Tuscany I “My Country Experience”

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Tuscany is far from a secret these days. Its beauty and serenity had long since been discovered before I arrived here, but sitting on the green grassy slope outside of my friends Dorene and Terry McTigue’s charming red-shuttered villa, sipping a glass of lovely Rosato (the Italian version of Rosé) and enjoying the warm breezes of an impending Tuscan summer, I was mesmerized. And not just by the physical beauty of the landscape, the sunset that was gathering to our west or the perfection of the crisp rosé wine that I was drinking. But it was the dramatic reading of a product label from a package of beef that rapt all of our attentions. Charlie Yonkers’ and his wife Ann were also staying at the villa and had purchased this apparently very special roast from the famous butcher at Antica Macelleria in Panzano in Chianti for the occasion of our group’s “Italian reunion.” It was a huge cut of Galician beef (“from the butt – nice & high” he was told when he picked it up) flown into Panzano from Spain for the supreme honor of being butchered precisely and perfectly by the great Dario Cecchini, famous throughout the world for not only his butchering skills but also for his promotion of traditional Tuscan food.

“Her Majesty. To beef or not to beef, that is the question”, Charlie read from the label morphing into a kind of Mastroianni character and reciting faithfully – and very theatrically – exactly what was written on the long, detailed and overstated cooking instructions. His thespian interpretation matched perfectly Cecchini’s rich and flowery language eliciting peels of laughter from his audience of five, all happy to be together in one of our favorite Italian regions, Tuscany.

Charlie with Galician beef

Charlie with Galician beef

We knew the food and wine experience in the next few days would be nothing short of spectacular. The group’s connections to Italy, to food and wine and to one another were long and deep. Our original association was a direct result of our affiliation to Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a worldwide philanthropic organization of professional women leaders in the fields of food, fine beverage and hospitality. Ann Yonkers of Washington D.C, Dorene Centioli-McTigue of Seattle and I had all served as International Presidents and Linda Calafiore of Carmel, California (originally Chicago) had served as a Vice President.  Charlie, Ann’s husband and Terry, Dorene’s husband had always been very much a part of our group. We all got to know one another through our Les Dames connection, but now our friendship had evolved way beyond that original association.

After Charlie’s recitation, the outside grill was prepared per Dario’s instructions – hot coals on a low grill. The rest of us divided up the duties of readying for a much-anticipated meal to be savored and enjoyed under the villa’s romantic arbor of grapes, artfully laced with twinkly Italian lights.

Under the grape arbor

Under the grape arbor

Terry chose the wine – as he did for each of our meals – every dish enhanced by his careful selections. The meal consisted of Dorene’s delectable stuffed pasta with asparagus in a butter-sage sauce; Charlie’s amazing grilled Panzanese Steak drizzled with a little Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Ann’s perfectly dressed, perfectly delicious salad.

Ann making the salad

Ann making the salad

Ann’s years of experience collecting some of the best produce on the east coast as co-founder and co-director of Fresh Farm Markets in Washington D.C. more than qualified her as an expert on “fresh” produce. “These greens are perfect” she commented. “In Tuscany the cool nights and fresh and clear days make for tender greens this time of year.” I watched her carefully float the salad greens in a big bowl of cool water, put them in a salad spinner and delicately wrap them in paper towels before returning them to the fridge while she made the vinaigrette.

 

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© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Ann Yonkers

“On Making a Great Salad and Vinaigrette”

(originally published in The Washington D.C. Fresh Farm Market magazine)

I think the easiest way to get comfortable making vinaigrette is to think in percentages. The acid (lemon juice or vinegar) is 30% to 49% percent and the oil is 70% to 60%. Achieving a good balance between fat and acid is a matter of taste. Another key to making great vinaigrette is to only use the best ingredients. So use the best and freshest lemons and/or vinegars and salt and pepper and the best olive oil you can afford.

 

1 small stalk green garlic or 1 clove garlic

juice of 1 small lemon

1-teaspoon apple cider vinegar

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 – 5 tablespoons good quality olive oil

Chop the white and green parts of the green or new garlic and scatter in the bottom of a bowl. If you are using a garlic clove, crush it on the side of a chef’s knife and put it in the bottom of the bowl. Add the freshly squeezed lemon juice and the vinegar. Add sea salt to taste and grind in some fresh pepper. Let the garlic rest and flavor the vinegars and dissolve the salt for a minute or two. Slowly pour in the olive oil while stirring with a fork to create a smooth vinaigrette where the oil and vinegar and lemon juice are creamy and in suspension.

