Tuscany III “A Region For All Seasons”

 

tuscany3cc-tuscan_hills_-160920Beautiful cities, villages and hilltop towns are scattered throughout this amazing region drawing travelers from all over the globe to one of the most glorious and historic locations in all of Italy. But what has always drawn me to this region are the unpopulated places. Its seductive and mesmerizing countryside; the soft, rolling hills, lush vineyards; shimmering olive groves; and country roads lined with regal cypress trees – their elegant foliage piercing the Tuscan sky – is where I find the magic in this extraordinary (if no longer unknown) place.

A symbiosis with the land runs deep in the Tuscan soul. Enjoying food at its seasonal peak when it has just popped out of the soil or ripened on the vine is a part of normal everyday life in all of Italy – especially in Tuscany where so many local ingredients inspire their own celebration. Fettunta, for instance, (the colloquial Tuscan word for bruschetta) takes place each November in celebration of the olive oil harvest. After the farmers have picked, pressed and processed the last of the olives, friends and family gather to taste the results. Luscious emerald green, herbal, peppery Tuscan olive oil – arguably the finest in the world – is drizzled on crusty pieces of grilled bread that have been rubbed with cloves of fresh raw garlic. With this simple act, the celebration and appreciation for olio nuovo (new oil) begins – an observance in recognition of all the care and hard work that went into producing such a glorious product.

Embracing local, in-season ingredients is synonymous with “regional cuisine” in Italy. Farm-to-table, the buzzwords used today to indicate the use of locally sourced ingredients, is old hat there. What a home cook or chef was able to find locally and in-season was what was put on the table, and not because it was en vogue. Italians cooked this way because it is both cost effective and infinitely more delicious to use what your neighbors farmed, raised, or processed themselves. It only followed that those dishes took on a regional identity that continues to this day.

It was in Tuscany that I was reminded of my own childhood connection to the land – a connection that had begun to fade in my memory at the time. Growing up, I too experienced farm-to-table, I just didn’t realize or appreciate it. I suppose it was actually more like “garden-to-table;” my father’s garden. He was not a farmer but his summer garden provided our family with an abbondanza of good things to eat.   Actually, he was a teacher, coach and junior high school principal. Summer was his time off from educational duties and even though he had several summer jobs, he was somehow miraculously able to keep up with his very large and very lush garden.

Ray and Thelma (aka Mom & Dad) in the garden

Ray and Thelma (aka Mom & Dad) in the garden

I grew up with my dad, mom and two sisters in a small town in Southeastern Wisconsin. Cold weather prevented the state’s population from enjoying local produce all year long, but summer was different. In my family, summer was a particularly exciting time. We had a “Farmer’s Market” right in our own backyard where our father grew everything from gooseberries, strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries and grapes to kohlrabi, lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes and zucchini. My mother became his co-conspirator, especially at harvest time when our garden was overflowing with produce. Together they made grape jelly, raspberry and strawberry jam, rhubarb sauce and jar after jar of canned tomatoes.   All were eventually stored in our basement pantry and enjoyed throughout the cold Wisconsin winter.

in Dad's garden

me posing in Dad’s garden

When I look back on those years, I now understand that at the time I might not have consciously understood that a plump red raspberry would never taste as sweet as it did after plucking it from the raspberry bush the very minute it turned bright red. Or that picking zucchini when they were young and their seeds still soft and immature would make such a difference in their flavor and consistency. Or that my mother’s rhubarb pie baked in the late spring and early summer when the rhubarb had just sprung from the ground would taste so delectably tangy and so different from one baked off-season. But unconsciously that appreciation for fresh and local (and in the case of my father’s garden, very local), ingredients was something I would always value and would eventually put to use in my career as a restaurateur.

