■ 9 May 2014 by James Martin
I’ve had the privilege of tasting some of Chianti’s “best” wines. Some of them cost more than 8 worker’s lunches here in the Lunigiana, just for a single bottle. People whose job it is to “present” this wine to the public usually extol their handling of the grapes and speak glowingly of the care they take with their little babies, all moist and ripe as they slide slowly down the chute on their way to becoming expensive libation. When their juices age a very long time these grapes become a wine that will undoubtedly be called “refined.”
But when it comes time to taste, your pourer may flick an imaginary piece of dust from an impeccably tailored sleeve, allow a precious dribble to fall into a glass, then stand back, smile and say something like, “good, eh?” when you touch the glass to your lips.
Yes, good. But not 7 times better than a decent bottle, I usually think.
But I’m not a wine writer, really. I look to other people to extol whatever virtues justify the cost. They say the same thing. “Good,” or “Mmmm,” then nod knowingly. I am thinking they are thinking the same thing I am thinking, something like “somebody please say something intelligent about this wine.”
But maybe not. Maybe we are just letting the wine speak for itself. It is refined. It speaks softly.
Walter De Battè is serious about the wines he makes out of vineyards that cling to the slopes above the five little villages given the name Le Cinque Terre. These wines are not “refined.” They speak boldly of things refined people don’t speak of in public. We tasted Walter’s wine with foods prepared by Cappun Magru restaurant in little Groppo, a bump on the winding road to the top of a ridge from which you get excellent views of the five little villages and the terraced hillsides the rain keeps washing away. Food expert, guide, B&B owner (Poggio Etrusco) and cookbook author (Cucina Povera) Pamela Sheldon Johns has invited us, and man, are we glad she did.
The first wine we taste is brilliantly colored, a deep gold with signs of murkiness. Walter thrusts his nose deep into the glass and describes the smell of rocks drying on the beach in the noonday sun. He talks of lichens and moss. It is the opposite of refined; we are shrouded heavily in the nature we desire to be engulfed in, at least in our dreams.
The wine he’s named Carlaz is unfiltered and unfined. Hence the murkiness and, above all, the intense flavors of the sea and earth, the terroir, as the French say, from which the grapes have developed their unique character.
It paired nicely with the dish the restaurant was named after, the Cappun Magru, a fisherman’s dish of fish, shellfish, a mariner’s biscuit, green sauce and earthy vegetables.
We had three other courses—and three other wines. I’m not going to wax poetic over them. Each was significantly different, like a novel which comes alive when you realize that each personality is different and distinct and equally compelling.
Why is Schiacchetrà wine so expense? Easy: It takes 45 pounds of fresh grapes to make 15 pounds of dried ones, from which the winemaker extracts a single bottle of Sciacchetrà. The wine should age for at least 6 years. Good vintages can age 10, 20, even 30 years. ~ David Downy – Wines of the Cinque Terre
I’ve put a picture of it over there to the right. Look at the color! This is no wall flower wine!
The perfect afternoon? A room that opens onto the vineyards of the Cinque Terre, letting in the light. A small group of good people unafraid of life, a man in jeans who knows wine. Good food. Wine that speaks volumes: of the air and the sea and the rocks and the hanging moss, earthy as all get out…
It’s almost pornographic, eh?
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ 3 May 2014 by James Martin
I am giddy. I’ve just attended a lecture on nutrition conducted by a medical doctor in Italian and came away with an almost complete understanding about what the man was saying. This makes me quite happy. The man is a genius. This is not mere hyperbole; anyone who can make me understand anything is a genius. It doesn’t happen that often. He’s in the center in the picture, just so you know.
But really, Dr. Samir Guiseppe Sukkar has his own website chock full of credentials, just in case you think he’s one of those fly-by-night, paid-by-Monsanto crackpots who dominate the American nutritional scene. His talk in front of the museum in La Spezia was titled “Vivere piu a lungo e sani grazie al modello alimentare della Lunigiana” which pretty much means, “live longer and healthier with the Lunigiana dietary model.”
I emphasize the word “model” because Dr. Sukkar wisely pointed out that, while the “Mediterranean diet” is widely held to be some sort of holy grail for those who want to live to be 120 years old, the UNESCO prize isn’t for the diet, it’s for the model of the diet, which includes lifestyle. That is, hard physical work in the fields, discussion during meals, as well as the food itself.
