Friday, September 17, 2010

Italy Trip 2010 - Day 7 - Day at the Umbrian Farmhouse

Today was our quiet day at the Umbrian Farmhouse. The decrescendo of our journey. A day to just enjoy the countryside and the beautiful home and grounds capped off with our cooking class at the end of the day.

Of course I woke up before anyone and being we were out of coffee at the houses, I thought I would head to town early and grab some provisions to start the day for my travelers. Of course it was only 6:30 am so all was quiet in Mercatale. I made my way into the local coffee stop, Sheila's, and asked what time the local market opened. Well of course that wasn't until 8 am so I grabbed a couple cappuccinos and kicked back and watched the news, in Italian of course. I enjoyed watching the locals stumble their way in to start their days - mostly farmers and construction workers, all who likely engaged in this ritual every day. And even though I stuck out like a sour thumb, all were friendly with a gruff, but non-threatening, buon giorno and a nod of the head.

At 8 am I was off to the market where I was the first patron of the day. The proprietor was kind and tolerated my hand gestures and sketches on paper to describe a bag of coffee, sugar, and cream. Grabbed some croissants, a little fruit and I was out the door. As I drove back to the houses the light through the wafting fog dancing on the hills over the sunlit tobacco and sunflower fields was captivating. So what should have been a 15 min drive home quickly became a 45 minute drive with stops here and there along the way to snap vignettes of this quiet and picturesque landscape. You realize that men and women have been farming this valley for years - thousands of years. What spirits were dancing in the fog???? I can only imagine.

Life was stirring at the house when I returned. Coffee was quickly on the stove and the day now really began. With no agenda, everyone started to set their own course for the the day. I had a group that wanted to go to the old antique stoneyard, Lacole, for a quick tour of their treasures and finds. Seven travelers chose to check this out so we were off in two cars.

We made our way north of our home, past the small walled city of Citta di Castello, and up the valley toward Arezzo. Finally we found the old stoneyard and we pulled in and parked. Not two minutes later a gentleman pulled up ascertaining our purpose. I quickly aksed for Giacomo who is the son of the family who runs this amazing operation. He quickly called him and in minutes I was speaking with Giacomo and he was excited to hear I was back for a visit. He was finishing lunch (always a priority) and would join us in about 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, we would walk the yard and see what treasures were on the grounds. In the past, this was their only location and all of their inventory was in this open air yard. Walking around it became quiet apparent that this was no longer the case. The yard was filled strictly with building materials, pavers, tiles, beams, and a few old fireplace fronts, basins and fountains - all probably not good enough to make the grade of their new location. With a huge thunderstorm approaching we quickly toured the yard and made our way to the cover and safety of our cars. No sooner did we get inside than the rain came down - big time. Of course that is when Giacomo arrived and jumping out of the car to chat was just enough time to get totally soaked! He asked we follow him to their new showroom.....

After a short drive through the farm valley we made our way to the new Lacole facility.....WOW. The new showroom is simply mindblowing! A huge 2 story showroom is only augmented by a huge outdoor yard where all the pieces from the old stoneyard that were randomly strewn about are now organized in beautiful vignettes and rows making the treasure hunting experience for the patron very pleasurable. Everything from the antiques to the snails on the ground are beautiful in true Italian style! It is very gratifying to see how far this family's operation has come in the ten years I have been visiting them. I have purchased roof tiles, doors, fireplace fronts, and many other elements for projects in Phoenix from Lacole and so its always great to visit them. Mamma who runs the antique side of the business is always great to see - she never ages and is a beautiful woman. I could sit and just listen to her speak for hours.... They gave us a nice tour and after two hours of wandering around we said our goodbyes and we were on our way back to the Umbrian Farmhouses.

With a stop at a farm to see the chickens, turkeys, pigs and ducks all race to greet us (by the way a chicken is faster than a turkey) we made our way home to the laughter and commotion of the house. Several of our travelers all had made their way on their own adventures and explorations of the area so we all arrived with our stories of the day. Elizabeth and her crew were getting things ready for our cooking class which starts around 4pm and runs until 8 pm whereupon we all sit down to savor our gastronomic creations! The cooking class is always a great time - relaxing, fun and with vino flowing, always full of laughter. People jump in and out of the various activities involved in the production of the various dishes. Along the way we are all savoring the tastes as the light from the day slowly descends on the Umbrian hills. Its a very memorable way to spend the day at the Country Houses.

With dinner behind us and a fire in the fireplace it was time to unwind. As we did a group started to strategize about branching off and heading to the Amalfi Coast for a little side adventure over the next three days. After enjoying another glass of vino or two, we all had our game plans for Day 8 and it was time to call it a night......let's just say at about 2am ....again.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Italy Trip 2010 - Day 6 Wine Tour

Today marks the halfway point on our trip. It's a day I always enjoy - our tour of the Tuscan Wineries with our guide, Pino Teresi.

