Our travels continue on day three of our eight day food and wine tour of Tuscany. Enjoy the journey……!
This morning we head out to “Il Casale”, between Pienza and Montepulciano. Il Casale is an organic farm owned by a Swiss family, Urich and Sandra Schmidig along with their five sons. I am excited as we head out past vineyards and olive groves and other hill towns. I spot Montepulciano in the distance and look forward to seeing the town in more detail later this week.
We arrive at Il Casale and are greeted warmly by Sandra and two gorgeous Great Pyrenees. We are all impressed by her minute size and wiry, gypsy look…at least I am. Her husband Uri, a giant sized man, joins us and we head into the kitchen. Every year unpaid travellers work and live on this 110 acre farm. These farms are officially called Agricampeggio and are designed to provide a rural, farming experience. You can tell just by listening to Sandra how much they are appreciated. As she says, they would not be able to survive without them. I am thinking it would be an intriguing way to spend a holiday but more, it is a clever way for the government to keep farming alive while providing this enriching experience for city-dwellers. Sandra describes the long process of transitioning to organic. Generously they feel they would not have survived without they previous owner. He stayed with them for the three years it took until they had met the E.U. requirements and were on their feet. Again I notice this generosity.
Uri starts cooking talking to us as if we knew all sorts of things. He describes cheese making and is deftly making grilled eggplant, using his favourite pan, stuffed peppers then chestnut linguini with ricotta. He finishes with a pork roast and sage pesto stuffing. Everything is from the farm, everything fresh, and I realize that I will be very hungry by the time lunch is served. Sandra joins us again and she whips up the tiramisu. If I had only known all these years how easy it was to make it would have become a staple for all those special occasions.
Everything seems so effortless and before we know it we are seated in a long stone building with large windows which was formerly the stable. It is beautiful and filled with those long wooden tables that I now associate with mouth-watering food. The food and wine arrive and disappear before we know it. The farm workers sit behind us and sound very jovial and full of spirited talk in spite of all the hard work. All of a sudden it is over and we are whisked outside to our bus. On the way to our next destination the Avignonesi vineyard, I think of Sandra and Uri. They said that their way of life is very hard, but that they were very happy. I can believe it and I am too just knowing them.
Back on the road not too far from Il Casale and Montepulciano we find the famous Avignonesi estate. The estate is owned by the Falvo family. Its 225 hectors are all productive with vineyards and olive groves. The estate has four “productive units” and the one we are visiting today is the Fattoria Le Capezzine. It is the heart of the estate and we get to visit the cellars. It has turned into a mellow fall afternoon. Our visit starts with the maturation cellars which I find exciting down in the bowels of the estate. I can easily imagine the regal burgundy liquid gaining strength and complexity at every passing minute. Back out into the daylight we are taken to somewhere very special, the vinsantaia. Here we find grapes drying on reed mats supported by wooden frames and which will eventually become that divine liquid gold Vinsanto. This is an exceptional opportunity for us. There is something reverential about Vinsanto. It is only made in very small quantities. It isn’t a way of making money but a way of making something of such a quality, that is hard to achieve but that gives the greatest satisfaction.
Outside we are guided to a long table to begin our tasting. I am feeling rather quiet – pensive really. There is so much to absorb. The Falvo family has been very successful in its efforts to maintain history and tradition. This includes the growing of 127 year old native varietals of Montepulciano vines which were once valued but now risking extinction. At the same time they look towards the future with areas devoted to experimentation in plant density. The ‘round’ vineyard was created to see how density and type will influence quality. The density varies between 2000 and 8500 vines per hectare and uses circular rings rather than long rows. The grapes are harvested in circles and the vinification is carried out separately in small wooden casks. Another of their approaches is called ‘settonce’. The vines are planted at seven equidistant points with one at the centre. This allows for ideal land for root development and air circulation. All this information has made me curious. I want to taste and so we do.
The table is set in a courtyard and is covered with glasses and bottles. Tracey is in her element. She knows her wine, but more she appreciates it. It is a true love affair and it is contagious. The Grappa di Vinsanto comes out and she has us all salivating!
It is time to move again and we are returning to I Pagliai where we will have time to ourselves. It has been a long day and I have learned so much. Most importantly I have been exposed to some incredible people who are working so hard to follow their passion and live their dream. It has given me a great deal to think about.
Back at I Pagliai I rest in my room. Sometime later I find myself surrounded by a hive of activity and people I have yet to meet. Everyone is headed to the kitchen and so am I. There Vittorio’s mother and chef Pierro are busily unloading food and taking out pot and pans. Lucia has again joined us to help translate. So all fourteen of us are crowded around the table while Pierro demonstrates and I am in awe. Pierro, we learn was a chef at the Tonino Restaurant in Cortona. Mamma whizzes around the stove and Pierro is mixing and chopping as we drink and help out. Suddenly it is time to move back outside.
It is dark but to my amazement the courtyard has been transformed. There is sizzling meat, beef, lamb and succulent pork, on the B-B-Q. On two other outdoor burners Vittorio and his mother are making deep fried zucchini flowers. Glasses of Prosecco are being served on sparkling silver trays and I find myself at this very elegant Tuscan party! I notice that everyone else is sparkling too, lifted by this sudden elegance. I take a sip of Prosecco and try a zucchini flower. I have always wondered what they would taste like…delicious, of course! Looking around everyone has a blissful grin, even the cooks. Privately I wonder if they are thinking like me that this is what we have been dreaming of; the happiness that comes when living life in harmony with one’s passion, with friendship and doing what is intrinsically yourself – life as it should be led. I revel in the naturalness of this family living and working with joy and generously sharing it all with strangers – this harmony with land, history and tradition. I wonder too, if what I am seeing is what I want to see or if it is genuine. Is this the cliché I have been searching for? If it is, it is one which we have created and has nothing to do with this family and perhaps in the end it is we who are the cliché. However, right now, I am just too happy to take anything too seriously and much too happy to care. I only know that I want to remember this moment forever.
We stay out under the stars as dinner continues to cook and then all too soon we go inside. I have always thought that going indoors after enjoying the night air is a denouement. I often find it difficult to transition into an indoor party. Inside the table it set. The candles are lit and suddenly we are all a little quieter in this more formal setting. We all sit: then a toast, “a la famiglia’; then big grins; and finally the food. It is a feast, pasta with wild boar, grilled lamb, pork and beef, salad and the perfect torta for dessert.
At the end of the meal I feel overwhelmed with fatigue and quietly leave the table. I want to savour these moments. My thoughts seem to be piled together with all this sensory stimulation. The fresh air outside is terrific and clears my head. It is like fall at home, very cool. I head off to bed with just a touch of melancholy that comes with this time of year.