Includes: Osteria di Passignano, Chianti, Italy; Il Pozzo, Monteriggioni, Chianti, Italy; and more
Okay, I’d better hurry and write today’s segment before we leave for Nancy’s 50th birthday dinner (ostensibly the primary reason for this trip). Last night I was far too tipsy to write anything — so once again I’m way behind …
We spent much of yesterday at San Gimignano, a medieval, walled hill town with seven towers (there used to be many more). I spent most of our time there wandering around by myself. The town was jam-packed with tourists (can’t imagine what it would be like during the height of summer, since now it’s just shoulder season) but still nice.
I met up with our gang for an outdoor lunch, where I had a fabulous veggie platter that included grilled or roasted: eggplant, artichoke hearts, red peppers, onions, radicchio and sun-dried tomatoes, all perfectly seasoned and drenched in olive oil.
I’ve definitely noticed that about food here — they use lots and lots (and lots) of olive oil. But hey, it’s the “healthy oil,” and I sure don’t see many obese Italians around …
Before we left town I had a gelato. I think the flavor was called something like Terre di Siena. Can’t remember any of the ingredients except for mascarpone cheese. It was very rich and fabulous. (Every time I get gelato in the States I always intend to order a fruity one, which is less caloric and fattening, but always get lured by the creamy, milky ones. And apparently I’m sticking to my same habit here.)
Badia di Passignano
During the afternoon we went to the Osteria di Passignano, an old monastery that now operates as a winery and fine-dining restaurant, for our cooking class with executive chef Matia Barciulli. Matia, who is only 28 years old, was cute and charming and a fabulous teacher, explaining a lot of the science that takes place in the kitchen.
It was primarily a demo class full of tastings and tips and technique-learning.
For instance, we learned a fantastic way to quickly make the most adorable roasted potatoes: First, scoop large “pearls” from peeled potatoes with a melon ball tool. (If necessary, you can keep the little balls in a dish of water in the fridge for a day.) Blanch them in boiling water for one minute, drain them, roll them in fine breadcrumbs and salt, drizzle a bit (or a lot!) of olive oil on a baking sheet and roll the balls around in that before putting the whole thing in a 350 oven for 15 minutes. They come out perfectly roasted with a crisp exterior — and they’re so cute!
Did you know — speaking of oven temperature — that for more accurate baking/cooking you should pre-heat the oven for 20 minutes instead of just until the pre-heat light goes out? (Something about heating the entire inside of the oven instead of just the air that escapes as soon as you open the door to put food inside.)
Did you know that I don’t put nearly enough pine nuts and cheese in my pesto — in the past I’ve made it far too basil-heavy. And Chef Matia also explained that the basil should be added at the very end. These seemed to be the secrets to the non-dark-and-speckled pesto we had in Liguria and again last night.
Some yummy reduction sauces courtesy of Chef Matia:
- Balsamic reduction: Reduce four cups of mid-priced Balsamic vinegar for 35-40 minutes.
- Sweet wine reduction: Reduce same amount of dessert wine for same amount of time.
- Red wine reduction: Reduce red wine + 15 percent of its weight in sugar.
- Coffee reduction: Reduce coffee + 20 percent of its weight in sugar.
After our cooking lesson we took a break to tour the wine cellar with Maurizio, a sommelier currently in contention for his wine master certification. It requires about 10 years of study, and there are only 268 of them in the entire world.
I have never met anyone so passionate about wine! He loved when we asked questions — his hands would fly and he would rock back and forth on his feet and his eyes would open wide (at times he looked like Andy Kaufman!). At one point he even illustrated a point by scribbling on an oak barrel.
The cellar was housed in a building more than 1,000 years old. It was full of hundreds of barrels (I forget exactly how may) and was absolutely amazing.
Badia di Passignano is home to Antinori wines, apparently one of the world’s largest producers. They partner with other producers around the globe and have a number of labels.
After our cellar tour with Maurizio, we went back into the wine-tasting room of the osteria and had some delicious bubbly blanc de blancs (note sure I got that right). Then we moved to our table to eat the things we’d learned to cook.
First, though, was an olive oil tasting (served with another wine) that prompted me to buy a bottle to bring home. My friends said my oil tasting experience was nearly as memorable as the famous diner scene from When Harry Met Sally!
The appetizer was a wonderful Pecorino flan on a Balsamic reduction. Ummmm… We then moved to the pasta course, followed by the main: roast Cornish hen with thyme and lemon paired with those cute potatoes. Doesn’t sound fancy, but it was superb. One big reason was a reduction made from roasted chicken bones and vegetable stock that was then reduced for an entire day until it was thicker than and as dark as molasses.
Dessert was — can you guess, Erica?! — a molten chocolate cake on strawberry sauce. But the best molten cake ever, since it was made with fantastic chocolate (Chef Matia recommends 70 percent cocoa) and was much more molten than cake!
Altogether we had four courses and four wines, not including the bubbly and the wine served during the olive oil tasting. Thus, my tipsiness.
It was probably one of the trip’s best days yet …
Fattorio Corzano e Paterno
… until today, that is!
We visited the Corzano family farms. Parents, children (grown), cousins — all work together to produce olive oil, wine and 13 artisanal varieties of Pecorino.
We visited the winery, then the cheese-making and storing facility (where family members and staff were hard at work) and then had an al fresco cheese, wine and bread picnic.
We Americans are mostly familiar with just Pecorino Romano, a hard, aged cheese. But Pecorino really just means cheese made from sheep’s milk, and here in Italy Pecorino can be anything from ricotta to the hard stuff. The Corzanos, however, make more varieties than most — including a most unusual (and delicious) hard blue Pecorino.
Of all the cheeses we tasted, there’s no way I could choose just one favorite. All were truly exquisite.
But all we can take home are the hard, vacuum wrapped cheeses. So I’m bringing back one called Zaffero, which is made with saffron and green peppercorns (at the far left in the photo above). And also a bottle of Vin Santo, Italy’s sweet wine. The Corzanos’ version is pale amber in color, smells (lightly) of sherry and tastes like heaven.
This afternoon we spent several wonderful hours in Volterra — my favorite Tuscan hilltown so far. Wonderful history.
Back from dinner …
Tonight we celebrated Nancy’s birthday at Il Pozzo, a great restaurant in the nearby tiny village of Monteriggioni. It’s another medieval walled fortress — wasn’t even a city, back in the day. I had chingale (wild boar) sauce over pappardelle, a traditional Tuscan dish. Again, stupendous, like nearly everything has been.
And all the restaurant’s patrons sang Happy Birthday to Nancy (English and Italian versions happening at the same time) and she got a “baccio” — kiss — from an Italian man, which I captured on camera. It was another wonderful time, and yes, I’ve had too much wine yet again. (Most of you know what a lightweight I am when it comes to imbibing alcohol!) So I’d better sign off for now.