Just before serving, remove the cool greens from the fridge and put them into a salad bowl. Pour one half of the vinaigrette on the greens and toss them. Taste for seasoning. What you are looking for is greens that are lightly dressed, not drenched in vinaigrette. Adjust the amount of vinaigrette and season to taste with salt and pepper and serve promptly. It will be spring in a bowl!

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Nancy, Linda, Ann & Dorene in front of red shuttered villa

Nancy, Linda, Ann & Dorene in front of red shuttered villa

Dorene and Terry’s villa, rented for the year, was near the town of Cortona.   They had long settled in and were well acquainted with the secrets of not only Cortona but all the little towns and villages in the area – the best markets, gift shops, worthy nearby sites and of course, the local coffee shop just a brisk morning walk from their villa. Each morning after breakfast, we would stroll down the cypress-clad hillside for an espresso or cappuccino and sit outside to enjoy the early morning air and to read the International Herald Tribune, every American traveler and expat’s thread to the rest of the world.

Although I have traveled to Tuscany many times over the years, this was my first true “country experience.” Most of my trips through the region were on the way somewhere – usually to one of its many great cities like Florence or Siena or Lucca – or to one of the many other noted villages in Tuscany’s incredible wine country. But here I was fully immersed in what it meant to live in Tuscany, even if just temporarily. To be a part of all that masterfully arranged scenery, to walk amongst the rows of regal cypress trees and to be able to actually touch the clusters of olive trees fluttering their silvery green leaves, was to truly experience this region like a local. Every day I would look up from villa’s hillside vista and clearly see the azure Tuscan sky sometimes dotted with pink–hued cumulus clouds, other times just clear and bright. It was all quite magical.

Especially magical was being with old friends – friends whose cumulative Italian experiences could fill a travel book. By this time, in my own personal journeys I had visited each region – sometimes multiple times. Dorene and Terry were actually living here (and would end up staying for two years) and Linda had spent a whole summer in Rome. Our respective journals were packed with memories of meals past, cities adored and sometimes little “Italian experiences” that could only be appreciated by friends who shared a love and knowledge of this amazing country.   We even developed a kind of shorthand when we spoke about Italy.

Dorene at Florence Market

Dorene at Florence Market

Most of our meals were enjoyed at the villa. Breakfasts excelled in their simplicity. Fresh eggs provided by resident chickens and collected each morning were flawlessly fried (mostly by Linda) and served with toasted slices of Tuscan bread or Dorene’s homemade granola mixed with luscious dried fruits from the market and then baked with Tuscan olive oil.

I was already familiar with Linda’s breakfast-making skills. When I visited her in Carmel where she moved after selling her incredibly successful company CHIC (Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) to Le Condon Bleu, I looked forward to mornings in her lovely and cozy home leisurely reading the newspaper and enjoying one of her egg dishes – especially fried eggs accompanied by slices of thick toasted crusty bread. She had the “fried egg touch” – something I have never developed.

Depending on the day (and how adventurous – or not – we were feeling!) lunches were either on the road or around the kitchen table. A favorite was Dorene’s Pappa al Pomodoro. Italian food was in Dorene’s blood. The Centioli family had been in the restaurant business for years and could trace their roots back to southern Italy. Dorene laughingly claims that the she opened Pagliacci Pizza Company in 1979 to ensure she would “always have a place to get good pizza.” Eventually selling the company some 25 years later, Pagliacci is still considered one of the finest and highest quality pizzas in America due in large part to the attention to detail that Dorene and her family put into the original concept.

Pappa al Pomodoro, a Tuscan tomato bread soup, is considered a farmer’s dish. The story goes that very frugal housewives would collect stale bread and eventually mix the crumbled loaves with either fresh or canned tomatoes, herbs and olive oil. It is served either hot or at room temperature. Dorene’s version contains sage. Many recipes use basil. Both are delicious.

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© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Pappa al Pomodoro

 

2 – 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

3/4 cup olive oil

1 bunch fresh sage, stems removed and chopped

1 1/2 pounds day old rustic bread, crust removed, cut into cubes*

28 ounce can tomatoes, puréed with liquid

Chicken broth

Salt and pepper

Grated Parmesan

Olive oil

Sauté garlic until flavorful (careful not to burn) then add sage and bread to pan.

Mix with wooden spoon until bread turns golden brown.  Add tomatoes, salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil and stir constantly.  Add enough chicken broth to cover the bread-tomato mixture.  Cover and simmer.  Stir often for about 30 minutes.  It is done when it gets to a unique consistency – thick and runny – it should grab the wooden spoon.  If it gets too thick add more chicken broth.

