It has been over ten years since I have been here. It was one of my favorite places in my travels coming here many times, usually in the autumn. The place is the Chianti part of Tuscany. It lies directly south of Florence and is just a little less than half way to Siena. It is high fills and valleys with vineyards, old villas, hilltowns, and cypress trees. No trains come through it and since this isn't July or August, there are relatively few tourists. It is colder than I expected with a rainstorm that refused to leave during our entire visit. Usually it only rained at night and we we awoke in the mornings a fine fog hovered in the valleys.
I had some concerns in coming here. Would its beauty be less than I remembered? What if the food wasn't the earthy mix of wild boar, porcini mushrooms, black truffles, and pasta that has remained in my taste bud memory so loved for so long? I was taking people I love to this place so special to me. What if they didn't like it after all?
My sister, Judy, and her husband Mike had arrived a day earlier coming from their cruise through the Greek Islands. They were sleeping when John and I got there. Soon the rest of the group Kay & Tony, Steve & Mary drove up the drive. We are staying at Monti Poni which consists of a large farmhouse with multiple lodgings (in three apartments) and also the owner's home in a separate building. There is a beautiful swimming pool, although sadly we never did use it as it was just too cold even for me. It is a beautiful spot and the accommodations were lovely although we never were quite warm enough due to the unseasonably cold weather we had. The fireplace was huge and did provide good heat but the chimney didn't draw well so we our clothing always smelled of the log fire and each morning I felt like I had smoked a pack of cigarettes (yuk).
Still it was a lovely place and we had such a wonderful time. So good to be with the people you love in a place you love.
Morning clouds nestling in the valley by Monte Poni.
The pool at Monte Poni
That first evening we drove up the nearby winding road to the top of the mountain above the town of Greve to Restaraunt Lamole. I remembered the first time I came here over 20 years ago. The place is unchanged except that everyone is 20 years older - me, the owners, the owner's son (who was a our waiter). I remembered him as a 6 year old running around the restaurant. Now he is a very charming, well educated, entertaining fellow who has a degree in geology and spent several years at Yosemite National Park.
Being Monday night the restaurant was almost deserted, except for us. We had the attentive service of three wait persons and they provided such a memorable evening. To begin prossecco (Italian champagne) and then starters that can hardly be described - an egg slow cooked in the oven at a very low temperature yielding a silken shimmering white an yellow oval, a vegetable flan covered with shaved truffles, oh my oh my I can't remember the rest. For mains there was truffle pasta, boar stew, sliced rare beef (covered with truffles), oh my oh my I can't remember the rest. Cheese course was shaved romano which may sound boring but was just lovely. Oh did I mention the wine? Lamole Chianti Classica Reserva - yum. And then of course dessert........ With all of this there was charming conversation, laughter, and photos.
Then back to the Villa on a cold evening. We got some matches at the restaurant so we could have a fire.
The next day Judy, Michael and I walked to the next village, Panzano. A beautiful cool morning. We saw them picking grapes by hand in a local vineyard.
Picking grapes by hand. Seen during our walk to Panzano across the countryside.
The closest town is Greve. It has a large square for the Saturday market. There are a number of good restaurants and shops. One of the most interesting is a cheese and meat shop.
Tuscan pig - domestic and wild is highly prized.
I particularly liked this one.
We did lots of short drives through the countryside. The roads are windy and mountainous - not for the faint of heart or those prone to motion sickness. The beauty of this area is intoxicating. We saw a huge stag fallow deer run across the road in front of us and then along the roadside. Unfortunately no one had a camera ready. One day we saw boar hunters at work on a moutain road in their orange vests. One group was standing above a ravine blowing horns and banging pans while another group further down the road was entering the ravine with shotguns in hand. We also saw men hiking through the mountains with baskets I suspect for truffles and porcinis.
Statute in Greve square, more well endowed than Michelangelo's David.
