Where’s Gina? Part 5: Il Vicario (a Tuscan cooking class)

One of the best things our group did while we were in Tuscany was take part in a cooking class in nearby Sant’ Andrea. The cooking class was part of Il Vicario farmhouse, which also operates as an agriturismo (www.ilvicario.com).

Our teacher, Fulvio
Our teacher, Fulvio

Owner and host, Fulvio Mecacci, has been conducting cooking classes with his sister, Francha for the last six years. The farmhouse is a charming 14th century building perched on a hillside surrounded by vineyards and walking trails. Fulvio has to be one of the most interesting characters we had the pleasure of meeting during our week. Before he ran the cooking school, he was a deep sea diver in the Indian Ocean off The Maldives. His sister, Francha, was adorable and spoke no English. I happened to speak a few Italian words to her and from then on I became the translator for the group. This proved quite funny, because most of my translating was spent nodding my head saying, “si, si”. I had never taken a cooking class before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that at some point we were going to sit down and eat everything we prepared that day with wine pairings. Yay!

Antipasti time
Antipasti time

On with the cooking! We started with our appetizers (antipasti) which was bruschetta, panzanella salad and pecorino with honey & pine nuts. Not super hard technical things, but when you see a dish done in its homeland, you pick up a few tips. For the bruschetta, the bread was first cut in thick slices (thin slices are called crostini) which were toasted, and then drizzled with olive oil (the beginning of lots of olive oil). We all took part chopping fresh garden tomatoes and garlic. When it came to the fresh basil, Fulvio had us tear the leaves versus chopping it. “This prevents the herb from browning,” he explained. We learned that the Italians are obsessed with keeping things bright and fresh.

Kenny mixing Panzanella
Kenny mixing Panzanella

Next, Panzanella Salad. There are many interpretations of this dish, but this version has to be the tastiest any of us had ever had. It’s important that you start with very old crusty bread. Like several days old. Fulvio exlained back in the day, people were too poor (and hungry) to be throwing out stale bread, so they found a way to use it. We took the stale bread, and soaked it in a big bowl of water. Then we all took turns squeezing the water out of the bread. Yes, I admit, it’s kind of strange, wet and mealy but keep an open mind. We then added the wet bread crumbs to a mixture of sliced vegetables that included onion, cucumber, tomato, capers, fresh basil (torn by hand of course), salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil. When my husband Kenny did the honor of adding the olive oil, he asked Fulvio how much he should use. Fulvio just said two words, “just start.” He wasn’t kidding. He mentioned that in his house they go through a litre of olive oil a day! That’s serious. We then prepared the pecorino (sheep cheese) slices. The pecorino was young, and softer than the traditional hard-aged cheese we typically eat. Some of the slices had chocolate sauce drizzled on, others (and my personal favorite) had honey, pine-nuts then fresh grated nutmeg. Before sitting down to enjoy the antipasti (with a glass of Verdicchio) we prepared our sauces for our next course: spicy tomato with pici and basil pesto with gnocchi.

Pici with spicy tomato sauce
Pici with spicy tomato sauce

If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that my favorite pasta is “pici”, a very thick spaghetti-like strand. This pasta is made with equal parts semolina flour and regular flour, then a little salt and water to bind. You role it into pencil thick strands, as long in length as you can without breaking them. Our group had a lot of fun trying to see who could make the longest strand. This took some talent, and let’s just say I wasn’t in the running. We then set all of our pici strands aside (sprinkled with a little semolina to keep them from sticking) and began the gnocchi.

Learning gnocchi
Learning gnocchi

Gnocchi, a small potato dumpling, was what our group was most excited to learn how to make. The dough, made from riced potatoes and flour, was kneaded for a few minutes. We each got a portion of the finished dough to work with. We rolled the dough into a thin log, then took a knife and cut them into approximately 1″ pieces. Then we simply took our forefinger, pushed down on the dumpling and rolled it back onto the thumb in a smooth motion. We learned you can make fancy fork patterns on the dumpling if you want, but Fulvio said it’s traditional just to keep them rustic.