To quote Dr. Sukkar in a general way only a person who struggles with the language daily might, “Our model of eating comes from the Greek, the concept of the Agora, where ideas come together with daily tasks like eating. You eat less when you are interested in the discussion.”
An enormous part of the success of this diet is attributed to components in fresh olive oil. The big word is polyphenols, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage and has anti-inflammatory properties. The fat in Olive oil is monounsaturated, which can help lower your cholesterol and control insulin levels in the body.
But here’s the thing. While we Americans fetishize the precious olive oil on our shelves, we are kidding ourselves that we are benefiting from consuming it. Remember, I said “…the components in fresh olive oil.” The crap you buy in an American supermarket isn’t fresh, and besides, “highly refined or “light” olive oils, which use heat or chemicals in the refining process, have significantly lower polyphenol levels.” That’d be the stuff on the Safeway shelf. Green olives from older trees that have been handled very, very gently in the field and at the processor have the highest polyphenol levels. That’s not the junk in the American Grocery, that’s my neighbor Enrico’s olive oil. It’s the (demanding) lifestyle, silly. He works. He makes olive oil. He toils in a humongous garden. He cycles long distances on “vacation”.
How did olive oil get to the Lunigiana? Think Romans. Think energy crisis. They brought olive trees to provide fuel for oil lamps, the high tech lighting of the time. What was left over was eaten. By the medieval other oils and other means of lighting started to be used, freeing olive oil for consumption.
And finally, let’s consider the lowly, besmirched egg. It’s not lowly because of what it is, but what we’ve made it. The fats in the eggs produced by a real free range chicken that gets to prance around the barnyard eating bugs are significantly healthier than those produced by caged, pellet-fed chickens. Insects are huge providers of select amino acids that are found in sparse quantities in vegetables.
So, technology has alleviated seasonal starvation; we can give it that. But then, like the Roman god Janus, shouldn’t we have an eye toward the past so that we might avoid the ever-crappier food of the future? The truth is, happy chickens produce healthy eggs that taste better.
Until they get that straightened out, I’m happy to eat in the Lunigiana. I only have to walk down the driveway to see chickens pecking in the dirt on the hillside.
■ 27 April 2014 by James Martin
The more you get immersed into the amazing food on the boot, the more you realize that you can exist in a high state of Foodie bliss for weeks without actually cooking anything. Italians are always preserving, conserving, packing good edibles in oil, and foraging for tasty weeds meant to be eaten just as they come from God’s green earth.
So our little food tour group wedges it’s way into the tiny room with the three tables and a little stand-up bar that makes up the entire interior of Tastevere KmZero. A couple of young guys run the place. There is no stove. They only use products from local farmers. Lazio has a lot of local farmers.
Lorenzo carefully unwrapped a tiny package and told me to take a single thread of saffron and lay it upon my tongue. “It’s to get your palate ready for the food,” he said in perfect English.
That did it. We then ate things like salami with wild herb flowers and DOP honey dripped over all. As you can see in the picture above, there’s a balanced meal in each plate, from your roughage to your protein, all local, all uncooked.
There are even locally produced artisan beer (and wine, of course).
While we munched in amazement at the variety of tastes hammering our palates, a regular named Giuseppe was introduced to us. A shepherd, he spoke of the transhumance, the seasonal movement of sheep from the mountains to the sea, and explained the benefits of the meandering lamb: the fat, compared to that of a penned sheep eating straw, has far less cholesterol. I always like finding out facts like this because it means we don’t have to rely on the moral argument entirely. You know, “The sheep like it so we should do it.” The fact is that animals raised right, doing what they’d do if there wasn’t a shepherd and his dog around, are tastier, healthier and offer significant health benefits up the food chain. It’s not due to a random draw that the good shepherd became a symbol of righteousness in early Christianity. Too bad we’ve forgotten. It’s in bad taste that we’ve done so.
Vicolo de’ cinque 30/A, Trastevere
tel: 06 95584404
You should probably reserve. The place is a hit remember, and there’s only three tables.