But despite how important those lessons from my father’s garden were to what I do today at Convito, it is the small recollections that still resonate with me. I remember how much my sisters and I looked forward to our father’s homemade grape juice, especially before bedtime and especially when accompanied by heaping bowls of freshly popped popcorn. Then there was his rhubarb wine, and though I don’t think I was ever allowed to drink it, I’m fairly certain that my memories of the sour faces of my neighbors indicated that it was not one of his triumphs. But his zucchini pickles became legendary in our family. They were tangy, somewhat sweet and sour and unlike anything I have tasted since then. Convito even sold them in our market for a period of time. But adding the burden of canning to an already busy kitchen became too difficult.

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Ray Brussat’s Zucchini Pickles

2 pounds small, firm zucchini
2 medium onions
¼ cup sea salt
1 pint white vinegar
1-cup sugar
1 teaspoon each celery seed, mustard seed, turmeric
½ teaspoon dry mustard

Wash unpeeled zucchini and slice into thin rounds

Slice onion into very thin slices

Please both in a bowl and cover with water. Add salt. Let stand 1 hour. Drain.

Place vinegar, sugar, celery seed, mustard seed, turmeric and dry mustard in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Pour over zucchini and onions. Let stand for 1 hour. Put all back into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 3 minutes. Pack in 3 hot sterilized pint jars and seal. Process 5 minutes in hot water bath.

Note: Can be stored in refrigerator without processing for about 2 to 3 weeks.

 

Francesco Bonfio, chef of Arnolfo, Nancy (left to right), Candace in foreground

Francesco Bonfio, chef of Arnolfo, Nancy (left to right)

Another zucchini recipe I remember well was one I had at a Michelin-starred Tuscan restaurant called Arnolfo in Colle di Val d’Elsa with renowned winemaker Francesco Bonfio, owner of a boutique Chianti winery near Siena. The restaurant is housed in an elegant sixteenth century palazzo and we sat on a spectacular terrace overlooking the Tuscan hillside enjoying the glorious summer breezes and one of the most impressive multi-coursed degustazione lunches I have ever had.

Each course was a work of art and just as delicious as it was beautiful – so much so that my son, Rob and I sketched every dish in my journal.

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The dish I remembered so well was basically paper-thin raw sliced zucchini placed in a circular pattern on top of paper-thin slices of delicious beef carpaccio. The dish was finished with a fine dice of fresh tomato in the center then drizzled with Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive. Arnolfo is known for its inventive but unfussy cuisine using local Tuscan ingredients and this was a perfect example.

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

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Francesco Bonfio had visited Convito several times in the early eighties and now it was my turn to visit him. After lunch he took us to his wine bar in Siena just off the famous Piazza del Campo. He wanted us to see the elaborate preparations being made for the upcoming medieval horse race, the Palio, famous throughout Italy and much of the world.

The race takes place in the Piazza del Campo. The competition is between the 17 contrada of the town. As Francesco explained, contradas are districts within Italian cities. Each contrada is represented by a different symbol. Most are animals but some are mythical creatures taken from nature. In Francesco’s contrada, Onda (translated as wave), dolphin lanterns lined the narrow streets. The dolphin is the Onda’s symbol, its colors are white and blue representing the colors of heaven and the sea. The impending race would take place just a week after our visit, but extensive preparations were already underway. We were sorry to miss it, but as Francesco warned it is an absolute mad house and very difficult to get close enough to see the actual race anyway. Regardless, we were at least happy to have seen the preparations and feel the excitement in the air, though I strongly suspect my son would have preferred to experience the real thing!

Rob and I in Piazza del Campo

Rob and I in Piazza del Campo

After a tour of Siena we drove to Francesco’s vineyard – Il Poggiolo. We met Federico, Francesco’s father then walked together through the lush green vineyard to their home for a tasting of the winery’s most recent releases. The Il Poggiolo’s Chianti we tasted that afternoon was light in style, very fragrant and brimming with berries.

Most of my vineyard visits in Italy were in the fall just before or during the harvest. “Is the harvest your most stressful time?” I asked. “No,” Francesco replied, “spring and early summer are much more stressful for the winemaker. We are constantly evaluating and changing strategies based on the weather. It is actually a relief when the summer comes to a close and it is time to harvest. There is not much to worry about after that – whatever has happened has happened. It is simply time to pick the grapes, celebrate and look forward to the results of another harvest.”

