Lingering in the hills of Tuscany
My most recent trip to Italy is now a distant, but not forgotten memory. It is the first time in many years that I have not visited Tuscany at least once in a twelve month cycle, a place I consider to be my second home.
With a busy year at Bella Cucina behind me and the painful thought of a continuously weakening dollar, I content myself with other means of travel, for now.
I find myself writing often from memory about the fond travel experiences I have had in years past.They remain permanently and lovingly scattered about in my head and heart.
Until my next visit to Italia, I hope these words may bring back memories from one of your own travel experiences or that it might inspire you to travel to this special place one day soon.
Alora, la novella…….
Otono en Toscana, fall in Tuscany
It is true what they say. The espresso is strong and the panini are very, very good. Although I visit at least yearly and more often if possible, I am still excited when I arrive at the doorstep of the Italian countryside .
A taxi awaits as I struggle to get off the train with my American-size luggage. I have exactly 80 seconds to collect my things before the trains starts rolling off to its next destination. A grey haired man with only a few teeth left, most of them a descending hue of gray, takes my bags. He makes a dramatic gesture, which I self-conciously translate to mean “this is very heavy”. Il senore manages to get it to fit in his tiny trunk, which is already filled with whatever roadside treasures or tools he has collected along his travels. I tuck a proscuitto panini into my bag to savor for the short trip. I settle in for the ride along the bumpy country road to my new home in Tuscany. It is a prelude to the life I will be deliciously iving for the next three months.
“Dove vai?” he asks in a muffled accent, barely audible over the blaring radio conversation.
“ Vado a Villa Bella, vecino de la Fontana termale en San Casciano”. He doesn’t answer and I take this as an affirmation that he knows the location of the thermal spa that is the landmark near the villa. I sit back and trust the silence. I tune out the chatter on the radio and drift off, dreaming about what will be my new home for the next few months. I am in one of my most favorite countries, my favorite province, Tuscany. Toscana. I start practicing Italian conversazione in my head in anticipation of my arrival.
San Casciano is a small town, a hamlet really, in the middle of and on the way to neighboring hilltowns that famous Americani have made home. The popular hilltowns are now, unfortunately, become a bit too touristy for my liking. I usually prefer to be off the beaten path anyway. Hardly anyone in in the quaint village speaks English. I need only a respectable level of conversation with the locals. I prefer to fumble in my imperfect Italian and naive syntax ,answering in broken Italian even when spoken to in English. A mandatory, “buon giorno”, “Buona sera” and “Buona notte” dot my salutions, making sure that I check my watch for accuracy in my pronouncement. Buon giorno becomes buona sera only after 1 pm, and is often shortened to “sera” with a long, strong emphasis on the “ah” syllable. Buona notte is a sweet , personal goodbye that signals the end of one’s day and retiring to bed.
In what seems like hours, we arrive 35 minutes later to a long, narrow road lined with 100 year old cypress trees lining the drive like majestic soldiers guarding the gates of the palace. Winding in endless arcs, we approach the villa steps. A weathered and stout woman is wildly gesturing with excitement in her native tongue. As I step out of the taxi, she grabs my arm and pulls me away into the entrace of the villa. She leads me up the granite steps through the main entrance . Multi-colored terrazzo floors look clean and cold and send an excited chill down my uncovered arms. History reveals itself without pride or pretense at every turn. The coldness of the marble floors and limestone walls are soothed by the human-sized fireplace centered in the living room, just off the kitchen. This will certainly be our source of comfort in the months the come.
I settle into my bedroom and exhale with exhaustion from my nocturnal travels. Before I can think of unpacking, I draw a bath and wait for the warm well water to fill the cavernous, sunken tub. It is scented with fresh lavender and rosemary branches cut from the courtyard garden by the signora. I sink into my heavenly new home and fall into a daydream, dreaming of this afternoon’s meal. I imagine all kinds of treasures, plucked from the local market and cooked in the unusually small , but homey kitchen that will soon be christened my own.
Dressed and refreshed from my bath, I set out to capture the day. I don't want to waste a moment of my precious time in this delicious countryside.
Market basket in hand, I set out on foot down the gravel hill to gather staples for the pantry and stock up for the other guests who will be arriving to fill the villa’s other vacant rooms. I visit the only butcher in town, the macelleria, for thin slices of tender, white veal that will be made into tonight’s simple dish for dinner . Seasonal produce is abundant and I have difficulty narrowing down my selection for today’s light pranzo lunch, since only I will be eating . I can’t resist the fresh figs, bursting with jammy, crimson centers. At the formaggeria, I choose a soft dolci di latte gorgonzola to pair with the fruit. A quarter inch slice of perfectly ripe cheese with light blue veins with a delicately pungent blue cheese flavor. Already overloaded and appearing either rich or gluttonous to the locals standing chatting nearby, I gather my paper packages into my basket and head back home.
Sorting through my packages, I carefully arrange the treasures in neat little vignettes around the kitchen. A basket of arancia e fichi on the counter, green tufts and fluffly fronds of vegetables, and herbs placed in water are laid out next to hard-crusted bread which will made into this evenings bruschetta. The cheese is kept at room temperture to release its delicate, flavors when ready to be served. My mouth is watering as a savor tonight’s menu. I put together bit of this and that. for my lunch and relax in front of the fire. I am left alone, the signora now gone, and bask in contentment with the thought of today’s enjoyment, tonight’s meal.
Menu per la cena
Brodo di pollo with sautéed mustard greens and sun-dried tomato polpettini
Pasta Mezzaluna con zucca sweet pumpkin laced with nutty browned butter with fried sage leaves
Vitello con mozzarella bufala e sugo di limone
Arugula insalata with caramelized walnuts, dolci di latte gorgonzola and fresh figs drizzled with chestnut honey
Vin santo with almond biscotti
It is hard to resist the bounty of the land and , once again our modest meal reveals a simple feast . La Cena is served and merriment echos within the frescoed villa walls as the guests sit down to the tavola for their first of many meals to come..
copyright 2008 Alisa Barry