How does one enter a castle? Through a drawbridge? Over a moat? Via catapult?
After circling the fortified walls of Castello della Sala trying desperately to answer this question, my then-husband Bob and I bravely sent our two adult children up to what appeared to be the most likely choice, a large slatted wooden door that we hoped was the official entry into the castle. They knocked and waited. Bob and I watched. Nothing. They knocked again. Still nothing. Finally my son Rob decided to put a little weight behind his banging and soon enough we saw the feet of what appeared to be “il cane” (the dog) and his mistress under the space between the door and the ground.
Once they determined we weren’t invaders (but invited guests of the winemaker!), we were led into an impressive courtyard filled with potted lemon trees and beautiful white geraniums. As we dutifully followed the mistress through this massive courtyard, the funny looking German shepherd (with blue eyebrows no less) never stopped barking. To him we remained invaders – or at the very least, intruders.
Living in England for 4 years, I had visited many a castle but never had I the honor of staying in one. When esteemed Italian winemaker, Marchese Piero Antinori conducted a wine tasting at Convito in the early 1980s he extended an invitation to me to visit his winery in Umbria. Not only would the visit ultimately include a tour of the estate, but dinner and an overnight stay in his restored 14th century castle. A few years later once the itinerary for our trip was finalized, the whole family looked forward to a modern-day medieval adventure.
It was our first trip to Italy together since I opened Convito. That was almost ten years before – a very intensive and expansive period in my life – and I wanted to share with them some of the places where my ever-growing business began. Son Rob, 22 and daughter Candace, 18 both seemed to have a burgeoning interest in food and wine and since food and wine enthusiasts have been some of the most interesting people I have met over the years – people who also usually have an appreciation for all the arts – I wanted them to feel a part of that community, or at least at home in it.
The castle housekeeper and her lively canine companion escorted us up the stairs through a rustic but grand dining room, a lovely, small salon then down a long hallway to the bedrooms where we would stay for the night. Rob followed, carrying the luggage while simultaneously fending off what our escort described as “playful attacks” of il cane, though the resulting tears in Rob’s t-shirt didn’t seem so playful to me!
Our appointment with the winemaker was delayed, so after unpacking we left for a drive around neighboring Sala. The town – an absolutely minute village consisting of two buildings set across a tiny road from the castle – took about 30 seconds to pass through, so we continued on through the rolling hills and ravines of the surrounding countryside. Umbria is smack dab in the center of Italy, a lush relatively unspoiled region smattered with hilltop villages and ancient historic towns and it provided a beautiful setting for our impromptu Saturday drive.
I had been to this region several times in the early eighties with my partner, Paolo. Our visits were usually weekend trips driving from his apartment in Milan to visit different sections of the region. I came to love what he described to me as the “green heart of Italy;” from gothic austere Gubbio and its amazing pottery, to the winding walkways and beautiful churches of Spoleto, to the abundance of cultural and gastronomical riches in both Orvieto and Assisi. And Umbrian food as Paolo described it with its “clean taste” was so very interesting. – unusual ingredient combinations. “Umbria”, he said, “was the backbone of Italy. It’s food and traditions remained fairly constant because it was a landlocked region and had less contact with the outside world than those regions bordering the sea.” That may have once been true but now the outside world has penetrated everywhere, and Umbria is no longer remote. But at that time I still felt the isolation.
On this particular trip with my family, I was happy to assume Paolo’s role as teacher and guide. I had some big shoes to fill but I would try. Although my kids were fairly well-traveled they had not experienced such an intensely food and wine focused journey and I wasn’t certain how they would react.
We returned to Castello della Sala to meet head enologist Renzo Cotarella, a young man in his early thirties with dark hair, a mustache and twinkling brown eyes. I had come here expecting a gnarled old winemaker to meet us in the dark cellars of this ancient castle and was caught off guard at our guide’s youth. But it wasn’t long until I dispensed with my fairy tale version of what I thought a winemaker should look like – especially one who presides over winemaking in a castle – and embraced our young but incredibly knowledgeable and gracious host.
He began our tour by relating the long and impressive history of the Antinori family. Known primarily for their outstanding Tuscan reds (Chiantis and famous Super Tuscans like Tignanello and Solaia) the family had been producing wine for six centuries. Their venture into the white wine business came in the late thirties when they purchased this very estate. The soil and climate were ideal for growing and producing white wines.