Chicken with orange sauce
Chicken with orange sauce

Our last dish was breast of chicken with orange sauce. We sliced the chicken breast into strips, then dredged it in flour. The sauce was simply the juice of two fresh squeezed oranges. The chicken breast was then seared in a pan of olive oil, and once you flip the chicken over, add the fresh orange juice. Let it all cook together for a few more minutes, then serve it sauce and all on a platter. If it seemed like we were eating for hours, we were (not a bad thing). I won’t go into how the food tasted, but let the photos do the talking.

Enjoying our handiwork
Enjoying our handiwork

I will say that there’s nothing more rewarding than enjoying a thoughtfully prepared meal. And if you can enjoy it alfresco, washing it down with Verdicchio and Chianti on a sunny day in Tuscany, even better! Well, the fun didn’t stop there. After our meal, Fulvio served vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine) w/ cantucci (almond biscuits) followed by grappa and espresso. Oh, Italian hospitality, don’t you just love it?

Gina at cooking school
Gina at cooking school

Spending the day at Il Vicario was such a treat. Learning traditional Italian recipes in someone’s home and sharing wine with them was an amazing experience none of us will forget. This concludes my report on Tuscany (for now). I hope you have enjoyed my entries, and I thank you for reading!

Ciao, Gina.

Where’s Gina? Part 4: A Day Trip to Brunello Land

Il Galampio
Il Galampio

We set off early in the morning for our visit to Il Galampio property, where Filippo Fedriani owns and operates Marchesato degli Aleramici winery in Montalcino. Montalcino is a small commune and DOCG wine region known for producing an important wine called Brunello di Montalcino. This wine is made from 100% Sangiovese Grosso clone and must be aged a minimum of 3 years and 4 years for the Riserva. Yum! Who’s thirsty? To get there from San Gimignano, it was going to be an hour and a half journey. So we headed south to Siena, then through Buonconvento and onto Montalcino.

You must see Montalcino if you are in Tuscany. I know, I say that about all the villages here, but seriously, take heed. Famous for its Brunello di Montalcino wine, not only is the region beautiful, but the small hillside village is perched at 1800 feet, offering stunning views of the valleys below. It also has a majestic fortress (c’mon who doesn’t like a fortress?) where my friend Dennis pretended he was “king of the world” for a moment. Once arriving in Montalcino, we followed the signs to Grosseto, past Tavernelle and towards Camigliano. Brunello fans brace yourself, because every couple of minutes you will see names on vineyards belonging to famous producers. On approaching the commune of Camigliano, we took a right turn and began the real fun part of the drive. Il Galampio is located on a long (7km), dusty, gravel road lined with vineyards. When you are as excited as our group was to arrive (we’ve come so far), the windy road seems like it will never end.

Il Galampio is a small secluded property surrounded by vineyards and situated near the Ombrone River and its protected national forest. The first to greet us was Gala, Filippo’s adorable and friendly German Shepherd. As we toured the property grounds, our gracious host Filippo explained the history of the old farmhouse that his father had purchased and remodeled several decades ago. Il Galampio operates as an Agriturismo (vacationing farmhouse) as well as a winery, so guests can enjoy the best of both worlds. We continued to the other side of the property where the winery was located.

Destemming
Destemming

Since this was harvest time, we got to watch as crates of Sangiovese were lifted from the truck and poured into the distemmer. We also got to see the juice being pumped into stainless steel tanks where they were to ferment for a short time before arriving in their resting place: in large (grandi botti) Slavonian oak casks for 4 years to become Marchesato’s Brunello. My group really appreciated being able to see how a small family-operated winery works. Filippo shared with us his philosophy about making wine in Montalcino. How he tries to stay true to the land and make “traditional” Brunello that is elegant and built for ageing. When I asked how the recent hard rain affected the harvest, he said fortunately Il Galampio has its own micro-climate and they only saw a few drops. 