Nancy with Francesco and Federico Bonfio in the Il Poggiolo vineyard

Nancy with Francesco and Federico Bonfio in the Il Poggiolo vineyard

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Candace & Rob on rocky coast of Tyrrhenian Sea

Candace & Rob on rocky coast of Tyrrhenian Sea

We continued to enjoy the rich assortment of summer fruits and vegetables for the remainder of our trip. My family and I were staying at Il Pellicano, a lovely rustically chic resort near Porto Ercole right on the Tyrrhenian Sea. This particular section of the Tuscan coast was very rocky and dramatic revealing yet another dimension of Tuscany’s lyrical landscape.   The drama was especially apparent when we took the resort’s cliff elevator down to the sea where the steep rocky cliffs provided a refuge from the world. The fierce wind off the sea tricked you into thinking the sun wouldn’t burn.   “Be careful,” I warned my kids. “Don’t stay too long or you’ll be sorry!” Of course, as all mothers are by their teenage kids, I was ignored!

 

Candace and I at Terrace restaurant at Il Pellicano

Candace and I at Terrace restaurant at Il Pellicano

The resort had several restaurants. We preferred the more casual grill or the outdoor terrace where we spent many lunches and dinners taking pleasure in the restaurant’s seasonal local ingredients; fish from the sea, vegetables and fruits from the land and delicious organic meats. As anyone who reads this blog already knows, I can never get enough of tomatoes in season. I order them at every opportunity, in salads, sauces or just plain drizzled with peppery Tuscan olive oil. For me they are the embodiment of Italian cuisine.

 

 

 

 

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Despite my experience with my father and his bountiful garden, fresh produce and buying from local farmers was not a priority in America when I was growing up, particularly not in the restaurant business. You could almost always buy and savor a juicy tomato from a farm stand or pluck it from your garden, but enjoying it in a restaurant was not at all a given. Today with the burgeoning of local farmer’s-markets and the vocal proponents of locally grown produce like Alice Waters (owner of the famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley California), it is finally becoming a part of the American culinary philosophy. Alice advocates that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally. That was always apparent to me in any good Tuscan restaurant. But now thanks to the passion of Alice Waters and others like her, it has become apparent in restaurants across America. The best restaurants in this country (and I count Convito as a very early adopter of this philosophy) now take pride in the relationships they form with local growers and suppliers. And those relationships do make a difference in what you find on your plate. A restaurant without the flexibility to adapt to what is fresh and in-season is one whose food will perhaps be consistent in what they offer, but not necessarily in quality and creativity. Convito has always tried to present a menu that has a consistent roster of dishes that we know we can make no matter what the season or local availability, but to also offer cuisine that can react to change. To me that is the mark of a successful restaurant: one that can both feel familiar to its clientele, but also fresh, current and occasionally challenging. I know for a fact that over the years I have lost customers because we didn’t have something that they had grown to expect every time they came to the restaurant. But if we can’t get the right ingredients (fresh, local affordable) to make it the right way (delicious!), then I don’t believe we should serve it. Most people understand and even appreciate this philosophy, but not everyone has the same priorities we do. To those rare customers who’ve left us for our “transgressions” I implore you to come back and try us again with this concept in mind!

 

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I had previously visited this part of the Tuscan coast in 1982 with my partner, Paolo Volpara. That particular visit however took place on a dreary, rainy day in late February, very unlike the glorious weather we experienced in the summer of 1989 when I was there with my family. Paolo’s and my destination was further north in Viareggio, also a dramatically beautiful seaside resort, but one that boasted more traditional beaches than the rocky cliffs of Porto Ercole. Besides those beaches, Viareggio is also famous for its carnivale celebration which had just taken place two days before we arrived. It is celebrated with a parade of giant papier-mâché floats many of which were still resting on the promenade near the sea, waiting to be dismantled and reminding me of Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” after Max has sailed back to his bedroom.