In addition to the famous Orvieto (a wine known as the “wine of popes and kings” due to its consumption during the middle ages and the Renaissance by the papal court), the estate followed the long Antinori tradition of innovation and experimentation by developing some new wines. Cotarella was a big part of that process. He was especially proud of the winery’s Cervaro della Sala, a blend of Chardonnay and Grechetto grapes. After blending and bottling, the wine is aged for ten months in the historic cellars of the castle. The first vintage was 1985, released in 1987 so essentially it was still a baby when we visited in 1989. Since then it has received numerous awards and recognition for the constant high quality it has shown and is considered the estate’s flagship wine.
After a drive around the estate’s vineyards and olive orchards we returned to the medieval cellar of the castle and were treated to a barrel tasting of his 1988 Pinot Noir. He guided our palates and helped us discover what we should be looking for – things like this wine having a “Pinot Noir nose”. To my kids he explained how “nose” means the smell or aroma of the wine and guided them in recognizing how this particular Pinot Noir had typically fruity notes. His goals for the wine were to achieve a “fatter grape” by cutting back the vines in so that they produced fewer but meatier grapes in order to create a richer and fuller wine. The nose would then have a more complex bouquet – more organic aromas of the earth like mushrooms and spice. Rob and Candace (as well as Bob and I) were fascinated at his descriptions of the wine and the wine-making process which he presented in a very easy to understand way, while still honoring the sophistication of it all.
He was a great and patient teacher. Some of the material was a bit over all our heads but Rob and Candace were mesmerized and anxious to learn more about this innovative winery. It was especially nice for them to see such a young man at the helm – so knowledgeable and passionate about his work.
Dinner was equally interesting. We dined in a lovely old dining room whose door was guarded by an array of imposing medieval armor. The meal was homey and delicious. We began with bruschetta – typical of both Umbia and Tuscany. Wherever olive oil is produced in Italy, it is traditional to celebrate the olive harvest with a feast of bruschetta made with thick slices of toasted or grilled bread rubbed with garlic and then drizzled with the newly harvested olive oil. The olive oil on the bruschetta we had that evening was from the previous harvest and is to this day what comes to mind when I imagine a simple and perfect version of this classic appetizer.
Next was a simple pasta dish with tomato sauce, which was followed by braised lamb shanks with potatoes. Umbria is known for its abundance of meat dishes, especially lamb. The first two courses were accompanied by three different vintages of the Cervaro that our young host had helped create; a real thrill for us since we had heard so much about its history and felt we were now “experts.”
Agnello con Patate
Braised Lamb Shank with Potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 lamb shanks (about 1 ¼ pounds each)
¼ pound pancetta sliced about ¼ inch thick then chopped (about ¾ cup)
1 cup diced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
1-cup beef broth
3 salt-cured anchovy fillets*
1-½ pounds potatoes peeled then cut into wedges
1 tablespoon dried basil
Melt butter with olive oil in a Dutch oven (large enough to accommodate the lamb shanks) over medium heat. Brown lamb shanks. Set aside. Add pancetta, onions and garlic and sauté for 3 – 5 minutes. Add tomato paste. Mix with the pancetta & onion mixture. Put shanks back into pot. Add the wine and broth. Cook for 1 ½ hour over medium heat covered. Baste every 10 or 15 minutes.
Mash the anchovies into the liquid. Mix the potatoes with the dried basil and place into the pot with the shanks. Cook for another 15 minutes covered.
* This version of lamb shanks was developed with my partner Wanda back in her Milanese apartment. Wanda often used anchovies as a flavoring in many a sauce mainly for the salt content. Regular salt can be substituted for the anchovies.
We concluded our meal with a cheese course – sampling the very goat cheese that was made on the estate. Somewhat out of the blue Cotarella announced “I am not so fond of goats so we do not raise them here, but on my friend’s farm nearby.” Odd, but fair enough we thought, and then he continued: “But I do love the cheese: making, processing and – of course – eating the cheese. But the goats, not so much!” We all laughed and continued to enjoy our most satisfying cheese course with all those inquisitive but sometimes obstreperous goats foremost in our mind.
The following recipe is by Convito Chef Noe Sanchez. I asked him to develop it in honor of my visit to Castella della Sala and especially in honor of Renzo Cotarella.
Tomato mixture: prepare first
2 plum tomatoes diced (about 1/2 # =1cup)
3 basil leaves, chopped
1/2-teaspoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Make sure there is a top rack in place in your oven. Turn on oven to 450 degrees
1-tablespoon olive oil
12 slices of baguette bread (slices to be cut on a diagonal about ½ inch thick)
1-cup goat cheese, room temperature
Mix the tomatoes with basil, garlic, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In a small saucepan, sauté the mixture briefly over medium heat for 2 – 3 minutes. Set aside.
