Gluttony, Italian Style

Italy is one of those places with immense travel appeal. Gorgeous food and great wine alone would bring me back, again and again. After all, this is a country that invented and perfected cappuccinos, elevated ice cream to an art form, and boasts some 2,000 grape varieties. Add to the mix unrivaled art and architecture, a cultural heritage that spans three millennia, immaculate fashion, promenades of glamorous people. Italians should be ashamed, hoarding such worldly pleasures. Since rediscovering the place two years ago, I longed to return.

So when I heard cookery school friends were hosting a reunion, it took no time to fire off my RSVP. Though timing of the journey, late August in high season, was far from ideal, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. Given time constraints, my vagabond urges gave way to the strategy of staying in one place. No better base than glorious Siena, set in the heart of Tuscany, somewhere I had fallen for on my previous journey. Plans were set and, after great deliberation, an apartment was secured.

The provincial capital, Bologna, proved the perfect point of entry, where for 36 hours I acclimatized to the sweltering heat and the siesta lifestyle. I was pleasantly surprised, as Bologna has a wonderful sense of history about it. To avoid the sweltering sun, I followed vast porticoes, glorious arch-covered walkways that lead me through large expanses of the historic city centre. Or I’d break off the path, and zigzag among the labyrinth of narrow lane ways, blissfully lost, only to find myself in some food rich region of shops and boutiques. Bologna was surprisingly cosmopolitan, yet managed to fly under the radar of the tourist masses.  These days Bologna attracts a growing legion of foodies, being the capital of Emilia Romagna, the province that’s home to parmesan, mozzarella, prosciutto, and balsamic vinegar, among its many specialities.

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After collecting my cooking school friend Lucy at the Bologna Airport, we headed our way to Siena. Upon arriving into our apartment, we ascended to the rooftop terrace and were gobsmacked. An orangey sun edged toward the horizon, setting ablaze a glorious panorama of Tuscany’s rolling hills.  Beneath us this majestic medieval townscape was alive with vibrant celebration. Fresh air blew warm and windy, carrying a cacophony of drumbeats from various sections of town, discordant yet strangely harmonious and full of purpose. We’d landed in the midst of a fortnight of nightly celebrations follows the famed equestrian event, time honored rituals dating back centuries.  Well adorned and organized drum corps called forth celebrants from each of the rival neighborhoods, who compete each year in the town’s Palio horse race.

Soon we too would be swept up in the revelry, following cavalcades into the breathtaking Piazza del Campo, arguably among the finest plazas in all of Europe. But for now we marked the moment atop our rooftop by opening a bottle of fine Brunello wine, made from earthy, well balanced Sangiovese grapes grown in the sun kissed hills directly to our South, raising our glasses and toasting our good fortunes.  All my instincts for Siena were vindicated. I was much less concerned for crossing places off the “must see” list, than for allowing enough time to fully absorb and appreciate this fabulous city.

In the coming days we struck a healthy balance: frequent wanderings among Siena’s enchanted lane ways, along with several strategic assaults on nearby towns. On our rooftop terrace, arguably the finest in town, we’d linger over breakfast under the canopy, a gorgeous gentle breeze mitigated the sun’s intense heat, and toasted the sunset with a glasses of vino and canopies.

It was August on the plains of Central Italy, and the same heat the ripens Sangiovese grapes to a sweet, succulent goodness drove our intense cravings for gelato.  Very quickly we honed in on the best gelateria in town.  Italian holidays beg a certain gluttony, prosecco for lunch, mid afternoon gelato, drinking cappuccinos at every waking opportunity. Surrender your worries for health and embrace the goodness of life, la dolce vita.

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Words to live by as we headed to our next destination. We were scheduled in for lunch in the nearby Tuscan village of Panzano, wherein resides the world renowned butcher Dario Cecchini. From his butcher shop, he was orchestrating our meal: a mad carnivorous feast of extreme proportions. He’s a larger than life figure, blaring music and basking in the adulation of adoring fans, with a boyish twinkle and sly smile. The menu header said it all: “Abandon all hope. you’re in the hands of a butcher now.” Each of the courses featured an increasingly unspeakable part of the cow, mostly served raw.  As we worked our way through the eight course feast, wine flowed freely and the communal table was full of conviviality. Strangers became fast friends. It was great fun, at least nibbling on most of Dario’s offerings, though as pescetarian I was a fish out of water. I drew the line on  brains and other vital organs.

Little more than an hour’s journey by train, Florence is the perfect day trip from Siena. So we set off to momentarily bask in its glory. Perhaps I was spoiled by my last visit, but on this trip the city was less than stellar. Our train landed us in the midst of tourist masses on a very hot summer day. We turned away from several prominent attractions, deterred by the lengthy queues. Frequent sulfurous odors sat heavy in my nose. I trudged forth determined to salvage an afternoon of shopping, but found myself daunted by the rarified world of high fashion. My spirits, lifted from the jolt of macchiatto, propelling me to Hotel Continentale, where I ascended to its fabulous rooftop terrace. There before me Florence’s streetscape unfurled like a three dimensional map. Over one shoulder the Duomo, and the other Piazza della Signoria. Directly below was the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge. Suddenly the days’ travels were placed in the context of this magnificent city. We raised our glasses of prosecco and toasted the town, in all its brilliant disarray, a city rightfully being loved to death. Even at its worst Florence exudes an irresistible charm.