You can also take the food tour we did: The Roman Foodie: Trastevere Locals Food Tour
Location Map for Tastevere KmZero
Popular These Days
■ 25 April 2014 by James Martin
For the last three days I’ve been rooting around in catacombs, I’ve eaten the best food in Trastevere, I’ve been driven over the cobbled streets of Rome in a golf cart—and I’ve stood virtually alone in the Sistine Chapel, with only the hum of the air conditioning to remind me I was in a building with some of the world’s greatest art.
These aren’t those same old tours you used to get 30-40 years ago. You see, after I studied archaeology I wanted to see some of Europe’s great ancient wonders, so I went to Rome and Athens like most people interested in the Classics. I paid for tours and listened to people who had no clue as to what was under their feet. I spent most of every tour rolling my eyes at the fantasies they tried to make me believe. In the end I could have flung a good sized elephant across the room using the ocular musculature I had built from this extreme exercise.
But that was then and this is now. By law, folks wanting to be a guide in Rome today have to be sharp as a tack on every aspect of the culture and civilization since Romulus and Remus. Even Nina, who led our Trastevere food tour, had a Ph.D. in Post Classical Archeology from La Sapienza and showed an abundance of energy that lit up our evening in Rome.
The fabulous Simona of Walks of Italy didn’t just lead us into a crypt and say, “this is what you’re seeing” but described the alternative theories that are popular so that we could understand exactly the path modern research was taking. I’ve visited lots of catacombs in my time, but never have I come away with an understanding of the culture and politics that shaped their evolution as I did after three hours on the Crypts, Bones & Catacombs Underground Tour of Rome with Simona.
Brandon, one of the Roman Guys, gave a fantastic narrative of Rome and the Vatican. Not only that, but he carefully guided us through the streets to all the big Roman sites while at the wheel of an 8 person golf cart. Think your health isn’t good enough for a three hour Rome walking tour? Try the Rome ECO Golf Cart Tour. The “econess” of the golf cart means it can go pretty much anywhere in Rome you can walk, so you miss nothing. You couldn’t do that thirty years ago.
And when an Italian kid points at you and says, “Mama, a golf cart!” you know you’ve arrived.
If you really want to experience the Vatican, nothing can compare to being almost alone inside the museums at dusk, when the windows are flung open for some fantastic slanting light and you’re there with a small group, the cleaning women and a few guards.
Yes, you can almost replicate our experience with the “Vatican Under the Stars Evening Tour on Friday evenings.
Have fun in Rome. We certainly did.
(Disclosure: We were guests of the tour companies mentioned in this article)
■ 15 April 2014 by James Martin
You’ve all heard: Italy is in financial distress. There are no jobs, especially for young people. Italy provides Italian citizens with excellent educations, but these days the educated vanish, heading for where the jobs are. The situation is hopeless.
I’d like you to meet a very interesting man. His name is Luciano Bandinelli. When he stands in front of his shop on the edge of the little town with the strange name you wish you have visited in Tuscany, Colle Val d’Elsa, he nearly bangs his head on the sign.
Yes, Luciano in a way joined the exodus, forsaking the family business in favor of working for a technology company that sent him all over the world. His father wasn’t so pleased. Then one fateful day, on an airplane coming home from a trip to smog-shrouded China, he thought, “What am I doing in this smoggy hell? I live in a place everyone wants to live in. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
And so he came home again. He joined his father in the business of making glass all it can be. He is a Crystal Master Craftsman. His motto is “passion, tradition, emotion.” Neither he nor I found those attributes in modern technology.
He applies each of those qualities in the crystal he produces, however. I know cut crystal has gone out of fashion. Wine glasses are factory molded and cheap. You make a toast with friends and you “clink” your glasses together, but they no longer ring happy tidings, they don’t even clink—they clunk. You know why?
Because they’re not leaded crystal, that’s why. Touch two crystal glasses together and they ring like a bell—and almost forever (or at least until you give up and take a drink).
What about the lead in the crystal? You’ve heard bad things about it. Let’s tackle that. Italy has a limit to how much lead can be put in the crystal. While lead can leach into acidic liquids that have remained in containers for an extended period of time, the use of crystal wine glasses is quite safe:
For everyday use, no liquid stays in the glass long enough during any meal to leak lead that exceeds EPA standards. This is good news for consumers who can safely use lovely crystal stemware to serve wine, water, and other beverages. ~ Is It Safe to Use Crystal Glasses?
