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Volume 7, October 2005

Tuscan Epicure

By Maddine Insalaco, Etruscan Places


Olives awaiting the press, Joe Vinson

A not so well known fact among food lovers is that just when the air fares drop in the autumn signaling the end of high season, it is actually THE perfect time to be Tuscany bound.  November represents the gastronomic month par excellence. The year long collaboration of man and nature yields an abundant harvest for the discriminating hungry traveler. The new wine, the “Novello” is uncorked, olives are pressed, chestnuts drop from the trees, mushrooms proliferate, and, if summer rains have fallen at the right time, the white truffle sends its earthy aroma forth for discovery. In fact the hearty Tuscan cuisine and its aged red wines can only truly be appreciated in the cooler months.  

Exploring the region on one’s own to experience the range of culinary sensations available is a valid option. However, joining a food tour may be preferable in that by leaving all the organizational effort to others, it is easier to focus on tasting, eating and cooking without wasting time making the wrong choices and possibly getting lost in the process. One of the most interesting aspects of the food and wine experience is obtaining an appreciation of the producer’s philosophy.  Many of the highest quality comestible goods in Tuscany are produced by small scale, family run operations in which Italian is often the only language spoken. In the absence of an interpreter it would be impossible to understand a producer’s ideas about his or her product and hence lead to a less than ideal experience of that product. The small, traditional producer is also the least likely to employ advertising techniques like internet, so this makes them very hard to identify and eventually find. So organized food touring does make sense from many points of view.

The Battle of Ideas

In this Age of Globalization battles are raging on the gastronomic front as producers fight to defend traditional processes from extinction. In no activity is this conflict more pronounced than in the wine industry. With increasing levels of sophistication, both of the Italian wine professionals themselves and the international consumer, traditional methods covering every aspect of viticulture and enology are being abandoned in favor of more technologically advanced processes.

At the present time the production of the complex, aged, traditional Tuscan reds like Brunello of Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, is divided among “traditional” and “technical” producers. In general, traditional producers use time honored techniques of fermentation and aging and tend less to renew and update processing equipment and storage facilities. Technical producers, as the name implies, usually have the economic means and desire to invest in new technologies and trends in aging techniques. 

The result is that the wines made by these different types of producers have completely different tastes, and, in the case of technical production, the taste can become independent of the natural conditions characterizing any particular growing season. The current vogue of adopting the French oak barrique for aging among technical producers for example, causes these wines to have a distinct, almost “stylized” flavor, that critics argue lacks “terroir”.

For serious wine aficionados, terroir, or literally the taste of earth, is fundamental. It is that which makes a Brunello, Vino Nobile and Morellino distinct because Montalcino, Montepulciano and Scansano are geographically different places. When certain practices are standardized and diffused too much there is a great risk that subtle and important distinctions in taste among wines can be compromised.  For anyone fortunate enough to live in Tuscany, the benefits of this competition is a large selection of well made wines that will satisfy every palate. The problem arises for the consumer outside Tuscany (and NOT necessarily outside Italy) who can only get wines from the large scale technical producers that offer a more standardized uncharacteristic taste.  

This “mass production of taste” as Dr. Mario Gallori of Sellari Franceschini, a boutique producer of Morellino, describes it, creates all kinds of anomalies and can only have damaging effects on traditional producers. Sellari Franceschini has been producing Morellino in Scansano since 1861, BEFORE the final unification of Italy, and hence can speak from the authority of experience. This year, their select reserve of 2002, of which only 1300 bottles are made annually, was denied Morellino status by the Grosseto Chamber of Commerce’s Taste Commission. The reason had to do with the prolonged period of aging in wood barrels that has been typical of the unique Sellari Franceschini process. The odd thing here is that Sellari Franceschini uses over 95% of indigenous Morellino grapes and not the widely diffused San Giovese imports that the appellation authority accepts as Morellino. Dr. Gallori’s anger at this situation was clearly articulated when he spoke of traditional winemaking in these times as a crucifixion! 

The Scent of Olive Oil

Bruschetta with fresh olive oil, Joe Vinson

The ritual pressing of olives in the late fall and winter is not a job that farmers do alone. The capital investments are too large and the usage requirements too infrequent to justify the expense. Rather, independent mills exist which press individual lots of olives by appointment. The pressing season is typically from November through January and a busy mill will literally be working around the clock seven days a week during this time. The landscape itself is draped in giant nets in various colors ranging from dull ochre to bright orange, awaiting the olives’ fall and collection. As a twenty year resident of Italy I have found that this is one of the harvests that I most eagerly anticipate. The spicy fragrance of freshly pressed olives is intoxicating and points the direction to the press from meters around. Fresh oil has an intense bite in its taste that rarely survives a month’s storage. It really has to be experienced to be believed. The impact is so dramatic that many mills maintain a working fireplace so that new oil can be sampled as “bruschetta”, or poured on bread that has been grilled over wood coals.