Paolo at Viareggio’s Carnevale

Paolo at Viareggio’s Carnevale

To avoid the rain we ducked into a cozy little restaurant on the outskirts of town. Since we were so close to the sea, the menu was naturally focused on fish, but I was in a different mood and decided to throw caution to the wind and order a sautéed pork chop topped with a seasonal blood orange relish. Meat rather than fish somehow seemed to match my mood on this dark winter day. It was delicious.   But what really caught my attention was the cannellini bean and potato accompaniment to the pork chop. I had tasted similar side dishes at several other Tuscan restaurants, one of which was in the Grill Room at Il Pellicano where I would dine years later with my family. There it was served with the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a steak made from the region’s Chianina breed of cattle known for both tenderness and flavor.

The citizens of Tuscany are often referred to as mangia-fagioli (“bean eaters”) because so many of the region’s traditional dishes are built around beans. If that is what defines a Tuscan, I suppose I am also a Tuscan in (at least spirit) and am appropriately drawn to any dish on the menu that lists beans as an ingredient. Because most beans are dried before they are cooked, seasonality doesn’t really enter the equation when serving them, so they are always on the menu and can be savored during any time of the year; in summer with a grilled steak, in winter with a pork chop, in fall as the starch in a fish stew, or any time as the main ingredient in pretty much any soup you can dream up! I am a big fan of their taste, texture, versatility and endurance.

I was determined to recreate this recipe. After much experimentation, one summer evening back in Chicago I had a small dinner party and served it (along with a grilled steak) to famed food writer and journalist Bill Rice and his wife Jill Van Cleave (culinary consultant and recipe developer, and now a dear friend). Of course I was nervous with two such culinary luminaries at my table, but at the end of the meal when Bill asked me for the bean and potato recipe I knew I had nailed it. Whew! The recipe was eventually included in his Steak Lover’s Cookbook. A real honor!

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Tuscan Beans and Potatoes
(from Bill Rice’s Steak Lover’s Cookbook)
Serves 5 or 6

1 pound new potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
5 tablespoons olive oil, preferably Italian extra virgin
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 ounces pancetta, finely diced
¾ cup chopped shallots
¾ cup chopped red onion
2 cups cooked or canned white beans, such as cannellini
½ cup beef broth
6 fresh sage leaves, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pat the potato cubes dry with paper towels. Line a baking pan with paper towels

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, the butter and garlic in a large, heavy skillet – preferably cast iron – over medium-low heat until the garlic just begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Pat the potatoes dry again and add them to the skillet. Sauté until the potatoes are golden brown on all sides and cooked through, about 20 minutes, stirring and shaking the pan from time to time to turn them. Transfer the potatoes and any garlic that clings to them to the prepared baking pan and set aside.

Pour off any grease and wipe the skillet clean. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil and place the skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the pancetta until crisp, stirring often. Add the shallots and onion and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until the shallots and onions are very soft but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. (This recipe may be prepared to this point several hours in advance.)

Add the beans (rinsed and drained if canned), broth, sage, salt, pepper and potato cubes to the skillet and cook over medium heat until hot, stirring to evenly distribute the ingredients. Serve hot.

 

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My favorite season in Tuscany is the fall. Beginning in late September, harvest time is when all the tastes of autumn arrive; mushrooms, chestnuts, olives, wine – in other words all the best stuff! Visiting a vineyard during this time when everyone from the pickers to the vintners are involved in the most crucial step in the winemaking process – the actual picking of the grapes – is astonishing. It is an extremely important, dramatic and taxing time for any winemaker and to watch it happen in close proximity allows one a revelatory perspective. It is certainly stressful – but in a different way. As winemaker Francesco Bonfio said – “what has happened has happened”. But even so, there are other priorities and other deadlines to make adding a pressure of another sort.

