My Own Private Tuscany:
A Typical Day in Paradise
Montepulciano and its weekly roving market is our
next stop and when we arrive at 11 a.m. shoppers are already milling
about the colourful stalls. Dinner duty has fallen to us this evening
and the brimming baskets of fresh produce will dictate what we eat
tonight. Porcini mushrooms are in season now but it has been a drier
fall than usual, so the local crop is meagre and most of the mushrooms
on sale have been imported from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, this
is our one chance to try the fresh version of these legendary funghi,
so we buy a few hundred grams along with some gorgeous tomatoes,
a big bunch of fragrant basil, a couple of fat heads of fennel and
some beautiful oranges from Sicily. With a gleam in his eye, the
elderly vendor hands me a free gift of odori, or soup vegetables,
a small bundle containing a carrot, some celery, and a few sprigs
of fresh basil and parsley. Fish is next on our shopping list so
we wander over to where the vending trucks have gathered and choose
the one with the longest queue (always trust the locals when it
comes to quality). I know how to identify really fresh fish, but
I seldom see it, even in my coastal hometown of Vancouver, British
Columbia. And what a surprise to find it here, miles from the sea
in Southern Tuscany—fish with crystal clear eyes, scarlet gills, gleaming scales and not a whiff of fishiness. The sardines seem to be calling to us; we buy more than enough for our large group and hand over a paltry six euros. Our booty in hand, we find a stall selling table linens and buy nine inexpensive embroidered cotton dishtowels to use as napkins for the duration of our holiday. We duck into a nearby supermarket for a packet of ice for our fish and head up the hill into town to taste and buy some of the region’s world famous wine in the numerous cantine lining the streets.
Food shopping always makes me ravenous and as luck would have it, this morning before setting out we made a lunch reservation at a popular trattoria in Pienza, the miniature Utopian city designed by the humanist scholar Piccolomini after he became Pope Pius II (Pienza, formerly Corsignano, was his birthplace). A quick fifteen minutes down the winding road and we arrive just in time to meet the rest of our group for our 1 p.m. reservation. The patron doesn’t like his guests to be late and always stresses on the phone, “L’una e non dopo!”—One o’clock and not a moment later! We are greeted like old friends as this is our third trip to this simple family-run trattoria and we are shown to a prime table on the terrace under the umbrellas. A menu isn’t required—we already know the specialties of the house by heart. I start with pici al aglione, a hand rolled pasta with a garlicky, spicy tomato sauce. (How can such a simple combination be this glorious?) We follow with shared platters of roast suckling pig, crispy duck with olives, fried potatoes, zucchini timbales, and an uncomplicated mixed salad, all washed down with carafes of generic rosso and bianco. Our dessert of choice is noccioli semi-freddo, a hazelnut ice cream terrine that we fell in love with at our last meal here, but our waiter insists on also giving us a slice each of the chocolate and the orange versions to try. The bill is surprisingly reasonable for food of this quality; we thank the owners and waddle through the deserted streets of Pienza to our cars.
This is the time of day when the whole country seems to be napping, and with most of the shops and attractions closed, we decide to drive back to the villa to sleep off lunch. But by 4 p.m. I am getting restless and a few of us decide to investigate the hot springs at nearby Bagno Vignone, a tiny spa town popular since the time of the Medici. The ancient pool in the centre of town is no longer open to the public but the town’s largest hotel has a huge swimming pool filled with hot mineral water that bubbles directly out of the natural spring. At this time of the year it is mostly Italians “taking the waters” and we have the place almost to ourselves. One of the pools is cool enough for swimming, but our energy is flagging and we are content to just float around, gazing at Rocca d’Orcia, the fortified castle in the distance. After an icy shower I’m shocked to find my appetite returning. Thoughts turn to dinner—we pull into the driveway just as the group is starting to congregate in the kitchen for drinks.
The home crew has been busy setting out plates of olives and thickly sliced wild boar salami, opening bottles of wine and pouring our favourite aperitif, Cynar, a bitter artichoke drink that stimulates the taste buds for the meal to come. Between sips and bites, we swap stories about our day’s adventures, and then everyone pitches in to get dinner started. The sardines need to be cleaned; half are destined to be baked, stuffed with fresh porcini mushrooms and bread crumbs; the others will be grilled over hardwood charcoal on the barbecue. Potatoes are cut up for roasting and drenched in lemon juice and olive oil. The fennel and oranges are sliced for a palate-cleansing salad. The giant glass bowl is filled to the brim with sparkling fresh greens from today’s market. Fettuccini lightly cloaked in a sauce made from pungent Gorgonzola and farm cream is our first course and somehow it tastes even better on the terrace overlooking the stark Tuscan fields behind the house. We move inside for the secondi: the stuffed sardines melt on the tongue and the barbecued sardines drizzled with lemon are eaten with our fingers—heaven. The fennel and oranges are the perfect counterpoint to the slightly oily fish, and the green salad clears the way for dessert: fresh Pecorino cheese from Pienza, drizzled with local honey. Wine and conversation flow freely as we finish our meal with some hazelnut biscotti and limoncello, a bracing lemon liqueur, served ice cold. People wander off to bed in dribs and drabs leaving some of the group behind to solve the world’s problems. A few pages of my book are all I can manage before I drift off into a blissful sleep.
Substitute your family for my group of friends, reduce your group size to four or just get away with your partner. Add horseback riding, hiking, an art and architecture outing or double up on the pool time—you get the picture. If any of this appeals to you, read on—a memorable vacation in Italy is within your grasp.