Autumn is finally here with its glowing gold colors all around, and it is one of the best seasons to be in Tuscany. Between September and mid-November you can really enjoy this region and its countryside taking on a different pace. Even big cities like Florence and Siena aren’t crowded with zillions of tourists and you are able to get a glimpse of true Tuscan authenticity.
Talking about Toscana with all its history, art and beauty can become overwhelming. So much so, the term ‘Stendhal’ syndrome’ originated here – which is described as becoming so overwhelmed by beauty (particularly as it pertains to art) that one is overcome with rapid breathing and heart rate, dizziness and sometimes even hallucinations. Dante, Leonardo, Giotto, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, the Medici; they all came from here. This month we will journey to ‘la mia Toscana’, or my Tuscany, where I used to call home. I hope you will enjoy the trip.
Elio Longobardi, Italian Wine Specialist
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits – Noe Valley
Toscana, a.k.a Tuscany is part of central Italy. Firenze is the regional capitol with nine provinces (Arezzo, Grosseto, Livorno, Lucca, Massa e Carrara, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena). The main economy of the region was agriculture until the 1960s, followed by what is called Boom economico (the economic and industrial expansion at the end of the 1950s). After that, many people that used to farm left for higher paying jobs in safer industries, leaving the countryside abandoned and neglected. It severely affected the wine production in the land of Sangiovese. It was not until the passionate and wealthy people from northern Italy started to rediscover Chianti that the renaissance of Tuscan wine restarted. Germans, Swiss, English and then Americans soon were buying even the most decrepit estates and bringing them back to a second life. Only a few Tuscans were able to preserve their properties, the noble Florentine families who have owned the land for centuries. Nowadays we see a more democratic distribution of the wine production, with younger farmers interested not only in the vineyards but also in agriculture other then grapes.
My family and I arrived in Toscana in 1960, leaving our hometown near Napoli. We left the south searching for a better life, and arrived in the countryside north of Firenze in a town called Prato. Not the fancy hilly Tuscany of many books and tourist pamphlets but a humble and active working community whose main occupation was textile production. Outside of town was an agricultural world with its rhythms and hard work ethic. The people, the food, the landscape – was all so different from where we come from. I was only four, but I distinctly remember feeling the difference and I felt in love with this region right away.
Nowadays only a few patches of field have survived: industrial buildings and factories cover the rest. I was lucky to have witnessed the last of that agricultural world. Where my parents and I were living was mostly in the countryside, next to farmers and their land. When I wasn’t at school I was following Corrado, the old farmer, around the field or in the stable, where he had cows and pigs. I was helping carrying wheat to the combine in June and with harvest in September. Crushing grapes in the barrels on the wagons and taking them to the cellar. I still remember the smell of the must starting to ferment. The last day of the harvest there was this huge dinner with all the workers seated at this long table set in the farmyard. Great food, wine, and many stories the old farmers knew. After the ‘vendemmia’ it was time to prepare the land for the following season, so we would plow the fields. I can see the tracks of fresh soil dark, dense, almost wet and with intense smell of fresh clay.
Now everything has changed and if I want to see a countryside that reminds me of my younger years I go toward the west side of Prato’s flatlands. Carmignano lies on the hills below the Montalbano ridge. The mountain systems divide the provinces of Prato and Pistoia from the western part of Florence province and the lower Valdarno valley toward Lucca, Pisa and Livorno.
The hills are no less charming than those in Chianti or Val d’Orcia. The Medici family chose Poggio a Caiano and Artimino for two of their most beautiful villas for good reason. Easy to reach from Florence, clear visuals on the valley below, pleasant weather to escape the cold winter and the humid hot summer in the city. I recommend visiting if you are planning a trip to Italy, get a car and drive to those places and you sure will be rewarded with an enriched experience.
The Capezzana estate was purchased by Count Alessandro Contini Bonaccossi from Marchese Niccolin in the beginning of the Twentieth century when he moved back from Spain with his family. He had made his fortune with a successful business in antique trades. Capezzana is situated in the commune of Carmignano in the province of Prato, 20 km from Florence, on the slopes of Monte Albano and close to the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.
The Tenuta Capezzana estate comprises 670 hectares, of which approximately 100 acres are vineyards and 140 acres olive groves. The estate is home to a Renaissance Villa with an adjacent farm, it has historic cellars beneath the complex which date to the 16th century, a modern olive mill and a huge “Vinsantaia” (where Vin Santo grapes are dried), above the cellar. The “Tinaia” (fermentation cellar) was built in 1938 by Giovanni Michelucci, who was one of the most innovative architects of the 1900s, having designed both the Florence train station and the church of San Giovanni Battista on the Autostrada del Sole near Florence.
