Was it Fanny Burney who said, “There’s no living in this country once you’ve seen Italy”? In Tuscany the landscapes are breath-taking, the people open and charming, the food and drink exceptional. With its many sensuous sights, smells and sounds, Tuscany is literally sensational.
Here are only a few of my favourite Tuscan delights —some obvious, others not.
Porcini: referred to simply as funghi in Toscano, these large, succulent mushrooms are used primarily for salads and sauces. Don’t be surprised when walking along a country lane to see a Mercedes sedan suddenly pull onto the verge and an elegant woman in heels flutter into the ditch and come out bearing as a trophy a big brown porcini mushroom, which she will turn into a delicious meal that night. Makes a wonderful pizza topping.
Caffe latte, cappucino, espresso (called simply caffe in Italy): for devotees of the bean this terrific trio alone is worth the trip to Italy. Every bar offers delicious portions at a price fixed for the entire country. And most restaurants have a macchina del caffe. Any place will be good, but aficiandos have their special bar and will go out of their way to visit it several times a day. (They say it has to do with how often the machine is run—the more frequently, the richer the drink.) Tip: if you’re fond of the first of these and go back home to order a “latte,” you might get only a cup of milk.
The Central piazza, Siena: home of the running of the famous twice yearly palio, where local families enter a horse and bare-back rider in a chaotic, definitively Italian race, complete with splashy outfits and outrageous side-betting, the Piazza del Campo is graced by a tower that can be climbed—for a small fee. The view from up top is spectacular. Shops, trattorias, and restaurants circle the piazza. Essential people-watching place.
Open-air Opera at Rapolano Terme: carved into a hillside of rugged limestone landscape called “crete” south of Siena is an open-air theatre where the delights of Italian opera are on display in summer months. You don’t have to be a lover of Puccini to be swept up in the arias while enjoying the soft air and starry night in this acoustically brilliant grotto, singularly lit come dusk. High romance.
Pici: a local pasta type, long and shaped like spaghetti but with a narrow hole down the center, creating a tube. Good with chopped tomato, olive oil and garlic, but superb with meat sauces: rabbit (coniglio) and wild boar (cinghiale). Sometimes appearing on the menu as “pinchi.” Unique to Tuscany. Best with a flavourful local wine.
Brunello di Montalcino: the sangiovese grape is the main one in most Tuscan vintages, and when not taken with food it can be a bit on the high tannin side. Not so the smooth and supple Brunellos made in the Montalcino area. They’re not put on sale until five years after bottling. If you can find a local who’ll let you sample his version, he will be delighted to receive a token payment of about a third of what’s charged in the shops for the famous names. Salute!
“Hiking”: off any major thoroughfare run a number of gravel tracks that wind into the hills and valleys of the countryside. Smell the rosemary growing on the verge, admire bees in the wild oregano, listen to goat bells in a nearby meadow. You don’t have to be a hiker with a backpack to stroll along for a kilometre or so among the odiferous Lombardy pines: a pair of sturdy shoes is sufficient. Works up the appetite for lunch.
Sant’Antimo: throughout rural Tuscany there are villages built around pievi (smaller churches). Badia a Passignano near Greve, the pieve at Monte Oliveto Maggiore, and the one at Sant’Antimo south of Montalcino are quiet and beautiful. Disturbed only by the infrequent busload of tourists. Climb the hill near the latter and view it nestled in the Tuscan landscape. Breath-taking. Surrounded by open grassy spaces. Great locales for picnics.
Photo Credits: stevedangers, Dean2, shoozdiva, gaffera, Veni