Cool slightly.    Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle with parmesan before serving.

*you can gather left over rustic or French bread and store in tightly sealed bag in freezer until ready to make the “Pappa.”

 

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Our days together included many leisurely drives around the countryside. One especially memorable afternoon was spent driving around Umbria’s nearby Lake Tresimeno, stopping occasionally for a stroll through one of its lakeside villages. The group’s collective appreciation for food and wine was evident each time we paused to admire the variety and freshness of produce at a local farmer’s market. We could all easily wax eloquent about something as simple as a grilled stuffed panini we savored for lunch at a crowded roadside café or the fresh taste of the fruit gelato we purchased at a plain little shop near the lake’s edge.   Simplicity is what we all admired – an enjoyment of Italian cooking and eating as an expansive, creative and leisurely celebration of life.

Mid-week we were to say our goodbyes to Ann and Charlie who left to meet friends in Lucca. Our final meal was, of course, fantastic! It consisted of Dorene’s slow roasted pork (a recipe from Texas Dame member Paula Lambert), Ann’s rosemary potatoes and my savory cannellini bean, pancetta and arugula salad. Again the meal was accompanied with some spectacular wine – this time Brunello di Montalcino from Terry’s secret stash. 

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Tuscan White Bean, Pancetta & Arugula Salad

For 8

5 cups cooked white beans (great northern or cannellini) – set aside

1 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup diced pancetta

1 cup chopped shallots

¾ cup diced sun-dried tomatoes

1/8 tsp. chili pepper flakes

1-½ cups of red wine vinaigrette

salt & pepper to taste

3 cups arugula

Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add pancetta and brown well for approximately 5 plus minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add shallots and continue browning for another 5 minutes.

When very brown, add the sun-dried tomatoes and chili pepper flakes and sauté another 1-2 minutes.

When cool, mix with the beans. Pour ¼ cup of the vinaigrette in the sauté pan to loosen the brown bits in the bottom of the pan. Add that and the rest of the vinaigrette to the white bean mixture and toss. Add salt and pepper to taste. (You can set dish aside at this point)

When ready to serve, toss the beans with the arugula. You may want to add more arugula. Taste again for salt and pepper. (You may also want to toss with more vinaigrette)

 

Dorene, Terry, Linda and I filled the remainder of our time together with two vineyard trips and a day in Florence. Our first vineyard visit was to Poggio al Castellare, a small elegant estate in the heart of Montalcino. We began with a tour of the cellar, completely built of stone and rising majestically over the property. Part of the cellar contained stainless steel tanks devoted to the more traditional methods of production while the other more picturesque section housed small handsome new oak barrique barrels filled with wine that could remain in the cellar’s ideal temperature and age for whatever time was required to produce the high quality wines representative of this estate.

Poggio al Castellare dining room

Poggio al Castellare dining room

We adjourned to an upper part of the cellar to a splendid glass veranda where we would be served an equally splendid multi-coursed lunch. Vineyards are a part of the Tuscan landscape. They share the rich farmland with alternating crops of maize, wheat and olive trees. The aristocratic vine-clad hills were very much a part of our meal that lovely day bringing the beauty of the region directly to our table. Besides the privilege of tasting the estate’s incredible world renowned 2004 Brunello di Montalcino, I especially remember the pici pasta dish with a hearty meat sauce. Pici is a regional Tuscan pasta that resembles a thick, grainy-surfaced spaghetti. It is often rolled by hand. The hearty meat sauce recipe is one we make at Convito – a recipe from one of my original partners, Wanda Bottino.

 

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© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Pici Pasta with Hearty Meat Sauce

Serves 6

 

1-pound pici pasta

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon diced garlic

¼ cup diced onion

¼ cup diced carrots

¼ cup diced celery

1 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons dried basil

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

pinch of chili pepper flakes

½ pound ground pork

½ pound ground beef

¾ cup red wine

1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes

3 tablespoons tomato puree

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Parmesan cheese for grating

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onions and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, parsley, dried herbs and chili pepper flakes. Sauté for another 5 minutes. Add the ground pork and beef, crumbling into the other ingredients and cook for approximately 10 minutes until the meats have lost their raw red color.

Add the wine. Sauté until the wine has reduced by half. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat for approximately 25 minutes.

