Come Travelling!…we continue our week long virtual food and wine tour of Tuscany with Maureen….
I know that it is early. I can hear the morning birds singing outside. I fling open the window and smile, yes this is Italy and I am here…finally. I look up at the hills near Cortona. Is that a monastery up near the top?
Suddenly a mixture of curiosity and hunger spurs me into action and I start to dress quickly. I laugh out loud. The beauty of lost luggage is that I have limited clothing options, never mind trying to look presentable – clean will just have to do.
I enter the dining room. Gail, Judy, Rosemary and Linda, who is providing support to Les Trois, are busily going about their early morning business of breakfast preparation, computer work, and answering e-mails. Breakfast –coffee, sweet and savoury breads, prosciutto, and fruit, all spread out for us. Breakfast is my favourite meal. Not only do I love the food but I seem to be much more able to taste and enjoy every flavour. For me it is a simpler time of day when the world is still full of possibility and few responsibilities. We all are quieter as we all ease into the morning not wishing to disturb the air. I am also slowly realizing that after months of planning and dreaming I am finally here.
After breakfast I walk outside to get my bearings and take in what, in my romantic haze, I missed the previous evening. I Pagliai is surrounded by 25 hectares of wheat, sunflowers and lucerne. It has two main buildings which house the guests. There are a number of apartments in each of the buildings all with their own kitchens. There is a large arch in the wall in my building which leads into the dining room, sitting room and office. Just outside is the outdoor oven and B-B-Q. I Pagliai is part of Italy’s Agriturismo strategy. Support is provided for visitor accommodation as long as it continues to be a working farm. Brilliant I think.
Gail calls us all in for our first cooking lesson with Judy. A very useful knife skills refresher is followed by Gail’s bean primer. Oh yes thank you Gail! I have been wanting to learn much more about beans and lentils than just how to ruin them. Judy comes back with a succulent mixture of prosciutto, sage and buffalo mozzarella. I love this combination. Rosemary makes the panzanella salad with the morning’s leftover bread and then zucchini and parmesan. Nothing could be better and it is already time for lunch. Deliciosa!
Now a rest or walk for some. I see the pool on the lawn and promise to take a dip before I leave. However, right now I head for my beautiful old iron bed and a long nap.
It is about four and we head up to Cortona for the first time. When I say up, I mean it. It is almost straight up as the road switches back and forth through twisting narrow streets, past churches and homes. We are dropped off at the Porta Peccioverardi which connects the Piazza Garibaldi to the Via Nazionale. Cortona began as a city in the Italian region. It was conquered by the Etruscans and subsequently the Romans and Goths before gaining its freedom in the 12th century. It was at this time, they say, that Cortona was at the height of its splendour. We are standing in Piazza Garibaldi which I see as a beautiful park with a sensational perch surrounded by large shade trees. In reality it is a town car park and disembarkation zone for all the comings and goings and foot traffic. Just off the Piazza is the Hotel San Luca, which looks like it is gripping the hillside by sheer force of will.
We slowly make our way up Via Nazionale, which I am told is the only level street in Cortona. I’m filled with excitement and awe. It is my first time here and I am trying to absorb everything all at once. I am sure I look like a stage-struck tourist with my mouth wide open looking up at all the handsome architecture. We pass busy shops crammed with linens, pottery, Venetian masks, antiques, olive wood, and hand-painted stationary. Little cafes are crowded with patrons sipping their afternoon expresso deep in animated discussion. The street is full of people and activity yet it has an oddly calm feeling about it. I feel the pace in the town. It is almost palpable
At this moment our group is walking through the main Piazza della Repubblica and disappears down the rather steep Via Guelfa by the Porta San Agostino. Our first destination is a shop called, “Margherita”, which sells, “prodotti tipici” or as I learn typical products of Tuscany. It is a small room with dark wood shelves filled with the most enticing bottles, jars and packages. At the end is a large refrigerated display, which I see holds the large fat prosc and other assorted delicacies. In the middle of the room there is a long narrow priory table in the same rich dark wood laid with large wine glasses and Tuscan pottery. The lighting is dim which creates an intimate atmosphere. I feel transported back to Renaissance Cortona.
The owner, Giorgio di Santiccioli welcomes us along with his assistant, Ekaterina, a Russian émigré. As well, Lucia who works with Vittorio and his family running I Pagliai, has joined the group. She is a lovely young woman and will be translating for us. Luckily I am seated across from her and near to Giorgio – in my mind where the action will be. Plates of parmigiano reggiano and bottles of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are placed in front of us. Wine is poured. We sip and taste the cheese. Suddenly there is a lump in my throat and I can feel tears coming just beneath eyes. It is extraordinary. I have never experienced anything like this. The wine fills my mouth and sensations burst alive as it makes its way down my throat. I look wordlessly across at Rosemary. I see I am not alone in my reaction. I have no words. It isn’t the wine alone or the cheese but the combination that raises the experience to something inexplicably profound. Added to this is our gracious Italian host and his history that has brought us all together for this moment. Giorgio modestly talks about the wines and answers our questions – this is just an ordinary day for him. He has lived this all his life. I only know I could kiss him!
Just as quickly it is over and we slowly shuffle out the door. We have a little while before dinner so we see Cortona. However, I am still reeling from the experience. None of us seem to be able to bear the thought of dinner just yet, so a walk will be perfect. I tentatively walk up and down the streets not venturing too far from the Piazza. The Piazza della Repubblica is the heart of Cortona where the Palace of the City Hall is prominent with its imposing clock tower and wide staircase. Here people seem to take up residence while awaiting friends, sharing romantic moments and generally taking the air.
Across from City Hall is the Palace of the Captain of the People. It was constructed in the 13th century for the Tribune of the people, and subsequently became a tax office. By 1512 it was handed over to Cardinal Passerini, who transformed it into the truly Renaissance style that we see before us. Overlooking the Palazzo is the Piazza di Pescheria where you can find the Il Loggiato. Tracey reminds me that this is where Diane Lane wrote the postcard in the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun”. The overall effect of this marriage of history and commerce makes the city centre not only charming but more importantly, welcoming.
Soon we are shepherded down the Via Nazionale, our destination,”the Restaurant Tonino” in the Hotel San Luca. Our dinner awaits! The San Luca is an elegant, old world, precious hotel. Our table has been set for us on the terrace which I love as it is still warm enough to enjoy the evening al fresco. It is dark now and I can see the lights of the farmhouses way below in the Val di Chiana. If it were light we could also see Lake Trasimeno. Now what happened next is only a vague memory. Every course seemed to come in threes: the amuse-bouche; then antipasto; pasta and risotto; then meat and dessert – all served with more wine. Just in case we were still a little peckish we were brought more little sweet delicacies to nibble on. We were happy to leave after a wonderful but overwhelming dinner.
At i Pagliai I met up with Tracey and being a beautiful moonlit night we decided to brave the wild boar and take a walk through the farmer’s field – the farmer’s muddy field. The air was beginning to cool and I was happy to find that our route took us back to our rooms. I fell into bed, wrote a few words and turned off the light.
With thanks Maureen Moffatt for your beautiful words. Images of Cortona sourced from Wikipedia creative commons. Feature Image by Dario Veronesi with thanks.