Winemaker Filippo Fedriani
Winemaker Filippo Fedriani

The last part of our tour was spent tasting the Marchesato degli Aleramici 2007 Rosso di Montalcino and the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino. Before we started, Filippo reminded us that when one opens a bottle of Brunello, you must think of what you will be eating with it. He explained that Brunello is not for just sipping, it is meant for food, particularly meat. He recommended pairing Brunello with wild boar, venison or steak. Since we were there early in the day, he prepared a large plate of pecorino cheese, finocchiona salami, prosciutto di parma and…moose sausage! (A gift from his Norwegian friend) The Rosso was superb, made from the same grapes as his Brunello, but aged for a shorter time. It has similar characteristics of a Brunello, but juicier, not as dry and a very good price. Next was the Brunello – dark fruits, spice and tobacco, very complex yet silky smooth. The Brunello was so good, when my aunt (who never drinks) tried it, she said, “sorry, I won’t be sharing this one.” We all knew how she felt. Spending time with Filippo made us all realize the long days, the care and patience that goes into making a good quality wine. We felt very privileged to be here: drinking a Brunello, on the property from which it was yielded, along side the farmer who labored to produce it, on a gazebo with the bright Tuscan sun all around us. Does it get much better than than that!

Cheers!
Gina

Where’s Gina? Part 3

Winery Tour – Castello di Verrazzano, Chianti Classico
Gina_Tasting room of Verrazzano_Sep 09
The weather has been fantastic here, sunshine and hot. We’ve arrived in Tuscany during harvest, which has been exciting for my group since most of them have never seen a wine region this time of the year. The villa we are staying at is 7km outside of San Gimignano and surrounded by vineyards. Each day we watch the pickers as they move along the hillsides, clipping clusters of Sangiovese, filling up their baskets then the trucks with grapes. The air is filled with the aroma of ripe grapes, something all of us noticed the minute we entered the Tuscan area. Our first of two winery visits this week is located in the Chianti Classico region. It’s a short distance away (45km) but getting to the Classico region is quite the experience. The roads are very twisty, constantly climbing up then spiraling down. Once on the Chianti Highway as its known, the road evens out a little and the drive goes more quickly through charming villages. 

The driveway leading up to Castello di Verrazzano is very dramatic and breathtaking. It is one of the bonuses of travelling this far just to taste vino. We are greeted by Gino Rossi, head of hospitality at Verrazzano and whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting twice before. Gino is very passionate about Verrazzano, the vineyards and Chianti wines. When he spoke to our group about the Chianti region he told us to stop thinking about wine with our heads; but instead to use our eyes, nose, palate and heart. This instantly put the group at ease, knowing we were not just on a tour, but in someone’s home experiencing how they live their life amongst grapes.

Gina_Gardens of Castello di Verrazzano_Sep09The castle of Verrazzano is located in Greve in Chianti which is the northern section of the Chianti Classico region. Originally an Etruscan settlement, then a Roman one and finally becoming the property of the Verrazzano family in the VII century. Giovanni da Verrazzano discovered the bay of New York, so the Verrazzano’s have strong roots in the New World as well. We began our tour with a stroll through the beautiful castle gardens, hoping to get a glimpse of the wild boars that roam on the property (they cure their own meats here). We then toured the original old cellars, which were a maze of dim hallways and cool rooms made out of stone.

Gina_Our light lunch_Verrazzano_Sep09After the tour we were all seated in their beautiful tasting room, to enjoy a light lunch and tasting of fives wines. The order of the wines we tasted were: Verrazzano Rosso, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva and a Supertuscan (Sangiovese/Syrah blend with rich plum and spicey finish). All the wines were delicious, and perfectly paired with the prosciuotto, mortadella and pecorino cheese we had. Our table was split between the Chianti Classico Riserva (aged 2 years and only produced in ideal vintages) and the Supertuscan as their favorites. We finished the tasting with cantucci (almond biscuits) and Vin Santo…It was an amazing lunch and tasting! I highly recommend a tour at Verrazzano if you get to the Chianti region. The wines are very good quality for the money, the people friendly and the food with the view is just stunning. (You can purchase Verrazzano wine from Portalis!)

