Monday, December 6, 2010

December 1st

We had a late breakfast and window shopped for the morning before taking off for Milan. Here is Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines. We saw the original in the Accademia the night before. These in the loggia of the Piazza Mayore are all copies, extraordinary copies.

Neptune and friends.
 A cupid with fish by Donatello in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio.
 A couple on their wedding day there posing in the courtyard.

 Giotto is here outside the Uffizzi Gallery.

Even the street with pothole cover glistening in the fresh rain is somehow beautiful here in this light.

This is the largest container of nutella I have ever seen; 5 kilograms!?#@ It's at a truckstop along the way to Milan.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November 30 Terme di Bagno Vignoni to the mighty Arno!

Today we drove up to Florence and checked in at a hotel along the Arno, a massive shift from the tiny natural hot springs bubbling up outside our window at Bagno Vignoni.

We walked over to the Accademia at about 6 expecting to have an hour or so before it closed. We were pleasantly surprised when the guard said that Accademia along with all the major museums in Florence were opening every Tuesday this month for free from 7 - 11p! So we walked around for a bit, window shopped, met my old friend Carmelo and visited the Bargello AND the accademia in one evening before dinner at Trattoria Garga here near the hotel.

November 29 Collemattoni Brunello

November 29. Spa and winery visits. We did spa treatments at the hotel; climbed into a kind of wet sauna chamber and got all covered in mud, had facials, got massages. What a treat. No pictures yet.
Knocked on doors in Montalcino and found a producer named Marcello Bucci from Collemattoni. Guy’s amazing. Father was a sharecropper on the property before he bought it out in the 80s. Some of the more impressive Brunello we have tried. This guy Marcello is an all-in-one; farmer, winemaker, marketer, salesman. His 2004 reserve Brunello won 97 points from Wine Spectator.  

Met a woman in the wine shop there named Sylvia who turned us on to some other really wonderful Brunellos, and helped us to ship back Darren’s purchases.
Trip’s almost over. Meals back at Bagno Vignoni and taking it slow. Here I am with Raffaela at Osteria De Leone by the blackboard in the dining room with a quote from Ambrose Bierce, a favorite San Franciscan of mine. Weird. It says, loosely translated, " Abstetion: a weakness that gives in to the temptation to deny oneself a pleasure." We like that quote.

The town of Bagno Vignoni sits on natural hot springs that have been enjoyed by all travelers along the principal route between northern Europe and the Italian Peninsula since Roman times. The town is spectacular, remote, tiny, welcoming.  Lots more pics this weekend.

November 28 Perugia

Internet here is patchy, which is to say that there are occasional patches where we get it for a minute. I know this should be updated every day. So instead I’m doing ten days now! Photos will be uploaded this weekend.
Today was Darren’s day off. He is pooped from all the running around and wants to sit completely still for the entire day. Can’t say I blame him. Darren slept all day. I woke up at 10am and rushed down to the restaurant on the ground floor to catch the tail end of the complimentary breakfast. Sunday morning. They were packed! 50 or 60 people Whole families and couples down there eating together on the last day of their weekend getaway. I guess a lot of Italian families from the bigger cities seem to come here for the weekend. It was as if they all had their watches set to the same time. Half an hour later as I sat there with the Corriere della Sera, they quickly disappeared.
Darren and I have spa packages included with our stay here at the hot springs. I took advantage of one of the treatments at 12:30. Did a Thermal Hydromassage, which is a hot tub with little jets at key points along the body, lights dimmed and multicolored underwater lighting, tea infusion, scrubby tea bags floating around, dolphin calls on the speakers. I was born again this morning.
I had no plans today. I felt so good I decided to go to Perugia. Soon after I started off on the road the rains came down, at first gently. Then about 45 minutes into the trip it became torrential, biblical. Visibility shot down to nothing and the fastest setting on the wipers was just barely keeping up. I was grateful to be driving a very solid rental car. I forgot my umbrella, so I stopped in Perugia at the bottom of the minimetro and slipped into a chinese store for a bit of umbrella shopping. I was surprised at how well made and large was my 5 euro umbrella here.
The minimetro is kind of a pint-size tram all painted fire engine red inside (I could tell you how the outside was painted if the rain had let up for a minute). Struck up a conversation on the way up with a barrista from Spoleto named Mateo. He was on his way to a wellness exposition inside the Rocca Paulina up at the top, the perfect spot to wander for a few hours in a downpour! 
Rocca Paulina is a massive underground cavern all carved out of the living rock of the mountain. It’s amazing! There was a kung fu demonstration, tibetan monks making a sand mandala and lots of merchants from Asia and other parts selling imports and health and wellness stuff. This one is really sweet. We made friends on the minimetro.

