April 10, 2004
florence trip ~ 9 april 2004

The day opened unpromisingly with rain, and concluded sadly with rain. The clouds, oppressively low set, the temperature in the 40's, the light hard and concreted.

Today was our trip into the Tuscan countryside to see the hill towns of Pienza, Montepulciano, and Cortona with Jonathan Arthur, a Cornish expatriate who moved to Italy with his artist wife sixteen years ago to start his family. As we sped down the Autostrada in a Benz stationwagon with a wheezy differential, I queried him about the Italian martial character ("They are not a very militartistic lot...they had two sorts of battles, of maneuver and by siege...they would maneuver for most of the spring and summer until they found a good flat spot for a battle, assemble their forces, muck about for a bit--at the Battle of ______--they only man killed was an unfortunate fellow who fell off his horse and was trampled to death--stop for lunch and fight until nightfall..."), Italian eating habits (White Collar: start at 0900, stop at 1300, have a substantial lunch, take a nap, and work again between 1600 and 2000, a snack for dinner. Blue Collar: start at 0800, quick snack for lunch, stop at 1800, and a big dinner), olive oil (Tuscany is about the most northern range for olives. Farther south, the typical method of harvesting them is laying a net below the trees to catch the olives, but more northerly, they must be picked by hand. Extra virgin being the early harvests with the greatest "bite". [note from my own study that virtually all virgins are hand-picked because fallen olives can bruise and then ferment and rot]).

The first stop, Pienza, a genuine Renaissance town, because this newcomer (construction starting in 1459), was purely a production of Pope Pius II, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who erected the town on the site of his birthplace village Corsignano as an ideal town to one day rival Siena (supposedly Piccolomini was still piqued that his noble family was exiled from Siena to Corsignano). It never reached this stage in spite of the fact that Pius II prompted his cardinals to build their own pallazi there, and the fact that Piccolomini issued a Papal Bull optimistically christening Pienza a "city". After his death, there was no further impetus for subsequent popes to pay it much mind, and it remains a small town famous more for Pecorino cheese than a rival to Siena.

Of that cheese I can't say enough. We walked into a cheese shop there and were enveloped in the earthy, pungent odor of Pecorino. There were many varieties lying open on the shelves from Pecorino stagronato nella Vinaccia (leftover grape pressings), to Pecorino di Fossa (buried in a hole, forcing the bacteria to work anaerobically), to Pecorino al Tartufo (scented with truffles), to Pecorino semi stagronato (very old, covered with bay leaves and a musty-looking mold, but heavenly in taste), and then Pecorino Fresco (the youngest). These cheeses are wine-like in the complexity of their bouquet, the differences in age contributing to their different characters. After sampling them in the cheese store (we bought a great deal and vacuum-packed them for transport), all I could think of all day was that damn cheese.

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The town itself is tiny and often described in the travel books as jewel-like. This is a suitable description because it is small and inset, almost artificial in it's antiquary perfection. It was here that Zefferelli filmed Romeo & Juliet and the town does seem lost in time. There is a beautiful path that overlooks the Tuscan country side (see the photos below). After an all too brief stop (and an encounter with a ferociously docile hotel cat), on to Montefollonico for a wine tasting with a very small estate bottled vintner.

Our winemaker is a retired professor of philosophy who was pulled into his old family business. His entire effort is concentrated in a small 14th century cantine. A bit cluttered, raising some initial skepticism in me somewhat, but the proof is in the pudding so they say, and after sampling his "Super Tuscan" Acerone IGT and his Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva DOCG we were believers. I do think the wines we tasted could use some aging so will likely sock them away for 5 years or so.

We then had lunch at "13_______" which is run by a handsome divorcee who used to run the same restaurant with her husband who then ran off with a younger woman. According to Jonathan, the town divided itself along the lines of those supporting her dining at her place, and those supporting her ex-husband and his mistress going to their new restaurant (which is now out of business). I initially ordered coniglio or rabbit but they were out so had grilled lamb instead, and started with truffle-scented gnocchi. My sister began with marinated Tuscan vegetables, and then had roasted duck, my father had tagliatelle with truffle sauce, and my mother a Tuscan vegetable soup with bread.

Finally, on to Cortona, a town first inhabited by the Umbrians, then the Estruscans, then the Romans, then sacked by the Goths, the a free comune during the 11th century, then a subject of the Kingdom of Naples, and then a subject of Florence. It's this town that lives under Frances Mayes's Tuscan sun. One story of the filming of the Diane Lane movie is that the producers decided that they must have fountain in the main square (which did not exist beforehand), but that the elderly ladies of the town found its endowment to be scandalous which resulted in the unfortunate fountain's emasculation. We didn't spend much time in Cortona as the day was coming to a close and we still had a drive to go for our return to Florence. Before 11 September it would have been mobbed with tourists. This has diminished somewhat since. We did see a wonderfully well-behaved dog, Tango, who resides under a shelf of ceramics in the main square.

Posted by erich at April 10, 2004 03:53 PM
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