Ciao for now,
Gina

Where’s Gina? Part 2

San Gimignano, a walking tour
Many of you know that Gina’s in Italy right now conducting a practice run for her upcoming wine tour business which she plans to begin next year.  She’s reporting back with highlights of her trip so far …
Gina_Tuscany_G&K_Sep 09
Our first full day in San Gimignano included a nice walking tour of the medieval city. We were to meet our walking guide Gianni Stanghellini (www.walkabouttuscany.com) in the heart of San Gimignano at the Piazza della Cisterna at 11am. The walking tour was in two different parts, the first being a stroll through the city’s winding streets to learn of its history and importance at the height of its power. Then we would break for lunch at one of Gianni’s favorite eateries before heading outside the city walls along vineyards and quiet back roads. Sounded pleasant enough. When I called Gianni to confirm our tour, he was concerned the hike might be a little strenuous for some, and mentioned they could opt out after lunch or get a taxi along the path. This should have been a sign for us, but we all felt pretty fit and ready for a sun-drenched walk.

I recommend hiking up to the high point of San Gimignano for the panoramic view from La Rocca di Montestaffoli e Mura (fortress). On our way to the best viewpoint from the fort, we walked through a small olive grove, then a narrow, steep, stone staircase that opens up on to a platform. This was the place where the guards could spot their enemy and be best prepared to defend their city. For our group, it was a breathtaking view of the Elsa Valley and its endless hills. Gianni mentioned that San Gimignano was an important city with a flourishing economy in the Middle Ages. They were able to trade with neighboring cities thanks to the pilgrimage road called “Via Francigena” (which we were about to walk part of) that connected the city to Pisa and Siena.

We had one of the most amazing lunches at a small osteria called Locandi di Sant’ Agostino in Piazza Sant’ Agostino. Our table enjoyed a fresh fruit plate of melons, apples and apricots; panzanella salad, bruschetta and pici with wild boar sauce. Pici is a thick spaghetti-like pasta available only in a small part of Tuscany. It is the dish I miss and crave most when I’m in Seattle. We washed all this amazing food down with the local white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which is one of Tuscany’s oldest and most noble grapes.  Some versions of Vernaccia (Tradizionale) are macerated for long lengths of time with its skin to draw out the most out of the grape. It can be full-bodied with a floral bouquet, but our bottle today was crisp, with light acidity and flavors of lemon rind and almonds (this style is Fiore).

If we had known what was ahead of us on part two of our walk, we might have re-considered the wine and amount of food we consumed at lunch (maybe we should have had more wine). I’m going to now refer to our “walk” as a hike, because it better describes our experience. We entered the hike on the Via Francigena, a dirt road that runs the perimeter of the hilly city walls. On this path were many vineyards and farmhouses with vistas of the valley. We were all giddy and in awe of the beauty, snapping pictures every few feet. “Oh no, now this is the best view of the town,” we would exclaim around each bend. Gianni visited with us answering questions about Italian culture, customs and history. For example bruschetta is pronounced “broo-ske-tah” never broosheta, also that the whole bread and olive oil dipping thing is American, and Italians only have bread with vegetables and meat and they never butter the bread. That would explain the looks whenever my brother-in-law asked for the customary treat before our meal (where’s the bread & olio? he would always wonder).

After the first couple of kilometers, the hike soon became more grueling, especially with the 90 plus degree weather we were in. Flat dirt roads became uphill climbs and steep rocky descents with the Tuscan sun showing no mercy. Our main comfort was knowing that we were walking the same path as the ancient Etruscans and it sure beat our daily grind back home. We were not only loving the abuse, but we paid for it! Like Venice, I cannot explain in words the beauty we shared along our hike. In my 5 trips to Tuscany I was now seeing a whole different side of this province, and the whole group felt the same way. We struggled through the last hill, pushing ourselves up to the city walls to Porto San Giovanni gate, our final destination. We cheered each other on through sweat drenched clothes and panting gasps of air. What an amazing experience that was worth every step. We said our goodbyes to our wonderful guide Gianni and as we parted ways we promised him if he ever makes it to Seattle, we would treat him to a nice leisure hike up Mount Rainer. (Gianni resides in Siena, with over 10 years experience as a walking tour guide. He holds a PhD in Geology and teaches young kids about the environment in the off season).

More soon …
Gina

When I emailed Gina to see how their day ended, I got:
“We had arranged for an Italian cook to come to the Villa to do a 4 course for us. We were all so tired though, and still full from lunch, the dinner was a real blur. Except we had the best tiramisu of our lives. It was more like a merange/custard texture that had no shape on our plate, then dusted with high quality cacao. We all agreed it will be hard to go back to the traditional tiramisu we are accustomed to.”