterno  was partly owned by a Swedish family who bought the place back in the 60's (take everything I am saying with a grain of salt, I was drinking vino for 8 hours after all but "generally" my facts are straight).  They now specialize in not only making beautiful wine, but in producing amazing olive oil and of course, Cheese (omg, their cheese...).  If fact, Kim went on to explain that it is considered to be some of the best cheese available in all of Italy, and after tasting it, I am a believer.  They have a farm as well, that produces the milk used for the cheese which I wouldn't mind visiting).

We immediately headed into the vineyard which was fun.  Kim spent a lot of time talking about their crops and what it takes to get to harvest (among other things...I might have been walking around taking pictures and eating grapes!).  Apparently 2014 will go down as a bad season for Tuscan wines.  There was a lot of crazy rain and it negatively affected output.

They allowed us to sample the grapes right off of the vine which was a treat in and of itself, and I'm happy to report that they were as delicious as they were beautiful.

It was also incredibly cool to see the harvest in action. For all of the times we've been to California wine country, we've actually never visited in September (it's a more expensive time to visit and we are always looking to save a buck).  I wish I could claim that I knew it was harvest time in Tuscany and that's why we decided to go when we did, but I didn't.  We plain just lucked out.

She proceeded to take us through almost every part of the winery - from where they age the wine to the bottling area.

She certainly knew her way around and was extremely knowledgeable.  I even went so far to ask her "did you ever work at this vineyard?" (because literally, she took us everywhere! the answer is no...she has just visited often and loves it).  

She pointed out that Da Vinci designed this contraption which cleverly indicated the fullness of the barrels using a couple of beakers and water. What didn't this guy invent?

Apparently, the people who were responsible for cleaning the massive barrels below often died from the alcohol fumes.  The openings are extremely small and once they stuffed themselves through, not much fresh air got in.  Nowadays they limit these cleaning sessions to no more than 20 minutes at a time. So you know, don't just go sticking your head in wine barrels's dangerous stuff!

It was especially interesting learning about the DOCG labeling. I've seen those labels before but never knew what they meant.

source unknown

If you see the DOCG label on a bottle, it means the wine-makers followed the strictest Italian regulations possible in producing the wine.  The regulations cover everything from the variety of grapes used to the method of production, and of course the location.  The government actually regulates this and constantly tastes and analyzes the wines throughout production (umm...sign me up).  If there is any change from sample to sample, they are at risk for losing their status. Only a handful of wines qualify for this designation.

Every year, the vineyard must request the DOCG labels and indicate how many they will need for the season.  If they don't order enough or simply don't use them all, the regulators will consider it suspicious and ask a lot of questions.  And based on the stories, you don't want that...

I've noticed those labels before, but had no idea what they meant or how strict the committee is. Because not many wineries in Italy can get this status, and not every wine produced at that winery will even meet these standards, they refer to other wines as "rebel" reds.  While both of the wineries we visited had DOCG status, they also had bottles that did not have the label and were super tasty!

Another interesting fact was that Italy doesn't allow the use of additional sulfates (sometimes found in wine you might purchase in the States)...all of the sulfates in Italian wine are naturally occurring. As sometimes people blame their vino headaches on artificial sulfates, this was good information indeed!

Finally, it was time to go in and do some tasting...

...but not before taking pics of some of the grounds...apparently they have villas you can rent (good to country part two friends?)

At this point, the clouds were rolling in and we were a bit nervous. Luckily, our tasting was inside!

Pic courtesy of their website:

We experienced several different wines, 2 types of peppery olive oil, and a variety of cheeses.  Kim expertly took us through each taste and pointed out things we most likely would have missed on our own.  Everything we tried was delicious - no guide need to make that assertion :)

Note the 2 bottles with the DOCG labels

I also loved the jams/chutney we tasted along with the cheese and asked if they made those on the premises as well.  Nope!

"I believe a local Monestary makes the chutney...there's a group of monks that are known for that here" Kim explained.  Of course Tuscan Monks would be responsible for this.   Who else?  I mean, this is Tuscany :)  This was yet another moment when I felt like I was in a movie or something.  It was just too damn perfect.

Tom looked at me several points during the tasting and kept saying "this is the best thing we've ever done, I could stay here all day and be happy".  Truer words were never spoken ;)

We also talked about the standards involved in producing olive oil.  In the states, even if you are paying top dollar for a high quality bottle of oil, there's no way to know if its 100% pure olive oil or if it's been cut with a cheaper oil to reduce cost.  There are no standards.  In Italy, that is practically sacrilege.