 

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I was able to feel much of that harvest excitement during another trip I took in the autumn of 2000 with my daughter, Candace, her husband, Rob and good friend, Nancy Harris. We visited three different vineyards: Cappezana in Carmignano (described in blog Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”); Terrabianca in the hills of Radda in Chianti; and Monsanto in Poggibonsi. All estates were involved in some way in the harvesting of their grapes when we were there.

Though it would be impossible for me to visit the estate of every wine we sell at Convito, I have made it a mission over the years to visit as many as possible, and to this day those that have impressed me the most are the ones we feature in our store. After a winery visit I invariably come away with a deeper understanding of philosophy, the creative perspective, the passion, the hard work and the care that went into growing a particular grape, and in so doing gain an appreciation for how a vintner will change that grape into a wine with a character and history I can then recognize and comprehend. The same goes for olive oil and in some ways a lot of other products – like amaretti biscotti made by the famous Lazzaroni family. I wanted Candace, my daughter – and now Convito partner – to experience that same thing – that deep appreciation that makes the selling of wine or olive oil or biscotti so much more meaningful. So a trip where we had the good fortune to visit three different outstanding wineries was especially memorable.

Since our home base was located smack dab in the middle of the Chianti Hills close to the town of Castellina in Chianti, we became very familiar with the winding roads, the woods and the mesmerizing Tuscan countryside as we navigated through them each day to whatever charming Tuscan village or vineyard visit was next on our packed agenda.

 

tuscany3cc-terrabiancacampaccio2-160921One of those visits was to Terrabianca, the estate owned at the time by Switzerland-born Roberto Guldener one of the newcomers to the region arriving in 1987*. As we approached the vineyard, we noticed that our car looked like it had just gone through an old-fashioned Oklahoma dust storm. We learned later that the soil of the area is a combination of chalk, clay and sand giving the earth a whitish look – thus the name terrabianca – translated as “white earth.”

Everything about the estate from the labels to the tasting room reflected the very stylish, chic taste of the Guldener family. I especially loved the simplicity and class of their wine labels.   The red seal in authentic red lacquer, which takes the place of a label on some of their wines, is the height of good taste matching the lovely wine in the bottle.

 

Terrabianca estate: Candace and Nancy with Roberto Guldener

Terrabianca estate: Candace and Nancy with Roberto Guldener

After a tour, Roberto conducted a tasting of some of his wines in the upstairs tasting room. Most memorable was the Terrabianca Campaccio – unbelievably rich and complex. A blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, it was according to Roberto, the wine most representative of his estate. “It was created to express the Terrabianca philosophy – a taste of Tuscany and a taste of the world today,” Guldener explained proudly. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We ended our visit with a delightful lunch hosted by Roberto’s fashionable and lovely wife, Maja. Roberto stayed behind for the “working” – as he described it – of his vineyard’s harvest.   My favorite dish from that lunch was a simple salad of sliced fresh porcini mushrooms and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with the Terrabianca estate’s extra virgin olive oil. Fantastico! It was the height of simplicity and sophistication all in the same dish. But as I noted, it was mouth-wateringly delicious but impossible to recreate at Convito without the fresh porcini of the area. Molto dispiace! (Very sorry)

*The estate was sold in 2009 to Baron de Ladoucette

 

After driving away from Terrabianca, Candace, Nancy and I were almost immediately lost. I like to blame the spirited conversation that rehashed our experience with Roberto and his winery, the dust clouds that we couldn’t avoid, and (perhaps) even the wine, but whatever the reason it worked in our favor. One of the bonuses of getting lost in the Chianti Hills was the discovery of little gems you would never find if you tried to plan it. This time it came in the form of a little restaurant that we serendipitously stumbled across near the charming hilltop town of Panzano called Osteria la Piazza. The outside terrace overlooking the vine-clad hills of the area, was delightful. Sitting under earth-toned umbrellas we not only enjoyed the beginnings of a crisp autumn season, but delicious early autumn food as well. I so loved their farro mushroom soup, that we actually returned a second time at the very end of our trip to taste (and perhaps take some notes!) it again. The earthy taste of the mushrooms combined with farro was especially significant since we were in Tuscany, the region that helped to revive farro’s use.