In the meantime, brush one side of each slice of bread with the olive oil. Place on a cooking sheet, olive side down. Place them in the oven for about 5-6 minutes until the bread just begins to turn golden brown.
Spread goat cheese on bread baked for 2-3 minutes.
Add 1 tablespoon of tomato mixture on top of goat cheese and serve.
We left the estate the next morning and continued our journey stopping for lunch in a small countryside trattoria outside of Orvieto. I was excited to see a dish on the menu that I had enjoyed on two previous visits with Paolo – wood pigeon with chicken liver sauce – the very combination of unusual ingredients I related earlier. The description didn’t interest me at first but when Paolo told me it was typically Umbrian, I had to try it. Wood pigeon, a large species of the dove and pigeon family, is often found on Umbrian menus. I enjoyed the dish so much that I developed a recipe for Bon Appetit magazine when I was featured in the Great Cook section of the March 1983 issue. Instead of wood pigeon, I used chicken thighs since I was skeptical of most Americans access to the obscure Italian bird.
Chicken in Piquant Liver Sauce
Pollo con Salsa di Fegato
3 tablespoons olive oil
12 chicken thighs bone-in
salt & pepper
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 chicken livers
4 chicken hearts
1-tablespoon small capers
½ cup pitted green olives
5 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ – ¾ cup heavy cream
Heat the olive oil with the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat (large enough to accommodate 12 chicken thighs). Add thighs to skillet and brown on both sides. Reduce heat, cover and cook until juices run clear when pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes.
In the meantime, make the sauce heating ¼ cup olive oil in a medium skillet over low heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for 3 – 5 minutes until translucent, stirring occasionally. Dry the chicken livers and hearts. Add to skillet, increase heat to medium-high and cook until browned on the outside, about 3 minutes. Stir in capers, olives, anchovies, parsley, bay leaves, sage and pepper and cook 3 minutes. Stir in vinegar and lemon juice.
Discard bay leaves. Transfer liver mixture to food processor. Add ½ cup of the cream. Blend to a smooth paste. Scrape back into skillet. Over low heat, stir until hot. You may want to add the last ¼ cup of the cream to thin out sauce.
Arrange two chicken thighs on each plate with sauce underneath.
We left Umbria after lunch and went on to Tuscany stopping for another winery visit in Chianti, and then to Lazio staying in a lovely resort on the sea finally ending our journey in Milan.
We travelled to a number of other towns in Tuscany and Lazio, but the highlight of this trip remains my visit to Umbria and specifically Castello della Sala and the time spent with Renzo Cotarella. Today he is the Chief Winemaker and Chief Executive of Marchesi Antinori and oversees all the winemaking efforts of all the estates. But his original passion and starting point with Antinori was his Umbrian Cervaro, which we were fortunate enough to taste with him in 1989.
I visited this estate again several years later with good friends. This time our tour was led by Allegra Antinori, one of Piero’s three daughters all of whom work with their father in the firm. We again were served a meal (this time lunch) in the enchanted castle dining room. As with my 1989 visit, I could feel the passion of the Antinori family in everything they did – this time through Allegra. That passion combined with the family’s long tradition and penchant for innovation makes them leaders in Italian wine. Convito is proud to continue to sell their incredible wines.
I am not sure if this journey was the seed that launched my son and daughter’s lifelong interest in food and wine, but it certainly piqued their interest. Today Candace is in business with me and continues to enjoy tasting and learning about both food and wine. She is not only a partner and business manger, but Convito’s resident cheese expert. She is also responsible along with Convito Chef Noe Sanchez, for keeping us up to date with the latest and most healthy ingredients, which we use in both our market and café dishes.
My son Rob is in a different line of work altogether (a cinematographer and director) but has turned out to be a great cook – preparing many of Convito’s classic dishes like Lasagna Calabrese or Bolognese – always giving each dish his own touch. He often calls me from his Brooklyn home for the recipes. (Rob is the designer and editor of this blog)
On different levels and in different venues, food and wine in my family has long been viewed with intense enthusiasm. It is always rewarding and validating to see the baton of the culinary world passed on to the next generation, whether it be to an Antinori associate like winemaker Renzo Cotarella or to an actual member of the family like the Antinori daughters ,or – in my case – to my daughter, Candace.
I have always believed that it is this next generation which holds the keys to both the evolution and the reverence for the culinary traditions that I have come to treasure since I embarked on my journeys in world of food and wine almost 40 years ago.