We had full interest with the exception of my daughter, Tiffany, who decided to hang at the house and have the place to herself for the day. The rest of us were up and out of there by 8:45 with the fog still lifting from the Umbrian hills. We made our way down the gravel road and into the closest town, Mercatale, to meet Pino at our little coffee stop, Shiela's. A quick cappuccino and a bottle of water to go and we all hopped on the charter bus Pino had arranged. Ahh, no driving today, just sipping wine, taking photos, and letting Pino run the show.

Pino is an amazing guide and I highly recommend him if in the area. He is well educated and extremely knowledgeable and quite respected by anyone we encounter in any of the towns - they all love Pino! Like all Italians, his descriptions are always animated and passionate and he is just a delight to listen to.

Our driver made our way past Cortona and from that point forward all of the iconic photos of the Tuscan countryside were right out our window. As we made our way through hills punctuated by rows of Italian Cyprus and stone farmhouses we made our way up the hill to our first stop, Montepulciano, home of the fine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine and several beautiful cellars. The town was settled in the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. by the Etruscans and later the Romans. I suppose if you produce great wine there is no reason to leave!

Our first stop was at the oldest winery in Montepulciano, Contucci, The Contucci family founded this winery in the 11th Century and continue their passion for fine wine, vin santo and olive oil still today. We were presented several wines and the history of the winery and the story of their grapes by Pino and the host, Adamo! What a character this guy was. The first words out of his limited English vocabulary was the fact he loved wine, women, and their breasts....well what a way to start a wine tasting at 10:30 am. Adamo worked the room and proceeded to kiss every woman on the tour, many several times for each photo op. After several samples it was time to give Adamo and the ladies a rest and move on to our next venue.

The next stop was the Cantina del Redi, We always make it a point to make a stop to this amazing cellar buried deep in the tufa stone below Montepulciano. The smell, the mood, and the fact you just keep going down until you ultimately reach the temple of barrels and brick vaults which tower over this wine heaven even if it is deep underground. I love the look of my travelers when they arrive in this cellar. It's beyond description as the sight, smell, sound and light all tantalize your senses....and that's before you even taste the wine. This is always one of my favorites and continues to be despite all of the wonderful places Pino has taken me and my travelers over the years.

A quick walk through town, a little shopping and it was time to herd the troops up to our next stop Pienza. Again, the drive to Pienza is gorgeous as the bus climbs up and down subtle hills with the turned soil or vineyards full of the grapes we were beginning to enjoy on this day. We made our way to Pienza where we had a lovely lunch at the La Mensa "Del Conte". This place is always on Pino's agenda for this day and the food is always simple, hardy and definitely Tuscan. With lunch behind us we took a quick walking tour through Pienza - home of the impeccable Pecorino cheese, a hard cheese made from ewe's milk.

With Pienza behind us it was off to our final stop Montalcino and home of the Brunello di Montalcino wine. Here we tasted the number one rated wine in the world as rated by Spectator Magazine, the Casanova di Neri 2001 Tenuta Nuova Brunello, I was fortunate to snag a few bottles in 2007 when touring this winery and I am saving at least one for my upcoming 50th Birthday in October! This trip we spent the afternoon at the Enoteca di Piazza,, which is a great wine tasting room with a wide selection of wines all available via the tasting carousels and a great view of the countryside out the window! The proprietor was knowledgeable and spoke very good English so the time here was great and their shipping system was well organized. Needless to say, after an hour of samplings it was not difficult to place orders for several cases.

With lunch and plenty of wine it was time for the long bus ride back to Mercatale where a nine course meal was waiting for us at Mimmi's। Yes 9 course meal। I of course knew this so I took a nice cat nap on the hour and a half ride back to Mercatale। Upon arrival we said our goodbyes to Pino and I quickly dashed up the hill to get Tiffany and then it was off to Mimmi's for the endless country meal all served family style। This marathon of gastronomic indulgence started with two different appetizers, followed by three separate pasta dishes - cannelloni, lasagna, and raviolis, and then two vegetable dishes then finally three different meat dishes - roasted pork, turkey and beef।

Then finally a desert dish featuring tiramisu, gelato, and God I cannot remember the third little delight on that plate.... We always outlast every guest of this restaurant and by the end of the night the place is ours and our debauchery begins। Jokes, laughter, singing.....its always a relaxing and comfortable place despite the size of your waistline at the conclusion of dinner!

By now it was close to midnight.....again... but tomorrow was a free day. No real agenda other than sleeping in and hanging out at the pool.....we'll see!

Italy Trip 2010 - Day 5 Deruta and Assisi

Day 5 began quietly. After all of the excitement from yesterday's adventures everyone was moving a bit slower on this morning and some were not moving at all!