Of course, Luciano makes more than crystal wine glasses. The shop is full of plates, light fixtures, ornaments and other shimmering, hand-crafted and cut crystal items:
La Grotta del Cristallo is a unique Atelier creating original crystal pieces; gifts for special occasions; table decorations; customized engravings made to order.
If you go to the grotta, you can see how all this is done. Luciano has a video that shows the hand cutting of the glass, and he’ll show you how the glass is polished and cut. It’s an amazing thing to see.
I want to tell you to buy things. Lots of things. I want to tell you to support this exodus back to what Italy does best: handmade things that last nearly forever and are well worth a premium price. Why support minimum wage slave production of cheap crap? But I won’t. Just see for yourself. And, you know, I am directing you to a very interesting town.
Find out more on Luciano’s web site: La Grotta dei Cristallo
Colle di Val d’Elsa, literally the hill of the valley of the Elsa river, is spread out on three geographical levels. The top level, the castle, is the oldest. Tourists don’t plan to come here, they see the massive gate and towers and they stop because they are surprised by the sight. There is plenty of parking outside the walls.
If you’re coming to San Gimignano or Volterra by car, Colle di Val d’Elsa makes a fine day or half-day trip. The town lies along the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which gave it an early market boost. There are only two long roads, a compelling little passageway/tunnel, fine restaurants, a great hotel and apartments, and some interesting little museums, including, in the lower town, one dedicated to crystal. Why? Because 15% of the world’s crystal and 95 percent of Italy’s crystal is produced here, in little Colle di Val d’Elsa! Glass production was introduced in the 17th century by the nobel Usimbardi family. Before that, Colle was known for paper production.
Where to Eat? Cooking Guru Divina Cucina recommends Officina Della Cucina Popolare, just inside the gate you see below called “Porta Nova”. Michelin (and Luciano) recommends Arnolfo, definitely a splurge, also popular (and more affordable) is Il Cardinale inside the Relais Della Rovere.
So here’s the gate that compels passing tourists to enter:
Map of Colle Val d’Elsa and Location of La Grotta del Cristallo
■ 14 April 2014 by James Martin
They’ve recently announced the stages in the Giro d’Italia for 2014, and I couldn’t help pick my faves for creamy tourist goodness. Stage 4 caught my eye. It starts in my favorite fishing village, Giovinazzo and ends in Bari. Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished an article on the food of Puglia, but this is the stage I’d pick if I could will myself down the Italian peninsula to watch.
From a tourist perspective, there’s a lot to see on this 121 km stage. Maybe you should grab a bike and do the route before the boys in spandex rip through.
Giovinazzo is a historic town on the sea, a fishing village most of the year that becomes a bloated excuse for party-all-night bedlam in the season. Don’t go in August. In the way-off season, if you’re up early and trundle on down to the shore, it’s likely you’ll hear the plaintive song of the Octopus slappers. Otherwise, the port is quite idyllic in the morning. Watching the fishers of Giovinazzo will lower your blood pressure enough to make you want coffee, which is found in any of the many bars around the little port.
From here you can watch the racers zip along the road to a town called Bitonto. Ever heard of it? It’s on the ancient Via Triana ending up in Bari, where the racers will also end up. Visiting the towns along the Via Triana makes for a very interesting historic itinerary.
Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, Bitonto makes a very nice destination for the day. Allow me to quote myself:
The Romanesque cathedral is built over a paleochristian church which you can visit. The ambo, or pulpit and lectern, is a masterpiece of stonecarving made in 1229 (shown on the right). A good virtual tour of the city of Bitonto is found here. Museums to visit include: Galleria Nazionale, Galleria di Arte Contemporanea, Teatro Traetta, and the Museo Archeologico.
After Bitonto, the boys go on to Bari, which used to be a mere stopover for ferries to Greece, but where the slow tourist will find abundant charm among the little streets and alleyways in the old city, where women still make pasta by hand to sell in front of their houses. The port is the site of a lively fish market across from the castle, and the Cathedral of Bari, consecrated in 1292, is a Romanesque marvel that gets exceedingly high marks from folks who review such things—but is overshadowed by the Basilica of St. Nicholas:
Built in 1087 to house the saint’s remains, the church features several different architectural styles and houses a number of art works. The crypt, where the saint’s tomb is kept, has good mosaics.