After the war in 1945, Count Alessandro’s son Ugo earned a degree on farm management and joined his father on pursuing excellence in wine production along with the other cultures such as olive oil, wheat and fruit trees. The Tenuta Capezzana estate is divided into three parts and incorporates more than 120 sharecropping farms, producing high quality wine and oil. Today, Capezzana is in the almost unique position of having bottles dating back to the 1925 vintage.
Wine production in Carmignano dates back to the Etruscans and later the Roman period. Carmignano was designated in 1716 by the Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici as one of the four best areas for wine growing in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany – Chianti, Pomino and Valdarno Superiore the other three. The ‘Motu proprio’ Decree and ‘Bando’ laid down precise rules for production, set out geographical boundaries and regulated trade for the wines from these areas, thereby making up the first “D.O.C.” in the world. The Carmignano wine disciplinary allowed the use of Cabernet Savignon because this varietal was introduced here by Caterina de’ Medici in the Sixtieth century when she was queen of France, and the grape is still called Uva Francesca by the old farmers.
Trefiano Carmignano Riserva is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Uva Francesca and 10% Canaiolo. The harvest occurs between the end of September and beginning of October. All the grapes are handpicked. The initial fermentation takes places in stainless steel tanks, followed by malolactic fermentation in French oak where it ages for 16 months, followed by another 12 months in the bottle prior to release. The wine presents a rich ruby color with purple highlights. The nose offers dark fruit and spice nuances with fresh hearty notes. The palate is elegantly wrapped with ripe fruit and berries. The tannins are smooth with a long finish. Pair with Sedani alla Pratese (see recipe), grilled meat and aged cheeses.
The Assolati estate has a different history from Capezzana. Here are the humble grandparents of Loriano Giannetti. Farmers who acquired this small property in the 1950s and through hard work and perseverance cleaned a large area covered with Mediterranean shrubs to uncover the fertile soil underneath.
Assolati is located in the hilly west side of Mount Amiata near Montenero d’Orcia, in the province of Grosseto, not far away from Montalcino, Pienza and Siena. Loriano and his family are dedicated to the vineyards as well as raising the indigenous Chianina cows, famous for their tender and exquisite meat and used for the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina. This two inch Florentine steak is a must for meat lovers and can be eaten only in Toscana! Besides farming, the Giannetti’s are running a beautiful agriturismo in their restored casale that faces the valley below toward the Maremma. The main grape grown here is Sangiovese with a small amount of Colorino, Ciliegiolo and Cabernet for the reds, along with Vermentino and little Chardonnay for the whites.
The ‘Dionysos’ Vermentino is a simple yet beautiful wine crafted with the same care and passion dedicated to the reds. The vines are growing on mix of clay and calcareous soil that provide a nice vein of acidity and minerality to the wines. Yellow stone fruits on the nose and mouth with a citrusy touch. The grapes are harvested manually in late August/beginning of September. After a gentle pressing the wine goes through cold maceration and fermentation in stainless steel tanks, where it rests for six months before bottling. This Vermentino would be a great pairing for squash or pumpkin soup, and an absolute hit with fresh cracked Dungeness or a Crab Louie Salad.
Sedani alla Pratese
(Stuffed celery Prato’ style)
This is a classic example of a cucina povera dish. Using left over meat and ingredients that are cheap and available. That said, this preparation requires time and attention.
Ingredients (serves 4)
Prepare a tomato sauce, with or without ground meat enough for 4 serving
8 large celery stalks, about 2 inches wide at the bottom
200gr ground veal
150gr chicken livers, chopped
200gr ground mortadella
2 garlic cloves chopped with a spring of parsley
Black peppercorn, freshly grounded
Nutmeg freshly grated, plenty to smell
2-3 tbsp. of flour
- Cut the celery by the root side about 4 inches long and blench in plenty hot salty water for 10-15 minutes along with some celery leaves
- Drain the celery and set them on kitchen towel, cover with another towel where we place a cutting board with some weight, to help squeeze the excess water
- When the celery are cold and drained remove the stringy parts
- In a bowl mix the ground veal, chopped chicken livers, mortadella, 2 eggs, garlic, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper
- Scoop the mixture in the 8 wide celery pieces, using the other one as cover
- Tie the two pieces of celery with kitchen string on both end and let rest for 20 minutes
- Using the other 3 eggs, flour and 2tbsp of olive oil mix together to obtain a batter enough dense to coat the celery
- In a fryer or cast iron pan, using high heat vegetable oil, fry the stuffed celery, being careful do not overcrowd the pan
- Fry the celery for about 10 minutes, until they get a golden color. Let them rest on paper towel to lose some of the oil
- Transfer all the celery in a large pan, with the tomatoes’ sauce and cook for about an hour over low flames
- Serve two celery in each plate, scooping on top some sauce
Now, tutti a tavola, it is time to eat!