A Gastronomic Tour of Tuscany
By Stephen D C Brown
From a conversational Italian language course in Scotland, to the green, golden, lush panoramic landscapes, glorious foods and wines of Tuscany. Stephen Brown, from Kilmarnock, travelled to Tuscany, Italy to experience "A Gastronomic Tour of Tuscany", where he indulged himself in the regions food, wines and landscapes. This is his story.......
Leonie Whitton and David Westby, two professional artists from Cornwall, England run specialist painting, writing and gourmet holidays from their summer home, "Il Collegio" in Northern Tuscany. Il Collegio is situated in the village of Vallico Sotto, a late 16/17th-century hilltop village deep in the heart of the Alpi Apuane. Well off the tourist track, the village once housed a population of 400 - this has now dwindled to 100 but the village still boasts a bar/café, general shop, bakery and wait for it......... a social club.
With my M&S Panama hat religiously and securely packed in my suitcase, I flew direct from Glasgow to Pisa where I was met by David, proudly holding up a 10 x 8 cardboard sign with "Il Collegio" decoratively painted on it. I was the last of the tour party to arrive that day. The brilliant Pisa sunshine welcomed us with open arms as we made our way towards the air-conditioned minibus that was to be our tour bus for the next seven days. David then introduced me to the rest of the tour party (nine in total). It didn't take me long to work out that: (a) I was the only Scottish person on the tour and (b) The average age of the party was seventy!!
It was approximately an hour drive from Pisa to the village, so, we stopped off for lunch at a small seafood restaurant just outside Pisa. They served up the most wonderful, delicate and lightly battered pieces of seafood - prawns, squid, octopus, cod served with lemon wedges and complimented by generous portions of thin French fries, salad and crusty bread - the whole ensemble washed down with copious amounts of red wine. We arrived at Il Collegio around 3 o'clock in the afternoon and after a quick freshen up, we met in the beautiful, ornate, walled back gardens for light refreshments and a tour outline.
We would spend the first four days at Il Collegio and travel out visiting Lucca, Barga, Carrara and Viareggio. For the last three days, we would travel to Volterra staying overnight and finally on to Montalcino where we would spend the final two nights at the three star Il Giglio. Meals throughout the tour would be at selected family run ristorantes, fattorias and Cantinas.
Breakfast and evening meals at Il Collegio during the first four days were taken in the bright, homely and spacey dining room which looked out onto the garden. It was a vibrant room and held a great atmosphere with everyone enthusiastically sharing stories over each meal. Leonnie cooked and served up some excellent local Tuscan dishes that had evolved from a combination of traditional recipes, experimentation and additional advice from nearby neighbours. Ripe , plump, shiny and voluptuous sliced beef tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella slices, each badged with a basil leaf and drizzled with a locally produced extra virgin olive oil. Pan fried chicken and rabbit pieces with summer vegetables deep roasted in olive oil and rosemary- baby carrots, leek, courgette, baby onions, baby potatoes - the beautiful woody aroma of the rosemary blending perfectly with the gorgeous flavours of the "fresh from the garden" vegetables. To complete the gastronomic symphony, home made rum and raisin ice cream balls with white chocolate sticks, a deep velvety rum liqueur in the centre of the ice cream providing a nice warmth to the tummy. The red and white wines which we "quaffed" through each course were from a local trattoria and contained no additives of any kind. They were extremely easy to drink with no adverse effects the morning after. (providing you didn't drink too many glasses!) As always, each meal ended with either espresso, café latte or cappucino with biscuits and fresh fruit.
As we travelled out from Il Collegio, first stop was Lucca, an Etruscan town surrounded by a defensive wall. It is the birthplace of composer Giacomo Puccini and contains some really classy shops, fine restaurants and a very friendly atmosphere. Then onto Barga, a Cathedral town heavily populated with Ayrshire people.