We also discussed how you shouldn't cook with olive oil.   She talked about smoke points in cooking and how you are better off with butter or lard, and then topping the still warm food with olive oil after you are done.   It preserves the omega3 fatty acids and retains it's anti-inflammatory properties.  This is how Tom and I have been cooking for quite some time, and it was nice to know we were on point as those Italians certainly know food!

We loved everything we tried and decided to buy a case of the white to ship back as well as 2 bottles of olive oil and a bottle of rose.  Last minute, we also bought some of the cheese for us to enjoy back at the flat.  I appreciated that there was no sales pressure.  If anything, she wanted us to hurry up so we could make the next appointment.  Can you blame us for stalling? Why would we want to leave?

I thought this stuffed Kermit knock off was adorable  I have no idea why it was in the shop but made me like it even more

I'll confess, I knew our tour included a stop at a butcher shop and lunch, but didn't look too much further into it.  On they way, she began to fill us in on where we were going and mentioned how she hopped we'd get a chance to meet the "butcher of Panzano" or Dario Cecchini.  There was a huge wine festival taking place that weekend and he had a lot of responsibility there, so she wasn't sure he would be around. This guy comes from a long line of Tuscan butchers who have been doing things the traditional way for 250+ years.

When I realized he was the guy who's been on No Reservations, profiled in the New York Times and is the same butcher Jamie Oliver spends a month "interning" with every Summer, I was in shock (we would later learn that Anthony Bourdain had also visited the first winery so I guess you could say this is an Anthony Bourdain approved tour, hehe).  This is the guy partly responsible for a major food movement occurring in the States stressing the importance of honoring every part of the animal, from snout to tail, as well as ethical practices.  A mini-food celebrity if there ever was one - How cool!

We walked into a super cute red & white stripe shop, Antica Macelleria Checcini and were immediately handed full glasses of wine.  Note to self - always hand wine to people walking into your home, there is no better way to be greeted!

They also had a table set up with delicious finger foods as well as his famous "Italian Butter" which is seasoned and whipped lard. It was amazing. I wish I thought to take pics (guess I was too busy eating)

When I went to put some of this  "butter" on my plate  - without the bread of course -  one of the workers seemed confused.  Once I sputtered out (anytime I needed to speak Italian, I promptly forgot any words I knew)  "Senzo Glutino" she immediately got it, and somehow convinced me to put my plate down (I was very hesitant as you can imagine!).

I was finally able to pick up on the fact that she considered that dish of "butter" contaminated.  She then went behind the counter and put a fresh scoop on my plate that I proceeded to scraf down.

This was extremely nice of her, and I appreciate how thoughtful and concerned she was for my well being. It was amazing.

I found that oftentimes the people in Italy were more protective of me and the gluten thing than I often am for myself.  I am certainly not used to that, and it is yet another reason why Italy is my happy place :)

Finally, we met Dario himself!  He was extremely kind and welcoming and man, what a joyful person! We took a picture and thanked him for the welcome and he gave us one of the biggest hugs and forehead kisses of our lives!

We were then sent to the dining room attached to the store and settled in for our Family style Tuscan supper.

This was another awesome surprise. Between the cheese earlier and the amazing spread we had already enjoyed in his shop, I figured our lunch was complete.

Not yet.  One dish at a time, they proceeded to bring out some of the best food we have ever eaten.

I hear he has other restaurants in the area and after that meal, it is part of my life's mission to visit them all...

Italian Meatballs (no breading and gluten free!) with what I think is a sweet pepper glaze...yum

"Tuna" Salad (surprise! it's pork)

The freshest and best beef tartar you have ever tasted - the crowd favorite ("Italian Sushi" hehe)...poor Kim had to skip since she was preggo

And a classic dish - Rosemary crusted Pork Belly

We also enjoyed dipping fresh vegetables into bowls of olive oil mixed with his special salt blend. In addition, there were potato and other sides available.  However, let's be real, the stars were clearly the dishes above!  I mean, this place isn't on the map for it's sides -gotta prioritize belly space :)

At one point, our group took turns taking pictures of my plate (refilled more than once), haha.  One of the couples kept saying over and over how they love that I clearly love to eat :) I don't know what to say to that except that I feel like if you are in a Tuscan Restaurant and someone like Dario is offering you food, you fill your plate and don't ask questions (look at the dude's plate next to he crazy?!)

