Out in the Tuscan Sun

Chianti doesn't always come covered in raffia.

Almost never in raffia, these days, I was told sternly. Although a part of Tuscany, this region has its own personality. If you follow the Strada del Chianti (Chianti Road) you will see black cockerel signs all the way. Many years ago there were cockfights in the area and the plucky little black cockerels of Chianti were invariably the winners and came to be a symbol of prowess. Of excellence. The locals call it Gallo Nero.

siena-01

Many years ago cockfighting was popular in this area and the plucky little fellows from Chianti, invariably turned out to be the winners, and became a symbol of prowess. Of excellence. They call it Gallo Nero, and have adopted the symbol to play up their spin on the local product.

Somehow the hills seem more peaceful in Chianti. There is a stillness, and in spring, along the roadsides, small patches of mauve flag irises, red poppies, white mayflowers, and yellow flowering weeds turn it garden-pretty.

Montefiorale is a typical tiny village, very close to Greve in Chianti, with a road scarcely as wide as a wheelbarrow. As I walked along the street I could hear all the conversations in the houses and an officious guard dog bellowed down at me from his perch on a high wall above. The houses in these parts are usually two storey with a shallow tiled roof that overhangs a bit like a squashy medieval hat. The windows are small and slit-like, like little kid's drawings.

Chianti Classico is the pure red wine of central Italy and there are around 300 producers in the region between Florence and Siena. Most Chianti wineries offer free tastings and there are cellar-door outlets in many villages. The valleys are studded with these tiny villages, and the woods that still cover much of the region have been stripped back to allow vines and olives to be planted. While food and wine is a priority here, it's still simple and homespun. There's no messing with it.

siena-02At Greve, the shops are full of ceramics and food. The Macelleria Falorni, its ceiling dense with a canopy of hams, showed off wild boar salami cut into wafer thin slices and displayed along with other regional sausages and cheeses, bacons and smallgoods.

The date of the grape harvest varies from year to year but you can count on vintage usually taking place in late September or early October.  Then there's a wine festival on the second weekend of September and a frittelle (fried rice cake) festival on the Sunday following St Peter's day in nearby Montefioralle. Add to this a flower festival in early April, and a weekly market in the main piazza (Piazza Matteotti) of Greve every Saturday morning and almost any time is worth visiting.

But I was luckier still. Four kilometres away at the tenth-century Castello Vicchiomaggio, we donned yellow aprons with Gallo Neros on them, while chef Francesco - young, handsome, very Tuscan - took us through a full meal of local dishes: liver and tomato-topped crostini, boned and stuffed guinea fowl and ricotta-stuffed crepes, then tiramisu and biscotti. Zucchini flower risotto? I can now make it like a pro.

Best of all we later ate this feast, in the company of the owner who shared  a stunning '95 San Jacopa, followed by a Ripe delle More '94, produced from his own vineyard. The cooking classes costs about 160,000 lire for a three hour, half-day class, plus the meal.
While the use of boar is understandable in this wildly wooded area, bacala is another story. This dried cod dish is uniquely Tuscan now, but it was originally introduced by traders from Scandinavia who traded it for wine further north at Livorno. Herrings are also traditional food having initially made their way from the North Sea to the Mediterranean the same way. 

While food and wine is a priority here, it is simple and homespun still. There is no messing with it. Mutton is more common than lamb in this region and the local bread is often dry and unsalted, yet eaten without oil or butter. Breakfasts can be spartan too - just a few slices of bread, some jam and coffee. Antipasti is usually several kinds of salami or other cured meats, or tortellini. The meal will often end with panforte or biscotti and a glass of vin santo. For cheeses, watch out for parmesan and pecorino.

It's funny how travel changes things. Once, in my mind, Chianti was shaped like a bulbous bottle, wrapped in a fraying raffia basket. Now I picture it softly glowing in cool green spring light, home to many of my favourite foods and some truly great wines. I look at my pictures and smell salami and flowers.

The next morning I again sat in the courtyard, birdsong and thistledown drifting over me, the smell of wine and coffee in the air. Nearby, Lupi, a bumbling black dog rescued as it wandered in the village, chased the stones we threw.

Yes, I thought. Yes! Book me in here forever.

 

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