“Tasting Tuscany”

By Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo
© Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram 2009

What IS a "Super Tuscan," anyway?

What IS a “Super Tuscan” anyway? That is the question that sent us on a quest for a low-key, low-cost, wine-soaked week in Tuscany.

In July, we registered on a home-exchange website (www.HomeExchange.com). In September, “Maria” contacted us to offer the ground floor of her rambling country home in Carmignano. Perfect. Carmignano is one of Tuscany’s oldest winemaking towns, nestled in the hills between Florence and Lucca — all vineyards, farms and olive trees.

Just as Portland was just starting to get chilly, we redeemed our flyer miles for airfare. We contacted Auto Europe, here in Portland, and rented a sky-blue Fiat for around $250. Auto Europe also offers GPS units. Ours has saved our marriage many times.

Maria’s villa sat high on a hill overlooking Florence. We saw the red-roofed Duomo in the distance, one of Europe’s most famous cathedrals. The air was fragrant with rosemary and lavender, and a faint tang of burning brush. Shoes off, we sat on sun-warmed terra cotta tiles trying to take it all in. My husband David dozed, face raised to the sun, eyes closed. Emitting a faint, happy snore now and then.


Fog rising over Tuscan Hills

Carmignano’s silvery green olive trees were heavy with olives. Nets were strung and the harvest had begun. We hiked up to our pretty little town’s medieval Rocca, or fortress, where the views are sensational. Below, the ancient church of St. Michele houses Pontormo’s The Visitation, an astonishing and intimate painting of pregnant Mary with John the Baptist’s pregnant mother, Elizabeth—a real treasure.

At the local enoteca, we enjoyed an informal wine tasting. A fancy machine doled out four local wines, alla spina, with buttons for half glass, full glass or tasting portion. Sometimes the barmaid pressed the tasting-portion button and we got a full glass. She shrugged with that classic Italian, “who knows?” expression. We sampled Poggio De’Colli; Trefiano; Apezzana; and Il Sasso, all of which tasted of fruit, sun and earth.  “This is going to be a great week,” said my husband. He was right.

Berchetto, Poggio a Caiano, and Montalbano

Chestnut Festival poster

We noticed posters for a chestnut festival in neighboring Berchetto. Yes, a chestnut festival. We arrived to a small crowd milling between outdoor cooking stations. We bought a bag of roasted chestnuts, “bruciate,” pulled right from the coals. There were necci, sweet chestnut crepes, and 50-euro-cent “new wine.” Tuscan wines age beautifully, but we were surpised at how tasty they are right out of the barrel.

A trip to Prato for their famous almond cookies, cantucci and brutti buoni, was worth it. These are best dipped in Vin Santo, sweet Tuscan dessert wine.  We brought home a bag for later.

Cookies are best with Vin Santo

At the Villa Medicea in Poggio a Caiano, a 15th-century country estate of lavishly painted, meticulously restored rooms, we got a sense of “how the other half lived” in rural Italy. The high walls and vaulted ceilings were covered in colorful murals—all opulence, wit and allegory.

In neighboring Montalbano, there are over a dozen wineries—some with one label, others with several. The Carmignano visitor’s center has a comprehensive list, but be sure to make an appointment—this isn’t Napa, so be prepared for rejection.

In Montalbano we also found Al Pinone, an old-fashioned cantina with spectacular views and no English. The house wine was slightly effervescent, as were our spirits. The house antipasto of local specialties included bruschetta with dense, dark chicken liver; a square of fried polenta, yellow as yolk, with porcini mushrooms; slices of thin, home-cured proscuitto, mortadella and salami—il sapore, the flavor of Tuscany. Delicate crab gnocchi in a light tomato sauce topped with creamy fried soft-shell crab came next, followed by a robust mixed grill of calamari, swordfish, shrimp, crab and langoustines. The waiter chuckled as he removed our plates, all shells and squeezed lemons—seafood savages.

Trading homes allows another essential when you are conducting your own eating and drinking tour: Laundry. Anything you ruin at lunch can be clean and fresh by dinner. Back in Carmignano, we settled in for the typical 2.5 hour Italian wash cycle and installed ourselves on either side of the lime tree on the terrace. Maria brought us a small bottle of olive oil, pressed that morning from her own olives. We were delighted, ecstatic. Our laundry spun and tumbled, our stomachs were full, the sun was intense—life was good.

Pistoia, Montecatini and Lucca

The baroque facade of Lucca'a main cathedral - no two columns are alike

Ready for a longer road trip, we chose Pistoia, whose medieval courtyards and turrets recall a life perpetually under siege. Sundays are family day in Italy, and everyone was strolling in the grassy park. Impeccably dressed toddlers rode a bright green carousel. Delicious aromas drew us into Pasticceria “GG” for cappuccino. We watched the baker roll triangles for sweet Sunday brioche.

In beautiful Montecatini we visited thermal baths, termi, to check out the healing waters. In the off-season, these legendary spas seem to be used primarily for events. We watched as three wedding parties swanned around with giant flower arrangements and fancy cars.

On to Lucca for lunch, we found the ancient, elegant city crowded with marathon runners and traffic snarled by polizia making everything worse. Inside the gates of Lucca’s mostly pedestrian center, we admired the cathedral’s delicate swirling columns, no two alike. Over lunch in the Corte Portici, we heard each runner announced as he or she crossed the finish. The savory pork tortelli were densely meaty and flavored with nutmeg. Runners kept crossing the threshold and we kept eating. Another day in paradise.


David mid-way to the top of La Rocca

On our last day, we prepared a solemn lunch — local Stracchino cheese on fresh pasta, spinach with Maria’s olive oil and lemon, and a bottle of local Barco Reale wine. We dozed in the sun like cats, with the view of Florence shimmering below terraced green cypress, grapevines and olive trees. I hoped this memory would last through another soggy Maine winter. I fished the fruit flies out of what was left of my Super-Tuscan and went inside to pack.


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