Food from the Tuscan Table

Food from the Tuscan Table

Tuscan cuisine is food for the soul; intense fresh flavours from a few choice ingredients which have been freshly picked or pulled from the earth. Unpretentious, seasonal and prepared with passion.

Think lazy, hazy afternoons sipping a glass of ruby-red Chianti Classico and dipping into a platter of fennel infused salami with chunks of fresh focaccia soaked in gleaming pools of translucent extra-virgin olive oil. Black olives and sun-dried tomatoes complete the simple pleasures of a Tuscan table.

View from a Tuscan Table

View from a Tuscan Table

Tuscan food is based on the idea of Cucina Povera or “peasant cooking.” Simple, seasonal meals that can be made in large amounts without costing the earth. Local, homegrown and ‘nostrale’ meaning simply ‘ours.’ Today, I’m glad to say, it’s a trend of choice and not a necessity and we ate some amazing food during our stay in the Tavarnelle commune of Chianti. So, what foods to eat in Tuscany?  Let me whet your appetite…

Ingredients for a Tuscan Meal

Ingredients for a Tuscan Meal

Antipasto

The classic Tuscan appetiser, or starter, is antipasto misto which basically means ‘mixed’ and we tried more than a few of these. Affettati misti is a platter of salami and cured meats; prosciutto, capocollo, and my favourite, finocchiona a pork salami with fennel seeds which give a subtle aniseed taste to the meat. Wedges of strong Pecorino cheese and olives make this the perfect platter.

Tuscan food - Antipasto Misto

Tuscan food – Antipasto Misto

Crostini misti are little rounds of toast spread with a variety of pâté; chicken liver, mushrooms, tomatoes, and sometimes a truffle paste. Fettunta or bruschetta are toasted rounds of bread rubbed with a garlic clove, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse salt. The olives here are hand-picked – bruised olives make for a more acidic olive oil so they’re gently handled. Chopped tomatoes and basil leaves add the national colours to this tasty Tuscan starter. Hungry yet?

Tuscan food - Antipasto Misto

Tuscan food – Antipasto Misto at Fattoria Montecchio

Primi

Primi, or first course, usually consists of a pasta dish and what better way to appreciate this dish than to make it yourself.  We had a pasta-cooking lesson at Podere Torricella in Susan’s recently restored farmhouse with its rustic Tuscan kitchen. 

Our enthusiastic (and patient) chef Wilma showed us, step by step, the art of making delicious tortellini stuffed with spinach and ricotta followed by a rich vegetable stew with ribbons of spaghetti.  Tagliatelle al tartufo is pasta covered in a truffle (tartufo) sauce and definitely gives a plain pasta dish a really special flavour.

Homemade Tortellini parcels

Homemade Tortellini parcels

Ribollita

A thick, hearty vegetable Tuscan soup made with day-old bread and cannelloni beans was a revelation to me and utterly delicious. In fact, I had two helpings!  Meaning “reboiled,” Ribollita’s roots lie deep in Tuscany’s “Cucina Povera” and is a classic comfort food and definitely one I’ll be recreating at home.

Diced vegetables for Ribollita

Diced vegetables for Ribollita

Meats

Another Tuscan dish that was new to me was Wild Boar Stew – very tender and very tasty cooked in a rich tomato sauce.  Many roasted meats are popular in Tuscan cuisine, particularly wild game such as deer, pheasant or wild boar used for the main course, il secondo, or in sauces for pasta – full of depth and flavour.

Vegetables and Salads

There’s a saying in Tuscany, “Fritta è bona anche una ciabatta,” which means even a slipper is good deep-fried.  Not sure I’d agree but deep-frying is a Tuscan cuisine favourite and a great way to enjoy Tuscan vegetables is by ordering verdure fritte miste – deep-fried courgettes and artichokes which are best eaten piping hot.  Bang goes the diet.  The crispest, lightest I’ve ever tasted were at Villa Il Paganello.  Artichokes (carciofi), stuffed courgette flowers and Julienne of courgette and squash fritte were incredibly delicious.    Served with salad, primo sale cheese and ‘Quanta Cura,’ a delicious Tuscan red, it was a perfect meal in a perfect setting.  My idea of heaven actually…

Fritte Misto with Farro salad and Primo Sale cheese

Fritte Misto with Farro salad and Primo Sale cheese

 

View from Villa Il Paganello

View from Villa Il Paganello

The perfect way to finish a Tuscan meal is with Cantucci con Vin Santo.  Sometimes called biscotti,  the small, twice-baked, almond crescents are dunked into the sweet dessert wine Vin Santo to soften and taste absolutely divine.  They’re also pretty good with a cup of coffee.