A breathtaking ascent to the "Hermitage of Calomini" followed, a church and restaurant situated high up the mountains. One hundred years ago, legend has it that a young nun was saved from falling over a cliff by one of the priests. This was considered to be a miracle and since that day, the place has been declared blessed. There is a constant running mountain spring just outside the restaurant which is considered to be holy water and is served in the restaurant as mineral water. I filled up an empty plastic mineral water bottle with it and, later that evening, had a Ballantynes whisky and holy water as a nightcap. A truly great blessing indeed.
After visiting the famous marble quarries of Carrara, we headed down the coast to Viareggio. An elegant art deco seaside resort famous for hosting the largest Carnival in Europe. Elaborate, gigantic colourful floats are designed and built by sculptors, cartoonists and engineers in workshops on the outskirts of the town. Then, a seafood lunch of "Cacciuco", Italy's answer to the French "Bouillabaisse". Cacciuco is clear soup containing many different types of seafood and is not for the faint hearted. It was to my advantage that most of the people on the tour were not big eaters, so being the youngest, and most definitely a big eater, I got to sample many different foods that the others couldn't finish.
On day five we left Il Collegio for the last time and made our way to Volterra. On route to Volterra, we stopped off in a field for a picnic lunch. Big boxy hampers appeared bearing fresh crusty bread, Italian creamy butter, plump, wrinkled and glossy black olives, beef tomatoes, onions, salad leaves, boiled quails eggs, numerous cold meats and fat demijohns of red and white wine. After eating, we lay back and relaxed in the warm Tuscan sunshine - heaven indeed! We finally reached Volterra, a medieval town, and visited a Roman Ampitheatre and an Etruscan museum viewing the many excavations. We stayed overnight at the Albergo Nazionale, a small, comfortable hotel where Keats once stayed. Next day, we headed for Siena. The Campo of Siena is a central area where everyone meets to talk, relax, bask in the warm sun and generally just watch the world go by.
When in Siena as they say, so, after some serious shopping and a light lunch of bruscetta with toppings of chicken livers, wild mushroom, creamy tomato and fish, we sat down, relaxed with a monster ice-cream cone and watched the world go by. In the evening, we drove to the walled town of Montalcino. It stands on a promontory, which rises from the golden fields below. It is one of the great centres of Chianti production and it here that the famous "Brunello" wine is made. The best meal of the tour was saved for the last night. Just outside Montalcino, is Fattoria Barbi, a large estate which produces it's own range of wines including the famous Brunello. It also has it's own garden which provides the vegetables, herbs and fruits for it's restaurant. It claims to be one of the best restaurants of the region and this was borne out that night by the meal we enjoyed. "Acciuga con Pesto" - Grilled fresh anchovies in a deep, pungent, basil and garlic pesto sauce. "Zuppa di Farro" - A thick, hearty Tuscan barley and bean soup decorated with shavings of fresh Parmesan and a customary drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. "Cinghiale e funghi in vino" - Wild boar cooked in mushrooms and Brunello wine with a contorni (accompaniment) of green beans, petis-pous, broad beans and potatoes. I had always wanted to try wild boar. It is very similar in texture and flavour to our own Venison - the beautiful deep game flavour a perfect balance to the rich red wine and woody flavoured mushrooms. "Frutta Mascarpone" - Mascarpone, a delightful cream cheese, similar to double cream, with wild strawberries, kiwi fruit and blackberries. The wine chosen for the meal was a Brunello di Montalcino 1994 - this is without doubt, the finest wine I have ever tasted. It was the perfect companion to a most excellent meal.
On the final day, laden with gastronomic souvenirs and happy memories, we drove a leisurely three hours back to Pisa through the wide and varied Tuscan landscapes and then a flight back into Glasgow and a "dreich", wet and windy afternoon welcome. Home sweet home. If you want a holiday, which is wildly different from the seven consecutive Saturday party nights of a week in Benidorm, Magaluf or Tenerife, then try a gastronomic tour of Tuscany - I guarantee you won't be disappointed.