We were also offered some grappo at the end of the meal, and I mean, how do you say no to that?

Once again, Tom & I kept turning to each other asking  "is this real life?"  We just couldn't believe this was included in the tour.  Had it only included this stop, it would have been worth it.

Once we were adequately stuffed, it was time to go.

The festival going on looked like so much fun and I hope one day we can come back and take advatage...7 Euros buys you unlimited wine all weekend!  I had never heard of Panzano before but now it's definitely a must for the future.

Our final winery, Renzo Marinaiwas absolutely beautiful. While the first place offered a fabulous vineyard to table experience, this one offered a cozy, intimate feel. I honestly can't say which one I preferred.

It is an organic vineyard that has been organic since the '80s.  Back then, that was unheard of and people made fun of them, but now those same people are trying to learn their techniques! Gotta love that.

Our guide at this vineyward was a delightful lady who kept insisting she didnt know how to speak English very well. She spoke it beautifully and whatever she didn't know, Kim did a great job translating.  We loved her. She was incredibly warm and welcoming and is the 6th generation of her family who has worked for the same vineyard.

She makes bread every week there (this place also grows it's own wheat) and showed us the outdoor oven where she bakes it. I bet it's delicious!

She also mentioned that this time of year, her mom cooks a huge spread for those that are working during harvest time!  I would kill to be there when that food is laid out.  Can you imagine how amazing it is?

Throughout the tour, we were blown away by the history of the place: some of the buildings were built in the 1100s.

They also produce their own oil
We then found ourselves in a beautiful, cozy room where we were to do the tasting.  After the day of eating and drinking we had experienced together, the group was pretty much best friends at that point, ha.

We had a lot of lively conversation (I might have answered some of her questions with a fist pump and a "Florida Staaaaate!" when she called me a "superstar"...but only after someone in the group teased "well, you did go to FSU, right?"  when I first answered incorrectly....challenge, accepted).

We ended the tasting by purchasing a couple of bottles.

The guide also makes her own natural perfume, and I made sure to pick up a bottle of that as well. It smells super clean and fresh and I love wearing it.  Hope it lasts until our next trip to Italy!

We took pics of the grounds and of course,  each other (with a group, you have the luxury of other people trading off on camera duty).

Like the previous vineyard, this place also has guest houses which can be rented. It looked like a beautiful place to stay!

Can you feel "the love"?  :)

I wish I had gotten a picture of this, but we passed the house where Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.  It was done at her family home and I guess both families were in the wine making business.

It was now time to make our way back to Florence.  To break up the ride, we made a stop at a charming Tuscan town where we could stretch our legs and do a little browsing.

Despite our huge lunch, we all seemed to make our way inside a gelato shop!  It ended up being a funny experience, because the old Italian lady behind the counter either didn't like me or perhaps was just done for the day (maybe a combo of both?).  I asked for a sample of one flavor (like others in front of me had done), and she threw up her hands and proceeded to yell at me. Unperturbed, I made my order and we got the hell out of there!

For the record, it was worth it.

We spent the rest of the short time, wondering around and enjoying the quaint town.

At the end of the day, Kim dropped us off (and took us through the Piazzale Michelangelo in the process which was a treat) and we enjoyed another beautiful sunset as we made our way back to our flat.

On our way, we stumbled upon the fake David and - er, um -  other interesting statues at the Piazza della Signoria...

Soon enough, we realized that while we were away, Florence had experienced a crazy storm. There was hail everywhere which looked like piles of snow.  A guy I spoke to in a wine shop later told me that in all of his years in Florence, he has never seen a storm quite like it.

Thankfully, we had remained rain free in Tuscany.  Mother nature definitely worked in our favor that day and we are truly grateful. Had we switched days to take the tour, we most likely would have found ourselves relegated to our flat during our one "free day" in Florence.

After taking a nap (naps are always a good idea after tastings!), we headed out for rooftop drinks at a hotel we had passed earlier.  We were still very full so didn't grab dinner (although their spread for "aperitivo" was certainly tempting) and then called it a night.

This day was certainly one of the highlights of our trip.  It gave us enough of a taste to declare that when we return to Italy, it will need to include a full week in Tuscany.  I can't wait!