If Saint Nick isn’t enough for you, you can always go back to watching the Giro. The boys circle the city 8 times—and they haven’t climbed any significant hills so they should be flying. Getting to see them more than once doesn’t happen very often, so take advantage.
The Puglia stage in the Giro should be quite something to see. For a large route map, click here.
■ 12 April 2014 by James Martin
It was a gloriously sunny morning when we walked into the olive grove on the edge of Montestigliano. Our eyes fell upon a the riot of color a bumper year for wildflowers brings to these parts.
Marta’s father, a “cowboy” from the Maremma they call a buttero, collected herbs and mushrooms while he worked, and her grandmother taught her how to cook them. But they get only minor billing, according to Marta.
“Mother Nature is the real teacher,” she admitted.
We strolled through the thick undergrowth behind Marta as she pointed out the edibles in the biomass that we hadn’t clumsily trampled over. Chickweed, poppy leaves, daisies, dandelions, chicory, crepis, wild onion, spring garlic, wild sage, ciccerbitta, and even malva jumped out at her. “Malva” means “bad, go away” in Italian, but fake-named plants can’t fool Marta, who encouraged us to eat the small, tender leaves and flowers.
There was also a good sized clump of stinging nettles. Ortica in Italian, which I like very much. To eat I mean. I’ve worked around nettles a lot, but Marta told me something I didn’t know about them—the sting only comes from the upper, or sun side, of the leaves. You can touch the back of the leaves with impunity—or even with your fingers—and you won’t feel the sting.
When it came time to prepare our haul for lunch, Marta combined the nettles with eggs from the chickens raised at home and made it into the delicious concoction you see on top of the page, a nettle frittata. Other “weed” leaves were sauteed and got stuffed inside simple pastry, and still others, along with flowers, became a salad.
Add a little pasta to the mix flavored with our found herbs and we sat down to another abundant Italian meal.
Marta’s guidance in gathering herbs and cooking with them was part of an experiential travel tour developed by the collaboration of Sharon and Walter of Simple Italy and Luisa and friends at the Agriturismo Montestigliano.
While this spring’s tour is coming to a close, you can plan now for the fall harvest tour.
■ 6 April 2014 by James Martin
So, to begin: we’re a small group of “bloggers” on a little tour of the Val d’Elsa discussing blogging ethics in the restaurant of the Villa San Lucchese while waiting for our primi piatti.
There is a rumble. A big cheese on a little rolling table clatters across the ancient floor tiles, stopping at the head of table. A whole Grana Padana. It was like a new cheese except the top had appeared to be cut off of it and set back in place. Behind the big cheese stood a waiter, smiling broadly and probably sweating just a bit.
After a slight dramatic pause, he removed the top with a flourish. Steam poured out.
That got our attention. The younger giornalisti jumped up with cameras. The clever among us remained cool, nailed to our chairs by a wine-fed lack of will as well as reflexes about as quick as a stick wallowing in mud.
Besides, the light in our little corner was bad. I figure this is because a bunch of people shooting pictures of food in elegant yet public surroundings must be made to pay their pound of flesh.
Thus the clatter of slow shutters filled the air along with the steam emitting from our risotto with zucchini and saffron.
Who needs cucina povera when you can be wowed by your food presentation?
Finally everyone sat down and we could taste it. Smooth, creamy, and dense, perfumed with saffron, a local ingredient. And there were those cheese scrapings the texture of which resembled the surface of a scoop of ice cream, er, gelato.
And the Hotel Villa San Lucchese is a very real villa, except it isn’t serviced by nameless wage slaves. The family behind this spectacular property makes you feel as if you were a guest in their home. Marco is the quintessential host, manning the front desk, holding the umbrella for folks heading to the breakfast room in the rain, telling us of the history of their restoration of the place. Check out: Hotel Villa San Lucchese in the beautiful Chianti landscape outside Poggibonsi.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Villa San Lucchese as part of a blog tour of Val d’Elsa attractions and activities outlined in My Tusany Experience, a new idea and website.