A highlight was our cooking class. Two lovely Tuscan women came to Monte Poni to give us a Tuscan cooking lesson. Gaila and Maria Victoria arrived with all the ingredients, printed recipes, and aprons for each of us. The menu:
La Bruschetta (tomato)
Fresh Pasta (with vegetable sauce)
Pollo Al Tegame
We got to work. Gaila was "la maestra" and she ordered us to do her bidding. Maria Victoria (her mother) was that "artist" with the pasta. Everybody pitched in and it was great fun with a delicious result.
Notice that Michael is the only cook sitting down.
I love my Sis!!
Mary looks pretty comfortable at the controls.
"I am the teacher. This is how you do it."
Once the pasta was rolled out it was hung by the fire on chair backs. Later it was cut.
Now we eat!!!! Delicious!
On Thursday all of us piled in two cars and off for a day of culture in Firenze. Both Mike and John did great driving into this busy city filled with Italian drivers. After 5 days in the quiet countryside it was a bit of the other kind of culture shock. We managed to meet up at the Academy and saw David (wow!!) and other old stuff (not so wow). Then we had a really lovely lunch in front of the Duomo. Walks after lunch and to the Uffize for really great old stuff (my favorite "Venus Rising"). It rained of course. We had long walks back to our cars, were exhausted but a great day. We remained in the countryside the rest of the trip - oh la la the tranquility of it all.
One rainy day John and I drove to Arezzo. This is to the east and a little south. Actually it is very close to Siena and resembles Siena in may ways. However, tourists don't seem to have discovered it and it was just and a few Italians wandering about on a rainy day.
View from Arezzo
They have a palio here in Arezzo just like Siena.
Saturday evening we had reserved a spot at the table of the famous butcher of Panzano, Dario Checchino (sp?). He is a genuine person who grew up in Panzano from a long line of butchers. He was going to be the first son not to follow the profession and was studying in college when his father died and he needed to save the family business. To say he is a character is an understatement and he is the darling of many a media foodey/traveler e.g., Mario Butali, Tony Bourdain, and Rick Steeves. His butcher shop is a big gathering spot for locals and for tourists. You might say he put Panzano on the map. When you visit his shop you are offered wine, little tastes of meaty snacks, etc. He does look larger than life.
He has several restaurants - one a sit down one for steaks (huge Tuscan ones) and another that is six courses of meaty family fare (you have whatever they are serving). This is the one we ate in. He also has MacDarios - which is fast food - surely delicious but we didn't sample it.
The dinner was very good if a little wierd, meat broth, some sort of preserved beef cheek, stewed beef, Tuscan beans. I know there was a lot more but I can't quite remember. Anyway we had a great time. Dario was in and out (mostly out). After dinner everyone hangs out in the street and Dario serves grappa. Amazing.
Dario holding court in his shop
After dinner grappa anyone?
Our last day, Sunday, we John, Mike, Judy and I drove to Brolio castle. Of course is was another rainy day but no problem. Brolio castle has been owned by the Ricasoli family since the 1100s and they still live there. The castle was always associated with Firenze even though it is closer to Siena and many battles took place in the area. The Baron in the mid 1800s was actually responsible for creating the Chianti wine "recipe". Thank you Baron. According to the leader of our museum tour he was also quite a guy - very important in the Italian government when they were making Italy all one country, a scientist, and an artist.
Anyway his castle is certainly beautiful and the view outstanding.
Of course our last evening we had to return to Lamole - the place we began our little Tuscan trip. Again the food, ambiance, service, wine, EVERYTHING was great. Filippo, one of the owners was there and it was great to see him. He is just as charming as ever and is very proud of his restaurant's success.
The biggest hit of the evening was the Florentine steak for two that John and I ordered. It was unforgettable - and we were able to share it with the rest of the group. Kay particularly enjoyed it.
On Monday the trip was over. We had to leave this beautiful place. I loved sharing my favorite place with people I love. It will be fun remembering all our good times. We are a special family. I love you.