Monday, July 25, 2011

Best Day Ever: Tuscany

My friends (strange, nocturnal creatures who sometimes sleep until well into the afternoon) constantly make fun of me because I typically fall asleep just when the party is getting started, and wake up bright and early the next morning when everyone is usually going off to bed. I prefer to have classes in the morning. And the last time I consistently slept in, I think I was in 8th grade.

There were so many days during the trip when I tried to force myself to remember that this was a vacation—that I didn’t need to plan every moment or wake up at the crack of dawn every morning.

But what’s better than waking up early when everything is quiet and peaceful? I feel like I don’t have to rush, I can just take my time to ease into the day brimming with possibilities ahead of me. And isn’t that what this trip is all about? Having days full of beautiful experiences?

Since a friend told me that I absolutely had to go to the Mercato Centrale, and only before the afternoon tourist rush, I took advantage of the early morning quiet in Florence and made my way to the famous covered marketplace. I sipped on a cappuccino at a café while nearby shopkeepers chatted with me in broken English. They slowly enjoyed their coffees while flipping through newspapers, and then they hurried back to their stalls to set up their cases of meats, fruits, breads, and vegetables for the day. I bought a few apples from a friendly woman who proudly told me about her son who moved to America. Everyone was helpful and kind. I walked around, tempted to buy some fresh pasta or cured meats, but I left before my hungry eyes could get the better of me.

As I mentioned before, our hostel in Florence set up all sorts of fun and relatively inexpensive excursions and tours. You could go on a nighttime bike ride around the city, take a cooking class, or even go horseback riding through Tuscany. We opted for a wine- tasting tour cleverly called “chiantipsy”.

Our first stop was Greve, a town located in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. This area is known for having mineral-rich soil, and locals have been producing wine here since, well, practically forever. We learned that the mark of a true Chianti Classico wine is a black rooster label on the bottle. Here’s the story behind it.

The basement of a cheese and meat store in Greve. Heaven.

The legend of the black rooster goes back to the time of city-states in Italy, when Florence and Siena fought to claim the Chianti Classico region as their own. The fighting was getting pretty ridiculous, so the leaders decided to settle this dispute with a competition. A horseman from each city was to set out at the crow of a rooster, and the border would be established wherever the horsemen met. Fair enough. The Sienese chose a happy, well-fed white rooster while the Florentines starved a black rooster. Animal cruelty much? But wait! He soon became the star of the city because he was so hungry that he woke up  early in the morning and crowed, allowing the rider to get a head start on his journey.

The black rooster is a symbol of authenticity, and he has been since 1398. Our next stop was a nearby vineyard for a light lunch and chianti tasting. Our guide told us that Lorenzo, a close friend of his, is a twelfth generation wine-maker. His ancestry dates back to the time of the Medici family. Yes, I’m talking about the same Medici family who essentially financed the early Renaissance. Lorenzo’s family was extremely wealthy, but they were reduced to farming-class status after a number of disputes with the Medici’s, who clearly weren’t the kind of people you wanted to piss off. So ever since then, Lorenzo’s family has been farming in Tuscany.

I’m not sure what I expected, perhaps a man dressed like a count or a lord or something like that, but Lorenzo was far from this. He wore jeans and a casual cotton shirt. His curly black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He was smiling, down-to-earth, and shy. As he led us through the garden to his grand house, he lovingly checked on his olive trees and grapevines, delicately brushing the leaves with the tips of his fingers. He spoke about his estate in Italian while our guide translated. He spoke of his family’s wine with pride, and warmly invited us to explore his home.

We walked into a great room with tables set up for lunch. The meal was simple, yet delicious. We ate slices of bread with prosciutto and salami, and sipped on two kinds of red wine. Lorenzo served us olive oil produced on his estate, generously drizzling it onto our plates. And if it had been socially acceptable for me to lick my plate, I would have. Finally, we were served a delicious penne pasta with tomato sauce. It felt like something out of a movie. I was eating a beautiful meal with wonderful people, looking out the window onto softly rolling hills covered in grape vines and olive trees.

I don’t know much about wine, but I could definitely tell a difference between the Chianti and the basic red wine we were served. The first wine was light and fruity, while the chianti had a deeper, richer taste.

We ended our trip at a grappa factory. I had never heard of grappa before this tour, so I was fascinated by it. Originally made to avoid waste, grappa is a byproduct of fermented grape skins, so all the left-overs after winemaking. At the factory, a portion of the grappa is stored in great barrels, giving it an amber color as well as a unique, aged flavor.

Many people use it as a ‘digestivo’, or an after-dinner drink to aid in digestion. Some even drink a little with espresso to create ‘caffe corretto’. First you enjoy the espresso, and follow it with a few ounces of grappa. Delicioso!

I enjoyed the smell of it more than the taste. I can only describe it as similar to vodka, but with a sweet flavor. Overall, not bad, but I don’t think I can handle it straight!

As if that wasn’t awesome enough, we were served fruit skewers drizzled with creamy balsamic vinegar, which reminded me of a recipe I recently came upon.

Macerated Berries with Balsamic Vinegar
1 quart of strawberries, washed and sliced
1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp honey
chopped mint or basil

Simmer vinegar over medium-low heat until reduced by half. At this point it should be thickened a bit and a little sticky. Remove from heat and stir in honey. Pour over berries and let sit for approximately 10 minutes. Stir in herbs and serve atop vanilla ice cream.

(sorry, I had to!)

I am so absolutely in love with Italy.

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