Procrastinated for a while before getting back in the car to drive back out here to the sticks. Dinner here at Osteria Del Leone. Apparently this has been a restaurant for 700 years. There’s a map of the city from the 13th century with an Osteria del Leone on the very site. 
Home made Tagliatelle with white truffles, spinach with garlic beefsteak and potatoes au gratin, brunello di montalcino, tort with white chocolate flake, rose of Vin Santo. Yum!
The dining room was separated into three rooms and there was a quote on a chalkboard in each one. Our room had Ambrose Bierce funny enough. “Abstention is the weakness of permitting oneself to not participate in pleasure.” Something like that. One of the other rooms was a Tuscan proverb. “Those who with water mix the wine, should drink the ocean from their upturned hats.” Sounds a lot better in Italian.           

November 27 Castle Brolio in Siena

November 27 Pictures are few from here out until we get home. Upload speed here is... very slow.
We checked out of Castle Fonterutoli today. Never took a tour. Never tasted their wine. Got in too late last night, left too early today. It was to us a sort of high-falutin Days Inn. I’m sure that given more time it is a fantastic place to unwind; incredible views of Siena from the top of the Appenines, great accomodations, lots of reputable wines. We did really enjoy a little down time between last night and this morning. 
We left Fonterutoli for Castello Brolio, probably the most famous of all the Tuscan Castles. Now I can see why. We missed our tour departure, so we did the winery tour and tasting first, then had lunch in the Osteria, then the Castle museum tour last. You can’t tour the inside of the castle, because the current Baron Ricasole lives there. He wasn’t there today. The castle is drafty. So he’s spending the winter months between a house a few kilometers away and an apartment in Florence.
Anyway, the Ricasoli family has been there at Castle Brolio since 1141 and making wine for just that long. It’s the oldest winery known in Europe, and the Baron Bestemio Ricasoli, friend to King Vittorio Emanuele II, is the inventor of the Chianti recipe; 80% Sangiovese and the other 20% whatever you want. the winery is massive, with an annual production to rival many of the biggest U.S. wineries. There’s a small, but incredible museum chock-a-block full of important artifacts central to the history of Chianti, Tuscany and Italy itself. 
Castle Brolio’s property sits on about 5000 hectares (1200 acres) of land in the Chianti. Of that, about 25 are planted in Olive Trees, roughly 200 planted in grape vines for wine. The rest is wild. There was sharecropping on the land until the 1950s when a law was passed making it illegal. I had always thought it was readily available factory work that made all the contadini abandon their farms and move to the city, but I guess this had something to do with it too.     
We had a winery tour with a man named Gianni, who lives within a kilometer of the Castle, raised there and familiar with the history of the Sienese and Florentines. Then lunch in the Osteria at Brolio and a museum tour in the afternoon. This museum houses some really amazing artefacts that are central to the story of the development of Italy, like Baron Betolio Ricasoli's armory collection, partly experimental, a room designed for King Emmanuele Vittorio, some grape leaves tainted with phyloxera, an original copy of the first edition of the newspaper "La Nazione" that instructed Italians on what it means to be italian. 

We drove to Siena later and walked around the city for a couple of hours taking in the sights. The main commercial streets have become a massive shopping mall, clogged with people of all ages windowshopping. It’s really incredible how many people are out here on Saturday night. I have spoken with other tourists from other European countries both in Alba and here who share a sentiment of disappointment at what they express as untrammeled consumerism. The store fronts are dripping with meticulously constructed and impossibly sheek manequins sporting the newest hottest threads from Milan and from the United States. I have to say that I have been swept away in the window shopping as well.   
Dinner here in Bagno a Vignoni. Rustic tuscan cuisine, no pasta. Lots of polenta. There’s about 30 people who actually live in this village. The rest commute in to work. 

November 26

Today we are off to Modena to sample balsamic vinegar in its capital city, then off to the Tuscany for an overnight castle visit. It’s rough!
We said our goodbyes this morning to Roberta and Giovanna at Villa La Favorita and 
also to a swiss couple from Graubunden we had met, then drove through alternating snow, hail and rain from Alba down to Modena for our appointment with a balsamic vinegar producer there. 
 If it weren't for these granola energy bars that Darren's cousin Dale made for our trip, we would be hurting for snacks. Thanks, Dale!!
 Even in Italy, they have Ikea. This is the biggest one we've ever seen.