Nancy Harris, Candace and I at Osteria la Piazza

Nancy Harris, Candace and I at Osteria la Piazza

Sometimes confused as a pasta, farro is actually an ancient grain that was used for thousands of years in North Africa and the Middle East and was brought from there to the Roman Empire. Farro is not spelt or barley, nor is it a wheat berry. It is complex and nutty and lacks the usual heaviness of whole-wheat grains and is to me the perfect soup ingredient.

 

© rob warner photography 2016

© rob warner photography 2016

Mushroom Farro Soup

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped approximately 1 cup
3 carrots, peeled and diced into ¼ dice approximately 1 cup
1 large leek, white part only, chopped approximately ¾ cup
4 ounces diced pancetta
1 clove garlic minced
1 pound Cremini mushrooms, rinsed, stalks removed – ¼- ½ inch dice
2 sprigs thyme
¼ cup red wine
1 cup farro
6 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sauté onions, carrots, leeks and pancetta for approximately 10 minutes until tender, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, sauté for 30 seconds then add mushrooms and sauté 5 – 7 minutes until the mushrooms have released some of their liquid. Add the thyme and wine and deglaze the pan. Add the farro and the beef broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 35-40 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. Discard thyme.

 

Getting lost seemed to be predictable whenever we made our way to a scheduled winery appointment in the Chianti Hills. Castello di Monsanto was no exception. I had long looked forward to visiting this estate – ever since I first savored a glass of their Chianti Riserva. It was like savoring all that is elegant and magnificently complex about Tuscany. It is, as one reviewer described, “a regal expression of Sangiovese,” the grape most closely identified with the region.

tuscany3cc-monsantochianti_classico-100508But it was the winery’s label that actually caught my attention before I even tasted the wine. The label in itself is regal – a soft hued painting of the estate’s sienna colored stone buildings overlooking undulating vineyards set against a crisp blue cumulus clouded sky. To me this seemed to capture the very essence of Tuscany.

Laura Bianchi – winemaker and ambassador of Castello di Monsanto – met us as we entered through the handsome gates of the estate. She is the daughter of the estate’s innovative winemaker, Fabrizio Bianchi. She now works side by side with her father and though biased, regards him as a “a genius winemaker,” a description which at the time seemed perhaps dismissible given her relationship with the man, but one that – after I met him – I would later whole-heartedly agree with. We first toured the impressive state-of-the-art winery and then – the real treat – were led into an unreal cellar that houses alcove after alcove of Monsanto vintages and special wines bottled and labeled for noteworthy occasions like “Laura’s wedding” or the birth of her children. Each alcove – some with iron gates – was beautifully lit creating a magical space.

After walking through a lovely salon where we signed the guest book (I was excited to see Andrea Bocelli’s name several pages prior!) and a stroll around the enclosed Renaissance-inspired gardens, we made our way to a small intimate room for lunch. Along the way, we met Chuck, their whitish blond dog – only 6 months old. He seemed like an old member of the family who proudly escorted us to our table. We would be reminded of Chuck throughout our visit by the tufts of blond hair he deposited on all of his favorite resting places, many of which were in the room where we dined. Like everything else about this lovely estate, the room – dripping with antiques and other curiosities – emanated a romantic Tuscan atmosphere.   Even the bathroom, where bunches of dried purple heather and goldenrod had been artistically arranged in an antique basket just to the side of the sink, was remarkable. How lovely, I thought and proceeded to sketch it in my journal. A possible ornamentation idea for me? Hmm…somehow repeating this atmosphere anywhere else might prove impossible to recreate. I never even tried.