When the sauce has cooked, cook the pici pasta until al dente. Toss with the meat sauce, top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

 

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Terry with wines at Frescobaldi

Terry with wines at Frescobaldi

Two days later we visited Castello di Nipozzano, the center of hospitality of the famous Frescobaldi wineries.  The family’s five estates stretch across the glorious Tuscan wine country. This particular estate is their most celebrated and historic property. It was originally a defensive stronghold from the year 1000. Located in the heart of Chianti Rufina overlooking the valley of the Arno, the estate now houses the Frescobaldi wine cellars, which includes many revered bottles of Frescobaldi wine – great vintages as well as many notable bottles marking family births and celebrations.

For thirty generations, the Marchesi de Frescobaldi family has produced great Tuscan wines.   This visit was a special thrill for me since from the moment I opened Convito in 1980; the mere whisper of the name Frescobaldi in the wine world brings with it revered silence. They are one of Tuscany’s preeminent noble families whose economic, social and political influence dates as far back as the Middle Ages. Their history is breathtaking and includes stories of great artists like Donatello purchasing wine from their estates in the early 1400’s. I was thrilled to be there.

After a delightful tour of the property, we enjoyed a lovely private lunch and wine tasting in their small intimate dining room.   Each course was punctuated with a different Frescobaldi wine. Terry, our wine guru, took detailed notes.   My personal favorite was the complex and enticing 2007 Nippozzano Chianti.

Dorene, Nancy & Linda at lunch in Frescobaldi private dining room

Dorene, Nancy & Linda at lunch in Frescobaldi private dining room

Linda and I would leave for Rome the next day and fly back to Chicago from the Rome airport. Getting back into city life was somewhat jarring after our Tuscan country experience. I would miss the delicious intimate dinners, the mornings and evenings cooking together, the beautiful wines, the “Italian talk” – and especially the laughter. Even though it had been over 30 years since I opened Convito and I had the good fortune to explore all the regions of Italy with my original partner Paolo, I continue to learn something new with each journey. And to celebrate Italy with a group like this always rejuvenates the passionate affair I will always have with this country.

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About Nancy Brussat

I am the owner of an Italian café and market in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb on the north side of Chicago.  The original Convito Italiano was opened in 1980.  It included a deli, bakery, prepared foods, groceries and wine.  Today it is renamed Convito Café & Market and has expanded to include an 80 seat restaurant.   In preparation for launching my business I wanted to learn as much as possible about the food, the wine and the culture of this country I so came to love. I had the good fortune to have extraordinary teachers, Milanese residents and future partners Paolo Volpara and his mother Wanda Bottino.  During my frequent travels from 1979 to 1986 I was able to cook with Wanda in her small Milanese kitchen during the week then travel to different regions with Paolo on the weekends. I continue visiting Italy to this day but this was my time of total Italian immersion.   It was the beginning of an adventure that carried me to the four corners of Italy and every region in-between.  It was also the beginning of another kind of journey – a personal one that opened up possibilities I never considered or knew existed.  It was a heady time for a girl brought up in the fifties.    
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3 Responses to Tuscany I “My Country Experience”

  1. Paul Alms says:

    Wow Nancy it sure had to be a fun trip (except for your experience with the bed bugs)! Tuscany sounds glorious and the food you shared with your friends taken in such a lush setting had to be wonderful. And after all the Christmas gifts I’ve shipped for Califore I’m happy to see what she looks like ……although Janet tells me I’ve met her in person. I guess I’m losing it!

  2. Katherine Catalano says:

    “Oh, the places you’ll go!” And have gone. Sure, but who could imagine the green-eyed blonde from Janesville, WI having the “Italian Experience” of dining on a “nice, high butt (of beef!) flown from Galicia in Spain to Panzano, Italy to a world class butcher; then prepared for her dining pleasure? Well, I’m blown away by this entry. As a salad lover I eagerly copied Ann’s recipes. I never “flooded my greens” before their salad spinning, but I will now. I did learn the “paper towel” drill from some cooking class I took. And, loving all things arugula, I will make the white bean salad soon. The emphasis on the “simplicity factor” as a plus in the cuisine of Tuscany was welcome. Most American- Italian restaurants preface entrees with the word “Tuscan” and then load on the ingredients. Don’t know why. Maybe the basic ingredients need a lot of help. Or, thinking that a complex dish on the menu is enticing. Lastly: I, too, have never mastered the art of the fried egg. That is why the Parthenon (what else is it ever called?) Diner in Old Saybrook is my favorite breakfast destination. They’ve got the fried egg thing down. There are a few things in life one can count on.

  3. jeanne mcinerney says:

    For several years in a row my family joined with our best friends and their kids and rented a villa in Panzanno. I remember Darius very well. What a character. I am an addict to his Panzanno salt. Beautifully written.

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