Those of us that were coherent, started the morning with a little coffee on the porch and enjoyed our ritual of watching the fog burn off in the Niccone valley below. Once we were loaded with caffeine we were ready to start our Monday tour of Umbria. I love it as the trip progresses and everyone starts to get comfortable with being in the country and since everyone has their own car, the agenda is there but you don't have to follow it. Most of the group stayed behind and slept in! I had 7 with me and 7 were sawing logs.

Off we went down the hill, through the valley then up and over the big hill, the great view of Lake Trasimeno and then down the hill. We jumped on the freeway which is interrupted by numerous tunnels but with just two cars in our Umbrian convey today was a breeze. We passed Perugia, which is a great town, and proceeded down the Tiber river valley to Deruta. Deruta is most recognized for its excellent ceramics which are exported throughout the world. The fine clay from the Tiber River provides the unique medium for this craft which has been perfected over the centuries.

We stopped at my favorite studio and shop, CAMA, which I have been visiting for nearly 10 years now. The Niccacci family has been operating CAMA for over 60 years and every time I visit Mamma and Pappa are there to welcome me with kisses and a personal tour for my guests of their studio. Uncle Luigi throws the clay and his hands magically, precisely, and repeatedly produce the myriad of pieces they produce. He is a a master and it is simply mesmerizing to watch him on the wheel. Then to watch the speed and precision of the stenciling and painting of each piece, one by truly gives you an appreciation of the love, passion, craftsmanship and history that goes into each piece. Needless to say, once everyone experienced the tour and the spirit of this place - including pictures of the family presenting pieces to Pope John Paul II next to biking and soccer photos of Pappa when he was much younger - the purchasing was in full fervor. Let's just say the Niccacci's are always happy when I come to town and make what is probably a slow Monday into a nice little uptick in their sales for the month! This trip was no different.

After the ordering was done, Roberta Niccacci escorted us through town to a great little country house in the farmland of the Tiber valley for lunch. I love these little bed and breakfast places. Pappa or Mamma cooks and the other serves. Other than perhaps the mayor of town, we were the only other diners on the patio overlooking the tobacco and sunflower fields. We ordered antipasti for 7 and of course instead received 7 individual antipasti platters....ahhh dining in Umbria was on! A little vino, and the sound of thunder and lighting from an approaching thunderstorm and you couldn't ask for any better ambiance for a Monday afternoon lunch in Umbria. I enjoyed the Tagliatelle con Chingale (pasta with wild boar sauce), whose order was confirmed by the waitress giving a pig snort sound, and of course a glass of chianti. A myriad of dishes were ordered by the group and the sampling began! Delicious!

As we were dining in Deruta, our late sleepers had risen and were off on their own adventure and stopped along the Lake Trasimeno for their lunch which apparently was also equally amazing. Pasta with white truffe sauce along the shore of the lake....sounds pretty good to me. We closed out our purchases at CAMA and we were off to Assisi to all rendezvous.

Assisi is always a favorite on the trip and this time proved no different. Parking is always an adventure in these hilltowns but we all seemed to find a spot and eventually all meet at the main piazza. Touring churches and shops, grabbing a gelato to top off the pasta and enjoying the passing thunderstorm all added to a relaxing afternoon in this beautiful Umbrian hilltown. Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis, who founded the religious order of the Franciscan monks in this town in 1208 and shares honor with Saint Catherine of Siena as the patron saints of Italy. You can definitely feel this aura as you stroll the streets and occasionally pass a monk or nun on their way to mass. The streets are tight and medieval in character and you always catch a glimpse of the quilted patchwork of farm fields below as you glance down the streets. Its really a beautiful and spiritual place.

Both groups arrived at the Basilica di San Francesco which was damaged in a quake in 1997 but was restored and reopened just two years later. This church is amazing and one of the best on our tour. Three levels make up this marvelous structure capped off with the tomb of Saint Francis at the bottom level which acts as the emanating core of this church. Everyone was moved by this remarkable place. We sat in the middle church and watched all of our travelers emerge from the tomb just shaking their heads in awe as mass was being said in the adjoining chapel. Talk about We then all gathered and proceeded outdoors to the sun peaking through following the rainstorm.....again amazing. Fantastic light and the cameras were in full motion. We made our way back through town, did a little shopping along the way, and capped our conquering of Assisi with a gelato and/or cappuccino at the Piazza San Rufino at the top of the town.

We then proceeded to all make our ways back to our cars....some had an adventure in that task but we all eventually made it and drove down the hill and back to our little dark and quiet Niccone valley. Along the way we stopped in our favorite pizzeria in Lisciono Niccone and grabbed six pies, panna cotta for desert, and of course a couple jugs of the local house wine for reinforcements!

Back to the houses, a little dinner, a quick swim under the Umbrian stars, and then it was back onto the porch for recollections of the day's adventures, laughs and then eventually some more swimming at 2 am.... what fun!