Lunch began with a glass of Monsanto Chianti Riserva served with fresh porcini mushrooms simply dressed with Tuscan olive oil and freshly chopped parsley. Again – the taste of autumn! Before our next course Laura announced that her family loved fried foods, “so be prepared!” And so we were. What followed was an impressive parade of fried foods – rabbit, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes and even bread. How did she stay so thin I wondered? The batter, however, was a tempura-like batter – light and delicious.

We ended with a divine green lettuce salad simply dressed with the ubiquitous Tuscan olive oil and red wine vinegar, a combination that never failed to enhance anything it touched. The accompanying wine was Monsanto’s Nemo – a great Tuscan Cabernet. As one critic wrote, “To say that this wine tastes like Cabernet doesn’t do it justice. The bottle is Tuscan through and through and if you haven’t experienced it first hand, you’re doing yourself an injustice”. And here we were, tasting it first hand along side one of the winemakers sitting right across the table from us. I had to pinch myself.

 

Laura is a warm, talented woman – a former lawyer, athlete (five sports – including running – account for her svelte figure in spite of her love of fried foods) and mother of 2. She loves to sing the praises of her mentor father, the great Fabrizio Bianchi who we met at the end of the meal. Through him we learned more about the history of the estate. Aldo, Fabrizio’s father had purchased the property in 1960 after falling in love with the enchanting view from the estate’s terrace. Not long after that, Fabrizio fell in love with the wines he found on the estate and began his own journey down the difficult but rewarding path of learning the secrets of what transforms grapes into wine – and especially what makes a great Tuscan wine. “He was way ahead of the times”, Laura pointed out, “so I benefited from that.”   She joined him in 1989. Under his tutelage and alongside winemaker Andrea Giovannini, Monsanto has become one of the most respected wineries of Tuscany.

Laura, Fabrizio, Candace and I

Laura, Fabrizio, Candace and I

Fabrizio spoke about as much English as I speak Italian, but we managed to somehow have a warm and informative conversation. Lots of hand gestures! And translations by Laura. Always he had a twinkle in his eyes – just like his daughter. They are both known for their sense of humor. The visit was enchanting – just like the two of them. We said our goodbyes to our new friends, and were then escorted to our car by our new four-legged friend Chuck. He already knew how to be a great Monsanto ambassador.

 

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Fall may be my favorite season – both in Tuscany and in Chicago where I live – but I really love all of the seasons and what each represents. I couldn’t live in an area that did not have a clear seasonal cycle, even if at times I want to shoo away the dreariness and cold of a long Chicago winter.   Transition and transformation bring new things – new activities, new state of mind, new foods. I love those changes.

My Italian journeys have always reminded me of that fact. They have always emphasized the importance and delight of eating local foods in season. And though almost all Italian regions embrace that same philosophy to one degree or another, it is never clearer to me in than when I am in Tuscany. Maybe it’s because Tuscans celebrate the results of the wonderful products that sprout from their very lush, very fertile soil. Or that so many vineyards celebrate the harvest. Or perhaps it’s the ever-present olive growers. Whatever the reason, I find the combination of Tuscan ingredients and the Tuscan people to be a truly distinctive one. And that blend of people, tastes and perspective keeps me coming back here time and time again.

 

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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 III “A Region For All Seasons”

  1. margo brown says:

    Nancy….another superb journal of your interesting and “delicious” life. You and your children all look like movie stars…..see you soon, x margo

  2. I have been shocked yesterday when surfing on the web I had the chance to see your blog.
    So many years from the time you have been in Siena.
    I am still in Siena, with my wine shop, Gaetano Trovano chef and owner of Arnolfo (now more than 20 years two Michelin stars) still in Colle di Val d’Elsa, by the way in different location, still the top restaurant of the area. Just in case you come back to Siena just let me know it would be nice to see you again after so many years.
    And congratulations for the blog, very intense, true and touching.
    Warmest regards,
    Francesco Bonfio

  3. Nancy Harris says:

    As always, fabulous! Looking forward to trying the recipes, which are always wonderful, Keep the blogs coming!

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