We drove into the center of Modena for lunch before the appointment. Decided to ask a local woman there for a suggestion. She directed us to a restaurant up above the street on the “first floor”. It was packed with local people, some of them regarded us with mixed caution and curiosity. We ate really well and in time for our appointment with the balsamic producer.  
We really had no idea what we were walking into. There was a miscommunication, and instead of driving to the production facility, we drove to a balsamic vinegar consortium office in an industrial zone on the outskirts of town. Two large rooms there were occupied there by large table in one side of the room with chairs around it. There was someone there who knew the name we mentioned, made a phone call and gave us the correct address.
We drove back across Modena, parked the car, asked around and finally found Giorgio, an unusually tall, friendly guy who took us a couple of flights of steps to the attic where between four separate rooms, we had for the first time true balsamic vinegar.  
Giorgio is a third-generation balsamic producer. He lives in a 150 year-old building that looks modest from the outside. There are some beautiful side-lighted cutouts in the ground floor revealing original tiles. He is one of about 60 producers of true balsamic vinegar in the world. He has roughly 400 barrels of varying sizes which are seated in racks against the walls of his attic, most filled with balsamic vinegar in varying ages of composition. The balsamic must be made in an attic where there is sufficient cross-ventilation of air to allow for exchange of gasses between the barrels and the outside.

Giorgio explained that traditional balsamic vinegar is the most regulated food product on earth. In order for it to be produced with the D.O.C.G. label, it has to be aged 25 years, it has to be submitted to an international panel of judges with only a number representing the producer on the label, so that there is no bias, and has to conform to a rigorous point system and fall with 225 and 255 points according to various criteria; viscosity, flavor, tannin, etc.
Many barrels are made of a mix of cherry, oak and juniper staves, although some entire production lines are exclusively of a single wood, such as oak or cherry. And these are marketed separately. In fact, the barrels for aging balsamic aren’t really intended to impart a lot of flavor the vinegar. For this reason, they are not replaced, and can be used for centuries. 
Here's the workshop.

There is a tradition in Modena, that whenever a producer brings a female baby into the world, they begin production on a line of balsamic which will become part of the daughter’s dowry when she gets hitched. The line where he demonstrated samples was from the Carlotta batch, dedicated to his only daughter.
He starts with what he calls the “Mother Barrel”, largest of all, in which he puts the fresh-squeezed grape juice with a mixture of half the must from the press of the grapes and half a mixture of “old must” from all batches past, perhaps even some composite of over a century of aging. Giorgio used a glass siphon with a thin end like a turkey baster in the mother barrel, put the other end to his mouth and pulled some out into the clear tube. It was a murky black muck that looked like motor oil. Then he did the same with each successively smaller barrel down the line until he reached the smallest, the barrel that would be producing some balsamic vinegar in the next six or seven years. Each barrel down the line had an increasingly thick and black vinegar and, although more pungeant, not as clearly smelly he explained to us because the thickness traps the aroma molecules. Here he is at work at the barrels with his siphon.


Giorgio produces about 1 1/2 to 2 litres of balsamic for submission to the consortium each year. After the consortium judges and deems his product balanced and fit for labeling as DOCG balsamic, he bottles between 1500 and 2000 small bottles of true balsamic vinegar for sale, this compared to a non- DOCG producer who makes between 150 and 200,000 bottles a day. 

We finally got around to tasting. He had us try a batch of seven different vinegars and had a tray of biscuits for us to clear our palettes between tastings. We agreed that we are now ruined forever and will probably never appreciate balsamic again after this!   

His little elixirs range in price from between 75 and 120 euros apiece. Darren and I picked up two; a cherry aged bottle and a superior, the grandaddy of them all, made exclusively in french oak. There are recipes for them included and more recipes on his website. I would drizzle them on ice cream, make a reduction with meats, vegetable, salad, I imagine they would taste good on just about anything! Balsamic tasting party, anyone?
So then we continued our trip down through the Tuscan Appenines turned off the freeway outside of Florence and up into the hills to the castle Fonterutoli. We got there just before 7. The guy had told me over the phone that as long as we got there before 7 it would be alright, then when I showed up at 6:50, he was pissed. I think he is just disappointed that we are spending so little time and cannot fully enjoy what the place has to offer. I have to agree. It seems to me that each of the places we are staying probably merits a week or more.
We had dinner at Sotto Le Volte, a small family-run restaurant under the castle arches of the town of Castellina in Chianti. The setting was totally captivating, the food superb. All pics are on Darren's camera. We will upload this weekend. We were pleasantly surprised to find an extensive wine and champagne menu that included Jacques Selosse, one very small champagne producer from Bouzy who I had contacted but was unable to meet with us because of scheduling. So we had a bottle of his champagne with dinner. It tasted unlike any champagne we had ever tried; like creamy hazelnuts that dissolved in the mouth. My memory always gets a little fuzzy after dinner. I think I fell asleep pretty quick!


November 25

Breakfast at Villa Favorita.