Cantucci and Vin Santo

Cantucci and Vin Santo

So there you have some of the temptations of a Tuscan plate.  Have you sampled Tuscan cuisine and do you have a favourite dish?  Do share and let me know if I’ve teased your taste buds with this Tuscan cuisine.  Time now for a coffee and a cantucci or two I think….

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Tuscan cuisineFood in Tuscany

Disclosure:  Accommodation, meals and tours were sponsored by the Municipality of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa but all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for the food of Tuscany are most definitely my own. My thanks to all the people of Tavarnelle who helped make the trip so enjoyable.  

 

The Hidden Treasures of Tuscany

The Hidden Treasures of Tuscany

The Chianti region of Tuscany is renowned for its beautiful rolling landscapes, Tuscan cuisine and Chianti Classico wines but the area has some lesser known gems too. So, what else to see in Chianti?  In and around Tavarnelle Val di Pesa you’ll find a treasure trove of art and antiquities secreted away in the ancient churches and abbeys of its hillside hamlets. Artisans master their crafts, astronomers scan the inky skies and quirky little museums await your visit to this little corner of Chianti. Let me tell you about the treasures of Tavarnelle, old and new, waiting to be discovered.

A Misty Tuscan Morning

A Misty Tuscan Morning

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Wine Tasting in Chianti, Tuscany

Wine Tasting in Chianti, Tuscany

It would be wrong to visit Tuscany’s wine region of Chianti in Italy without stopping off at a vineyard or two to sample Chianti Classico, the area’s most famous wine.

During our visit to the Chianti region we visited a variety of wine producers delivering exceptional wines. A brand new state-of-the-art winery, the oldest cellar in the region and a vineyard that’s experimenting with age-old wine production methods.  Join me on a mini tour of Chianti’s best wineries.

Tuscan Vineyard

Tuscan Vineyard

Chianti Classico Regulation Seal

 

Chianti Classico

Chianti Classico, a medium-bodied red wine with cherry and nut undertones, was one of the first to be exported and has been made in Chianti since the thirteenth century. Strict regulations are upheld to be able to display the famous Gallo Nero – the Black Rooster label DOCG. Chianti wine must be made from at least 80% Sangiovese grape – producers can add up to 20% of other grapes to the blend – canaiolo, cabernet sauvignon, or merlot are often used – but the wine must be produced in the Chianti region.

 

 

Antinori Cellars in Bargino

Our first stop was Cantina Antinori in Bargino. The Antinori family have been wine producers in Tuscany since 1385; that’s over 600 years and 26 generations to perfect their craft. Given the history behind Florence’s Antinori family the new cellars and company HQ, which opened in 2013, have an incredibly modern concept but at the same time are rooted in the fertile Tuscan earth in which the Antinori family history has evolved.  The cellars were designed by Archea Associati architectural studio in Florence with the concept that they would have greatest respect for the environment, Tuscan landscape and eventually become invisible and at one with its surroundings.

Built into a hillside, the top of the hill was removed, the building installed and the ‘lid’ of the hill restored leaving minimal impact on the landscape. Once the Sangiovese vines on the slopes mature the building will become completely immersed into the landscape.   We enter the winery from the underground car park via a vast corkscrew staircase and emerge on the cellar’s single curved terrace overlooking spectacular views of the Chianti countryside.

Corkscrew Staircase at Cantina Antinori, Tuscany

Corkscrew Staircase at Cantina Antinori

The minimalistic building is a brownish rust colour to match the hues of the earth and constructed with natural, local materials; terracotta, wood, glass and an alloy of steel and copper. There’s a theme of round cut-out skylights, lines are gentle and simplistic curves mirror the contours of the land.

Terrace at Cantina Antinori

Terrace at Cantina Antinori

The interior is light, airy and spacious; the lobby displays information and pieces of Antinori history and art with a contemporary backdrop.