As with viticulture there are competing processing philosophies concerning the harvesting and pressing of olives. In the last few years a new form is dotting the Tuscan hills: the cone and cylindrical shaped olive tree. The machine manicured volumes are aesthetically unappealing and lacking in all poetic imagery associated with the noble grove but have the convenient advantage of allowing a mechanical harvest and hence reduced cost. Once again it will be the larger farms that will be able to make the investment in the expensive equipment that will literally influence the olive growing landscape the most. On the pressing side, there are convincing philosophies on both sides of the issue. Advocates of the traditional stone press method insist that the genuine flavor of the oil can only be extracted in the absence of heat. Technologically oriented mills, to which most of Tuscany is rapidly transforming, maintain that state of the art facilities are more hygienic and the only guarantor that one producer’s oil is not adulterated by another’s.

A Very Local Pig

It was not until I became a property owner in the Province of Siena three years ago that I heard about a peculiar breed of pig indigenous to this territory – the Cinta Senese. The word “cinta” in Italian means belt and it is an appropriate description of these curious dark gray pigs that have a thick white stripe around their girth. The breeding of the Cinta has antique roots in the Sienese countryside. The earliest known visual record of the Cinta is also contained in one of Siena’s most famous works of art, “The Effects of Good Government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-40). Ascending the road to one of Siena’s main gates is the unmistakable figure of a Cinta being led to the marketplace by a peasant.

In fact, until the 1950’s it was probably the peasant culture that kept the breed alive. Known for its robust constitution the Cinta easily adapted itself to living in a wild state. Peasants who had no property and facilities of their own could comfortably maintain one or two Cinta for their own consumption. With the transformation of Italian agriculture in the 1950’s large scale cross-breeding of the Cinta with other races of white pig took place and the market for Cinta expanded beyond the confines of Siena. Unfortunately in 1967 an African swine epidemic brought the movement of pigs between central and northern Italy to a halt, obliged the development of local pig breeding in the north and effectively threw the Tuscan Cinta industry into crisis.

By 1980 the Cinta breed was facing extinction. Thanks to financial incentives offered by local and regional governments, and to the efforts of some determined breeders, the race was revived. Today, one can almost speak of a Cinta renaissance. There are over 80 breeders who are busily seeing to it that Cinta products are featured in specialty food shops and restaurants throughout the region.

The Noblest and Fairest Fungus of Them All

The precious White Truffle, Joe Vinson

In November 2002, my husband and I knew we made the right choice when we strolled through Buonconvento the first night after moving into our new home and saw a handwritten sign prominently displayed in the window of the green grocer: “Local White Truffles”. We hastened inside and, for the very modest price of Euro 16, about US$15 at the time, left with a splendid truffle the size of a golf ball. With borrowed cutlery and only one large serving plate to feed both of us, I can unashamedly say that I had one of the best and most unforgettable meals of my life. There is nothing more simple, yet more sublime, than fresh fettuccine with melted butter, covered in paper thin slices of white truffle, and accompanied by an excellent Brunello! 

What we had not realized when we bought our home was that the “Crete Senese”, wherein lies Buonconvento, is THE white truffle zone of central Italy and was just about to host the annual truffle festival. The rains that made 2002 a terrible one for wine in Tuscany had the complete opposite effect on the truffle harvest. It was a bumper crop the likes of which had not been enjoyed for years. It was for this reason that our fragrant golf ball cost so little. One year later under different weather conditions, the price of the same truffle was ten times higher!

Unlike wine, olive oil and livestock, there is precious little that man can do to influence truffle production. This ugly little fungus is nature’s creature alone and is rightfully prized as a result. Truffles are solitary and grow underground near tree roots in areas that have been designated as reserves.  The ideal environment seems to be along the perimeter of riverbanks.

In Italy hunters use specially trained dogs to find truffles and one of the biggest challenges facing the hunter is keeping the dog from eating them once they have been found. Participating in a truffle hunt is a slow but thrilling experience. While there is never a guarantee that anything will be found it is fascinating to watch the rapport between the hunter and his dog. Last year during our annual excursion, despite low expectations, our hunter guides found a two hundred gram jewel that took no less than twenty minutes to extricate from tangled tree roots. It was critical that the truffle not be damaged and that no root be torn in the process of removal. There were certainly rewards for patience as the unblemished trophy had a value in excess of five hundred euros!

Dining Out

No gastronomic tour is complete without a sampling of local restaurants. One problem that exists is that the deluge of tourism that has hit Tuscany in recent years has negatively affected the quality of food in many restaurants. Hence having reliable recommendations is critical. The best source is first a local reference or a personal acquaintance, next a professional food tour, and lastly, a printed restaurant guide.

A quality food tour will make sure that the menus offered by selected restaurants have been synchronized and orchestrated to provide the participant with the widest range of regional dishes without duplication. Italian restaurant guidebooks, such as Gambero Rosso, are the best because they cater to most demanding critics of all, the Italians themselves. One does not need to read Italian to recognize the name of a restaurant and note the address and phone number. Legends appearing at the beginning of the guides are usually very easy to interpret.    

One final suggestion is to incorporate time for exercise between meals and tours in order to fully appreciate each gastronomic experience.  Buon Appetito!