Brioche of apples and plum marmalade both from the garden on the estate. 
Blood Orange juice fresh squeezed from the estate. 
coffee with milk
spinach fritatta
salami from parma with fresh buns
murazzano sheep cheeses with cherry, peach and hazelnut & wine grape must  marmalade?!?! Incredible. The neighbors here at the next table are from Switzerland. They are from a little mountaintop village called Graubunden, the only place in the world where Romansch is spoken. It’s the closest living language to latin. They come to Alba every year, and they tell me they eat the best anywhere in the world here in Alba this time of year, after the harvest. No wonder.
Darren was getting ready while I had breakfast. We had an appointment in a little town in the hills called Barolo. It’s famous for wine. This winery did not disappoint. Mascarello Bartolo. The patriarch of the winery passed on recently, leaving his business and legacy to his wife and to his daughter, Maria Teresa. She turned us over to a worker there who gave us a thorough tour in italian of the winery and cantina. It was up to me to translate the whole thing for Darren. Hope I didn’t bullshit too much. We enjoyed it thoroughly and during our tasting met two twins, friends of Maria Teresa’s from Montalcino down south in Sienna, the home of one of Darren’s favorite wines, the Brunello di Montalcino. They were on their way to a tasting in Milano. We became fast friends with them. As it turns out, they will be back in Montalcino when we are there. So we will get to visit their winey and taste their wines as well. They also gave us all the local references we could possibly hope for. This is by far the best way possible to travel, with insider information. They are also traveling in San Francisco in the winter, so I will maybe conduct a tour for them in Sonoma/ Napa/ San Francisco if they are interested and have the time.  
We fell in love with Maria Teresa. She and these twin friends of hers from Montalcino are part of a growing number of small independent producers concerned with stewardship of the land, biodynamics and organics and small community commerce. Fantastic counterpoint to Ceretto from the day before who probably produces over a million bottles a year and then labels wines from other producers as well. 

Here's Darren by the old concrete fermentation tank from the 20s they still use. They like the concrete. 

 The aging casks are huge. They keep the wines in here for a few years.
 This hole is barely big enough for a torso to fit through. Our guide Alessandro is the one who crawls in there to clean it out. He has to be skinny for his job!
 Here are old carrying bottles for the contadini to pick up their wines in the old cantina.
 Here we are with Alessandro. He is thin.
 Here I am with Maria Teresa, 3rd generation winemaker.
She had to grab lunch with her mom and rush off to a funeral, so she shuttled us out the door. We walked around Barolo for an hour snapping photos of the castle and the streets before settling into a sidewalk family-run restaurant (the only one opened in this tiny town) for another unforgettable meal of Truffles and pasta in a seventeenth century cantina. We have gotten into the habit of closing down every restaurant we go into. This one was no exception. The only people left to say goodbye to us were the father (cook), the daughter (waitress) and the other daughter (server). Charming people. Top notch restaurant. Barolo...Yes!

 Here's darren by the old castle foundation. Sunny day!
 This is another castle on the road in the countryside, these crop up at every turn.
 Some grapes still cling to the vine even two months after the harvest. Guess they missed 'em.
 Next we jumped in the car and drove off to the mountain-top village of La Morra where we hoped to find a multicolored chapel the nervous russian guide lady at Ceretto had told us about. The signs were completely uncomprehendible. Folllowing an arrow that seemed to point toward a small street, we walked around the village for a half hour taking in the sights. Finally defeated, we asked a woman where the chapel was. She told us we had to drive back out of La Morra to get there, that it was between La Morra and Barolo. So we drove back past the turnoff, until we wound up in another town. We pulled up to a store where I managed to scare up a very old lady from the back room behind the counter who said it’s off a small road between there and La Morra (where we came from) the chapel is “not very big”. So we drove back again, this time slower than ever (Darren doesn’t like to drive slow because he’s concerned about getting rear ended, so we double back a lot), and this time stopped at a vista point where we spent a few minutes looking out over the valley. Finally there, down below, barely visible, I spotted what looked like a small, multicolored shack. Walking back and forth for a while, we eventually decided it was impossible and started back down for Alba. 
But now, since we had spotted it, we saw it from another angle, and decided to give it one last try. 
This little chapel is so colorfully painted, almost impossible to find...almost.
 Sol Lewitt was commissioned by the Ceretto winery family to paint this tiny chapel on the grounds of their vines and old winery house. It’s cool!!

 Beautiful old coffee roaster in Alba.

Later, satisfied we had found something, we headed back to Alba for some wandering, shopping and dinner. 

Enoclub was our restaurant for the evening. Again in a vaulted, brick ceilinged, former cantina. This meal did not suck. I was still full from lunch, so only had a primo, some handmade ravioli, the smallest ravioli I had ever had, and so many of them. I could scarcely belief someone could go through all the effort to pinch ‘em. Darren had the pasta with truffles, his third time in a row, 

and lamb for a second. Notice the pool-hall concentration on the face of the waitress as she carefully shaves the truffle. Serious business. We paired it with...a bottle of Barolo! The sommelier did this amazing sort of ritual with a napkin, deep, wide- bowl wine glasses and a third glass which he used to catch run-off and coat the insides of our glasses completely before pouring, a sort-of wine ballet. This meal did not all. zzzzz.