Wine was on our mind as we set off on a day journey to explore neighboring hill towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano. each vying for the imagination and pocketbooks of oenophiles. Montalcino, it is said, is blessed with hot dry summers and poor soil, precisely the conditions necessary to render Sangiovese grape in a most earthy and robust tones.  In the last few decades Montalcino transformed itself from one of the most impoverished villages in Tuscany to one of the world’s great wine centers. As we walked the quiet cobbled streets and lane ways, nearly every other storefront was pedaling wine, or dining experiences for wine tourists. We availed of one such restaurant whose grandiose views compensated for the mediocre cuisine, before heading out to one of the local wineries.

Wine tourism is all the more enjoyable provided you have a connection to the vineyard. So having previously enjoyed a several amazing meals at Osteria Le Logge in Siena, we followed breadcrumbs to Gianni Brunelli winery, hidden away on the backside of the  Despite not officially being open for drop-in visitors, we were afforded a most hospitable welcome, and given a grand tour of the place. Their kindness was duly rewarded, as we loaded up on a sizable cache of wine and olive oil. While I was delighted with the score of Brunello, it quickly dawned on me. We had to drink it all before leaving Italy. A daunting task, but a challenge I felt we could rise to.

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Having filled the car with bounty, we headed to Montepulciano, a quintessential medieval hill town, dreamy from a tourist’s perspective, with impressive architecture and stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Less obviously a wine enclave than its sister to the South, the town is nonetheless renowned for its famed Vino Nobile di Montalpuciano. We sampled the savory Sangiovese blend in one of the local wine shops, after taking the proprietor up on his offer to descend into his wine cellar. It was no humble basement, but a vast network of caves dating to Etruscan times that stoked the sense of adventure wandering down darkened hallways, from one cave to the next. When we eventually emerged back into the daylight, we power walked the town’s perimeter, pulled along by one magnificent view after another, as the sun edged toward the horizon. It was fitting close to an epic five days in Tuscany.

Somewhere outside Treviso, near Venice, in the small village of Moriago della Battaglia, our friends were waiting. We negotiating backroads and miraculously found the appointed village. As we sat at the crossroads deciphering vague directions, our friends made a cinematic grand entrance, riding vintage bicycles, with big grins. An auspicious welcome as there ever was. We made our way to the villa, more town home than country house, with an expansive back garden. We wasted no time toasting our arrival at their local pub, conveniently just two doors down. The proprietor welcomed us as his honored guests, apparently under the delusion we were famous chefs, and graciously invited us to tour his wine cellar. We descended via cargo lift, into a lair-like cellar, where we enjoyed an extended sampling of fresh-pressed Prosecco, three varieties, each grown from different vineyard around the valley. I was amazed at how distinctive each of them were. Five or six bottles were consumed in short order. Our already jovial spirits became downright giddy.  Stories were swapped and songs sung, all before dinner. One could only imagine where this reunion was headed!

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All told we enjoyed four days of food, wine and laughter that required little of our newly earned culinary talents beyond the prepping of charcuterie plates for morning and midday feasts. Each night we sampled the fare of some of the region’s best restaurants, hand picked by our host Brigitte, no finer guide! Having long ago married a local man, she’d developed great savvy for the place and fluency in Italian. As a result we skated through our weekend in style.

How much I appreciated the sweetness of doing nothing. Lacking ready access internet, we were freed from pesky distractions. A rough outline of our days ahead went as follows: Espresso, nibbles, espresso, lunch, espresso, gelato, nap, wine, dinner, espresso, more wine, sleep. Clear the head, move the body, prepare for more gluttony. I relished the chance grab a vintage bike, take a jaunt through the village, maybe an extended pedal into the next village.

We lingering around picnic tables under the big tree in the back garden, swatting mosquitos and swapping stories of life and those mad three months we shared together in the kitchens of Ballymaloe. We had come from across the planet, disparate people with a common bond, a life experience, a shared moment in time. It would have mattered very little where we met, but all the better to be in Italy, spiritual home of slow food and farm house cooking. Being back together in this place nourished on many levels.

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It was the rainiest of days when we bid arrivederci. The heat had finally broke, in a big way, drowned into submission by cloudbursts of heavy sea air.  Not the day one would script for saying goodbye, let alone conditions for embarking on a journey to Venice. With an extra day to spare, how could we resist? Venice exudes its own forcefield, pulling in all those who veer within the stardust of its magic spell. Cynics would deter you from every stepping foot on the place, too crowded, fetid cesspool, while the rest of us embrace the grandiose madness of place. During high season its narrow labyrinth of streets heave with tourists.

On the way back to our hotel, Mandy received an urgent message from home. Due to a nationwide Industrial Action, called for the morning, our flight was cancelled.  After a brief bout of incredulity, vigorous debate, and frantic browsing of the internet, we secured a flight on unspeakable airline, leaving one day later. Nothing left to do it all again tomorrow. National protests against austerity measures required that we put off our own belt tightening, and enjoy our bonus day in Venice. Another day of shopping, site seeing, feasting, and sipping fabulous wine, overlooking yet another hopelessly charming piazza, under a poet’s moon. For our sins, our many sins.

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