Cantina Antinori Lobby

Cantina Antinori Lobby

Visitors can see the wine production in each stage, from the vineyard to the bottle, following the phases of fermentation and aging. We move from the lobby to the cellars via a wall which silently parts before us releasing the aroma of oak casks. The hill, and the terracotta tiles which line the cellars keep the temperature stable. We continue along a balcony overlooking pale vaulted cellars and cantilevered tasting rooms. It’s futuristic but at the same time church-like. We see where the grapes are sorted, only the best are selected and the huge stainless steel fermentation vats. Row upon row of Hungarian oak barrels store 300 litres of wine per cask.

Antinori Cellars, TuscanyFermentation Tanks at Cantina Antinori

Our visit finishes on the roof of the cellar in the Rinuccio 1180 restaurant where we devoured a wonderful lunch of local cheeses, salamis, olives and breads with a tasting of three delicious Antinori wines; a white Toscana 2012, Chianti Classico and a Chianti Reserva.

Fattoria di Montecchio Winery

A beautiful 18th century manor house in the oldest part of the Chianti Classico area is home to Fattoria di Montecchio.  Located close to the medieval village of San Donato in Poggio the former hunting lodge is surrounded by an estate of over 273 hectares of land; 30 cultivated as vineyards, 20 set to olive groves and 40 as cropland.  The historical farm complex is solely devoted to production of Chianti Classico DOCG while extra virgin olive oil is produced in the ancient oil mill.

Restaurant at Fattoria di Montecchio

Restaurant at Fattoria di Montecchio

We visited the cellars and on-site kiln where frost-proof Terracotta is made.  Garden ornaments are produced as well as the large terracotta casks.  The estate is currently experimenting with this old method of wine fermentation instead of using oak barrels. It was interesting to note the comparison with Cantina Antinori which was completely lined using terracotta tiles.

tta Fermentation casks at Fattoria di Montecchio

Terracotta Fermentation casks at Fattoria di Montecchio

A light lunch followed of local cheese, salami cured meats and the exquisite home-produced olive oil.  We tasted three delicious wines; a Chianti Classico Riserva, a Chianti Classico and a Rose – Pink Ponentino Tuscano.

Fattoria Montecchio MontageFree wine tasting is possible in the farm shop every day from Monday to Sunday – 10.00am to 7.00pm. Reservations aren’t required.

Badia a Passignano Abbey

The Badia a Passignano Abbey is an ancient monastery dating back possibly as far as 395 AD. It’s on the road running from Greve to San Donato and the surrounding vineyards are owned by the Antinori wine family. There’s a fine dining restaurant, L’Osteria, and an Antinori wine shop near to the entrance of the Abbey.

The hamlet of Badia a Passignano

Badia a Passignano

The Benedictine Monks of Vallombrosa still use the Abbey and allow Antinori to lease the ancient cellars for ageing the Chianti Classico Riserva di Badia a Passignano wine.  Although in the past the abbey played a vital role in Tuscan wine production they don’t allow Antinori to produce wine on the premises.  The ancient cellars of the abbey are in stark contrast to the brand new Antintori Winery in Bargino.

Badia a Passignano Abbey

Badia a Passignano Abbey

We took a tour of the wine cellars and the Abbey itself where Galileo Galilei once taught.  The land around the abbey has been cultivated for winemaking for thousands of years and in 1983 a specimen of “vitis vinifera” dating back more than a thousand years was discovered on the land.

Old Concrete Fermentation Tanks

Disused Concrete Fermentation Tanks

The old concrete fermentation tanks used in the fifties are preserved and interesting to see but are no longer in use.  The grapes cultivated on the land which surrounds the Abbey are all grafted from very old Sangiovese vines; the highest quality grapes are selected to pass through fermentation in modern stainless steel tanks.  The wine is then transferred into Hungarian and French oak barriques for 14 months to age and then refined in the bottle for another year before being sold. The vaulted cellars under the Abbey are constructed of thick stone walls to keep a constant humidity and temperature.

Vaulted Cellar at Badia a Passignano

Vaulted Cellar at Badia a Passignano

Barriques at Badia a Passignano

Over 2000 barriques are stored in the cellars

‘The Tunnel of Love’ below as eloquently described by our guide!

Wine Cellar of Badia a Passignano

The Tunnel of Love

So there you have just a few Chianti wineries and vineyards that we visited during our time in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa in Tuscany.  I’ll be bringing you more posts on the traditional Tuscan food we ate and about the historical art and artisans in the area.

Disclosure:  Accommodation, meals and tours were sponsored by the Municipality of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa but all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for the wines of Tuscany are purely are my own. My thanks to all the people of Tavarnelle who helped make the trip so enjoyable.